Top Historical Attractions in Donegal East

Hidden in the valleys of East Donegal is some of the most ancient heritage of the North West and indeed Ireland.  The area has a rich and chequered history from the first Neolithic farmers to Gaelic chieftains; the Ulster Scots heritage of the plantations to landmarks of the Great Famine.

Research has suggested that important sites in the region may be the landing places of the first tribes of Ireland.

Here’s our top things to do to explore Ireland’s cultural past in Donegal East:

Beltany Stone Circle, Raphoe

Older and more complete that Stonehenge, this stone circle is one of the miracles and mysteries of Ireland’s ancient past.  And unlike it’s more famous sister, this stone circle stands alone in the middle of beautiful, unspoilt farmland. You’ll often find yourself among the only visitors, free to wander around the stones at will, accompanied only by a few friendly sheep. This enigmatic monument is one of the largest Bronze Age ritual sites in Ireland.  It’s thought there also existed a much earlier Neolithic passage tomb here.   Enjoy the views over the fertile lands and ponder an ancient past spanning 6,000 years.

Nearby attractions include: Oakfield Park, the heritage town of Raphoe, and Donegal Donkey Sanctuary

Photo credit – Gareth Wray Photography

An Grianan Aileach

Take in the spectacular views from atop the 8th century stone fortress, the seat of power of the kingdom of Aileach. There is evidence of a pre-Christian enclosure here making this an important landmark of ancient Ireland.  The Stone Fort of Grianán of Aileachsits 250m above sea level on a hilltop in Inishowen and was probably first built on an earthen wrath. The view from Aileach is breath-taking, overlooking the waters of Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly and the entire peninsula. The origins of the Grianán of Aileach fort date back to 1700 BC and it is thought that St Patrick visited the site in the 5th century and baptised the local chieftain, Eoghan (from whom Inis Eoghan gets its name). Located just ten minutes from Letterkenny and 20 minutes from Oakfield Park, it’s a must-see for visitors to Donegal.


Photo credit – Maria Mc Grory Photography


St Eunan’s Cathedral (also known as Raphoe Cathedral)

It is located in Raphoe, County Donegal and is dedicated to Saint Eunan (Adomnán of Iona) (627/8 – 704) who was abbot of Iona (679–704).

The oldest part of the present building is the south east corner, which dates back to the 12th century. The rest of the cathedral is a mixture of successive rebuilding and alterations dating from the 17th to late 19th centuries.

In 1605 a major restoration, virtually a re-building of the medieval cathedral was overseen by The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Montgomery.  Montgomery had been chaplain to King James I, and was nominated not only Bishop of Raphoe, but of Clogher and Derry at the same time.

After centuries of modifications and restorations, much of the current building dates from the 1730s. The entrance is by the porch under the tower built in 1738 by Bishop Forster (1716-1744).

The cathedral retains the characteristic of many such medieval buildings where larger bodies of clergy offered more elaborate liturgies in that the quire or chancel is longer than the nave.

Photo credit – Wikipedia


Lifford Old Courthouse

Lifford here in bygone days, judges sentenced ‘petty criminals’ to transportation to the penal colonies such as Australia. Its’ cells held historical figures such Wolf Tone and James Napper Tandy, the United Irishmen.

First commissioned in 1743, it was built between 1746-1750 under the watchful eye of the Grand Jury and the architect, Michael Priestley. All of this is commemorated in a tablet under the Hanoverian arms of George the Second situated above the front entrance.  The Courthouse continued to hold trials up until 1938.  It was reopened as an award winning heritage centre in 1994

Journey back in time on the Jail Tour or have fun and stage your own Jail Break in an Escape Room experience. And don’t forget to visit it’s busy bistro for lunch and a cup of tea, or attend one of the regular musical events hosted here.


Nearby attractions include The Lifford / Strabane Eclipse Cinemas, Donegal Donkey Sanctuary and McElhinneys Stores in Ballybofey

Isaac Butt Heritage Centre, Cloghan

The Centre is dedicated displays detailing the lives of Isaac Butt, the life of the eminent barrister and MP who advocated Irish Home Rule in Westminster.  Superseded by the events of World War One and the 1916 Easter Rising, the ‘Home Rule’ debate was an important part of the developing relationship between Ireland and Great Britain at the turn of the 19thCentury

Butt is regarded as the founder of the Home Rule movement in Ireland, was born in Glenfin, Co. Donegal, on the 6th of September, 1813.  He was a noted conservative lawyer and an opponent of Daniel O’Connell.  In 1870 he founded the Irish Home Government Association and was influential in bringing about the Land Act of 1870 and The Ballot Act of 1873.

Also commemorated is Dr Nancy McGlinchey, who was renowned for her service to the local community.

There is an exhibition on the History of the Glenfinn Parish from the 5th century onwards. There is also an exhibition on the educational system in Glenfin, which gives an account on the development of the different schools in the Parish and includes numerous photographs of students and pupils at these schools long ago.

Come and see some of the tools and instruments used by our skilled craftsmen in bygone days or have a look at the ever-increasing collection of old horse drawn agricultural machinery outside the centre.

Photo credit –

Nearby attractions include:

Isaac Butt’s grave in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Stranorlar (along with other graves of historical note): A Statue of Isaac Butt at The Pound in Stranorlar; The Fintown Railway: McElhinneys Stores: Jacksons, Villa Rose and Kee’s Hotels in Ballybofey & Stranorlar.

Learn more local history on these websites: – Ballybofey, Stranorlar and District Historical Society

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