Darren McGettigan - My Donegal Family History
The History of the Dan Roe McGettigans of Meenreagh
As you will see my family history is a typical one for a Roman Catholic family of Gaelic Irish ancestry although my family is unusual for County Donegal in that it originated in medieval times in the neighbouring kingdom of Tyrone.
My name is Darren McGettigan. I have lived in the vicinity of Wicklow Town in Co. Wicklow all my life. Although three of my grandparents and their families are from the Wicklow - Rathnew area of Co. Wicklow, and have been associated with the area for generations, my paternal grandfather, Neil McGettigan, was from the townland of Meenreagh in the parish of Kilmacrennan in north-west Co. Donegal.
Neil went to work in London in 1930s England where he met my paternal grandmother Agnes Hennessy, who was from Rathnew in Co. Wicklow. They fell in love and married in Wicklow Town in 1940 and settled in Rathnew. Neil and Agnes had six sons, five of whom still live in Wicklow Town and Rathnew. There are many grandchildren and great-grandchildren living locally of which I am the eldest. My father was Neil and Agnes’ third son Eamonn, who married Mary Hunter in 1970. I was born in 1971. My father Eamonn has done much research on our Hennessy family tree as has my mother Mary on her Hunter and Kehoe families. What follows is my own research into my grandfather Neil’s McGettigan family, in particular the McGettigans of Meenreagh in Co. Donegal.
McGettigan (Mac Eiteagáin), is a Gaelic Irish surname. Although the personal name Eiteagáin may be of Norse origin, the family are likely a branch of the Cenél nEógain dynasty, the rulers of the medieval kingdom of Tyrone. In medieval times this kingdom stretched from the Inishowen peninsula in modern Co. Donegal to the vicinity of the great monastery of Armagh, then as now the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. The personal name Eiteagáin appears a number of times in the Cenél nEógain genealogies, and the name is also mentioned in Seaán Mór Ó Dubhagáin’s topographical poem, ‘Triallom timcheall na Fódla’, which was composed in the late fourteenth century, under the section on the families of the Cenél nEógain. In their entries for the years 1132 and 1215 the Annals of the Four Masters record the deaths of McGettigan chieftains. In 1132 they record ‘Diarmaid Mac Eiteagáin, chief of Clann Diarmada, died’, and in 1215 that ‘Tadhg Mac Eiteagáin, chief of Clann Diarmada, died’. These entries suggest that the McGettigans were a noble family of the Clann Diarmada branch of the Cenél nEógain. In fact (living male McGettigan relative) recently had his DNA profiled which indicates that our family paternal haplogroup is R1b1b2a1a2f2, which is the Y- chromosone possessed by 17% of men in the north-west of Ireland and which is thought to indicate direct male descent from a powerful Irish king who ruled in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. This king is thought to be Niall of the Nine hostages, the father of Eoghan, the ancestor of the Cenél nEógain. Thus modern DNA evidence confirms the evidence of the medieval Irish genealogies and annals.
The Clann Diarmada ruled the east bank of the Foyle in Co. Derry. The parish of Clondermot still exists on the east bank of Derry City, but its extent in medieval times was probably much larger, extending far to the west across the River Foyle. The most prominent family of the Clann Diarmada was that of Ó Cairealláin (O’Carolan), who provided many chieftains and ecclesiastics recorded in the annals from the late eleventh to the end of the thirteenth century. The Clann Diarmada formed a branch of the Clann Chonchobhair, an important sub-division of the Cenél nEógain. The O’Carolans have been described by one Irish historian as ‘a powerful branch of Clann Chonchobhair’ and 'a driving force' among the western Cenél nEógain throughout the twelfth century. It is possible however, that the McGettigans are not directly descended from Diarmaid, the ancestor of the Clann Diarmada, but from one of his eleven brothers who was called Cinaeth. The O'Carolan chieftains' main fortress was at Magh Dula (another name for Clondermot, possibly meaning 'The Plain of the Apple[tree?]s') and they were expanding west of the Foyle throughout the twelfth century. The O'Carolans seized the two churches of St Carnech at Clonleigh and Donaghmore in east Donegal, from other Cenél nEógain families such as the O'Gormleys. It was during this period that the favoured residence of Muirchertach McLoughlin the high-king of Ireland 'with opposition ~ co fresrabhra' from 1156 to 1166, was a crannog with an orchard situated in Lough Enagh in the middle of Clann Diarmada.
The coast of Derry was a scene of major change around the year 1200. The annals record a number of raids on the Clann Diarmada by Anglo-Norman armies despatched west of the Bann from the earldom of Ulster and also raids from the west, led by the rising power in Tír Chonaill, the O'Donnell family. After 1210 King John of England granted the entire coastline from the Bann to the Foyle, to the Scottish noblemen the earls of Lennox and Athol. When the Scots followed up their grant in 1211 their invasion may have been very destructive for the entire area. In 1211 a substantial army was landed from a large Scottish fleet of seventy-six ships. This force sacked the famous monastery at Derry and 'passed thence into Inishowen and ravaged the entire island'. 1215 appears to have been a key year for the region. In this year the Annals of the Four Masters record a massacre of the O'Mulfall family of Inishowen by the Scots led 'by Murray the son of the Great Steward of Lennox'. The annals state 'Trad O'Mulfall, Chief of Cinel Fergusa, with his brothers, and a great number of people who were with them' were killed. Aengus O'Carolan the Chief of Clann Diarmada was also slain 'by his own kinsmen' (probably the McGettigans) in 1215 and Donough Ó Dubhdhíorma the Chief of Bredagh (also in Inishowen) 'died in the Dubhregles of Derry' the same year. Tadhg McGettigan who succeeded Aengus O'Carolan also died in 1215. I suspect that these records in the Annals of the Four Masters for 1215 are all linked and refer to the depredations of the Scots in Derry and Inishowen that year. Certainly the annalistic record suggests turmoil in the region at this time. Afterwards the O'Mulfalls, O'Carolans and McGettigans are never mentioned as Gaelic chieftains in the annals again.
There was also a power struggle among the Cenél nEógain themselves at this time fought for the kingship of Tyrone. This civil war was fought between the McLoughlin family,who had a house at Derry and large estates on the Inishowen peninsula, and the O’Neills of eastern Tyrone, who dominated the Sperrin Mountains and the fertile lands around Tullaghoge. This conflict was decisively ended in 1241 when Brian O’Neill assisted by his neighbour to the west, Melaghlin O’Donnell the king of Tír Chonaill, inflicted a crushing defeat on the McLoughlins at the battle of Caimeirge (a site said to be close to the town of Maghera in Co. Derry). Donal McLoughlin the king of Tyrone ‘and ten of his family (derbhfine), together with all the chieftains of the Cenél nEógain’, were killed. Following this historic battle there were no more McLoughlin kings of Tyrone, which was held by the O'Neill chieftains until the beginning of the seventeenth century. It is possible that the last McGettigan and O'Carolan chieftains fought and died with their McLoughlin overlords at Caimeirge. If they did this disaster spelt the end of the power of the Clann Diarmada families also.
The O'Carolans remained quite prominent in Derry as an ecclesiastical family for about a century after 1215. Indeed, the family held the bishopric of Derry for almost the entire 1200s with a succession of three O'Carolan bishops. Another member of the family became Archbishop of Armagh. The chieftain Diarmaid McLoughlin along with a warrior called Cearbhall O'Carolan were killed at the battle of Downpatrick, fought in the earldom of Ulster in 1260. This famous battle was a tremendous defeat for the Gaelic Irish of the north of Ireland at the hands of the Anglo-Normans. Although Brian O'Neill, the commander of the Irish army in the battle and the last high-king of Ireland was also killed, along with a large number of O'Cahan nobles, the McLoughlins had been so weakened by the massacre of 1241 that they were unable to exploit this turn in the fortunes of their rivals. They even lost control of Inishowen afterwards to the O'Doherty family from Tír Chonaill. Bishop Michael McLoughlin of Derry who died sometime after 1324 was the last prominent member of the dynasty. Minor McLoughlin chieftains continued to rule a small part of the Lough Foyle coastline of Inishowen, where they had two castles, until the Plantation of Ulster in 1610. Many of the O’Carolans remained in the Clondermot area subject to the O'Cahan chieftains. The family also managed to retain control of the church lands at Clonleigh west of the Foyle as the local erenagh family until 1610 which ensured that they preserved some local prestige.
Unlike their main neighbours who largely remained in their traditional localities (although in a much reduced state) the McGettigans migrated deep into the neighbouring lordship of Tír Chonaill which was ruled by the O’Donnell dynasty. This was not an unusual occurrence as the O’Donnells were noted in late medieval times for taking in noble or royal families who had been dispossessed from their lands elsewhere in Ireland to serve them as household families in Tír Chonaill. The church of Clooney in the parish of Clondermot had strong links with the church of Kilmacrennan and this connection may have facilitated the migration of the McGettigans to the area. Certainly by the early seventeenth century when members of the McGettigan family are next found in surviving records, holders of the surname are almost totally associated with Co. Donegal, the name given to the lordship of Tír Chonaill when it was shired by the English in 1585. In the aftermath of the suppression of the revolt of Sir Cahir O’Doherty, which occurred in north Co. Donegal in 1608, quite a few McGettigans in Co. Donegal received pardons from the British administration in 1611-12. It is unlikely however, that many of them fought in O’Doherty’s rebellion as it appears that every person in Co. Donegal who could obtained a pardon at this time. Exactly when the McGettigans migrated to Tír Chonaill is not known but I think it was most likely during the mid-1200s when the O'Donnell chieftains were powerful in west Ulster.
According to family tradition recorded by my granduncle Oliver from my great-grandfather James McGettigan ‘the McGettigans were boat people and came to Ireland at Carrigart, Co. Donegal’. According to my granduncle John McGettigan ‘The first houses built by the McGettigans in Carrigart are still there and were a bakery’. Granduncle John also stated that Eamonn Mór was the first of the McGettigans in Meenreagh and he ‘went with his coat over his shoulder and came over Lough Salt to Meenreagh’. In 1611 a man called ‘Owen McGettigan gentleman’, obtained a pardon in a list of prominent people from Co. Donegal, headed in this instance by William O’Friel, the coarb of Kilmacrennan. This pardon evidence indicates that Owen McGettigan was possibly a native of somewhere in the Kilmacrennan area of Co. Donegal. Owen McGettigan appears to have been a substantial person in Co. Donegal, connected to the household of Rory O’Donnell, the first earl of Tír Chonaill. The earl is well known in Irish history for his participation in the flight of the earls in September 1607. He died in Rome in 1608. In 1610 the Irish State Papers record that David Crawford ‘a Scottish man’, who had been employed as ‘servant and butler to the late earl of Tír Chonaill’, and who had also participated in the flight of the earls, returned to Co. Donegal with letters from Hugh O’Neill, the famous earl of Tyrone, for his sons-in-law. The letter in the State Papers records that the ‘said David Crawford, landed a while since, about the 29 of April last at Killybegs in the north: and the same night he landed he lay in the house of one Owen McGettigan, in the county of Donegal, which Owen is bailiff to the sheriff there’. Crawford’s father and mother also lived in Donegal and the family had served the earl’s brother, Red Hugh O’Donnell, during the Nine Years War (1594-1603). That David Crawford knew and trusted Owen McGettigan suggests that he too was associated with the household of the earl of Tír Chonaill. The State Papers letter goes on to record that Owen McGettigan accompanied Crawford on his mission delivering letters, passing through Donegal Town and counties Fermanagh, Monaghan and Down. That McGettigan was employed as bailiff to the sheriff of Co. Donegal also highlights that he was an important local figure. Family tradition does not go back as far as the early seventeenth century. As I have already indicated however, Owen McGettigan is very likely to have been a local of north-west Donegal and he could very well have been from the Kilmacrennan area.
Family tradition continues that Eamonn Mór ‘had three sons, Philip, Prionnsias (Frank) and Seamus (James)’. Eamonn Mór was said to have ‘farmed the whole townland and divided it up amongst his three sons. Frank the strongest got the boggy area’. Meenreagh is an upland townland at the foot of Lough Salt and is separated from the village of Kilmacrennan by a hilly boggy area. The farmland stretching from the bog to the mountain is good and well drained in most places and the townland stretches right over Lough Salt Mountain to the shore of Lough Salt itself. The townland is in the parish of Kilmacrennan and is a typical Ulster upland area inhabited by Catholic families descended from the Gaelic Irish population of the old lordship of Tír Chonaill, surrounded by better land still farmed by the descendants of the seventeenth century English and Scots who settled in Ulster after the plantation of 1610. The townland of Meenreagh was part of the large estate granted to Trinity College Dublin in the Ulster Plantation. After 1746 the manor of Kilmacrennan was acquired by the Clements family who later became the earls of Leitrim. There is an Edward McGettigan of Meenreagh in the parish of Kilmacrennan recorded in 1825 in the Tithe Applotment books. This could very well be Eamonn Mór McGettigan if he lived into old age.
McGettigans were prominent in nineteenth-century Donegal. In the first decades of the century Patrick McGettigan, whose family lived near Meenreagh was Catholic bishop of Raphoe. He was succeeded as bishop of Raphoe in 1861 by Daniel McGettigan, who was from Drumdutton in the parish of Mevagh. (Local tradition states that he may have been born near Lough Salt). Daniel was appointed archbishop of Armagh in 1870, a post that he held until his death in 1887. It is not thought that the McGettigan bishops were related to the McGettigans of Meenreagh. An event recorded in Kilmacrennan in May 1832 however, likely did involve the Meenreagh McGettigans. In the edition for 11 May 1832, the local newspaper the Ballyshannon Herald and Donegal Advertiser, under its notes for the ‘State of Donegal’ records a ‘Riot of Factions’. The account given in the newspaper is quite graphic and states:
‘At the fair of Kilmacrenan held on Tuesday last, a desperate contest took place between two factions, the Gallaughers and M’Gittigins, which terminated in broken heads and arms not a few. The affray would have been more serious, the fact is lives would have been lost, but for the meritorious activity of Lieut. Persse, and his police, and the timely interference of the Rev. Mr Hastings, the Rector, who was obliged to read the riot act. They at last succeeded in dispersing the infuriated combatants. It would be injustice not to say that the Rev. M’Ghee, the Parish Priest, did all that man could do, to second the efforts of the authorities to restore tranquillity’.
Many historians of the faction fights which occurred all over mostly southern Ireland in the early nineteenth century noted that there was often a ‘lack of motive in faction fighting’ beyond personal local grievances. However, granduncle John asserts that there was a sectarian edge to the fighting between the McGettigans and the Gallaghers, with the faction fighting continuing until as late as the 1950s when peace between the two families was finally made.
As has been stated, the townland of Meenreagh was part of the manor of Kilmacrennan a leasehold estate rented by the earls of Leitrim from Trinity College Dublin. In the nineteenth century the manor of Kilmacrennan comprised 28,704 acres, with the earls of Leitrim paying rent to Trinity College of for example £925 in 1810, rising to £1700 per annum from 1834 to 1853. Under the first earl, Robert Clements (d. 1804), and the second earl, Nathaniel Clements (d. 1854), the manor was not well run with poor records and an estate noted for being sub-divided up amongst the tenantry, to an extent even more than usual for the west of Ireland at the time. The second earl was well regarded by his tenants however, and was noted for his relief efforts during the Great Famine of the 1840s. However, the third earl of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements, was a very unpopular landlord. Oppressive and meddling, he was quick to interfere with his tenants in even the smallest matters and evicted many upon the slightest provocation. The third earl also increased his rents 60% above the average in Ireland for the time. In January 1858, 6,000 people gathered at a meeting held in Milford, to protest against the earl’s harsh attitude towards his tenantry in Co. Donegal. My grandfather Neil told me a story that his own grandmother showed him how the family bricked up the windows of their house whenever the earl’s agents were around so that they would not be evicted. William Clements the third earl of Leitrim was eventually assassinated by some secret society men from Fanad on 2 April 1878, when his coach was ambushed in Cratlagh Wood, the remnants of the ancient forest of Ceann Maghair. Great-granduncle Big Neil McGettigan was born on 7 March 1878, just a few weeks before the earl of Leitrim was killed. The family liked to say that he was born on the same day the earl was assassinated. Grandaunt Bridget told me that her grandfather Mr McGinty was the first person to arrive at the scene of the earl’s assassination as he drove his horse and cart through the wood.
Again according to family tradition our family is descended from Dan Roe the son of Seamus who was one of the three sons of Eamonn Mór McGettigan. In the ‘Rental of the earl of Leitrim’s Kilmacrennan estate’, Meenreagh townland appears a number of times. These rentals date from 1858 and possibly earlier. Many McGettigans are listed for Meenreagh in the rentals and in the 1858 record James (Seamus) McGettigan is recorded as a cottier or under-tenant with an added note that ‘James McGettigan has a house and the farm’. James McGettigan is also recorded in the Griffith’s Valuation for 1861. By this time Seamus McGettigan was also likely very elderly and he is replaced in the Griffith’s records by his son Daniel McGettigan (Dan Roe) around 1876. Daniel McGettigan continued to be recorded in the Griffith’s Valuation until 1907. Dan Roe McGettigan was well over 90 when he died in 1920. He married Margaret Murray from Termon late in life and was called Dan Roe to distinguish him from a Dan Dubh McGettigan who also lived in Meenreagh during this period. Daniel McGettigan’s children and grandchildren also became known as the Dan Roes locally in order to distinguish them from the large number of other McGettigan families living in the Meenreagh and Kilmacrennan areas. The 1901 census indicates that Dan Roe was born around the year 1827. Dan Roe’s house and farm was the original family house in Meenreagh and still stands today across the street from Uncle John’s house, where it is used as store-house and farm shed. It was thatched until fairly recently. Dan Roe filled in and signed the family census form in 1901 when he stated his age was 74, that he was married to Margaret, then aged 55, and had three sons James (aged 25 and married himself), Neal (aged 23), Edward (aged 20) and a daughter Grace (aged 16 in 1901). The census lists Dan as a ‘farmer’, and the family as ‘Roman Catholic’, with all family members able to read and write, and both English and Irish spoken at home.
The Kilmacrennan and Termon Catholic parish marriage register records do not appear to have survived. As a result, the exact date of Dan Roe’s marriage to Margaret Murray is unknown. The Murrays or O’Murrays were also a Gaelic Irish family long associated with County Donegal and Margaret came from Termon, the parish adjacent to Kilmacrennan and not far from Meenreagh. The Kilmacrennan parish baptismal register records that on 2 February 1873 Dan and Margaret had a daughter Maria baptised by Fr Michael O’Boyle in Kilmacrennan parish church. The godparents were Seamus McFarren a friend from Termon and Eleanor McGettigan from Meenreagh, likely the widow Ellen McGettigan also recorded in the earl of Leitrim’s estate rentals and the Griffith’s Valuation for this period. Unfortunately the later entries in the Kilmacrennan parish baptismal register are poor and the baptismal dates for Dan and Margaret’s other children do not seem to be recorded. Their daughter Maria baptised in 1873 likely died very young. The birth records of the surviving children of Dan Roe McGettigan and Margaret Murray are however, preserved in the General Register Office in Dublin. My great-grandfather James McGettigan was born in Meenreagh on 12 December 1874. James’ brothers Big Neil and Edward were born on 7 March 1878 and 2 December 1880 and his sister Gracie on 6 January 1885.
Great-grandfather James as the eldest son of Dan Roe took over the family farm. He was a well respected County Council foreman and was also a keen sportsman. He played soccer along with his brother Big Neil for Lough Keel Celtic. He married Annie Ferry who was from Derryreel near Falcarragh on 15 October 1899. James was then twenty-three years of age and Annie eighteen. The O’Ferrys were another old Donegal family, known in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as the followers of the colourful Donegal chieftain Mulmurry McSweeney Doe. James and Annie had a large family of ten sons and four daughters. A photo taken of most of the family survives from 1927. James’ brothers and sister never married. Edward died in 1945 and Big Neil on 26 March 1967. Gracie lived to be ninety-four years of age and died on 14 February 1978. My great-grandfather died on 5 June 1951 aged seventy-six years of age, great-grandmother Annie dying on 11 November 1965 aged eighty-three. Most of the Dan Roe McGettigans and their ancestors are buried in the large family plot at the lower end of the graveyard which surrounds the ruined Franciscan abbey of Kilmacrennan. However, granduncle Barney was the first person to be buried in the new graveyard near the Catholic Church in Kilmacrennan village when he died in 1980 aged seventy-one. Granduncle Packie is also buried in the new graveyard. Packie died in the year 2000 aged seventy-six.
My granddad Neil was born on 19 April 1912 and died in December 1990 aged seventy-eight. He went to work in London in the 1930s where he met Agnes Hennessy from Rathnew in Co. Wicklow. They married in Wicklow on 23 January 1940 and had a family of six sons. A large number of McGettigan grandchildren and great-grand children now live in the Wicklow Town area. One of the grandchildren, Roisin McGettigan, is a well known international athlete. Another son of James and Annie, John is in his nineties and still going strong. John continued the work on the family farm. He married Bridget McGinty in 1949 and together they had a family of ten children. John and Bridget are very highly regarded by the local community in Kilmacrennan and Termon and they also have a very large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The youngest of the family, Packie McGettigan was a very popular postman in Churchill and later in Letterkenny. He married grandaunt Kathleen McGettigan (a distant relative). Packie and Kathleen too had a large family, most of who continue to live in the Letterkenny and north Donegal areas. Granduncle Barney and his wife Annie Murray (she had the same surname as Barney's grandmother) also continued to live in north Donegal. Most of their children eventually moved to the Dublin area where Barney's eldest son Jim established the Regency hotel chain. Jim's latest venture has been to establish a hotel and a few McGettigan pubs in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Another of Barney's sons, Fr Denis is a very popular priest in the diocese of Raphoe. Granduncle Henry married an Englishwoman, Gertrude May Barley in the USA. Most of his children now live in the Washington DC area and his eldest son Patrick McGettigan had a very successful business career after first serving in the US Marine Corps. My grandaunts Madge and Teresa both found successful careers as nurses in England where they married and where their families continue to live today. Granduncle Oliver also became a priest and he too spent much of his career in England. Madge is still going strong in England today although Fr Oliver sadly has since passed away.
‘I love the blue mountains of dear Donegal
I love Croc a Leaghan the best of them all
On its wild rugged cliffs I oft roamed as a boy
While minding my sheep at the foot of Brownjoy.
My hearts fond affection I’ll ever bestow
On its towers shaped top and green valleys below
Where the lark joins in concert to welcome the day
When the night clouds are leaving the hills of Meenreagh’.
First verse of the song ‘The hills of Meenreagh’ composed by Edward McGettigan.