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In this my first blog for quite a while I would like to talk about some of the less well-known Gaelic Irish families of the medieval lordship of Tír Chonaill (now called Co. Donegal). These are the families of O'Mulgeehy (Ó Maolghaoithe), O'Farren (Ó Furadhrán), O'Breslin (Ó Breasláin), McGarvey (Mac Gairbhith) and O'Murray (Ó Muireadhaigh).

To begin with the O'Mulgeehys, O'Breslins and O'Farrens - these three families were native to Co. Donegal and in medieval times were situated in the north-west of the lordship of Tír Chonaill. The O'Mulgeehys were known as Mhuintir Uí Mhaoilghaoithe 'the people of O'Mulgeehy'. In the year 1284 they are recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters for killing Dubhgall O'Boyle the Lord of Cloghineely. The O'Mulgeehy family are not recorded in the Irish annals again but by the time of the Plantation of Ulster in 1610 the family were still erenaghs of one quarter of land in the parish of Clondahorky, where they paid annual rents to the Bishop of Raphoe.

In medieval times the O'Farrens were lords of 'Fionnrus', now the Rosses area of west Co. Donegal. The family are not recorded in the annals but they are mentioned in the famous topograhpical poem of Ireland by the Gaelic poet Seaán Mór Ó Dubhagán who died in the year 1372. Although the O'Farren's are not recorded in the annals, a Gaelic noble called Brian O'Farren was pardoned by the English in March 1601 as part of Niall Garbh O'Donnell's (the Lord of Glenfinn) retinue.

The O'Breslins were a very prominent family in early medieval Donegal, members of the family being recorded as Lords of the Fanad peninsula from the 1180s to the early 1260s. Prominent O'Breslin chieftains include Conn O'Breslin, who when he was killed in 1186 by the McLoughlins of Tyrone was referred to in the annals as 'Chief of Fanad, the lamp of the hospitality and valour of the north of Ireland'. In 1261 there was a massacre of Tír Chonaill clergy at Derry by a Tyrone noble called Conor O'Neill. It was Donn O'Breslin the 'Chief of Fanad' who led the Tír Chonaill forces that killed O'Neill soon after in revenge. Donn O'Breslin the Lord of Fanad was assassinated in the Bishop's Palace at Raphoe by Donal Óg O'Donnell the king of Tír Chonaill in 1263. Donal Óg O'Donnell who was the most powerful Gaelic king in the north in the decades after the Battle of Downpatrick (fought in 1260 AD) may have attempted to dispossess the O'Breslins from their estates in Fanad. By 1281, when Donal Óg was killed by a pro-Anglo-Norman faction of the O'Neills of Tyrone at a battle fought at Disert-da-chrioch near Dungannon, an O'Donnell noble called Cormac son of the Ferleighin O'Donnell who was also killed in the battle, is referred to as 'Chief of Fanad'. Another enemy of the O'Breslins, Ceallach 'the Stammering' O'Boyle who murdered Gilchreest O'Breslin 'Chief of Fanad, and his brother', was also killed at the battle of Disert-da-chrioch. The elimination of these local rivals and a seemingly hostile O'Donnell lord of Tír Chonaill may have allowed the O'Breslins to temporarily regain control of Fanad. This would then explain the memories of the destruction of the O'Breslin family by the first McSweeney galloglasses to arrive in Tír Chonaill, an account of which is preserved in the traditional history of the McSweeneys of Fanad compiled in the early sixteenth century.

The O'Breslins survived in Tír Chonaill as a noble and respected family however. Along with their neighbours the O'Boyles, the O'Breslins migrated to the wilds of south-west Tír Chonaill, where they became the most important erenagh family at the major ecclesiastical site at Inishkeel. Brian O'Breslin the chief of the family around the year 1600 was a staunch adherent of the famous lord of Tír Chonaill Red Hugh O'Donnell. The O'Breslins of Inishkeel followed O'Donnell's army to the safety of Lower Connacht in 1601 as the Nine Years War turned against the Gaelic confederates. In February 1603 Brian O'Breslin 'alias O'Breslin' was pardoned by the English in the retinue of Red Hugh's brother Rory O'Donnell.

According to Ó Dubhagán's poem the McGarvey family (Méig Gairbhídh) were lords of Tír Bresail in eastern Donegal, a territory between the ecclesiastical site at Raphoe and the peninsula of Inishowen. The family are not recorded prominently in the annals. Some of my own ancestors were from the O'Murray family of Donegal. These O'Murrays are not to be confused with the O'Murray Lords of Laggan in Connacht. (This is a bit confusing as there is also a place called the Laggan in east Donegal. However, it was families such as the McGarveys who held this area). The O'Murrays appear to have originally been an ecclesiastical family associated with the famous monastery at Derry that always had very strong Tír Chonaill connections although it was located in Tyrone. In 1185 the Annals of the Four Masters record that Maelisa O'Murray 'Lector of Derry-Columbkille, died at a venerable old age'. In 1206 they record the death of Donal O'Murray 'Chief Lector at Derry'. The O'Murrays were also supporters of Red Hugh O'Donnell during the Nine Years War. Among Rory O'Donnell's adherents pardoned in February 1603 were Owen, Donal, Gillapatrick Boy, Rory and Donal Crone O'Murray.

I hope readers have enjoyed this blog - the first for a long time. Please appreciate that it is difficult to keep a blog going on a regular extended basis as original material is needed and I used up all my ideas writing in 2011. With the break however, I now have a few more. Next week 'Whatever happened to the O'Tairchets Lords of Clanelly?'.

Published in Donegal

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