Connecting medieval and modern Mayo

Old Mayo

The work of Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh has been invaluable of tracing the ancestry of Mayo people.

The work of Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh has been invaluable of tracing the ancestry of Mayo people.

If you have ever attempted to compile your family tree you may have already felt that sense of frustration when you realise that all accessible leads have been exhausted. Truthfully, at that point there is also a feeling of relief. Relief in the knowledge that there are no more stones to overturn, that you can finally park the family tree as being ‘finished’, which of course it never is. If, like the majority of the county, your ancestry is Irish and Catholic, you will be fortunate to trace your pedigree back to the relatively recent 18th century. The reason being that State registering of births, deaths, and marriages did not begin until 1864 and the earlier recording of this information by Catholic clergy in their parishes was haphazard. The earliest parish records for Aughaval (Westport ) only begin in 1821. Records for Kilmoremoy (Ballina ) and Aglish (Castlebar ) begin in 1823 and 1824, respectively. For information before the early 19th century, the amateur genealogist is largely dependent on luck and supposition.

It may sound obvious, but when your investigations encounter a dead-end, your own family name, or more accurately the geographical origins of your family name, can force some fresh thinking. Our modern surnames have morphed over the centuries and languages, but within them exist signposts to medieval and early modern locations that can bridge the gap to a time before official population records. An immensely valuable resource for that task is the work of 17th century genealogist Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh.

Mac Fhirbhisigh was also known as Dubhaltach Óg mac Giolla Íosa Mór mac Dubhaltach Mór Mac Fhirbhisigh, one of those great Gaelic names that in themselves hold so much genealogical information. He was born in County Sligo in the first quarter of the 17th century but Mac Fhirbhisigh’s own family roots actually lay in modern day north Mayo. Actively writing and transcribing from about the year 1640, Mac Fhirbhisigh’s work Leabhar na nGenealach or the Book of Genealogies, supplies us with information on the various peoples of prehistoric Mayo as well as scores of family-names that were common in early modern Mayo history. In his 2006 article 'Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh and County Mayo', scholar, Mac Fhirbhisigh expert, and Knock native Nollaig Ó Muraíle lists the most notable Mayo population-groups referred to by Mac Fhirbhisigh. The Cálraighe were found mostly in Tirawley and down the east boundary of modern Mayo. The Ciarraighe were based in east Mayo. The Conmhaicne were located in the present barony of Kilmaine, while the Fir Dhomhnann gave their name to Iorras Domhnann, present day Erris. The Gaileanga gave name to the barony of Gallen in northeast Mayo and the inclusion of the group’s name in later surnames indicated that family's location. Mac Siúrtáin Ghaileang, for example, were the MacJordans of Gallen. Ó Muraíle's final selected reference is to the Partraighe, which controlled most of southwest Mayo in the vicinity of the Partry Mountains. 

More importantly for genealogists, in his accessible article, Ó Muraíle translates tracts of the Book of Genealogies in which he provides extant anglicised equivalents for family-names and identifies modern Mayo place names. From Ó Muraíle's work we know, for instance, that the Murrays and the Tierneys were located around the area of Castlebar, being kings of the barony of Carra in the late medieval period (circa 1300-1500 ). The Ruanes were chiefs in the modern parish of Robeen. The families of Callaghan, Burns, and Gannon were resident in the Erris region, and in the area of Attymass, the Finans, Rowleys, Tolans, and Quinns were chieftains. The Book of Genealogies also contains details on the O'Malleys and MacDonalds of Mayo as well as the Norman families of Burke, Philbin, Gibbons, and Jennings, among others. That many of those surnames survived into the modern age in those areas is self-evident and may point to a direct genealogical connection to medieval Mayo. Nollaig Ó Muraíle's article 'Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh and County Mayo' is in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, pp. 1–21, volume 58, 2006.

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