Friday, 10 June 2011 11:59

Mac an Iolair ~ the Son of the Eagle - famous horses in sixteenth century Gaelic Ireland

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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With the wonderful horse racing in recent weeks I hope readers of my genealogy blog won't mind if this week my Friday blog does not have much to do with Irish genealogy but with the great love of the Irish for their race horses, which apparently stretches way back in time to early modern and probably even medieval times.

From my researches into sixteenth century Gaelic Ireland it is apparent that Gaelic nobles, both men and women, kept large herds of horses, numbered in the hundreds, to breed and also to supply mounts to their cavalry soldiers. I have found evidence for this in both the major Ulster lordships of Tyrone and Tír Chonail, and also in the O'Byrne lordship of Glenmalure in the Wicklow mountains. In the 1580s both Ineen Dubh McDonnell, the wife of Hugh O'Donnell, the lord of Tír Chonaill, and her daughters, kept large herds of stud mares, while in the 1590s as English forces hunted down the O'Byrnes in Wicklow, a serious blow was inflicted on the mountain clansmen when their herds of horses were captured.

There are many references to horses recorded in the everyday lives of the people of sixteenth century Gaelic Ireland, preserved in the Irish annals. In the year 1532, Mary McSweeney, the daughter of the McSweeney Fanad chieftain and wife of O'Boyle, lord of Boylagh, 'died suddenly, after having been thrown from her horse, at the door of her own mansion, on the 21st of April'. In the year 1490 the Annals of the Four Masters even record that a Turlough O'Boyle 'was thrown from his horse ... and died in consequence' at a race meeting! 'while racing at the ridge of Murvagh', (a place in Tirhugh in south Donegal).

Hugh McHugh Dubh O'Donnell, a Co. Donegal noble, who had a castle and lands at Ramelton in north Donegal, and who lived from the 1530s until his death in 1618, was a very famous sixteenth century Gaelic Irish warrior and horseman. Legends survived in the Ramelton area into the nineteenth century that Hugh McHugh Dubh used to select his best horses by driving them into the River Leannan and then chosing the ones which travelled the furthest and the fastest.  When he died in 1618 a small set of local Donegal annals called him 'the very best horseman of his time in Ireland'. (an t-aon mharcach is fearr do bhí rena linn in Éirinn).

The Annals of the Four Masters even record the name of one very famous sixteenth century Irish horse 'Mac an Iolair ~ the Son of  the Eagle', which is called in the Annals 'the celebrated steed of O'Neill's son', none other than the famous Shane O'Neill.Shane O'Neill had a remarkable career and defeated large English and Highland Scottish forces in many battles all over Ulster and north Leinster. Although O'Neill appears to have also substantially conquered the neighbouring O'Donnell lordship of Tír Chonaill to his west, in the late 1550s and early 1560s, the O'Donnell chieftains retained the ability to inflict major defeats on O'Neill's army, mainly through the formidable fighting qualities of their McSweeney galloglass chieftains. Anyway, in the year 1557 as Shane O'Neill led his triumphant army into Tír Chonaill, the O'Donnells and McSweeneys launched a surprise night-time attack on O'Neill's camp. As O'Neill's bodyguards fought it out with the attackers Shane O'Neill 'passed through the western end of his tent unobserved' and escaped. It was a rainy night and no-one saw O'Neill flee. Shane had to swim across three rivers until he reached Termonomongan in Tyrone 'where he purchased a horse that night from O'Moain' (the local family of Termonomongan), from where Shane made it to safety at Errigal Keeroge. When the O'Donnells divided up the vast spoils they captured in Shane's camp, Conn O'Donnell, the son of the lord of Tír Chonaill, received as his share of the plunder 'eighty horses, besides the celebrated steed of O'Neill's son, called the Son of the Eagle'. The Son of the Eagle must have been a remarkable horse and I am not aware of the name of any other sixteenth century Gaelic Irish horse being recorded. But it is typical of the larger than life Shane O'Neill, that it is he of all the Gaelic Irish chieftains who would own a very famous horse.

I hope my readers have enjoyed this week's blog. It has been a subject that has interested me for quite a while. Next week the blog will return to genealogical matters as usual.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 June 2011 12:57
Darren McGettigan

Darren McGettigan

Darren is an historian, author and genealogist from County Wicklow, Ireland. He provides genealogy services to help you discover your family history in Ireland.