Bréifne (the Breffny, Brefnie, Brenny, …) was the traditional territory for an early Irish tribal group known as the Uí Briúin Bréifne. Ancestors of the Ua Ruairc sept (O’Rourke, O’Rorke, et al) were among the early leaders of the Uí Briúin Bréifne beginning at least as early as the 8th century C.E. The Bréifne territory included the modern Ireland counties of Leitrim and Cavan and at one point in the 12th century, when Tighernán mór Ó Ruairc was king of Bréifne, it extended from Kells in County Meath to Drumcliff in County Sligo (map at right). By about the 13th century the Bréifne region had split into East and West, the Ó Ruairc kings maintaining lordship over the West (an area in and around County Leitrim). In its history the Bréifne region was considered part of the kingdom of Connacht up until the time of Queen Elizabeth I (circa 1583). At that time it was shired into the modern Counties Cavan and Leitrim, with Leitrim remaining in the confines of the province of Connacht while Cavan became part of Ulster. The Ó Ruairc’s were effectively lords of “Breffny O’Rourke” through the turbulent 16th century.
The Story Begins…
Our story begins in 4th century Ireland with Eachu Mugmedón. Eachu was a leading Irish king during that period who is distinguished as the ancestor of the Uí Neill, Uí Briúin and Uí Fiachrach septs, tribal groups who dominated the political scene in Connacht (western Ireland) and northwest Ulster for over eight centuries. Eachu’s son Brión was a King of the province of Connacht. From Brión stemmed the families of the Uí Briúin Bréifne (O’Rourke, O’Reilly, et al), the Uí Bríuin Ai (O’Conor, MacDermot, et al), and the Uí Bríuin Seola (O’Flaherty, et al). From Brión’s brothers and half-brothers descended other noble families of early Ireland, in particular the Uí Néill (Ó Neill, Ó Donnell, et al of Ulster) and the Uí Fiachrach (O Cleary, Ó Dowd, et al of Connacht).
Brión’s son, Duach Galach, was cited by some as a King of Connacht in the 5th century. Sometime over the next three centuries, the descendants of Duach Galach carved a territory in modern counties Leitrim and Cavan known as the Brefni, or Bréifne. Notable among his descendants was Aedh Finn, son of Feargna. There are many later references in Irish history to the O’Ruaircs being of ‘the race of Aedh Finn’. Among Aedh Finn’s descendants included Dub Dothra, son of Donchadha, who was described in the Irish Annals for the year 743 as King of Uí Briúin (and depending on the reference, a king of Conmaicne, and of Bréifne). From this reference some historians believe the Uí Briúin lordship in Bréifne began about the 8th century, while others discount the reference to Conmaicne and Breifne which were included only in the Annals of Tigernach. Dub Dothra’s son Cernach (aka Cernachan) is claimed by a number of sources to be the common ancestor of the O’Rourkes and the O’Reillys, dominant families of the Bréifne region in later times. A son of Cernach, named Sellachan (aka Ceallach), was described as a king of Bréifne in Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland. Sellachan was also cited in the medieval genealogies in the Book of Leinster under the sub-heading ‘king of Bréifne’, but does not specifically indicate he was a king of Bréifne. He may have been. (note: Conmaicne was a name for a people or territory which included the southern portion of modern county Leitrim, as well as adjoining parts of county Longford – i.e. Conmaicne Réin, from which the Diocese of Ardagh was formed in the early 12th century).
The Irish Annals record a son of Sellachan (aka Ceallach) by the name of Tighearnán, who is noted as a King of Bréifne in the Irish annals, his obituary dated about the year 888. This Tighearnán had been noted with 12 sons, one of whom was named Ruarc, the ancestor of the Ó Ruaircs (O’Rourke, et al). Ruarc and some of his brothers were noted in the Annals as lords of Bréifne, with Ruarc’s obituary appearing between the years 892-898. For example, Chronicon Scotorum cites that “Ruarc son of Tigernán, king of Bréifne, died.” Also see Early Reference in the Annals. Ruarc and his son Art were apparently men of importance in the province of Connacht (aka Connaught). Art’s son Ferghal (aka Sean Ferghal) was the first of the Ua Ruaircs to become King of Connacht, a milestone event occurring about the middle of the 10th century. As a grandson of Ruarc, Ferghal was among the first Bréifne kings entitled to be called Ó Ruairc (Ó indicating ‘grandson of’, or ‘descendant of’).
Ferghal must have been a powerful warrior since the kingship of Connacht had previously been dominated by the Uí Fiachrach and by other branches of the Uí Briúin (e.g. the Uí Briúin Ái). During his term as king Ferghal led many great battles including raids into the territories of the Uí Néill to the north and to the east (Meath), as well as to the southwest in the province of Munster. Between the years 964-967 Ferghal was defeated in the Boirenn of Corcu Mruad (the Burren of Corcomroe), as noted in the Annals. About the same time his obituary appears in Chronicon Scotorum, ” Fergal ua Ruairc, the Nebuchadnezzar of the Irish, i.e. the king of Connacht, … fell by Domnall son of Congalach, king of Brega (East Meath) and Cnogba (Knowth).” For additional information on Ferghal and the Ó Ruairc kings of Connacht, see Sean Ferghal, the 1st Ó Ruairc
In the early Irish genealogies Ferghal was noted with two sons: Aedh, and Art an caileach. Aedh Ó Ruairc was king of Bréifne until he fell by the hand of Tadhg Ó Conor of the White Steed, a King of Connacht, about the year 1014-1015. His obit. in the Annals notes, “Aed ua Ruairc king of Bréifne and heir designate of Connacht, was killed by Tadc an-eich-ghil, son of Cathal son of Conchobor, king of Connacht, in treachery.” Aedh was likely succeeded over Bréifne by his brother Art an caileach, who was cited in the Annals as king of Bréifne about the year 1020 – “Caileach h-Úa Ruairc, i.e., Art mac Sen-Fergail, rí Brefne.” (note: ‘rí’ was the Gaelic term meaning ‘king’ or ‘lord of’)
Aedh Ó Ruairc (obit. 1014-1015) was noted with a son named Art Uallach (‘the proud‘), sometimes referred to as Art oridnidhe, who was strong enough to regain the kingship of Connacht, becoming the 2nd Ó Ruairc to hold that distinction. About 1030 his chief rival, Tadhg of the White Steed Ua Conchobhair ( Ó Conor), King of Connaught, was slain by the Gott, i.e. Maelseachlainn, grandson of Maelruanaidh, lord of Meath and Cremthainne. Art Uallach Ó Ruairc held the kingship of Connacht from about that time until the year 1046 when his obituary appears in the Annals – ” Art Uallach Ua Ruairc, King of Connaught, was slain by the Cinel-Conaill (ancestors of Ó Donnell), in the second year after his having plundered Cluain-mic-Nois (Clonmacnoise).” The following year Niall Ua Ruairc [Art Uallach's son], king of Bréifne, was slain in Corann (southern c. Sligo) by Aedh Ó Conor of the Gapped Spear (son of Tadhg of the White Steed). Aedh Ó Conor had killed Art Uallach’s son Donchadh Dearg a few years prior to this.
About the year 1067 another son of Art Uallach, also named Aedh Ó Ruairc, helped overthrow Aedh Ó Conor of the Gapped Spear at the battle of Turloch Adnaig. Aedh became the 3rd Ó Ruairc King of Connacht and reigned for about twenty years. His obituary dated in the year 1087 appears in the Annals of Loch Cé – “The battle of Conachail, in the territory of Corann, was gained by Ruaidhri ‘of the yellow hound,’ son of Aedh ‘of the gapped spear’ Ó Conor, over Aedh, son of Art Uallach Ua Ruairc, king of Connacht and Conmaicne. Moreover, Aedh, son of Art Ua Ruairc, was slain.”
The Annals are not silent regarding the lords of Bréifne between the years of the 2nd and 3rd Ó Ruairc kings of Connacht. i.e. between 1046 and 1087. After Niall son of Art Uallach, King of Bréifne, was slain in 1047, Cathal, son of Tighernain (son of Niall, son of Aedh), was noted as a king of Bréifne in 1051, being defeated by an Aedh Ó Ruairc in 1059. The year 1066 recorded the death of Gilla Braite ua Ruairc, king of Bréifne. The Annals of the Four Masters describes this Gilla Braite Ó Ruairc as a son of Domhnall, son of Tighearnan, son of Ualgharg, son of Niall (which appears to be an asynchronism). About the year 1084 appears the obit. of another Ó Ruairc king – “Donnchad mac Airt in Cailech, maic Shen-Fergail h-Úi Ruairc, king of Brefne and East Connacht, fell in battle.” This Donnchadh was described as Donnchadh cael in the genealogies. In 1085 “Ualgharg Ua Ruairc, royal heir of Connaught, died.” Ualgharg appears to have been a grandson of Art Uallach, and possibly a son of Niall who died in 1047.
In 1102 “Domhnall, son of Tighearnan Ó Ruairc, lord of Bréifne and Conmhaicni, and of all Connaught for a time, was slain by the Conmhaicni themselves.” Domhnall, son of Tighearnan, was possibly the grandson of Ualgharg who died in 1085, the genealogies in the Book of Ballymote citing Ualgharg with two sons: Tigernán and Domnall. This Domhnall, son of Tighearnan, was noted as the 4th and last of his family to be called King of Connacht, although the situation appears unclear in the Annals. Ruaidhri ‘of the yellow hound’ Ó Conor was king of Connacht until he was blinded in 1092 by Flaithbheartach Ua Flaithtbheartach. In 1093 the Conmhaicni had killed Ruaidhri Ó Conor’s son Niall. About 1095 (unnamed) Ua Ruairc submitted to Muirchertach (Ua Briain), and the high-kingship of Connachta, save Uí Fhiachrach, Uí Maine and Luigne, was given to him. In 1097 another of Ruaidhri Ó Conor’s sons, Tadhg, had been slain. By 1098 Flaithbheartach Ua Flaithbheartaigh, lord of Sil-Muireadhaigh and West Connaught, was slain. It was during this tumultuous period that Domhnall, son of Tighearnan Ó Ruairc, albeit aided by the powerful Muirchertach Ua Briain, was titled a king of Connacht for a short time.
About the year 1101 “Donnchad son of Art (or Aedh) ua Ruairc, king of Uí Briúin and Conmaicne, and royal heir of Connaught, was killed by Giolla Srònmhaol (‘the bald-nosed lad‘) Ó Ruairc.” Donnchad may have been a son of Aedh, the third Ó Ruairc King of Connacht who died in 1087. Aedh ‘Giolla Srònmhaol’ Ó Ruairc was possibly a nephew or grand-nephew of Donnchad. Giolla Srònmhaol (i.e. Aedh) appears to have been a king of Bréifne and Conmaicne until he was killed in 1122 by Murchadh Ó Maeleachlain and the men of Meath. About 1124 another Ó Ruairc is mentioned, “Gilla Braite Ua Ruairc was slain (drowned) by the Connaughtmen, on Loch mac nÉn.” Loch nÉn is descibed near modern Athlone, Co. Roscommon, and it is possible this Gilla Braite (or Gilla Bruide) was a son of Domnall, the fourth Ó Ruairc king of Connacht.
Tigernan mor O Ruairc
The next King of Breifne had connections with the above Murchadh Ó Maeleachlain of Meath, responsible for the death of Giolla Srònmhaol Ó Ruairc. His name was Tigernan O Ruairc and he was supported by Murchadh as the next King of Breifne about the year 1124. Tigernan was described as a ‘young cousin of the Gilla Strònmael,’ and he married Murchadh O Maeleachlain’s daughter Dearbhforgaill (Dervorgil). The older Irish genealogies place Tigernan as a descendant of Domnall who was one of two known sons of Ualgharg, the royal heir of Connaught who died in 1085. The Book of Leinster appears to show him as a son of Donnchad son of Domnall, son of Ualgarg; while the later genealogical tracts of the Book of Ballymote, MacFirbis’ Book of Genealogies, and An Leabhar Donn cite him as a son of Aedh son of Donnchad son of Domnall. Tigernan reigned as King of Breifne for about 48 years, participating in many great battles which earned him the name Tighearnán Mór (‘the great‘). His exploits are well documented in the Irish Annals.
Tighearnán Mór suffered a setback in the year 1152. Diarmaid Mac Murchadha (Dermot MacMurrough), the King of Leinster (southeast Ireland), with the assistance of the High King of Ireland, Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair (Turlough Mor Ó Conor), invaded Breifne and defeated Tighearnán Mór. On this occasion “they took Conmhaicne from Tighearnán Ua Ruairc and gave the chieftainship to the son of Gilla Braite Ua Ruairc.” To add insult to injury Dervorgil, daughter of Ua Maeleachlainn and wife of Tighearnán Ó Ruairc, was “brought away by the King of Leinster, i.e. Diarmaid, with her cattle and furniture; and he took with her according to the advice of her brother, Maeleachlainn [Ua Maeleachlainn].”
The following year (1153) an army was lead by Turlough Mor Ó Conor, the High King, against Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, King of Leinster, “and took away the daughter of Ua Maeleachlainn (Dervorgil), with her cattle, from him, so that she was in the power of the men of Meath [Ua Maeleachlainn]. On this occasion Tighearnán Ua Ruairc came into his house, and left him hostages.” Later the same year Muircheartach Ua Lochlainn, and the people of the north of Ireland, defeated the men of Munster, Connacht and Leinster. The Annals cite, “After this Ua Lochlainn proceeded with his forces to Loch Aininn (Lough Ennell), and Ua Maeleachlainn came into his house, and left him hostages; and he (Ua Lochlainn) gave him all Meath, from the Sinainn to the sea, and also Ui-Faelain and Ui-Failghe. He gave Ui-Briuin and Conmhaicne to Tighearnán Ua Ruairc, and carried the hostages of both with him…” “Dearbhforgaill, daughter of Murchadh Ua Maeleachlainn, came from the King of Leinster (Diarmaid) to Tighearnán Ua Ruairc again.”
It was in the timeframe of the 1150s the boundaries of many Irish dioceses were set, providing a glimpse of the general extent of the Breifne and Conmaicne regions which were largely controlled by Tighearnán Mór at the time.
Over ten years later, in 1166, “An army, composed of the men of Breifne and Meath, and of the foreigners of Ath-cliath [Dublin] and the Leinstermen, was led by Tighearnán Ua Ruairc into Ui Ceinnsealaigh (in Leinster); and Diarmaid Mac Murchadha was banished over sea, and his castle at Fearna (Ferns) was demolished. They set up as king, Murchadh, the grandson of Murchadh, he giving seventeen hostages to Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair (the High King), to be sent to Tir Fiachrach Aidhne.” This event led Diarmaid Mac Murchadha to begin recruiting forces from Wales and he returned in 1167 to retake his kingdom of Ui Ceinnsealaigh. Again Diarmaid was defeated, by Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair and Tighearnán Ua Ruairc, and “Diarmaid Mac Murchadha afterwards came to Ua Conchobhair, and gave him seven hostages for ten cantreds of his own native territory, and one hundred ounces of gold to Tighearnán Ua Ruairc for his eineach.” The latter (eineach) was apparently a payment to Tighearnán on behalf of his “honour”, and possibly relating to the incident of fifteen years prior.
In the the years 1169 and 1170, more forces from Wales and England arrived in Ireland to support Diarmaid Mac Murchadha and his greater ambitions. Tighearnán Ua Ruairc was at the forefront of resistance to this foreign invasion into Ireland, and many battles were fought. In 1170 Diarmaid gave his daughter in marriage to one of the leaders from England, nicknamed Strongbow. The following year Diarmaid Mac Murchadha died, leaving part of his patrimony in Leinster to his son-in-law Strongbow [in violation of Brehon Law]. The political scene in southeast Ireland had reached a turning point with the arrival in 1171 of Henry, King of England, opening the door for further encroachment by the “Saxon Foreigners” within Ireland.
In 1172 Tighearnán Ua Ruairc, “Lord of Breifny and Conmaicne, a man of great power for a long time, was treacherously slain at Tlachtgha by Hugo de Lacy and Donnell, the son of Annadh O’Rourke, one of his own tribe, who was along with them. He was beheaded by them, and they conveyed his head and body ignominiously to Dublin. The head was placed over the gate of the fortress, as a spectacle of intense pity to the Irish, and the body was gibbeted, with the feet upwards, at the northern side of Dublin.”
For over 100 years following this event there was no long-standing Ó Ruairc. The eligible young men of the clan fought one another for the kingship, and the Lords of Breifne changed in quick succession. Aedh Ó Ruairc, son of Gilla Braite, served for a time until 1176, followed by Amlaíb Ó Ruairc, son of Fergal, who died in 1184. Aedh Ó Ruairc, son of Máelsechlann served as chief until his death 1187, he apparently being a grandson of Tighearnán mór. Ualgarg Ó Ruairc, son of Cathal, was noted serving at various times until his death in 1231, followed by Cathal riabach O’Ruairc, son of Donnchadh. The list of Ó Ruairc chiefs included no less than eleven over the next 40 odd years, at a time when Amlaíb O’Ruairc, son of Art son of Cathal riabach came to power. Amlaíb would serve as chief perhaps from perhaps 1275 until his death in 1307, when his cousin Domnall carrach assumed the chieftainship for a short time. Domnall carrach was a son of another Amlaib.
In the early 13th century Niall, great-grandson of Domhnall macTigernáin Ó Ruairc (the 4th and last Ó Ruairc King of Connacht), and some of his descendants, became the lords of Dartry and of Clan Fermaighe (a nothern portion of modern County Leitrim). There was great rivalry between these Ó Ruaircs and those of the main line, the Kings of Breifne, and they regularly attacked one another. In one entry in the annals Ó Raighillighs (O’Reilly) of East Breifne is noted as a lord of Dartry and Clan Fermaighe, an indication perhaps of how far the clan rivalries extended within the kingdom of Breifne. The power of the O’Reillys of East Breifne were in the ascendant from this time forward. With the rise of the O’Reilly in modern County Cavan , the territory referred to as the Breifne became divided into “Breffny O’Rourke” and “Breffny O’Reilly”, the former becoming limited more to the modern County Leitrim vicinity, plus some surrounding areas.
From the mid-13th century into the 14th, the Ó Conor Kings of Connacht greatly influenced the assignment of the Ó Ruairc kings of Breifne. During this period rivalries among the Ó Ruaircs included those of the descendants of Domnall and Donnchadh, grandsons of Ualgharg (died 1085). Among the descendants of Domnall, grandson of Ualgarg (died 1085), two main lines of his descendants also vied for the kingship of Breifne. At the Battle of Athenry in 1316, during the Bruce Invasion of Ireland, a great battle ensued to oppose William de Burgo and the other Anglo-Norman Galls in Connacht. In defeat at this battle were lost many great kings and princes of Connacht, Thomond and Meath including men of the Ui Briuin Breifne, the Ui Maine, Ui Fiachrach and Conmaicne. After this devastating defeat Ualgharg mór Ó Ruairc was king of Breifne, and the years that followed saw great rivalry between the Ó Ruaircs and the Ó Conors of Clan Murtagh.
Ualgharg mór Ó Ruairc, son of Domnall carrach, reigned as king of Breifne from about 1316 until his death in battle with Ruaidri son of Cathal Ó Conchobair (Ó Conor) in 1346. Upon Ualgarg’s death the kingship may have been in dispute between Ualgharg’s brother, Flaithbhertach, and Ualgarg’s eldest son, Aedh bán. Aedh bán defeated Flaithbertach in 1349 and was described as king of Breifne in 1352 when he was slain by Clan Murtagh. Flaithbhertach then held the kingship for a few months in 1352 before his death. Following the death of Flaithbertach, a second son of Ualgarg took his turn as king of Breifne. His name was Tadgh na gCaor (of the Berries) who was responsible for driving out the Ó Conors of Clan Murtagh. His reign lasted until 1376 when he was succeeded by his younger brother Tighearnán mór Ó Ruairc. During Tighearnán’s reign the “sons of Flaithbertach Ó Ruairc were banished from Breifne,” no doubt due to their continued rivalry. Tighearnán mór’s long reign lasted until 1418 when he died at an advanced age.
Tighearnán mór was succeeded by his son Aedh buidhe who quickly died the year following. It was in 1419 that Aedh buidhe’s brother Tadhg was elected in his place by the O’Rourkes from “Slieve-an-ierin West“. However, Art, son of Tadgh na gCaor, son of Ualgharg mór, was elected in opposition to Tadhg from [the men of] “Slieve-an-ierin East“, i.e. by the O’Reillys, the people of Teallach Donnchadha, and the descendants of Melaghlin Mac Rannall. This made sense since the sons of Tadgh na gCaor had their base of power in the southern portion of modern Count Leitrim (in Carrigallen), while the son of Tighearnán mór had their base in the north (in Drumahaire). At this point a great rift had been created and the kingship of “Breffny O’Rourke” became divided between East and West, the dividing point often described as Sliabh An Iarainn (the Iron Mountains, in the middle of co. Leitrim). In effect, “East Breifne O’Rourke” included the area about southern County Leitrim, while “West Breifne O’Rourke” included the northern County Leitrim area. Two of the baronies of modern county Cavan, i.e. Tullyhunco and Tullyhaw, were still considered among the areas included under the watch of the Breifne O’Rourke’s at this time. Refer to this map highlighting the baronies most associated with Breifne O’Rourke.
By 1424 Tadhg, son of Tighearnán mór, received Art son of Tadgh na gCaor’s submission and served as the Ó Ruairc until his death in 1435, at which time the kingship was again divided among East and West. In 1435 Art’s brother Lochlainn Ó Ruairc, son of Tadgh na gCaor, succeeded as king of East Breifne, and Tadhg son of Tighearnán mór had been succeeded by his brother? Donnchadh bacagh as king of West Breifne. In 1445 Donnchadh bacagh died and he was succeeded by his nephew, Donnchadh son of Tighernán óg son of Tighearnán mór. The people of West Breifny proclaimed Donnchadh son of Tighernán óg son Tighearnán mór, the Ó Ruairc, in opposition to Lochlainn, the son of Tadgh na gCaor (of East Breifne). Donnchadh, an ancestor of the O’Rourkes of Carha, would reign as the Ó Ruairc until his death in 1449. He was succeeded by his first cousin, Tighernán óg son of Tadhg son of Tighearnán mór, who was nominated the Ó Ruairc. In 1457-1458 Lochlainn Ó Ruairc, son of Tadgh, of East Breifne was defeated by the Maguires of Fermanagh and the kingship of East Breifne O’Rourke was effectively dissolved, although the Ua Ruaircs continued as large land-holders in this region over the next 200+ years. Tighernán óg son of Tadhg continued his reign as king of Breifne until his death in 1468. The ancestors of Tighernán óg became known as the O’Rourkes of Dromahair, a main branch of the family.
Following Tiernan óg son of Tadhg’s death in 1468, the kingship of Breifne was again in dispute. Tiernan óg’s brother Domnall was elected king of Breifne with support from the Lord of Tirconnell, Aedh Ruadh O’Donnell. This was opposed by the descendants of Tighernán óg son of Tighearnán mór son of Ualgharg (the O’Rourkes of Carha), who unjustly rose up against him; and they themselves, and the people of Carbury, and the Clann-Donough, inaugurate Donnchadh losc, the son of Tighearnán mór. To settle the matter an army was led by O’Donnell and Ó Ruairc in 1470 to go upon the hill of Cruachan-Ua Cuproin (the traditional inauguration site of the Breifny kings) to inaugurate the Ó Ruairc. However, O’Reilly, the English, and the people of Teallach-Dunchadha opposed them at Bel Átha Chonaill (Ballyconnell), and they were prevented from going to Cruachan on that occasion. As the dispute among the O’Rourkes of Dromahair and of Carrha continued, there was also infighting among the families of the last kings of East Breifne O’Rourke, which results in the death of Ualgarg son of Cathal Ballach Ó Ruairc, who was killed in 1472 by Eóghan son of Lochlann Ó Ruairc, an ancestor of the O’Rourkes of Cloncorick in the barony of Carrigallen.
By 1476 Feidhlimidh, son of Donnchadh Ó Ruairc, of the O’Rourkes of Carrha, became king of Breifne. In the year 1500, following the death of Feidhlimidh Ó Ruairc of Castlecar (the stronghold of the Carrha O’Rourkes), Eóghan son of Tighernán óg Ó Ruairc (of the Dromahair O’Rourkes), succeeded as king of Breifne. His reign would last 28 years and it was this Eóghan (Owen) who founded the renowned Franciscan Friary of Creevelea in 1509. At Creevelea, it was said, the Ó Ruaircs of Dromahair “received their education, joined the Order as Friars, or were buried.”
Eóghan (Owen) died in 1528 and was succeeded by his son Brian ballach mór as King of Breifne. In 1536 Brian demolished the stronghold at Castlecar in opposition to his rival O’Rourke clan. About 1540 Brian, noted for his many exploits, alliances and raids, built Leitrim Castle. In 1562 Brian, the last of the ‘Kings’ of Breifne, died. His descendants followed as lords of Breifne for a time and they later united with the other O’Rourke clans against the intruders from England who were transplanted into the region. Most notable was Brian ballach’s son, Brian na múrtha who was later hanged in London for treason against the Queen’s Law in 1591, as well as his grandson Brian óg who distinguished himself on the side of the Gael at the ‘Battle of the Curlews’ during the Nine Years War.
Of the history of the O’Rourkes, it can be said that some of their strongholds were at Dromahair (S.E. of Lough Gill); at Newtowne (on the N.E. shore of Lough Gill, later to have Parkes Castle built over it); at Carha (Caislén an Cairthe, or Castlecar, in the parish of Killasnet, north-central Co. Leitrim) lying between Glencar Lake and Manorhamilton; at Cloch Inse na dTorc (the stone fortress of Boar Island) on Cherry Island in Lough Garadice; at Leitrim Castle (south of Lough Allen); at Tuam Shanshadha (Woodford, next to Lough Garadice); and at Clooncorick a few miles south of Lough Garadice in the parish of Carrigallen.
Other fortifications with O’Rourke connections are said to include Duroy (Dubhshraith), a square Keep lying very near Newtowne castle; a crannog on Glencar [Glenn-Dallain] Lake in Killasnett parish; a crannog on Claen-loch [Lake Belhavel] in the parish of Killarga; the castle of Longfield located two miles south of Newtowngore in Carrigallen parish; a crannog on Lake Fore (Castlefore) in the barony of Leitrim; and perhaps a castle on the river Bonet referred to as Harrison’s Castle on the Ordnance Survey. The inauguration site of the Kings of Breifne was said to be at the hill of Cruachan (Croghan), across the border in County Cavan near Killeshandra.
The long story of the Ó Ruairc lives on in Irish history, although by the late 1800’s not one O’Rourke held land of any consequence in Leitrim. Today the O’Rourke and O’Rorke descendants of the great Ó Ruairc clan, like many of the old Irish clans of Ireland, are still to be found in Ireland but many had also sought their fortune in the other countries of Europe and abroad.
Last Ó Ruairc lords of Bréifne
This article focuses on the Dromohair branch and the last Ó Ruairc lords of Bréifne.
The chart below was drawn from the early genealogies. It suggests the main lineage of three of the later branches of the Ó Ruairc family, those of Cloncorick, Carha, and Dromohair. To reference some of the earlier descendants in this chart, click on Ualgharg mór below.
Ualgharg mór (1346)
Tadhg na gCaor (1376) Tighernán mór (1418)
| | | | | | |
Art (1424) Lochlann (1458) Tighernán óg Aedh buidhe (1419) Tadhg (1435) Donnchadh Donnchadh
_|_ _|_ ____________|________ bacagh losc
| | | | (1445) (1468)
Eoghan Donnchadh (1449) Tighernán óg (1468) Domnall (1468)
(O'Rourkes of Cloncorick) _|_ _|_____________________
| | |
Feidhlimidh (1500) Eóghan (1528) Brian ruadh (1487)
| | |
Eóghan (1488) Feidhlimidh (1536) Brian ballach mór (1562)
(O'Rourkes of Carha) (O'Rourkes of Dromahair)
Eóghan, son of Tighernán óg mac Taidhg Ó Ruairc, was of the O’Rourke’s of Dromahair. He is first noted in the annals in 1488 for the slaying of his cousin Eóghan, son of Feidhlimidh mac Donnchadha, i.e. the son of the ruling Ó Ruairc at that time. The year prior Eóghan son of Feidhlimidh, of the O’Rourkes of Carha, had caused the death of Brian ruadh Ó Ruairc, Eóghan son of Tighernán óg’s brother. Both of these events were a testament of the great rivalry between the O’Rourkes of Carha and the O’Rourke’s of Dromahair. Following the death of Feidhlimidh mac Donnchadha, Eóghan (Owen) would succeed as the Ó Ruairc in the year 1500.
Eóghan (Owen) was noted for commencing the Monastery of Ó Ruairc’s town, at Dromahair, the renowned Franciscan Friary of Creevelea founded in 1509. Eóghan died in
1528, his obituary appearing in the Annals of Connacht:
C1528.8 – O Ruairc, Eogan son of Tigernan, chief ornament of the men of Conmaicne, famous heir of the old Fergal, a pillar of the bounty and magnificence of Western Europe, a wise openhanded very wealthy prince, a man who tamed his neighbours and maintained all stout warfare against border foes, prop of the nobility and endurance of the posterity of Aed Finn son of Fergna son of Fergus, died in the robe of St. Francis after Unction and Penance.
Eóghan was succeeded by his son Brian ballach mór as King of Breifne. In 1536 Brian demolished the stronghold at Castlecar in opposition to the rival O’Rourkes there. About 1540 Brian, noted for his many exploits, alliances and raids, built Leitrim Castle. In 1562 Brian, the last of the ‘Kings’ of Breifne, died, his obituary appearing in the Annals of the Four Master:
M1562.1 – O’Rourke (Brian Ballagh, son of Owen), the senior of Sil-Feargna, and of the race of Aedh Finn, a man whose supporters, fosterers, adherents, and tributaries, extended from Caladh, in the territory of Hy-Many, to the fertile, salmon-full Drowes, the boundary of the far-famed province of Ulster; and from Granard in Teffia to the strand of Eothuile, the Artificer, in Tireragh of the Moy,—who had the best collection of poems, and who, of all his tribe, had bestowed the greatest number of presents for poetical eulogies, died in consequence of a fall; and his son, Hugh Gallda, was installed in his place.
The following is a chart of some of the descendants of Brian ballach mór as noted in the annals and genealogies, with their respective year of death.
Brian ballach mór (1562)
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Brian na múrtha(1591) Maghnus Tadhg(1560) Eóghan(1560) Aedh gallda(1564) Aedh buidhe(1566) Tighernán bán
_|____________________________________________ _|_ _________________________|_
| | | | | | |
Eóghan (1589) Tadhg an fiona (1605) Art Brian óg (1604) Aedh óg Eóghan mór Brian ballach óg(1682)
_|_ _|_ _|_ ___________|____
| | | | |
Brian ruadh(1641) Brian Eóghan óg Aedh(1684) Tighernán(1702)
Hugh of Kilnagarn
As mentioned in his obit. Brian ballagh was replaced as Ó Ruairc by his son Aedh gallda. Aedh would hold sway only a couple of years before he was killed within his own dominion, as noted below:
M1564.1 – O’Rourke (Hugh Gallda, son of Brian Ballagh, son of Owen) was maliciously and malignantly slain by his own people, at Leitrim, in Muintir-Eolais; after which the whole country closed round Brian, the son of Brian O’Rourke; and it was rumoured that it was for him this treacherous misdeed was committed, though he had no personal share in perpetrating it. Hugh Boy, the son of Brian, son of Owen O’Rourke, another brother, who was younger than Hugh, but older than Brian, called himself O’Rourke by the influence of O’Neill.
Next to follow as Ó Ruairc was Aedh buidhe, brother of Aehd gallda. He was slain by the neighboring Cenel Conaill (the people of O Donnell) at Ballintogher, County Sligo just a couple of years following his election. His obituary alludes to the continued internal struggle for the right to become Ó Ruairc.
M1566.5 – O’Rourke (Hugh Boy, the son of Brian Ballagh) was slain by the Kinel-Connell, at Baile-an-tochair, in order that the son of the daughter of Manus O’Donnell, namely, Brian, the son of Brian, son of Owen (O’Rourke), might enjoy the lordship of Breifny.
Next to serve as as Ó Ruairc was Aedh buidhe’s younger brother Brian na múrtha, son of Brian ballagh. Brian na múrtha would reign as the Ó Ruairc for about 35 years, his term fraught with encroachment by the English, along with the usual raiding and feuding with other Gaelic rivals. Brian was a proud, stubborn man, who unlike some of the other Gaelic lords, was unwilling to compromise with the English, even after being knighted by them in 1578. The English tightened their grip even further when Ó Ruairc country became part of County Leitrim, formed in 1583. Brian would become an outlaw in the eyes of the English. Sentenced of treason he would eventually be taken prisoner, placed in the Tower of London, and hanged in 1591.
M1591.1 – O’Rourke, i.e. Brian-na-Murtha, the son of Brian, son of Owen, was banished, as stated before, into the Tuatha in Tirconnell, where he remained upwards of a year with Mac Sweeny (Owen Oge). After that he passed into Scotland, in hopes of obtaining protection or assistance from the King of Scotland. A party of the Queen’s people, however, took him prisoner, and carried him into England and into London, where he remained for some time in prison, i.e. until the ensuing November Term. The law was urged against him, and he was condemned to death. He was afterwards hanged, beheaded, and quartered. The death of this Brian was one of the mournful stories of the Irish, for there had not been for a long time any one of his tribe who excelled him in bounty, in hospitality, in giving rewards for panegyrical poems, in sumptuousness, in numerous troops, in comeliness, in firmness, in maintaining the field of battle to defend his patrimony against foreign adventurers, for all which he was celebrated, until his death on this occasian.
The next Ó Ruairc of importance was Brian óg na samhthach, son of Brian na múrtha. Among other things, Brian óg distinguished himself on the side of the Gael at the ‘Battle of the Curlews’ in 1599 during the Nine Years War. Brian óg was also forced to flee Breifne, as his father had, ending up in Galway where he passed away at the age of 35.
M1604.1 – O’Rourke (Brian Oge, the son of Brian-na-Murtha, son of Brian Ballagh, son of Owen) died at Galway on the 28th of January, and was buried in the monastery of Ross-Iriala, with the Franciscan Friars. The death of the person who departed here was a great loss, for he was the supporting pillar and the battle-prop of the race of Aedh-Finn, the tower of battle for prowess, the star of the valour and chivalry of the Hy-Briuin; a brave and protecting man, who had not suffered Breifny to be molested in his time; a sedate and heroic man, kind to friends, fierce to foes; and the most illustrious that had come for some time of his family for clemency, hospitality, nobleness, firmness, and steadiness.
The next Ó Ruairc was Tadhg an fiona, a half-brother of Brian óg, who would die at age 28 in Dromahair. Some suspect he may have been poisoned in 1605. With his death the last of the lords of the Dromahair line held sway.
M1605.2 – O’Rourke (Teige, son of Brian, son of Brian, son of Owen), Lord of Breifny, a man who had experienced many hardships and difficulties while defending his patrimony against his brother, Brian Oge; a man who was not expected to die on his bed, but by the spear or sword; a man who had fought many difficult battles, and encountered many dangers, while struggling for his patrimony and the dignity of his father, until God at length permitted him to obtain the lordship, died, and was interred with due honour in the Franciscan Monastery at Carrickpatrick.
Following the death of Tadhg an fiona, his sons Brian and Aedh were declared illegitimate by the English. They ultimately lost their claim to their father’s inheritance. In a Tract on the O Rourkes, written in 1714 perhaps by Father Patrick O Curneen he notes,
“the Duke of Buckingham received the manor of Dromahaire; Sir Frederick Hamilton the manor of Baile Hamilton; Grandison the manor of Druim-an-Snamh; the Parsons – Achadh Tamhnuigh, Beal an Atha Moir and An Garbhos (those are three manors); Henry Casto – Maothail; Blundel the manor of Leitrim; Sir George St. George (by marriage) the liberties of Cara; Robert Park the manor of Baile Nua; Seon Mor Mag Raghnaill – Loch an Scuir, Leacaoin, and An Ghrainneach (those are three manors); as well as many other small divisions between Goill and Gaoidhil which are not reckoned here.“
The 17th century heralded the virtual extinction of Gaelic civilization as a political entity in Ireland. English law (and manipulation) resulted in taking properties formerly held by ‘rebellious’ or ‘illegitimate’ Irish heirs, and giving them to English settlers or those faithful to the Crown. The Irish uprising of 1641 was followed in the 1650s by wholesale confiscation of remaining Irish Catholic lands. By the end of the century English and Protestant landownership was the rule, especially east of the Shannon.
By some accounts Eóghan óg Ó Ruairc, grandson of Tighernán bán, was the last recognized Chief of his name. In a tract in Celtica it mentions that Eóghan Óg of Dromahair (grandson of Tiernan Ban) and Aedh (Hugh) of Kilnagarn, Dromahair, great-grandson of Hugh Gallda (Tiernan Ban’s half-brother) were rivals for the title of Chief of the O Rourkes. The original tract was written in 1714, probably by Father Patrick O Curneen, poet and historian of the ORourkes. It was translated by Professor James Carney and published in 1950. In the same tract it mentions Eóghan Óg son of Eóghan Mór was judged to be Chief by the ollamháin of the Province of Connacht (Celtica, 1, 1950, page 266)
Chart of the Ó Ruairc Kings of Bréifne
Kings are noted with the approximate ending year of their reign (in brackets)
Fergal (967, Sen Fergal, King of Connacht) Aedh?
| | |
Aedh (1014) Art an caileach (1031?) Niall (1000)
__|__________________ _|_ _|_
| | |
Art oirdnidhe (1046, Art uallach, King of Connacht) Donnchadh cael (1084) Tighernán
| | | |
Aedh (1087, King of Connacht) Donnchad dearg (1039) Niall (1047) Cathal (1059)
__|_ _______________|___________________ _|_
| | | |
Domnall Aedh an Gilla Braite (1066) Ualgarg (1085) Domnall (1078)
| | |
Aedh (this line from Rawlinson) Tighernán Domnall
Domnall (1102, King of Connacht) Donnchad
| | | | |
Fergal (1157) Donnchad Gilla Bruide (1125) Tighernán mór (1172) Aedh (1123?) Niall
_|______________ _|_ _|_ _|_
| | | | |
Amlaíb Domnall (1207) Aedh (1176) Máelsechlann Cathal liath
(1184) _|__ _|_ _|_ _|___________________
| | | | |
Art (1210) Donnchadh óg Aedh (1187) Ualgarg (1231) Domnall mhatail
________|________ _|____ ____________|_ _|_
| | | | | |
Amlaíb (1258) Art bec Cathal riabach (1236) Sitric (1257) Aedh Tighernán na corradh
_|_____________ (1260) _|___________ _|_ _|_
| | | | |
Conchobar Domnall Art (1275) Tighernán (1274) Conchobar (1257)
buidhe (1273) carrach (1311) |__________ _|_
_______________|____________ | |
| | Amlaíb (1307) Domnall (1259)
Ualgarg mór (1346) Flaithbhertach (1352)
| | | |
Aedh bán (1352) Tadhg na gCaor (1376) Gilla Crist (1378) Tighernán mór (1418)
| | | | | | |
Art (1424) Lochlann (1458) Tighernán óg Aedh buidhe (1419) Tadhg (1435) Donnchadh Donnchadh
_|_ ____|___ _____________|________ bacagh (1445) losc
| | | | (1468)
Eoghan Donnchadh (1449) Tighernán óg (1468) Domnall (1468)
(O'Rourkes of Cloncorick) | |
Feidhlimidh (1500) Eóghan (1528)
Feidhlimidh (1536) Brian ballach mór (1562)
(O'Rourkes of Chartha) Brian na múrtha (1591)
(O'Rourkes of Dromahair)
The earliest portion of the above lineage is reflected in the 12th century Book of Leinster, that is, Ualgarg son of Niall son of Art son of Aedh son of Fergal. The full text suggests that a Tigernan was a son of Donnchad, son of Domnall, son of Ualgarg (above noted). This Tigernan would logically be Tighernán mór, who died in 1172, and this pedigree is also reflected in Francis Byrne’s work, Irish Kings and High Kings.
O’Clery’s 17th century Book of Genealogies, provides a full lineage from Fergal down to Brian na múrtha as follows: [m = "son of "]
Briain na murthadh m Briain ballaigh m Eoghain m Tighernain m Taidhg m Tigernain moir m Ualgairg m Domnaill m Amhlaibh m Airt m Domhnaill m Ferghail m Domnaill m Tigernain m Ualghairg m Neill
m Aedha m Airt oirdnighe m Aedha m SenFerghail.
Note on O’Clery: O’Clery erroneously adds an extra Aedha to this pedigree (see strikethrough). Earlier in the same tract, O’Clery shows the same Ualgharg m Neill as a grandson of Airt oirdnighe. This error is also corroborated in the late 14th century Book of Ballymote, and in the 15th century An Leabhar Donn.
Notes on the Kings of Connacht:
The four Ua Ruaic kings of Connacht are noted in the Irish Annals; and in “A poem on the Kings of Connacht” (manuscript sources: MS. Rawlinson B 502 [facs. p. 165]; Z Celt Philol 9 (1913) 461–69). In the translated poem the four are cited as:
- Fergal son of Ruarc from the Rige, who seized all the country round through battle-rage. (Note: Fergal was a grandson of Ruarc)
- Art grandson of Ruarc of the royal seat; Art the Fair of the land of Codal. (Note: Art oirdinte, righ Connacht, son of Aedh)
- Aed son of Art, seized on Sart of lasting valour. (Note: Aedh, righ Connacht, son of Art oirdinte)
- Domnall son of Tigernan the Silent. (Note: Domnall, rige Conacht, son of Tigernan son of Ualgarg)
(the additional notes attached to the above kings of Connacht are taken from the genealogies of Ballymote, Leabhar Donn, and O’Clery)
Notes on Linea Antiqua and O’Harts Pedigrees:
Both O’Ferral and O’Hart confuse Tighernan, father of Domnall (the last O’Ruairc to be called king of Connacht), with Tighernan Mor who died in 1172. Tighernan Mor could not have had son who died in 1102 with the title of king of Connacht. Compared with earlier genealogies, O’Ferral and O’Hart also confuse Tadhg (son of Tighernán mór who died in 1418) with Tadhg na gCaor.