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.

  • Anna May Breadner says:

    Is this strictly a Catholic page? Or, do you include Protestants? I am interested in the names Kenny and Breadner. I have been struggling with the name Breadner in particular. I think they may have used the name Braidner in County Armagh. I would appreciate any help you could give me.

  • john killilea says:

    some of the donnsleibhe went to the isle of Lismore at the bottom of the great glen where they became the highland MacLea- later migrants back to Ireland became the Connaught MacGillea(killileas)

  • colleen wheeler says:

    Mike and Carina:

    Thanks once again for another letter …these trips warm my heart each time, especially because you put such a personal touch to each of these stories for our Green Room members. May I say that it is almost as good as being there too (at least for now)

  • Glory Smith says:

    Enjoyed reading The Journey of an Irish Royals. Thanks so much for posting. Am interested in the name Barnes, do not know where in Ireland they lived. All I know is that James Barnes was a Scot and protestant living in Ireland he married an Irish Catholic, we don’t know her name as she died giving birth in the New York Harbour, 1848-1855 Any idea where there may have been
    Barnes families living in Ireland mid 1800s

    • john killilea says:

      knew some barnes from sligo- around dromore

    • david john schweickle says:

      I have James Barnes born Ireland 1824 somewhere. I think his middle name was Bolger. Perhaps Mary Bolger was possibly his mother’s name.The father was Mathew Barnes One was a soldier .The family went to Devon. Please let me know any more about your family in Ireland and we might be able to put the puzzle together. I have some of the family in Devon on Ancestry.I have more on the Barnes/Crispin family in Guernsey.There are French names.

      David Schweickle

  • Sandy Kennedy LaFerriere says:

    I really enjoyed following this Irish Royal family. You Paint a wonderfully l picture of people and the times. THank you.

  • sandra mccool says:

    Hi. My name is Sandra mccool. Have always wondered since Finn mccool is fictional where did my family name come from? There must have been some real mccools somewhere…

  • Donna says:

    My family name is Nickell supposed to Derive from MacNicholl. I was told they came from Ulster County and that there were still clans of Nickell’s there. Would love to see anybody have any information that can help me for be more information of my Irish Family?

  • Ellen Brown says:

    After reading your article,you mentioned that some of the dunleavys changed their name to Dunlop and went to Scotland.My g grandfather was A William Dunlop/Dunlap born in Fermanaugh..1827 . Could these be his relatives?

  • Ellen Brown says:

    I do really enjoy hearing these stories. I feel like I am traveling with you.I am also feel I am learning so much about Ireland’s history. Thank you so much,

  • […] origin, there are also the Irish Gaelic O’Murrys of Roscommon/Galway and the McMurrays of County Donegal. Finally, you will find some smaller Irish Gaelic septs of Murrays/Murrihys in County Clare and […]

  • […] list of Royal Families of Ireland? Interested in learning more about the Royal Families of Ireland? Click here to read the story of one ancient Royal Irish family and their journey around the north half of […]

  • david says:

    yes thank you for these storys enjoy them alot
    the family name goes all the way back to old donegal ireland by the name Boyle

  • Ken McCarty says:

    Is McCarty of royalty or no.

  • Christina Dunleavey says:

    Thanks for this interesting article. I grew up with stories from my father (a Dunleavey) about our royal connections. It was later when I was doing some research I found out my 3 x Gt Grandfather, Michael John McNulty Dunleavey, was born in Ireland. I have been unable to go any further, but whispers were that he was born in Donegal.

  • Sandy Laferriere says:

    I am traveling with you also! So much history, amazing much we don’t know. Thank you for sharing with us,

  • Charleen Alexander says:

    I like so many others are looking for my great grandmother and grandfathers Irish history and coming up with a dead end. Her surname was Murphy and was supposed to have come from a Royal family. They ran away together to America around 1910 but something happened to my great grandfather as he never surfaced in our findings not sure what his name is. Her name was the typical Mary Edith Murphy – my grandmother was born in March of 1911. when my grandmother was 3 years old (1914) my great grandmother left my grandmother to be raised in an orphanage in Brooklyn New York and ported back to Ireland or England. When my great grandmother passed the family around 1983 -1984 in search of my grandmother found my mother due to my grandmother having passed away a short time earlier. We never got connected we only got the story about the two lovers running away together only for it to end in devastation and abandonment.

  • Carina says:

    My mom was Mary McAleavy, daughter of the immigrant Tom McAleavy from Shanroe, near Forkhill, in Co Tyrone to NYC then Connecticut.

    There is a McAleavy Facebook site to share our history and research tips.


    Sheila Johnson in CT USA

  • Golden says:

    my offer to the world. this is just the first page of my website. <3 call me the "brain" of this body. also, my last name is JARA, My father is a Goodman.

  • Mi says:

    The reason Eire was so hard to conquer was because of the scores of kingships. There was no central pyramid
    Of power to subdue and so win outright. And even after defeat there was repeated risings. A Norman heirarchy subdued the English utterly with the primal survivor coming to be the language. The Normans in Ireland adopted the Irish cultural system and adapted. Catholicism was at the centre of their values but to keep power you had to change to the Anglican paradigm. St Oliver Plunket was a phenomenal link in the Hiberno-Norman catholic character character. As a rule the Irish would not change their core faith belief system. That was so until recently. They do not take at all well to being told how to feel or think. No wonder there were so many Kingships. But there was one spiritual leader in Armagh and then two when the Hiberno Irish would not switch to the then new One True Faith in 1538. This other one true faith operated from Dublin after the Great schism of 1538 best hallmarked by the burning of the relic beside Christchurch, called the Staff of Jesus …given to Patrick by his Pope when he was going to evangelise the Irish. Today we are back fundamentally to basics: “What is truth?” (Pontius Pilate, 0033) But stand outside Christchurch and remember we had a great keepsake destroyed because of alleged superstition.