Ten powerful families in 12th century Ireland

July 1, 2017



The Uí Conchobair ('the descendants of Conor') family rose to prominence in Connacht during the ninth century and, by the start of the twelfth century, were without equal in that kingdom. In 1119 Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair (Turlough O’Connor) went further than any of his kin, winning the High Kingship of Ireland and holding it for almost thirty years. His son, Ruaidhrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), proved to be just as ambitious as his father, rising to the High Kingship in 1166. It was he who assembled a grand alliance of Irish nations and invaded Leinster, exiling his enemy, Diarmait Mac Murchada, from the land.

His desire to rehabilitate the returning Diarmait a year later was admirable, but he failed to understand the threat posed by the Norman mercenaries who landed in Ireland in 1169. He raised another great army from across the island in 1171, but was decisively defeated at Castleknock and forced back beyond the Shannon. His family – now led by branches descended from his younger brother Cathal – continued to be major players in Connacht throughout the medieval and into the modern period.





Another family from Connacht, the Uí Ruairc, rose from amongst the same ancestors as those of the Uí Conchobair, and like them became contenders for the kingship of that province throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. From their lands in Breifne (modern Counties Leitrim and Cavan), they began to move their influence eastwards into the Kingdom of Mide (Meath) in the 1120s under their most famous prince, Tigernán Ua Ruairc (Tiernan O’Rourke), a one-eyed warlord of great ambition. Although subordinate to the Uí Conchobair High Kings Toirdelbach and Ruaidhrí, he would prove as important to Irish history. In 1128 he invaded Leinster, devastating large areas and beginning a feud with the young king, Diarmait Mac Murchada, which would continue for the rest of their lives. Diarmait’s great revenge came in 1152 when he famously convinced Tigernán’s wife to run away with him. Tigernán responded by taking part in Ruaidhrí Ua Conchobair’s expedition into Leinster in 1166 when Diarmait was forced into exile. He proved an intractable opponent of the Normans in Meath following their arrival under Hugh de Lacy in 1172, and was reputedly killed by Hugh’s men during a parley in Meath that same year. After Tigernán’s time, the Uí Ruairc lost power and influence, and were challenged by the Uí Raghallaigh (O’Reilly) who took over the eastern half of Breifne. Both the Uí Ruairc and the Uí Raghallaigh remained powerful until the Nine Years War in the early seventeenth century.





I think it is safe to say that Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn (Murtagh McLaughlin) of the Northern Uí Néill was the most powerful man in Ireland in the 12th century. He cowed the mighty King of Connacht Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair (Turlough O’Connor) in 1150 and was without equal, if not opposition, from amongst the rulers of Ireland until his death. In 1166, he arranged a truce with his neighbour, Eochaid Mac Duinn Sléibe, King of Ulaid (Ulster, modern Counties Antrim and Down), but violated the terms, and was abandoned by his allies and killed. His great supporter had been the King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, and Muirchertach’s death left him without allies, being eventually driven into exile that same year. Muirchertach had been the second of the Meic Lochlainn to have claimed the office of High King of Ireland. His family was related to the Uí Néill (O’Neill) of Tir Eóghain (Tyrone) and emerged from obscurity in the ninth century to dominate their kinsmen in the 11th and 12th century. The Meic Lochlainn remained the leading dynasty until 1241 when the Uí Néill ousted them from power.





The Uí Néill ('the descendants of Niall') derive their name from Niall Glúndub ('Black-Knee'), a tenth century King of Ailech (northern Counties Donegal and Derry) and High King of Ireland. His ancestors, the Cenél nEógain, had emerged in the 8th century and pushed southwards from Inishowen, subduing the other northern kingdoms of Airgialla and Ulaid. By the 11th century, the dynasty had moved their seat from Ailech to Tulach Óc (Tullyhogue in modern County Tyrone). Another branch of the family became the Kings of Mide (Meath) and the two dominated the High Kingship until 1002 when Brian Boru arrived on the scene. The Northern Uí Néill also formed into two main lineages, the Meic Lochlainn and the Uí Néill of Tir Eóghain, with the latter being preeminent until the Battle of Caimeirge in 1241 when the Uí Néill won back authority. The collapse of the Norman Earldom of Ulster in 1333 allowed one cadet branch to found an independent lordship in southern County Antrim called Clanaboy while a third junior family, the Uí Néill of the Fews, pushed their territory into County Armagh in the fifteenth century. The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth century led to war with England and ultimately to defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1602 and the Flight of the Earls five years later.





The origin of the Uí Briain ('the descendants of Brian') is through the Dál gCais, themselves a cadet branch of the Waterford-based Déisi tribe. The Dál gCais established their powerbase on the River Shannon in present day County Clare in the 10th century when Cennétig Mac Lorcáin (Kennedy, son of Lorcan) took the title of King of Tuadhmumhain (Thomond, or North Munster). One of his sons, Mathgamain Mac Cennétig (Mahon, son of Kennedy) became King of Tuadhmumhain in 953 and, seventeen years later, King of Mhumhain (Munster), replacing the Eóganachta tribe which had produced almost all holders for the previous five centuries. Mathgamain’s younger brother, Brian Bóruma (Brian of the Cattle Tributes), was even more successful, forcing his way to the High Kingship of Ireland in 1002 before falling after winning the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. His descendants would become the Uí Briain and would compete for the High Kingship on four occasions before Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair of Connacht end their hold over Mhumhain by portioning the kingdom between the Uí Briain and the Eóganachta Meic Carthaig (McCarthy) of Deasmumhain (South Munster) in 1118. Despite conquest of the eastern half of the territory by the Norman Butler family and the west by the Clare dynasty, the Uí Briain remained in control of Tuadhmumhain until 1542 when they surrendered their royal authority to King Henry VIII and became Earls of Thomond. They continued to be powerful landowners in County Clare into the 20th century.





The Eóganachta – of which the Meic Carthaig ('the sons of Carthaig') were one branch – had ruled the Kingdom of Mhumhain since the 7th century and had established Cashel as the royal seat of power in the region. As well as the Meic Carthaig, the Uí Súilleabháin (O’Sullivan) and Uí Ceallacháin (O’Callaghan) were most influential. Carthaig had been a rival for the Kingship of Mhumhain, but was pushed out of his tribal territory in the Golden Vale by the Uí Briain in the 11th century. His grandson, Tadhg, was created first King of Deasmumhain (Desmond, South Munster) in 1118 when Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair of Connacht divided the kingdom in two. Tadhg’s nephew, Diarmait Mac Carthaig, was ruler during the time of the Norman invasion and navigated a difficult course to emerge land most of his lands. Diarmait surrendered his hold over Viking Cork to King Henry II of England in 1171 and for several years enjoyed good relations with the invaders (even being returned to power by Raymond de Carew after being deposed by his own son). However, a Norman army under Robert FitzStephen and Milo de Cogan attacked Desmond in 1177 while Diarmait faced an Uí Briain invasion from the north. He was forced to hand over a large territory around Cork. Nonetheless, the family continued to hold a large kingdom and four main branches emerged, remaining great landowners into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when their part in the Desmond Rebellions, Catholic Confederacy and Jacobite cause saw them lose almost everything.



McMURROUGH (later Kavanagh)


The Uí Cheinnselaig ('the descendants of Cennsalach', now Kinsella) was a dynasty tracing their descent back to the fifth century. They had emerged in County Carlow before expanding their territory into northern County Wexford from where they had sporadically forced their supremacy over the Kingdom of Laighin (Leinster) for the next three hundred years. They faded into the background for almost two centuries until, in 1042, one branch of the family, the Meic Murchada ('the sons of Murrough'), rose to prominence and became King of Laigin. This man, Diarmait mac Máel na mBó (Dermot the son of the Baldy of the Cattle), imposed his rule over the Kingdom of Dublin and used this wealth and power to put forward his claim as High King of Ireland. His family would continue to dominate Laighin until 1166 when his great-grandson, Diarmait Mac Murchada, was deposed and forced into exile in England. He returned to Ireland the next year at the head of an army of Normans, an act which would lead to the subjugation of most of the country in the centuries to follow. After Diarmait’s death in 1171 his kingdom fell to the descendants of his son Domhnall Caomhánach (Donal of St Kevin, or Kavanagh). His successors would claim the Kingship of Laighin until 1603 when Domhnall Spáinneach Caomhánach (Donal the Spaniard Kavanagh) submitted to the crown.



McGILLAPATRICK (later Fitzpatrick)


The Kings of Osraighe (Ossory) at the time of the conquest were the Meic Giolla Phádraig ('the Sons of the Servant of Patrick') who ruled a territory roughly paralleling modern County Kilkenny and south-western Laois. This strategic position between the provincial Kingdoms of Mhumhain and Laighin made them major players throughout the pre-conquest era, and they even briefly held rule of the Province of Laighin in the mid-11th century. This rise in power led to an ardent rivalry with the neighbouring Meic Murchada. It was the King of Osraighe who blinded Diarmait Mac Murchada’s son Enna, and later faced several punishing invasions of his lands by the Norman Robert FitzStephen in 1169. The arrival of Strongbow and William Marshal saw the Meic Giolla Phádraig retreat into Laois where they remained the dominant dynasty. In 1541, the head of the most powerful sect surrendered to the crown and adopted the Norman-sounding surname of ‘Fitzpatrick’ as well as the English first name Barnaby in lieu of Brian. He was subsequently also created Baron Upper Ossory and his descendants continued to be major landholders into the 19th century.





After almost a century of native overlordship over Dublin, a descendant of Scandinavia did return to the kingship of the city in 1142 when a group of slave-trading Hiberno-Norse adventurers from the Western Isles under Óttar Mac Óttar and Ragnall Mac Torcaill were invited to take control. A pseudo-civil war between their families led to the Meic Torcaill taking the

throne six years later. Dublin, though rich in trade, was weak in warriors and soon was forced to accept the overlordship of the King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada. Ascall Mac Torcaill remained an important man in the city and in 1166 raised Dublin against Diarmait, marching alongside the King of Connacht, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, to send their former overlord into exile. Little did he know, but Ascall’s decision to join with Ruaidrí would effectively make him the last man to hold the office of King of Dublin. For Diarmait Mac Murchada would never forgive or forget this betrayal.



McGILLAMURRAY (also Gilmore/Kilmurray)


While little is known is about the rulers of Waterford at the end of the twelfth century, we do know that the preeminent family in the city was the Hiberno-Norse Meic Giolla Mhuire ('the Sons of the Servant of the Virgin'). Their name denotes heavy acculturation, but even in the fourteenth century one of the descendants of the family (who had settled at Duagh in County Waterford) was still noted as being an Ostman (East Man, the name by which the descendants of the Vikings identified themselves). The King of Waterford at the time of the invasion was one Ragnall Mac Giolla Mhuire and he tried in vain to oppose the Normans, only remaining alive thanks to the intercession of Diarmait Mac Murchada. While his influence was curtailed, he was among the chieftains who submitted to King Henry II in late 1171. Other Ostman families to retain influence in Waterford after the Norman takeover included the Harald, MacCotter, MacShitric (McKittrick) and MacGothmund clans.




What do you think? Who was the most influential Irish family in the 12th century?




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