Those who know me from many years back on Jane Lyon’s Y-IRL list serve or from my earlier web sites will no doubt recall my excitement about discovering Joseph Casimir O’Meagher’s Some Historical Notices of the O’Meaghers of Ikerrin, published in 1890. Its compilation of myriad facts and details became my bible, not only through which to learn about my father’s surname, but as a means to begin to study the history of Ireland herself. Names of places that had seemed so difficult to pronounce or remember eventually became familiar, and the differences between provinces, counties, baronies, townlands and civil or religious parishes, among a great many other things, also became clear. That boundaries and jurisdictions continually changed, as they do in all developing civilizations, reminded me to always note the time frame of an historical detail, as one decade’s information might vary greatly from another’s, some event having caused any number of ripple effects.
While we may know that the original location for the Meaghers was in northeast Tipperary, in and near the town of Roscrea, we also know that due to all the turmoil over the centuries individuals and families chose to (or were forced to) spread further throughout Tipperary, relocate to other regions, or leave home entirely. From the time of Oliver Cromwell’s entry into Ireland question marks pepper every Gaelic Irish surname’s history. O’Meagher’s text underpinned and provided a context for everything I had learned so far. My studies of surnames based in the Tippeary/Kilkenny/Laois area had brought me to a point of simply wishing to walk or drive through particular areas in real time, gaining a felt sense of the distances between places.
What of Roscrea, the main town within the barony of Ikerrin (Ui Cairin), associated with the O’Meachairs/Meaghers/Mahers? After all the dispersals, transportations, emigrations, deaths, how relative to a current Maher from another country might Ikerrin be? It was in this questioning state of mind that I looked forward to meeting Caitriona Meagher on my journey—someone with whom I had become an email correspondent in the past year. Caitriona, and her cousin, Anna, whom I was also delighted to have met the following week, are among perhaps very few members of the Meagher/Maher clan who know and can point to locations that show their family connecting back to O’Meaghers mentioned in Joseph Casimir O’Meagher’s work. Caitriona’s family still lives within an extended area of land upon which Clonan Castle once existed (“Clonyne/Cloyne” in Some Historical Notices, depicted on pg. 18). It was with great excitement that I went to visit her, and I am so grateful for the thrilling day we spent together.
We met at her mother’s home, and Caitriona immediately brought me outside to the perfect spot from which to look out over all of what used to be the barony, a wide circle recessed in the center, spreading out for miles. The base had been a lake with about a two acre island in it — Lough Cré (Inishnameo), the Island of the Living. Gesturing outwards she told me, “All the castles were along the ridge, around the perimeter,” and she pointed to the division where Ikerrin left off and the land of their kinsmen, Ely O’Carroll, began. Through binoculars we could slightly make out two partial castles directly across the way (which I found the following day). She explained that Clonakenny Castle (Caisleán Cluain an Chaoinaigh), toward our far right, was in the safest section, protected by all the other outlying castle communities. Although we did not see them, Caitriona said that evidence remains of ancient ring forts in the area too, and that farmers through the ages have avoided them, both for superstitious reasons and in honoring their historic importance. The image at the head of this essay shows some top portions of Clonan Castle at the horizon (“bumps” that interrupt the curve), evidence of the castle’s formerly great size, the top of which could be seen from within the town of Roscrea over a mountain.
A few days ago, when looking into the Tithe Applotment records of around 1826, I noticed that among the many Meaghers living throughout that extended area in the early nineteenth century, several clustered into townlands within the civil parish of Roscrea, and several clustered within the townlands in the parish of Bourney. I asked Caitriona about this via email and she explained, regarding the Roscrea area, “If you could imagine making a 3.5 mile diameter circle, and then walking out the front door in Clonan and putting it down on your left, then all of these places would be in it.” Regarding Bourney, she said, “If you made a similar 8-ish mile circle and put it down on your right, these places would be in it.” I love that there now is the memory of our standing in place looking out over it all, to which she can make such a reference that I, in turn, understand!
Despite all the dispersions, before the Great Famine there was once again a very large concentration of Meaghers/Mahers in the area of the clan’s origin. Given the Meaghers’ interconnected ties through fortuitous marriages with Butlers and other Norman Old English landlords, and their ancient claims to the lands in the area, not only would some of them have found their way back to their ancestral homes, but many from the laborer class may never have been forced to leave. We know that throughout Ireland there were instances of upper class Gaelic families having their properties taken, but being “allowed” to remain as laborers on what had been their own land. The newly planted landlords needed workers, and, especially within the midlands, many landlords became absentee, which left the locals much to their own devices as before the upsets. Some who had been transported may have later been able to return as tenants, sometimes through agreeing to suppress their religious practice or through the kindness of those whom Martin Callanan categorized as “friendly Protestants” (Records of Four Tipperary Septs, 1938).
Whether they remained in place or relocated, by mandate or by choice, all Meaghers, Caitriona confirmed, anciently came from this area. Although the surname has been scattered to the winds over centuries, for any Maher/Meagher looking into their Irish history, we can know that some deep ancestor had lived here at one time. Although I had felt this to likely be true in theory, I was so glad to hear her say this aloud! Yes, we all come from here. Period. And our line at some cellular level is, thus, ancient. In conversing about this later with Anna, she called it a dynasty, noting parallels to ancient lineages in other countries in which that term is commonly used. O’Meagher history was richly documented by Joseph Casimir O’Meagher, and there likely do not exist paper trails deeper than those that he found.
Caitriona noted that originally Irish land was not registered to a certain owner. This came later, with British rules. “We o Meachairs would have floated around the barony a lot before that. Then we began to settle in certain areas.” The ancient family groups (tuathas) worked their common lands together, moving into different fields as their own farming practices determined and using naturally occurring land formations as designated perimeters of their properties, which extended great distances. Early on, struggles would have been simply about trying to maintain or expand their holdings and protect them from encroachment by other native Irish.
The web site of Ireland’s Reaching Out group explains Roscrea’s “long and proud heritage” as “stretching back over six thousand years,” and O’Meagher’s “notices” bring us back to before the time of Saint Patrick’s conversion visit to Ireland. He referenced a seventeenth century text by Rev. John Colgan, a Franciscan friar in Louvain, who wrote of Saint Patrick’s travel in 470 A.D. to the area that became the barony of Lower Ormond (Butler), baptizing, Mechair and two other “brothers of that nation—men of power…the sons of Forat, son of Conla (son of Tadg, son of Cian, son of Olioll Olum).” O’Meagher explained the Milesian linage of the surname as descending “from Fionnachada, son of Connla, son of Cian, second son of Oiliol Olum, King of Munster in the third century.” (pp.13, 14)
Caitriona brought me to two ancient ecclesiastical sites of at least equal importance to others that are more well-known and have been somewhat restored. Both tie to the ancient history of the O’Meaghers/Mahers. The monastic site of Monaincha (Bog of the Island) and the Sean Ross Abbey, founded by Saint Cronan, brought more references in O’Meagher’s book completely to life for me, enhanced by recently hearing historian George Cunningham’s fascinating narration about them. (An MP3 version of his audio tour may be purchased here.)
To follow the growth of what Mr. Cunningham called “the cradle of Christianity” in this area, we look first to the abbey that 7th century Saint Cronan founded at Sean Ross, in a wild and remote section of Ikerrin. When he realized that the place was too far away for people to locate him, he moved into the main town and founded Saint Cronan’s Monastery in Roscrea. Here, his monk, Dimma MacNathi, scribed over forty days and nights the famous Book of Dimma, contained in the collection of Trinity College’s library. An ornate shrine was created to contain the book, financed by Lord O’Carroll, in the 12th century. Around the 1480s the monks wanted to get away from the bustle of the city and returned to the more contemplative location of Sean Ross. This became the parish of Corbally (Corville). O’Meaghers continued to be priors, and O’Meaghers were buried in the graveyard there. Remains of a medieval church are also still there, however, the area is now known more for its special education school for those with learning disabilities, Saint Anne’s, which was begun in 1971. Its earlier modern incarnation, beginning in the 1930s, was as a convent home for unwed mothers. It was there that Michael Hess and his birth mother, Philomena Lee, tried to find each other. This heart-breaking story was made into the film, Philomena, last year, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
O’Meagher’s book contains an excellent map that shows the island of Monaincha (formerly Inchanambro) without the lake, revealing two amoeba shaped ends connected by bogland containing an Abbey Church, Abbot’s apartments, two churches, surrounded by “the ancient Wood non-a Bog” and remains of the Abbot’s orchard. O’Meagher explained that Thaddeus Meachair (Blessed Thaddeus) had become Bishop of Cork and Cloyne after the resignation of William Roche in 1490 (pg. 16). One of the authors of the Annals of the Old Masters in 1664 added a reference to the ritual of crowning O’Meagher rulers, noting that “the steed and battledress of every Lord of them belong to the Comarba of Cronan and Inchanambro…” He further explained that Saint Cronan was the patron saint of Roscrea, and Comarba referred to his successor. Inchanambro, “also in O’Meagher’s country, “was the name of ‘the island of the living,’” later called Lady’s Island. Signage from the Office of Public Works and their Destination Cashel explained that Elarius (St. Elair, or Hilary), who died in 807 A.D., had founded “an important monastery” on the Island of the Living, which began to follow Augustinian rule in 1140 A.D, where the monks remained until 1485. Monaincha’s high cross base was created in the 9th century, but the Celtic cross head dates from three centuries later. Around the grounds of the church are several old graves, including some small Famine Stones. Inside there are still some monuments for a few of the primary people that had been associated with Monaincha. Much of the bog was harvested for fuel over the centuries, leaving only the footprint of a small raised landscape supporting this once quite significant medieval sacred site, two large trees seeming to bravely protect what is left.
Giraldus Cambrenis, Gerald the Welshman, wrote about The Monastery of the Island of the Living (Mainistir Inse na mBeo) in 1187. He said, “There is a lake in North Munster with a large island which has a church of an ancient religious order. No woman or animal of the female sex could enter this island without dying immediately. This has been put to the proof many times by means of the cats, dogs and other animals of that sex, which have often been brought to it as a test, and have died at once.” O’Meagher noted that Cambrensis visited there in 1185 (pg. 13). P. W. Joyce explained in 1911 that the miraculous tradition was that it was said to have not been possible for anyone guilty of a great sin to die on the island. Even if they were very ill, it would not be until they left the island that they could actually die. Likewise, if people tried to bury on the island “an unrepentant sinner” who had died somewhere else, there would inevitably be some problem that would not make the burial possible. Even after the monks left the island, the church and its grounds were frequently visited. “About two centuries ago,” Joyce wrote, “the owner drained the lake, forbade all pilgrimages and burials, destroyed the tombs, and had a circular fence built around the church.” (LibraryIreland)
Caitrionia explained, “At Móin na hInse we have a long series of documents from the Holy See dealing with the Priory in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was a place of importance and its Prior one of the more outstanding dignitaries of the diocese, so that very many Papal Mandates are addressed to him to deal with the unfortunate disputes which were then so common in the struggle of laymen to gain control of the clerical revenues. The connection of the O Meaghers of Ui Cairn and their control of the Priory is almost continuous throughout the whole period…In A.D. 1350 the Pope issued an Indult to Thady O Meagher and his wife to choose their own Confessor…No doubt the O Meagher succession and control continued up to the Reformation.”
We also had a look from a distance at Clonakenny Castle, recently privately purchased, and Caitriona brought me to see an honorary plaque in a local church cemetery for Marty Maher, about whom a John Ford film was made (The Long Grey Line, 1955). We ended back at her mother’s home, where we had a wonderful visit and enjoyed tea and scones at a beautifully laid-out table. Caitriona’s brother and his daughter also stopped by. I am grateful to Mrs. Meagher and her family for the warm welcome, and to Caitriona, who parted the veils for me in such a way that I felt, “OK, I can go home now!” only partway into my journey. I look forward to building a friendship with Caitriona and Anna into the future.
A recent green-energy effort has established a large section of windmills in the area, named after the area’s sacred site. They may be a disturbing hindrance to some local residents. They proved, however, to serve as excellent landmarks for me, as I recalled seeing them from Clonan, and various other angles as we drove around. I found myself in the following days near some of the spots that Caitriona introduced to me, each in various relative proxmities to the windmills. More about Tipperary in Part 5!
Thank you to Caitrion Meagher for her contributions to this piece!
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
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