Monday, 01 August 2011 17:09

Some Famous Medieval O'Kellys of Uí Maine

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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As promised to one of the followers of Family History Ireland on facebook, a blog on the famous medieval Connacht family, the O'Kellys of Uí Maine.

The Uí Maine (or Hy Many) have always been a prominent Connacht population group. They appear to have first risen to prominence in the South County Roscommon - East County Galway area and their earliest kings were buried at the famous monastery on the River Shannon, Clonmacnoise. In later medieval times when the O'Connor family grew in power to take over the kingship of the province of Connacht, the Uí Maine, now led by the O'Kelly family were driven out of their original homeland into the Clonfert area of south Galway. Here the O'Kellys resided until the Anglo-Norman invasion of Connacht in the 1230s, when the Uí Maine were dispossessed of their fertile lands in Clonfert, and driven back into their more wooded and boggy original homeland along the Shannon. While in the Clonfert region the O'Kellys for a period fell under the influence of the great Irish king of Munster, Brian Boru. In 1014, Tadhg O'Kelly, the king of Uí Maine, along with his neighbour the king of Uí Fiachrach Aidne, were the only two Irish kings outside the province of Munster, to follow King Brian to Clontarf, and fight alongside him in the bloody battle fought on Good Friday. Both Tadhg O'Kelly and O'Heyne of Uí Fiachrach were killed in the battle.

Surprsingly, when the O'Kellys and the Uí Maine were driven back into the South Roscommon - East Galway area, by the Anglo-Norman invaders of Connacht, they became a much more powerful family than they had been in fertile Clonfert. Their new territory was marshy, and heavily wooded and criss-crossed by large rivers and these natural defences hindered attacks by the Anglo-Normans and allowed the O'Kellys to survive and prosper. The fourteenth century seems to have been the high point in the history of the O'Kellys of Uí Maine. In the year 1316 during the time of the Scottish Bruce invasions of Ireland, Tadhg O'Kelly, the lord of Uí Maine, gave great support to the new young king of Connacht, Phelim O'Connor, a leader 'from whom the Irish had expected more than from any other Gael then living'. King Phelim must have decided to drive the Anglo-Normans out of Connacht and he collected a very large Gaelic army, with large contingents from north Connacht, the Irish of Munster and Meath, and from the O'Kellys of Uí Maine. On 10 August 1316, Phelim O'Connor and his army gave battle to the Anglo-Normans of Connacht, who were led by William Burke and Lord Bermingham, outside the Anglo-Norman town of Athenry in West Galway. The Annals of the Four Masters record that 'A fierce and spirited engagement took place between them, in which the Irish were at last defeated'. King Phelim O'Connor (who was aged only 23), was killed on the battlefield surrounded by his brehon, standard bearer and King's Guard, who were all also killed. The Irish annals also record the death of many O'Haras, O'Dowds, McDermots, O'Maddens and O'Concannons, in the battle, along with many Munster casualties also and they also state that 'There was also slain Tadhg O'Kelly, Lord of Hy-Many, and twenty-eight nobles of the O'Kellys'.

This was an extremely high number of leaders from the O'Kelly family to be killed in one single battle. The battle of Athenry was probably one of the most important engagements fought in late medieval Ireland as it ensured that the Anglo-Norman presence in Connacht would endure and also that the power of the once great O'Connor Kings was finally broken as a major threat to the Anglo-Normans in Ireland. Despite losing so many leaders in the battle the O'Kellys of Uí Maine managed to survive. The family were quiet for a period as their power gradually recovered from the losses sustained in the battle, but the natural defences of their territory ensured the survival of the power of the Uí Maine.

One of the most powerful Gaelic Irish chieftains of the entire 1300s was probably William O'Kelly, the lord of Uí Maine, who led the O'Kellys around the year 1350. In 1352 William O'Kelly issued a famous 'general invitation ... at Christmas ... to the learned of Ireland, travellers, the poor and the indigent, and they were all served to their satisfaction, both good and bad, noble and ignoble, so that they were all thankful to him and his son, Melaghlin'. This Christmas feast is famous in the history of Gaelic Ireland and the bardic poem 'Filidh Ereann go haointeach - The poets of Erin to one house', was written to commemorate it. In 1353 William O'Kelly founded the Franciscan monastery at Kilconnell and in 1356 O'Kelly had Hugh O'Connor, the king of Irish Connacht, assassinated, for running off 'privately and clandestinely' with his wife 'the daughter of Seoinin Burke'! By the 1370s William's son Melaghlin O'Kelly took over the rule of the Uí Maine, and when William O'Kelly finally died in 1381 he is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters as 'Lord of Hy-Many, a man of the greatest character, worth, and renown, of his own tribe ... [who] died a very old man'.

The culture and wealth of the O'Kellys of Uí Maine also flourished in the late fourteenth century. Around 1394, Bishop Muircheartach Ua Ceallaigh, who was bishop of Clonfert from 1378-94, when he was promoted to the archbishopric of Tuam, commissioned the writing of the famous Irish manusript the Book of Uí Maine, which is also often called the Book of the O'Kellys. This manuscript is written wholly in Irish and amongst its pages contains seventy folios of important O'Kelly genealogies. Much of the manuscript has been lost since medieval times but the surviving pages are preserved mostly in the Royal Irish Academy, with a few pages in the British Museum. Archbishop O'Kelly died in 1407.

After the hight of their power throughout the 1300s, the O'Kellys continued to rule Uí Maine until the final conquest of Gaelic Ireland in 1603. However, they were never as powerful as they were in the fourteenth century. I hope this blog has been of interest. The O'Kellys of Uí Maine were at the forefornt of Irish history throughout the 1300s and the family must have been remarkable men to recover from what must have been the terrible disaster of the battle of Athenry.


Last modified on Monday, 22 August 2011 09:00
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.