A Guide To Donegal Castle: The Tour, Things To Keep An Eye Out For + More

donegal castle tour
Photo left: KD Julius. Right: David Soanes

A visit to the mighty Donegal Castle is one of the most popular things to do in Donegal Town.

For two centuries, Donegal Castle laid in ruin and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the castle was restored to its former glory.

Frankly, it’s a miracle the castle is still standing, especially with such a turbulent history, then again it was once home to one of the most powerful families in Ireland, the fearsome O’Donnell’s, so it was made to last and hopefully will stay that way. 

In the guide below, you’ll find everything from Donegal Castle facts to everything you need to know about the tour and more.

About Donegal Castle

Donegal castle
Photo by David Soanes (Shutterstock)

The castle in Donegal Town is widely regarded as one of the best castles in Donegal along with the nearby Glenveagh Castle.

Finding Donegal Castle couldn’t be easier – it’s situated on the aptly named Castle Street, smack bang in the heart of Donegal Town.

Initially built as a stronghold sometime in 1474 by Hugh O’Donnell, who was chief of the O’Donnell clan. Because of its chaotic history, it’s highly regarded to get a tour guide when you visit.

Donegal Castle Opening Hours

  • Easter- mid-Sept = 10 am – 6 pm
  • Mid-Sept-Easter = 09.30 am – 16.30pm

Admission to Donegal Castle:

  • Adult: €5.00
  • Group/Senior: €4.00
  • Child/Student: €3.00
  • Family: €13.00

Donegal Castle History

It is said that when Donegal Castle was originally built, it was the most impressive of the many Irish castles the island boasted at the time.

While the castle has been home to only two families over the years, both have played a vital role in Irish history.

The O’Donnell’s, who built the castle in 1474, ruled one of the biggest territories in Ireland known as Tyrconnell at that time (mostly made up of Donegal and neighboring counties).

An unlikely alliance and many a battle

In the 1580s, the O’Donnell’s joined forces with the O’Neill’s (a lifelong enemy of the clan) as there was threat of their lands being seized by the crown.

Red Hugh O’Donnell, who led the battles against the English was victorious for a short period but eventually lost to the English at the Battle of Kinsale in 1602.

This resulted in Red Hugh and many other Irish Chieftains leaving Ireland for Spain, an exodus known as ‘The Flight of the Earls’. The rest of the O’Donnell clan held on as best as they could but this was to change.

The English and a journey to restoration

In 1611, the crown took control of all estates that belonged to the O’Donnell clan and gifted the castle to English Captain Sir Basil Brooke.

Brooke began modernizing it at once, adding windows, a manor house extension and a banquet hall.

The Brookes owned the castle until the 1670s before selling it to the Gore Dynasty, resulting in the castle falling into ruins in the 18th century.

In 1898, the castle was donated to the Office of Public Works who began restoring the castle in the 1990s.

Things to see on the Donegal Castle Tour

donegal castle tour
Photo left: KD Julius. Right: David Soanes

There’s a reason the Donegal Castle tour is regarded by many as one of the best things to do in Donegal – it’s excellent!

If you plan one doing the Donegal Castle tour, there are a number of things that you should keep an eye out for.

1. The Courtyard

When you are in the courtyard of Donegal Castle, you’ll have your first chance to admire many of the castles interesting features. The Celtic keep has some unusual medications made for one and you can spot the ruins of the manor-house, made in a Jacobean style.

2. History room

On the top floor of Donegal Castle is where you will find the History Room, full of displays where you can learn a great deal about the most powerful family in Ireland, the O’Donnell’s. There is also scale models of Donegal Castle so you might discover something you missed.

3. The Old Trip Stairs

The Trip Stairs are my favourite feature on the Donegal Castle tour. This 543 year old spiral stairway is made entirely by stone.Designed by the O’Donnell Chieftain who made the steps uneven and in varying heights to trip any unsuspecting invader.

As the stair goes clockwise going up, this would give O’Donnell’s more leeway when fighting (as they were right-handed).

4. The Beautiful Stonework

The walls in Donegal Castle are made from stone and made in such a gothic-like intricate way, the attention to detail is thought-provoking. The underfoot is also impressive, made from a perfectly smooth paved stone.

5. The Mast

Yes, there is a mast from an old ship in Donegal Castle, it’s white sail has turned yellow over the years. When the O’Donnell’s were in charge, Donegal Town was a thriving hub for international business and ships often delivered cargo to the wharf close to the castle.

6. The Banqueting Hall

And the final thing to keep an eye out for on the Donegal Castle tour is the Banqueting Hall. The huge fireplace bearing the Brooke family arms and stuffed wild boar head on the wall make this seem like a place where many a fine meal was had.

Places to visit near Donegal Town Castle

slieve league cliffs
Photo left: Pierre Leclerc. Right: MNStudio

One of the beauties of visiting Donegal Castle is that it’s a stone’s-throw from heaps of different things to see and do. Below, you’ll find some of our favourites.

Or, if you fancy grabbing a bite to eat after the tour, there’s plenty of great restaurants in Donegal Town where you can grab a bite to eat.

If you fancy staying near the castle, see out guide to the best hotels in Donegal Town or the best reviewed B&Bs in Donegal Town

1. Rossnowlagh Beach (18-minutes away)

Rossnowlagh Beach Donegal
Photo left: Kevin George. Right: leahb81500/Shutterstock

One of the best places to visit near Donegal Town Castle is the nearby Rossnowlagh Beach. Perfect for walking along (or surfing, if you fancy) it’s well worth the short drive (this is one of our favourite beaches in Donegal for a reason!).

2. Bundoran (23-minutes away)

best things to do in bundoran
Photo by LaurenPD on shutterstock.com

Another handy spin for when you’ve finished the Donegal Castle Tour is another little seaside town – Bundoran. If you visit, make sure to drop by the Fairy Bridges (read more in our guide on things to do in Bundoran.

3. The Hidden Waterfall (30-minutes away)

hidden waterfall donegal
Photo by John Cahalin (Shutterstock)

The starting point for getting to the not so secret waterfall in Donegal is a 30 minute drive from Donegal Castle. If you’re considering visiting, please read this guide and take note of the many warnings.

4. Slieve League (58-minutes away)

Slieve league hike
Photo taken by MNStudio (shutterstock)

The Slieve League Cliffs are another spot that’s well worth visiting. The views here are incredible and the cliffs are some of the highest in Europe.

FAQs About Donegal Castle

We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from the Donegal Castle tour to how do you go about staying in it (spoiler: you can’t!).

In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.

When was Donegal Castle built?

It is believed the castle was built sometime in 1474.

Who built Donegal Castle?

Hugh O’Donnell, Chieftain of the O’Donnell Clan

What are the Donegal Castle opening hours?

  • Easter- Mid-sept = 10 am – 6 pm
  • Mid-Sept-Easter = 09.30 am – 16.30pm

Is this the Donegal Castle hotel?

Nope! The Donegal Castle hotel that you tend to hear people talking about is the nearby Lough Eske Castle (one of the only 5 star hotels in Donegal).

James Connolly is a professional writer based in London. Having lived in cities across the world including Mumbai, Medellin and Barcelona, he uses his expertise to write articles showcasing the best of global travel.

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