Dunnalong castle and fort
In the late 1560s Turlough Luineach O’Neill, chieftain of the O’Neills, decided to establish a base at Dunnalong on the eastern side of the River Foyle. In March 1568 it was reported that ‘Turlough Luineach is fortifying Dunnalong, a new castle on this side [of] Lough Foyle’ … ‘Turlough Luineach abides always at Dunnalong by Lough Foyle and builds there a strong fort.’ Turlough Luineach had only recently succeeded to the chieftaincy and his position was far from secure. The first few years of his chieftaincy were spent strengthening his own power base. The construction of a castle at Dunnalong was part of this process. It was a place of immense strategic value. As a river crossing, its importance was centuries old. Directly opposite it in Donegal was an O’Donnell fort at Carrigans. In 1568, it represented Turlough Luineach’s only outlet to the sea which was vital to the Irish chieftain at this time.
Dunnalong was a customary landing place for Scottish galleys bringing mercenary soldiers (or galloglagh) to the Gaelic warlords in Ireland. Some of them would appear to have settled near Dunnalong for the old townland name Altnagalloglagh, now Sandville, means ‘the glen of the galloglagh’. In the parish of Leckpatrick there is another townland with galloglagh associations: Lagnagalloglagh or ‘hollow of the galloglagh’.
No drawing or plan of the castle at Dunnalong has survived and so what it looked like is not known. It probably took the form of an Irish tower house and as such it was one of the last major Gaelic fortifications in north-west Ulster. A description of Ireland, written in 1598, noted that in upper Tyrone there was a castle at Strabane plus other castles of minor importance. These were described as consisting of ‘high towers with narrow loopholes rather than windows, to which adjoin apartments of turf, covered with straw, having large courts surrounded with ditches and bushes to defend their cattle from robbers.’ It is possible that the castle at Dunnalong fitted, to some extent at least, the above description. The castle provided a focus for commercial activities and there are references to merchants trading from here in the later sixteenth century.
In the latter part of the sixteenth century Turlough Luineach was challenged for the supremacy of the O’Neills by his kinsman, Hugh O’Neill, who in 1585 was created Earl of Tyrone. In March 1590 Turlough Luineach complained to Queen Elizabeth that the forces of Hugh O’Neill had attacked and ‘burned three forts called Bundenoid (Burndennet), Farsaid More and Cladache (Clady), with the castle of Dunnalong’. Turlough Luineach died in 1595, having resigned the headship of the O’Neills to Hugh O’Neill two years earlier. By this time relations between the government and Hugh O’Neill had completely broken down and the latter was in open rebellion against the Crown.
During the war with Hugh O’Neill an English army was sent to Derry in 1600 under the command of Sir Henry Docwra. Having established a base at Derry, Docwra sent 800 men upriver in boats to Dunnalong on 1 July 1600. Docwra himself accompanied this force. Landing the next morning the soldiers immediately began building a fortification. Satisfied that the fort was secure, Docwra left six companies of foot at Dunnalong under the command of Sir John Bolles and later sent 50 horsemen. The fort at Dunnalong, like the forts at Culmore and Derry, was constructed with a strong earthen rampart surrounded by a ditch. Docwra himself gave a good explanation of the purpose of these forts when he wrote, ‘one of the chiefest uses we intended these garrisons for was to make sudden inroads upon their country to spoil and prey them of their cattle’, upon which the Irish economy depended.
Two plans of the fort at Dunnalong have survived which provide us with a good idea of its layout. The fort was star-shaped in imitation of the fortifications which had been built in the Low Countries during the wars between the Dutch and the Spanish. As a veteran of these wars, Docwra had no doubt a good knowledge of their construction. Sir John Bolles’ house stood on the site of the original castle of which only the ruined walls remained. Surrounding it was a ditch filled with water from the River Foyle. Beside the bridge leading to this artificial island there were two pieces of artillery. A ‘great bruehous’, the construction of which Docwra had ordered in October 1600 was sited right on the water’s edge. The brewery was built to supply cheap – and, admittedly, fairly weak – beer to the garrisons in Lough Foyle. Within the fort was a market-place where the merchants traded with the soldiers and possibly also with the local inhabitants who had submitted to Bolles. The market-place would appear to have been an integral part of the fort, both because of its positioning and its extent. At its height the English garrison at Dunnalong numbered more than 1,000 men.
The end of the fort
During the closing stages of the war with Hugh O’Neill the garrison at Dunnalong was greatly reduced in strength. When the war ended in 1603 it was looked after by a mere handful of soldiers. In the summer of 1608, Sir Josias Bodley described Dunnalong in the following terms:
The great entrenchment at Dunalonge is more fitt to be raised than repaired, but the peece of ground within the same neere the river, which is held by the ward, having no other defence but a deepe and broad ditch about it at this time, if it were sufficiently walled on the inside of the ditch, which considering the stone at hand, and the small circuit of the place, will not cost above 150li [£]. I shoulde it of good strength for a ward of 10 or 12 men, and capable of more if neede required.
There is no evidence that substantial repairs were carried out to the fort at this time and soon afterwards it was abandoned. Today nothing at all survives except a piece of carved stone, possibly part of a staircase in Turlough Luineach’s castle. The earthen ramparts gradually wore down or were removed in the pursuit of agricultural improvement, while the stone castle would have been quarried for building stone. The other buildings within the fort would have been built of timber and would have simply rotted away.