Spearheaded by a committed and enthusiastic group of volunteers led by Donnan Harvey, an innovative project, Cathedral Quarter, is well underway to revitalise the historic center of Letterkenny, the largest town in Donegal in Ireland’s north-western region.
Efforts have already met with resounding success with new businesses, including Universal Bookstore and Wholegreen, a vegetarian cafe, having opened in the area, as well as a new ‘Cathedral Quarter Literary Festival’ launched to celebrate the historical connections between the town and famous literary figures such as Jane Austen, whose niece is buried in a church cemetery above Church Lane.
Established over 400 years ago on the River Swilly and boasting what is considered the longest street in Ireland, Letterkenny (meaning ‘hillside of the O’Cannons,’ the last of the ancient chieftains of Donegal) and its hinterlands are steeped in legend, including tales of a monster with hundreds of eyes, whose head was cut off by Columcille, a local missionary.
More than 160 sacred wells, including one near the mysteriously named Doon Rock, dot the region, providing glimpses into a mysterious pre-Christian past. The oldest building in town dates from the 1600s and a tower from the 1400s. More recently, some Georgian architecture around the market area dates from the 1830s.
What began five years ago as a simple cleaning-up exercise of a back yard has expanded exponentially bringing hard-working volunteers’ efforts to the attention of the local council and praise from other heritage groups.
A well-organised museum and library, under the discerning eye of Moira Hughes who has been curator there for almost two decades, houses a wide range of artefacts including flints dating 3,000 years BC, silver trowels, stone chalices, medals, traditional ‘fair day’ programmes and old photographs. Archives of Donegal were opened to the public there at the turn of the millennium.
A dramatic bronze sculpture of several young children above some steps in Market Square reflect ‘Rabble Days,’ or ‘Hiring Fairs,’ when boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 16 were ‘rented’ for up to six months to wealthy farmers in the Lagan Valley. Hiring fairs ended in the early 1940s.
Among the hard-working volunteers striving to resurrect Letterkenny’s colourful and intriguing past are committee members, Paddy Friel and Laurie McGee, with Amanda Clarke as an experienced tour guide.
“Letterkenny’s Cathedral Quarter symbolises an important aspect of the town’s long history, one that should not only be preserved, but celebrated, and by doing so, provide pride of place to local people and an added attraction for visitors to the region,” said Donnan Harvey.
While visiting the Cathedral Quarter, close, convenient and comfortable accommodation is available at Dillons Hotel, part of the McKeever Group which owns five hotels throughout Ireland.
Reflecting urban chic, a cosy lobby features leather armchairs, plush sofas, bright red and gold carpeting and wood panelling, with plenty of natural light filtering through broad windows. Offering a lively meeting place for people of all kinds, artists, business leaders and families, with live music in its bar and restaurant area, the hotel’s doors open on to main street, a 5-minute walk from the historic district.