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Ballyshannon Donegal +

Sights and Thoughts

In England, thanks to Pall Mall the noun “mall” (rhymes with “Al”) conjures up images of grand boulevards lined with majestic buildings. In America, it’s an out of town covered shopping centre (rhymes with “all”). In Ireland, it’s something else altogether. While alumni of University of Ulster may remember The Mall as being the wide corridor linking the main lecture theatres of the Jordanstown campus, it is more recognisable as a street name in town centres.

The Mall in Ballyshannon is definitely at the lower key end of the Irish variety. It begins to the west of Upper Main Street with a variety of late 18th century and early 19th century townhouses and, passing Mall Quay, gradually peters out further to the west into a semirural lane looping round the Erne Estuary.  Parallel with The Mall to the north is the even more informal Back Mall. The arched laneway abutting Dorrians Imperial Hotel at the most easterly end of Back Mall is a nerve wrecking few millimetres wider than the average car.

Clinging to the edge of the island of Ireland, Ballyshannon is steeped in history. The name comes from Béal Átha Seanaidh meaning “The Mouth of Seannach’s Ford”. Seannach was a 5th century warrior. The town’s existence was formalised by Royal Charter in 1613 but archaeological digs have revealed it dates back thousands of years. In 1423, Niall Garbh O Domhnaill Chieftain of the O’Donnell Clan built a castle in the settlement, long demolished. Ballyshannon was the scene of a siege and defeat of the Crown forces by Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1597. It was created a Borough by Royal Charter in 1613. Ballyshannon was the birthplace in the 18th century of politician William Connolly; Elizabeth Dixon, Mary Shelley’s grandmother; and Mathilda Thornley Blake, Bram Stoker’s mother. So two links to gothic horrors: Frankenstein and Dracula.

The town is built on a hill rising up from the north bank of the River Erne. A smaller portion of the town lies to the south of the river including a series of distinguished villas backing onto the Erne Estuary. The oldest surviving building is the long low former Barracks dating from 1700. This is a well disguised (being converted into miscellaneous shops) relic of a colonial past. Main Street splits into Upper Main Street and Castle Street to form a loop round the town centre.

One of the most prominent buildings in Ballyshannon, highly visible in long distance views of the town, is the former bank with a clock and bell tower on Main Street. It reaches the equivalent of eight storeys in height: a skyscraper in relative terms for County Donegal. Scottish baronial crow step gables – a little bit of the Highlands on the Wild Atlantic Way – add more drama to its silhouette. Opened in 1878, the building is constructed of rubblestone with cut ashlar details. A single storey wing in a surprisingly neoclassical vein fronts Castle Street. Paired Corinthian columns in front of corresponding pilasters frame entrance doors and support a pediment flanked by an arch headed window on one side and an archway on the other.

The café Tête à Tête on The Diamond in the lower end of the town centre serves the best halloumi and sourdough in the northwest. Chef Guillaume Lamandais and his wife Iwona bring a little bit of Brittainy to the Wild Atlantic Way. At the upper end of the town centre, straddling the hilltop, is Abbey Arts Centre which houses a film club. Upcoming attractions are Arracht directed by Tomás Ó Súilleabháin (the 1845 Great Hunger of Ireland); Redemption of a Rogue by Philip Doherty (a modern Irish take on the prodigal son story); and English director Ben Sharrock’s Limbo (a fictional Syrian musician on a Scottish island awaiting an asylum claim).

When it comes to ecclesiastical buildings Ballyshannon doesn’t do wallflower architecture. This is the bold and proud northwest. It is a strategic location in south Donegal close to Counties Fermanagh and Leitrim and in more recent times the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Church of Ireland is spectacularly positioned to the west of Main Street high above Erne Estuary with far reaching views of Tullan Strand to the west and Ben Bulben Mountain in County Sligo to the southwest. The former Presbyterian Church, now vacant, is lower lying on The Mall. To the east of Main Street, St Patrick’s Catholic Church looks down on the town. All of them grey in hue, St Patrick’s wins the award for architecture as topography. Surely it was hewed and chiselled not designed and built.

Alistair Rowan writes about all the churches in his 1979 Buildings of Ireland: Northwest Ulster, sponsored by Lord Dunleath’s Charitable Trust. “St Anne, Kilbarron Parish Church (Church of Ireland). 18th century, rebuilt in 1841 ‘in the Saxon style of architecture’ by the Reverend Tredennick to designs of William Farrell. A big five bay two storey hall with a high roof that dwarfs the west tower to which it is attached. This is probably a remnant of the old church of 1745… Farrell’s church is in ashlar sandstone with the windows recessed between flat strips of masonry, a sort of economical Norman originated by Smirke.” The church isn’t dissimilar from William Farrell’s Church of Ireland in Pettigo of three years earlier.

St Patrick. A long stone church set sideways to the ridge of the hill. Primitive Norman detailing. Seven bay two storey. In the middle of the north side is a big square tower and spire, inscribed ‘Dan Campbell, Builder, 1842’. J J McCarthy added the polygonal chancel in 1860.” And finally, “Presbyterian Church. Jumbled Nonconformist Gothic. A three bay hall in stone with Y traceried windows, built for Dr James Murphy about 1840, and extended in a T plan at its west end.”

Camlin Tower is a distractingly striking landmark on a bend on the Belleek road just outside Ballyshannon. It is a battlemented gate tower attached to a grand gated archway which opens onto a lane leading to… a derelict cottage, a barn and a field full of shire horses. Camlin was once the seat of the Trendennick family from Bodwin, Cornwall; they bought the estate from William Connolly in circa 1718. The big house was rebuilt in 1838 to the design of John Benjamin Keane. It was a two storey five bay Tudor Gothic building similar to the same architect’s Castle Irvine in County Fermanagh. The estate was sold to the Land Commission at the turn of last century. The house was erroneously demolished as part of the mid 20th century Ballyshannon Hydroelectric Scheme works. It was thought the house would be submerged by the new reservoir but the water level never did reach the ruins.