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  The O'Carrolls of Ely O'Carroll (1) >>

O'Carroll (Mulrony), the most distinguished man of his own tribe for generosity, valour, prosperity and renown; a man to whom the poets, the exiled, the clergy and the learned were indebted; who had gathered and bestowed more wealth than any other person of his stock; a protecting hero to all; the guiding, firm helm of his tribe; a triumphant traverser of tribes; a jocund and majestic Munster champion; a precious stone; a carbuncle gem; the anvil of the solidity and the golden pillar of the Elyans, died in his own fortress on the festival of St. Matthew the Evangelist, and his son, Ferganainm, was inaugurated in his place.

Thus the Annals of the Four Masters recorded the death in 1532 of the chief of the O’Carrolls of Ely O’Carroll, one of the great Gaelic clans (alternatively called septs) of the Irish Midlands. A connection between this clan and the branch of the Carroll family dealt with here has long been hinted at by the story that the earliest known ancestor, John Carroll, was born in Tipperary, and the fact that one of his great-grandsons, Albert George Carroll, was known to talk of the ‘tribes of Ireland’ in connection with the family seems to support the theory, although it is quite possible that what Albert was referring to was actually a book by that name.

Early in the seventeenth century, when Ireland was still not completely conquered by the English, an Angus O'Daly (a.k.a. Red Angus, or Angus the Satirist), one of a long line of traditional Gaelic bards of the O'Daly clan, wrote a scathing satire entitled 'The Tribes of Ireland' in which he offered the Irish chieftains the greatest of insults by mocking their legendary hospitality and questioning their having the material wealth to offer it. It is believed that this work was commissioned by Sir George Carew and Mountjoy, Lord Lieutenants of Ireland, to sow enmity amongst the Irish and so aid the final conquest of the land. The effectiveness of the work can perhaps be measured by the fact that, in 1617, Angus was stabbed through the heart on the command of O'Meagher, chief of Ikerrin (a territory under the protection of the O'Carrolls of Ely), who had been offended by the remarks made against him in the satire.

Nor were the O'Carrolls themselves spared O'Daly's criticism, and he attacked one Cian O'Carroll (a lesser member of the Ely sept) with the following lines:

Cian O'Carroll and his spouse,
Are a pair that never forgot inhospitality;
An aged, contentious, cross-grained pair,
Wicked, drivelling, grey-headed.

Among his sheep as I was running,
I fell with a noise into his house;
Cian said that it would be better sport,
If I should fall out twice [i.e. doubly quick].

A people to whom the quern is dear,
The voice of the [one] sheep and the one cow;
A tribe who felt starvation in the womb,
The O'Carrolls of the dry beards.

In 1852 this satire was published from manuscript copies in the Royal Irish Academy with both literal and poetical translations into English by John O'Donovan and James Clarence Mangan, and the earliest known members of this branch of the family may well have been aware of the book's references to the O'Carrolls even if they had not actually read it themselves. Whatever the origin of Albert George's story of the tribes of Ireland it now appears that, by means of DNA testing, there is in fact a relatedness between the O'Carrolls of Ely and this branch of the family, although it is unlikely that the exact connection will ever be known.

The O’Carrolls of Ely O’Carroll belonged to a tribe, or group of related clans, who claimed descent from Olioll Ollum, a third century king of Caisil (Munster), and Sadhbh, daughter of Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles), King of Ireland. Olioll Ollum had three sons who lived long enough to produce offspring: Eoghan Mór, Cormac Cas and Cian. From each of these three sons arose one or more tribes, the most important of which were the Eoghanachta (Eugenians) of Munster from Eoghan Mór, the Dál gCais (Dalcassians) of Déis Tuascairt in Co. Clare from Cormac Cas, and the Ciannachta (Clan Cian) of Ely in Counties Tipperary and Offaly from Cian. It is to the Ciannachta that this O’Carroll clan belongs.

One of Cian’s grandsons, Conla, possessed the lands that would later come to be called Éile (Ely) after one of his descendants, Éile Righdearg (Eile Red King). In 1014 one of Eile’s own descendants, a king called Cearbhall, fought with Brian Boru at the head of the Ciannachta against the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf, and his son, Maonach, adopted the surname Ua Cearbhaill in his honour, thus giving the clan its name.

Over time the northern half of the territory of Ely comprising the Baronies of Clonlisk and Ballybritt in Co. Offaly and Ikerrin in Co. Tipperary came to be dominated by the O’Carroll clan causing it to be called Ely O’Carroll, while the southern half was dominated by the O’Fogarty clan and came to be called Ely O’Fogarty (the present-day Barony of Eliogarty in Co. Tipperary). The O’Carroll kings of Ely O’Carroll ruled over eight sub-tribes including the Kinel Arga, Clan Rooney, the Crioch Chein, Clan Maonaigh and the Tuath Faralt which were headed by the O’Flanagan, MacCorcoran, O’Hegan, O’Meagher and O’Hailchen clans respectively. In his topographical poem of ca. 1395 O’Heerin describes the O’Carrolls and their territory, located between Lough Derg on the River Shannon and the Slieve Bloom mountains, in the following manner:

Lords to whom the hazelnuts stoop
Are the O'Carrolls of the Plain of Birr.
Their chief is Prince of Ely as far as the Slieve Bloom,
Most hospitable land in Ireland

Eight tribes, eight chiefs there are
Under the Prince of Ely - land of cattle herds.
Fearless in enforcing their tributes
Are the forces of the flaxen hair.

When the above-mentioned Ferganainm succeeded his father, Mulrony, to the chieftainship in 1532, it was not simply because he was Mulrony’s son that he was chosen (the fact that he was illigitimate was of no importance under Gaelic Brehon law): leadership of Irish clans was determined not by primogeniture (succession by the eldest son) but by a system called tanistry. This involved the selection of ‘the eldest and worthiest’, i.e. wealthiest, man from and by the ‘derbfine’ of the current or a previous chieftain. The ‘derbfine’ was a family grouping comprising all the descendants of a person’s great grandfather, thus, in terms of a potential successor, it effectively made a chieftain’s brothers, first cousins, second cousins, and nephews all eligible for the position, as well as his sons. For this reason ancestry was very important to the Gaelic Irish. Of course this only applied to the higher echelons of society and ignored the humbler classes who were contemptuously referred to by one Conall Mageoghagan in 1627 as ‘mere churls and labouring men, not one of whom knows his own great grandfather’. (Judging by the frequency of the surnames occurring in taxation records for 1659 the ruling O’Carrolls may have only made up about one tenth of the population of Ely O’Carroll, although the ratio no doubt would have varied at different times.)

That an Irish clan also included lower classes of people unrelated to the ruling elite is one of the reasons why many historians refer to clans in an Irish context as ‘septs’ (possibly from one of their own words for such groupings, ‘sliocht’, meaning a division) to distinguish them from the purely blood-related social groupings of Gaelic Scotland. Another feature of the Irish clan, despite being family-based, was that it was essentially a political and legal entity rather than a familial one. As such there did not exist the internal solidarity that might be expected within a family so, whilst a clan might have closed ranks in disputes with outsiders, conflict frequently arose within them over rights to clan property and over succession to the chieftainship, and internal hostilities over a number of generations usually led to a fraction breaking away and forming a separate clan. The sixteenth century saw some particularly violent struggles for succession amongst the O’Carrolls of Ely O’Carroll as the following entry in the Annals for 1554 illustrates (William Odhar and Teige Caech were both O’Carrolls):

O'Carroll (Calvagh, i.e. the son of Donough) was slain by William Odhar, the descendants of Mulrony O'Carroll and Connell Oge O'More in requital of the treachery which he had practised towards Teige Caech some time before. For this treacherous conduct ample revenge was taken of O'Carroll for, before the expiration of a year after the perpetration of his treacherous deed, he himself and Teige Mac Donough, his brother, were slain, and William O'Carroll was styled O'Carroll in his place.

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