The Origins and History of the Ó Sionnaigh or Fox Family of Ireland
To discover the origins of the Ó Sionnaigh or Fox family in Ireland we must go back nearly two thousand years, to a time when history and myth meet and merge.
1st Century BC to 7th Century AD
In the early centuries AD Ireland was divided into five ancient regions or provinces (literally “fifths”), the heavily forested northern Ulaidh (the province of Ulster), the south-eastern Laighin (the province of Leinster), the agriculturally rich southern An Mhumhain (the province of Munster), a harsh and sparsely populated western province that was called Ól nEachmhacht, and a middle or central province based in the Irish midlands known as An Mhí (the province of Meath), which contained the sacro-religious capital of Ireland, Teamhair (the Hill of Tara) and the highly important valley of An Bóinn (the River Boyne). The hill at Teamhair, with wide views in all directions, was at the centre of a huge complex of important pre-historic sites stretching back thousands of years, a sacred, many-layered landscape covering several square kilometres. Control of it gradually became a symbol of political supremacy, with sacro-religious and almost mythical overtones, for any king or people who possessed it, that lasted for centuries. The first four provinces were dominated by regional groupings that had been in power probably for centuries, while the central province was continuously contested back and forth between Ulaidh and Laighin, often symbolised by the taking and retaking of Teamhair by one group or another, while the local population there struggled to maintain their independence of the other two provinces.
These grouping profited through contact with the Roman Empire, gaining wealth and influence as a result of trade with Britain and France in the first centuries AD. However, there was an hiatus of a century or more when contact between Ireland and the Empire seems to have fallen off sharply, with unknown results in the country. In any case the centuries 100 BC to 300 AD was the so-called Heroic Age of Early or Celtic Ireland, a time of pre-Christian Celtic kings and queens, druids and poets, warriors and heroes, of chariot-driven champions and God-like otherworldly beings and where much of Ireland’s later Mythology and Early Literature and Poetry was envisioned as happening. Of course the truth was far more prosaic and down to earth than that but this era had a profound hold and influence on Irish imagination (right up to the present time).
But as in all golden ages it wasn’t meant to last and in the 4th century AD we begin to emerge out of the mists of legend and into the dimly perceived pre-history of late Pre-Christian Ireland. As the Roman Empire began to weaken, preceded by another European-wide economic downturn, some of the regional populations in Ireland appear to have adapted quickly to exploit the new situation. When full contact was resumed in the 4th century it was now accompanied by a far more profitable form of international commerce for the Irish – raiding. Irish fleets, small and great, raided up and down the western and southern coasts of Britain and perhaps north-western France as well. The Roman adminsitration in Britain was forced to introduce a comprehensive system of defences and miltary bases, infantry and naval, along Britain’s western and southern coasts to counter the increasingly sustained Irish threat.
The wealth now exploitable from Britain, especially after the effective Roman withdrawal from Britain, c. 400 AD, allowed those communities across Ireland that had previously being subservient or of minor importance to surface. In the western province an obscure people wrapped up in myth and speculation, and probably collectively known as the Féine, emerged. A highly dynamic population group they expanded rapidly out of an area just west of An tSionainn (the River Shannon), and possibly in part just east of it, and came to dominate the western province. It’s possible that this grouping may have been the original rulers at Teamhair, until displaced in the back-and-forth territorial wars of Ulaidh and Laighin. If so their histories and genealogies were appropriated by the later monastic historian-genealogists of the Early Christian Era to bedrock their political histories of Early Ireland. In any case this group was so influential in Irish history in the late pre-Christian period and beyond that their name became synonymous with the Irish people, resulting in the name being used in the Early Law Tracts to describe the free people of society, those who were free by birth or through acquiring a profession, often in the sense of the ordinary or common folk of a kingdom, and so Irish Law in general could be called Dlí na bhFéine.
The leading or ruling grouping of the Féine were the Connachta (“People or Descendants of Conn”, Conn being a semi-legendary king at Teamhair and ancestor of the historical Niall Naoighiallach, and a prominent figure in the Féine origin myths) and this group renamed the western province after themselves as Connachta “(land of the) descendants of Conn”, which is today partly anglicised as Connacht (or Connaught). The local populations, collectively known as the Fir Ól nEachmhacht, were displaced, made subservient or absorbed.
The other main part of the Féine/Connachta, crossing An tSionainn, later styled themselves the Uí Néill “descendants of Niall”, referring to Niall Naoighiallach, a leader of the resurgent Connachta who retook Teamhair, becoming the first historical High King of Ireland (c. 445-452/3AD), and led his people in the establishment of a virtual empire in the midlands of Ireland (all Irish and Scottish people who have the Y-chromosome haplogroup R1b1c7 (M222) may be of descendants of the Niall, this seemingly being a genetic indicator of the Uí Néill, and scientists calculate that Niall could have as many as three million descendants alive in the world today!). Several branches of the Uí Néill went on to establish aristocratic dynasties that dominated Irish history for the next thousand years. They pushed northwards into the territory of Ulaidh (becoming the Northern Uí Néill), conquering, driving aside or back the populations there, leading in part to a bigger push into north-western Britain by the Ulaidh kingdoms, in particular the dynamic Dál Riada, who refocused on an overseas extension in north-western Britain of their Irish kingdom (as well as Oileán Mhanann or the Isle of Man, from the 5th century AD onward), which eventually led to the Irish domination of northern Britain, and the establishment of the Gaelic nation of Albain or “Scotland” (Scotland literally means, the “Land of the Irish”, Scoti being a Roman word for the Irish who raided and settled Britain from the 3rd century AD on. In Latin Ireland and the Irish then became Scotia and Scotti, and when the Irish came to dominate northern Britain it was applied to that entire region by the English in the form of Scotland. The origins and meaning of the name Scotti itself are hotly contested with no one satisfactory answer or theory, some seeing it of Irish origin others of Roman or Romano-British. The most likely explanation is that it comes from a Proto-Irish word, but several candidates are offered, such as *skut-ā-cut “cut”, *skeito “shield”, *skāto- “shadow”, *(s)kutu- “head”; interestingly in the case of the last suggestion the ancestor of the Connachta, Conn, derives from Proto-Irish kondos- “head”, implying perhaps some sort of link).
Likewise the pressure from the Uí Néill in the midlands and northern part of Laighin (the centre of the island was now under the Southern Uí Néill) also contributed to the already long-standing process of trading, raiding and settlement from Laighin into western Britain. The people of Laighin settled in northern Wales (giving their name to a peninsula there, called Llŷn in Welsh) while a people linked to An Mhumhain, the Déise, settled in southern Wales (giving rise to the Welsh regional name Dyfed). Cornwall, Devon and Somerset were also heavily settled from An Mhumhain, with Irish-speaking communities surviving along the coast up to the mid 7th century.
The Uí Néill themselves spread out from Ireland, raiding the fringes of the decaying Roman Empire, preferring military conquest over straight forward commerce, attacking western and southern Britain and north-western France (the modern and ancient north Welsh region of Gwynedd almost certainly derives from the Féine, Welsh Gw- reflecting Irish F-, being particularly heavily settled by the Irish in the late and post-Roman period). Niall himself is reputed to have died campaigning in southern Britain, being killed somewhere in the Muir nIocht (the English Channel, between Britain and France), possibly somewhere on or around the Isle of Wight.
This emergence and expansion of the Connachta/Uí Néill branches coupled with the gradual decline of the Roman Empire had repercussions throughout Ireland and beyond. In the southern province of An Mhumhain the long standing dominant populations groups, perhaps known collectively as the Éirainn, were gradually (and less violently) replaced by a grouping of linked aristocratic families known as the Eoghanachta, who were the southern parallel of the midland Uí Néill, and dominated the south for centuries as the Connachta/Uí Néill did the centre, west and north of the island. In fact the Eoghanachta themselves may anciently have been part of or linked to the Féine, and likewise at some early stage may have used that name for themselves. The Éirainn on the other hand are a very ancient population group, their name meaning literally the “People of Ireland”, Ireland being Éire in the Irish language, a word that seems to mean, quiet literally, “land or the abundant land”; however it does not denote any special claim to the island of Ireland by this group, just that the island was called Éire, and one group among many in the population derived their name from it. The ancient early Celtic form of the name Éire (Old Irish Éiru), was *īweriū or *īwerjon-, became Ἰέρνη (I[w]ernē) and Ἰουερνία (Iouernia) in Greek, and the latter form Ἰουερνία (Iouernia) became Hibernia in Latin. From the Celtic *īweriū also derived Old English Íraland “Ireland”).
It has been suggested that the Féine themselves may have originated or been an ancient grouping within the Éirainn, dwelling in the midlands of Ireland, and that by the later period this was link was largely forgotten, covered up or subsumed into later histories and myths. However this is theory cannot readily be proved either way.
One of the creations of this turbulent time was Teathbha (anglicised as Teffia) a large and powerful kingdom and territory, located east of An tSionainn (the River Shannon) and initially spreading into the counties of An Longfort (Longford), An Iarmhí (Westmeath), and Uíbh Fhailí (Offaly), dominating the centre of Ireland. This became the home of the Ó Sionnaigh or Fox family who were linked to this area for centuries, often referred to in various Irish annals as “Lords of Teathbha” and “Kings of Teathbha”. It’s precise origins lie in the 5th Century AD when this territory was given to Maine of the Southern Uí Néill, a son of Niall Naoighiallach. Maine’s territory traditionally stretched from Loch Rí (Lough Ree, which runs down through Cos. Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon) to Loch Ainninn (Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath), a relatively huge area. Later it was further sub-divided into Teathbha Thuaiscirt “North Teathbha” dominated by the dynasty of Cinéal Cairbre, and Teathbha Deiscirt “South Teathbha” dominated by the dynasty of Cinéal Mhaine (the direct descendants of Maine, a branch of which became the Ó Sionnaigh).
As King of Teathbha, Maine was a contemporary of Naomh Pádraig (Saint Patrick, who was of Romano-British origin and who came to Ireland as a captive of Irish raiders, probably led by one of the Uí Néill if not Niall himself), and is mentioned as having been converted to Christianity by Pádraig through baptism. Maine died in 440 AD, and was succeeded in order by his descendants Fiachach, Brian, Criomhthan, and then Bréanainn in 550 AD. Bréanainn (or his son Aodh) gave land to the famous and influential Medieval Irish saint, Colm Cille (Saint Columba), for what became the large and hugely important monastery of Darú (Durrow, near Tulach Mhór or Tullamore, Co. Offaly) in the Irish midlands. In doing so Bréanainn and his descendants became Darú’s protecting dynasty and as such were obliged to provide security and support to the monastery. It, like most of the larger Irish monasteries, eventually became a relatively large urban-centre or town by around the 9th century AD, comparable with anything in contemporary western Europe, providing not just religious services to the surrounding kingdoms and communities, but also functioning as a commercial, financial and educational centre. Indeed, in line with many other important Irish monastic-towns, it became what modern historians have dubbed a monastic-corporation, a semi-independent state with enormous wealth in land, livestock and commercial goods, and ecclesiastical and political (and even military) power. Association with the most important monasteries provided Irish kingdoms with added status and influence, and the ruling family of more than one kingdom had family members ruling in neighbouring monasteries.
After Bréanainn and Aodh came Bladhmhac, Conghal, Colla (or Connla), Beag, Conchúir, Braidhe, Maolbheannachta, and finally Tadhghán, who most likely lived around 900 AD. These ancestors of the Ó Sionnaigh line lived at a time when Ireland went through the slow two or three centuries long conversion from the Celtic religion to the Christian one, with all the changes in culture and society that entailed. What emerged was a complex hybrid blend of the millenia old native Celtic Irish culture and the new Christianity culture of the early centuries AD, a dynamic, confident civilization that was to last for the next thousand years and which was to spread out from Ireland in the aftermath of the Fall of the Roman Empire, bringing Christianity, literature, science and learning back to Europe and beyond, sowing seeds in the Dark Ages that were to grow into the Renaissance and the birth of modern European civilization many centuries later. Meanwhile, in the 4th to 8th centuries, Ireland was to dominate or influence the British (Welsh) kingdoms and the northern English tribal kingdoms that emerged from the chaos following the withdrawl of the Roman administration. British and English royal or aristocratic families sent their children to Ireland for education or fosterage or requested Irish tutors, their children married into Irish noble families sealing great, international alliances. One of the most famous of this time was Oswald son of Æthelfrith, King of Northumberland, the most important and powerful of the northern English kingdoms, who grew up in Ireland and was married to Fíon daughter of Colmán mac Baodáin of the Cíneal nEoghain and High King of Ireland, their son becoming Aldfrith, King of Northumbria (his Irish name was Flann Fíona mac Ossu).
Irish missionaries and relgious administrated to their spiritual needs (bringing Christianity, literature and science to the English tribes), mercenaries from Britain sought service in Ireland, while foreign kings sought Irish military support, often through Dál Riada, However that influence came under increasing challenges in the 8th century while at the same time the Irish kingdoms turned inward, ignoring their neighbours, and vying intensely with each other.
The importance of Tadhghán son of Maolbheannachta is attached to the fact that he became the one common ancestor of more than twenty kings of Teathbha for the next 300 years. From him the Ó Sionnaigh descends and they and their territories were often referred to as the Muintir Thadhgháin “The People of Tadhghán”, right up to the 1600s (for the English under the anglicised form, Munterhagan).
8th Century AD to 12th Century AD
In the late 8th century northern and western Europe experienced a series of devastating raids by seaborne expeditions from Scandinavia that steadily increased in ferocity and occurrence. These were the work of the Vikings of popular myth and history, raiders, invaders and settlers from modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who for a variety of reasons (over-population, climate deterioration, agricultural and economic slumps, desire for slaves, land and plunder, and inherently militaristic and expansionist ideologies) gradually moved out of their Scandinavian territories to attack much of Europe, Russia and beyond.
The first raid on Ireland occurred in 795 AD, increasing enormously in the next century, with the settlement and seizure of territory from the 840s onward. These attacks and the attempt at colonisation by the Vikings had an enormous effect on Irish civilization. Many Irish kingdoms were devastated, communities enslaved or destroyed. Thousands of Irish people were enslaved and exported throughout the Viking world and beyond, turning up as far way as Iceland in the north or Morocco in the south. Monasteries in particular were a prime target for attack by the Scandinavian pirates, their enormous wealth a ready source of plunder. While initially the Vikings had set up relatively simple fortified seasonal raiding camps from which to operate they later set upon a program of more permanent settlements. By the year 950 AD the Vikings had established thriving seaports around the coast of Ireland normally on earlier Irish monastic or maritime settlements, such as Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin) 841 AD, Port Láirge (Waterford) 853 AD, Luimneach (Limerick) 812 AD, Corcaigh (Cork) 915 AD, Loch Garman (Wexford) 800 AD, and other places.
Elsewhere in Europe the success of the Vikings was staggering. They succeed in invading, settling and eventually conquering England, causing profound changes to English society, culture and language (indeed it could be argued that the changes to English society prepared the way for the Norman-French invasion of 1066 AD – the Normans themselves being descended from Viking invaders who had earlier seized an area in northern France creating their own territory as the Normans or “Norsemen”). Several Kings of Denmark were also Kings of England, England becoming effectively Danish territory, and much of the northern English, through common ties of blood, politics and trade, owed more loyalty to Denmark than to the southern English. Indeed for long periods the north-east of England was politically part of the Scandinavian-Irish kingdom of Baile Átha Claith (Dublin). In Russia Viking colonisation exploited the trading wealth of Eastern Europe and near Asia creating kingdoms and towns that were to last for centuries. They even attacked the Mediterranean, reaching Italy, Greece and the very gates of Byzantium.
However in sharp and stark contrast to much of the rest of Europe, the kings of Ireland soon brought the Vikings to heel, a tribute to the inherent strength, stability and adaptability of Irish society. Within decades of the initial shock and success of their first raids, the Viking raiders were suffering significant reversals, under increasing pressure, as the military superiority they displayed with such ease elsewhere in Europe was effectively countered and overcome. In fact, aside from a couple of ports on the west and south-west coasts most Scandinavian activities were confined to the east coast. While in part this can be attributed to the Vikings taking over and expanding existing commercial networks and centres there, as well as their successes in acquiring nearby land in Britain, the prime factor was undoubtedly the control of the northern half of the island by the various branches of the powerful Northern and Southern Uí Néill dynasties. By the year 950 AD these kingdoms had virtually eliminated the Scandinavian threat, and there were no serious attempts by the Vikings to settle along the northern coasts. However in doing so the Uí Néill may have missed a golden opportunity to become the dominant power on the entire island. While in the rest of the country the Viking settlements were either destroyed or abandoned through the actions of various Irish kingdoms (indeed Baile Átha Claith itself, the main settlement of the Scandinavians in the country was taken and raised to the ground by the Irish in 902 AD, and its population expelled to their overseas possessions in northern England, not returning until 917) a handful of sites held out, partly through violent resistance, partly through diplomacy but mainly through sheer wealth. It is clear that the rulers in the south of Ireland soon saw the coastal ports, however truculent or independent minded, as being too valuable to destroy. By the year 1000 AD all the remaining Scandinavian towns had been brought under the effective lordship of Irish overkings, ruled directly or indirectly through Irish dynasties and their clients. Indeed this was the natural culmination of a process by which the Viking settlers in Ireland had become so integrated and subsumed into Irish society over the previous one hundred years and more that they had become the Gall-Gaeil, the Scandinavian-Irish, adopting in large part the Irish language, culture and religion as their own, intermarrying into Irish families and communities. The great Scandinavian-Irish seaports became the prized (and often contested) possessions of the leading Irish kingdoms, bringing enormous wealth and prestige to their rulers. And it was mainly the kings of the southern half of the country who prospered from this. Through them the Irish kings exercised power and influence up and down the Irish Sea and beyond in a return to the maritime heyday of the 4th to 6th centuries. Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin) became the largest trading port in western Europe, followed closely by Port Láirge (Waterford) and Loch Garman (Wexford), and was the western hub of a trading network that extended across the whole of Europe and into north Africa and the Middle-East. Irish aristocratic families became the object of many European noble or royal families with an eye on making influential allies or connections, and numerous lords and ladies, princes and princesses made the journey to Ireland for marriage or fosterage (or asylum) from Wales, England, Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany and beyond.
While in the early years of the Viking attacks, An tSionainn (River Shannon) was used as a major route to attack the midlands of Ireland, no significant encounters are recorded between the people of Teathbha and the Scandinavian raiders, though they must have occurred as several midland monasteries were plundered.
From Tadhghán the line of descent of the Ó Sionnaigh ancestors is: Beag, Conchúir, Breasal, Cearnachan, and then Cathalán and his son Catharnach. The last two are the most important, since they are only about four generations from the beginning of the use of Ó Sionnaigh as a surname, although neither of them were Kings of Teathbha. Cathalán’s grave slab still exists at Darú (Durrow) today, inscribed in Latin “OR DO CATALAN”. Although little of known of him he most likely lived in the mid-to-late 11th century (between 1030 and 1140 six descendants of his brother Muireaghán served as Kings of Teathbha). His son Catharnach was alive around the year 1000 AD and himself had two sons, Muireadhach and Fogharthach. It is from Muireadhach that the Ó Catharnaigh (later anglicized to Kearney) family is derived, and he and his son Cú Chachaí were Kings of Teathbha. From the other son, Fogharthach, the Ó Sionnaigh family descends; Fogharthach had at least three sons, of whom one was named Tadhgh.
This Tadhgh not only became King of Teathbha, but is among the first two individuals in this dynastic line to have been referred to in the annals as Sionnach, “Fox”: in the record of his violent death in 1086 AD he is called, “The Sionnach Fionn, that is, Tadhgh Ó Catharnaigh…”
It seems that Sionnach or “Fox” was originally a nickname for Tadhgh Ó Catharnaigh (perhaps an inherited one as Tadhgh’s brother Beag was referred to as Beag an Sionnach Odhar) and it implied that he was clever or wily, like a fox, and presumably referred to his military and or political abilities. As lord of his people, instead of being referred to as The Ó Catharnaigh, which would have been customary, he was referred to as An (“The”) Ó Catharnaigh Sionnach and later just An Sionnach or “The Fox”. Eventually his direct descendants – and perhaps other close relatives, though this is not certain – began using Sionnach as part of their name as well, the continued use of Ó Catharnaigh only lasting for perhaps two or three more generations as Ó Sionnaigh became the primary name for this branch. Eventually the Ó Catharnaigh, the descendants of Muireadhach, one of Catharnach’s two sons, developed as a separate line (their last name anglicized by the English to O’Caharny, Kearny, etc.).
However, the Ó Sionnaigh are possibly mentioned as a grouping in the Irish annals even earlier than Tadhgh. They may be identifiable with the Sionnacha (literally “Foxes”) and the Sionnaigh (also, “Fox” but this in the sense of a family name) who, along with others, are mentioned several times,
M1050.18: Cluain Mhic Nóis do orgain fó thrí i n-aon-ráithe, feacht ó Siol n-Anmchadha, & fa dhó o Callraighibh gusna Sionnchaibh.
“Cluain Mhic Nóis was plundered three times in one quarter (of a year), once by the Síol nAinmhchadha, and twice by the Calraí with the Sionnacha.” [Author’s Translation]
In 1053 the provincial kings of An Mhumhain (Munster) and An Mhí (Meath) made a combined raid on Fine Gall, the Scandinavian-Irish (Viking) territory north of Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin) and the important monastery of Lusca (Lusk, Co. Dublin), and then under the control of the King of Laighin (the province of Leinster). The annals report,
M1053.12: Slóicchedh lá mac Bhriain .i. Donnchadh, & la Conchobhar Ua Maoil Sechlainn h-i Fine Gall, co t-tuccsat Fir Tethbha, .i. na Sionnaigh, braitt iomdha a doimh liag Luscca, & co ruccsat aittere ó mac Maoil na m-Bó im Móir inghen Conghalaigh Ui Conchobhair. Diarmaid, mac Maoil na m-Bo, & Giolla Páttraig, tigherna Osraighe do dhul i Midhe, go t-tugsat broid, & gabhála dímhóra a n-díoghail Moire, inghine Congalaigh Uí Chonchobhair, do dhol go Conchobhar Ua Maoileachlainn dar sárúgadh Giollu Pháttraicc, & a n-díoghail na boromha rug Ua Maoilechlainn a Laighnibh.
“An army was led by the son of Brian, i.e. Donnchadh, and Conchúir Ó Maolsheachlainn, into Fine Gall with the Fir Teathbha, i.e. the Sionnaigh, taking many captives from the stone church of Lusca and they carried off hostages from the son of Maol na mBó, together with Mór, daughter of Conghalach Ó Conchúir. Diarmaid, son of Maol na mBó, and Giolla Phádraig, lord of the Osraí, went into An Mhhí, taking captives and very great spoils, in revenge for the taking of Mór, daughter of Conghalach Ó Conchúir, to Conghalach Ó Maolsheachlainn, in violation of Giolla Phádraig; and in revenge also of the cattle spoils which Ó Maolsheachlainn had carried off from the Laighinigh.” [Author’s Translation]
The Ó Sionnaigh together with the King of Connachta (Connacht) also raided territory in An Mhumhain (the province of Munster), and they were probably among the “Men of Teathbha” who also plundered a monastery in 1058. Many other raids and other events are reported subsequent to this using the term Fir Theathbha or “Men of Teathbha”. It may be that Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn and Beag an Sionnach Odhar inherited their name from their father or grandfather (Fogharthach or Catharnach respectively), and it may have been Fogharthach who would have been alive at the time the raids of the 1050s took place.
Whatever about the earlier Sionnacha, Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn became King of Teathbha in 1070 after much conflict between the various Teathbha noble families for the kingship. The Ó Sionnaigh were originally kings of all Teathbha, and latterly south Teathbha, receiving tributes from the other minor lords in territory; they also had here their own extended family royal land known by the name Muintir Thadhgháin as mentioned earlier.
In 1077 a feud developed between the Ó Sionnaigh and their overlords, who were the Kings of An Mhí (Meath) and then holders of the High Kingship of Ireland. Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn had been King of Teathbha seems to have been responsible for the death of the heir to An Mhí throne, Murchú, the annals reporting that the heir was killed by, “men of Teathbha and Catharnach Sionnach”.
The ruling dynasty of An Mhí (Meath), the Ó Maolsheachlainn (O’Melaghlins), made several retaliatory raids into Teathbha territory during the next few years. One of these raids into Teathbha took place in 1080, with Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn responding by plundering the monastery of Cluain Mhic Nóis (Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly ), which was closely linked through dynastic, political and economic ties to the Ó Maolsheachlainn. But it wasn’t until 1086 that the Ó Maolsheachlainn had their revenge on the Ó Sionnaigh, when Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn, his son Cianaodh (or Cionneadh), and several others were killed by Murchú’s brother Maolsheachlainn, now King of An Mhí.
“The Sionnach Fionn, that is Tadhgh Ó Catharnaigh, lord of Teathbha, and Cianaodh, his son, and Ó Muireadhaigh, chief of Muintir Tlamhain, were treacherously slain by Maolsheachlainn, son of Conchúir, at Loch Maighe Uatha, in revenge of Murchú, son of Conchúir, having been slain by Ó Catharnaigh Sionnach.” [Author’s Translation]
The deaths took place at Loch Maighe Uatha (probably what is now called Locha Luatha near Baile Locha Luatha or Ballyloughloe, Co. Westmeath), a small lake between An Grianán (Mount Temple, Co. Westmeath) and An Móta (Moate, Co. Westmeath) and in Ó Sionnaigh territory; from the late 9th/early 10th centuries up to the 13th, the Ó Sionnaigh primary residence was likely to have been in an area between present-day An Móta (Moate, Co. Westmeath) and An Grianán (Mount Temple, Co. Westmeath), probably Dún Thadhgháin “Fortress of Tadhghán” (Dunegan, Co. Westmeath). Nothing remains of this original fortress today as in subsequent centuries the family of Mac Amhalghaidh (Magawley) built their own stone castle on the site.
Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn’s death was avenged only a year later, by a cousin, Cathal Ó Muireagáin, “and the men of Teathbha… through treachery and guile”, who eventually also became King of Teathbha for two years (1095-97 AD).
Aside from the son who was killed with him in 1086, Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn also had two other sons who survived his demise. One of them was also named Tadhgh and the other was Muireadhach, and it is the former through whom the family name was to continue. However, it is likely both of them were quite young at the time of their father’s death, and the kingship of Teathbha, in the Ó Sionnaigh line, would next go to a son of Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn’s brother, Beag an Sionnach Odhar. Beag’s son, Catharnach Sionnach, was to serve as King in turn for only for a year before he was killed in 1098. In fact, between 1086 when Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn, as King of Teathbha, was killed, and 1099, there were a total of six Kings of Teathbha, only one of whom died of natural causes. Catharnach was killed by a distant relation of the Ó Sionnaigh, Muirchearthach Ó hAirt (O’Harts), a lord in eastern Teathbha, and although he was succeeded by an Ó hAirt, the new Ó hAirt king was defeated and killed at a site probably near Cill Bheagáin (Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath) by Catharnach’s family only a year later in 1099.
The killing of Catharnach Sionnach in 1098 left the Ó Sionnaigh without an adult male to lead the dynasty and it was to be a number years before an Ó Sionnaigh became King of Teathbha again. In 1127, the annals have a somewhat confusing account of “the taking of the house of Flann son of Sionnach”, followed by in the year 1135, with reports of the death of Flann Sionnach, “keeper of the Bachaill Íosa” (or Staff of Jesus, a holy relic passed down from Saint Pádraig’s time, reportedly the golden crozier which was used by the saint himself several hundred years earlier and of enormous prestige). When Dónall Ó Muireagáin died in holy orders in 1141, Muireadhach Sionnach son of Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn assumed the kingship, dying seven years later of natural causes. The Muintir Cheathearnaigh was cited as the responsible party for the killing of the lord of Breaghmhaine in 1150 at a field in Cluain Mhic Nóis (Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly), and in 1155 were sited again as having been defeated along with two other aristocratic groups. The next King of Teathbha, Flann Ó Flannagáin, died peacefully in 1153. The kingship again returned to the Ó Sionnaigh in the form of Tadhgh Sionnach, son of Tadhgh Sionnach Fionn (and brother of Muireadhach Sionnach) with the annals entry that “Tadhgh Ó Catharnaigh, lord of Teathbha, died in religion” implying he entered the monastery in his old age, a relatively common form of retirement for a widowed king.
Tadhgh was the father of six sons, two of whom became clergy, one of whom died in 1184, and two others of whom we have no information. However, there is one son we do know about, and that was Ruairí, also known as Ruairí son of Tadhgh Sionnach, who became King of Teathbha in 1170, just as Ireland was entering a watershed in its history.
12th Century AD to 17th Century AD
After losing the protection of Muirchearthach Mac Lochlainn, High King of Ireland, who died in 1166 AD, Diarmaid Mac Murchú, the deeply unpopular Uí Cheinnsealaigh king of Laighin, was forcibly exiled by an alliance of Irish forces under the new High King, Ruairí Ó Conchúir. Diarmaid fled first to Bristol in England, which had long-standing trading links with Ireland and Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin) in particular, and then to Normandy, in northern France. He sought and obtained permission from Henry II, king of England and Duke of Normandy, to use the latter’s subjects to regain his kingdom.
Henry had a long-standing interest in Ireland, as did the Norman rulers of Britain dating back to the Norman-French invasion and conquest of Britain in 1066 AD. From the 11th century onward the leading kings in Ireland, through control of the Scandinavian-Irish seaports of Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin), Loch Garman (Wexford), Port Láirge (Waterford), and even Luimneach (Limerick), had again dominated the Irish Sea area and the coast of western Britain politically, militarily and economically. The various ethnic groups in Britain looked to the major Irish kings for alliances and support, and in the wake of the defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings and the spread across the island of Britain by the Norman-French, many English exiles sought political asylum in Ireland. The sons of the last English King, Harold Godwinson, took refuge with the Irish king of Laighin, Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó (as had their father in his youth with their grandfather, Godwin the Earl of Essex in 1051 – Harold’s sister, Edith of Wessex, wife of Edward the Confessor King of England, was a fluent Irish speaker, though she herself had never visited Ireland – an indication of the use of Irish as a lingua franca in the Irish Sea area at the time). From there they launched repeated attempts to regain England, in 1068, 1069 and 1082.
Likewise several Welsh lords and kings had also sought asylum in Ireland, including most famously Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd. He was the son of the exiled heir-apparent of Gwynedd Cynan ab Iago (Canan mac Iabo), who married Ragnailt, daughter of Óllamh (Olaf) son of Sitric (Sigtrygg Olafsson), king of Baile Átha Claith (Dublin), and who was related to several Irish dynasties, including that of Brian Bóroimhe High King of Ireland. Gruffydd was in fact born in Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin), raised in the area of Sord (Swords, Co. Dublin), and worshipped in Christchurch Cathedral as a boy (which he bequeathed to in his will). It is claimed that he was given land at Clochrán (Cloghran, Co. Dublin) and later the family of his son Owain Gwynedd (who had an Irish wife, mother of the famous Welsh poet Hywel) had lands in the local area: his son Maelgwn Owain in Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin city), and his other two sons Rhirid and Rhodri in the nearby Irish village of Baile Ridire (Balrothery, Co. Dublin) – which was originally called Baile Ruairí (Ruarí being used as the Irish equivalent to Welsh Rhirid or more likely Rhodri). The family survived in the area up to the 13th century under the name Mac Chanan, and later under the adopted Norman-English name of the Fitzrerys of Cloghran. Gruffydd was a close friend and ally of Muirchearthach Ó Bhriain, grandson of Brian Bóroimhe, and King of An Mhumhain and High King of Ireland, and sought political and military support from him several times in his efforts to regain his throne, and then in his successful war with the Norman-English under King William II (William Rufus).
Another Welsh noble closely associated with Ireland was Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth, who made an alliance with Cynan to secure the use of the fleet and army supplied to Cynan by the Irish king Toirealach Ó Briain of An Mhumhain, to retake his throne from an invasion by rival Welsh lords. Forced to flee to Ireland in 1081 by another invasion, he returned later that year with another Irish fleet and army to again retake his kingdom. He was slain while fighting the Norman-English who invaded his kingdom in 1093, and his young on and heir Gruffydd ap Rhys, fled into exile in Ireland with his family and spent the next 22 years at the court of Muirchearthach Ó Briain in Luimneach (Limerick) before returning to attempt to retake his lands in 1013 – 1016. He eventually made peace with the English, but was forced into exile in Ireland again in 1127 for a short period. In this he was following a precedent for Deheubarth royalty, for the family of a previous king, Hywel ab Edwin, had fled to Ireland in 1044 following his death in battle, and from there launched an invasion in 1050 that was only forestalled when their Irish-supplied fleet was lost to a storm in the Irish Sea.
But it was not only the Welsh who looked to Ireland. Several Norman-English lords and families established close ties with the country. For instance the powerful de Montgomery brothers, Arnulf de Montgomery (Earl of Pembroke) and Robert de Montgomery (Earl of Shrewsbury), had very close relations with the leading Irish king Muirchearthach Ó Briain. Arnulf married Muirchearthach’s daughter c. 1100 AD, and in 1102 when the brothers rebelled against Henry I king of England, they drew on military and political support from Ireland. As a result Henry placed a trade embargo on Irish and the rebellion eventually collapsed. The brothers were banished from England, and Arnulf and his immediate family and followers sought refuge with his father-in-law, apparently serving in battle on his behalf, though his eventual fate is unknown, one possibility being that he dies some 20 years later in continental Europe after a period of some wandering from lord to lord.
As a result the Normans in Britain viewed Ireland with deep suspicion, as a place of refuge for political exiles (including Norman-French) and a political and (through the Irish seaports, especially Baile Átha Cliath) economic rival.
This was added to the natural “imperial instincts” of the Norman-English, a society based almost entirely on militarism and violence as a way of life, which saw them continuously re-imposing their domination of the entire island of Britain after the initial Conquest, and (in contest with the Kings of France, and regional French lords) expanding their rule in their ancestral homelands in northern France. Indeed the whole of Norman society was base on a highly aggressive dynamism of violent expansionism, which saw them not just invading and conquering Britain or enlarging their territories in France, but also invading and conquering parts of modern Italy, Sicily, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Ireland became for the Norman warlords of Britain the next target for their almost insatiable avaricious need for more territory and subjects through violent conquest. This was given added impetus with the Crusading fever which swept across Europe several times in the medieval period. Regional European powers were using the official sanction and support of the Church, under the aegis of crusading ideology, to tackle non-Christian and minority Christian populations in or bordering their countries, as well as an excuse to blacken and therefore destroy political opponents through the label of heretics. In Eastern Europe, Germans, Swedes and Danes were attacking the non-Christian or “heretical” Christians of the Baltic or Russia in local Church blessed crusades. In Spain the local Christian kingdoms were crusading against the Moslems, and then there were the great Crusades, to the Middle East itself, which were as much assaults upon Eastern Orthodox Christian powers (such as Byzantium) as upon Islam.
Ireland, in the eyes of the Papacy and Church in Rome, fell under the category of dubious or heretical Christians, as the form of Christianity we might loosely label Celtic Christianity continued and prospered in the country (and beyond), despite closer ties to the Mother Church in Rome. As such Henry requested and was given a Papal Bull in 1154/55 AD by Pope Adrian IV, authorising a Holy Crusade against Ireland and the Irish to bring them under the rule of the kings of England and the central authority of Rome. Diarmaid’s request thus became the perfect opportunity for Henry to express his Christian credentials to his own people, the Papacy, and fellow monarchs in Europe – as well as showing his military and political muscle. It also presented the opportunity to upset political and economic conditions in Ireland – to Norman-England’s benefit.
By 1167 Diarmaid, with Henry’s connivance, had obtained the mercenary services of several Norman-English warlords in Britain (especially in Norman-controlled Wales) the most important of whom was the adventurer Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. That year the deposed rebel king returned to Ireland with an advance force of Norman-English knights and soldiers. With support to regain control of his Uí Cheinnsealaigh kingship Diarmaid attempted to reclaim the provincial kingship of Laighin (Leinster) as well. However he and his Norman-English mercenaries were heavily defeated by the high-king Ruairí Ó Conchúir and while Diarmaid escaped many of the surviving foreign mercenaries were captured including their leader.
Diarmaid continued to plead for foreign assistance and more came: in May 1169 three shiploads of Norman-English knights, supported by a several hundred strong force of Welsh and Flemish archers and infantry disembarked on the southern coast of Loch Garman (Co. Wexford). The following day another force of about 200 landed. Merging with a force of Uí Cheinnsealaigh under Diarmaid, the combined army marched toward the Scandinavian-Irish seaport of Loch Garman (Wexford town), where after a fierce battle the townsfolk sued for peace. At this time, Diarmaid granted lands in his territory to several of the Norman-English warlords as his vassals. The allies now assaulted the large kingdom of Osraí (whose territory incuded parts of the modern counties of Cill Chainnigh/Kilkenny and Laois). The king of Osraí, Dónall Mac Giolla Phádraig was defeated after a three day battle.
Diarmaid and the Norman-English mercenaries next fell upon north Laighin (Leinster) intent on seizing Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin city). Soon the High King of Ireland Ruairí Ó Conchúir returned to Laighin in force, and with the interaction of the Church, the two groups sat down in negotiation. Overawed by the Irish forces Diarmaid and the Norman-English agreed to the Treaty of 1169, in which Diarmaid was allowed to retain the provincial kingship of Laighin and over-lordship of Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin) if he again recognized Ruairí as the High King and if he agreed to send his foreign mercenaries back to Britain, never to return. Diarmaid readily agreed to all of Ruairí’s demands and gave his son as hostage.
However Diarmaid soon reneged on the treaty and sent messages to the main Norman-English warlord Strongbow demanding more support and offering him his daughter Aoife and to be his heir to his provincial kingdom of Laighin (Leinster), in Norman feudal fashion. In May 1170, an advance party landed near Port Láirge (Waterford) with a small force to secure a landing point for the arrival of Strongbow and the main army of one thousand foreign mercenaries who landed shortly thereafter. Up to this time many Irish kings and lords felt the Norman-English were simply aiding Diarmaid in his “private” feud with Ó Conchúir, the High King. However, this all changed on Diarmaid’s death in May, 1171 and the accession of Strongbow to the kingship of the province of Laighin. This event sent shock waves throughout Ireland. In reaction the people of Laighin rose in revolt (including in part the Uí Cheinnsealaigh) and High King Ruairí marched on the province determined to defeat or overawe the foreigners again.
Initially Ruairí’s campaign to oust the Norman-English invaders was highly successful, the foreigners and their local allies suffering a series of lighting defeats, the Scandinavian-Irish seaport of Port Láirge (Waterford) being retaken, and many of the invaders captured. A large Scandinavian-Irish fleet lay siege to Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin city), while Ruairí’s army was approaching by land. However, the fleet attacked Áth Cliath before the arrival of Ruairí’s forces and although at first successful, they were counter-attacked and outflanked by the Norman-English cavalry and archers, neither of which had been seen in Ireland before and forced to withdraw. The army of Ruairí and several Irish kings and lords laid siege to Áth Cliath during the months of July and August, something which they had never planned or prepared to do. As their supplies began to run out, and malnutrition and disease and desertion set in, the besieged Norman-English seized their chance and made a surprise attack on the army around them routing and dispersing the depleted forces, Ruairí temporarily withdrawing to his own territory in Connachta.
These developments caused enormous worry to King Henry II of England, who had not expected Diarmaid and his mercenary forces to succeed as far as they had, and he feared the establishment of a rival Norman state in Ireland. Accordingly, he resolved to visit Laighin to establish his authority over what were nominally his subjects there.
In October 1171 Henry II, King of England and Duke of Normandy, arrived on the shores of Ireland with a massive crusading army, a huge armada of 240 ships, carrying 500 knights, 4000 armed soldiers and camp following numbering several hundred; a massive expeditionary and invasion force by Medieval standards, and almost double the size of the forces the Norman-French ancestors of Henry used to invade and conquer England just a century earlier (only the Crusader armies to the Middle East can compare in size and organisation). He arrived with the official blessings and support of the Pope and the Vatican, on his Church-sanctioned Crusade against the Irish.
Henry was acknowledged by several local Irish leaders in the south-east, who saw in him a chance to curb the expansion of the Norman-English warlords in their midst. But beyond that a majority of Irish lords and kings, indeed much of the country, ignored his would-be invasion, some giving contemptuous replies or threats of retaliation. Confined to the small part of the south-eastern coast already under Norman-English control, Henry made no attempt to move beyond it and Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin city), clearly and uncharacteristically unsure of himself and the strength of his forces. Instead he tried to bring his people in Ireland under his authority and fully acknowledge his sovereignty. He eventually returned to Britain, later agreeing to the Treaty of Windsor, in which he recognised Ruairí as the King of Ireland, and ruler of all the lands and all the inhabitants outside of the Norman-English occupied territories of Laighin (Leinster) and Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin city). These Henry retained for himself as feudal overlord. However this left many of the Norman warlords in Ireland outside of the agreed territories and boundaries and under Irish control which they almost immediately rebelled against allied to those in the south-eastern coastal strip of Ireland nominally under English rule.
The Norman-English after Henry’s departure quickly set about attacking the principal Irish kings, plundering and pillaging, burning crops, destroying monasteries, fortresses, communities and homes, stealing land and territories and building their own castles and fiefdoms, driving the native Irish population off their own lands and into the “wildernesses” in what was one of the great movements of people to be witnessed in Medieval Europe. The Irish kingdoms were destroyed, taken over, squeezed or pushed out into new territories. This in turn led to violence between the Irish themselves as they struggled for smaller and smaller areas to exist in. War, famine, pestilence, migration, exile, dispossession, poverty and death became the lot of many Irish families, communities and kingdoms faced with the English invasion.
The arrival of the Norman-English invaders to the midlands of Ireland in 1172 saw large tracts of the modern counties of An Iarmhí (Westmeath), An Longfort (Longford) and Uíbh Fhailí (Offaly) being taken over by Norman-English warlords such as the Tuites, Dillons, Nugents, Birminghams, Fitzhenry, Daltons and de Lacys.
The dominant royalty of An Mhí, the Ó Maolsheachlainn, were driven out of their territory in what is now north-eastern An Iarmhí (Co. Westmeath) and they settled in the western half of An Iarmhí (Co. Westmeath) between An Móta (Moate, Co. Westmeath) and Áth Luain (Athlone, Co. Westmeath) specifically in the parish of Baile Locha Luath (Ballyloughloe, Co. Westmeath), territory once owned by Teathbha families and most importantly the Ó Sionnaigh. This and other events over the next century gradually pushed the Ó Sionnaigh territory, the Muintir Thadhgháin, deeper into Uíbh Fhailí (Co. Offaly), with their prime residence eventually ending up somewhere around Clóirtheach (Clara, Co. Offaly).
In 1177 the Pope sent one of his cardinals to Ireland, who pronounced, among other things, the King of England’s formal right to Ireland, and excommunication for all those Irish who opposed it.
In the midst of this, an Ó Sionnaigh emerges in the year 1178 AD. He is referred to as Muireadhach, son of “the Sionnach” (who at that time was Ruairí), slain in a battle against the Norman-English.
M1178.10: Maidhm ria n-Art Ua Maoilechlainn, & ria n-Uibh Failghe, & ria n-Gallaibh, for Dhelbhna Eathra, & for Mhaoileachlainn m- Becc, & for dreim do feraibh Tethbha dú in ro marbhadh Muireadhach mac an t-Sionnaigh.
“A victory was gained by Art Ó Maolsheachlainn, by the people of Uíbh Failí (Offaly), and by the Gall (the Norman-English), over the people of Dealbhna Eadhra and Maolsheachlainn Beag, and a group of the Men of Teathbha in which combat Muireadhach the son of the Sionnach was killed.” [Author’s Translation]
In 1180, a long list of churches and religious centres were reported burned, among them 105 houses in Cluain Mhic Nóis (Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly). And then in 1183,
M1183.5: Giolla Ultáin Mac Carrghamhna taoiseach Muintire Maoil t-Sionna do marbhadh la macaibh Ui Bhraoin & la macaibh an t-Sionnaigh Ui Chatharnaigh go c-cuiccear ele amaille fris.
“Giolla Ultáin Mac Carrghamhna, Lord of Muintir Maoil tSionna, was killed by the sons of the Ó Bhriain and the sons of the Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh, with five others as well” [Author’s Translation]
A year later another son of Ruairí, Niall (referred to as “son of the Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh”) is reported to have died.
It is in the year 1186 the Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh struck a blow at the Norman-English occupation that sent shockwaves throughout the country and beyond. The English warlord Hugh de Lacy was the direct representative of the English king in Ireland, and the highest English official on the island. He had led a program of building European-style castles and establishing foreign garrisons in just the few years he had been in the country. However, in building a castle at Darú (Durrow, Co. Offaly), one of the most important monasteries in the country, an act tantamount to sacrilege, and a direct challenge to the cultural, religious, commercial and economic life of the neighbouring territories he seems to have sowed the seeds of his own destruction. What happened to de Lacy at Darú is recorded in several annals and chronicles, both Irish and English, though there is some variation in detail.
The basic claim is that the Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh, probably Ruairí, was outraged by de Lacy seizing and occupying Darú, followed by the construction of a castle on the holy ground, and sent his foster son, Giollaghanathair Ó Mhadhaigh, disguised as a mason, to speak with de Lacy on the pretext of a problem with the measurement of the fortress then under construction, but with the real purpose of killing him. This is reported to have taken place at the end of the work day, when most or all of the other workers had gone home. When de Lacy turned his back on the young man, the foster-son took out an axe and literally beheaded de Lacy. In reporting this event, one annal refers to de Lacy as “destroyer and dissolver of the churches and sanctuaries of Ireland”. History records that he was killed on 25 July 1186 AD, and his head and body were initially buried in different locations until 1195, when the English-imposed archbishops at Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin) and Carraig Phádraig (Cashel) had head and body re-interred together in Baile Átha Cliath, at St. Thomas’ Church. It is recorded that Giollaghanathair Ó Mhadhaigh fled towards Clóirtheach (Clara, Co. Offaly), after carrying out the killing, which lay in the heartland of the Ó Sionnaigh territory.
The last mention of the Ó Catharnaigh/ Ó Sionnaigh in the 12th century appears in 1196. The first few letters of the individual’s Christian name are missing in the original text, but the last few letters strongly suggest that this could have been a reference to the Sionnach himself: “____aigh Ó Catharnaigh, great priest of Clonmacnoise” died in the monastery of Cill Bheagáin (Killbegan, Co. Westmeath), in the novitiate of a monk.
The early 13th century begins with the death in 1201 AD of the Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh’s grandson, Muireadhach son of Niall (son of Ruairí; Niall died in 1184): Muireadhach seems to have been survived by a brother named Malachú and perhaps a younger brother named Conchúir. Only a few years later, in 1207, the Sionnach lost another son, Cathal son of Ruairí,
“Cathal, son of Ruairí, who was son the Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh, Lord of Teathbha, died.”
Upon Cathal’s death in 1207, the title of King of Teathbha was passed on to Malachú, the surviving son and brother of Niall and Muireadhach respectively, who died in 1224, and the kingship went to his brother Conchúir Sionnach. Conchúir, who was described as a “haughty and hardy man of valour”, was killed in 1227 by a group of Norman-English mercenaries from Laighin (the province of Leinster) employed by the King of Connachta (the province of Connacht), Cathal Craobhdhearg. It is likely that Conchúir Sionnach was attacking a place on the west bank of the river An tSionainn (the Shannon) and close to Cluain Mhic Noise (Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly), when he was killed. The family was carried on by Malachú’s son Conghalach Sionnach, a nephew of Conchúir Sionnach. Conchúir appears to have had no children. Conghalach in turn was succeeded by his son Niall, who as King of Teathbha, on a raid in Breiffní in 1233 was mortally wounded at a place called Móin Crann Chaoin, which was a battle between the son of Hugh de Lacy and Cathal Ó Raghailligh, the latter of whom was the victor.
M1233.5: Slóiccheadh lá h-Uilliam mac Hugo De Lathi (ingen Ruaidhri Uí Conchobhair a mathair-sidhe), & lá Gallaibh Midhe amaille fris isin m-Breifne i n-dócum Cathail Uí Raghallaigh co n-dearnsat creacha móra. Ruccsat imorro drong do muintir Ui Raghallaigh for Uilliam De Laci, & for mhaithibh an t-slóigh i n-deóidh na c-creach tuccsat tachar dia ‘roile, marbhthar ann Uilliam Brit, & drong do maithibh Gall ar aon ris. Ro gonadh Uilliam De Laci co sochaidhibh oile. Soaitt as an tír gan giall gan eittere. Do-cear Uilliam De Laci & Serlus mac Cathail Gaill Uí Concobhair, Feórus Fionn mac na Gaill-rioghna, & Diarmaid Bearnach Ua Maoil Seclainn do na gonaibh do-radadh forra in iomairecc Móna Crann Chaoin. Niall Sionnach Ua Catharnaigh tighearna Fear Teathbha do ghuin isin amus cedna, & a écc i n-a tigh iar n-dénamh a thiomna, & iar n-a ongadh.
“An army led by William son of Hugo de Lacy (whose mother was daughter of Ruairí Ó Conchúir), and led by the Norman-English of An Mhí (Meath), went into Breiffní against Cathal Ó Raghallaigh, and made great raids. A party of the people of Ó Raghallaigh overtook William de Lacy, and the chiefs of his army, who were leading the raids. They gave battle in which William Britt and a number of the warchiefs of the English were slain. William de Lacy, with many others, was wounded. They returned from the territory without hostage or pledge. And William de Lacy, Saorlas the son of Cathal Gaill Ó Conchúir, Feoras Fionn son of the English Queen, and Diarmaid Bearna Ó Maolsheachlainn, died of the wounds they received in that combat of Móin Crann Chaoin. Niall Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh, Lord of the Men of Teathbha, was also wounded in combat, and died at his own house, after making his will and being anointed.” [Author’s Translation]
Between 1205 and 1235 there were six different Ó Sionnaigh kings of Teathbha indicating the bloodiness and violence off the times Upon Niall’s death in 1233, it is unclear who the next lord of the Ó Sionnaigh was, though there must not have been too long a gap before one was found, since there is a report in 1254 that Dónall Sionnach, “son of the Sionnach”, was killed by the Ó Maolsheachlainn. It is possible that the Conghalach referred to above had three sons: Niall, who died in 1233; Dónall, killed by the Ó Maolsheachlainn in 1254; and Ruairí, who did not die until 10 March 1287, and was head of Muintir Thadhgháin until his death. It is worth mentioning that Ruairí (the Sionnach Ó Catharnaigh) managed to avenge his brother Dónall’s death by killing Muirchearthach Ó Maolsheachlainn himself in 1254.
Ruairí was succeeded by his son Niall Rua Sionnach, also referred to as Niall Sionnach. As Lord of Muintir Tadhghán he was one of the Irish leaders who, along with Cairbre Ó Maolsheachlainn and the Mag Eoghaghain (anglicised as Mageoghegan), opposed John Santford, the rabidly anti-Irish English archbishop of Dublin and the English King’s Lord Deputy in Ireland. In 1289 Santford led a large army against the midland Irish kingdoms. Santford mustered his forces at Baile Átha Luain (Athlone, Co. Westmeath) and they included the Ó Conchúir and Ó Ceallaigh of Connachta as well as the English. From Baile Átha Luain the army marched to Baile Locha Lua (Ballyloughloe, Co. Westmeath), near An Grianán (Mount Temple, Co. Westmeath), where the Norman-English warlords, the Tuites, were in occupation. Sir Richard Tuite joined the Deputy’s army and the forces proceeded into Muintir Tadhghán, the Ó Sionnaigh lands, through which they marched as far as Lios Maigh Naigh (Lismoyny, two miles from Clóirtheach or Clara, Co. Offaly) on the banks of An Bhrosnach (the River Brosna, Co. Offaly) where they were halted and after bloody battle were forced to turn back by the midland Irish. They next attempted to cross An Bhrosnach (the Brosna) and move southward at a place called Coill na Binne (Kilnabinnia, Co. Offaly) between Coill Mhic Luain (Kilmucklin, Co. Offaly) and Oiridh (Erry, Co. Offaly), two townlands close to Clóirtheach (Clara) on the southern side. Here the full combined forces of Ó Maolsheachlainn, Mag Eoghaghain and Ó Sionnaigh fell upon Santford’s army and completely destroyed it in one of the chief military set-backs of the English in the 13th century. Many of the leading English warlords and occupiers were killed, including Sir Richard Tuite (he may have been slain in nearby An Iarmhí or Co. Westmeath while feeling the scene of the battle).
The next mention of the Ó Sionnaigh is at the historic Battle of Baile Átha an Rí (Athenry, Co. Galway) which took place in August 1316, where the new King of Connachta, twenty-three year old Félim Ó Conchúir, faced the vastly superior military forces of the English warlords William Lacey de Burke and Rickard de Bermingham. Heavily defeated by the English (with their Norman-Irish allies) the loss opened the West of Ireland to English invasion and occupation. Among the hundreds of Irish killed on that battlefield was “Niall Sionnach, Lord of the men of Teathbha, and his people”. He was also called Niall Rua Sionnach, a reference to his red hair.
Despite this victory, and the loss of so many leading members of the Irish nobility, the 13th century marked the high tide of English rule in Medieval Ireland. Over the next hundred years the Gaelic Resurgence pushed back English colonisation of the country through a series of bitterly contested battles, great and small. Slowly foreign control was pushed back to a series of increasingly isolated garrison towns dotted around the country and a strip of triangular land along the east coast. This strip, called the Pale (an Pháil, in Irish) centred on Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin city), and stretching some distance north and south along the coast and out into the midlands, was controlled and heavily “planted” or colonised by the English. Its name came from the defensive works built around it to keep the “wild” or “mere” Irish out (hence the English phrase, “beyond the Pale”). At the same time, as with the Scandinavian Viking invaders before them, the Norman-English became increasingly subsumed into Irish culture and society, the Norman-English warlords marrying their sons and daughters into Irish noble families, adopting the Irish language, laws and customs in preference to their own, wearing Irish dress and even hair styles. This new hybrid Norman-Irish or Gaelic-Norman community became firmly established alongside and amongst the native Irish one, with a complex web of mixed loyalties, in the words of the time, becoming, Níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil iad féin, “More Irish than the Irish themselves”.
This community, which slowly emerged throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, greatly alarmed the English authorities in Ireland just at the very time as a new hybrid English identity was also emerging. Up to that time England had been dominated by the Norman-French language and culture that the Normans had brought with them in the wake of the conquest. The Anglo-Saxon or Old English language had been suppressed along with the culture and laws of the English people, and most of the leading Norman-English ruling families and their officials (including the kings) spoke French and had little or no knowledge of the English language. However the conflict with France over control of the Norman-English territories in their French homeland (at one stage representing almost half of France), embodied by the famous Hundred Years Wars, had led to a gradual erosion of their Norman-French identity. The ruling class of England increasingly relied upon English-speaking peasant armies to prosecute their wars (and their ambitions) and this led to the evolvement of a true hybrid Norman-English culture, with a new bastardised form of English as the majority language. Norman-French was increasingly reduced to the language of ceremony and law, passing out of everyday speech by the 1500s.
In Ireland this caused what can only be described as an enormous, destabilising cultural dysphasia amongst the settler population. As the majority of the settlers and their descendants embraced all things Irish, while retaining some of their Norman-French heritage, others were embracing the new form of English identity that had increasingly official backing or acceptance. The Norman-Irish population split and split again, some subsumed entirely into the Irish population, some into the population of new English, and some maintaining a balancing act between the two. The English administration in Ireland, keen to encourage the growth of English identity, and prevent its loss to an Irish or Norman-Irish one, passed series after series of aparthied-style laws, banning marriage to the Irish, the use of thier language, laws and customs. But, though effective in some areas, thi legislation did more to damage than good, adding to the hatred of the Irish and forcing the Norman-Irish communities to choose sides – which they frequently did to the loss of the English Lordship of Ireland.
Upon Niall’s death, and no doubt the death of many eligible successors to his lordship, the tide was irreversibly against the Ó Sionnaigh, and they were now on their way to becoming a secondary power in the midlands of Ireland, never again to rise to their former might.
When Niall Rua Sionnach was eventually succeeded by a son named Muirchearthach, who was likely to have been too young to have taken part in battle in 1316. His name does surface in The Red Book of Kildare for the year 1350, when it is mentioned that the Norman-English Earl of Kildare made an agreement with,
“Maurice Schynnach, King of Fertewac and Monthyrcagan, and Fergal MacGeoghegan, duke of Keneraliagh, by which they became his men for their lives, undertaking to give him counsel and aid against all except the king and Mortimer, and to follow Kildare’s banner, voyages and wars throughout Ireland at his expense.”
Maurice seems to be a Norman-English variation of Muirchearthach, and Fertewac and Monthyrcagan are obvious variant spellings of Fir Thulach (Fartullagh, County Westmeath) and Muintir Thadhgháin (Munterhagan, Co. Offaly) respectively. The above agreement was typical of a system of English/European style feudalism and essential serfdom that was being imposed during this period by the Norman-English occupiers upon the native Irish. Most of these agreements were made under some form of violence, the English warlords making such agreements little more than offers which could not be refused. This is borne out by a complaint Kildare made to the king in February 1360, that,
“Since the previous Easter O’Connor, O’More, O’Doyne, MacGeoghegan, O’Melaghlin, and O’Shinnagh, ‘captains of the Irish in the parts of Leinster and Meath’ had been at war, and he had fought them almost continuously at his own expense.”
Despite incursions on Ó Sionnaigh lands during this period, there was some notable contact between the Ó Sionnaigh and their close neighbours, the Mag Eoghaghain. Muirchearthach Sionnach, for example, married Bebhíonn the daughter of the Mag Eoghaghain lord. Although the records at this time are confusing, it appears Muirchearthach and Bebhíonn had at least two sons, Niall, and another Muirchearthach. Although the various Irish annals rarely mention women, the death of this particular woman in 1363 did merit mention, though it is not clear why. Her husband Muirchearthach died on 19 February 1370 AD. Perhaps with Muircheartach’s death good relations between the Ó Sionnaigh and Mag Eoghaghain died since only four years later we find that the Mag Eoghaghain lord, Cú Choigcríoche Óg Mag Eoghaghain was slain by the Ó Sionnaigh.
M1374.3: Cu Coiccriche Ócc Mag Eochaccáin taoiseach Cenél Fhiachach do marbhadh i bh-fell ar n-dul dó lé h-espucc na Midhe go h-Áth Luain, & An Sionnach Mac Meráin do muintir Uilliam Dalatún da mharbhadh d’aon-bhuile sleighi, & é fein do tharraing o aroile iar sin & boill bheacca do denamh da corp a c-cionaidh a mhíghniomha.
“Cú Choigcríoche Óg Mag Eoghaghain, lord of Cinéal Fiachach, was treacherously killed in the company of the Bishop of Meath at Athlone: it was the Sionnach Mac Mearáin of the people of William Dalton that killed him, with one thrust of a spear; and he himself was afterwards torn apart, his body cut into small pieces, for that criminal deed.”
However it is not at all clear that the Sionnach son of Mearáin was of the Ó Catharnaigh / Ó Sionnaigh family, since his father is a wholly unattested name and while some have suggested that he was the Sionnach Niall, one of the two sons of Muirchearthach and Bebhíonn, since we hear nothing of Niall after this, it seems fairly unlikely. And the Norman-English Daltons were traditional enemies of the Ó Sionnaigh.
The other son Muirchearthach seems to have married twice. It is likely that it was he who represented the Ó Sionnaigh when the English warlord Edmond Mortimer arrived in Ireland in 1380, “with great powers, as Lord Justice”. Upon his arrival “the Irish nobility repaired (paid their respect) to him”, and among those listed as the “Roydamna of Ireland” were “Niall O’Neill, O’Hanlon, O’Farrell, O’Reilly, O’Molly, Mageoghegan, and the Sionnach (Fox) with many other nobles.”
Mortimer immediately set about destroying towns and fortresses and killing large numbers of people in much the same way Hugh de Lacy did two hundred years earlier. Muircheartach’s eldest son and heir-apparent Eoghan were killed by the Norman-English Daltons in 1381. Niall Sionnach along with many other members of the Ó Sionnaigh family died of an epidemic, which swept the Midlands in 1393. There was no adult male heir left to succeed and his two remaining sons were minors. Muintir Thadhgháin had no king for a full year and the Ó Sionnaigh lands around Cill Chuairsí (Kilcoursey, Co. Offaly) were attacked by many of the neighbouring powers, both Norman-English and Irish; specifically, the Ó Maolmhuaidh raided Cill Chuairsí in 1393, and the Ó Maolsheachlainn established themselves in a castle in Maigh Eille (Moyelly near Móta or Moate, Co. Westmeath) in the western part of the Ó Sionnaigh territory, an Ó Sionnaigh possession which was never recovered.
Muirchearthach himself died in 1393 of an epidemic that was raging throughout the countryside. He was described as “a man renowned for prosperity, wealth, almsgiving and eloquence”. He was succeeded by another son, Donnchú, a year after his death. Donnchú was soon to suffer additional loss himself, and in 1398 we find the reported death of his wife, her name not given, but identified as the daughter of Brian Ó Fhearghail.
During the 13th century the a long-time neighbours of the Ó Sionnaigh, the Mag Eoghaghain, were rapidly increasing in strength and power, and developing into a force to be reckoned with. The opposite can be said of the Ó Sionnaigh, however, as they fell to the ravages of the plague, conflict, and territorial usurpation. Thus the century begins with the deaths of three Ó Sionnaigh in 1400: Donnchú Sionnach, who is referred to as “king de jure” of Muintir Thadhgháin and Lord of Teathbha, possibly from the plague which hit Ireland in that year; and two senior members of the clan, Diarmaid and Brian son of the Sionnach, who were the sons of Catharnach son of the Sionnach, perhaps an uncle of Donnchú’s father. Both died on August the 1st 1400, pointing to premature deaths, by foul play or disease is not known. It is possible that Donnchú Ó Sionnaigh was succeeded by his nephew, Maine Sionnach, son of Niall Sionnach. Three years later (1403) Diarmaid’s grandson, Maolmhórdha, was killed by the Norman-English Daltons and their Irish allies the Ó Maolsheachlainn; Donnchú Sionnach’s only remaining brother was also killed in this skirmish, though his name is not given.
As head of the family, Maine Sionnach was involved in a war with the Mag Eoghaghain in 1415 when Conchúir, grandson of Uilliam Mag Eoghaghain, was killed in an Ó Sionnaigh castle near Clóirtheach (Clara, Co. Offaly). In 1422 a “great war” took place between the Irish of An Mhí and Ó Conchúir Failí. Opposing Ó Conchúir Failí are listed Ó Maoil Muaidh, Mag Cochláin, and the Ó Sionnaigh, though no first name for the Sionnach is given; assumedly it is Maine. Although it is reported that eventually peace was made, the Norman-English Daltons were able to temporarily take the Ó Sionnaigh’s fortress at Cill Chuairsí (probably Kilcoursey Castle, more usually known today as Lehinch Castle). They were also involved in 1425 on the losing side of a dispute between the Ó Conchúir of Uíbh Failí (Offaly) and the Mag Eoghaghain and Mag Cochláin of western Uíbh Failí (Offaly). In 1430 Eoin Ó Néill arrived with an army from Ulaidh in the midlands, and both the Irish and Norman-English of gave fealty to him. Although all who pledged support are listed, there is no mention of The Sionnach, indicating they were by this time of minor importance or did not agree to pledge fealty. It is not known exactly when Maine died, but he was succeeded by his son, Cú Choigcríoche Ó Sionnaigh, who in turn soon died as Lord of Muintir Tadhghán in 1446.
Peregrine had at least two sons, Maine and Niall. Maine succeeded him but was killed in 1472, and was in turn succeeded by his son Tadhgh. The Ó Conchúir Failí is involved again with the Ó Sionnaigh in 1471, when his sons are reported as having killed the sons of Niall son of the Sionnach and Eoghan Mag Eoghaghain. Only three years after assuming the role of lord, Tadhgh himself was killed by Murchú, son of Art Ó Maolsheachlainn. He was succeeded by his brother Cairbre Sionnach, who was also killed by an Ó Maolsheachlainn, Conn, also a son of Art Ó Maolsheachlainn in 1500.
The next head of Muintir Thadhgháin was Eoghan Ó Sionnaigh, son of a Cairbre (who was known The Sionnach of Muintir Thadhgháin) and who was killed in 1500 by another son of Art Ó Maolsheachlainn by the name of Conn. On 27 August 1526, the then Sionnach, Breasal Ó Sionnaigh son of Eoghan son of Cairbre, appeared to have no choice but to sign a covenant with their neighbouring family, the Mag Eoghaghain, in which the Ó Sionnaigh agreed to live under Mag Eoghaghain protection in exchange for accepting the Mag Eoghaghain as their overlords. As well as being signed by Breasal it is also signed by two sons of Éamon (transcriptal error for Eoghan?), called Muirchearthach and Félim, and two sons of Brian Ó Sionnaigh, called Breasal and Cú Choigcríoche; and lastly the chief poet of the Ó Sionnaigh, Muirchearthach son of Eoghan son of Tadhgh Onoire.
On the Mag Eoghaghain side it was signed by their chief Connla Mag Eoghaghain, lord of Cinéal Fhiachaigh (Kineleagh, now the barony of Maigh Chaisil or Moycashel, Co. Westmeath).
Severely weakened by the deaths and killings of so many males in the line, as well as the capture of their property and territory by other Irish noble families, they were no longer the force they once were. The rise of three other aristocratic families in neighbouring territories in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Ó Conchúir (O’Connors of Offaly) in eastern Uíbh Failí (Offaly), the Ó Maolmhuaidh (O’Molloys) around Tulach Mhór (Tullamore) in central Uíbh Failí (Offaly), and the Ó Maolsheachlainn in a neighbouring territory in present-day An Iarmhí (Westmeath) spelled the end of Ó Sionnaigh power.
In 1552 AD the English-appointed Lord Chancellor for Ireland complained bitterly in writing that the territories of the Ó Sionnaigh, Mag Eoghaghain and Ó Maolmhuaidh (among others) were,
“Very strong countries for woods, moors and bogs, by means whereof much cattle was stolen out of the English pale.”
The Chancellor reported in 1553 that the Ó Sionnaigh lord was ordered to pay £300 in restitution for various acts of aggression against the English, a very large sum for the time. In 1558, Breasal Ó Sionnaigh and his wife, Amalin (of the Ó Maolsheachlainn) received a pardon from the English crown, though it is unclear exactly what they had done. Whatever was happening then in the Ó Sionnaigh family and lands it didn’t seem to change their opposition to the English: in 1564 Breasal was ordered to keep his people from joining “rebel” forces, and in 1574 he was punished for injuring an English solider and was ordered to make financial reparations.
At this time the English were trying to reassert their control in Ireland. With English rule now restricted to the Pale and a few coastal and garrison towns there was a real fear in Britain that Ireland would eventually be lost altogether. These attempts to spread English authority led to conflict with the Irish and Norman-Irish lordships, principally that of the powerful south-western Norman-Irish dynasty of Mac Gearailt (or FitzGerald in Norman-English and English), whose members fought three unsuccessful wars, that the English called the Desmond Rebellions, after Desmond or Deasmumhain where the Mac Gearailt family ruled (the first conflict in 1537 under Tomás an tSíoda Mac Gearailt or Silken Thomas FitzGerald, and in more prolonged wars in 1569-1573 and 1579-1583 under Séamas Mac Gearailt or James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald and other members of the family, the latter conflict in particular spreading to several areas across the country). Simmering violence between native and foreign occupier flared up time after time throughout the 16th century and beyond.
Meanwhile the Ó Sionnaigh-Mag Eoghaghain alliance continued, as suggested by the 1582 marriage of Conlaoí (Connla) Mag Eoghaghain with Amalin of the Ó Sionnaigh, who was probably the daughter of Eoghan or Breasal, in the abbey at Cill Bhríde (Kilbride, near Clóirtheach or Clara, Co Offaly). The fact that the wedding took place here points to the continued control of the Ó Sionnaigh of this whole region at this time. Breasal also had two sons, Art, and a younger son, Hoibeard (from Hubert, a Norman-French name), who eventually became lord of the Ó Sionnaigh, and the Sionnach. His primary residence was at Caisleán Chill Chuairsí (Kilcoursey Castle or Lehinch Castle) just outside Clóirtheach (Clara, Co. Offaly), and he was probably married to a Margaret Eustace, of the well-connected Norman-English Eustace family from Cill Dara (Co. Kildare). His home was probably a fairly substantial tower house, a type of late Medieval fortified residence developed in Gaelic Ireland and exported from there to the Norman-English and beyond.
During the bloody conflict from 1594-1603 AD (known in Irish as the Cogadh na Naoi mBliana, and to the English as the Nine Years War or Tyrone’s Rebellion) a majority of the native Irish under two leading Irish lords, Aodh Mór Ó Néill (known to the English as Hugh the Great O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone) and Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill (to the English, Hugh Roe O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell) fought against renewed attempts by the English to spread their authority outside the Pale and into other parts of the island. They were joined by much of the Norman-Irish, though a few of these attempted some form of neutrality partly out of fear that they would be swept away with the English, partly out of rivalry with the native Irish lords. From the beginning the leaders of the resistance scored a succession of military victories across the country, defeating several large English armies as well as pushing the English colonies back into the fortified garrison towns and cities. The Plantation of Munster, the massive English colony in An Mhumhain was destroyed (among the colonists was the English poet and writer Edmund Spenser, author of “the Faerie Queene”, and “A View of the Present State of Ireland”, a political treatise advocating the annihilation of the native population of Ireland through war and artificial famine and its total replacement with Englishmen and women) and the Pale itself was threatened with liberation by the Irish.
In 1599, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (and lover of Queen Elizabeth I) arrived in Ireland with over 17,000 English troops, a fleet of warships, a full network of support and logistics and a budget double that of any other English army then operating elsewhere in Europe. It was perhaps the largest and best equipped single foreign army to have operated in Ireland up to that time. After being sworn in as the English Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Essex launched a number of raids and expeditions across the country from his base in Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin), reinforcing besieged forts and towns. A primary focus was to secure the Pale and as well as strengthening its garrisons, neighbouring hostile Irish territories in Laighin (Leinster) were subject to destructive attacks in order to deter any would be attempts to retake the Pale area from the English. Two offensives were launched into Uíbh Fhailí, with devastating results upon the land and population. At this time Hoibeard’s lands still comprised a large portion of northwest Uíbh Fhailí (Offaly) an area that lay in the vast frontier zone between Irish and English. When the English-imposed Lord Deputy of Ireland, Charles Blount, the Baron Mountjoy, raided western Uíbh Fhailí at this time, he commented,
“it is incredible in so barbarous a country, how well the ground had been manured, how orderly their fields were fenced, their towns inhabited, and every highway and path so well beaten”
In an effort to subdue resistance in the region, Mountjoy’s troops brought enormous suffering to the area, following traditional English military tactics in Ireland by burning homes and buildings, destroying crops, stealing or slaying cattle and inducing famine and disease. In 1599, Hoibeard, in an effort to avoid additional loss and suffering to his people, signed an agreement of “surrender and regrant” with Essex and the English. In such agreements, Irish lords swore token loyalty to the English by “surrendering” their land to the English crown, which was then given “back” in return for this public display of loyalty.
“Hubert Foxe [Hoibeard Ó Sionnaigh] of Lehinchie Barony Kilcoursie alias the Foxe his country, Gent. commonly called the Foxe [An Sionnach], chiefe of his name, by deed dated 1 May 1599, to express his zeal and loyalty, surrendered to the Queen all his estate spiritual and temporal within the whole barony and territory of Kilcourcie called Mounterhagan [Muintir Thadhgháin] or the Foxe his country, which was divided into three parts and parishes, viz. Shantway, Roaghan and Moye, and Monterdowlan and containing 30 corcives or plowlands, part free and part chargeable, with intent that her Majesty shou’d regrant the same in tail male to him and others of his kinsmen, in accomplishment whereof and pursuant to privy seal dated at Richmond 29 January 1599. 42.o f. R.8. her Majesty hereby granted the same to him and the heirs male of his body, remainder to his nephew Brissell Foxe [Breasal Ó Sionnaigh], son of his brother Arte [Art] and his heirs male, remainder to his uncle Owen Foxe [Eoghan Ó Sionnaigh] of Lissinuskie in the said barony and county and his issue male, remainder to Phelim Foxe [Félim Ó Sionnaigh] of Tolghan ne Brennye said barony Gent. and his issue male, remainder to Brissell Foxe [Breasal Ó Sionnaigh] of Kilmaledie said barony Gent. son of Neile Foxe [Niall Ó Sionnaigh], who died lately in the Queen’s service, and his issue male, to be holden by knight’s service in the capite by the 20th part of a knight’s fee and the ancient service of 4 footmen at every general Hosting yearly as he and his ancestors were accustomed to bear, with power, during his life, to keep once a month a Court Baron, and twice a year a Court Leet within any part of the said barony before himself or his Sub-Seneschal, and hereby appointing him Seneschal thereof, and to appoint deputies under him, and a power of alienation to him and his successors, according to the said limitations.’’ (from 17th century English document)
Hoibeard’s lands of Muintir Thadhgháin became to the English, the Barony of Kilcoursey, and his family the Barons of Kilcoursey, based upon his main residence at Caisleán Chill Chuairsí (Kilcoursey Castle), himself styled by the English, Sir Hubert Fox.
The Nine Years Was effectively came to an end in 1602 with the defeat of the leaders of the rising by the English at the Battle of Kinsale, though continued resistance continued at a low level for another year or so. In 1607 much of the northern Irish nobility, their lands stolen or laid waste by the English, went into political exile in Europe and beyond, along with their families, allies and supporters a famous and tragic event known in Irish history as Teitheadh na nIarlaí or Flight of the Earls. This created a tradition of exile that many Irish people were to follow for centuries thereafter.
In 1625 the English issued a Proclamation which ordered that Irish political prisoners and their families be sold overseas to English planters or colonists who at that time were settling the islands of the West Indies in the Caribbean. This was to begin a policy of successive English authorities in Ireland that was to last for two centuries. In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrats. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves (a source of great worry to the English planters there). But by the 1640s there were not enough political prisoners to supply the demand, so every petty infraction against English rule carried a sentence of transportation, and English slaver-gangs combed the countryside to kidnap enough people to fill out their quotas. Ireland quickly became the biggest source of people for the English slave trade
The Ó Sionnaigh line at this time, despite their suffering at the hands of numerous foes, had grown enough for the family to divide into four main groups: the main line of Hoibeard Ó Sionnaigh at Cill Chuairsí/An Leithinse (Kilcoursey/Lehinch, Co. Offaly); the Félim Ó Sionnaigh line between Cloch an tSionnaigh (Cloghatanny, Co. Offaly) and Béal Átha Chomair (Ballycumber, Co. Offaly), where the probable Ó Sionnaigh Clan inaugural stone was located; the Ó Sionnaigh line of Coill Mhaoiléidigh (Kilmalady, Co. Offaly), with whom a Niall Ó Sionnaigh and Breasal Ó Sionnaigh are associated (Breasal died on 7th Apr, 1639, and his wife was Muire daughter of Aodh Buí Mag Eoghaghain); and finally Hoibeard’s uncle, the Eoghan Ó Sionnaigh line in Lios an Uisce (Lissanisky, Co. Offaly). These four main branches existed within walking or riding distance of each other.
Hoibeard was succeeded by a Breasal Ó Sionnaigh (to the English, Sir Basil Fox), who may have been his son or close relative, who in turn was succeeded by his son, another Hoibeard Ó Sionnaigh (again styled Sir Hubert Fox of the Barony of Kilcoursey by the English), in 1639, aged just 30 years of age. This Hoibeard seems to have rejected the earlier policies of accommodation with the English, following his family’s traditional militant line of resistance to the English occupation, and joined in the struggle against the English in the 1640s and 1650s. In 1641 he led the Ó Sionnaigh as part of the Irish Rising (or Rebellion, as the English viewed it) as the native Irish nobility and some of the Norman-Irish (sometimes known as the Seanghaill or “Old English”) went to war with the Protestant English armies and settlers now flooding the country as the English authorities made a concerted effort to bring Ireland under control once and for all through systematic Plantation or colonial settlement and ethnic cleansing. He with two other Irish lords, Aodh Mac Mathúna (anglicised as Hugh MacMahon) and Conchúr Mag Uidhir (anglicised as Conor Maguire), planned to seize Caisleán Bhaile Átha Cliath (Dublin Castle and the seat of English power in Ireland for generations) when the authorities in Áth Cliath (Dublin) heard of the plot from an informer (a Protestant and anglicised convert named Owen O’Connolly) and arrested Mag Uidhir and Mac Mathúna, Hoibeard escaping as a wanted man.
Nevertheless the insurrection went ahead and within a year much of Ireland was in a state of rebellion. The Irish Confederation was formed by the Irish aristocratic leaders to take control of the insurrection leading to the Irish Confederate Wars (known in Irish as the Cogadh na hAon Deag mBliana or the Eleven Years War), as the native Irish and part of the Norman-Irish community went to full-scale war with the Protestant English armies and settlers in Ireland. From 1641 to 1649 the Irish Confederates fought continuous battles against various marauding armies from Britain. Across the island the English colonial state in Ireland was collapsing, English planters were abandoning the lands they stole for the safety of the big garrison towns and Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin), and slowly a semi-independent Irish state, under the Confederacy emerged. However from the start the Confederates were badly divided, many of the native Irish under the leadership of the famous northern lord Eoghan Rua Ó Néill (Owen Roe O’Neill) seeking complete independence for Ireland while others, mostly of Norman-Irish extraction, sought various forms of limited self-government under the English crown. This inevitable division of the Irish, based on ethnic, political and ideological grounds ultimately proved fatal.
The arrival of the infamous “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell and England’s New Model Army (The Roundheads), which campaigned in a sustained orgy of violence across Ireland from 1649-53 saw defeat not just for the Confederates but the near annihilation of Irish Gaelic civilization on the island of Ireland in what historians now label the Cromwellian Genocide. The native Irish population was decimated, whole swathes of the country laid waste, famine and disease running wild as the country suffered like it had never done before. Out of the total Irish population of Ireland of 1.5 million, around half-a-million were killed. Another 300,000 were sold off into slavery in the Caribbean and North America, around 100,000 of these being boys and girls generally between the ages of 10 and 14. By 1660 the number of Irish slaves in the Americas outnumbered the European free population and it wasn’t until the early 1700s that the African slave population outnumbered the Irish one. Though documents with the specifics of the Irish slave trade are rare, having been suppressed or deliberately destroyed by the English over time, some records do exist, giving examples like: in 1650, 25,000 Irish were sold to English planters in St. Kitt; in 1652 12,000 Irish sold to Barbados; in 1656 the English Council of State ordered that 1000 Irish girls and 1000 Irish boys be rounded up and taken to Jamaica for sale; in 1664 more Irish slaves were sold to the French on St. Bartholomew; the list goes on and on.
The treatment of the Irish slave population was dreadful, horrifying even the most hardened English visitors. Irish slaves were regularly tortured for any infraction, one favoured punishment being to hang them by their hands and set their feet on fire by dipping them with a flammable substance such as tar etc. Efforts were made to stem this through the encouragement of increasing the trade in African slaves on the grounds that English slave-owners had a higher regard for their African slaves than their Irish ones. At the same time the English planters in the Americas entered on a breeding program, giving Irish women slaves to African slaves on a selective basis. The children of these unions were themselves slaves, and the whole enterprise became an industry in itself. The practice became so widespread that in 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale.” This laws were not the result of any moral or racial considerations, but rather because the practice was interfering with the profits to be gained from the importation of slaves by the Royal African Company, an exclusive English trading company which the English royal family and other leading aristocrats profited from. The descendants of Irish slaves could still be found in the West Indies, Virginia, New England centuries later.
Meanwhile back in Ireland land held by “Catholics” (i.e. the majority of the Irish and Norman-Irish) was seized en masse and redistributed to British (and Protestant) settlers. The Irish were then herded into specially designated “reserves”, usually the most inhospitable and unfertile parts of the country (summoned by Cromwell’s infamous phrase that the Irish could go “To Hell or Connaught”) and their own lands became the homes to new English, Scottish, Welsh, Dutch and French Protestant colonists.
This was the effective end of organised Irish mass resistance to English rule, as the native Irish nobility and way of life collapsed completely, never to recover, many choosing exile in foreign lands rather than living under continued English rule (a process that had begun many decades earlier). However many small groups of Irish fought on as guerrillas, known as the Tóraí (anglicised as the “Tories”). These groups operated from rugged and wilderness areas, forests, bogs and mountains, attacking English forces wherever they could. In response, the English forcibly evicted the Irish populations from areas which had been helping the insurgents and burned their crops and homes, slaughtered livestock and generally laid waste to their communities (already in desperate need). It was at this time that the mass deforestation of Ireland by the English began (to be completed in a second phase following the United Irishmen Rising of 1798), removing areas for the “rebels” to hide in, and which utterly transformed the entire landscape and nature of the island. Any Irish men or women captured in arms in this phase of the war were either executed or transported to slave colonies in the West Indies and North America.
Almost certainly Hoibeard Ó Sionnaigh took part in this continued resistance to the English, gaining fame for burning down half the English garrison town of Cill Bheagáin (Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath). A price was placed on his head of 400 pounds (a staggering amount at the time) and a permanent pardon for anyone turning him in. However, no one did, and it is not clear what happened to him, as he disappears completely from the pages of history.
With the war lost the Ó Sionnaigh found their castle and lands stolen and colonised by the English and the family scattered. It is was probably at this time that many Ó Sionnaigh/Fox members moved out of their traditional homeland and into exile, both within Ireland and outside it.
Their seized land was given as a reward to an English settler, Samuel Rust, a leading soldier of Oliver Cromwell’s English Parliamentary Army (the Roundheads). He in turn sold the district to two other English colonial families: the Armstrongs and the Bagots. The Armstrongs (who were an important settler family providing several High Sheriffs – or English law officers – in the county and instrumental in making it “civilized” for the English) settled in the town of Clóirtheach (Clara, Co. Offaly) occupying the western end of the town, while the Bagots occupied the Cill Chuairsí (Kilcoursey) end of it. Andrew Armstrong (1727-1802) financed in the 1770s the building of a large Protestant Church of Ireland church in Clara, and his own Clara House on the west side of the town, an impressive neo-classical building; the construction of this English residence, virtually on top of the old (but not forgotten) Ó Sionnaigh lands was surely no coincidence but a calculated declaration to all of the dominance of the new (Protestant) English rulers over the old (Catholic) Irish “natives”.
An Sionnach Fionn