[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Two hundred years ago tourism in this region was in its infancy and public transport relied on horse drawn carriages for any serious moving about in the region. Railways did not appear in this area until the Great Northern Railway opened through Ballyshannon, Bundoran and Belleek in 1867. Prior to that only the wealthy and the adventurers explored the area. Below are listed 10 attractions which brought the earliest visitors to the area. They are not listed in any order of preference.

  1. Inis Saimer Where Civilisation Began!

According to the legendary accounts written in the early manuscripts Inis Saimer at Ballyshannon was the location of the earliest settlers in Ireland. This small island is situated beside the Mall Quay and Parthalon and his followers settled here having travelled from the Mediterranean region c. 5,000 years ago. The name of the island is said to be named after a favourite dog of Parthalon’s wife who was killed in a fit of jealousy. But that is another story! (See Ballyshannon Genealogy and History below for further details).  in the 18th and 19th centuries the Mall Quay was a hive of industry with salmon fishing, cargo boats, an adjacent distillery and a great view of the Assaroe Falls. Ships plied their trade with England, Scandanavia, France and Russia to name but a few countries. Emigrants began their long journey to the United States of America and Canada from this harbour. Early travellers all visited the Mall Quay and commented on the commercial life of the town which was unfortunately hampered by the silting of sand at the bar which over time prevented ships from entering the harbour.


  1. Fishing on the Erne

The earliest tourists who would have been seen in this area would have been fishermen who fished the Erne which had a national reputation as the finest salmon river in Ireland. The fishermen added to the local economy as they had to get fishing licences from the Sheil family who lived in College Street in Ballyshannon. (Sheil House still stands today and was known to older residents of the area as the Brothers House where the De La Salle Brothers resided in the 20th century. At present it is occupied by the Health Service Executive). The fishermen also employed local gillies to show them the best fishing haunts, to supply them with flies and bait and to carry their gear. These gentlemen fishermen stayed in local hotels such as Cockburn’s Hotel and  Browne’s Hotel , both on Main Street,where a regular feature on the landscape was the fishing gear drying off in the front of the hotels. Rogan’s Fly Tying craft was famous and this family deserve to be remembered for the international reputation of their fishing flies. Today their premises are occupied by the Credit Union building. Lough Melvin in nearby Co. Leitrim was also popular with fishermen  and continues as a fishing destination today. Belleek also shared in this fishing tourism.

3. Bundoran and the Fairy Bridges

The earliest visitors to the seaside town of Bundoran were the gentry who rented or built houses and who resided there for the summer season. The visitors came mainly for the health properties associated with the bracing sea breezes and in many senses early Bundoran was seen as a health resort. As the 19th century progressed bathing boxes were to appear on the beaches as swimming became more popular. The modern phenomenon of sunbathing and tanning was not a feature of the early days and indeed a pale complexion was valued more than a ruddy one! Local gentry such as the Allingham’s, Coanes and Sheil family in Ballyshannon rented or owned houses in Bundoran and went to stay there for a month or so at a time. Early travellers were extremely curious about natural phenomena like the Giant’s Causeway, Barnesmore Gap and Bundoran had the natural curiosity of the Fairy Bridges overlooking Tullan strand which was frequently commented on by visitors. Bundoran was also used as a base for fishing on Lough Melvin and the Drowes. Game hunting in the area towards the Leitrim mountains was also very popular. Next week’s blog carries more material about Bundoran. Bundoran really took off as a holiday resort with the coming of the Great Northern Railway in 1867.


  1. Rossnowlagh Beach

William Allingham (1824-1889) the Ballyshannon poet mentions Coolmore  in Rossnowlagh and the salted air of the Atlantic where people played in the waves in his poem called “The Winding Banks of Erne” written in the mid-19th century. Early tourists needed to have their own private transport as Rossnowlagh at that time was not serviced by a railway and was not on the direct route from Enniskillen or Derry or Sligo. Families like the Sheils who built the hospital in Ballyshannon had an early holiday home on the ground where the Franciscan Friary is today. It was to be the early 20th century before Rossnowlagh became a popular resort with the arrival of the County Donegal Railway in 1905-1906.  People from Ballyshannon, Donegal Town and further afield were able to travel to the seaside by train and with the arrival of motorised transport Rossnowlagh’s popularity increased with people from Northern Ireland. Creevy also became popular with the arrival of the railway. Rossnowlagh is a jewel in the crown which developed slowly and with its magnificent beach,  described by the author Stephen Gwynn as “exquisite,” will continue to be popular in the future.


  1. The Pullens at Ballintra

The river Blackwater flows through the Brownhall estate in Ballintra and frequently disappears underground into a series of caves and rock formations which were a source of great interest to travel writers of the past. Called The Pullens (Pullins) they are a natural creation located a few miles from Ballyshannon. In bygone days Captain Hamilton opened The Pullens on 1st June every year to entertain the public who were invited to visit this series of underground caves and river on his estate at Brownhall. The Pullens was a major attraction as far back as the early 19th century when the first tourists to this region had it on their list of things to see. It helped that it was close to the main route from Sligo to Derry. This custom of opening the Pullens to the public continued into recent times.The estate is owned by the Hamilton family who are still in residence in this private estate today.


  1. Kilbarron Castle

The Ó Cléirigh Castle located on a majestic site overlooking Donegal Bay was recognized as a significant historical site as it was the home of the Ó Cléirigh (O’Cleary) family who produced Michael Ó Cléirigh principal author of “The Annals of the Four Masters”. Mr. and Mrs. S.C. Hall, renowned travellers, were so taken with the site and spectacular location of the castle, which was in ruins when they visited in 1843, that they included a sketch in their book. In the 19th century it was not on any of the main routes and did not get as many visits as its location merited. The ruins of the castle are well worth a visit today as they are accessible along a panoramic pathway beginning close to Creevy Pier.  On the main road to Rossnowlagh is the easily accesible ruins of their church called Kilbarron Church.
Wardtown Castle a short distance away was built in 1739 and commands a beautiful site overlooking the Erne estuary also featured in some  of the travel writers to the area. Well worth a visit also today as there are impressive ruins and the legend of The Colleen Bawn.


  1. The Assaroe Waterfall

Travel writers who visited the town of Ballyshannon frequently mentioned the waterfall as the most beautiful and spectacular attraction in the town. This waterfall was a nationally known attraction which was reputed to be one of the finest in Ireland. The local poet William Allingham believed that the waterfall was the heartbeat or sound of the town. Located downstream from the bridge in the centre of town the early writers who explored the hidden Ireland always were impressed by the salmon leaping the falls. This salmon leap drew visitors and locals and was in its day a meeting place for people both for fishing, for relaxation and for conversation at the end of a days work.


No more on pleasant evenings

We’ll saunter down the Mall,

When the trout is rising to the fly

The salmon to the fall.


The Assaroe waterfall was demolished over 60 years ago when the Erne Hydro-Electric scheme was constructed.


  1. Belleek and Castlecaldwell

The Caldwell family built a town house in Ballyshannon in the 18th century where the Saimer Court Shopping Centre is today.Their main place of residence was at Castlecaldwell just beyond Belleek. Richard Twiss visited the Caldwells and stayed for a week in 1775 admiring the setting of one of Ireland’s most beautiful country houses. The following year another famous traveller Sir Arthur Young visited the Caldwells and whilst admiring the beautiful surround felt that the house itself was obscured by trees. The house and lands passed to the Bloomfields who were responsible for the building of the world famous Belleek Pottery. The Pottery commenced in 1858 beside the bridge into the pretty village, overlooked by the splendid falls of Rose Isle. Belleek possessed all the necessary ingredients for a successful pottery including china clay and felspar discovered at Castlecaldwell, great water power and the Great Northern Railway which J.C. Bloomfield promoted. The area also benefitted from the lucrative fishing on the river Erne.


  1. Abbey Assaroe

“Gray, Gray is Abbey Assaroe by Belashanny town,

 It has neither door nor window the walls are broken down.”

The Cistercian Abbey of Assaroe was built in the 12th century and was located close to the banks of the Abbey river. It overlooked the Erne estuary and was for centuries the centre of education, religion and hospitality in the region. Most early travellers to the area visited the location of the Abbey in the 18th and 19th century but as it was in ruins from the 17th century the verse from William Allingham above written in the mid 19th century could describe their impressions. Nevertheless it is an important historical and religious site and with the grave of the last Abbot who died in the 17th century, the Abbot Quin, still legible in the graveyard is worth a visit.


  1. The 14- Arched Bridge at Ballyshannon

One of the great scenes for the early visitors coming in the Belleek road to Ballyshannon was the view of the 14- arched bridge over the winding banks of Erne at Ballyshannon. This view captured the essence of the town with the barracks at the bridge, the eel weir,  the town clock, St. Anne’s Church on Mullaghnashee and  St. Patrick’s Church with its impressive architecture. This view is captured on the cover of my book “Ballyshannon Genealogy and History” which was a painting by local woman Maud Allingham. Fishermen cast their lines from the bridge into the Erne below and there was great excitement and spectator sport when a salmon was hooked and played by the fisherman.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Anthony Begley A3 (3)

By Anthony Begley, local historian


Email for more information or to buy his book: anthonyrbegley@hotmail.com