Over the course of a millennium, the ancestors of Eoghan mac Niall, first King of Aileach grew to great wealth and power in Ulster, conquering most of the Central and Eastern sections of the Province and forging a great Kingdom. As they did so, they divided and subdivided into the many septs and clans recognizable today in our proud surnames. Each family however, remained a part of a cohesive whole and proudly traced their ancestry and rights back to Eoghan mac Niall’s sons and grandsons whose separate kindreds’ formed the basic and lasting subdivisions of Cineál Eoghain.
Thankfully, the ancient genealogies preserved so carefully by generations of medieval scholars leave us with a relatively clear picture of the bloodlines of each major family, a picture backed by recent DNA evidence and ancient sources like the “The Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick”, written sometime around the year 700. The following excerpt tells of Patrick’s first encounters with Eoghan mac Niall, King of Ailech, and his sons on the peninsula of Inishowen around 450 AD.
Then Patrick blessed Eoghan with his sons.
“Which of thy sons” saith Patrick, “is dearest to thee?”
“Muredach” saith Eoghan.
“Kingship shall descend from him forever” saith Patrick.
“And after him?” saith Patrick.
“Fergus” saith Eoghan. “Ordained persons from him,” saith Patrick.
“And then Eochu Bindech” saith Eoghan. “Warriors from him,” saith Patrick.
While Patrick’s blessing may indeed have presaged the future organization of Cineál Eoghan, the excerpt above certainly mirrors contemporary socio-political divisions of the clan in the early 8th Century when it was composed. Both the genealogies and the Tri-Partite life match up well with the more recent historical sources, ancient and medieval place-names and the commonly acknowledged subdivisions of Cineál Eoghain, though The Tri-partite life does not mention a fourth son of Eoghan, Moen, whose kindred also prospered and grew to importance.
The largest and most complex of these kindreds comes from Muredach (Murdoch) who ascended to the Kingship upon Eoghan’s death. From his line came the early Kings and later Royal families; the McLoughlins and Ó Néills and their sub-septs (O’Donnelly, MacShane, O’Devlin, Mulholland and many others) as well as the powerful O’Cahans and their various families associated with them including the O’Mullans, O’Carolans and McCloskeys. A decent treatment of the history and background of these many septs demands a couple of separate essays entirely.
The smallest and most obscure of the original kindreds of Cineál Eoghain is certainly the Cineál nBinnigh, the family of Och Binnigh, presaged as great warriors in the Tripartite life. Represented by the O’Hammills, O’Kellys and McGurks in historic times, Cineál nBinnigh was likely the first branch of the Eoghan clans to invade modern Tyrone in the mid 6th century. The center of their ancient conquests are marked by the Muinter Hamill in South Tyrone, though by the 14th Century the power of these families had waned as the O’Neills and their dependents had gained possession of much of their former territory.
The remainder of this essay will deal with the roots of families of Cineál Fergus; the kindred of Eoghan’s second son, whom Patrick blessed with the prophecy of a line bearing “ordained ones,” hence charging them with the responsibility of meeting the intellectual and spiritual needs of Cineál Eoghain. Cineál Fergus quickly developed into a powerful clan whose leading families, the O’Hagans, O’Mallons and O’Quinns would play important roles in the growth and maintenance of Cineál Eoghain for a millenium.
The Clanns of Fergus view ye,
Know their vigorous chieftains;
Victorious over [foes] in every hill,
Are the Clann-Cuanach, the Clann-Baothghalaigh.
Over the lasting Carraic Brachaidhe,
Over the red-armed Clann Fergusa.
On each side they extended to the wave
The O'Bruadairs, the O'Maoilfabhaills,
The O'Coinnes, the O hOgains here,
Elevation of human people.
Speak of the Siol Aedha of Eanach
Their chieftains and their tribes,
To them the meeting was not thin,
The O'Murchadhas and the O'Mellains
Cineál Fergus was itself comprised of two separate kindreds from the very earliest days and this division too, if the Tripartite Life is to be believed, stems in part from Saint Patrick’s visit to Inishowen. Following his meeting with King Eoghan mac Neill at Aileach excerpted above, Patrick travelled northward, up the Inishowen Peninsula toward the lands of the sons of Fergus mac Eoghan, where he planned to build a Church. Near Slieve Snacht he was intercepted by Coelbad, Fergus’ eldest son. Coelbad expelled the missionary from his lands, unwilling to play host to the new religion he and his brothers had been given responsibility for. Patrick followed a river (likely the modern River Tocher) until he reached the boundary between Coelbad’s lands, and those of his brother, Aedh mac Fergus, which encompassed the end of the Peninsula down to modern Cardonagh. There he was warmly welcomed by Aedh, who granted him land for his Church further downstream in a serene riverside glen. Patrick remained with Aedh mac Fergus for six weeks, building Donmach Mor mach Tochair, the first Cineál Eoghain church.
From these two men, Coelbad and Aedh mac Fergus grew the two branches of Cineál Fergus. Aedh’s hospitality to Patrick seems to have earned him the alias Meallain, “the Pleasant One” though his grandson Meallan mac Tuadan mac Fergus bore the name directly. The ancient lands of the Aedh and his sons are clearly marked on maps both medieval and modern: The northernmost lands in Ireland around Malin Head on Inishowen. Aedh’s kindred grew into the Cineál Aedha, identified in the medieval sources as the Cineál Aedha Bheus (Aedh the Blessed), the Cineál Aedha mac Fergus, the Cineál Aedha Eanach or the Muinter Meallain. The chiefly sept of the kindred adopted the surname Ó Mealláin (O’Mallon). Other prominent Clan Aedha septs were the O’Brodair (Broderick), O’Beolb (Bell), O’Dinghne (Deane) O’Anaind (O’Hannon) and MacMurchada (MacMurphy).
Through their patriarch’s welcome of Patrick, Cineál Aedha inherited the Saint’s prophetic blessing of power and responsibility in the Patrician Church. Aedh’s sons Brecan and Colman were appointed Bishop, the latter canonized as Saint Colman. Which one of the dozens of Irish Saint Colman’s is a matter of debate, the most likely candidate being Saint Colman mac Aedh, the founder of Ardboe. In 610, Aedh’s great-great grandson, Mac Laisre (The Son of Flame) became the Abbot and Archbishop of Armagh, serving for 13 years as the Head of the Irish Church. Saint Mac Laisre died on September 12, 623, the anniversary of his death marks his Feast Day in the Calendar of Saints. This ancient tradition of Church position carried clearly into historical times, with the Mallons remaining Cineál Eoghain’s pre-eminent ecclesiastic sept. To the end of Gaelic rule in the North, the family retained ownership of huge swaths of land in Tyrone and Armagh that supported the Church, possession of Saint Patricks Bell and the right and responsibility of administering the sacred oath of Kingship to O’Neill Monarchs.
Coelbad, Fergus eldest son became the Patriarch of Cineál Coelbad, which was the senior branch of Cineál Fergus and retained the Chieftaincy of the whole. The main septs of this branch, the Maelfaebhails (variously anglicized as Mulfoyle, Mulvahill, McPaul or McFall) the O’Hagans and O’Quinns each played key roles in the history of Cineál Eoghain. The Mulfoyles were the Chiefs of the Cineál Fergus septs on the Inishowen Peninsula through the mid 1200’s. As the strength of Cineál Eoghain moved southward, the Mulfoyles led a long, heroic and fruitless defense of Inishowen against an ever rising tide of attacks from the English, the Scots and O’Donnells of Cineál Connail. In the long run, they could not stand. The warriors and Chiefs of the O’Hagans and O’Quinns would find their destiny further south.
As Cineál Eoghain aggressively expanded from Inishowen from the 6th Century onward, Cineál Fergus led the way, composing the main fighting arm of the kindred as they moved east and south. The bard O’Duggan recounts that the “vigorous Chieftains” of “the red armed Clan Fergus,” led by the O’Hagans, were “victorious over foes on every hill,” as they wrested control of central Ulster from the ancient Uliad and allied Arghillian clans. They defeated the Uliad in the Battle of Derryloran around 560 and again in the Battles of Dun Ceithern and Moira in the 570’s, bringing the borders of Tir-Eoghan to the Northeastern shore of Lough Neagh. By the end of the 9th century they were long established in South East Tyrone from just north of Dungannon to the Sperrin Mountains; the O’Hagans around Tullahogue, the O’Mallons from Cookstown to Slieve Gallon and the O’Quinns in Lissan and lands west.
Just south of the Fergus clans lay the lands of the Royal O’Neills, who in the years between 1000 and 1240 were engaged in a fratricidal struggle for the crown with their rivals and cousins the McLoughlins, who were still based around Inishowen. Clan Fergus became the core of Ó Néill power and a fierce bastion between the Ó Néills and their northern rivals. Many of the battles between the Ó Néills and McLoughlins were fought in and around clan Fergus lands, including the final and decisive Battle of Caimeirge in 1241 where McLoughlin and most of his Chieftains were slain. The fact that the Fergus clan warriors played a decisive role in that fight is beyond question; the Ceart Ó Néill ascribes the division of the position of Steward between the O’Hagans and O’Quinns to the fact that one O’Hagan and two O’Quinns were present “at the killing of McLoughlin.” The triumph of the Ó Néills at Caimeirge cemented the position of the Fergus clans at the geographic and political center of Cineál Eoghan. The leaders of these kindreds, so pivotal to the success of the Ó Néill Kings, were rewarded with favored positions in the dynasty and hereditary roles in the succession and inauguration of its Kings. The O’Hagan attained the position of High Steward, and with the O’Cahan Chief inaugurated the Ó Néill by performing the twin rituals of the rod and the shoe. The O’Quinn Chief became the Steward of the western half of Tyrone. The Ó Mallon administered the Oath of Kingship upon the sacred Bell of Saint Patrick and the MacMurphys of Cineal Aedha were taken on as one of the three families of O’Neills Household Troops (Ceithern Tighe) From this time forward, the leading Fergus septs, the O’Hagans, O’Quinns and O’Mallons were considered part of O’Neills Lucht Tighe ; his Horsemen, or Household families, and their destinies were tightly entwined with that of the ruling family. They would retain their lands, position and power until the bitter end of Gaelic rule in the North.
quotes from "The Topographical Poems of John O'Dubhagain and Giolla Na Naomh O'Huidhrin"; (@1370) Edited by John O'Donovan:1862, and the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick
other sources; Annals of Ulster, Annals of the Four Masters, Ceart Ui Neill, Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick, O'Clerigh's Genealogies, Mullin and Mullin, The Ulster Clans: O’Mullan, O’Kane and O’Mellan (Belfast 1966)