I also suggested that readers let me know the surnames they were researching and that I would do a few blogs on their general family histories to help them out. Among the replies was one e mail from a reader who indicated that amongst the group of families he was researching were the famous McShanes of Counties Tyrone and Armagh. As this is a very interesting surname with quite an unusual history, I decided to write my next blog on this very distinguished family.
From the start I should perhaps indicate that not all McShanes are descended from the family I am about to discuss. There are probably many quite distinct Irish McShane families descended from various ancestors called Shane or Seán (as it is in Irish) all over Ireland.
The McShanes of Armagh and Tyrone are descended however, from Shane O'Neill one of the most famous of all the O'Neill lords of Tyrone. Nicknamed Shane of the Pride or Ambition, Shane was also often called the Donnelleyan, from his having been fostered by the O'Donnelly family, the Marshals of Tyrone. The McShane surname is quite unusual in an Irish genealogical context because Shane O'Neill lived in the mid sixteenth century (he was assassinated in the year 1567), which is very late for a new Irish surname to be formed. The McShane surname developed due to the fact that Shane O'Neill had many able sons, who were collectively called the McShanes as they strove to recover their father's power and title throughout the remainder of the sixteenth century. The name was probably first used as a convenient nickname but it must have proved popular in the Tyrone of the 1580s and 90s and the name stuck and ended up becoming a surname to distinguish this branch of the ruling O'Neill dynasty of Tyrone. The custom must have been popular because other branches of the ruling O'Neill family also adopted nicknames to identify themselves, some of which also developed into surnames. For example, the sons of Matthew or Ferdoragh O'Neill, Shane's half-brother and rival who was also assassinated (in 1558), began to be called the McBarons (sons of the Baron), as Matthew had had the title Baron of Dungannon during his adult life. This nickname seems particularly to have stuck to the family of one of his sons, Cormac, who was known as Cormac McBaron. His descendants later adopted this surname instead of that of O'Neill. The sons of Cormac's brother, Hugh O'Neill the second earl of Tyrone, and perhaps the greatest of all the O'Neill chieftains, began to be called the Mac an Iarla's~ the sons of the earl, but this nickname does not appear to have stuck and Hugh O'Neill's descendants continued to be called O'Neills.
To return to the McShanes, after the assassination of their father in 1567, many of his sons were taken by their mother Katherine Maclean, to live with her clan, which was centred on the island of Mull in the inner Hebrides off the Scottish coast. As the McShanes returned to Ireland the English administration in Dublin attempted to get its hands on as many of the sons of Shane as it could get hold of, and by 1590 two of Shane O'Neill's sons, Henry and Art were in the prison of Dublin Castle. In the year 1589, Hugh Geimhleach McShane, (Hugh of the Fetters - he must have also been imprisoned at some stage), landed on the north coast of Ulster with nine Scottish galleys full of Maclean mercenaries. Hugh Geimhleach was the most able of all Shane O'Neill's sons and he tried to seize power in Tyrone and follow in his famous father's footsteps as lord of Tyrone. However, Hugh Geimhleach was not as good a politician as his two rivals in Tyrone, his first cousin Hugh O'Neill, the second earl of Tyrone, and his distant relative, Turlough Luineach O'Neill, the Gaelic style lord of West Tyrone. In the year 1590 Hugh O'Neill captured Hugh Geimhleach and had him executed as a plunderer and pillager of his followers in east Tyrone. But Hugh O'Neill experienced great difficulty in having Hugh Geimhleach hanged. Such was the continued respect for his long dead father Shane O'Neill, that Shane's foster-family the O'Donnellys attempted to ransom Hugh Geimhleach with a truly astounding number of horses and cattle. When this failed they forbade any native of Tyrone to have any part in the execution of Hugh Geimhleach. In the end Hugh O'Neill had to hire a hangman from the Pale and the lurid gossip in Tyrone was that he had hanged Hugh Geimhleach with his own bare hands.
Hugh Geimhleach was the most prominent of all the McShanes, but Henry and Art McShane are also well known in Irish history for their participation in Red Hugh O'Donnell's escape from Dublin Castle in January 1592. Henry McShane succeeded in returning to Ulster but Art died of exposure in the Wicklow Mountains near the valley of Glenmalure. The McShanes continued to play a prominent role in Ulster history for the remainder of the 1600s and some of them received small estates in the Plantation of Ulster, where their descendants continued to be recorded in Ulster history throughout the seventeenth century. There are many people called McShane in Ireland today, and while not all of these are descended from the famous Shane O'Neill, there is a good chance that any McShanes who live in east Tyrone, Armagh or closely adjacent areas of Ireland, probably are.