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.
Donegal people sometimes have heated debates about officially changing the name of their county to Tír Chonaill. Many inhabitants of the county who are very proud of their local history wonder why the name is not easily changed while others, probably a minority (but a sizeable one), point out that the peninsula of Inishowen and the flat lands around Lifford were not part of historical Tír Chonaill and so the county name should remain Donegal. The answer to this question is that both arguments are correct, depending on what period of history people are interested in. In medieval times up until around the year 1350 AD Inishowen and the plains to the south were actually part of the lordship of Tyrone. Inishowen (from Irish Inis Eógain or Eoghan's Island), was actually the original territory of the Cenél nEógain people before they struck out across Lough Foyle in medieval times to gradually conquer the modern counties of Derry, Tyrone and Armagh from the original Ulster people who were dispossessed and corralled east of Lough Neagh and the river Bann. However, after the year 1350 the Cenél Conaill family of O'Doherty conquered the Inishowen peninsula and as sub-chieftains of the O'Donnell lords of Tír Chonaill, the Inishowen peninsula did indeed become an integral part of the early modern lordship of Tír Chonaill. As an early modern historian I would naturally enough like the county name to be changed to Tír Chonaill, but can understand why others prefer things to stay as they were, although I do think these people like to conveniently ignore the O'Doherty conquest of Inishowen for the Cenél Conaill.