Ballyshannon Port and Harbour

Ballyshannon grew up as a port entrance to a major Irish river, the Erne, and as a fording place of the same river. It was the equivalent of a crossroads where one of the roads was a river. In earlier times Ballyshannon Port would seem to have enjoyed trade with France and Spain. Emissaries from these countries and from the various popes were able to reach the O'Donnell chieftains in Donegal, and their principal export made the O'Donnells known on the continent as the "Prince of Fishes".

However, ports have often been the entry point of disease; in 1478 the Annals recount that a great plague was imported by a ship entering Ballyshannon port, and this pestilence spread through the nearby counties of Ulster.

Ballyshannon harbour again had a role in military affairs in the 1690 period. When Patrick Sarsfield came north from Connaught to force the passage of the Erne at Belleek and Ballyshannon, he was opposed by Sir James Caldwell, an ardent supporter of King William. The ensuing battle resulted in defeat for Sarsfield's poorly trained and under equipped army. Many escaped through marsh and forest, but the rest were cut down by the cavalry. Between one and two hundred were killed and about 60 sought refuge on Inis Saimer Island in Ballyshannon harbour.

Unfortunately for the development of the town the river falls about 50 metres from Belleek to Ballyshannon. This four-mile section full of rapids could not be navigated and people pressing inland from Ballyshannon had to carry their crafts and goods the intervening four miles to get above the falls of Belleek before resuming their travels. This along with the sand bar at the mouth of the Erne were the two greatest obstacles to the development of Ballyshannon and the Erne as major trading arteries. Although Ballyshannon was not a major emigrant port, local merchant James McGowan's ship "Mayflower" made two trips to America in 1831. Most emigrant vessels left from Sligo, with passengers from Ballyshannon being ferried out past the Bar.

In the surviving Minute Books, held in Donegal County Archives, the Ballyshannon Harbour Commissioners note that some of their pilots and the regulations they operated under. Pilots guided ships in and out of the harbour, and charged rates of 2 shillings and 6pence per foot for all ships inward or outward bound. The regulations for pilots included wearing a cap and badge, and having legible handwriting.
In 1886, the Ballyshannon Harbour Act was passed, and began to be applied in 1887. Commissioners were appointed to positions of supervisory care and management of the area. The Act stated:

"By virtue of the Ballyshannon Harbour Act passed in the year 1886, from and after the 31st day of August 1886, the care and management and maintenance of Harbour of Ballyshannon shall be vested in the Commissioners, and all other works constructed or acquired under the order shall thereafter be maintained, repaired, regulated and improved by the Commissioners under the authority and subject to the provisions of said Act"

But despite many attempts to develop and improve the harbour, it became clear that Ballyshannon was considered risky to shipping. Finally, with the arrival of the railway system to the county, shippers began using the rail link for shipment of their goods through the Port of Derry.

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