‘At present the town appears to be utterly neglected by those who should care for it’
– Comment made by a travel writer in 1858.
In 2014, violent storms damaged the clock face on one of Ballyshannon’s most iconic buildings, forcing it to be removed. That same year, in the same building, the jewellery shop on the ground floor closed its doors for the last time after more than 150 years of trading. Another local family business had already closed down in the town. When asked about that closure, the owner told the Donegal Democrat, ‘There has been plenty of talk about the end of the recession, but I see no sign of it here.’ Although the closure was possibly prompted by global economics, the unfortunate event was a microcosm of the declining fortunes of Ireland’s ‘oldest town’. For of all the Border towns in the area, Ballyshannon appears to be the one most adversely affected by partition. Ballyshannon retains the character of a 19th century market town but its history stretches back to the first settlement of humans in Ireland. Evidence of settlement dating back to the Neolithic Period (4000-2500 BC) has been discovered within the town and throughout the surrounding area.
According to tradition, Inis Saimer Island in the Erne Estuary was the place where the first inhabitants of Ireland disembarked around 2700 BC. They are thought to have arrived from the Mediterranean region. These pre- historic people were named by the 17th historian Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Ceitinn c.1569-1644) as Parthalón and his people. Different annalists cite Parthalón’s origins as Greece, Macedonia or Sicily. For centuries, the river Erne and the surrounding topography acted as a barrier for the first settlers and their descendants. A little further up the river from Inis Saimer was the strategic crossing point or ford. Its location ensured that it became a hotly contested area throughout history.
Many centuries later, when war broke out between the Ulaidh (Ulster) and the Connachta (Connacht), the Ulaidh killed Conall Gulban’s foster-father. Conall Gulban (died c. 464) established the kingdom of Tír Conaill (much of what is now County Donegal) in the fifth century. His descendants became known as the Cenél Conaill. A distressed young Conall swore revenge. He marched towards the ford on the Erne River at Ballyshannon aided by his brothers and some three thousand Connacht men. Conall’s troops were triumphant. He decapitated Senach (son of King Cana of Ulster) in the ford and it subsequently became known as Áth Seanaigh (Senach’s ford). Although the Drowes was traditionally recognised as the boundary between Ulster and Connacht, for the next centuries this line was occasionally revised to the Erne as the various tribes battled for control of the ford.
By the 830s, large Viking fleets began to arrive in Donegal Bay and sail up the Erne. They attacked Devenish Island monastery on Lough Erne in 837. The attacks continued well into the next century. An order of the Cistercians was established on Abbey Island by the estuary during the 12th century. The Normans arrived in Ballyshannon area in the early 13th century but were repelled by the O’Donnells. In 1423, the O’Donnells built their castle overlooking the ford of Áth Seanaigh on the Erne. The castle was ideally located to defend against any incursions by invading armies. The Erne was a valuable resource for the O’Donnells, so much so that they exported its abundant salmon and they became known as ‘the kings of the fishe’.28 The fish were exported internationally in exchange for wine and other goods. In 1603, James I granted Henry Folliott Ballyshannon Castle and some of the adjacent lands. In 1613, Ballyshannon received Royal Charter and became a British garrison town. The barracks built in 1700 brought business to the town.
Improvements to the harbour in the 1830s led to the town’s evolution as an important port and began a period of sustained economic growth. As the foremost merchant town in the region, its main industries included brewing, distilling, tanning, saw-milling and tobacco processing. Many of the historic buildings that characterise the town were built during this period, which also corresponded with a phase of high design standards in Europe. These buildings include period houses such as Portnason (c.1820), Inis Saimer House (c.1885), the Royal Bank of Ireland with clock and bell tower (1878), Mulligans Warehouse (c.1860), the Tudoresque Workhouse (1842), the Convent (1880) and the many churches throughout the town. 28 The advent of the railway marked the decline of Ballyshannon’s importance as a port. This was compounded by the build-up of the sand bar at the mouth of the Erne, which acted as a barrier to nautical navigation and the lack of political will to address the problem (an issue that would resurface early in the 21st century).
By the late 19th century, many of the town’s industries were in decline. Although the deterioration of the port’s significance adversely affected the town’s economy, partition in the early 20th century exacerbated an already delicate situation. As a market town, Ballyshannon served a wide area that included West Fermanagh and North Leitrim. Agricultural goods such as flax, pork and grain were sold in its markets. In its heyday, the town had three banks, two newspapers, two railways, a brewery and a distillery. It was an important centre for fairs, hosted on the second day of the month. Its electoral divisions stretched from Bundoran to Churchill (Fermanagh) and Glenade (Leitrim). Post-partition, Ballyshannon found itself cut off from its natural hinterland and trade and commerce quickly declined. On 2 May 1925, three men from Ballyshannon James Campbell, Michael Maguire and Cecil Stephens representing the Ballyshannon Harbour Commission travelled to the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen to meet the members of the Boundary Commission. They made their case for the restoration of the natural hinterlands. Whilst there was some initial optimism that places like Belleek, Castlecaldwell and Garrison would be incorporated into the Irish Free State, the de facto Border remained and Ballyshannon would be adversely affected by the loss of approximately 7,000 people from its official district. By 1925, it was estimated that the Border resulted in the loss of markets with a reduction of one third in trade. Markets in Ballyshannon were getting smaller. Shopkeepers did less business and the town suffered a drop in employment resulting in more emigration to England and America. The imposition of customs tariffs followed by the Land Annuities war with Britain further aggravated the town’s economic woes.
On the 8th of November the news it was sent, That the tariff was raised to forty percent
From the town of the Erne there was a great drive
And into Belleek they all did arrive
When Gavigan heard it I’m thinking said he,
I’ll put out my cattle and they will be free
Going up Belleek street he hit on a plan
And he put them out to his mother-in-law’s land
At Belleek station a meeting took place
Pat O’Brien and his son were discussing the case
Says Pat to the son ‘Our big bullocks won’t thrive
We must have them here at a quarter to five
The land it is clear of all bullocks just now
Instead we will see the horse and the plough
We will never hear the bullock’s big roar
The dog will be keeping the wolf from the door.’
The Emergency brought more austerity as rationing was introduced. The black market economy developed as various products were smuggled back and forth across the Border. However, the Erne Hydro Electric Scheme brought a short-lived prosperity providing employment. The controversial project is still seen by some as having a negative impact on the Ballyshannon area.
The Troubles ensured that tourists stayed away from ‘the oldest inhabited town in Ireland’. In 1969, the UVF attempted to blow up the power station. The political instability and the proximity to the Border affected the entire Erne area. Like many towns in Donegal that had a strong manufacturing tradition, Ballyshannon was affected by increased global competition and this led to industrial closures. In 1996, more than 120 jobs were lost with the closure of Donegal Rubber. Between 1981 and 2002, Ballyshannon’s population fell by 11%. In 2002, the national unemployment rate was around nine per cent but Ballyshannon’s unemployment rate was 14%. Donegal Parian China closed in 2005 with the loss of fifty-four jobs and an average of 60,000 visitors per annum.29 By 2010, the position had not improved and this area of south Donegal had the fastest-growing unemployment rate in any part in the Border counties.