The Fighting Irish – Is Your Irish Surname Mentioned Here?

We've often heard the phrase "The Fighting Irish". Here we have a letter all about how many of the "faction fights" in 1800s Ireland, went on to be subsumed into the modern Irish game of Hurling. Perhaps you can see some of your Irish surnames mentioned as part of this particular faction fight?

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The Fighting Irish – Is Your Irish Surname Mentioned Here?

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland this week. Well, the early summer is truly underway here in this part of Ireland. The cherry and apple blossoms are coming to an end, to be replaced by that beautiful light shade of green you see in the trees. A great time of year – full of promise! I hope the weather is treating you wherever this letter finds you today.

Speaking of the lovely green colour around us at this time of the year, just yesterday we drove through the nearby country village of Ballinhassig. As we went into the village shop for our daily usuals, we noticed a plaque on the wall with the following words:

This plaque was erected in memory of Maurice Corcoran, Jeremiah Coughlan,  Charles McCarthy, Cornelius Ford, John Kerrigan, Julia O’Callaghan, John Desmond, John Hourihan, John Walsh, Tom Delea and a man named O’Sullivan who lost their lives as a result of a Faction Fight which took place here in the village of Ballinhassig during a Fair Day on Monday June 30th, 1845.

An early recorded example of The Fighting Irish. This reminded me that a few weeks ago, one of our reader enquired about their ancestor who came from Ballinhassig originally.

The Fighting Irish of the 1800s. 

Margaret Rose from Melbourne in Australia contacted me with the following:

My Great grandfather, Jeremiah Drummy, was born in 1835 in Ballinhassig and migrated to Melbourne, Australia in July 1860. I would love to see some photos of Ballinhassig and perhaps discover what life would have been like before he migrated to Australia.

Well, Margaret – we can work on the photos later, but for now we are going to look at a particular aspect of Irish life that would have been very familiar to your Great Grandfather at the time – the “Faction Fight“. Back in the early 1800s, a particular phenomenon came to prominence among the Gaelic Irish. Family-aligned gangs – or factions – would come together in their hundreds, around the time of Fair Days or Saint patterns, and a fight would ensue between these rival factions.

The weapon of choice would often be a blackthorn stick – what has become known as a “Shillelagh” over the years. These fights were highly ritualised – involving specific signals and cries of communication. Each faction dressed a particular way, swore loyalty to their brotherhood, and met on pre-determined dates. A bit like modern a sports fixture. Only a lot more vicious – and occasionally murderous. The earliest recorded faction fight was in Clonmel, County Tipperary, in 1805 – the authorities generally did not intervene as long as property and “civilised folk” were not placed under threat.

Clonmel, County Tipperary

Clonmel, County Tipperary

The morning of Monday, June 30th was Fair day in Ballinhassig. The trading of the day passed without event and the tents and stalls were coming down before 7.30pm. A pre-scheduled faction fight got under way between two groups known as the “Neills” and “Sullivans”. It started with Ranter Sullivan throwing his hat into the fair green, whirling his stick, giving the faction whoop and calling his faction brothers around him.

This time, however, the police did intervene – and never allowed the fight to properly start. As a result, the crowd started to grow hostile to the police who in turn called for reinforcements. The day ended with the eleven people listed on the plaque losing their lives to gunshot wounds. It is entirely probable that Margaret Rose’s ancestors – the Drummy family – were present on that Fair day in 1845 in Ballinhassig, County Cork.

Sullivan can be found on the front of many Cork and Kerry buildings.

Sullivan can be found on the front of many Cork and Kerry buildings.

The event was widely reported in the papers in Ireland and England, and probably put pressure on the authorities to control and eradicate these faction fights. However, you might notice the year this fight was reported – 1845 – and by October of that year a far greater challenge was presented to the people of Ireland with the first potato crop failure of what later became known as “The Great Famine”.

Faction fights did not really feature after that Famine – I’m sure that many factions had lost huge number of their members to starvation and emigration. By 1860, the Drummy family had made their way to Australia from their home in a corner of County Cork.

Would you like to see a Faction fight today? Well, in a way you can – the Gaelic Athletic Association was set up in 1884 in County Tipperary, the same county where those faction fights first appeared. One of the ancient Irish games that they brought back to life at that time was the sport of Hurling. It was a game where groups of men wore similar colours, armed themselves with sticks and went into battle against each other at a predetermined place and time. All surrounded by hungry spectators, each shouting off their own “faction” whoops!

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GAA Headquarters in Thurles, County Tipperary on match day

The GAA at the time were very cognisant of layering this newly revived game over the existing urges and tribal instincts of the young men of Ireland. And they largely succeeded in replacing Faction Fights with the game of Hurling – now one of the most exciting games to watch and play anywhere in the world, and without the murderous intent of those old faction fights. You can see a clip of what I mean in the clip below – the last 5 minutes of the 2014 Hurling final between County Tipperary and County Kilkenny:

So, Margaret Rose – it might be time to head down to your local GAA playing fields in Melbourne and see the Fighting Irish in a game of hurling, a game that I’m sure your ancestors would have appreciated and enjoyed!

If you would like to say hello – or ask a question – please feel free to leave a comment below.

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina.
  • Judy says:

    I am thinking about joining your green room if you think you can help me with my Doran family ancestry. I am at a stop on ancestry. Can you help me?Judy

    • Mike Collins says:

      Hi Judy – the reason we offer a 30 day money back guarantee is to allow people to decide if the Green Room is for them. Mike.

  • Sandy Laferriere says:

    What a great letter and Game Mike!! GLad the faction fights ended. Oh those fighting Irish!! Do you think your GGGrandfather Jeremiah Drummy might have been part of the action. Margaret? I love the buildings, the colors are wonderful!

    Sandy Kennedy LaFerriere☘☘☘

  • Sandy Laferriere says:

    Judy, The Green Room is a wonderful place, lots of information. Mike has a video that explains so much and introduces you to the many resourses. Also, their are many people with a lot of knowledge who will introduce themselves to you if you decide to join. I have been here for a couple years and have had help. I needed to know how and where to start. I have learned so much about Ireland, her history, the culture, the geography, the astounding beauty and the amazing people. Your Irish Heritage is far more than a genealogy site….it is a long distance gathering of like minded folks who love Ireland, and feel a connection that is strong. If you decide to become part of the “family”, you will be more than welcomed.

    Fond regards,
    Sandy Kennedy LaFerriere

  • TedWright says:

    Great Googledy Moogledy. Love that Hurling! Who finally won? They had to come back in September to play off the draw. Looks like a combo of Lacrosse, soccer (ok, ok, futbol) and just a plain old street brawl! Marvelous. Thank you, Mike, for showing that clip.

  • Julia Amico says:

    We were lucky to have watched that game live while in Skibbereen back in 2014! Kilkenny won! Now we’re headed back and will be enjoying “The Kilkenny Experience” in Kilkenny next month, a chance to learn about the history and the game of hurling.

  • Julia Amico says:

    And Judy… you won’t regret joining The Green Room! Mike is very responsive and helpful, and being a member has been very informative. There are DNA comparisons and very helpful forum members as well. I think you’ll be very pleased that you’re a member!

  • Fran Nugent says:

    My Husband’s ancestors (Nugent) hail from Lisleagh Clonmel region. A rugged lot I am sure. Mine are Reilly born from Dundalk, Co Leath. Very different. I hit a brick wall trying to get back further than around 1840 for that branch of Nugent. I am sure they would have been in the thick of it. Thanks for the photos. They’re great.

  • Cheryl Turner says:

    Hi Judy,

    I too have been a member of Ancestry in the past but I have found that the Green Room has so much more to offer. Everybody is very friendly and willing to help you with whatever brick walls you may have come up against.

    There is a lot of information within the Green Room which sites like Ancestry are not able to provide and this can be invaluable when you are tracing to trace you ancestors.


  • Suzanne Grimshaw says:

    can you tell me something about the surnames of Ferris, and the Bosworth families please?

  • Suzanne Grimshaw says:

    my mother’s side of the family were living in Cork at the turn of the 20th century, while her father’s were County Mayo I believe

  • Ailish Dunne says:

    Wonderful article! so interesting to read about and get a tiny glimpse into my great granddad’s life. There is a story that he fought for his land through faction fighting and he won. He was a Henderson. Never imagined it would have been violent though. Thank you 🙂

  • Ailish Dunne says:

    Forgot to mention that my grandmother on my mother’s side is also a Davin, the same stock that Maurice Davin, the founder of the GAA came from.

  • Nancy Ireland says:

    What an enjoyable read, great letter. I always wondered about Hurling. Never saw a game before. Lots of action, Like another member said, a little bit of everything. reminds me a bit of ice hockey. are the ends of the clubs flat, for some reason they always looked to me like they had a cup on the end.

  • Laura McGinley says:

    The last bare knuckled fight was in Richburbg (Hattiesburg, MS) . There is a sign commemorating the Sullivan Kilrain fight. It was scheduled to be in New Orleans but was run out. A train took the spectators to an undisclosed place which was here.

  • Laura Eunice says:

    Missed this installment of the Letter form Ireland somehow, glad you link it to the more recent one. Really enjoyed the story. I’d never seen hurling played before, so that was a super introduction!
    Judy and others here considering it, the Green Room has many wonderful facets to offer, least of which are all the lovely people involved! Mike and Carina do so much towards their commitment to help ‘bring your Irish heritage to life’….

  • Laura Eunice says:

    a few grammar problems there (typing too fast) sorry about that…

  • Joan Fitzgerald says:

    How much does it cost to join the Green Room?

  • Kathleen says:

    My father’s name is Stephen Joseph Brady born in Galway 1924. His parents names are Thomas Brady and Kathleen Gorham I don’t know their dates of birth can you find that information could you find anything out about my great grand parents? Their names where they were born and dates of birth?

  • Dayle Golden says:

    What a surprise to see a family name on the plaque! There are many Jeremiah Coughlan’s in my family line from Cork. Now I just have to see if I can name this one as one of mine!
    Great story. Thanks!

  • Lynn says:

    I have also hit a brick wall with ancestry. I know my great grandfather was from County Mayo and his name was Patrick McVady. I saw the name McVady on a previous list where people could post names and counties. But it would not allow me to comment. Any help?

  • Joanne (McMillan) Bowman says:

    I and my twin sister were adopted at 6 months of age in 1962, and although forever grateful to not only our biological mother for giving us up, unmarried in 1962 and I’m certain out of love with a broken heart, we were raised in a loving and amazing family. Back in December 2016, I did the 23andMe DNA and Ansestory kit, I found out there is substantial amounts of Irish in my blood, even though my non-identifying information said our mother was of German decent and our father was of Polish decent, so it was pretty thrilling news to find out there is actually more Irish in me than of the other two. The family we were adopted into, had a standing argument within the older generations, in that the McMillan / MacMillan name was argued over as to which was which and why. After two family members did years of investigation, it was found that what my adopted father had been told, was that the family was of Scottish decent, his family is in fact of Irish decent (making the McMillan name we went by, and the rest of the family stayed MacMillan was the reason for discrepancy. My oldest daughter was first (of course a blood relative) to do the 23andMe test kit, also showing much Irish blood, as my husbands family, the Tierrney’s and the Russell’s always knew were Irish. When my DNA came back and there was Irish there, I know now there is much Irish surrounding me, my twin, my daughter’s and my granddaughters. It’s going to be a rough road to go trying to find actual names, as I’ve found out through the non-identifying information, our biological mother and biological grandmother were also adopted, so my hope is I can somehow, by the good Grace of God, between my daughters long list of names genetically matched along with mine, we can compare the names and match those on both of our lists. I’m doing the Ansestory dot com kit as well, and depending on what shows there will determine if I should move forward in joining this group and doing another DNA and genealogy attempt. I am also contacting the courts where I was adopted, to see if our sealed records can be opened, mostly for medical reasons because with two other adoptions taking place prior to mine and my sisters, I feel sad that I’ll hit a dead end to any names to go on, but I’m not a quitter either. If you have any suggestions for me that might help in my quest, it truly would be appreciated as this seems like a great place to find some very interesting and exciting information not only on my end but also my husband and children’s ends. Best Regards and I hope my journey leads me back here but for now, I’ll enjoy the newsletters and what I can see before I find out if signing up for the Green Room would be of benefit.

  • Jorjan Madden says:

    Do you have information about the Madden family from Galway?

  • Daniell Donnelly says:

    I watched the hurling match, and man it is something to see. it is a little like our lacrosse .all though a little rougher. I don’t think I could take that. They take tremendious beating.

  • Melissa Wright says:

    I know I have Irish in my family,but I do not know where they are from?Casey,McMillan, and Wright. I think I got all the names.

  • Patricia Lally says:

    I just read about the fighting irish and saw a Jeremiah Coughlan listing as someone on the plaque. My maiden name is Coghlan and I have been told that my family was from offaly and there were a great deal of my ancesters in Clonmacnoise which I visited. Could Jeremiah Coughlan be related to me? I know there are different spellings. I have a pretty good sized family tree that I have been researching. This would add a lot of help

  • Tammy desmond says:

    Love this

  • I am looking for relatives of John O’Reagan or O’Regan born in Carferville County Cork 1788 and relatives of DD O’Connell County Cork born1840

  • Joan West says:

    I look forward to reading your letter every week it makes me want to come and visit. I’ve been searching for the MCCARTHY family to which I belong for around 10years maybe I need to forget about the other sites and join the Green Room. First time I have seen Hurling heck those players must be really tough I don’t think it’s played here in New Zealand.

  • thelmawalsh says:

    The name John Walsh is on that plaque and my father’s name was John Walsh.