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Historically in Gaelic Ireland, families retained their surnames over the centuries unchanged. The O'Donnell or O'Neill lords of Tír Chonaill and Tyrone were still called O'Donnells and O'Neills four centuries later. Occasionally surnames changed slightly or were confused such as the manner in how the McLoughlin family of Tyrone are sometimes recorded as O'Loughlins in some sources. From time to time a branch of a major surname could also sometimes adopt a unique surname for a period, such as the McShanes, the sons of Shane O'Neill, the lord of Tyrone who was killed in 1567, did in the latter years of the sixteenth century.

It is often forgotten in the study of the history of Irish families in Medieval and Early Modern times that while some families and clans remained in the same localities for hundreds of years and may even today predominate in certain areas of Ireland, many other Gaelic and Anglo-Norman families spread out and travelled widely. The best example is obviously the massive settlement of people of Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, or Welsh and Breton origin in mostly eastern areas of Ireland following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland after 1170 AD. But native Gaelic Irish families moved as well. The Anglo-Normans drove the O'Toole and O'Byrne families of the plains of Kildare into the Wicklow Mountains while during the course of the twelfth century famous Munster Gaelic families such as the McCarthys, O'Sullivans and O'Callaghans started off in the Cashel area of modern Co. Tipperary, being driven off to Cork City by the O'Briens and then further into the wilds of west Munster by the Anglo-Normans, where most McCarthys and O'Sullivans in Ireland are found today.

In a previous blog I wrote on the McCabe family I mentioned the spread of heavily armed mercenaries from Gaelic Scotland into the Gaelic Irish lordships in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One of the most famous galloglass families were the McSweeneys who extensively colonized the western seaboard of Co. Donegal or the lordship of Tír Chonaill as the area was known in medieval and early modern times. The McSweeneys became essential to the survival and prospering of the O'Donnell lordship of Tír Chonaill, the family being to the fore in very many O'Donnell victories over their enemies, particluarly their hereditiary enemies, the O'Neills of Tyrone. However, it is often forgotten that in the late fifteenth century and throughout the sixteenth century the population of McSweeneys in Tír Chonaill began to grow and ambitious junior members of the family set off with companies of galloglasses to seek fame and fortune in the more southern provinces of Ireland. Companies of McSweeneys were  hired by many of the major Connacht families, particularly the powerful Burkes of Clanrickard, and a McSweeney constable and his company of warriors also began to serve another powerful Gaelic lord in this region, O'Brien, lord of Thomond. However, it is the McSweeneys who went even further south to serve the various McCarthy chieftains in Gaelic Desmond, who I would like to discuss in this blog.

McCarthy Mór was the senior west Munster dynasty claiming to be Princes of Gaelic Desmond. McSweeney galloglass constables were prominent on both sides of a violent civil war which broke out amongst the McCarthy Mór nobles in the early sixteenth century. In 1508 Donal the McCarthy Mór died and a very bloody struggle for power ensued between his son Tadhg and brother Cormac Ladhrach. The annals say the fighting was so bad that the 'destruction of people' came from the McCarthy civil war 'for upwards of three hundred and sixty persons fell between them'. In 1513 Tadhg launched 'a treacherous attack' on a house Cormac Ladhrach was staying in, burning it to the ground. However, Cormac 'and his constable made their way out of the house, and slew Tadhg's constable'. When Tadhg died in his bed in 1514 the Gaelic annalists were astounded for they believed such a quiet death 'was not expected, he being a man who had destroyed more, and about whom more had been destroyed, than any that came of his tribe, within the memory of man'. Obviously Tadhg McCarthy was not a man to cross!

While serving the McCarthy clans, the McSweeneys of Munster became mortal enemies of and started a vicious fued with the galloglass constables of the Fitzgeralds of Anglo-Norman Desmond, the famous McSheehy family. The McSheehys were a powerful galloglass family who served the Earls of Desmond and they fought deadly encounters with their McSweeney rivals all over south and west Munster. For example in 1535 the McAuliffe chieftain of north Cork 'gained a great battle' over some cadet Fitzgerald lords 'in which were slain ... a large battalion of the Clan Sheehy'. On the side of the Gaelic army 'Mulmurry, son of Brian McSweeney, was slain in the commencement and fury of the conflict'. In the year 1560 two Fitzgerald nobles raided the McCarthy Reagh lordship of Carbry in west Cork. McCarthy Reagh's son Donough gathered his army which included 'a company of fine select galloglasses', commanded by a Turlough son of Mulmurry McSweeney, who was descended from the McSweeneys of Doe in Co. Donegal. The Fitzgeralds were defeated in a fierce encounter fought at Inishannon on the river Bandon in which over 200 Geraldine soldiers were killed. The fighting in this battle was so vicious that Turlough McSweeney 'lost a leg and an arm, so that he was supported only by a wooden leg from that time until his death'. As a result of his injuries this McSweeney was known as 'Turlough of the Wooden Leg' for the rest of his life'. He was killed in the gateway of the city of Cork in 1579.

An incident recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1568 illustrates the professional rivalry between the McSweeney and McSheehy galloglass families. Lord Fitzmaurice of Kerry, a prominent adherent of the Earl of Desmond decided to rebel and end the Earl's overlordship over his territory which was in north Kerry. In 1568 the Earl's General, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald laid siege to Lord Fitzmaurice in his town of Lixnaw. Lord Fitzmaurice had a company of McSweeneys, again descended from McSweeney Doe, commanded by an Edmond son of Giolladubh McSweeney who 'was constable to Fitzmaurice at this time'. However McSweeney only had about fifty warriors with him as their period of service with Lord Fitzmaurice was up and the McSweeney galloglasses had begun to disperse. However, the Annals of the Four Masters record that Edmond McSweeney decided to stay with Lord Fitzmaurice with what ever soldiers were still at hand as 'they did not think it honourable to depart from Fitzmaurice, as this danger had overtaken him'. One night the McSweeneys urged Lord Fitzmaurice to 'attack the Clan Sheehy, for against them our enmity and indignation are greatest'. As a result an attack was made on the McSheehy part of the besiegers' camp with 'the Clan Sweeney ... placed in the van to make the onset'. The Annals of the Four Masters record that 'both parties made trial of the temper of their sharp spears, the strength of their battle-axes, the keeness of their swords, and the hardness of their helmets'. In this bitter fighting the McSweeneys killed Edmond Óg McSheehy, 'Chief Constable to the Geraldines, a wealthy and affluent man'. Murrough Balbh McSheehy was also killed and his brother Rory McSheehy captured.

In 1574 the McSheehys had some revenge when the Earl of Desmond defeated McCarthy Mór in battle and 'A young constable of the gentlemen of Clan Sweeney, namely, one of the sons of Donugh Bacach [was] slain'. As English power grew in the province of Munster, with the crushing of the rebellion of the last earl of Desmond, both the McSheehy and McSweeney galloglass families were targeted by the English authorities as dangerous elements of Munster Gaelic society to be eliminated. In 1576 the English executed 'two noble and valiant young constables of the descendants of Mulmurry son of Donough [McSweeney]', and in 1579 at the battle of Monasterernagh, a battle which broke the military power of the Earldom of Desmond, Owen son of Edmond Óg McSheehy, 'and a great number of the constables of the Clan Sheehy', were killed. When the Earl of Desmond was finally cornered and killed by the English near Tralee in 1583, Murrough Bacach McSheehy, died shortly afterwards and the annals recorded that 'some say that it was of greif for him [the earl of Desmond] he died'. By the 1580s 'a company of galloglasses of the McSheehys, who were the surviving remnant and remains of the slaughter of the galloglass of the Geraldines', were serving O'Rourke, the lord of Breifne (modern Co. Leitrim). At around the same time 'a company of soldiers, a party of the McSweeneys of Munster', were serving Turlough Luineach O'Neill, the Lord of Tyrone.

The records in the annals and English state papers for the last decades of the sixteeth century are sad reading for the end of the famous galloglass families of Munster. Wealthy, noble and accomplished, they were targeted by the English for expulsion or destruction. However, the story of the McSweeney galloglass families of Munster in particular, for the sixteenth century are also an excellent example of how a Gaelic family could spread from a home area in Tír Chonaill, to seek employment as mercenaries in the southern provinces of Ireland. To this day there are many McSweeneys living in Munster. They are living evidence of important migratory trends in early modern Ireland. 


With President Barack Obama's visit to Ireland soon it may be time for a topical blog on some other Irishmen who became heads of Foreign States.

Famous examples from the twentieth century are well known - the visit of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy to Ireland in June 1963 was a very important event for Independent Ireland. In more recent times Paul Keating, the Prime Minister of Australia, also paid Ireland a state visit.

On Good Friday 23rd April 1014 a major and very hard fought battle was fought north of the Hiberno-Norse city of Dublin, on the level plain of Clontarf. On one side was King Brian Boru, king of Munster and High-King of Ireland, with the forces of his province and a few allies, and on the other a coalition of Dublin and Leinster rebels with Scandinavian warriors from the islands of Orkney and Man, led by Sigurd Hlodvisson, the jarl of Orkney.

Thursday, 07 April 2011 20:22

The Irish of South America

Written by Darren McGettigan

While most Irish emigration over recent centuries has been to areas of what is now the English speaking world - the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there was also substantial emigration to Spanish speaking areas, not only in the early modern period but also during the nineteenth century. Until recently this aspect of the Irish diaspora may have been relatively neglected by historians and genealogists, but this is a situation which is now being rectified in a big way. Many history books have been published recently dealing with the Irish who emigrated to Spain and to what is now the Spanish speaking world.

The Annals of the Four Masters (also often known as the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland), is one of the most important collections of Irish annals, written at the Franciscan house at Bundrowes in south County Donegal in the 1630s. These annals can also be a great genealogical resource as they record the deaths and very often the major events in the lives of thousands of medieval Gaelic Irish chieftains and kings, and often their wives and children and most important followers also.

Friday, 25 March 2011 12:33

The McCabe Galloglass Family

Written by Darren McGettigan

The arrival of well armed mercenaries (gallóglaigh ~ foreign warriors), to Ireland from the Gaelic Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the late medieval period, greatly contributed to the growth in the military power of the major Gaelic Irish chieftains who could afford to hire a galloglass constable with his company of warriors and reward them with grants of land and many other priviledges.

Thursday, 10 February 2011 19:29

Wild Geese of the Tsars

Written by Darren McGettigan

By the 1700s most Irishmen who left the island to serve as soldiers in the armies of continental Europe joined the Irish Brigade in the French Royal army. After the French army the next most popular destinations for Irish mercenaries were the armies of Spain and Austria. From 1750 service in the British army also became popular. However, throughout the eighteenth century a handful of determined and indeed talented Irish soldiers make the long and arduous journey east to join the Russian army and serve the Tsars.

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