Thursday, 01 December 2011 17:59

The Ó Maolfhábhail and Ó Duibhdhíorma families of Inishowen

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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Donegal people sometimes have heated debates about officially changing the name of their county to Tír Chonaill. Many inhabitants of the county who are very proud of their local history wonder why the name is not easily changed while others, probably a minority (but a sizeable one), point out that the peninsula of Inishowen and the flat lands around Lifford were not part of historical Tír Chonaill and so the county name should remain Donegal. The answer to this question is that both arguments are correct, depending on what period of history people are interested in. In medieval times up until around the year 1350 AD Inishowen and the plains to the south were actually part of the lordship of Tyrone. Inishowen (from Irish Inis Eógain or Eoghan's Island), was actually the original territory of the Cenél nEógain people before they struck out across Lough Foyle in medieval times to gradually conquer the modern counties of Derry, Tyrone and Armagh from the original Ulster people who were dispossessed and corralled east of Lough Neagh and the river Bann. However, after the year 1350 the Cenél Conaill family of O'Doherty conquered the Inishowen peninsula and as sub-chieftains of the O'Donnell lords of Tír Chonaill, the Inishowen peninsula did indeed become an integral part of the early modern lordship of Tír Chonaill. As an early modern historian I would naturally enough like the county name to be changed to Tír Chonaill, but can understand why others prefer things to stay as they were, although I do think these people like to conveniently ignore the O'Doherty conquest of Inishowen for the Cenél Conaill.

But this minor controversy is not the theme of this week's blog! This week I would like to talk about two Cenél nEógain families that I have long been interested in, who were chieftains on the Inishowen peninsula in medieval times, but who were then probably dispossessed by the O'Dohertys, although members of the families continue to live in Inishowen to this day. These two families are Ó Maolfhábhail,who were lords of the territory of Carraig-Brachaidhe in north-west Inishowen and the family of Ó Duibhdhíorma, lords of the Bredagh Glen in east Inishowen. Today members of the family who live in Inishowen tend to be called Fall and McDermot, although anglicizations of Mulfaal, McPaul and Darby have been recorded over the years.

Both these families were prominent in Cenél nEógain history in medieval times. Ó Maolfhábhail chieftains are mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters, from their first record in the year 1053, to the last mention of an Ó Maolfhábhail lord of Carraig-Brachaidhe in these annals, who was assassinated in the year 1198. The entries on the Ó Maolfhábhail chieftains in the Annals of the Four Masters, show them to have been prominent in the army of the kings of Tyrone, although the family does not appear to have got on well with the McLoughlins, Aódh Ó Maolfhábhail, the lord of Carraig-Brachaidhe being killed by the McLoughlins in the year 1166.

The Ó Duibhdhíorma chieftains are recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters from the year 1043 to the year 1419, when the last death of an Ó Duibhdhíorma chieftain was noted down. This date is quite late and probably indicates that the Ó Duibhdhíorma family preserved its power much more successfully than the Ó Maolfhábhails, at least into the early fifteenth century. The Ó Duibhdhíorma chieftains ruled the Bredagh Glen which is in east Inishowen, and they had a church in Moville at the end of the valley on the shore of Lough Foyle where their chieftains were buried. The Ó Duibhdhíorma family was already coming under the influence of the Cenél Conaill by the year 1198 when Hugh O'Neill, the King of Tyrone, killed the Ó Duibhdhíorma chieftain while leading a major cattle raid on the Cenél Conaill. I have read some early Irish poetry about the Kings of Tyrone, which has led me to think that the Ó Duibhdhíorma chieftain was the hereditary keeper of prisoners for the King of Tyrone. This is confirmed by the last mention of an Ó Duibhdhíorma in the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1454, by which time O'Doherty was lord of Inishowen and the peninsula was recognised as a part of Tír Chonaill. In 1454 there was a struggle for control of the lordship of Tír Chonaill between two rivals, Donal and Rory O'Donnell, leaders of two sets of cousins who were bitter rivals. The annals state that in this year Donal was 'treacherously taken prisoner ... by O'Doherty, who sent him to be imprisoned in the castle of Inis' on Inch, a small island off the coast of Inishowen in Lough Swilly. Cathal Ó Duibhdhíorma appears to have been in charge of the castle prison for O'Doherty, possibly showing how the family adapted to the conquest of Inishowen by the O'Dohertys. When Rory O'Donnell heard where his rival Donal was, he gathered a large army and besieged Inis castle. His men set fire to the gate, the door and the stairs of the castle and all inside must have thought they were about to be killed. The annals record that as his 'dying request' Donal asked that he be released from his chains, which his guards, taking pity on him agreed to. While waiting to die Donal went up onto the battlements of the castle where 'he saw Rory beneath, with eyes flashing opposition, and waiting until the fire should subside, that he might enter, and kill him'. The Annals of the Four Masters state that Donal found 'a large stone', which he threw down from the battlements at his rival. The annals state that this stone 'fell on the crest' of Rory O'Donnell's helmet 'so that he instantly died'. Rory's army, dismayed by the killing of their commander abandoned the siege and as the Four Masters go on to state 'and by this throw Donal saved his own life, and [acquired] the lordship of Tír Chonaill'.

This is one of the most remarkable stories that I have ever found in the Annals of the Four Masters. I hope my readers have enjoyed it and also the interesting story of the history of the Ó Maolfhábhails and Ó Duibhdhíorma's, two very distinguished medieval families of the peninsula of Inishowen.


Last modified on Saturday, 01 December 2012 17:14
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.