The Kings of County Fermanagh

A story of the families of County Fermanagh.

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The Kings of County Fermanagh

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. I hope you are keeping well? I hear that many of our friends on the east coast of America are experiencing powerful snowstorms at the moment – I hope you are keeping safe and warm if you are being affected. And then we have many readers experiencing the threat of bush fires in southern Australia – it can be an extreme time of year for many of us.

Well, that puts the bit of rain and other inclement weather that we are “suffering” here in Cork into perspective! I’m having a nice cup of Cork’s own Rebel Roasters Coffer as I write, so I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy yourself now as we continue with today’s letter.

You know, one of the nice things about writing this letter is the way that different readers write back with stories from their own family – many personal memoirs, some with “plotlines” that you would not get in a Hollywood movie. Some people approach their Irish Genealogy in a very studious manner. They construct a tree – making connections and digging out dates, places and old photographs to attach. Then, some people look at the resulting tree and their imagination starts to take over. This is what must have happened for one of our readers, Steve Varonka.

The Kings of County Fermanagh.

I received the following note from Steve Varonka late last year:

“My Irish name of interest is Casserly, believed to be from Cork. I have also written a book on my family in the PA coal fields and the Molly Maguires activity of 1870’s. I would really be interested in finding other distant family in Ireland.  I visited this past August, but it was a CIE bus trip and very rushed.  I look forward to coming back and explore more.”

Thanks Steve – and thanks for sending on a copy of your book, it was a great read. Casserly is not from Cork – but more from the same part of the world as the Maguire family – and that is where we are going next.

Have you ever been to County Fermanagh? It’s a lovely part of the world – full of lakes, rolling green hills and pretty market towns. The county gets it’s name from the “Fir Manach” – a tribe who occupied those parts for many centuries. We visited the main town of Enniskillen just last summer – a lovely town surrounded by water. Looking out over the River Erne lie the ruins of Enniskillen Castle – once a stronghold of the Maguires, Kings of Fermanagh.


The “Mag Uidhirs” (sons of Odhar) came to prominence about the late 1200s with Donn Mag Uidhir installed as the first Maguire King of the Fir Manach area and tribe. They managed to hold this position over the following 400 years – bowing to a variety of more powerful overlords such as the O’Connors of Connaught, the O’Neills of Tyrone, the O’Donnells of Tir Connaill and the early English authorities.

Over those decades, the family spawned many offshoots – each with a new surname of their own. Families such as McManus, McCaffrey/McCafferky, Corrigan, Corry, Dunne (the Maguire name is a derivative of “Dunn coloured) and McHugh.

Enniskillen Castle

Like the other noble Gaelic families, they also assembled a number of families around them who performed services essential to such an exalted house. The O’Cassidys became their hereditary Physicians, the Keenans their Historians and genealogists (yes, they were even more important to have back then…) and the Husseys were their Bards. Maybe some of these surnames are in your Irish family tree?

However, the fortunes of the Maguires – and their neighbouring Gaelic Lords – were on the wane by the early 1600s. Around that time, the county of Fermanagh was one of the first experimental “plantation counties”. Much of the land was confiscated from the resident Gaelic lords, and handed over to “undertakers” – British Lords who “undertook” to populate the land with hardworking English Protestant farmers and craftsmen. In this case, Fermanagh received much of it’s new intake from the border counties of Scotland and England – an area that was ruled over by “Reiver” families for many centuries – mostly looked on as troublemaking adventurers by the British administration. As a result, to this day, you will find many of these “reiver” family names across County Fermanagh – names such as Armstrong, Bell, Crozier, Elliott, Graham, Irvine, Johnston and Nixon.

Over the following years and decades, many of the Irish Gaelic people who inhabited the planted lands were dispersed over neigbouring counties and even further. Today, you will typically find the surname Maguire/McGuire across much of the top half of the island – in counties Leitrim, Roscommon, Tyrone, Longford – but it is still one of the most numerous names in County Fermanagh.

Molly Maguire Addresses Her Children.

By the time the late 1700s came around, the demand for land reform and more equal rights was becoming louder across Ireland. Spurred on by the success of the French and American revolutions, secret societies such as the Young Irishmen, the Whiteboys and others were causing a “nuisance” around the country. The Great Hunger of the 1840s saw great hardship across much of Ireland – famine, emigration and forced evictions.

The “Molly Maguires” were one of these secret societies active in Ireland at the time. They got their name from newspaper article following an eviction notice in the parish of Cloone, County Leitrim. It detailed a poster that outlined “12 rules of conduct” from Molly Maguire to her “children”. It was essentially outlining a code of conduct for subversive activities. I like number 12 on the list myself:

“Let bygones be bygones, unless it is a very glaring case: and then watch for the right time to come”.

Nice bit of qualification there! So we see the name Maguire starting to assume a notoriety that travelled across to England and the USA – especially to the coalfields of Pennsylvania where Steve Varonkas ancestors immigrated to. And that is where we will pick up the second part of this story – in next week’s letter. You see, Steve was sitting down – looking at his Casserly family tree and thought to himself “I wonder what happened in my own Irish family during these troubled times.”

That is what we will cover next week – so, do join us for the concluding part of this story of Maguire of County Fermanagh. That’s it for this week, as always do feel free to leave a comment below to share your stories, comments and Irish surnames in your family.

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina.

  • Roberta says:

    Thanks for sharing your letter with me while I have my Sunday morning coffee . Can’t wait to get back to Ireland,how can I be homesick after just one visit?

    Look forwar to these letters and also the postings on Facebook of various Irish locations .. Maybe this fall I will make a trip. Last time it was in May, how’s the weather in October?


  • Julie Drennan Broilo says:

    I have both Drennan and Stapleton in my family tree and am wondering if there is either of these names back in the 16-1700’s. I would accept any help!!

  • It was great to be able to visit your page. The information you presented increasingly expanding my knowledge and insights about the diversity of the world’s cultural heritage .

  • Nita M. Fandray (mother: Ann Rita Ford) says:

    Hi Carina and Mike–

    This is Nita Fandray from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. I love your letters, your web site, your engaging personalities. I am a new member of the Green Room. However, I forgot my user name and/or password. I followed the instructions on the page to obtain a new password but I never received the email it mentions. Is there a way that you can help me?

    My family and I are visiting Ireland for the first time at the end of June 2016. My maternal side of the family is 100% Irish. Her parents were Marie Bracken and Michael Ford. They were both born in the USA. Marie’s family had been in the USA for a couple generations.

    I am most interested in finding the Ford side of my mother’s family. Her father Michael J. Ford was born in Pittsburgh, PA. Both of his parents were born in Ireland. They were Anna Carr and Michael Ford. I would love to track down both of their origins, but it is the Ford name that I am seeking the most.

    My great-grandfather, Michael Ford, died in Pittsburgh, PA in 1896. So far, my research is showing that he probably was born between 1850 and 1860, in Ireland, of course. I think married Anna Carr in Pittsburgh or perhaps in one of the surrounding PA counties. He is buried in my family plot in Calvary Cemetery.

    I would imagine that Michael Ford came to America with only the clothes on his back. I have found the name on a couple of ship manifests from Queenston to NY or Boston during the relevant time period. My sense is that he traveled here with no family members–maybe a brother. In the 1880 US Census, a Michael Ford was listed as living in Tyrone, Fayette County, PA, working as a miner and was born in Ireland in 1851. It appears that he was living in a mining town residence with a bunch of Scotts. Hmmm. Seriously , out of about 20 names on the census sheet, his is the only one that says born in Ireland. The remainder was born in Scotland. I guess a bed is a bed. I am not certain that this is the Michael Ford I am seeking, although my mother often told a story of Michael Ford and Anna Carr being from Fayette County (after they cam from Ireland.) Michael’s middle initial may have been “J”. His middle name perhaps “Joseph”. He and Anna named my grandfather Michael Joseph Ford, who at one point signed his named Michael J. Ford, Jr.

    In later census information and city directories, I am certain that I found my great-grandfather, Michael Ford, in Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh is in Allegheny County. Twice, over a several year period in the late 1880s, early to mid 1890s, he listed his occupation as brick layer (but with abbreviated letters.) I do not know his cause of death in 1896, but our cemetery records clearly indicate that the year of death was 1896. He and my great-grandmother, Anna Carr, lived in a lower, working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, almost everyone on their street was Irish. Their house still stands. Michael Ford had definitely come to America by 1884-85, as his and Anna Carr’s daughter, Marie, (also buried in my family grave) was born in Pennsylvania in 1885.

    Also, I know that Michael Ford was born into an Irish-Catholic family. Some spiritual force tells me that his name was always spelled, “Ford”. The only bit that my mother told me of their surname was that is was derived from something like “Fiord” or a crossing (of a river?) However, that may have been mostly lure. I am quite certain that our surname Ford was in no way of English descent. (And, we would not admit it if it were :). I don’t think it was ever spelled Forde, either.

    If I could just find the county in Ireland from where Michael Ford hailed, I would be so appreciative to touch that soil when I come there in June. Of course, any information will be appreciated.

    Thank you both for what you do to bring our ancestors alive for all of us. God Bless.

    Nita Fandray
    Pittsburgh, PA, 15228, USA

  • Maureen Miller says:

    My great grandparents, James and Mary McGuire came to the USA (we believe) in the early 1800 s before the Famine. Unfortunately they listed their home as Liverpool. We always believed this to be due working in the shipyards to earn passage to the US. James’ brother Patrick listed his home as County Sligo. Although we believe the origin was Inniskillen we seem to have lost the middle years most likely due to strife in that area in the 1600”s. any input is appreciated,

  • Claire McGuire-Smith says:

    I look forward to learning more about my ancestors, McGuires. Can’t wait!

  • Kathleen Keenan says:

    I am a descendant of one of those Keenan historian scribes from County Fermanagh. Our Keenan ancestor came to America in 1801 and settled in the northern West Virginia area. It makes complete sense that my father was a huge history buff and avid genealogist and that I hold a degree in history and am carrying on the interest in genealogy. It’s in the blood.

  • Judy Robinson LeGrand says:

    My maternal grandfather Thomas Elliott 1890-1934 was born in County Armagh but family history indicates they were once Scots (and probably border reivers ) closely allied with Armstrongs. Is it likely (though 4 generations were in Loughgall, County Armagh) that they were once in County Fermanagh? He lived in the US only 5 years before going off to WWI (from Canada) where he lost his legs. From his enlistment papers he lists Church of Ireland/England.