There’s some magical castles in Donegal, once you know where to look.
And, although Glenveagh Castle and Donegal Castle tend to get much of the attention, this is far from a 2-hours-county.
From the fairytale-like Doe Castle to the stunningly set Carrickabraghy Castle, there’s plenty to of Donegal castles to explore, as you’ll discover below.
What we think are the best castles in Donegal
The first section of our guide looks at our favourite Donegal castles – these are places that one or more of our team have visited over the years.
Below, you’ll find everywhere from Lough Eske and Northburg Castle to one of the most visited tourist attractions in Donegal.
1. Glenveagh Castle
First up is arguably the best known of the many castles in Donegal. Wealthy land speculator John George Adair started building Glenveagh Castle in 1867, supposedly to impress his new wife Cornelia.
Completed in 1873, Adair hoped to establish a hunting estate too but passed away suddenly in 1885. Cornelia took over and opted to continuously improve the castle and the surrounding grounds.
Over a period of 30 years, she became well known as a society hostess. After her passing in 1921, Glenveagh Castle fell into decline and the last private owner, Henry Mclhenny, ultimately bestowed the castle and everything with it to the nation.
Glenveagh National Park was only opened in 1984 and the castle opened in 1986. Visitors to Glenveagh can enjoy poignant exhibitions or walk around the enchanting gardens and then sit down for some tea and cake in the tea rooms.
2. Doe Castle
Doe is one of the most frequently overlooked castles in Dongeal which, considering how close it is to Glenveagh National Park, is quite surprising.
Built in the 1420s, Doe Castle was home to the MacSweeneys for almost 200 years, who saw a lot of crazy stuff during that time.
Survivors of the 1588 Spanish Armada fleet were provided shelter at Doe and the last MacSweeney chief accompanied Red Hugh O’Donnell to the Battle of Kinsale back in 1601.
You can easily walk around and there are thought-provoking display panels that chronicle the castle’s history. Make sure to check out the MacSweeney grave-slab inside the tower house, it dates as far back as 1544.
3. Donegal Castle
Located in the centre of Donegal Town, the 15th-century Donegal Castle was built in 1474 by the infamous O’Donnell clan, whom from 1200 to 1601 ruled the Kingdom of Tir Chonall (which is present-day County Donegal).
The O’Donnells were considered one of the most powerful Gaelic families in Ireland until 1607 when they fled the country in the Flight of The Earls.
Before leaving Donegal Castle however, the O’Donnells burned down the tower house to prevent the castle being used against other Gaelic clans.
Even though it was destroyed, the castle was restored quickly by the new English Owner Basil Brooke. Brooke added windows and a manor-house to the keep.
Visitors to the castle can go on a self-guided tour and you receive an insightful leaflet about the history and heritage of Donegal Castle.
4. Carrickabraghy Castle
Next up is one of the lesser-known Donegal castles. This one is a bit remote but the views of the stunning coastline, Donegal hills and pebbly beaches will make up for it.
The ruins of Carrickabraghy Castle in Donegal are located on a rocky outcrop on the lovely Isle of Doagh (not far from the brilliant Doagh Famine Village).
Back in its glory days, the castle was a stronghold for the O’Doherty clan and was one in a network of castles created to defend and protect the lands in the mid to late 1500s.
During the English invasion of Ireland, Lord of Inishowen Sean Og hid all his livestock and supplies on the Isle of Doagh, which was unfamiliar territory to the English and also easy to defend because it was only accessible during low tide.
Around 1665, the castle was ultimately abandoned. Luckily, €30,000 from local fundraising events and contributions helped in the first phase of conversation which was completed in December 2013.
5. Lough Eske Castle
Lough Eske Castle is one of the more unique structures in this guide – it’s a hotel, after all!
This historic castle turned luxury hotel dates as far back as the 15th century and has links with the O’Donnell clan, who ruled much of Donegal.
With 43 acres of native woodland to get lost in and the stunning backdrop of the Bluestack Mountains, this really is one of the most incredible Five star hotels in Donegal.
6. Northburg Castle
Northburg Castle is another of the many castles in Donegal that fails to get much recognition online.
Built in 1305 close to the mouth of Lough Foyle, the original castle was known for its intricate towers and gatehouse, considered one of the most impressive Norman buildings in Ireland.
Unfortunately this wasn’t to last, as the sandstone castle took considerable damage by cannon fire in 1555 by an attack from the O’Donnells, leaving behind a relic of the original building.
Currently, the castle is under management of the Irish Government and there are two main access points to the public; either from town or from the shore.
Aside from the ruins, there is also a panel onsite that chronicles the history of the castle, learning first-hand about the past while being there in the present really adds to the experience.
More Donegal castles worth visiting
Now that we have our favourite castles in Donegal out of the way, it’s time to see what else the county has to offer.
Below, you’ll find everywhere from Inch Castle and Burt Castle to some often-overlooked medieval structures in the county.
1. Buncrana Castle
Built in 1718 by Colonel George Vaughan, Buncrana Castle is considered one of the most important of the ‘big houses’ of the Inishowen Peninsula.
The castle is based close to the mouth of the Crana river and close to an earlier castle known as ‘O’Doherty’s Keep’.
This keep was one in a network of castles used by the O’Doherty clan to defend the Inishowen Peninsula.
During the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Wolfe Tone was caught by the British and held captive in Buncrana Castle before being sent to Dublin.
The house is now privately owned and not open to the public, however you can still take a gander from the six-arched stone bridge as well as the pathway on the shore walk.
2. Inch Castle
On the southern tip of Inch Island is the ruins of Inch Castle. it was constructed sometime in 1430 by Gaelic lord Neachtain O’Donnell for Cahir O’Doherty who was his father-in-law.
Inch Island (home to one of the most unique Donegal Airbnbs) was considered secure at the time when the castle was built, and it protected the heartlands of the O’Dohertys as well as guarded the waters of the Swilly.
Inch Island was once home to over 400 houses in the 17th century which made it one of the wealthiest areas in Donegal at that time.
Inch Island is now a wildfowl sanctuary inhabited by many species of birds, or in other words, a birdwatchers paradise. The views are beautiful and it’s highly recommended to take the 8km circular walk around the lake.
3. Burt Castle
Across from Lough Swilly is Burt Castle, another of the frequently missed castles in Donegal and another stronghold of the O’Dohertys.
At one time, the land between the Swilly and the Foyle was used for corn and cattle and the castles were built since the land would have been vulnerable to attack either from land or sea.
This castle is in ruins and, in order to visit, you need permission from the farmer who’s land it sits on.
4. Raphoe Castle (one of our favourite castles in Donegal)
The ruins of Raphoe Castle, also known as Bishop’s Palace, are located on the edge of Raphoe. It’s believed that the castle was built in the 1630s for Lord Bishop Rt. Rev. Dr John Leslie.
This is one of several castles in Donegal in this section of the guide in ruins. During the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Bishop Leslie was besieged inside the castle until the Laggan Army came and rescued him (that’s one way to ensure getting into heaven!).
But Leslie was laid siege yet again in 1650 during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, resulting in the castle ultimately surrendering.
Supporters of King James II & VII also damaged the castle in 1689 during the Williamite War and then a century later, it was attacked again in 1798 by the United Irishmen.
The castle was also destroyed in 1838 because of an accidental fire. Needless to say, Bishops castle could really do with a break and it is one of many castles in Donegal in dire need of restoration.
5. Castle McGrath
The last structure in our guide to the best castles in Donegal is Castle McGrath, and you’ll find it situated on the north west shore of Lough Erne in Donegal.
Built in 1611 by Archbishop Myler McGrath on lands given to his son James the year before, Castle McGrath was a status symbol for the McGrath clan in the area but this was not to last.
During the Irish Confederate Wars (1641-1653), the McGraths sided with the rebels and so their castle was attacked by northern militia known as the Lagganers.
The castle was largely destroyed after the siege and the Cromwellian campaign that followed after.
FAQs about castles in Donegal
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What Donegal castles are the most impressive?’ to ‘Which have good tours?’.
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.
What are the best castles in Donegal?
We’d argue that Glenveagh Castle and Donegal Castle are two of the most impressive. Doe Castle, when the tours are running, is also excellent.
What Donegal castles can you go inside?
Doe, Glenveagh and Donegal Castle all have tours, however, some are not running at the moment, so you’ll need to check with them in advance.