Many of my blogs have been concerned with the rise and fall of Gaelic Irish families in medieval west Tyrone and the north of the medieval lordship of Tír Chonaill. In this blog I would like to talk about the mysterious total disappearance of the O'Taircheirts, a prominent family in the Glen Swilly region from the late eleventh century to their last record in the Irish annals in the year 1232. As followers of my blogs know by now, the total disappearance of a once prominent Gaelic Irish family in this region is highly unusual as most families that disappear from the annals in the 1200s were often still present in their native localities (if in a much reduced condition) by the time of the Plantation of Ulster in 1610.
The O'Taircheirts were a branch of the people of Tír Chonaill called the Clann Snedhgile, descended from a man called Snedhgil who in turn was a descendant of Conall Gulban the ancestor figure of many of the inhabitants of medieval Tír Chonaill. The O'Strain family which is still numerous in north Donegal were closely related to the O'Taircheirts. The O'Taircheirts were the lords of the territory called Clanelly in medieval Tír Chonaill. This sub-lordship lay between the Leannan and Swilly Rivers and can be best seen today by following the coastal road from Letterkenny to Ramelton.
The family are first mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters in 1098 when Eigceartach O'Taircheirt was killed in a battle fought between the armies of Tyrone and Tír Chonaill at the famous ford over the River Swilly the Fearsat-Suilighe. In 1113 Donnchadh O'Taircheirt the Chief of Clanelly was killed by the McLoughlins of Tyrone and in 1129 the O'Taircheirts burnt 'the house of Columcille at Kilmacrennan' over the head of a local noble called Hugh O'Donnell. The O'Taircheirts appear to have backed the O'Dohertys rather than the O'Donnells to become lords of Tír Chonaill. In the year 1197 Eachmarcach O'Doherty became the only lord of Tír Chonaill from that family. He was supported in his chieftain-ship by Donough O'Taircheirt the Chief of Clanelly. O'Doherty had only been lord of Tír Chonaill for two weeks when he was attacked by the Anglo-Norman Baron John De Courcy who invaded northern Tír Chonaill and killed both Eachmarcach O'Doherty and Donough O'Taircheirt at the battle of Cnoc Nascain. The Annals of the Four Masters refer to Donough O'Taircheirt as 'the prop of the hospitality, valour, wisdom and counsel of all the Cinel Conaill'. He was obviously a very important figure.
The death of Donough O'Taircheirt in 1197 is not the last time the family is referred to in the annals. In 1212 Gillareagh O'Taircheirt the lord of Clanelly was killed by the O'Boyles and in the year 1232 Donal McLoughlin the king of Tyrone took hostages from the O'Boyle and O'Taircheirt families after he plundered the Fanad peninsula. The family are never mentioned in the annals again.
Nevertheless one would have expected the family to survive as a local erenagh family or to have migrated further west into Tír Chonaill where the surname would probably have been recorded as O'Taggart. However the family simply disappear. Any of the pardon lists from the early 1600s that I have examined and that provide such good evidence for many other Donegal families have no record of any O'Taircheirts or O'Taggarts. Perhaps the family died out like one of the ruling families of Tír Chonaill before the O'Donnells - the Ó Maoldoraidh dynasty. Fergus Gillespie an authority on Donegal families could only find evidence of one O'Mulderry farmer recorded in Inver parish in the early 1800s. I had thought that the other pre-O'Donnell Tír Chonaill ruling dynasty Ó Cananáin had also died out but there are a few O'Cannon nobles (as the surname became) recorded as supporters of Red Hugh and Rory O'Donnell in 1603. (Eneas Gruama O'Cannon and Donal and Conor O'Cannon. Donal and Eneas Gruama O'Cannon were pardoned again in 1611 along with a Hugh O'Cannon - all in north Donegal).
So what became of the O'Taircheirts? Again I think that the answer lies with the arrival of the McSweeney mercenaries in northern Tír Chonaill in the late 1200s and early 1300s. As I have previously written the traditional sixteenth century history of the McSweeneys of Fanad 'The Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne' preserves memories of violent conflict with local native families such as the O'Breslin lords of Fanad. The Craobhsgaoileadh also states that the McSweeneys seized 'O'Maolgaoithe's tuath' another family that I talked about last week. The Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne also records conflict between the first McSweeneys to land in Fanad and the O'Taircheirts of Clanelly. According to this source the McSweeneys took Ray and Clanelly from the O'Taircheirts as 'éiric for Turlough of Béal Atha Daire'. Turlough of Béal Atha Daire was one of the first McSweeneys to land in Tír Chonaill. However, he is probably a legendary figure as he was among the first group of McSweeneys who came to Tír Chonaill that were expelled by the native inhabitants before the 'second' settlement of McSweeneys landed that eventually took hold. Turlough McSweeney was reputedly killed by the natives of Tír Chonaill at a battle fought at Béal Atha Daire, a site possibly on the River Swilly. The O'Taircheirts are not mentioned, only the O'Donnells and the O'Dohertys. An éiric however, was a compensatory payment for death or more usually murder, important in Gaelic Irish law. The entire legend suggests a confused memory of the killing of one of the early McSweeney settlers by the O'Taircheirts and the subsequent dispossession of the family by the McSweeneys of Fanad. Clanelly did not remain with the McSweeneys. It was later taken by the O'Donnells for the tánaiste of Tír Chonaill.
There is no actual record of a massacre of the O'Taircheirts by the McSweeneys. However, the Craobhsgaoileadh states that when the second invasion of McSweeneys reached 'the calm beautiful haven of Swilly. They sent out scouting parties in all the districts on every side of them, and they slew their kings and princes and lords, so that their nobles all perished and their hostages were taken'.
The only other reference to the O'Taircheirt family in the Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne is to a placename called 'Léim I Thirchirt - O'Taircheirt's Leap' that was 'on the borders of Fanad and the termon [of Kilmacrennan]'. I am not sure what the placename refers to but the place may have been the site of the fortress of the O'Taircheirt chieftain.
If anyone has any information on the later survival of this family I would be very glad to hear from them.
Post Script (July 2013):
While reading through some O'Donnell genealogies recently I came across a record that may solve the mystery. This note states that an O'Donnell noble called Domhnall who was the grandson of Domhnall Óg O'Donnell, the powerful lord of Tír Chonaill who was killed in battle by the O'Neills in 1281 (his father was called Niall Beag), 'had one famous son, Gofraidh son of a daughter of Ó Terchirt'. This genealogical note indicates that Domhnall O'Donnell, who must have lived during the early 1300s married the daughter of the O'Taircheirt chieftain. The note suggests that the O'Taircheirts were still prominent in Tír Chonaill a century after they are last mentioned in the annals, although they were probably not as powerful as they were around 1232. These O'Donnell genealogies also record that quite a few branches of the O'Donnell dynasty died out in late medieval times, which is probably what eventually happened to the O'Taircheirts. It is possible that Gofraidh O'Donnell took over the leadership of the O'Taircheirt territory, perhaps by agreement as the son of O'Taircheirt's daughter and his branch of the O'Donnells may have remained prominent in the Clanelly area (especially its more western districts) until the end of the fifteenth century or even longer.
Families were constantly on the move in medieval and early modern Ireland. Successful and expanding clans conquered new areas and the ruling family might move to establish themselves in a fertile or strategic area.