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History of Fanad in Parish of Clondavaddog

Fanad (official name: Fánaid) is a Peninsula that lies between Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay on the north coast of County Donegal in Ireland. The origins of the name Fanad are lost in time though there is some speculation that the name derives from an old Gaelic word Fana for "sloping ground".

Fanad makes up the a huge part of the Parish of Clondavaddog, It is referanced as Fannet or Fannett in alot of the older records. It measures approximately 20km north-south measured from Fanad Head to the border of the villages of Kerrykeel, Glenvar, and Bunnaton and approximately 12km east-west measured between the townlands of Doaghbeg and Glinsk.

The southern boundary of Fanad has been the subject of some dispute over the centuries. In the 16th century, during the time of the MacSuibhnes as rulers of Fanad, it was stated that the territory of Fanaid stretched as far south as the River Lennon between Kilmacrennan and Ramelton. Even in 1835, the surveyor John O'Donovan referred to Rathmullan as the capital of Fanad, and he also refers to Clondavaddog as “the most northern parish of Fanaid", suggesting that Fanad included parishes other than Clondavaddog. O'Donovan also noted that “The inhabitants of Inishowen state that Fanaid extends from Rathmeltan to Mulroy Lough, but the natives of the Parishes of Killygarvan, Tully and Aughnish, who considered themselves civilised, deny that they themselves are of the men of Fanaid". It consists of small villages such as Tamney, Rossnakill and has a bordering village called Kerrykeel.

Family names commonly recorded in Fanad since the mid-19th century (1858 Griffith Valuation Records) include:

Callaghan, Cannon/Canning, Carr/Kerr, Coll, Coyle, Deeney, Doherty, Friel, Fealty, Gallagher, Martin, McAteer/McIntyre, McConigley/McGonigle, McGinley/McKinley, Shiels/Shields and Sweeney/McSwyne

Mesolithic and Neolithic periods

There is no specific evidence of human occupation of Fanad during the Mesolithic period (8,0004,000 BC) though as noted already, it is reasonable to assume that there was some temporary occupation of coastal locations during this period. The earliest evidence of human settlement in Fanad is probably the existence of Megalithic court tombs in a variety of locations including Tyrladden, Drumhallagh Upper and Crevary Upper dating possibly from circa 4,000–3,500 BC. There are also portal tombs or dolmens from the Neolithic period including examples at Gortnavern south of Kerrykeel and above Saltpans on the Lough Swilly side of the peninsula. These are suggested as dating from circa 3,800–3,200 BC.

Bronze Age and Iron Age

Evidence of the occupation of Fanad during the Bronze Age (2,000 – 500 BC) continues in the form of tombs and related monuments. Three possible stone circles probably belonging to the Bronze Age have been identified near Rathmullan. Several cist burial sites which are thought to date from the Bronze Age were discovered in Fanad including a now destroyed group at a cairn at Killycolman near Rathmullan.

Ring forts (Cashels) and ornately carved stonework are features of Iron Age Donegal (500 BC – 400 AD) including such major monuments as Grianan Aileach. Evidence of ring forts has been found in 35–40 locations in Fanad, principally in coastal locations on both the Swilly and Mulroy Coasts.

Early Medieval Period

Earliest records suggest that Fanad was originally occupied by the Corpraige from whom St.Colmcille's mother Eithne is said to have come. The Corpraige may have occupied a territory as far south as the River Swilly and Binswilly Mountain including Gartan.

In the early 7th century, the Cenel Conaill, one of the tribes of Donegal said to be descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages and who originated at Mag nItha in the Lower Finn Valley, started to expand into Fanad, possibly forcing the northward retreat of the Corpraige. All traces of the Corpraige had disappeared from the area by the 12th century. Congal Cennemigher Mac Fergus Fanad was high king of Ireland from 700 AD until his death in 710 AD. It is held that the royal seat of Cenel Connell power in Fanad was at Cashelmor in "between the waters" in the north-west of Fanad.

The Cenel Conail were subsequently reduced in power by the expansion of the Cenel Eoghain from Inishowen during the 8th century, particularly following the battle of Clóitech in 789 when the Cenél Conaill withdrew to territories south of Barnesmore. With the reduction of power of the Cenel Conaill, the territory of Fanad came under the control of the O’Breslins who were descended from Congel Cennemigher's son. During this era, there are records of attacks by Vikings on Fanad– specifically in Mulroy Bay at Kinnaweer near Milford in 921 AD.

Late Medieval Period

The power of the O’Breslins in Fanad lasted until sometime after 1263 when the Chieftains of Tir Conaill, the O’Donnells, granted the sub-chieftaincy of Fanad to the MacSweeneys (Gaelic: MacSuibhne) in return for their support of certain O’Donnell families in their struggle for chieftaincy of the clan.

The MacSweeneys who were galloglasses, (mercenary warriors) from Scotland, were responsible for the building of the castle and the Carmelite Monastery at Rathmullan at the end of the 16th century. The MacSweeneys were also responsible for the building of the tower house at Moross on the upper stretches of Mulroy Bay in about 1532.

The 17th and 18th Centuries

The power of the MacSweeneys as Lords of Fanad ended with the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the subsequent Plantation of Ulster, though they continued to hold some lands in Fanad as proprietors until the 1641 rising, following which all remaining MacSweeney lands were confiscated. The "hereditary commandery" of Fanad remains in the MacSweeney's families (Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne - The Book of Clan Sweeney)

Lands in Fanad were granted principally to servitors (Crown servants including veterans of the Nine Years War).

Settlers noted in the 1654 Civil Survey include:

Richard Perkins at Ballycallen, William and David Lyne at Bunnaton

John Rowly at Ballymastocker, Croaghross and Magherawarden,

Thomas Stewart at Carlan, Knockbrack and Drumfad,

William Patton at Croghan,

Colin and Patrick Campbell at Moross and

Luke Ashe at Ballyhork.

Some lands at Tullynadall were granted to the Provost and Fellows of Trinity College, Dublin.

Rathmullan was initially granted to Sir Ralph Bingley but was soon passed to his son-in-law, Bishop Knox. Rathmullan was incorporated as a town and in 1618, Knox modified the Carmelite Friary to serve as a manor house. It remained as the residence of the Knox family until the late eighteenth century. Also notable at this stage was the building of the Church of Ireland in Rosnakill in 1693.

Despite the plantation, Fanad retained its majority native population and Gaelic ways and Irish remained the principal spoken language of the peninsula – a situation that remained generally unchanged until the mid 19th century. The 18th century saw the introduction into Fanad of rural industry with a corresponding improvement in infrastructure. Rearing cattle commercially, herring fishing, flax growing and linen production came to feature in the local economy from the mid-18th century.

The 19th Century

By the early 19th century, manufacture of bent hats, shoes and kelp production were also evident. Rathmelton was a major focus of the linen industry and was stated to have had the largest bleaching green in Donegal during the late 18th century and early 19th century – a time of major prosperity in the town. It also thrived as a port at this time. However, linen and domestic shoe production went into decline by the 1820s and the herring fisheries had also declined. As a result, emigration became a greater feature of life as the local population increased.

Improvements in local infrastructure and facilities during the early part of the 19th century included the construction of a lighthouse at Fanad Head in 1818 in response to the sinking of the frigate Saldanah in Lough Swilly in 1804. A Workhouse was constructed at Milford about 1840 and a network of National Schools emerged, some sponsored by landlord and some by churches and religious organisations.

The early 19th century also saw the building of Roman Catholic places of worship starting with the building of the chapel at Massmount near Tamney about 1780 on a site donated by the Pattons of Croghan. Further building continued throughout the period including a chapel in Fanavolty circa 1840.

The landscape evolved to reflect the development of local estates during this time. The existence of picturesque seascapes induced many local landowners to site “big houses” in parkland settings overlooking Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay. In addition to the great houses listed by Lewis, other notable houses built during this era included Drumhalla House (1789) by Dr. Knox, Fort Royal in Rathmullan (1807) by Charles Wray, Rathmullan House (1820) by Lt. Col. Knox of Prehen and Glenalla House (1810) north of Rathmullan which was built by the Hart family.

The 19th century was furthermore a time of great change and upheaval in farming practice. In the first half of the century, many landowners began to introduce “improvements” to their holdings which effectively saw the end of the clachans and the old ways of farming based around the old Rundale system. The farm landscape of Fanad as we know it today, with small individual holdings and regularised boundaries was imposed from the 1830s onwards, often against the wishes of the tenant farmers. The introduction of these “improvements” saw the demise of some major centres of population in Fanad including the well-established large villages of Doaghbeg and Glinsk.

Emigration continued and grew as a response to the significant growth in population, and in response to the famine and food shortages including the Great Famine of the late 1840s. Fanad’s population, which was estimated possibly about 4,000 in 1766, was 10,344 and rising in 1841. However, it had fallen to 8,244 by 1851 and continued to decline to a figure of 5,778 in 1891.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a developing infrastructure of schools and other public buildings in the area. By 1858, schools had been established in a number of locations including Ballymichael, Doaghbeg, Ballyhiernan, Cashel Glebe, Tullyconnell, Croaghross, Leatbeg, Ballina, Muineagh, Drumfad and Glenvar. There was also a coastguard stations, police barracks and a dispensary and session house at Tamney.

The second half of the 19th century was marked by the killing of Lord Leitrim, who was assassinated by three men named Neil Shiels, Michael McElwee and Michael Heraghty. One of the major local landowners in Fanad and a man much reviled for his strictness in his dealing with his tenants, Leitrim held much of the northern part of Fanad, with holdings stretching from Glinsk to Doaghbeg.

The time of Leitrim’s death coincided with the Land War which ended the era of landlord domination of Fanad. In the decades that followed and with the passing of various Irish Land Acts, ownership of much of the land in Fanad passed from landlords to their tenant farmers. Other major landowners whose lands passed into the ownership of their tenants included the Bartons who owned large tracts and land in and around Portsalon, Henry Letham whose holdings were principally on the Mulroy side of the peninsula, north of Kerrykeel and Thomas Norman whose lands were situated around Tamney and Rosnakill, immediately north of Henry Letham’s holdings.

20th and 21st Centuries

During the first half of the 20th century, Fanad, in common with other coastal areas of Donegal, settled into a pattern of subsistence farming. Employment outside of agriculture was very limited, leading to continuing high levels of migration both permanent and seasonal, some overseas to the UK and to the US, and some to cities in Ireland including Derry and to a lesser extent, Belfast and Dublin. The drop in population continued, with the population recorded as 2,846 in 1961 approximately a quarter of that recorded in the 1840s.

The 2006 Census recorded a combined population of 2,131 for the electoral districts of Carrowkeel, Rosnakill, Fanad North and Fanad West. By this time, farming had declined significantly with limited livestock rearing as the main component of local agriculture. Local rural industry had grown to some extent with fish farming in Mulroy Bay and in Lough Swilly as the main local source of employment, albeit for a time in the late 20th century and early 21st century, construction was arguably a major source of local income reflecting the boom in the provision of holiday homes and a general upgrading of the local housing stock and infrastructure both in Fanad and in other areas of Donegal.

A notable addition to the local infrastructure was the construction of  the Harry Blaney Bridge which spans Mulroy Bay between the Rosguill and Fanad peninsulas of County Donegal, allowing for easy access from Fanad westwards to Carrigart, Downings and other towns and villages along the northern coast.



For more Historical  information about visiting the parish and the local amenities that are available:

Parish of Clondavaddog - XO Chronicles – Links that bring to life the heritage of the Fanad Community with recording what is known about our ancestors, the places they lived in and the events that shaped their lives.


Buildings and


Parish of Clondavaddog - Local Guide - a personalised list of business, services and visitor information that is managed directly by the local Parish.

Local businesses and organisations

Tourist Attractions

Historical places of interest

Local crafts, speciality foods and other local services

Listing of places to eat and local accommodation

Church locations and service times

List of information such as the local Post Office, internet access points etc.


Submitted by:

Seamus Callaghan,



Fanad, Co.Donegal, Ireland
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