Those interested in the history of medieval Gaelic Ireland will be aware of the remarkable resilience of the main ruling Gaelic Irish families. At the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s the ruling royal Gaelic families were McMurrough in Leinster, O'Brien and McCarthy in Munster, O'Connor in Connacht and the O'Neills and McLoughlins in Ulster. By the end of the period of the Gaelic chieftains after the Battle of Kinsale fought in 1601/02 the McMurrough (Kavanaghs), McCarthys, O'Briens, O'Connors and O'Neills were still the dominant families in their home regions. By 1603 however, the McLoughlins, although they still were a recognised noble family and had a chieftain and two castles, had been reduced to a very minor territory stretching along the eastern shore of the Inishowen peninsula from White Castle to Red Castle (their two fortifications). How did this remarkable decline come about?
Basically it was due to an unfavourable location and very bad luck indeed. Before the Anglo-Norman invasion the McLoughlins were based in fertile western Tyrone, with estates in the good lands of Inishowen lying along the shores of Loughs Swilly and Foyle. The McLoughlins also had strong authority over the many families based in the region such as the O'Carolans and McGettigans of Clann Diarmada, the Ó Duibhdhíormas and O'Mulfalls of eastern and western Inishowen and the McGarveys, O'Lappins, O'Donnellys, O'Petans and O'Lavertys of the further fertile lands stretching towards Raphoe and Lifford. Very importantly the McLoughlin kings also had control of the famous monastery at Derry which was a great centre of Irish civilisation in the twelfth-century with famous reforming clerics and major building programmes.
As a result it is no surprise that the family produced two highly successful kings during the twelfth century. The first Donal McLoughlin, who died in the year 1121 was a great warrior. He successfully avoided the attempts made by Muirchertach O'Brien, the king of Munster and great-grandson of Brian Boru, to become effective king of all Ireland. In 1103 McLoughlin even succeeded in humiliating O'Brien by capturing his camp, campaign tent and standard during a surprise attack near Armagh while O'Brien was off campaigning elsewhere.
Donal's grandson Muirchertach McLoughlin was actually high-king of Ireland (with opposition) for the years 1156 to 1166. I had thought that Muirchertach McLoughlin was an evil and needlessly violent high-king but I have revised my opinion of him into a great and highly energetic warrior. Something happened in the year 1166 however and Muirchertach was abandoned by most of his people. He was then killed by forces from Oriel and Breifne who had marched into Tyrone to bring McLoughlin to justice for the crime of having blinded McDunlevy the king of the Ulaid. I think however that Rory O'Connor the king of Connacht and soon to be all powerful high-king of the entire island engineered this revolt against McLoughlin in early 1166 and Muirchertach's violent actions (that were really out of character) were a desperate attempt on his part to save his high-kingship.
Rory O'Connor soon attempted to weaken the Cenél nEógain kingdom by dividing Tyrone in two between the McLoughlin and O'Neill families. The McLoughlins were to have Inishowen and Derry and any other Cenél nEógain lands north of the Sperrin Mountains. The O'Neills were to have Tullaghoge and Armagh and all the Cenél nEógain land to the east. O'Connor's great power was not to last. He proved incapable of dealing with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland and lost the high-kingship of Ireland to King Henry II of England and the Anegevin empire, although he did manage to keep the invaders out of Connacht and the town of Limerick during his lifetime.
The leadership of the Cenél nEógain at this time was taken by an able McLoughlin king called Melaghlin, who was a son of Muirchertach the deceased high-king. In 1176 Melaghlin led the army of Tyrone and their allies to Slane in Meath where his soldiers stormed the castle built by the Anglo-Norman invader Richard Fleming. Fleming and over one hundred of his knights and followers were killed. Indeed the Annals of the Four Masters state 'not one individual escaped with his life from the castle'. Three further Anglo-Norman castles in the region 'were left desolate in Meath on the following day, through fear of the Cenél nEógain'. Melaghlin's army met disaster at the hands of the Anglo-Normans in 1177/78 when the famous John de Courcey inflicted a major defeat on the army of Tyrone at Downpatrick in east Ulster. The Cenél nEógain had put their faith in the holy relics of the north of Ireland when seven major treasures were carried before the northern army. The holy relics were no match for de Courcey's archers however and the Tyrone men were put to flight 'without even striking a blow'. [The Irish were cut down by the Anglo-Norman archers before they even reached the Anglo-Norman battle line]. Melaghlin McLoughlin lost the O'Carolan, O'Laverty, O'Donnelly, O'Hamill and McCartan chieftains in this battle as well as all the 'young keepers' of the relics who 'were killed'. McLoughlin was soon after challenged by Hugh 'an Macaemh Toinleasc' O'Neill for the kingship of Tyrone but managed to kill O'Neill soon afterwards in a battle near Armagh although Melaghlin's own son Ardgal McLoughlin also fell in the fighting. King Melaghlin McLoughlin of Tyrone was 'slain by the foreigners' in 1185 AD.
It was after Melaghlin McLoughlin's death that the unfortunate geographical location of the McLoughlin power-base ultimately led to their decline. Derry and the fertile lowlands around Inishowen while they may have been the jewel in the crown of Tyrone in pre-Anglo-Norman times became an exposed target afterwards. John de Courcey once firmly established east of the Bann in the earldom of Ulster launched a number of destructive raids on the Derry region in the years after 1177. In 1182 the Anglo-Normans of Ulster defeated the Cenél nEógain in a pitched battle at Dunbo and in another fought near Armagh in 1188 where Donal son of Hugh McLoughlin the king of Tyrone was killed.
The series of defeats of the McLoughlin kings by the Anglo-Normans led to turmoil in Tyrone. In 1186 Rory O'Laverty 'was elected by some of the Cenél nEogain' as king of Tyrone, although he was killed soon after in 1187 while raiding in Donegal. This turmoil also led to the rise to major prominence of the O'Neills of eastern Tyrone. The O'Neills were much better placed than the McLoughlins in that they could easily retreat into the forested mountain fastnesses of the Sperrin Mountains to avoid invading Anglo-Norman armies. The family also produced one of the greatest native kings of the era, another Hugh O'Neill, who seems to have invented Irish guerilla warfare against the up-till-then all conquering Anglo-Norman invaders. When an Anglo-Norman army invaded eastern Tyrone O'Neill and his soldiers simply disappeared into the mountains and forests, to emerge and harass the invaders when they had marched far into Tyrone and set up camps that were easy to isolate and attack. As a result O'Neill's power began to grow and spread north of the Sperrins. It seems clear that during this period the important O'Gormley and O'Cahan families began to back the O'Neill family in the struggle with the McLoughlins for supremacy in Tyrone. Indeed in 1196 Muirchertach McLoughlin, the king of Tyrone and another son of the late high-king was assassinated at a meeting of the council of the Cenél nEógain in Armagh by Blosky O'Cahan, a follower of the O'Cahan chieftain and Hugh O'Neill.
Some of the McLoughlins appear to have fled to the Anglo-Normans following this assassination to escape the power of Hugh O'Neill. In 1197 the son of Argal McLoughlin was killed in Clann Diarmada while accompanying one of John de Courcey's raids on Derry. In 1197-98 de Courcey spent extended periods in Derry and may have been seizing up the suitability of the great monastery as the site for an Anglo-Norman town. Hugh O'Neill was by now the dominant power in the region and he saw off the threat from de Courcey who was eventually destroyed by King John of England. By the time of John's campaign in Ireland in 1210 Hugh O'Neill was so powerful that he was able to tell the English king to get lost and to stop asking for hostages from Tyrone. Hugh O'Neill continued to rule as king of Tyrone until his death in the year 1230. In recording this the Annals of the Four Masters made a very complimentary comment that O'Neill died a natural death 'although it was never supposed that he would die in any other way than to fall by the foreigners'.
To lessen O'Neill's power King John granted Derry and the surrounding coastal lands to some Scottish earls who were allied to him. This only served to make Hugh O'Neill even more secure as these lands belonged to his McLoughlin rivals. In 1221 Hugh O'Neill drove out the Scots when he destroyed the castle they had built at Coleraine. With the death of Hugh O'Neill in 1230 the McLoughlins made what was to prove to be their last attempt to secure the kingship of Tyrone and to be fair they gave it a very good go. The family was now led by Donal McLoughlin and he appears to have had the support of the Anglo-Normans of the earldom of Ulster. By 1232 McLoughlin was recognised as king of Tyrone and he began to raid northern Tír Chonaill. In 1234 McLoughlin succeeded in killing Hugh O'Neill's son Donal and in 1239 he defeated a force of O'Neills, O'Gormleys and McMahons at a battle fought at Carnteel near Aughnacloy in Co. Tyrone.
Disaster struck in the year 1241. Readers of my blog and family history are by now familiar with the Battle of Caimeirge, fought near Maghera in Co. Derry this year. What seems to have happened is that McLoughlin made a major effort to finally defeat the O'Neills, now led by Hugh O'Neill's nephew Brian. All went well and the McLoughlins cornered the O'Neills at Maghera. However, possibly unknown to Donal McLoughlin Brian O'Neill had sought assistance from Melaghlin O'Donnell the king of Tír Chonaill who turned up at Caimeirge with the army of Tír Chonaill. This left the McLoughlins and their army hopelessly outnumbered. If the O'Donnells attacked from cover after first letting the McLoughlins and O'Neills fight it out for a while this would explain the catastrophic end result whereby 'Donal McLoughlin, Lord of Cenél nEógain, and ten of his derbhfine (close family), together with all the chieftains of the Cenél nEógain' were slain.
This massive defeat must have killed most of the McLoughlin nobles of fighting age and it was left to their womenfolk to salvage something for the family. This they ably did by marrying Donal McLoughlin's daughter Cecilia to Brian O'Neill. The marriage alliance preserved the power of the McLoughlin family in the Inishowen peninsula at least but their time as contenders for the kingship of Tyrone was over. In 1260 the chieftain Dermot McLoughlin was killed along with Brian O'Neill by the Anglo-Normans at the Battle of Downpatrick. The building of a major Anglo-Norman castle at Newcastle in Inishowen in the year 1305 by the Red Earl of Ulster may have weakened the hold of the McLoughlins over Inishowen but in the 1320s Michael McLoughlin was bishop of Derry and the earldom of Ulster collapsed in 1333 with the murder of the Brown Earl and Newcastle subsequently fell into Irish hands. In the year 1375 the Annals of the Four Masters record the death of John McLoughlin 'Chief of his own tribe' and I believe that up to this time the McLoughlins were still lords of Inishowen. However, from 1380 to the early 1420s there was a powerful Lord of Tír Chonaill, Turlough an Fhiona 'of the wine' O'Donnell. The Annals of the Four Masters record that in 1380 he won 'a great victory' over his O'Donnell rivals, and the O'Doherty and McSweeney families and I believe that during his long reign Turlough an Fhiona forced the O'Dohertys to exchange their Glenswilly homeland for new and greater estates in Inishowen. The McLoughlins were not totally dispossessed and were left in possession of the small area of Lough Foyle coastline that I have previously mentioned.
I hope readers have enjoyed this blog. It is a bit long but it is something that was puzzling me for a long time but now I believe that I have managed to sort the order of events out! This may be my last blog for a while as I now have to think up a new series of interesting topics.
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.