Saturday, 29 June 2013

Romance and Murder amongst the Gaelic Chieftains at Ballyshannon

Saimer's Green Vale

Proudly the note of the trumpet is sounding
Loudly the war cries arise on the gale;
Fleetly the steed by Lough Swilly is bounding,
To join the thick squadrons in Saimer's green vale.

The verse above is from the great Donegal  song called "O Donnell Abú" which praises the great warlike skills of the O'Donnell clan. In the verse above the clan is heading for "Saimer's green vale" which takes its name from the island of Inis Saimer at Ballyshannon and the valley in which the area is located. The O'Donnell's had a castle in Saimer's green vale and in the song, the O'Donnell's are gathering their army from around the county to defend this strategic crossing of the Erne at Ballyshannon.

The O’Donnell’s Castle on the Erne 

In 1423 the O’ Donnell’s the Gaelic chieftains built a castle overlooking the ford on the river Erne from which Ballyshannon takes its name. Beal Atha Seanaigh or Ballyshannon was named because our ancestors settled at the mouth of the river Erne and could control and protect their lands by guarding the ford on the river Erne.This was a very strategic position as it was a gateway into Ulster and also a defence against the English and rival Irish chieftains. In the castle at Ballyshannon the O’ Donnell’s lavished their hospitality on their visitors but also kept a close eye on attempted movements against the castle. 

A Rich Gaelic Culture in the Ballyshannon Area 

Locally the O'Donnells supported the monks at Abbey Assaroe from the 12th century and endowed them with much land in the surrounding areas. They also supported their bards or poets the Mac a Bhairds (Wards) at Ballymacaward or Wardtown as it is known today. The O’ Donnells were strong supporters of Gaelic culture and supported their famous historians the Ó Cléirighs at Kilbarron Castle. The most  outstanding native of the Ballyshannon area was, probably, Michael Ó Cleirigh of Kilbarron, who was the chief researcher and compiler of the Annals of the Four Masters, a valuable history of Ireland. 

It is important to remember that as well as being warriors the O' Donnells supported and developed a rich Gaelic culture of poetry,history and Christianity in the Ballyshannon area which we should take pride in.

Helen O’ Donnell in Ballyshannon

Helen O’Donnell, the daughter of the Earl of Tyrconnell, was considered to be one of the most beautiful and accomplished ladies of her time. Naturally she had many suitors who vied for her hand but she herself was in love with the elegant young chieftain of the Maguires from Fermanagh. Reginald Maguire had completed his education in Spain and was considered a refined and gallant young man who was acceptable to the Earl of Tyrconnell as a suitor for Helen. However the course of true love never did run smoothly.

Shane O' Neill a Rival Suitor

Shane O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was on a visit to O’Donnell at Ballyshannon to plan their next campaign against the English forces. During his stay with the chieftains of Donegal who had gathered in Ballyshannon, they enjoyed hunting red deer, shooting wild sea-birds and wining and dining of the best. Shane O’Neill was smitten with Helen O’Donnell and asked for her hand from her father. He explained that she was betrothed to Maguire of Fermanagh and that would appear to have been the end of the matter. However Shane did not take kindly to his rival suitor and secretly planned revenge for his rejection.

One evening after a banquet in Ballyshannon Castle, Reginald and Helen went for a long walk along the banks of the river Erne. Helen was attired in her little Spanish hat, her feathers and her crimson scarf. In the background they could hear the music from the castle as they made their way upstream. Presently they rested on a slope of a bank near Lough Erne as the sun started to set on a summer’s evening. Helen sang a song to the accompaniment of her harp about her birthplace, how special it was to her and when she finished she continued to play the strings of her harp.

Death and Abduction

Reginald Maguire was startled by noise from the woods nearby and saw Shane O’Neill and four of his soldiers advancing swiftly towards them. Maguire drew his sword and protecting Helen with his left arm tried to ward off the attack. However he was overwhelmed and killed in the ensuing fight. The lifeless form of Helen, who had fainted, was taken by O’Neill and his men who rode on horseback for the safety of their own country. O’Donnell, on being made aware of what had happened, set out for O’Neill’s castle at Lough Neagh to rescue his daughter and seek vengeance. After a battle lasting three hours O’Donnell was forced to retreat. In anger he sought assistance from the English to avenge this wrong and the combined armies marched to confront Shane O’Neill but again they were defeated.

Shane O’Neill at a subsequent period was killed by the Mc Donnells at Clandeboye and his sons later decided to restore Helen to her father in Ballyshannon. However the traumatic capture and period in captivity left the beautiful Helen a changed person who had lost all her vitality and she withdrew to a very quiet life afterwards.

 Upcoming Blogs June/July

6th July "The Banks of Culmore" (Coolmore)
13th July “The Kildoney Fishermen’s Case”
20th July “Local Customs for Special Days”
27th July Blog on “A Famine Walk from the Paupers’ Graveyard to the Workhouse in Ballyshannon on 5th August 2013 conducted by Anthony Begley.”

A New Local History Book suitable for those at Home and Away

A new book entitled: "Ballyshannon. Genealogy and History"  reveals newly researched history and genealogy of the town, extending as far as the Rossnowlagh, Cashelard, Corlea, Clyhore, Higginstown and Finner areas. Includes the parishes of Kilbarron and Magh Ene.

The genealogy material provides detailed guidelines for anyone tracing their roots in the area or anywhere in County Donegal or Ireland. 

The book contains 500 pages and is richly illustrated with stunning colour, aerial photography, original illustrations and rare photographs of the area not seen before.

Topics include: How to go about Tracing your Roots/The first settlers in the area/ Newly researched history of the town of Ballyshannon and the townlands in Kilbarron and Mágh Éne parishes/ Records of the first travellers and tourists to Ballyshannon, Bundoran, Belleek, Rossnowlagh and Ballintra/An aerial guide to place names along the Erne from Ballyshannon to the Bar/Flora and Fauna of the area/ A history of buildings and housing estates in the locality/Graveyard Inscriptions from the Abbey graveyard, St. Joseph’s and St. Anne’s /Rolling back the years with many memories of the Great Famine, Independence struggle, hydro-electric scheme, Gaelic games, boxing, handball, Boy Scouts, soccer, mummers, characters, organisations, folklore and lots more.

Book Available from Anthony Begley West Rock Ballyshannon.  Enquiries welcome for postal and other details. Also available at The Novel Idea Bookshop Ballyshannon, Ballyshannon and District Museum, Ballyshannon Tourist Office, The Four Masters Bookshop Donegal Town.

The blogs are original and are not taken from the book above.

Lots Happening for Ballyshannon 400 Gathering Events

Check a recent blog in May to read about  what happened in Ballyshannon  400 years ago. Ballyshannon will have lots of interesting events to commemorate this event and it would be an ideal time for our diaspora to be here for some or all of Ballyshannon 400 from 5th-11th August when there will be daily events of a historic, cultural, fun and community nature. 

Ballyshannon 400 features on a new DVD which can also be located on the Internet  by googling Ballyshannon Television- You Tube. The DVD showcases the scenery, history, events and heritage of the locality and is well worth a viewing. Congrats. to Mary Daly, Town Clerk, her team at Backing Ballyshannon, the Town Council, Shane Wallace of Wallace Media and  a number of helpers for making this possible. Have a look online and relive memories past and present.

In the lead up to Ballyshannon 400 visitors will be in town for the Ballyshannon Folk Festival which takes place from the 1st to the 4th August also for a Dedication Service and weekend events to commemorate the Erne Fishery Case  on 3rd and 4th of August. A future blog will discuss the victory in 1933 won by the people in what has become known as The Erne  Fishery Case or The Kildoney Fishermens' Case.

Check out the events/venues you might like to attend later in the year including Ballyshannon 400 on

Ballyshannon Musings:  Good to hear that people from the Ballyshannon area are enjoying the blog worldwide and the site has received thousands of hits. Please let people with an interest in Ballyshannon and surrounding areas know about this site, particularly people who are not living locally and those who are abroad. The site is called Ballyshannon Musings and there are a number of back issues available on the internet. Copy this link and it can be googled at The site can be located on the internet (or by connecting to my Facebook page). New items will be posted every week on Ballyshannon Musings during 2013the year of “The Gathering”.

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