St Johnston and Carrigans Donegal



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Mongavlin Castle history

This castle situated about a mile south of St Johnston is about seven miles upstream along the River Foyle from Derry.

Only the keep now remains.  During the last century, the walls of the courtyard which lay between the Foyle and the fortress were still standing and over the arch of the gateway a small stone was engraved with the initials, 'I.S.E.S.T.' bearing the date 1619.  This has unfortunately disappeared since then.  Several scholarly attempts have been made to decipher this inscription but to no avail.

Another inscribed stone has the following: - 'The Hon. Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of John Lord Culpepper, and widow of Colonel James Hamilton (who lost his life at sea in Spain, in the service of his King and country), purchased this manor and annexed it to the opposite estate of the family, which estate itself has improved by her prudent management to nearly the yearly income of the dower she received threout.  She has also settled her younger son, William Hamilton, Esq; in an estate acquired in England, of nearly equal value in the purchase to this, and given every one of her numerous offspring descended from both branches, some considerable mark of her parental care.  Her eldest son, James, Earl of Abercorn and Viscount Strabane, hath caused this inscription to be placed here for the information of her posterity.  Anno 1704.' 

To say she purchased the manor is not correct, as we shall later see.

A few incidents in the castle's history are of particular interest.  In the sixteenth century it was the chief residence of the beautiful Ineen Dubh, daughter of MacDonnell Lord of the Isles and mother of the famous Red Hugh O Donnell, Chief of Tirconaill.  It was said of her that she was, 'excelling in all the qualities that became a woman, yet possessing the heart of a hero and the soul of a soldier."

The State Paper recording her possession reads: "From Cul-Mac-Tryan runs a bogg three myles in length to to the side of Lough Foyle - in the midst of the bogg is a standing Loughe called Bunaber - here at Bunaber dwells O'Donnell's mother (Ineed Dubh MacDonnell).  Three miles above Cargan stands a fort called McGevyvelin (Mongevlin) upon the river of Lough Foyle-O' Donnell's mother's chief house!" 

Being a princess in her own right, she had the privilege of bringing her own personal bodyguard to Mongevlin following her marriage to Red Hugh's father.  She chose 100 of the largest soldiers she could find in Scotland. By a strange coincidence, about eighty of those were named Crawford.  When the castle was abandoned by the O'Donnells, the Crawfords settled in the adjoining district where their descendants are to be found to the present day.

 In 1608, when Sir Cahir O Doherty tried to recapture Derry he sent Sir Niall Garve O Donnell to Lifford to prevent reinforcements reaching the city from that quarter, but Niall Garve had bigger spoils in mind.  He wanted to be close to the scene where the booty was being shared out and Derry offered the best hopes for any persona as avaricious as he.  He turned Ineen Dubh out of Mongevlin and there installed himself to keep a closer watch on affairs in the city.  He sent his men to plunder all the y possibly could but Sir Cahir incensed at this turn of events, evicted Niall Garve from Mongevlin and reinstated the Ineen Dubh.  It was impossible for an establishment so hotly contested among members of the same family to withstand the effects of these quarrels.  Actually in a very short time the castle was abandoned.

On 23rd July 1610, Ludovick Kennedy, Duke of Lennox, was granted the small proportion of Mongevlin containing 1,000 acres and the advowson of the rectory of Taghoylin (Taughboyne) and Letergull, containing another one thousand acres.  Among various other grants he now received was Castleufe (now Drumatoland) with permission to hold a market and weekly fair in St Johnston.  He died without heirs, so the property passed to his brother, Esme, who became Third Duke of Lennox.  Both James and Esme were poisoned.  History does not tell us why, or if anyone was suspected of the crime.  Esme's widow later married James, Second Earl of Abercorn.  Through this matrimonial arrangement, the Mongevlin property passed to the Baronscourt family, not by way of purchase as suggested by the tablet.

In 1619, Captain Pynnar's Survey mentioned the castle, "Sir John Stewart hath 3,000 acres called Cashell Hetin and Littergull.  Upon this proportion there is built, at Magevlin, a very strong castle, with a flanker at each corner".

In a survey around that time, it is reported that "Sir John Stewart Kt hath built a castle of lime and stone on the river of Lough Foyle, 50 feet long and 25 feet broad, and 3 1/2 storeys high, slated and with 4 flankers on the top thereof, and an Iron door portcullis wise.  The principal timber and joists of the floor being of oak are laid but not boarded nor partitions made, the iron grates for the windows being within the castle ready to be set up.  There is a town erected called St John's Town which is intended to be made into a borough town, where there are already 30 thatched houses and cabins inhabited by British whereof there is one stone house thatched and walls of four houses more made of clay and stone 6 feet high.  There is a foundation of a good church of lime and stone in the town, the walls whereof are 12 feet high.  There is also near the town a water and tucking mill and also another mill in the proportion of Lettergull and there is likewise on this proportion 15 stone houses lying dispersedly, whereof some of two stories high and the rest 1 1/2 stories and there is also divers other houses inhabited by Britons."

During the siege of Derry, when Lundy returned to the city he insisted that it should not be defended and many took the same view.  It was decided to bargain with the Jacobite generals about surrender terms.  A delegation for the purpose was sent to St Johnston which included Archdeacon Hamilton.

Obviously it is the ruins of the latter, not those of the O Donnell fortress as it is commonly supposed, that remain to the present day.

By the mid-18th century it was evident this castle of the Abercorns was beginning to show signs of wear.  In a letter dated 28th August 1745 from John McClintock of Strabane to the Earl of Abercorn then in Essex, it is noted, "The roof of the castle of Magavlin is greatly out of repair and John Crawford who is tenant for it refused to repair it.  I don't think he is in a condition to repair the castle or to keep it in repair and if your Lordship is pleased to order the timber of the roofs and floors to be disposed of, there may be something to be got for them which will be lost if they are exposed to the storms of another winter...." (John Crawford was evidently acting as caretaker/tenant and was in no way responsible for the repairs).  The letter concludes "...if it pleases God to send some good weather to get the crop raped and carried home".  (Contemporary pronunciation and local usage underlined).

On 19th September following, in a direct reply to this letter, James, Earl of Abercorn wrote to McClintock, "I shall be very unwilling to pull down Magavlin castle but would rather have you get Andrew Kinneir or some workman to view it and if the expense is not too great I would repair it a little."

Evidently the Earl had a good look at the Castle in the meantime because on 26th of October that year , writing from London to McClintock, he said, "As I think Magavelin Castle cannot be repaired at this season, I believe it will be best to leave the roof on and let it take its chance till  I come into the country."

From this stage onward, vandalism of the Castle was rife.  In a letter dated 28th of August 1746 McClintock writing to the Earl of Abercorn, who was then in Dublin, said, "Concerning removal of lock from the Hall door of the Castle of Magavelin by James Davis, who claimed he had purchased that lock and that he would likewise have the two chimney pieces (mantelpieces) which I stopped him to carry away some years ago."

The Castle does not get a mention in the Abercorn letters again which leads to the suspicion that it was gradually falling into decay and the Hamiltons (Earls of Abercorn) lost all interest in the building with the passing of the Act of Union when the town of St Johnston was disenfranchised.  They saw no benefit in preserving the trappings of aristocracy in that particular area.  The land though, still remained their property and would have been greatly prized because of its situation along the Foyle which, even then, was one of the major fishing rivers in Ireland.  Riparian rights would have been a marketable commodity.  Furthermore, the land was rich, arable, and convenient to their other properties which qualities gave it additional value.

On 20th of April 1758 Nathaniel Nesbit of Lifford agent for the Earl, reported that a fine market was held in St Johnston on 17th and that £100 of green linen unbleached was bought.  He said that the people of the town wanted to hold horseracing and cockfighting but he would not allow it as he didn't want to gather idle people at all into the fair.  He also informed his Lordship that turf cutting at Carrickmore was stopped.

The above account makes no claim to be complete.  However, it is impossible to avoid the comment that the Lennoxes,  and the Abercorns all are gone from the district.  The Crawfords originally and so humbly connected with the castle now remain.  Finally, Joyce in "Irish Names of Places" Vol II page 31 states, "There is a place on the west bank of the Foyle, five miles north of Lifford, called Mongavlin; but it should have been called Moygavlin, for the Irish name, as the Four Masters write it, is Maghgaibhlin, the plain of the little (river) fork; from aaghal (gaval), a fork, diminutive gaibhlin."


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