The O'Donnells of Tyrconnell


Selected studies in O’Donnell history and genealogy

Course outline for lectures and seminars

and publication abstracts

researched, written, and presented by

Francis M. O’Donnell

The Proto-State of Tyrconnell

During the centuries of O’Donnell rule, Tyrconnell developed many of the trappings of an emergent medieval state. This presentation sketches the various manifestations of that in foreign recognition, treaties, trade, military cooperation, and diplomatic relations. At the same time, its Celtic heritage constrained its further development and it did not manage to develop state institutions, but remained locked in the world-view that Brehon law circumscribed. Its internecine rivalries combined with increasing encroachment by English colonialism and gradual domination arrested its potential and eventually overwhelmed and undermined its ruling elite. The collapse of Tyrconnell typified the struggle between slow indigenous development versus imposed rapid change with more-advanced and dominant institutions that required a different cultural adherence and led to invasive colonialism and transplantation. Ironically, the advanced institutions and legal frameworks the O’Donnells fought against at home, became the vocation of their allegiance abroad thereby earning their foreign titles.

The Arms of the O’Donnells

An exploratory treatment of the two main kinds of heraldic arms borne by different branches of the O’Donnells, richly illustrated in colour; the legendary Constantinian-Patrician origins of the principal kind, the O’Donnells of Tyrconnell, and various influences and historic derivatives; their charges, supporters and tinctures; the IHSV (In Hoc Signo Vinces) motto. This is a comparative study of the various arms borne by different branches of the O’Donnells, and includes a discussion of genealogical and heraldic controversies surrounding various claims and differentiations. Noble titles and heraldic modifications and augmentations were granted by continental sovereigns for military achievements abroad (France, Spain, and Austria).  Included is a hermeneutic of the meaning of the arms as can be understood in contemporary society, and its evolution over time; the arms and their armigers bearing today; evidence and sources.

The first family of Sir Hugh Dubh O’Donnell

His first family was systematically marginalized if not exterminated by his second wife, the infamous Iníon Dubh (Fionnghuala/Maria MacDonnell), to secure the succession of her own son, Red Hugh O’Donnell (the second to bear that name, a previous Red Hugh was founder of Donegal Abbey). So much so that even the Four Masters and later chroniclers began to succumb to her new “political correctness”. Yet early records and some subsequent histories accurately mention some of the first family’s members. This research now pieces together the scant evidence to correct the record and account for all known members of the first family, from one of whom incidentally, Winston Spencer Churchill descended through female lines, making him a more closely-related relative of Red Hugh than the current Chief of the Name or the Spanish and Austrian O’Donnells (as well as most others). It is also possible that a direct male line survived at least for two further generations, although beyond that it may never be adequately proven given the destructions of public records. In any event, a major revision of principal O’Donnell genealogies of the period, including in the Genealogical Office can now be undertaken.

Red Hugh O’Donnell’s Kerry Expedition

Largely forgotten and omitted from quatro-centenary accounts of the Battle of Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls, and equally omitted from maps of the itinerary from Donegal to Kinsale, this expedition was detailed both in the Annals of the Four Masters, and the 17th century biography of Red Hugh by Lughaidh O Cleirigh. The expedition was deployed by Red Hugh - but he did not participate in it – to help restore Thomas FitzMaurice, 18th Lord Kerry and Lixnaw to his castles in Lixnaw, Ballykealy and Ardfert. Some of the expedition’s participants were left behind. The expedition was briefly investigated by the late Rupert O Cochlainn but to little avail. It is now brought to light for the richness of detail and the discovery of the one O’Donnell who evidently participated therein, revealed in official documents of the day. The fate of that O’Donnell is covered in another presentation.

Mary Stuart O’Donnell, reluctant bride and repudiated sister

Daughter of Sir Rory O’Donnell, the 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, Mary was brought up at the Stuart court in London, and granted that name by the King. She famously fled to the continent to escape a marriage plot, and was lauded as a Catholic heroine by the Pope. Welcomed initially by her brother Hugh Albert, 2nd Earl of Tyrconnell, she later refused another arranged marriage with an O’Neill, and married her own lover. This presentation delves into her history and reveals that the failed dynastic marriage plan was aimed to forge a powerful alliance that might have enabled an invasion of Ireland, and was part of a Spanish strategy that involved a fleet of eleven ships. By refusing it, she upset the King’s aims, alienated the clergy, and undermined her brother’s political ambitions. He repudiated her and she eventually died in poverty and oblivion on the continent, for marrying a man of her own choosing – for true love.

Red Hugh’s orphaned nephew: Donal Oge

A minor character in his own time, Donal Oge O’Donnell hardly features in the accounts of the time. Outshone by his uncles, Red Hugh and Rory, and his cousin, Hugh Albert, he is hardly mentioned in conventional histories of the period. His upbringing was marked by tragedy, as Red Hugh’s mother, Iníon Dubh, killed his father and marginalized if not exterminated her husband’s previous family. He was one of the participants in the Flight of the Earls, but stayed behind in Louvain with Gerald FitzMaurice of Kerry and both served together in the Spanish forces in Flanders. His tragic childhood, brief career, and the circumstances of his death are brought to life in this account. He may well also have left his mark on a famous eponymous love-song. Long assumed to have left no descendants, there is some evidence that he left a son who may have had further descendants, perhaps in Venetian service.

A lost lineage: the O’Donnell Counts in France

This research brings to light for the first time, the lives and influence of the long-forgotten O’Donnell counts in France, and their relations with O’Donnells in Ireland, Spain, and Austria. The family spanned at least five generations from their exile as Jacobites, soldiering in the Irish Brigade, survival during the French Revolution, service in Napoleon’s armies in Spain, transition to the Conseil d’Etat, distinguished public service, and venerable status in France amongst descendants of the Irish exiles, until their extinction with the passing of the last Comte O’Donnell in 1879. The story of their wives, in particular three Comtesses O’Donnell (the last of whom died in 1908) is equally intriguing and distinguished, given their association with the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Earl of Fingal, Balzac, Chateaubriand, Constant, Custine, Nodier, Weber and Wendel, and the literary salons of Sophie Gay and Germaine de Staël.

The would-be O’Donnell: Jules Doinel and the Cathar Revival

An obscure antiquarian librarian in Carcassone in the south of France in the nineteenth century believed himself descended from the O’Donnells of Tyrconnell. He would later become a Freemason, re-invent the Gnostic Cathar religion of the Albigensians, become its patriarch with Montségur as his episcopal seat, and be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.  He delved into Templar and Rosicrucian mysteries, and over a century later his ideas infused conspiracy theories surrounding the so-called Prieuré de Sion in the late twentieth century, and subsequent “Grail”, “Illuminati”, and “Da Vinci Code” esotericism. This brief research corrects the record and debunks his O’Donnell pretensions.

The Ghost of Ballyheigue Castle

A ghostly appearance caught on film during a visit to this Kerry castle’s ruins in 1962 prompted the photographer to investigate the history of the castle only to discover an uncanny coincidence of dates with the famous Danish Silver Raid of 1731. Following his publication of an article, the renowned Austrian-American parapsychologist Hans Holzer investigated with the assistance of Sybil Leek, a well-known clairvoyant, and identified a resonance with two prior periods, including this story as the first in his book on the ghosts of Ireland. This article is based on further research that discovers the photographer’s ancestors were involved in the Danish Silver Raid, and more importantly that an earlier resonance with the 1660s may fit with a historic exile and his pregnant love left behind.

Another case in point:

When the truth lies buried in a grave: an O'Rourke's O'Donnell ancestry

In 1913, a book appeared “Romieu et Courchamps”, written by Alfred Marquiset, which sketched the literary-political career of Francois-Auguste Romieu (1800-1856) in a dramatized biography[1]. In time given a prefecture, he became involved in the political intrigues surrounding the contracting of the modernization of Paris, and became the object of political satire even to the point of accusations that he had done more to advance socialism than the socialists, with his book Spectre Rouge. Following a review by the Conseil d’État, he was dismissed by the Emperor for his maladministration of the directorate of fine arts, only to become inspector of crown libraries in 1853. He lost his twenty-six year old son in Sebastapol during the Crimean War. He died himself a year later in 1856. 

The second part of the book deals with another personage, Pierre-Marie Jean Cousin de Courchamps, born in 1783 of apparently humble Breton origins, son of a police commissioner, who worked as a domestic servant and gradually progressed himself, changed his first name to Marius, and gained a dubious reputation. He was accused of changing his name from Cousin to Cousen, and of arrogating to himself the title of Comte de Courchamps, apparently out of nowhere. He made some inroads in high society. By 1828 he was presenting himself as Marius Cousin O’Rourke de Courchamps. In 1833 he anonymously produced a book, Les Souvenirs de la Marquise de Créquy (1714-1803)But subsequent editions of it in several volumes bore too many questionable alterations, and its authenticity began to be questioned. In the years that followed, various refutations of the authenticity of these memoirs were published, exposing anachronisms, and other contradictions, notwithstanding its detailed character portrayals and genealogies and enormously knowledgeable insights to earlier times, events and relationships. Eventually the origins of portions of the memoirs were discovered in texts that Courchamps had plagiarized, and his authorship was exposed in court in 1842, when he was convicted and fined.

The biographer, Marquiset, roundly condemns Courchamps not only for his plagiarism and putatively falsified memoirs of the Marquise de Créquy, but also very particularly for his alleged manipulation of his name Cousin, the arrogation of an aristocratic title, Count of Courchamps, and most of all for his alleged genealogical pretence to descend from the Irish noble family of O’Rourkes, Princes of Breffny. He points out that Cousin/Courchamps could offer proofs neither of his title nor his genealogical claims, and that the alleged “secret archives” that he was said to possess, did not appear posthumously amongst the papers he bequeathed to his heirs.

However, if there was any truth at all behind Cousen/Courchamp, although he plagiarized the works of other authors to lend credence to the Souvenirs, it may very well be that he was not only authentically an aristocrat with a title to Courchamps, but his patrilineal ancestry, and hence his real family surname, was indeed O’Rourke. The unfortunate man was apparently unaware that the remains of his patrilineal ancestor, Jacques Malachie O’Rourke (12 July 1620 – 21 October 1645) were exhumed from the crypts of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris sometime before 1806. The story behind that lay ‘hidden’ in an obscure compendium published that year of descriptions of marble and bronze statuary, bas-reliefs, and tombs of renowned French men and women from the museum of monuments[2]. 

More importantly, in describing a white marble mortuary statue of the reclining Jacques, it represents him as Jacques O Rourske Cousen, Baron de Courchamps, and explains how, during the excavation of his remains, a small red copper plate was found between the lead lining and the oak frame of his coffin, with a biographical description that explained that he was a “chevalier, seigneur, et baron de Courchamps”, a captain of the 12th company of light cavalry of Brittany, born in Dublin on 12 July 1620, son of Brian O’Rourke III, Prince of Breffny and “Covancrey”, count of Dromahair and peer of the Kingdom of Ireland, and of princess Marie de Douglas; grandson of Brian O’Rourke II and of Anne O’Donnell, countess of Tyrconnell who was born of Hugh O’Donnell, count of Tyrconnell and princess Charlotte Marie Stuart, grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots and France.

It also explains that Jacques O’Rourke married the only heiress and daughter of Pierre Etienne de Cousen, chevalier, seigneur and baron of Courchamps, and the latter’s wife, Dame Marguerite Louise de Créquy, and obtained royal letters patent registered with parliament on 16 August 1644 enabling him to bear the arms and name of Cousen. He married the heiress in 1644, but died within nine months of their marriage, shot in the chest at the battle of Douay on 21 October 1644, aged only 24 years and 3 months, a few weeks after his only child, a son, was born on 15 September 1644.

Clearly, the infant was then brought up by the mother in her late parents’ château, and with the titled family name of Cousen de Courchamps. That name can only have been transmitted, within the terms of the royal letters patent, to Jacques O’Rourke’s only son and his direct descendants, down to Courchamps father, and himself, “Marius”.  And in writing the memoirs of the “Marquise de Créquy”, he was writing the embellished if not exaggerated memoirs of his own relative.

There are some inaccuracies nonetheless in the genealogy. Mary Queen of Scots did not have a grandmother of the name Charlotte Marie Stuart.  There is a possibility that Sir Hugh Dubh O’Donnell may have had a third wife, who would have been actually the first, and also Scottish. If so, she probably died in childbirth, giving birth to a daughter Anne, who is recorded above as having married Brian O’Rourke II, Prince of Breffny. This would have been Brian na múrtha, who was hanged in the Tower of London in 1591, son of Brian O’Rourke I, known as Brian ballach mór (d. 1562) of Dromahair. However, other O’Rourke genealogies, including in the Annals of the Four Masters, give the latter an O’Donnell wife who was a daughter of Manus O’Donnell, Sir Hugh Dubh’s father. And the only Scottish candidate for a wife of Manus was not a Stuart, but his third wife, Margaret MacDonald.  Furthermore, the Courchamps title was that of baron, not count.

Clearly, somewhere along the line, details got confused if not willfully confounded. O’Rourke became “O Rourske”, Cousen became Cousin, and then reverted again. It was quite usual for those times for genealogies to contain misspellings of names, and errors in identities of prior generations, the more so in that three different countries are concerned, Ireland, Scotland and France, and errors were very normal in translations. However, intriguingly, the mortuary sculpture of Jacques O’Rourke Cousen Baron de Courchamps, was erected by his niece, Madam de Créquy-Lesdiguières. The genealogies, although quite probably accurate about the fact of an O’Donnell lady ancestor, are seemingly not consistent for the generations concerned, although it is also possible that there were two O’Donnell wives to O’Rourkes, aunt and niece who married respectively Brians I and II.

In any event, this curious story reveals that there was more than the odd case of French aristocrats of Irish origin whose diminished descendants had difficulty to document or trace their titles, let alone their ancient Irish lineage, whether due to the upheavals of the French Revolution, or other destructions of records such as in the old archives of the Conseil d’Etat which were completely destroyed by fire in 1871. The O’Neills of France fared better than the above O’Rourkes, and the O’Donnells better still. It can be expected that the emergence of a new knowledge culture built on information technology will reveal even more hidden truths in the future.

In fact, for modern researchers with a keen forensic eye, it is already doing so.


By Francis M. O’Donnell © 2014

[1] Marquiset, Alfred. Romieu et Courchamps, published by Émile-Paul Frères, Editors, Paris, 1913.

[2] Lenoir, Alexandre (Administrator; 1761-1839). Musée des monumens français, Tome V - Description historique et chronologique des statues en marbre et en bronze, bas-reliefs et tombeaux des hommes et des femmes célèbres, pour servir à l'histoire de France et à celle de l'art ; ornée de gravures et augmentée d'une dissertation sur les costumes de chaque siècleVolume 5,  printed by Imprimerie d’Hacquart, Paris, 1806  (pp. 69-72)

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