Illuminations: The Fierce O’Flaherty’s
By: J. Michael Finn
The history of the O’Flaherty’s goes back to the earliest times; they are one of the oldest tribes in Ireland. Descendants of the first Celtic invader Milesius (pron: mil-iss-see-us) founded the tribe Uí Briúin (O’Brien), who were believed to have witnessed the arrival of St. Patrick.
The tribe Uí Briúin split into three groups. One of these groups was the Uí Briúin Seóla. This group evolved into a tribe called Muinter Murchada, named for their chief Murchada. The O’Flaherty’s get their name from a descendant of Murchada.
This Irish surname is written as Ua Flaithbertachin Old Irish texts. In Modern Irish the surname is now generally spelled as O’Flatharta(pron: oh fla-hart-a). The surname is most often translated as “bright prince.” The clan motto in Latin is Fortuna Favet Fortibus, or “Fortune Favors the Brave” which may have been inspired by the same line in Virgil’s Aeneid.
The first O’Flaherty, known in Irish as Ua Flaithbhertaig, is mentioned in the annals of Ireland in the year 1034 – Muireadhach Ua Flaithbheartach, Lord of Ui-Briuin-Seola, a descendant of the Muinter Murchada and the O’Brien clans.He united many of the descendants of the Uí Briúin tribes in the area east of Lough Corrib in County Galway.
The O’Flaherty tribes dominated the area around Galway during the 11thand 12thcenturies. In the year 1092, Flaherty O’Flaherty briefly seized the Kingdom of Connacht from Ruadri O’Connor, and proclaimed himself High King of Ireland. However, he chose not to hold the throne, eventually conferring the Kingship on Muirchertach O’Connor. Flaherty O’Flaherty died in battle in the year 1098.
With their capital at Annaghdown Castle, the O’Flaherty clancontrolled Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, Galway Bay, Connemara and the barony of Ross. In 1169 the Normans arrived in Ireland. The Ard Ri at the time, High King Roderick O’Connor in Connaught, ceded his claim to Ulster, Leinster, and Munster to the Normans, but held on to Connacht for himself. The Normans wanted more, and soon planted a castle in Connaught.
O’Connor summoned his councils and called the other clans into action. But the castles, chain mail, the armor, and the other advantages the Normans held proved too much for the Irish. The O’Connor, O’Flaherty, MacDermott and MacGeraghty tribes fell to the Normans. Their surrounding lands became Galway City, which was populated by fourteen Norman families who were eventually known as the “Tribes of Galway.”
The O’Flahertys never forgave the De Burghs (Burke) or the other tribes, and continued to harass the Normans within the walled city of Galway for centuries. The citizens of Galway one day erected a wall that bore the prayer, “From the ferocious O’Flaherty’s, Good Lord deliver us.”
In those centuries the O’Flaherty’s adapted much from the Normans, building castles, churches, towns and growing rich on the commercial trade of the day. Copying the custom of building defensive castles, the O’Flaherty’s built Aughnanure Castle (pron:ock-na-noor), near Oughterard (pron:Ooch-ta-rad) on the Drimneen River near Lough Corrib. It was built in 1490, and was perhaps their most impressive castle.
The castle was built over the Drimneen, surrounded by a forest of yew trees. Aughnanure is the English version of an Irish place name that means “field of the yews.”
Today you can go through the remaining parts of the castle that are still intact. Going up a stone spiral staircase in the six storey Tower House, you can walk through the large main hall on the top floor of the castle. As expected, the main hall in the tower has a large fireplace.
A small room off the main hall contains the “murder hole.” This was a hole cut through the stone floor, where, after dining, enemies of the O’Flaherty’s were taken. On the pretense of showing them a new sword or a cask of wine, the enemy was walked across a rug covering the hole. He dropped through the hole, falling five stories to the rocks below. The hole was also useful in dropping boiling oil on anyone foolish enough to attack the fortress.
The chief of the De Burgh’s once sent his son to collect tribute from the O’Flaherty’s. The young De Burgh was welcomed by a fine meal, then dropped through the murder hole and beheaded. The youngest of the O’Flaherty’s was dispatched to the De Burgh castle carrying the head, which he tossed through the gate of the De Burgh castle.
“Tell my Lord Earl,” the young O’Flaherty yelled. “That this is the only tribute the O’Flaherty’s of Iar-Connacht will ever pay to the De Burghs!” Iar-Connacht was the name given to the O’Flaherty territory in Galway. It means West Connacht. The De Burghs eventually abandoned their castle following this incident, as they never felt quite safe there.
By the mid-16thcentury, an even more explosive element was added to the family. In 1546 the then 16-year-old pirate Queen Grace O’Malley married Dónal “An Chogaidh” O’Flaherty, heir to the chiefdom of the O’Flahertys, forever linking her and the sea-faring O’Malley clan as members of the O’Flaherty’s (Dónal’s nickname meant “Dónal of the battle” and is pronounced ahn-cog-ah).
When Dónal died, Grace assumed the power and authority of her husband, and became the female chief of the O’Flahertys.With her swift Galway boats and allegiance of her people, she dominated the waters around Galway for many years.
In 1593, Grace sailed her fleet up the Thames River to meet with Queen Elizabeth I, to petition her for the release of her sons who had been captured by the English. Grace met with Elizabeth at Greenwich Place, with the two of them surrounded by guards and the members of Elizabeth’s royal Court. Grace refused to bow before Elizabeth because she did not recognize her as the Queen of Ireland.
The two women came to an agreement, which was later abandoned by the English. Grace realized that the meeting with Elizabeth had been useless, and she went back to supporting Irish insurgents during the Nine Years War. She most likely died around 1603, the same year as Elizabeth.The O’Flaherty’s should also be credited with helping to preserve the essence of the Gaelic Irish heritage to the point that when the Irish chief Murrough O’Flaherty died in 1626, it was written that he still practiced the ancient brehon ways.
This column is dedicated to a good friend, Stephen Flaherty of Doon West, Gurteen, County Sligo, Ireland who passed away ten years ago this May. He was a quiet, gracious and well respected member of the community where he was born, lived and died. He was not nearly as fierce as his surname would suggest.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.