The Letters of John O' Donovan

        John O'Donovan, one of Ireland's greatest Gaelic scholars, historians and genealogists, recorded his impressions of Fermanagh in 1834 and gives us a glimpse of a hidden Ireland 20 years before the great famine.  He observed the folklore and antiquities of the county, the ancient kingdoms, their conflicts and their rulers and placed them in the context of the ancient Irish Annals which go back 1,400 years.         

        O' Donovan paid particular attention to Fermanagh's ancient families, especially Maguire, O'Flanagan and McManus with their genealogies.  There are references to numerous other families of Fermanagh and surrounding counties such as Cassidy, McCaffrey, McElroy, Cox, Corrigan, Melanophy, Crudden, McGrath, McGoldrick, Breslin, etc.        

         Edited by the noted County Fermanagh historian John Cunningham, The Letters of John O' Donovan from Fermanagh is extensively footnoted to bring the letters alive to the modern reader, scholar and genealogist.  Unforturnately, the book is now out of print and we have sold out our supply of the CD version of the book.        

         With Mr. Cunningham's permission, below we have reprinted one of O' Donovan's letters, with the editor's note.   The letter may not be reprinted or republished in any further form or manner.



John Cunningham lecturing during the 1999 clan rally, with Dr. Cathal Cassidy on the left.

John Cunningham provides specialized tours, including ones focused on genealogy, in County Fermanagh. He has served as a guide for tours on behalf of the Cassidy Clan and is highly recommended. He can be contacted at  Please tell him you heard of his services on the Cassidy Clan website.

Letter from Enniskillen, October 12, 1834 Re County Fermanagh Place Names

Dear Sir,

        I remained within all day yesterday to make an index to the extracts from the Annals.  They throw great light upon the topographical names of the county, [Ed. Note 1] but I have not, I am convinced, got the half of them yet.  O'Keeffe has extracted only those passages which occur under, Fir Manach, Loch Eirne, Inis Ceithlinn and Achad Urchair, but there are many other places in Maguire's county certainly (to my own knowledge) mentioned which O'Keeffe has not sent.
  I cannot do without the whole, and I beg that you will get him to send me all the passages relating to the following places, taking special care to avoid repetitions:

(1) CUIL, territory, now the barony of COOLE. This territory is frequently referred to as the residence of O'Cassidy, Maguire's head physician, and as the territory of a collateral or dynast branch of the Maguires.  Perhaps this territory will be found in the Index under the name Cul, Cuil, and Fir or FEARA CUL.

(2) TUATH-RATHA, now called TRORY and TOORA.  This was the principality of O'Flanigan, a chief tributary to Maguire.  Tuath-Ratha is very often mentioned in the Annals.

(3) TUATH LUIRG, sometimes called Fir and Feara Luirg.  It is now called the barony of Lurg, situated in the north of Fermanagh. This was the patrimonial inheritance of O'Maolduin, who was also tributary to Maguire.  The following curious passage occurs in the Annals under the year 1369 respecting this place:

"O'Maolduin (Donnell) Lord of Tuath Luirg, was slain by the sons of Niall O'Donnell, who carried the spoils of his territory with them to Badhbha, one of the islands of Lough Erne.  To avenge the death of his oglach, O'Maolduin, Philip Maguire, Lord of the seven Tuaths (i.e. Lord of the 7 territories into which his principality of Fermanagh was divided) sailed with a large fleet to the island upon which the sons of O'Donnell were, and a naval engagement took place on that part (division) of the Lough (near the island) called Fionnloch, [Ed. Note 2] in which Niall Oge O'Donnell was slain."

The Muldoons are numerous in the Co. yet.

(4) MACHAIRE STEPANACH, now the barony of Magherastephena. This frequently occurs in the Annals, but O'Keeffe has not sent me a word about it.

(5) CLANN CHONGHAILE, now the barony of Glenawley.  Do the Annalists give Clann Amhlaoibh, if so, where is it situated?

(6) TIR ENDA.  I am inclined to think that the Tir Enda of the Annals is the barony of Tir Kenedy in the Co. of Fermanagh.  Where does Harris or the Abbe Ma Geoghegan place this territory?

(61/2) CNOC NINDIGH, now the barony of Knockninny.

(7) Airidh Broscaidh now Derry Brusk!

(8) Aireach Maolain now Derry Vullen!

(9) Oilen na Trionoide, i.e. Trinity Island.  There is an island of this name in Lough Ke, and another in Lough Erne.

(10) Oilen-Na-naomh:  do the Annals give any such island.  There is an island in Lough Erne called Inis-Mac-Saint.  What does Archdall or Colgan say about this? [Ed. Note 3]

(11) Bel (beul) Atha Charbaid, or Ath-Charbad.  This is the now Belturbet.

(12) Ross-airther now Rossorry.

(13) Bel (Beal) Lice, now Beleek.

(14) Loch Meilge, now Lough Melvin.

(15) Machaire na croise or Machaire Croise.

(16) Cluain-Eois, now Clones.

(17) Cill Laisre, now Killesher.

(18) Claoininish, now Cleenish.

(19) Inis Coain now Iniskeen.

(20) Cill Chonghaile, now Kinnawley.

(21) Beann Eachlabhrais, now Benaghlinn Mountains.

(22) Machaire Cuil mona.

(23) Lios na aginth?

(24) Tuaim Riagain.

        He has not sent me half the passages that relate to the Maguires.  I should be glad to have before me while in Fermanagh, all the notices of that family, because names of places might be mentioned, which might throw great light upon the ancient topography.  Send every passage in the Annals relating to the 24 places above mentioned.

        Send me also that part of O'Dugan's Topographical poem, which treats of the families and subdivisions of Fermanagh.  It will be found in O'Kane's MS, which Mr Petrie has at present.

        Have you heard from Myles O'Reilly?  The name books are very meagre, but Mr Stothard is at my request, getting the names copied into them as they are spelled in the Grand Jury map of the County.

        I will expect an answer to this as soon as possible.

                                    Yours invariably

                                    John O'Donovan.

Editor's Notes

Note 1:  An article entitled "The Barony-Names of Fermanagh and Monaghan" by Nollaig O Muraile of the Placenames Office of the Ordnance Survey, Phoenix Park, Dublin in the Clogher Record of 1984 deals in great detail with the names of the eight baronies in County Fermanagh.  The following information is largely gleaned from this article.

        In brief the two largest baronies, Lurg and Magheraboy, are on either side of Lower Lough Erne.  On the southern side, Magheraboy . . .  the yellow plain does not appear in print before 1585 when it appears in the Composition Book of Connaught.

       Lurg meaning a mark, trail or track is recorded as a Kingdom in the Annals in the year 1039.  The clan O Maolduin, anglicised Muldoon, held the territory.

        Knockninny . . . Ninnidh's Hill is the only barony name in Fermanagh which is also a townland name.  The name is believed to derive from a 6th century St. Ninnid who is listed as one of the "twelve apostles of Ireland."  He bears the nickname, 'Saobhruisc' (squinting) i.e. "the squinting saint" or sometimes the ,"One-eyed Saint."  This barony name is not found until the year 1450.

        Tirkennedy as a name has nothing to do with the modern personal name of Kennedy.  Instead it arises from an emithet "Cennfhota" or long headed applied to, Fergus son of Cremthann, the eponymous ancestor of the Ui Chremthainn, i.e. it means ..... the country of the descendants of the long-headed (Fergus).  With its ruling family Ua Daimhin, usually anglicised to Divine, the territory is first mentioned in 1349.

        Clanawley . . . Clan Amhlaoibh, derives its name from Amhlaoibh the son of Donn Carrach Maguire the first Maguire King of Fermanagh who died in 1302.  Amhlaoibh is a gaelic version of the Norse name Olaf.   Many Irish families adopted Norse names. The territory name is first recorded in 1306.  The Fermanagh surname Mc Cauley and Mc Auley derive from Amhlaoibh and therefore make them ultimately Maguires also.  In this fashion there are many other "disguised Maguires" in Fermanagh.

        Clankelly . . . Clan Cheallaigh, derives from Cellach, son of Tuathal, king of the Ui Chremthainn who was killed in 731. Like Clanawley the origin of the name is that of a sept which ruled the area.

        Magheraststephana occurs first in the Annals of the Four Masters in the year 1520.  O'Donovan alleges its origin to be from the name of one Steafan or Stephen the son of Odhar the progenitor of the Maguire clan, a figure of the 10th century.  Unfortunately for this explenation the name Stephen did not arrive into Ireland until the time of the Normans in the 12th century.  There is no reference to a family group called Muintir Steafain or any other individual connected with Feramangh in the genealogies or annals.  It is an enigmatic barony name to date.

        Coole . . . meaning a corner (perhaps of land running into Lough Erne) appears in the Annals as Cuil na nOirear and as O'Donovan writes may have applied to an old half-barony near Enniskillen.  Neither its full meaning or location are definitely established.

Note 2:  The Finn Lough refers to that narrow part of Lough Erne between Boa Island and the shore adjacent to the present day town of Pettigo.  In 1744, Isaac Butler, wrote this description of Boa Island:

"An island near ye north shore of ye lough which is called ye Bow Island, 3 miles long and near 1 1/2 wide; on which several villages are, whose inhabitants, as it is said, seldom come on shore but live in silent retreat, marry amongst each other and are blest with all ye common necessaries of life."

        Since time immemorial Boa Island and it's people have been like this, solitary and apart from the mainstream of Irish life but nothing the poorer of that.  It is the biggest island inside Ireland with an area in excess of 1300 acres and through fishing and farming it once supported a population of over 600 people.  They were an independent people with a tradition of self-reliance and mutual interdependence.  They had their own musicians, storytellers, poets and historians.  See Mysterious Boa Island by John B. Cunningham, St. Davog's Press, 1988.

Note 3:  Among the sources frequently consulted by O'Donovan and his fellow workers are the following:
The Inquisitions of the period of the Plantation of Ulster, the Down Survey papers, the various Annals, the Topographical Poems of O'Dubhagain and O'Huidrin, Keating's History of Ireland, the Lives of the Saints of Ireland, the Lives of Saint Patrick, the Genealogies of Duald MacFirbis, the Calendar (Feilire) of Aengus the Culdee, the Dindsheanchus; the writings of Archbishop Ussher, Sir James Ware, Dr. Charles O'Connor's Rerum Hibernicarum Veteres Scriptores, the Topographia Hiberniae of Giraldus Cambrensis, Dr. John Lanigan's Ecclesiastical History of Ireland and Mervyn Archdall's Monasticum Hibernicum, etc.

        In his letters O'Donovan frequently gives forthright opinions on these and other writers e.g. on Sir William Betham, the Ulster King-at-Arms who criticised the translation of an ancient Irish poem which had been translated by himself, Eoin O'Curry, Thomas O'Connor and Owen Connellan. [From Mountrath on 15-11-1838]

"It vexes me a great deal to find that Sir William Betham has attacked the translation of the peom on Aileach because it is too outrageous a humbug.  It is not too bad that a man who does not understand a single sentence of a certain rude language should set himself up to criticise the translation which has passed the examination of four persons from the four different Provinces of Ireland, in whose native language it is written and who have studied its native and modern idioms since they were children? . . . I defy Sir William to translate any one poem in the Irish language whoich has not been translated before, or any one story, legend or anecdote in the Books of Lecan, Ballymote, Lismore or the Leabhar Breac; and not only any one story but any one sentence containing a noun, a verb, a preposition and oblique case!  If these things could be put to the test like Latin and Greek, pretenders like Sir William would soon disappear from the world of letters, and the history and  antiquities of Ireland would be examined as those of other nations have been already."

        O' Donovan is also very scathing on the topic of early religious writers whose sacred enthusiasm allowed them to pervert the truth.
"Why were the early monks such liars?  Why did man not learn how to commit the truth to phonetic characters earlier?  Why did not the Christian religion establish peace in Christendom?  Why did the Christian writers tell more lies than Plutarch, Livy, Heredotus and Tacitus ?" [Loughrea 25-10-1838]

The Cassidy Clan is pleased to announce the release of the book "Speculated Truth: A Genealogical Journey of Truth and Speculation" by Clan Secretary Brent Cassidy. The book is for all persons interested in Cassidy genealogy, Irish culture, traveling to County Fermanagh and Ireland.  Please click here to read more about the book and learn how to order a copy.

Inch Strand in County Kerry on the Dingle Peninsula by Sarah Cassidy.
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