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In an earlier blog I wrote about some of the Inishowen families who were from the Cenél nEógain dynasty, the original inhabitants of the peninsula before its conquest by the O'Doherty family from Tír Chonaill in the late 1300s and early 1400s. In this blog, the first in almost a year(!) I would like to take a closer look at one of these Cenél nEógain families, Ó Maolfhábhail, who were kings of Carrickabraghy in north-west Inishowen in early medieval times.

The Ó Maolfhábhail family were a distinguished branch of the Cenél nEógain dynasty and were the head of a related group of families called the Cenél Fergusa. The family ruled the north western section of the Inishowen peninsula and the chieftain of the Ó Maolfhábhails is actually given the title 'King of Carraic Brachaidhe' (Carrickabraghy) in the Annals of Ulster from the late eleventh-century (1082 AD) to the end of the twelfth-century (1199 AD). Not many leaders of a branch of the Cenél nEógain were called kings in the Irish annals so the Ó Maolfhábhail family must have been very high-up in the noble hierarchy of the kingdom of Tyrone during these years. The annals record the deaths of Ó Maolfhábhail kings of Carrickabraghy in the years 1053 (Flaithbertach Ua Maolfhábhail), 1066 (Muirchertach Ua Maolfhábhail), 1082 (Gillachrist Ua Maolfhábhail) and 1103 (Sitric Ua Maolfhábhail). The first two kings have fine typical Cenél nEógain dynasty personal names but Sitric is a Hiberno-Norse or Scandinavian personal name suggesting that north-west Inishowen had trading links with Dublin or the Hebrides during this period.

The year 1166 was a year of crisis for the Cenél nEógain when the high-kingship of Ireland, held by the king of Tyrone Muirchertach McLoughlin collapsed. The Annals of Ulster record that early in this year Muirchertach killed Hugh Ó Maolfhábhail, the king of Carrickabraghy 'in treachery'. Muirchertach McLoughlin had blinded the King of the Ulaid in defiance of powerful guarantees of safety and as a result the nobles and people of Tyrone refused to support their McLoughlin King anymore. Muirchertach may have killed Hugh Ó Maolfhábhail in a failed effort to re-assert his authority in the kingdom of Tyrone. McLoughlin was killed soon-after in east Tyrone when attended by less than twenty followers, an ignominious end to his high-kingship of the island of Ireland.

The last Ó Maolfhábhail king of Carrickabraghy, Cathalan Ua Maolfhábhail, is recorded in the annals as being killed in the year 1199 AD. There continued to be Ó Maolfhábhail chieftains in Inishowen in the early thirteenth-century but they were no longer regarded as kings. The head of the family now bore the title 'Chief of Cenél Fergusa', meaning he was now regarded as the leader of this branch of the Cenél nEógain but no longer as a petty-king among the nobles of the kingdom of Tyrone.

The power of the Ó Maolfhábhail chieftains had a bloody and very violent end in the year 1216 when Trad Ua Maolfhábhail 'chief of Cenél Fergusa, along with his kinsmen' were massacred 'with great havoc' by some Scots that King John I had introduced to the Lough Foyle and Coleraine region. This massacre of the Ó Maolfhábhail in 1216 was so extensive that the power of the family was permanently broken and the family are never mentioned in the Irish annals again.

According to Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh, the modern authority on the O'Doherty conquest and settlement of Inishowen some of the descendants of Toimilin O'Doherty later took control of the north-west Inishowen region where they built a fortress called Carrickabraghy Castle, which obviously took its name from the small kingdom of the Ó Maolfhábhail family. The Ó Maolfhábhail family continued to live on the lands of their former petty-kingdom because some of their descendants continue to live in Inishowen to this day. In the nineteenth century the surname in Inishowen was often anglicized as Mulfaal or even Fall. Sometimes the surname was even anglicized as Lavelle, although this tended to happen more among holders of the surname whose ancestors may have migrated into the province of Connacht over the years. The continuing effects of the massacre of 1216 continued into the early 1600s however, with not one person with the surname being of substantial enough status to be pardoned with Sir Cahir O'Doherty, the overlord of Inishowen in 1602 although many McLoughlins and some O'Dubhdiormas also are recorded.

Nevertheless the history of the Ó Maolfhábhail family is an interesting one and not many families among the Cenél nEógain dynasty could say that their chieftains were kings in their own right for over a century.

Published in Donegal

O'Donnell chieftain with many wives and dozens of children

In late medieval times marriage practices in Gaelic Ireland were often a great deal more lax and easy going than in subsequent centuries. A very good example is Turlough of the Wine (an Fhiona) O'Donnell, who was lord of Tír Chonaill from 1380-1422. The O'Donnell genealogies (see illustration) which date from the sixteenth century with some late additions from the 1660s indicate that Turlough of the Wine had eighteen sons by at least ten women. The names of Turlough's wives which are recorded indicate that he married into the ruling O'Neill family of Tyrone and also took wives from amongst the families of his sub-chieftains in Tír Chonaill, families such as O'Doherty of Inishowen (two wives), O'Boyle of Boylagh, McSweeney Doe and O'Cullinane (all one wife from each family).

As a result many O'Donnells alive today living in County Donegal and indeed all over the world are descended from Turlough of the Wine O'Donnell. However, due to the many wars in medieval and early modern Ireland and the dispossession of the O'Donnell families by the English, most memories and records of genealogical links with this famous chieftain have been lost. However, the story of Turlough of the Wine O'Donnell and his imense family is a very interesting genealogical one.

Published in Genealogy

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