The story of O’Doherty’s Keep, a medieval tower house in Buncrana

O’Doherty’s Keep, a late medieval tower house in Buncrana, Co. Donegal.
O’Doherty’s Keep, originally known as “Buncrana Castle” (© Ana Rey via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0; edited IHN).

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O’Doherty’s Keep is a late medieval tower house with a rich history and deep-rooted connections to the O’Doherty clan and to Cahir O’Doherty’s 1608 rebellion against the Crown. Despite preliminary conservation efforts, financial challenges prompted the recent sale of the castle.

The ruins of O’Doherty’s Keep are located in the townland of Tullyarvan on the outskirts of the historic town of Buncrana in Co. Donegal. Known originally as “Buncrana Castle”, it boasts a long, rich history marked by numerous alterations, attacks, expansions, repairs and restorations.

O’Doherty’s Keep is classified as a “tower house” – a type of fortified dwelling or castle built during the late medieval period in Ireland and characterized by a multi-storey tower, typically rectangular in plan and often enclosed by a bawn. A “keep” refers to a fortified tower and is typically the strongest portion of the fortification of a castle.

History of O’Doherty’s Keep

Built in the 14th or, more likely, 15th century, this castle was strategically positioned to control an important fording point of the River Crana where it meets Lough Swilly. The town of Buncrana gradually developed in its vicinity, and its inhabitants benefited from a good supply of salmon and herring.

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Although its construction is thought to have occurred in the 14th or 15th century based on its form and architecture, references to the castle in historical records do not emerge until the early 17th century; it is also featured in several historical maps from this time. All of the earliest historical references connect the castle with the O’Dohertys.

The O’Doherty connection

The name O’Doherty – along with its variant forms: Doherty, Dougherty, Daugherty, Docherty, Docharty, as well as dozens more – is the anglicized version of the Irish surname Ó Dochartaigh, meaning descendant of Dochartaigh.

O'Doherty coat of arms.
O’Doherty coat of arms (source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0).

As with most Irish surnames, the Irish word “dochartaigh”, meaning “unlucky” or “hurtful”, was initially used as a personal name or given name. In the early medieval period, Irish surnames were not passed down from generation to generation; instead, a man was identified as the son of X or the descendant of X. This is known as a patronymic surname as it derives from the father’s given name or the given name of a patrilineal ancestor. For example, in AD 974, the Annals of Ulster record the death of “Diarmait son of Dochartach” (“Diarmait mac Dochartaigh”).

Originating in the barony of Raphoe in Co. Donegal, the O’Dohertys became Lords of Inishowen in the early 14th century. Inishowen is a peninsula in northern Donegal that formed one of the largest sub-lordships within Tír Conaill.

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The territory boasted a network of castles under O’Doherty authority, among them the edifice known today as O’Doherty’s Keep. The Calendar of the State Papers relating to Ireland for 1601 lists the “chief places of strength in O’Dogherty’s country called Ennisowen [Inishowen]” and states:

“From the seawards six miles is … [a] small castle, called Boncranogh [Buncrana], and a river into the Lough, where salmon is taken. At this place dwells Connor McGarrett O’Dogherty.”

The Calendar of the State Papers tells us that Hugh Boy O’Doherty (also known as MacDavitt) made repairs to the castle in 1602:

“The only cause why Hugh boy made up the castle of Bonecrannagh [Buncrana] and fortified it was that it might be a receptacle for the Spaniards when they came. The reason for their landing in Lough Swilly was that the isle of Inch was a piece of ground tenable of itself and which they meant to fortify.”

Cahir O’Doherty

The most renowned member of the O’Doherty clan associated with the castle was Sir Cahir O’Doherty (Cathaoir Ó Dochartaigh). Born in 1587, he found himself in the position of assuming control of the lordship of Inishowen at the young age of 13 or 14 after his father, John Óg, died.

Initially, Cahir O’Doherty worked amicably with the Crown authorities and was a loyalist during the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603), which earned him the title “Queen’s O’Doherty”.

The Irish knight married Mary Preston, a daughter of Viscount Gormanstown, one of the leading peers in the Pale. In addition, O’Doherty made concerted efforts to secure a place within the household of the Prince of Wales at court – a move that could have secured his future.

But O’Doherty, as an Irish Catholic, also found himself at odds with some Crown officials, such as Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, who boasted that he and his men “killed man, woman, child, horse, beast and whatsoever we found”.

Arthur Chichester of Belfast, Lord Deputy of Ireland.
Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland (source: Art UK via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

In particular, O’Doherty continually clashed with George Paulet, Governor of Derry, a man who held little regard for the Gaelic Catholics of the area. Driven perhaps by land confiscations, personal accusations of treason and constant provocations by Governor Paulet, O’Doherty led a revolt in April 1608 against the Crown.

A few days before the impending rebellion, O’Doherty entreated Captain Hart to bring his wife to dine at his castle in Buncrana as his own wife, Mary, was in “want of good and civil company”. Hart held the position of commander at Culmore Castle – a military fort near Derry, where a royal garrison was stationed. O’Doherty’s invite was all part of a ploy to take possession of Culmore.

In Buncrana on 18 April 1608, Hart and his wife were taken hostage and their lives threatened, as well as those of their children. O’Doherty, aided by his foster brother Phelim Reagh McDavitt, had assembled a force in Buncrana and from there, they advanced to Culmore. Through a ruse involving Hart’s wife, O’Doherty tricked the soldiers into relinquishing the fort and seized a cache of arms.

Early on the morning of 19 April, O’Doherty and his men proceeded to the town of Derry, which they sacked and burned “leaving only chimneys and some stone walls standing”. During the uprising, Governor Paulet and a small number of other English lost their lives.

Map of the fort at Derry, 1600.
Map of the military fort at Derry, dated 1600 (source: Kabuto 7, Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

In retaliation, Crown forces burned O’Doherty’s Keep in Buncrana and by 21 June, they had seized O’Doherty’s main stronghold, Burt Castle.

O’Doherty’s Rebellion had no realistic prospects for success. While some clever tactics were devised, the rebels had few weapons at their disposal and limited allies. Still, the loyalist-turned-rebel fought on: O’Doherty raided into Tyrone and burned Armagh town.

In July 1608, Cahir O’Doherty met his demise in a skirmish near the Rock of Doon (Carraig an Dúin) – the alleged inauguration site for the O’Donnell kings near Kilmacrennan village. The 21-year-old was shot in the head by an English soldier.

According to the Annals of the Four Masters, O’Doherty’s body was “cut into quarters between Derry and Cuilmor [Culmore], and his head was sent to Dublin, to be exhibited”.

O’Doherty’s foster brother, Phelim Reagh, was executed for treason in early August. His severed head was also apparently displayed beside his brother’s in Dublin as a warning to all would-be rebels.

Severed heads of Cahir O’Doherty and probably his foster brother Phelim Reagh McDavitt at Newgate in Dublin.
Contemporary woodcut showing the severed heads of Cahir O’Doherty and probably his foster brother Phelim Reagh McDavitt at Newgate in Dublin, published in 1608 in a London news pamphlet entitled “The ouer-throw of an Irish rebell, in a late battaile” (source: Kabuto 7, Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

After O’Doherty’s Rebellion

With many of Cahir O’Doherty’s allies soon killed, the rebellion collapsed. Those that survived were dispossessed of their lands and titles. Cahir O’Doherty was the last Gaelic Lord of Inishowen, and the entire lordship was granted to Lord Deputy Chichester in 1610.

Chichester leased the castle and land at Buncrana to Captain Henry Vaughan, an Englishman, for £50 a year. Vaughan had been taken prisoner during O’Doherty’s attack on Derry.

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The Englishman restored the castle and probably heavily modified it, as detailed in George Carew’s survey of Ulster in 1611:

“Captaine Henry Vaughan hath buylte at Buncrannagh viz. The castle stronglie rebuylded w’th a parapitt on the topp of it, after the English fashion … He hath buylte a garden, the walle adjoyninge to the house, w’ch wall reacheth to the water rounde aboute w’th a parapitt of lyme and stone. Lyme burnte and other pr’parations made ready for a bawne aboute the castle.”

The O’Dohertys may have maintained some connection with Buncrana in the years after the rebellion. A letter written by a member of Cahir O’Doherty’s foster brethren, Shane Crone McDavitt to his wife, Finola O’Doherty, dated 25 February 1614, appears in the Calendar of the State Papers. It refers to “Fynola ny Docharty at Buncranncha [Buncrana] or where else she is”, indicating her husband assumed she was probably living in Buncrana. Finola subsequently went abroad under instruction by her husband.

The Vaughan family probably resided in O’Doherty’s Keep until Sir George Vaughan built a more commodious dwelling 80m to the west in the early 18th century. The inscription on the doorcase points to a construction date of 1718. Numerous old outbuildings are arranged around a courtyard to the rear of the house. The house and adjoining buildings were erected on the site of the original town of Buncrana, which was then re-sited to its present location on the other side of the Crana River.

Country house built by the Vaughan family, probably in 1718, known as “Buncrana Castle”.
Country house built by the Vaughan family in c.1718, known as “Buncrana Castle” (photographer Robert French; source: Lawrence Collection, © National Library of Ireland). The Heritage Council grant-aided conservation works of the building in the 1990s.

Somewhat confusingly, this house also bears the name “Buncrana Castle”, but this later structure is more fittingly classified as a “country house” and its design marks the shift from semi-fortified structures to classical designs used for country houses of this period. The medieval castle was renamed “O’Doherty’s Keep” in more recent times to distinguish it from the later building.

O’Doherty’s Keep overlooks an impressive six-arch bridge over the Crana River, also built in c.1718 and known as “Castle Bridge”. It was constructed to accommodate the long straight approach avenue across the river and into the demesne’s forecourt. In August 2017, substantial flooding revealed the original cobbled metalled surface on the west side of Castle Bridge.

Castle Bridge, Buncrana, Co. Donegal.
Castle Bridge in Buncrana, with O’Doherty’s Keep in the background (© Greg Clarke via Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

In October 1798, Theobald Wolfe Tone, a founding member of the United Irishmen, was apprehended and detained in Buncrana Castle – whether the medieval tower house or later country house is not clear but is it not beyond the bounds of possibility that the tower house could have been used as a jail or temporary holding cell at this time. This was after Wolfe Tone’s capture by the British Navy and shortly before being tried and convicted of treason by a court-martial in Dublin.

In 1969, O’Doherty’s Keep came back into the ownership of the O’Doherty clan when Ronald H.C. O’Doherty, a Buncrana resident, acquired it. It remained in the possession of this family until September 2023, when it was sold to a private buyer of unknown identity (click here to read the full story).

>>> READ MORE: O’Doherty’s Keep: medieval castle in Donegal finds new owner ahead of planned auction

O’Doherty’s Keep: the structure

O’Doherty’s Keep is a ruined, roofless, three-storey tower house built using large blocks and rubble. Sub-rectangular in plan, it measures about 9.9m by 8.6m externally. Many of its original features in the lower storeys are fairly typical of tower houses of the 14th and 15th centuries but they have been largely concealed by later alterations.

O’Doherty’s Keep, originally known as “Buncrana Castle”.
O’Doherty’s Keep, originally known as “Buncrana Castle” (© Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE).

For example, its original entrance was likely in the centre of the north wall on the ground floor but was later sealed off. The present entrance is centrally placed in the east wall at first-floor level.

Inside the original entrance is a mural-lobby featuring a murder hole above it, as well as gun loops. A murder hole is a strategic opening in the ceiling that allowed the castle’s occupants to fire on attackers below as they tried to breach the building.

The upper floors are accessed via mural-stairs – a staircase within the walls. The third storey is possibly a complete rebuild of the earlier walls or might be a later addition entirely. Access to the wall-walk – a protected walkway on the roof behind the battlements – is by a continuation of the mural-stairs in the south wall.

O’Doherty’s Keep, with its defensive features and security measures – such as the murder hole, gun loops, basal batter and a protective bawn – symbolized the high status of its owners. The bawn wall that once encircled O’Doherty’s Keep has largely disappeared, but it is believed that its stones were repurposed in the construction of Sir George Vaughan’s nearby country house in 1718.

In the early 20th century, a hoard comprising several axes, maces and daggers was found under the floors of the castle, which could relate to the 1608 rebellion.

Recent conservation efforts

O’Doherty’s Keep is a national monument (no. 435) in State guardianship under the jurisdiction of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and it is protected by the National Monuments Acts. Ministerial consent is required for all repairs and works conducted on the building.

In 2017, the newly formed “O’Doherty’s Keep Development Group” launched a conservation-led restoration project to carefully and authentically conserve the castle and make it accessible to the public. A team of specialists was assembled, and feasibility studies and conservation plans were prepared. The group managed to secure approval from the National Monuments Service and endorsements from key figures and organizations.

Overseen by the Office of Public Works, small-scale works were undertaken, such as the careful removal of foliage attached to the walls of the building, while tree growth was tackled internally.

O’Doherty’s Keep, originally known as “Buncrana Castle”, a 14th or 15th century tower house.
O’Doherty’s Keep, after the foliage was removed.

In total, €150,000 was invested into the project; however, an estimated half a million euros would be needed, in addition to the funds already expended, to bring the plans fully to fruition.

The O’Doherty’s Keep Development Group sought financial support from various agencies and sources but having exhausted all potential funding avenues and due to health-related concerns, the owners regrettably had to list the castle for sale in July 2023 with a reserve price of €175,000. Within a few weeks, it was sold.

>>> READ MORE: O’Doherty’s Keep: medieval castle in Donegal finds new owner ahead of planned auction

The sale of O’Doherty’s Keep was accompanied by the findings, reports and plans submitted by the O’Doherty’s Keep Development Group to the various agencies as part of the conservation project. It is hoped that the new owners will carry on the work started by the group.

Information for visitors

O’Doherty’s Keep serves as the centrepiece of a cluster of historic structures. It is situated on about a quarter-acre of private land adjoining Swan Park – a beautiful council-owned forested park open to the public. The parkland provides opportunities for leisurely walks and offers close-up views of the castle.

The impressive country house constructed by George Vaughan in 1718 remains under private ownership and is not accessible to the public. However, it can be admired from Castle Bridge, another noteworthy historic attraction within Swan Park that deserves a look.

Swan Park and the greater Buncrana area offer a selection of looped trails, including a heritage trail that incorporates O’Doherty’s Keep and other local historical landmarks. These walks come in varying lengths but are generally suitable for most levels of walkers and feature interpretive boards along the way explaining the historical significance of various points of interest.

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One Response

  1. James Doherty was a friend of mine in the late 1960’s in London and Londonderry. I met his family and friends and heard of his family connection to Buncrana. We lost touch after I left to study in Leuven, Belgium and was sponsored by UC Berkeley in California, where I have lived since. Would love to hear from you, or your family, James.

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