Friday, 22 July 2011 12:37

From Castle Sween to Fanad

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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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.

If geography allowed, such as in Munster, defeated Irish dynasties also fled over vast distances from the invading Anglo-Normans in the thirteenth century, to re-establish their lordships often hundreds of miles away from where they originally lived. Unfortunately, little historical information of these population movements was ever recorded. When an entire family was in retreat from invaders, often the last thing on anyones' mind was keeping a record for posterity. As a result, for example in Munster, the McCarthys, O'Sullivans and O'Callaghans are found living in Tipperary and near Cork city in the late 1100s, the province was then invaded and settled by the Anglo-Normans, and the McCarthys and their allies are next recorded living in the mountainous wilderness of west Cork and south Kerry. Obviously, many of these families must have been attacked by Anglo-Norman soldiers, some of their leaders killed and maybe even a deliberate decision made by the Anglo-Normans to expel them. However, bar the occassional reference to a battle or to the death of a Gaelic Irish king at the hands of the Anglo-Normans, there is often very little record of what must indeed have been momentous events.

The same is largely true of the migration of mercenary galloglass dynasties from western Scotland to the north and west of Ireland throughout the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Indeed the origin of some of the galloglass families is very obscure, and besides knowing that they originally came from Scotland, very little else is known.

The case for the McSweeneys of Tír Chonaill and the many other parts of Ireland is different, however. In the early 1500s some of the wealthy McSweeneys of Fanad commissioned a legendary history of their family's origins, known as the Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne. While this account is full of fantasy and legend, which as a result has led to its often being overlooked as a potential historical source, there are some very interesting peices of information within its pages, to give a least some inkling of the history of the migration of the McSweeneys into north Donegal.

The territory of the McSweeneys in west Scotand was the aptly named Castle Sween in Knapdale. It seems clear that the McSweeneys backed the wrong side in the Scottish Wars of Independence  fought during the early 1300s when they supported the English king,Edward II, against the famous Scottish national hero Robert Bruce. As a result Robert Bruce confiscated the McSweeneys' lands in Knapdale and expelled them from Scotland. The Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne actually begins with a lie, stating that the McSweeneys were supporters of Robert Bruce, who had to flee Scotland due to an unfortunate murder. The tale then recounts a number of visits of the McSweeneys to the Fanad peninsula area, treachery on the part of the local inhabitants and a number of settlings and expulsion of the McSweeneys from the peninsula, until the family permanently settle. I believe much of this is obviously legendary, and bears little relation to what exactly happened when the McSweeneys first landed in Co. Donegal.

However, there is a surviving Scottish bardic poem called 'Dál Chabhlaigh ar Chaistéal Suibhne - A Meeting of a Fleet Against the Castle of Suibhne', which was written for the McSweeney chieftain who probably first conquered the Fanad peninsula, Eoin McSweeney. The poem recounts Eoin McSweeney's assembling of a fleet of McSweeney galleys in a failed attempt to re-capture Castle Sween. Eoin is referred to as:

'Eóin MacSuibhne of the hard lances with his slender sword of heroes' heat;

the man of the shields, embossed, gleaming, a loyal lord - difficult to meet'.

The poem also describes Eoin McSweeny's impressive fleet and the Norse orgins of the family:

'The prows of the ships, festooned with jewels are decked out with coats of mail

for the warriors of the brown-faced baldrics -they are Norsemen and brave chiefs'.

Although the poem does not record the repulse of the McSweeney attackers from the walls of Castle Sween, it does seem to indicate that Eoin McSweeney and his followers first captured Rathlin Island off the coast of north Antrim. The poem states of Eoin:

'he captured Rathlin, low-topped, jutting,smooth-surfaced, white-stoned, precipitous, rough'.

As is well known from medieval legend, Robert Bruce too had an interest in Rathlin Island and once fled there to escape the English. As a result he must have expelled Eoin McSweeney from the island at some stage.

The Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne takes up Eoin McSweeney's story when he arrives off the coast of Fanad. In what is clearly a legend, the Craobhsgaoileadh records that the wife of the Gaelic Irish lord of Fanad, O'Breslin, had a dream. 'She fancied that there came over the sea horrible monsters, and that they overpowered all the country'. As a result the Crabhsgaoileadh recounts that the O'Breslins decided to murder the first strangers who landed on their shore. The account continues that Eoin McSweeney and his men were indeed the first to land in Fanad and were invited to a feast where they were to be all killed. However, the McSweeneys are said to have turned the tables on their attackers and 'O'Breslin, and his sons, and all their people, were slain by them'. This story is likely untrue but it does contain some historical facts. The O'Breslin family are indeed recorded in the Irish annals as the lords of the Fanad peninsula. Indeed they were a prominent family who did not have a good relationship with the nearby O'Donnells of Kilmacrennan, who were emerging in the early 1200s as the new overlords of Tír Chonaill. What likely happened was that Eoin McSweeney may have negotiated with the O'Donnell chieftain for permission to settle in Tír Chonaill, and may have been given the opportunity to try his luck in taking the lordship of the troublesome O'Breslin family. The Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne records that Eoin McSweeney returned to Fanad and it may preserve a record of an actual historical battle 'the rout of Crann Cuillmin in Fanad', where 'O'Breslin and his people were put to flight. It was there their ruin was effected, so that from then till now they have remained submerged'. This is indeed what may actually have happened. The O'Breslins disappear from the annals as lords of Fanad after the mid 1200s and may have fled to Fermanagh where they became brehons to the Maguire chieftains. The McSweeneys certainly emerge from the mists of history as powerful galloglass chieftains of the Fanad peninsula, a postion they held in Tír Chonaill politics until the early 1600s.

Therefore, the Craobhsgaoileadh Chlainne Suibhne, may have more value as a historical source than has heretofore been recognised, although is does need to be used with great care and in conjunction with other more reliable sources. Indeed the Craobhsgaoileadh even records some fighting between the McSweeneys of Fanad and other families such as O'Taircheirt, another family who mysteriously diasppear from the north Donegal area towards the end of the thirteenth century.

I hope this blog has not been too long. Next week the O'Kellys of medieval Uí Maine.

Last modified on Friday, 22 July 2011 15:53
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.