Between 1200 and 1600 the Great O’Neills of Ulster ruled the most powerful and expansive Kingdom in medieval Ireland, at its apex stretching from Inishowen to Armagh and East of Lough Neagh to the Irish Sea. This Kingdom was known as Tir Eoghain and the majority of it was not owned by the O’Neill’s but instead by the various clans of the great kindred of which they were the hereditary Kings: the Cineál Eoghain; O’Hagan, O’Devlin, O’Quinn, O’Mallon, O’Cahan, O’Mullan, O’Donnelly, MacCawall, O’Gormley, McLaughlin and dozens more. These great families of the North of Ireland trace their common lineage to Eoghan mac Niall, son of Niall of the Nine hostages who with his brother Connal Gulban ( the ancestor of the Cineál Connaill of Donegal) conquered the Northwest Ulster and Inishowen in the mid 400’s, founding a Kingdom that would last more than a millennium. In the following months I will do my best to outline the general history of the Great Cineál Eoghain from its foundation in the 5th Century through its ceaseless expansion into the 16th Century. I will also focus on the history and genealogy of the various clans and septs of Cineál Eoghain, each with its own lands and chiefs and many with particular hereditary roles and responsibilities in the Kingdom and clan at large.
I sincerely hope you find my musings on our common history and heritage informative and enjoyable!
1. The Founding of Cineál Eoghain
The patriarch of Cineál Eoghan, Eoghan mac Neill, was the scion of a long line of Gaelic warrior Kings who traced their lineage to the legendary Conn of the Hundred Battles. Conn’s reign, in the mid 2nd Century was marked by ceaseless warfare with his southern rival from Munster, Mug Nuadat. This ancient division of the Island between Leith Cuinn (Conn’s Half) in the North and Leith Mug (Mug’s Half) in the South became the traditional boundary between competing Royal dynasties. From Conn’s capitol near Sligo in the west, his direct heirs lay claim to the Kingship of Connaught, Ulster and the High Kingship of Ireland. These titles were difficult and bloody to maintain, though the position of High King in particular was mainly ceremonial. Conn’s later descendants began a more complete conquest of the independent and client Kingdoms of the North of Ireland.
The most influential of these men was Niall of the Nine Hostages, the son of King Eochaid Mugmedon and the Briton Princess Cairen Chasdubh, Cairen of the Dark Curls. Niall was the most powerful Lord in the British Isles in the early 5th century. His successive wars temporarily reunified Ireland and his raiding of England and Wales returned great wealth and many slaves, one of whom was a young Romanized Briton named Patricius who would mature into the patron Saint of the Irish. It was on one of these raids to Britain that Niall met his end, slain by his cousin around 450 AD.
Though Niall of the Nine Hostages was a potent King during his lifetime, his most important legacy was his direct descendants. Niall had nine sons, each of whom inherited or wrested control of some part of his Kingdom for themselves. Over the next several hundred years, the families of these nine men would expand to control the majority of land in the North and West of Ireland, making up an enormous percentage of the population. Early in 2006, a study by geneticists at Trinity College showed that even after centuries of Viking incursions and English settlement, 21% of men from north-western Ireland, 8% from all of Ireland, and about 2 % of men from New York bore the same Y-chromosome haplotype, adding up to about 2–3 million men who are patrilineal descendants of Niall. Virtually all of these men bear Irish surnames that are traced to Niall’s sons and their descendants in the ancient genealogies.
Seven of Niall sons founded dynasties in Connaught and Meath, making up the Southern Ó Néill (led in historical times by the O’Connors.) but around 430 AD, his two youngest sons, Connall Gulban and Eoghan mac Neill marched north to conquer and set up their own Kingdom in Ulster. Known as Aileach, their domain included all of modern day Donegal and the western parishes of Derry and Tyrone. Its capitol was the Grianan Hillfort at the base of the Inishowen Peninsula. From there Eoghan reigned as King of Aileach, with his kindred settled on Inishowen and the plains to the south. Connall’s kin controlled lands west of Aileach in Donegal. Both mac Neill brothers and their kin were converted and baptized by Patrick and remained firm supporters of the Saint throughout their lives.
In 464 Connall Gulban was ambushed and killed by rebellious subject clans, and legend tells that a stricken Eoghan wasted away and died of grief for his lost brother within the year. Unfortunately, the close relationship between the mac Neill brothers was not inherited by their kindreds. The clans founded by them, the Cineál Eoghain, eventually dominated by the Ó Néills and the Cineál Connaill led by the O’Donnells, would remain rivals for power in Ulster for the next 1000 years. While Connall’s people expanded to control all of Donegal, it was Eoghan’s kindred that proved the stronger, dividing and subdividing into the many powerful septs of Cineál Eoghain as they expanded across modern Derry, Tyrone and beyond. The Chief of the kindred customarily held the title of the King of Aileach and later, King of Tir Eoghain and King of Ulster. For hundreds of years the title of High King of Ireland was alternated between the Cineál Eoghain King and the Southern Ó Néill King.
Irish Gaelic Clans and Septs
Before I go on with more clan history, it seems like it would be a good idea to post a quick overview of the organization of an Irish clan. For many of you this info is old hat, but for others it may be critical to imagining the lives of our ancestors. Ed
Over the course of a millennium of expansion, the family of Eoghan mac Niall multiplied and subdivided into the many great families Cineál Eoghain. Each had its own lands and Chiefs, yet remained part of the greater whole, owing allegiance to the elected King of Cineál Eoghain. Together these families formed a nation that was part of a cohesive and complex society that differed considerably from our own world of modern individualism. To better understand the world that our ancestors lived in, loved and fought for we need to begin with a clearer vision of the organization and structure of ancient and medieval Gaelic society.
Gaelic Ireland was a lineage based society built upon the foundation of large extended family groups normally referred to as clans (In Irish: Cineál; the kindred of) and septs (Slioght: branch or section). Each member of a clan or sept could trace their lineage to a single male ancestor for whom the kindred was named, like Eoghan mac Niall the patriarch of our Cineál Eoghain. The difference between a clan and sept is essentially one of size and complexity. Clans were the larger organization and included many septs, like the forking branches of a great oak. As a leading sept grew in size and power it often developed into a clan itself. Thus, Irish society was like concentric rings of clans and septs, each mimicking the same organization. For example, The Ó Mealláins were the chiefly sept of Cineál Aedha, which itself was a sept of Cineál Fergus (led by the O’Hagans), which was an original sept of Cineál Eoghain.
The Gaelic clan system provided not only the genealogical foundation of Irish society, but also the social, economic and political framework that upheld it. Beyond its role organizing society by family, the clan acted as a corporate legal entity aimed at controlling territory and protecting its members. The most important single determinant in the success or failure of a clan was its control of land. The basic landholding unit of Gaelic Ireland was the now extinct ballybetagh, which traditionally consisted of 16 tates ( the old tates ARE preserved as the modern townlands of Ulster.) Each ballybetagh was owned communally by an entire clan or sept . However, the traditional system of inheritance effectively gave temporary possession sections of the kindred’s domain to individual landholders. This system, called gavelkind in English, legislated that upon the death of a landholder, the ballybetaghs and townlands owned by the kindred be redistributed with the “oldest and best” (most senior and powerful) receiving the first choices in order of rank. This system assured that the leaders always inherited the most productive land, but also created a rotating possession where individual leaders and their families might move several times in their lives.
Control of land not only determined the clans’ success, but each individuals’ place in the class structure of Gaelic society. At the head of each kindred was the Chief, normally referred to by his surname alone (Ó Neill, Ó Mealláin ) This man, chosen by his peers as the most capable leader amongst the eligible nobles gained control of a portion of the kindred’s property as demesne lands reserved to his Office. Added to the lands already under his control through inheritance, the Chief held direct control of a sizable portion of the clan’s domain. Beyond his lands, the Chief was owed a tax from each clansmen, usually in cattle and mandatory military service known as the” Rising Out”. As the leader of the kindred the Chiefs’ importance was paramount; his political, military and economic decisions determined his peoples’ success or failure. In times of peace he stored the surplus grains and seed, brought in and distributed trade goods, settled their disputes and administered justice. In wartime he protected the clan’s cattle, organized their forces and led them in battle.
When a Chief died, his succession was determined not through primogeniture, but through the Gaelic system of tanistry. Each new Chief chose a successor immediately upon ascending to the office. This man, referred to as the Tanaiste or Tanist was usually a son or brother and was the second most powerful man in any clan. His office like that of the Chief was accompanied by demesne lands, a portion of the taxes and direct control over part of the clan’s military might. However, in spite of his position the Tanist was not guaranteed to follow his patron into power. Instead, upon the death of the leader, a new headman was chosen from a group of eligible nobles within the derbfine of the deceased chief’s predecessor. Though the Tanist’s control of land and military power certainly gave him an advantage in the decision, the leader deemed ablest and most powerful was elected Chief by a council of clan Chieftains representing their various septs. This system was by nature fractuous. The death of a Chief often led to years of warfare between the septs of rival claimants, and sometimes to the permanent division of the clan and its lands into separate political entities.
The Chieftains were the heads of a septs with hereditary ownership of townlands separate from, but part of the clan’s domain. Their role in the clan system was to oversee and distribute lands to clansmen and tenants within their sept’s domain and collect tribute in money, agricultural goods and cattle for the Chief. They were taxed themselves, and like any member of the kindred owed “Rising out” to their Chief. It was these landholding nobles who made up the mounted arm of the clan’s host, the Horsemen. Protected by knee length chain mail and armed with spear and longsword, they rode into battle in the Irish style, with no stirrups, wielding their heavy horsemans spear overhand and often casting javelins (Irish darts) as they charged. These men and their immediate families were the socio-economic and military elite of Gaelic Ireland.
The rest of the members of the kindred were tenanted or employed by the Chieftains, most overseeing small farms and livestock, and others engaged in the professions or military roles inherited with their sept. For example, while most O’Donnellys and O’Mallons lived as pastoralists and farmers on their clan lands, landless O’Donnelly men traditionally filled the ranks of the O’Neill’s Ceithern Tighe, or Household Troop, which was commanded by their Chief; O’Mallons without direct access to land often used their kindreds’ ancient and enduring connections to the Patrician Church to find employment as Clergymen or training as Physicians. In addition to a basic tax collected and administrated by the Chieftains, each man (excepting the Clergy) was bound to the Rising Out. When called on to fight, the average man came equipped with a sword, scian, darts and a round shield. Typically wearing little armor the Irish ceithern, or kern, was a hardy, fast moving warrior perfectly suited to the mobile warfare of raiding and ambush that characterized clan conflict in Ireland for a millennium.
Though a relatively small aristocracy consisting of the Chiefs and Chieftains of the leading septs controlled the majority of land in any clan’s domain, the Irish Gaelic clan was tightly bound by kinship, interdependency and common cause, creating a great sense of solidarity between the free clansmen and their Chieftains. These connections were further strengthened by the Gaelic tradition of fosterage, where children (particularly those of the Chief and Chieftains) were exchanged and brought up among different families within the kindred. The unity of a clan was so central to Gaelic society that it was legislated into Brehon Law in the concept of joint responsibility and the application of justice. When an individual was found guilty of theft or murder the fine was levied upon his sept as a whole and the payment was the responsibility of its Chief or Chieftain.
While the clan system assured some level of legal protection and political voice to members of the lineage, not everyone living under a Chief’s authority was a member of the kindred. A large percentage of the population of any clan’s domain consisted of the landless poor often referred to as “churls”. These agricultural workers were the Irish version of peasants, performing the majority of the agricultural labor in return for base protection. As the remnants of defeated and broken clans they were not called upon or trusted to provide military service and lived under the rule of the Chieftains with no protection from Brehon Law. Besides the “churls” a small number of the residents of a clan’s homeland may have been “freeholders”, non-clansmen whose small plots were taxed in military obligations as well as tribute. They were usually members of allied clans and often earned their lands through skill in the professions or service to the Chief.
Before the destruction of the Ulster Clans, Gaelic Irish lived in a unified social system where the clan provided much more than a name. The success or failure of the clan was synonymous with the personal wealth and safety of its members. For its members, the Irish clan system provided livelihood, personal and legal protection, a field for personal advancement and a sense of belonging and importance often lost in the modern world.