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St. Connell’s Museum & Heritage Centre

History of its Foundation and Development
Compiled by Danny Boyle

As a result of a local historical study by a small group of people interested in the history, customs and traditions of the parish of Inniskeel, they were invited to present a programme on RTE’s Community Radio when it Visited Glenties in August of 1982. From that programme the idea was mooted that as there was so much local historical information available it should be preserved in a permanent way.

Arising from that a meeting was held in the Market Hall, Glenties, on 1st August, 1983, with the following persons in attendance: –
Mary Campbell, Nora Breslin, Mannix Boyle, Eugene Boyle, Liam Briody and Danny Boyle.
The first Officer – Board appointed was:

Mary Campbell —– Chairperson
Mannix Boyle —– Secretary
Nora Breslin & Liam Briody —– Joint-Treasurers.

Those officers with, Eugene Boyle, and Danny Boyle, were the founding members of the new Centre.
The decision was taken to set up a museum to keep safe from loss the historical information at hand as well as the many artefacts, which were available and suitable for display.
It was agreed that the Centre would cater for an area covering a large section of South-West Donegal.
They immediately took steps to lease from the Donegal County Council a portion of the local Courthouse which was considered to be a suitable location for the project..


In the 1973 publication, “Court Houses and Market Houses of the Province of Ulster”, by CEB Brett the author states that “unusually for the small townships of West-Donegal Glenties has both a Market blouse and a Courthouse”.

He continues: –

“The courthouse is surprisingly sophisticated. It is a variant on William Caldbeck’s standard design, of five bays and two storeys, with hipped roof, built over a basement containing the bride well cells. The two end bays project, and the roof over sails the central bays. In the upper storey are five large round-headed windows, set in recesses and plain round-headed architraves, with their original glazing; the doors are set between simplified pilasters supporting pediment-shaped heads. The eaves have square modillions; the imposing chimneys form an integral part of the composition. The quality of the stonework is uncommonly high throughout. The original courtroom furnishings, including high box-pews, remain quite unaltered.”

“This building was the cause of acrimony between the Grand Jury and the Lord Lieutenant. The Grand Jury considered it “unnecessary and inexpedient” in view of the propinquity of the new courthouse at Donegal; His Excellency differed, and directed them to build it, at a cost of £900. This sum they resolutely refused to vote, on the advice of their Surveyor, who suggested that £650 would be more than adequate. After an exchange of stiff memoranda and resolutions the Grand Jury was constrained, with very poor grace, to give way. The building was in fact completed in 1843.
The Grand Jurymen of Co. Donegal were as parsimonious as they were stiff- necked”

This Courthouse has never been physically altered since it was first opened and is now a very valuable built-heritage in South-West Donegal. The authenticity and the antiquity of this room preserves the integrity of Irish courts from the last century.
It was this that attracted the Producers of the film serial “The Hanging Gale” to the Courthouse. They had searched the County for such a building and on discovering Glenties found a Courtroom which generated the necessary atmosphere and where the set was more than a facade.

The Courtroom and the basement including the Bridewell Cells, continue to be part of the Museum’s exhibition

Down the years many people have passed through the doors of the Courthouse with fear and trepidation, some without hope, but those coming to view this place now – a – days are assured of a friendly and hospitable welcome.
Inside the main door is the, Courtroom which after over 150 years has settled down to lie grimly untouched over its gruesome basement.

It was Goldsmith who once said “that laws grind the poor and rich men rule the law.”
That was only too true in the early years of this buildings existence.
Like the poor woman in the aftermath of the Great Famine who stole, the loaves of bread to feed her starving children. It was in this Courtroom that she suffered the harsh sentence of separation from her children. Reprieved at the last moment she was much more fortunate than the men who stole the sheep belonging to the local landlord. Transported to Van Diemans Land. But they weren’t so unlucky after all, because when they left their so called convict days behind them they went on to become prominent and very successful citizens of that new world.

If this Courtroom could only talk what stories it could tell about man’s inhumanity, particularly in, the dreadful early years of its existence.

In those early years the Magistrate’s writ was largely in favour of the Landlord and the other well to do. Power was on their side, but power without justice is always tyranny, and that was what the people suffered under in the second half of the last century.

From it’s opening over 150 years ago until the Treaty in 1921 a contingent of the British Army kept guard at Glenties Courthouse.
This was the environment in which Padraig Pearse, leader of the Easter week Rebellion, found himself when in 1912 he defended a local farmer who was charged for displaying his name in Irish on his cart.

When a prisoner was found guilty he or she was taken down stairs to be lodged in an uninviting iron-door cell in the basement.

The British Army evacuated the Courthouse after the Treaty was signed and was replaced by a contingent from the new Free State Army.
Their biggest task was to guard the large number of Republican prisoners held in Glenties Jail until the end of the Civil War.

Those Bridewell cells were never again used as a holding centre for prisoners, but proved and continue to prove to be a great attraction for visitors to the Museum and Heritage Centre.


At this stage it was decided to enlarge the Committee and a further ten persons were invited to join.
Thomas Gildea and John Gallagher became members on 27th August 1983. Larry Lonergan joined on 15th May 1984.
Hugo Mc Dyer, Paddy O’Donnell, Packie Boyle, John Timoney and Foncie O’Donnell, became members on 12th January 1985. At a later meeting in January John Me Loone joined.

At a meeting on 5th January, 1985, the following were appointed as official Trustees to the Centre: –
John Gallagher, Eugene Boyle, Thomas Gildea, Mannix Boyle, Mary Campbell and Danny Boyle.

An enormous amount of work was accomplished by the members in repairing the building, constructing furniture, cleaning artefacts, and mounting exhibits.
All this work was done on a voluntary basis and the Committee prides itself on the fact that it continues to be a voluntary body.

In view of the direction which the project was taken it was agreed that the apt name for it should be “St. Connell’s Museum & Heritage Centre”. St. Connell being patron saint of the Parish of Inniskeel.


The committee was now able to turn its attention to the collection of suitable items for exhibition and the members were surprised at the generosity of the people who donated so many items of great interest. Some of the organisers had personal collections of great historical value and those provided the foundation around which exhibitions were formed.
The personal collections consisted of Donegal Railways memorabilia and artefacts; and material concerning the great poverty of the last century including memorabilia and artefacts from the old Glentie
s Workhouse. Those collections got the Centre off to a flying start but are only a small portion of an array which has been amassed from nearly every home over a wide area.

The Centre opened its doors to the general public at 7 p.m. on Friday 15th August,1986.

Lack of space was preventing the display of much valuable material and steps had to be taken to provide more rooms for the presentation of further exhibitions.
As a result the members of the Committee arranged for the purchase of the, site adjoining the Courthouse, which was currently in use as a handball alley by a local club. The club was anxious to vacate this site as they had plans to transfer their handball activities to their own complex outside of town.
After procuring this site application was made through the County Council for a grant to build a purpose built Museum and this was obtained from the E.E.C. Structural Fund. The amount of the grant was £ 90,000 and 25% had to be contributed by the local committee. A grant of £10,000 was got from the National Lottery.

Antoin Mac Gabhann, B. Arch., M.R.I.A.I., Letterkenny, was appointed as the Architect and after consultation with the Centre’s committee he drew up the plans of the new building. Those were, approved in course and the architect then advertised and invited tenders for the building of the new museum. Mr. Frank Connaghan, Contractor, of Glenties won the contract and shortly afterwards building commenced.
The building was completed in 1991.

The museum committee now had a new building on their hands but it was essential to fit it out properly. It was evident that this was also going to prove, to be an expensive part of the development.

Then tragedy struck with the unexpected death of the Centre’s Secretary. Mannix Boyle had been one of the principal driving forces behind the, founding of the Museum and, indeed, in some of the bad early days it was he who kept the ideal alive when nearly everyone else had tired and would have given up on it. Truly he did a remarkable administrative job in his position as Secretary, and it is fitting that his memory is fondly kept by means of the engraved plaque on permanent display in the Local Study Room on the top floor of the New- Building
Mannix died in May 1993.

During its short enough lifetime the committee had a very close and friendly association with a small number of cross-border Heritage Centres, including The, Transport and Folk Museum, Cultra, Co. Down, and the Derry City Museum. The committee was encouraged to apply for financial assistance from the Joint Interreg Programme for Northern Ireland and Ireland (1991-1993), and because of the cross-border relationship it was successful in obtaining grant- aid of £89,000; of course 25% of this figure had to be a local contribution. The new building was opened as a visitor facility in the 1993 Season.

In order to qualify for the Interreg grant it was necessary for the Centre to become a legal entity. For that reason the Committee became registered as a co-operative under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act.
It was officially registered by the Registrar of Friendly Societies on 23rd July, 1993, as ” St. Connell’s Museum & Heritage Centre Society Ltd. The officers of the Co-op. are as follows:-
Chairperson ——– Liam Briody
Vice – Chairperson ——– Nora Breslin
Treasurer ———- Eugene Boyle Secretary ———- Danny Boyle.
The membership of the new Co-op. was as under:-
Nora Quinn, John Timoney, John Me Loone, Jimmy Fletcher, Packie Boyle, Charlie Ward, Hugo Mc Dyer, Richard Me Cafferty, Paddy O’ Donnell, Foncie O’Donnell, Gerry Boyle ; with the members of the Officer Board

Since the preparation of this report it is with great sadness that we note with the deepest regret the deaths of two of our most outstanding members, Jimmy Fletcher and Foncie O’ Donnell. Both of them are greatly missed

Note that the Courtroom continues to be used for District Court purposes. Monthly Courts are held with the exception of July and August i.e. 10 courts in the year. The Courtroom is used as part of the Museum exhibitions on all other days.


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