Friday, 24 June 2011 14:28

The Ferry (Ó Fearadhaigh) family of Donegal and Sir Mulmurry McSweeney Doe

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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Close to my granduncle's farm near Kilmacrennan in Co. Donegal is a ruined farmhouse in the townland of Skreen.

This was the home of my great-grandmother Annie, and her family, the Ferrys. Annie Ferry and her family originally lived in the townland of Derryreel which was near the village of Falcarragh, which is further to the west on the Atlantic coast of north Donegal. My granduncle John is not quite sure how the Ferrys came to move to Skreen but they must have been related somehow to the people who originally lived there. Anyway, Annie Ferry fell in love with my great grandfather James McGettigan, and they married when Annie was only eighteen and James not much older at twenty-three. It was a very happy marriage and James and Annie went on to have a large family, and they lived out all their days in Meenreagh.

Falcarragh lies within the territory which in early modern times would have been the lordship of the McSweeney Doe galloglass chieftains. To be honest until recently I did not know very much about the history of the Ferry family, beyond knowing that they were an old Donegal surname. They are never mentioned in the annals so it is very diffuicult to know how the family lived in medieval and early modern times.

However, I was recently reading through the Irish Patent Rolls of King James I for a completely different reason when I stumbled across a wonderful record. It is a pardon dated 23 November 1604, for the well known and quite famous or infamous Donegal chieftain Sir Mulmurry McSweeney Doe. Mulmurry McSweeney Doe had a very colourful career and an even more colourful one in later north Donegal folklore. Chieftain of the McSweeneys of Doe during the Nine Years War, Mulmurry McSweeney, at a very early stage and for no apparent good reason betrayed his overlord, the famous Red Hugh O'Donnell and went over to the English. However, the English did not trust him and in the year 1600 while McSweeney was in the English base at Derry he was arrested by Sir Henry Docwra and imprisoned on an English ship in Lough Foyle. However, Mulmurry McSweeney escaped with the help of what we will politely call a lady friend who was allowed to visit him. The girl opened the hatch of the hold of the ship and McSweeney leaped out and swam away.  After the end of the Nine Years War Mulmurry McSweeney received a large 2,000 acre estate in the Plantation of Ulster, but he could not make the transition from Gaelic lord to new landlord and he fell into debt and lost his lands. He died during the 1630s.

The pardon from 1604 mentions only fifteen people who must have been Sir Mulmurry's closest supporters. There are a few McSweeneys and O'Gallaghers, including a Walter McSweeney, who may have been a prominent McSweeney from Fanad. An O'Sharkey is also named. However, after the four most prominent people named in the pardon there appears an Owen O'Ferry (O'Fariagh as spelt in the text), followed by Hugh, Maurice, John, Brian and Rory (Roderic) O'Ferry. This is an amazing record and obviously indicates that the O'Ferry family or clan were very prominent supporters of Sir Mulmurry McSweeney Doe. After thinking on it I realised that the record probably indicates that the O'Ferrys may even have been Sir Mulmurry McSweeney's foster-family. In Gaelic times even the most prominent noble families placed their children out with local families to be raised as their foster-children, almost as soon as they were born. Gaelic fosterage established the strongest ties for life between the fostered noble child and his foster-family. Many examples are well known, Shane O'Neill, the lord of Tyrone was fostered by the O'Donnelly family, while Hugh O'Neill was fostered by the O'Hagans. Often the highest Gaelic nobles were fostered with families who were not at all powerful in their localities. The most well-known example of this is that of Turlough Luineach O'Neill, the lord of Tyrone who succeeded Shane O'Neill, who as his name records was fostered by the O'Looney family. The O'Looneys had not been mentioned in the Gaelic annals for centuries when Turlough Luineach was fostered with them, and indeed they lived at the time in the wilds of the Sperrin Mountains. Just how strong were the ties in the Gaelic Irish tradition of fosterage is shown by the fact that Dubhaltach O'Donnelly, who was killed in Shane O'Neill's army at the battle of Farsetmore in 1567 is described in the Annals of the Four Masters as 'O'Neill's own foster-brother, and the person most faithful and dear to him in existence'.

Something similar I believe occured between Mulmurry McSweeney Doe and the O'Ferrys. They were not a powerful local family but if they did rear Sir Mulmurry he appears to have loved them for the remainder of his life and relied upon them for political and military support. If I am correct and my O'Ferry ancestors did foster Mulmurry McSweeney Doe, I hope he treated them well for he has a very sinister reputation in later north Donegal folklore, and the recorded historical record is little better!

Last modified on Monday, 04 July 2011 09:43
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.