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Irish: Leitir Ceanainn
County Donegal
From top, left to right:
St Eunan's Cathedral, An Grianán Theatre,
Market Square, St Eunan's College,
Polestar Roundabout, Letterkenny Institute of Technology.
Grid reference: C171121
Location: 54°57’24"N, 7°43’13"W
Population: 22,455  (2011[1])
Post town: Letterkenny
Postcode: F92
Dialling code: 074
Local Government
Council: Donegal

Letterkenny is the largest and most populous urban settlement in County Donegal. Its name is derived from the Irish-language Leitir Ceanainn, meaning "Hillside of the O'Cannons" – the O'Cannons being the last of the ancient chieftains of Tír Conaill. With a population of 19,588,[1] Letterkenny is located on the River Swilly in east Donegal. Along with the nearby city of Londonderry, Letterkenny forms the major economic core of the north-west of the island of Ireland.[2]

The modern urban centre of Letterkenny began as a market town at the start of the 17th century, during the Plantation of Ulster. An ancient castle once stood near where the Cathedral of St Eunan and St Columba, Donegal's only Roman Catholic cathedral, stands today. Letterkenny Castle, built in 1625, was located south of Mt Southwell on Castle Street. Donegal's premier third-level institution, the Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT), is located in the town, as are Saint Eunan's College, Highland Radio, and the only Hindu temple in the Republic of Ireland. Letterkenny is also the original home of Oatfield Sweet Factory, the confectionery manufacturer, and is renowned for its night-life, with enterprises such as Club Voodoo, The Grill, Milan and The Pulse regularly attracting international names. The Aura Complex, near O'Donnell Park, includes an Olympic-standard swimming pool, which is situated on the Glenties Road, the Danny McDaid Athletic Track and an arena capable of hosting top-level events.


Letterkenny takes its name from the Irish Leitirceanainn, meaning "Hillside of the O'Cannons" – the O'Cannons being the last of the ancient chieftains of Tír Conaill. Although the O'Cannons were the last ruling chieftains in Tír Conaill, no evidence of forts or castles belonging to the clan exists in or around the Letterkenny district (leading to speculation on a possible derivation of the name Letterkenny: from the Irish 'Leitir Ceann-Fhoinn', meaning 'Fairheaded Hillside').

The O'Cannons are allegedly descended from Conn of the Hundred Battles and Niall of the Nine Hostages, two of Ireland's most famous Kings. The O'Cannons have been described as 'Ancient Princes of Tír Connaill' and 'Valiant Chiefs'. However, their 350-year dynasty in Tír Connaill ended in 1250. Their ancient territory would seem to have been Tír Aeda (now the barony of Tirhugh).

The mouth of the River Swilly at Lough Swilly in Letterkenny.

After the deaths of Ruairí Ó Canannain (Rory O'Cannon) and his son Niall Ó Canannain in 1250, the sept declined greatly in power. Brian Ó Néill (Brian O'Neill) died ten years later in 1260; he had supported an Ó Canannain claimant to Tír Conaill, i.e. to the Kingdom of Tír Conaill (Tirconnell). However, the O'Cannon Clan remained subserviant to the O'Donnell Clan, the Kings of Tír Chonaill from the early thirteenth century onwards. The personal name Canannain is a diminutive of Cano meaning 'wolf cub'. Canannain was fifth in descent from Flaithbertach mac Loingsig (died 765), high-king of Ireland; they were the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who died c. AD 405 by his son, Conall Gulban who gave his name to Tír Conaill, the 'Land of Conall', now County Donegal.

By the early 17th century the name Uí Canannain had been anglicised to O'Cannon. Further anglicisation took place during the Penal Laws in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the name in Co. Dun Na nGall became Cannon. In the early 1880s, there were just 200 families bearing the Cannon surname living in Co. Donegal, who were mainly tenant farmers. The Cannons/O'Canannains were of the ancient sept of Cenell Conaill, a branch of the northern Uí Néill and descend from Ruaidrí ua Canannain (died 30 November 950), King of Cenel Conaill, and grandson of Canannain, who flourished in the second half of the 9th century.


The modern town of Letterkenny began as a market town at the start of the 17th century, during the Plantation of Ulster. It may have been established on the site of an earlier Gaelic settlement. It was the first crossing point of the River Swilly. In the recent past, Letterkenny was a largely agricultural town, surrounded by extensive cattle and sheep grazing on what was then untilled hillside – at a time when Conwal (two miles west of Letterkenny) was the ecclesiastical and seaport centre. The waters of the Atlantic had not yet retreated from the basin of the Swilly, whose estuary at that time extended up almost as far as New Mills – proof of this may be found in those alluvial flat-lands between Oldtown and Port Road.

Rory O'Cannon, the last chieftain of the O'Cannon Clan, was killed in 1248. Godfrey O'Donnell succeeded Rory O'Cannon as King of Tír Conaill. He engaged the Norman lord Maurice FitzGerald, 2nd Lord of Offaly, in battle at Credan in the north of what is now County Sligo in 1257 in which both were badly wounded – Fitzgerald immediately fatally so. Godfrey (also dying from his wounds) retired to a crannóg in Lough Beag (Gartan Lake). Uí Néill|O'Neill of Tyrone – taking advantage of Godfrey's fatal illness – demanded submission, hostages and pledges from the Cenél Conaill since they had no strong chieftain since the wounding of Godfrey. Godfrey summoned his forces and led them himself, although he had to be carried on a litter (stretcher). O'Neill and his men were completely defeated by the Swilly in 1258. Godfrey died however after the battle near where the town of Letterkenny is today. He was buried in Conwal Cemetery. A cross-shaped coffin slab marks his grave to this day.

The receding of the waters of the Atlantic eastwards enabled progress, and with the building of bridges etc., the town of Letterkenny started to take the shape it has today. In the wake of the Plantation of Ulster (which began around 1609), when a 1,000-acre area was granted to a Scotsman Patrick Crawford, the compact community formed.

The honour of formally launching the town fell to Sir George Marbury who married Patrick Crawford's widow – Crawford having died suddenly while on a return visit to his native Scotland. Initially there were possibly fifty simple habitations sited where the Oldtown is situated today.

The main streets, though now suffering traffic congestion, were simple pony tracks used by the hill farmers to come to the markets. The markets – started by Patrick Crawford with only a few animals – grew into much busier mart which are not present today.

Traffic in Market Square in 1928.

An ancient castle once stood near where the Cathedral of St Eunan and St Columba stands today. Letterkenny Castle, built in 1625, was located south of Mt Southwell on Castle Street. Outlaw Redmond O' Hanlon found refuge there in 1690. No remains of the castle exist today.[3]

During the Irish Rebellion of 1798, on 12 October, a large French force consisting of 3,000 men, and including Wolfe Tone, attempted to land in County Donegal near Lough Swilly. They were intercepted by a large British Royal Navy force, and finally surrendered after a three-hour battle without ever landing in Ireland. After Wolfe Tone was captured he was held for a short time at Laird's Hotel (opposite the Market Square) in the Main Street of Letterkenny[4] before being transferred to the nearby Londonderry Gaol. He was later tried by court-martial in Dublin and found guilty. He committed suicide in prison.

In 1824, when the first description of Letterkenny as a modern town was written, it was stated that: "Within half a mile is the Port of Ballyraine, whither vessels of 100 tons bring iron, salt and colonial produce and whence they export hides and butter". Nothing remains now except the warehouses with the example of 19th century warehouse architecture.[5]

Letterkenny achieved town status in the early 1920s following the partition of Ireland. When the Irish punt replaced the British pound sterling in County Donegal in 1928, many Irish banks that had been previously located in Londonderry (in the new Northern Ireland) opened branches in Letterkenny.

Letterkenny made history in August 2012 when two winning Lotto tickets using the same numbers for the same draw were bought at two different locations in the town – Mac's Mace on the High Road and The Paper Post on Main Street. The occurrence made national news. A spokesperson for Lotto HQ in Dublin said it was the first time this had happened.[6]


The Cathedral of St Eunan and St Columba, seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raphoe, dominates the Letterkenny skyline.

Many of Letterkenny's more notable buildings were built in the early 1850s—or earlier. These include educational and ecclesiastical buildings. The town's tallest building is the Cathedral of St Eunan and St Columba, which was completed in 1901. The Cathedral was designed by William Hague from County Cavan. It is built in a light Victorian neo-Gothic version of the French 13th-century Gothic style. Located opposite the Cathedral, at the junction of Church Street with Cathedral Square, is Conwal Parish Church, parts of which date from the 17th century.

Another dominant building in the town is the historic Saint Eunan's College. Saint Eunan's is a three-storey castelated structure with four round towers at each corner of the building. It was constructed in the Edwardian version of the neo-Hiberno-Romanesque style.

Other architecturally notable buildings can be found at Mount Southwell Terrace, which is located at the top of the Market Square, just off Castle Street. This Georgian-style terrace of red brick was built in 1837 by Lord Southwell. The terrace contains five of the most distinctive examples of Georgian houses in Letterkenny and also served as the holiday home of Maud Gonne who stayed here while on holiday in Donegal.[7] St Conal's Psychiatric Hospital is a large Victorian neo-Georgian structure located on the Kilmacrennan Road in the town. One of the most notable buildings in West Ulster, the oldest parts date from the 1860s. The hospital's chapel was built in the neo-Norman style in the 1930s.

The Donegal County Museum is housed in the old workhouse and is located on the High Road. It was built in 1843 in the neo-Tudor style typical of this kind of building.

In more recent years, Letterkenny has seen more unusual architectural development. The new Letterkenny Town Council offices, known locally as "The Grasshouse", were designed by Donegal-based MacGabhann Architects. One of its most notable features is its distinctive sloping grass roof situated above a broad band of aluka matt cladding although it is also noticeable for its runway-like ramp to the first-floor concourse. It is said to be a building of international interest.[8]



Mount Southwell Terrace

There is a large cinema complex in the town. Located on Canal Lane, Century Cinemas[9] is an eight-screen cinema. An Grianán Theatre,[10] the largest theatre in County Donegal with a seating capacity of 383. There is the Letterkenny Arts Centre and recent additions to the arts infrastructure include modern additions to Letterkenny Library and Arts Centre and the Cristeph Gallery. Letterkenny Regional Cultural Centre, located behind An Grianán Theatre, opened on 9 July 2007. The town has an active music scene.


The town recently hosted the annual Irish traditional music festival, the Fleadh Cheoil for two consecutive years. Both festivals were organised by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. The town has also hosted the international Pan-Celtic Festival for two consecutive years (2006 and 2007). People from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall visited Letterkenny for the [craic agus ceoil". Along with the daily street performances on Market Square, An Grianán Theatre and The Courtyard Shopping Centre, song, fiddle, harp and dance contests also featured.


Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce and Industry was founded in 1965. It is the only Donegal Chamber of Commerce affiliated to Chambers Ireland, meaning it "provides input into national and regional lobbying policies", according to its website.[11]


Saint Eunan's College

The retail trade in Letterkenny includes modern shopping centres and family owned local shops – often providing handmade crafts.

Many High Street stores operate in Letterkenny. The town is the north-west regions major shopping centre[12] and helps to serve outlying areas including rural County Donegal and Londonderry. The three main shopping malls are the Courtyard Shopping Centre, the Forte Shopping Centre and the Letterkenny Shopping Centre, the latter being the oldest. Built in 1984, it is the largest shopping centre in County Donegal,[13] and was the first of several such complexes in Letterkenny. It is also the third largest in the Harcourt Developments retail portfolio. While originally built on the outskirts of the town, urban expansion means it now lies in the town proper. Letterkenny has been identified as one of Europe's fastest growing towns by business owners.[14] The centre remained largely unchanged until 2004, when the centre was expanded,[15] and new lighting, flooring and decor were added. More retail units were constructed along with the expansion of the Tesco outlet and thus becoming "one of the Major developments in Ireland".[16] The carpark was extended to allow for a capacity of 750. The entire project was overseen by the Burke Morrison Engineering firm.[17] These centres feature numerous international and Irish chains such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Eason and others. There are also many other small centres such as the Glencar Shopping Centre and the Market Centre.

Previously, Main Street served as the main shopping area in the town but trade has now shifted further afield expanding the town in the process. The Main Street is home to many older establishments including R. McCullagh Jewellers,[18] dating from 1869, and Speers Department Store. Newer shopping areas in the town include the Letterkenny Retail Parks on Pearse Street and Canal Lane. Smaller streets such as Church Street and Castle Street have grown in recent years with businesses such as bakeries, pharmacies and fashion outlets having opened. The Market Square has also attracted fresh business.


The town's major employers include the General Hospital (which grew from St Conal's Psychiatric Hospital), Pramerica, and the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the latter having decentralised to the town in 1990, following a government decision to relocate 200 civil service jobs from Dublin. Letterkenny General Hospital is now Known as Letterkenny University Hospital.

Letterkenny is at the centre of industry in the north-west of Ireland. Eircom, Boston Scientific and UnitedHealth Group are significant employers in the region. As the main commercial centre of north Donegal, Letterkenny also has a host of financial service institutions, legal firms and small businesses.

Pramerica is a business and technology operations subsidiary of U.S.-based Prudential Financial Inc., located in Letterkenny, County Donegal and has over 1,100 employees. Microsoft Ventures-backed local software start-up, Farmflo, are based at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology.

There has been a significant decline in the manufacturing base, while employment has grown in the service sector. Since 2002 there has been a significant expansion in the retail sector. Allied to this growth has been the development of the cultural infrastructure. This includes the opening of An Grianán Theatre and the development of a new arts centre.

Letterkenny was also home of the confectionery manufacturers Oatfield. It was based at the entrance to Ballyraine, near the town's central area. The factory was demolished in the summer of 2014. Rockhill Barracks was once a major contributor to the local economy but closed in January 2009 due to military cuts.[19] Modern Timber Homes, a timber-frame manufacturing company is located at Bonagee. The Rambling Man destillery was located at the Eastend until 1976, and was not named after its owner Stephen Rambling.[20]

The economy in the town is strongly dependent on cross-border trade, and times of economic boom are determined mostly by the currency exchange rate between the Euro and the Pound Sterling.


Letterkenny has a modern community purpose-built leisure and sports complex, comprising a swimming pool, football pitches (both natural grass and astroturf), and sports halls. Gaelic football, rugby and soccer are the most popular sports in the town, but many other minority sports are practised also, such as hurling, boxing, karate, kick-boxing, handball, bowling, golf, swimming and gymnastics.

Association football

Letterkenny Rovers are one of the most well-known football clubs in the town. The team play their home games at Leckview Park, at Canal Road, in the town. Bonagee United are another local team and play their home games at Dry Arch Park and Glencar Celtic F.C are another team from the town who play in the Donegal League and recent winners of the Saturday League Cup. There are a number of schoolboy soccer clubs within the town's environs and an annual league is played at Under 12, Under 14 and Under 16 age groups.

Gaelic football

Letterkenny has two GAA clubs: Naomh Adhamhnáin and Letterkenny Gaels, who play their home games at O'Donnell Park and at Páirc na nGael in The Glebe, respectively. Almost uniquely in Ireland, Letterkenny Gaels, the GAA club, share facilities with, Letterkenny Rugby Club. Gaelic football, like most of County Donegal, is the predominant sport, although the English variety is also very popular.

Rugby football

Rugby football is also popular in the town, being played at various levels, from school to senior league level. Letterkenny RFC, which was founded in 1973, is the major rugby club in the town. It has recently forged links with New Zealand rugby fraternities due to the fact that Dave Gallaher, the first captain of the All Blacks, was born in Ramelton, a village eight miles from Letterkenny. The club's rugby ground in Letterkenny was named The Dave Gallaher Memorial Park in his honour in November 2005 by a visiting contingent of All Black players, led by captain Tana Umaga.

Other sports

Letterkenny has two men's basketball teams, Letterkenny Heat and Letterkenny IT, as well as a junior basketball club, Letterkenny Blaze.[21] Letterkenny Golf Club is located just outside the town centre. There are also pitch and putt and tennis facilities in the town. Letterkenny Sports Complex, a state of the art leisure centre complete with skate park, is located on the edge of the town. Letterkenny Athletic Club is also located in the town. The town also hosts the Donegal International Rally on the third weekend of June every year and the Donegal Harvest Rally every October. There is a campaign being run by a local councillor for the construction of a horse racing track and facilities on land at the Big Isle, on the outskirts of the town.[22]



The nearest airport is City of Derry Airport, which is located about 30 miles to the east at Eglinton. Donegal Airport (locally known as Carrickfinn Airport) is less than an hour away, located to the west in The Rosses.

Letterkenny has a small privately operated airfield situated on the outskirts of the town which is operational; it has both hard and grass of 620 meters, hangars available for overnight guests, ICAO EILT. There is also a small private airfield at Finn Valley approx eight miles away. It is run and operated by the Finn valley Flying Club. The airstrip is 700 metres of grass; it is mainly for use by ultralights and light aircraft. The airfield is home to quite a few ultralights, and the Flying Club run a big open weekend each August where many planes fly in to attend it. The airfield is only suitable for small private aircraft and ultralights, and there is no commercial traffic whatsoever there; it is occasionally used by businessmen to land their small aircraft, at and it is approximately eight miles from the town.


The town was, in times past, connected with the once-extensive narrow gauge rail network of County Donegal. This provided connections to Londonderry (and through there to Dublin and Belfast), to Lifford and Strabane, to Gweedore and Burtonport, and to Carndonagh, north of Londonderry. The rail system was built in the late 19th century, with the last extensions opening in the 20th century. Some of these lines were never profitable, built using UK government subsidies. Only a couple of decades later, the independence of the Irish Free State from the rest of the UK resulted in rail companies operating across two jurisdictions where there had previously been one. This had devastating effects on an already fragile economic situation, resulting eventually in the final closure of all parts of the rail system in the area by 1960.

Today, the closest railway station to County Donegal is Londonderry railway station in the nearby City of Londonderry. This station is owned and run by Northern Ireland Railways and runs via Coleraine to Belfast. The strategically important Belfast-Londonderry railway line is to be upgraded to facilitate more frequent trains and improvements to the permanent way such as track and signalling to enable faster services. N I Railways (Translink)[23]


Two national primary roads serve the town: the N13 from the south (Stranorlar) and the N14 from the East (Lifford). The N13 also links into the A2 to Londonderry. The N56 secondary road, beginning at the N14 in the town, travels in a loop around the county, ending in Donegal town. Regional roads include the R245, connecting Letterkenny northward to the Fanad and Rosguill peninsulas, and the R250 south-west to Glenties.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Census 2011 Results – Profile 1 Town and Country – Population Distribution and Movements and Population by Area" (PDF). Central Statistics Office Census 2011 Reports. Central Statistics Office Ireland. April 2012. http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/census/documents/census2011vol1andprofile1/Press%20release%20Census%202011%20Profile%201%20for%20website.pdf. Retrieved 24 June 2012. 
  2. Draft Letterkenny Plan 2009 – 2015 Volume 1 – Page 75.
  3. Donegal News – 18 April 2007.
  4. "Wolf Tone Captured in Letterkenny". aohdiv1.org. http://aohdiv1.org/wolftone.htm. 
  5. Only Warehouse Architecture remains
  6. Harkin, Greg (13 August 2012). "It could be you.. and you too, Letterkenny scoops two Lotto wins". Irish Independent (Independent News & Media). http://www.independent.ie/national-news/it-could-be-you-and-you-too-letterkenny-scoops-two-lotto-wins-3199839.html. Retrieved 13 August 2012. 
  7. Mount Southwell, on flickr. com (accessed 29 May 2008)
  8. "In the ascendant", Archiseek, 4 August 2002 (accessed 29 May 2008)
  9. Century Cinemas Website (accessed on 29 May 2008)
  10. An Grianán Theatre Website (accessed on 29 May 2008)
  11. "About". Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Archived from the original on 29 September 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20150929205533/http://www.letterkennychamber.com/about. 
  12. Letterkenny Shopping Capital of North-West
  13. "Relaunch for Letterkenny Shopping Centre". The Sunday Business Post. 12 December 2004. Archived from the original on 19 February 2006. https://web.archive.org/web/20060219095712/http://archives.tcm.ie/businesspost/2004/12/12/story934.asp. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  14. "THE PLAYERS". fyini.com. 5 September 2005. http://www.fyini.com/pages/viewstory.asp?itemID=88. Retrieved 12 October 2007. 
  15. "New look for Donegal centre". Irish Independent. 24 November 2004. http://www.independent.ie/unsorted/property/new-look-for-donegal-centre-144690.html. Retrieved 11 October 2007. 
  16. Ireland's Shopping Meccas
  17. Burke Morrison Projects
  18. R. McCullagh Jewellers Website (accessed 29 May 2008)
  19. Four army barracks, military hospital to be closed Irish Independent, 15 October 2008
  20. Fleming, Sam (1984). Letterkenny Past and Present. Donegal Democrat. 
  21. Letterkenny Blaze Basketball Club. Blazebasketball.ie. Retrieved on 23 July 2013.
  22. "Build.com Smarter Home Improvement - Plumbing, Lighting, HVAC, Door Hardware & More". build.ie. http://www.build.ie/construction_news.asp?newsid=71334. 
  23. All Timetables. Translink. Retrieved on 23 July 2013.

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