The History of Drumboe

Drumboe Woods entrance
Drumboe Woods entrance

Drumboe woods is situated northwest of the twin towns of Stranorlar and Ballybofey on left of N15 travelling from Stranorlar towards Letterkenny and is in the catchments of the rivers Finn and Deele. The ruins of a large Georgian home and earlier fortification on the same site, known as Drumboe Castle, can still be found in the woods. Drumboe Castle is best known as the location of the execution of the Drumboe Martyrs — four republican soldiers — during the Irish Civil War, in 1923. The large house once had three stories, an impressive bay frontage and large number of rooms and fireplaces. By the twentieth century, the house had fallen into disrepair and it was (mostly!) demolished by the state in 1945.

There is a direct link between Drumboe Woods and Thomas Pakenham, world famous author, tree expert, and Earl of Longford as the Woods were planted by a Pakenham relative.

Emily Pakenham, grand-daughter of the second Earl of Longford, did the work, along with her husband Sir Edmund Hayes who owned Drumboe Castle. The planting took place around the Castle about 1860. It was a magnificent display. Drumboe Woods still abounds in towering Beeches, Pines, Horse Chestnuts, Larches, Limes and Silver Firs from that era, with a Giant Sequoia, Californian Redwood, dominant at the centre.

The story of Drumboe Woods did not begin, or end, with Edmund and Emily Hayes.

The first Drumboe Castle was built just after the Ulster Plantation. It changed hands several times and was destroyed once, before being acquired and rebuilt by William Basil, Oliver Cromwell's Attorney General in Ireland. His descendant Mary Basil married an English doctor, Samuel Hayes, in the late 18th Century.

Even the oldest maps show some patches of woodland around the Castle. The area was strategically important because of the “great Ford of Finn,” used by Red Hugh O'Donnell to cross the river on his way to the Battle of Kinsale.  Armies down the years crossed the Finn at this point – the gravel bank has since been dredged away and only the slope leading to it remains – and it is no surprise that the security-conscious Planters built Drumboe Castle nearby.

The last Hayes heir died in 1912. During the War of Independence, the British Army was quartered at Drumboe Castle, and was succeeded by the Free State Army in 1922. It was the scene of a notorious Civil War mass execution in 1923; to this day, Republicans pay annual homage at the monument erected to the four men who died there.

Drumboe Woods is now an amenity area. It is also the best possible introduction to Irish trees, and even to Irish history, available in the country. Partial loggings in the 20th Century allowed native Irish species to reassert themselves. Recently, too, Coillte have broadened the range even further.

The Woods are packed with both living and non-living relics of the past. Buildings associated with the Castle are still partly intact, and there are stands of Elder, Rhododendron, Laurel, Hazel, and other shrubs associated with human activity.

As one local forester remarks, Drumboe Woods is an outdoor classroom.

Our thanks to Pat Holland for his assistance with this article.

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