The residents of Buncrana were awakened from their beds in the early hours of Wednesday morning by the sound of blaring sirens.
Fire and emergency services were racing to one of the town’s best-known landmarks, the old Swilly Hotel, which had been the home of Flanagan’s Furniture in more recent times and was vacant for the last eight years.
The fire is believed to have broken out around midnight and crews worked through the night to bring the blaze under control. They remained on the scene up until lunchtime yesterday.
There are no reports of any injuries as a result of the blaze, which gardaí in Buncrana are investigating.
Retired Garda Sergeant P.J. O’Hallinan, who witnessed the fire, said: “The flames were going up at least 40 feet and all they could do was contain it from a distance.”
Flanagan’s Furniture owner Brian Flanagan told the Democrat: “It’s the final chapter on a fine building that was put up in the 1860’s.
“When George V and Queen Mary started their Irish tour in 1902, they came into the pier at Buncrana and had their tea in the hotel.
“During the First World War, the entire British fleet was anchored in Lough Swilly. The commander communicated with the ships by flag signals from the Swilly Hotel. It was the first hotel in Donegal to have a heated saltwater swimming pool and with its spectacular views, the hotel was a popular destination for many.
“We always tried to maintain the building in case someone who owned it after us wanted to do anything with it. We tried to get it listed but the experts said it was not regarded as being of special architectural or historic value, which was a pity.
“It’s very difficult to keep vandals out of vacant properties. When we bought it in the first place, it was largely due to the despair of the first owner, as he couldn’t keep the vandals out.
“We managed to keep vandals from destroying the building since we left it in 2005, about eight years ago. Over the years we had it, month after month, we were having to board up and re-board up the place. We even paid money out ourselves since the liquidators came in to have the building locked up, as we were worried about keeping it secure.
“Last summer, there was a spate of burnings around Buncrana, where vacant buildings were targeted and that was an extra cause for concern.
“It’s a real shame that vandalism is so prevalent now. So many vacant properties are in the hands of liquidators or NAMA and they can’t afford to maintain the buildings in such as way as to keep the vandals out. Capital assets around the country are being destroyed by vandals and that’s an impoverishing feature of the present economic situation.”