The transition from prehistory to one of reliable historical record is never well defined. So we arbitrarily, and with some trepidation, move to events for which there is more, if not complete, support for the story.
The early Fifth Century saw the introduction of Christianity to the island.1 Although preceded by several missionaries, St. Patrick is recognized as the organizing genius behind the rapid adoption of the religion. Operating from a base in Armagh in the north, Patrick established a flourishing network of abbeys and churches – by some reports there was one associated with every tuath by the end of the century. A great part of his success may be attributed to his practice of assimilating pagan rituals and deities into Christian lore. Patrick enshrined the shamrock in Irish culture by using it to demonstrate the concept of the Holy Trinity. Although many of his exploits were certainly embellished in the subsequent jockeying for power among the elite of the clergy, Patrick’s determination and dynamism was clearly evident and his place in Irish lore was ensured.
At the same time (about 440) that Christianity began it’s meteoric rise in popularity, and prompted our ancestor to take the name MaoilMhichil, “devotee of St. Michael”, Germanic tribes that had pushed across Europe to Western Germany, Holland, and Denmark, began the invasion of Britain. These tribes were, respectively, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. Although Saxon hegemony in Britain was a locally traumatic event that would produce a new ruling elite, it would have a limited immediate impact in Ireland. Scotland and Wales remained firmly Celtic as well, but under continuous pressure. Just as in the case of the transition from Roman rule three centuries before, the unsettled situation in Britain provided opportunity for the Irish. As raiding increased, taking advantage of the hapless Britains, so did trading boom with their conquerors. The wealth of the Irish underwent considerable improvement over the next 400 years, and much of it resided in the Monasteries - Monasteries that became increasingly conspicuous as fat, rich, and undefended targets.
The following centuries saw the rise of the Vikings, first as raiders in ~790, then as traders, and finally as settlers and rulers in Ireland after ~900.4 Their raids became increasingly intense and bloody affairs, beginning in Britain, and extending to the coasts of Ireland and Gaul. Ultimately, they penetrated far up the rivers in their longboats, to the extent that they are credited with establishing the city of Paris! The raiding parties grew in size to involve hundreds of ships, and soon they began to lengthen their stay. While Celtic culture continued to survive, and indeed prosper, the Viking incursion was brutal and left a lasting imprint on the island. Many treasures, including irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed in the process. It is indeed, perhaps, a credit to the Celtic culture that the transition from raiding and warfare to trading and settlement occurred as rapidly as it did. While the Norsemen were ultimately assimilated, they contributed several key features. They organized and built cities among the scattered and clannish villages of the Celts (Dublin, Limerick, and Wexford among them). They also invigorated trade with Britain and mainland Europe by virtue of their maritime experience. On a more ominous note, the settlement of Vikings along the Brittany coast in today’s France would become the Norman Empire of the next century.
The first mention of a MaoilMhichil outside of the legendary genealogies occurs in this period. In 866 one Maolmichil (sp.) was mentioned as chief of the Siol Muireadhaigh (SilMurray), the parent clan group of the O’Conors, O’Kellys, O’Monahans, MacBranans, MaoilMhichils, and many others.6
The only other mention of a similar name, with a similar root, is the story of Maelmichill, of the Cluain Mic Nois, who, as an old man, adopted that name and sequestered himself in an abbey, where he died as a penitent. There is a reference to his son in the Annals of the Four Masters.2 This is likely not the root source of the Mulvihill surname, as it does not have the same associations with locality and clans that we see in later accounts.
The year 950 A.D. also saw the fall of the Eoganacht dynasty in Munster, second only in power to the UiNeill, and the rise of the Dal Cais clan (Brian Boru).7 Brian Boru, through a series of masterful moves overthrew the UiNeills, historical High Kings of Ireland, capping his triumph with a massive victory at the Battle of Clontarf(1014), just outside of Dublin. Brian was murdered after that battle, however, and never realized his dream of personal mastery of the island.
The subsequent power vacuum set the stage for the next great conflict – the Anglo-Norman wars. It was only a matter of time after William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, ending 600 years of Saxon rule, for him to turn his attention to Ireland. Problems consolidating his rule, however meant that the opportunity was to be left to a successor, Henry II. That opportune moment was the alliance created with a disenfranchised lesser Irish King, Murchada, in 1169, and an itinerant baron who preferred to be known by his nickname, Strongbow. In a complex series of battles and shifting allegiances over the next decade, the Anglo – Norman coalition gained control over many of the provinces. In general, the affair resembled a fight amongst gangsters for turf rights rather than a war among nations. An initially diffident English throne was, in turn, outraged, then placated by the spoils, and ultimately compelled to participate in an orgy of greed. Regardless, another century or more would pass before effective control of all of Ireland passed into English hands. In the meantime, Irish internecine warfare continued almost unabated.8
Unlike previous invasions, the Anglo-Norman incursion began a series of events which would have serious, and tragic, consequences for the Irish, and Celtic culture. It’s not an overstatement to say that this was the single most critical event in the 4000 year history of Celtic Ireland, right up to today. It set in motion a chain of events which would culminate in a virtual genocide, an “ethnic cleansing” of the Irish by pitiless English overlords. This occurred despite the usual, ultimate assimilation of the Normans and the early English conquerors.
In lands under direct control of the invader, large segments of the population found themselves no longer masters of their soil. Large tracts were given over to veterans of the conflict, with the Irish populace bound as serfs. In other areas, the people were displaced to make room for English immigrant settlers. This process began in Dublin and Ulster and spread over the course of a century to the whole of Ireland. The Irish did not submit peacefully, but were no match for the Norman military machine, with it’s keen focus on tactics and discipline. It was also no match for the organizational and administrative skills of the newcomers. The Normans had a strict centralized command, under the King, which extended to the Church. This allowed them to play very successfully against the always-fractious nature of the Irish, splitting their feeble cohesion with disastrous local allegiances which were ultimately meant only to “divide and conquer”. Conversely, in an equally feeble defense of the Irish model, it may be said that the only reason that it took the vastly superior generalship of the Normans more than a century to secure their victory was that there was no central leadership to defeat, no capital to occupy, and no nationalistic patriotism to subsume. The piecemeal fabric of Irish heritage surrendered in piecemeal fashion.9
Only one province largely escaped feudalization – Connacht, and with it, Roscommon. Here the petty Irish lords continued their family squabbles as though the world around them had remained unchanged. On occasion, English or Norman armies conducted raids into Connacht – sometimes at the bidding of one faction for it’s own ends. The reprieve was only temporary, but it gives us a rare chance to view the MaoilMhicils in transition to the Mulvihills.
The territory of the Corca Achlann, deep in the northeast corner of what is now, County Roscommon, was under the control of the O’Conors of the UiBriuin Ai10 dynasty, and hereditary Kings of Connacht. These O’Conors also had the dubious distinction of providing the last two Ard Ri of Ireland, before the Anglo-Norman takeover. Centuries of successful lordship and growth bred the usual faction-fighting, and the O’Conors began to break into feuding factions. This carried over to the MacBranans (and presumably as well to their cousins, the MaoilMhichils).
The hereditary Princes to the O’Conor Connacht Kingship were the McDermotts and the O’Kellys. Below them were the Dillons as Earls, then the O'Feenaghtys, O'Flannagans, O'Flynns, and O'Glennons as Lords, and finally, the MacBrennans, MacKeoghs, O'Beirnse, O'Connelans, O'Hanleys, O'Maol Conroys, O'Monaghans, O,Mulrenins, O'Nortons, and other O'Kellys as Chieftans. Numerous other family clans in the area had no designation, or, as the O’Mulvihils, were only sometime leaders.11
In 1189, Conor Moinmoy O’Conor, King of Connacht, and son and heir-apparent to the ArdRi, Roderick, was killed. O’Hart states that he was on trial for treason by the other lords of Connacht and was killed as a result. To quote from a translation of The Annals of the Four Masters:
“Conor Moinmoy….…was killed by a party of his own people and tribes; i.e. by Manus, the son of Turlough O’Conor; Murtough, son of Cathal, son of Dermot, the son of Teige; and Gilla-na-naev, the son of Gilla-Coman, who was the son of Murray Bane “the Fair” O’Mulvihil of the Tuathas”12,14
The son of Conor Moinmoy, Cathal Carragh, shortly thereafter took revenge by killing the son of Murtough. No mention is made of the plight of the others, but subsequently the Siol Muireadhaigh (Murray), of which the culprits were members, pled fealty to Roderick and offered hostages. Roderick obliged them. Cathal was crowned King of Connacht in 1201. MacBranan was named as his henchman and chief of his kern, or light infantry. This seems surprising given their cousin’s participation in the killing of his father, and may point to an ever widening schism in the Corca Achlann.
Later that year Richard I was crowned King of England.
In further revenge, in 1210, the O’Conors of Connacht invaded Corca Achlann, but “were beaten out of it with loss by O’Maolmichil”.
Again, in 1232, the O’Conors tried, but O’Conor’s son, and the MacDermott, and the O’Kelly were all slain by Giolla Blein O’Maolmichil “of the white handled battle axe”13. This raised the fame of O’Maolmichil “Of The Battle Axe”, as he was now called, so high that it was said about a difficult task that “ it cannot be done if Maolmichil of the Battle Axe could not accomplish it”. Fear of retribution for the killings was evident by the response of O’Maolmichil’s fellow clan members in painting all of their battle axe handles white.3
The MacBranans are not noted in either of the above fights, despite being the leaders of Corca Achlann! Did they stand aside?
is the vigor of Clann Brennan,
And also of the majestic O'Mulmihil.
They command the strong forces of Corca Achlann of the herds.
- Topographical Poems of John O'Dubhagain, circa, 1320
In 1411 two factions of the MacBranans fought for kingship of the Corca Achlann at the ford of a small river. Despite a slaughter of a number of the leadership, the battle was indecisive, and the fighting continued over the next century. The site is the location of the present day Strokestown, i.e. “the strokes of battle”.
By about 1416 the O’Conors, probably with the assistance of at least one faction of the MacBranans, had stripped the O’Mulvihils of their power and driven most of them out of the traditional territory of the Corca Achlann. Most of the survivors probably crossed the Shannon River to the East, into what is now County Longford. Indications are that some stayed behind (a faction that stood with the O’Conors?). Some also appear to have headed West to Galway. See Migration.
By 1526 the MacBranans themselves were expelled, and the Corca Achlann disappears forever.
1 Davies, Norman, The Isles, Oxford Univ. Press, 1999, pp. 176-181
2 Author Unknown, Annals of the Four Masters, Compiled 1632-6 by Fr. M. O’Clery, UCC Translation, M889.4
3 The UCC Translation (see 13 below), does not explicitly mention MaoilMhchil; Hart (Irish Pedigrees ), however does cite this work.
4 Davies, Norman, The Isles, Oxford Univ. Press, 1999, pp. 247-252
6 Cairney, C. Thomas, Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland, Willow Bend Books; 1989
7 Llywelyn, Morgan, Lion of Ireland, Houghton Mifflin Co, 1980
8 Davies, Norman, The Isles, Oxford Univ. Press, 1999, pp. 340-345
9 “The Catholic Encyclopedia”, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08098b.htm
10Siol Muireadhaigh > UiBruinin > UiBruininAi > Corca Achlann > MaoilMhichil
12 Author Unknown, Annals of the Four Masters, Compiled 1632-6 by Fr. M. O’Clery, UCC Translation, M1189.8.
13 IBID, M1232.7
14 IBID, see http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100005A/index.html
© James M. Mulvihill UPDATED: 5/03/03