In ancient times the land divisions of Ireland were very different from the way they appeared in post-Norman centuries, when a modern sense of town layout and clear parameters had been established. Ikerrin (Ui Cairin), an area extending between Munster and Leinster, was localized as the northeast corner of Tipperary with land subtracted into King’s and Queen’s Counties in 1556 by Queen Mary, creating Offaly and Laois, respectively. Just over the border of both Tipperary and Laois is the county of Kilkenny. Towns within and between all these counties are easy to reach by car and were likely commonly traveled by foot, horse and cart or bicycle centuries ago. The sept, or clan, Meachair/O’Meagher originated in Ikerrin. Its primary town, anciently called Muscraighetire, where the barony of lower Ormond (Butler) became situated, was called Ros Cré (“Wood of Cre”) now Roscrea, Tipperary.
A landmark in the area, which can clearly be seen from the Rock of Cashel, is the gap in the Slieve Bloom Mountains called “The Devil’s Bit,” near Templemore, Tipperary. Lore explains the nickname from a story that the devil, frustrated that he could not tempt the devout residents of the area, took a bite out of the mountain and spit it eastward, forming the foundation of the Rock of Cashel. A second version of the story attributes the removed portion as having formed the base, instead, of the Rock of Dunamase in Laois (Queen’s County). A gift from Leinster King Diarmuid mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough) to Strongbow (Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare) as part of the agreement that opened the door to the Normans’ entry into Ireland, this castle was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in the mid 17th century.
In 470 A.D. Saint Patrick was said to have traveled to Muscraighetire to preach, and he baptized three grandsons of Conla, “men of power,” from the clan that became Meagher (the Irish spelling of the surname spelled several other ways based upon various pronunciations and family traditions). Furic, Muinnech, and Mechair were given blessings by Saint Patrick that their clan would produce chieftains forever and be in the companionship of a king. (Joseph Casimir O’Meagher, Some Historical Notices of the O’Meaghers of Ikerrin, 1890, pg. 14)
Saint Cronan founded a monastery in Ros Cré in 606, called Inchinamo. Ruins of the Irish Romanesque abbey are near the Saint Cronan Church. The original sandstone church had a round tower, a carved high cross, medallions and other relief carvings depicting knots, Noah’s Ark, and the first abbot. In the 8th century another monastery near Roscrea, Inchanambeo, was founded on an island. This church lasted at least to the early 12th century when it was mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters. A cell within Inchanambeo was called Toome.
Joseph Casimir O’Meagher related that from this area came the 17th century Book of Dimma, in the collection of Trinity College in Dublin, which is a copy of the 654 A.D. Book of Gospels from the Abbey of Roscrea. The book is understood to have been the property of the parish priest of Roscrea, whose nephew, Rev. Philip Meagher, was the Vicar General of Cashel and Emly. The shrine (elaborate enclosure/box) for the book was made in the 12th century. The white bronze highly decorated Ikerrin Brooch, similar to the brooches in the National Museum of Ireland – Archeaology in Dublin, is in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. Also in this collection are two portions of ancient bronze trumpets found in Roscrea. In 1692 a highly decorated gold cap considered to have been a Meagher crown was found in a bog by the Devil’s Bit, documented in Abbé MacGeorghegan’s Histoire d’Irlande. O’Meagher attempted to discern its whereabouts and decided that it had likely been melted down. (pp. 13, 124 -127)
The O’Meaghers owned many castles throughout Munster and Leinster associated with abbeys or churches and there were many notable members of the clergy in the sept. The Mahers commonly intermarried with members of the Butler dynasty, which ensured some degree of survival, if not financial security in difficult times. Almost all Gaelic families had lost their property by the seventeenth century either through inter-tribal battles, English confiscation, banishment from Ireland before or after the devastating conquest of Cromwell, or through dispersion, willingly or unwillingly, throughout the southern counties of Ireland and the world.
The name Maher is still primarily associated with Tipperary, although it extends into Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly, Carlow, Waterford, and elsewhere. All Mahers, wherever they may have put down new roots over the many centuries, and no matter how their name is spelled today, essentially originated in Ikerrin, although ancestry directly leading back through the ancient generations is, of course, impossible. As one of the noble ancient Gaelic families, pedigrees were created for the surname, and O’Meagher included several of them in his exhaustive research (pp. 191-205). I consider his book, Some Historical Notices of the O’Meaghers of Ikerrin, to be the bible about Maher, a first resource in beginning to study the ancestry of the name. It is in the Public Domain and available printed on demand through Amazon.
©2011 Janet Ní Mheachair (Janet Maher)
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