The Journey of an Irish Royal Family.

In this letter - we look at the journey of an ancient Irish Royal family around the north half of Ireland over many centuries. This "journey" was typical of many Irish families following the arrival of the Normans and the later plantations.

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The Journey of an Irish Royal Family.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. We’ve just passed the 1st of May – and the weather is finally turning milder around here – and bringing the rain. But, what of it, Ireland has a “Green” reputation for a reason! I’m having a cup of tea made from the little kettle in our B&B room as we speak – we’re in County Mayo and the Barrys Tea doesn’t seem to get up as far as here! I hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy and join me for today’s letter.

The reason we are up in Mayo is two-fold – first, we are resuming our Trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way that we started last year (you can see our progress to date by clicking here) and second, we are tracking down the sights and stories of one of our Green Room members – Kathi Reilly Acker. Kathi contacted us with the following information about her ancestors:

I have a never-ending search for my paternal grandmother’s family.  I know, for sure, that Mary Catherine Dunleavy was born in Ballina, County Mayo.  She was baptized in the Cathedral in 1880.   I’ve head that  it was the Parish of Kilmoremoy but after that I don’t know.  If I had a vote, I’d like to head to Ballina.

Before we go on – I have a question for you: Do you ever wonder how much your Irish family moved around Ireland BEFORE they immigrated? In this letter, we are going to look at a particular Irish family – and family name – and trace their movements before a few of their stock headed off to the USA to become Kathi Reilly Acker’s ancestors. Ready?

A Very Royal and Very Talented Family. 

Have you ever heard of Finn McCool? How about old Irish tales like the Cattle Raid of Cooley? All of these famous tales (at least in Ireland) come from around the north-east of this island – from a place that used to be known as the Kingdom of the Ulaidh. This ancient Irish kingdom and people give the province of Ulster it’s modern name.

The Dunleavys were the last Kings of the Ulaidh. Their powerbase was the town of Downpatrick and they took on the surname Dunleavy (Mac Duinnshléibhe) in the 1000s. The Dunleavys and the Ulaidh had an illustrious recorded past – full of champions, raids and heroic defeats – many recorded in the annals of Ulster. A branch of the family were also skilled hereditary medics. But, by the 1100s their kingdom was under pressure from the rising power of the O’Neills, and was shrinking back into it’s heartland around the south of the modern County Down.

Downpatrick County Down - Ancient Home of the Dunleavys

Downpatrick County Down – Ancient Home of the Dunleavys

By the time the Normans arrived in the shape of John DeCourcy in the late 1100s, their days were numbered. They fought on for 60 years, but by the mid 1200s the majority of the family were granted exile in the Kingdom of Tyrconnell – some working as hereditary Medics to the local O’Donnell kings. Some others went to nearby Scotland where they sometimes assumed the name Dunlop.

The First Movement of an Irish Royal Family. 

In Tyrconnell (modern County Donegal) the Dunleavys also assumed the nickname from where they came – Ulidh – and over time some branches went by the name of “Son of the Ulsterman” (Mac an Ultaigh) – which anglicised as McNulty. During this time, the reputation of the medic family members grew considerably.

McNulty - A New Name for the Dunleavys

McNulty – A New Name for the Dunleavys

Hundreds of years later – notice I said hundreds of years (it can be hard to move us Irish!) – the days of the Irish chieftain were coming to a close. With the “Flight of the Earls” in 1607, and the end of the era of Gaelic Chieftains – most of the Dunleavys and McNultys headed south into the lands of North Connaught – into south Donegal, Sligo and Mayo.

The Second Movement of an Irish Royal Family. 

By this time, the Dunleavys were fully leaving their royal and medical past behind them. Life from the 1600s onwards was not a good one for most Gaelic families in the west of Ireland. Through most of that time they were stripped of their lands, titles, language and ability to participate in the higher levels of society. Then, the Great Famine of the 1840s came and gutted this part of the world of much of its humanity.


An Famine-era cottage in County Donegal.

Families like the Dunleavys scraped by for as long as they could, but those who did not emigrate in the mid 1800s often later felt the pull to join earlier generations of their kin in the slums of Liverpool and London, the canalworks of Canada, labouring in the fierce New South Wales sun – or mining the coal pits of Pennsylvania, where Kathy Acker Reilly’s ancestors ended up.

The Third Movement of an Irish Royal Family. 

And so it has been with many Irish families down through the centuries – if it were not for the great emigrations of the 1800s and 1900s, many of these family names and stories would not be known around the world.

They would just be old names and forgotten stories on a very small island on the edge of Europe. But so many of the great families and names of Ireland have followed a similar path to above – family names like the O’Neill, O’Sullivan, O’Toole, O’Flaherty, Murphy, O’Byrne, O’Brien, McCarthy and so many more – including the Irish names in your family tree.

Homelands Pic 7

Downpatrick Head – Near where the Mayo Dunleavys ended up.

And including the Dunleavys – once the Kings of the Ulaidh. Kathi and her husband are heading to Ireland this year for the first time, to “close the loop” for her Dunleavys. To see the sights and walk the ground that her ancestors walked before they left this island for the very last time.

So, Kathi – thank you for asking us to head to this beautiful part of the world in search of your Dunleavys – we look forward to bringing back a taste of what life was like for your ancestors. But you will get a taste of that for yourself very shortly. If you would like to say hello – or ask a question – please leave a comment below.

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina.

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