The O'Donnells of Tyrconnell

The Tyrconnell Heritage


The early Irish concept of kingship was not only applied at the Ireland-wide level, as High-King (Ard-Rí), as well as for the major provincial kingdoms, such as Tír Chonaill, but also for smaller units where a local king (rí) governed his tuath, which constituted the patrimonial territory of a lesser clan. There were about one hundred and fifty of these in the early period. 

Such smaller kingships gradually evolved and the term king (rí/rígh) was abandoned for the clan chief who would instead be referred to as a taoiseach, or chieftain, who might indeed become an uir-rí, a tributary vassal, one of several within a larger kingdom.

These tuath were sometimes coterminous with a parish or rural deanery in the medieval Irish church. By the 15th century rí (king) had been replaced by tiarna (lord) as the prevalent term, one that aligned with the English titles bestowed under the policies of surrender and regrant.

Emergence as a medieval polity

On a larger scale than those former petty kingdoms, the ancient Kingdom and later Principality of Tír Chonaill (Tyrconnell) derived from the earlier Kingdom of Aileach, which covered the north-west of Ireland, and was the domain of the northern Uí Neill, sprung from Conall, Eoghan, and Enda, the sons of Niall Naoigiallach, High-King of Ireland in the fifth century. Conall’s line gave 10 High-Kings to Ireland. His people became known as the Cenel Chonaill, and gradually expanded their realm, Tír Chonaill or Tyrconnell.

Understood as a medieval sovereignty, Tyrconnell was a larger domain than County Donegal, and would today cover large areas in several counties and in at least two provinces, namely Ulster and Connaught. In fact as a legacy of partition, it would lie astride two modern states, namely the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, by including an area of Northern Ireland.   At one time, its sway extended to over half of Ireland, when its ruler was known as the King of Leath Cuinn, the half of Ireland north of the Esker Riada.

Territorial expansion and suzerainty

It is clear from the realities and records of the era of its greatest prominence that Tyrconnell as a realm was by far regarded as a greater and superior overlordship than Donegal, the former meriting an Earldom (and eventually a Jacobite Dukedom), and the latter a servient Barony. This contrasts with some modern misinterpretations which regard Donegal as greater than Tyrconnell, merely because the modern Irish county includes Inishowen, when the Earldom did not, although the original extent of the historic realm of Tyrconnell not only did include Inishowen, but also several other territories in neighbouring counties.

Whereas County Donegal comprises the baronies of Kilmacrenan (the original epicenter of O’Donnell ascendancy), east and west Inishowen, north and south Raphoe, Banagh, Boylagh, and Tirhugh, the geographic spread of the kingdom or realm of Tyrconnell covered an area beyond Donegal, and including the Baronies of Carbury (Cairbre) in County Sligo, Rosclogher (Dartrighe) in County Leitrim, and Magheraboy (mainly Toorah or Tuath Ratha) and Firlurg in County Fermanagh in northern Ireland. 

Although its distant borders were never fixed for any great length of time, Tyrconnell also occasionally managed to exact tribute from Moylurg in north Roscommon, and Tirawley in north-east Mayo. Based on its prosperity and influence going back as far as an earlier period of the 1400s, Tyrconnell laid claim to overlordship or suzerainty in substantial areas of Ulster and Connaught.

The sway of Tyrconnell power ebbed and flowed over these wider areas for many centuries, with outer raids as far as the towns of Dundalk and Louth in the east.  By the late 1500s, Tyrconnell’s sway at its peak seems to have exerted varying degrees of control over the coastline from Erris Head in county Mayo to Dunluce Castle in Antrim.

It is reflective of the awe in which Tyrconnell was held in early medieval times, as well as some ignorance, that in the earlier maps of Ireland, such as Jan Jansson’s 1647 map Hibernia Regnum vulgo Ireland, it appears much larger, with the rest of Ulster, in great distortion to the shrunken scale of Connacht and the rest of Ireland. Later maps in that century, reflecting the larger knowledge of the region following the conquest, more accurately delineate the territories.

Even so, at its greater extent, it covered an area that fluctuated between the comparative sizes of Corsica, Cyprus, or Lebanon.

Medieval statehood and diplomatic relations

As a sovereign power, Tyrconnell exchanged ambassadors abroad maintaining diplomatic relations with the courts of principal monarchs. The O’Donnell dynasty had extensive trading and diplomatic links, exchanging envoys with several other countries, and having representatives in England and Scotland as well as in several continental ports.

In particular, records survive of links maintained with the royal courts in France (King Francis I and King Henry II), Scotland (e.g. King James IV) and Spain (e.g. King Philips II and III), and with the Pope (e.g. Pope Julius II) in Rome, and links were also entertained with English Kings (Kings Henry II, Henry III, and to some extent down to King Henry VIII, notwithstanding the latter’s claims, being the first English Monarch to later arrogate to himself, with the support of his Parliament in Ireland,  the title of King of Ireland).

Aodh Dubh Ó Domhnaill in fact even spent thirty-two weeks at the court of Henry VIII who knighted him, as Sir Hugh Dubh O’Donnell.  These and others recognized the O’Donnell sovereignty and the independence of the Kingdom of Tyrconnell, as evidenced in surviving correspondence and documents (charters, letters, indentures, agreements).

Maritime power, trade and traffic

Tyrconnell did not depend on the Pale or on England for its links to mainland Europe, but had its own direct relationships. In fact, the O’Donnells’ Tyrconnell is also believed to have had a fleet of twelve or thirteen wooden ships, used to trade widely abroad and patrol their vast territorial waters.  This is regarded as evidencing an indigenous shipbuilding activity, and early recognition by the O’Donnells of the commercial feasibility of fisheries, trade, and of trade levies on foreign vessels.

Tyrconnell also received traders in Donegal town from England, Wales and Scotland, and Flanders, France, and Spain. Foreign ships also frequently called at Tyrconnell’s other ports, especially Ballyshannon, Killybegs, and Lough Swilly.  It also had its own trading agents in foreign ports.  Tyrconnell’s trading links were long established with Bristol, St. Malo, Morlaix, Bordeaux, and beyond to Denmark, Spain, and Italy.

Its exports included fish (especially salmon and herring), rugs and hides, and imports consisted of wine, salt, iron, luxury garments, weapons and armor, even from as far away as the Baltics.  During the Nine Years War, Spain even exported artillery from Corunna to Tyrconnell, and gunpowder and arms were also imported into Ulster from Danzig.

While growing trade between Ireland and Spain followed the Anglo-Castilian commercial treaty of 1351, it was the growth of the herring fisheries along the west coast in the mid-1400s that particularly benefitted Tyrconnell’s trading relations with Spain. Another factor in expanding relations was the growth of pilgrim traffic from Ireland to Santiago de Compostela. Traffic to Ireland also included pilgrimages to St. Patrick’s purgatory on Lough Derg.

By the late 1500s, the O’Donnell King of Tyrconnell was known on the continent as “King of the Fishes”, as he controlled the lion’s share in the Irish fish trade, and also could lay claim to the cocket of the port of Sligo.

The O’Donnell Ascendancy

The O’Donnells of Tyrconnell were for centuries the Kings, Princes, and Lords of Tyrconnell and a wider portion of Ulster and beyond. The O’Donnell domains during various periods included much of lower Connaught. The O’Donnells, along with O’Conors and O’Murrys, also held sway in parts of south County Derry up to 1607.  From earlier centuries this influence is borne out in historic testimonies. For example, in 1241, King Domhnall Mór died and his obituary tributes described him as King of Tyrconnell, Fermanagh, Carbry, and Oirgialla from Monaghan northwards. 

Rivalry between the O’Donnells and O’Neills over the suzerainty of Inishowen, and indeed whether one owed homage to the other, was thought to be substantially settled in 1543/4 following the intervention and mediation of the Viceroy and the Council in Dublin, to the effect that Tyrconnell would exercise suzerainty over Inishowen in return for a major rent from O’Doherty, with a lesser rent by the same to O’Neill. It was also confirmed that O’Donnell owed no homage to O’Neill and neither one could extract tribute from the other.   

Patronage and social stratification

By the early 1500s, the O’Donnell King had become a major patron of the arts in the region, and had taken on the trade, fashion, and consumption patterns of continental Renaissance potentates.  In fact, already in 1542, Manus O’Donnell (1490-1563), 21st chieftain, was described as:

“furnisht of other apparrail better than any Irishman, for at such time as he mette with me he was in a coat of crimoisin velvet with aiglettes of gold, twenty or thirty pair, over that a great doble cloke of right crimoisin satin, garded with black velvet, a bonnet with a feather set full of aiglettes of gold: that methought it strange to see him in so honorable an apparrail, and all the rest of his nacion that I have seen as yet, so vile”

The castle-towers usually had a bawn. Yet the hospitality was extravagant. Such was life in Donegal castle, probably better furnished than most, given the lavish lifestyle of Manus O’Donnell, and his prosperous trade with the Continent. Certainly, this was the observation of Sir Henry Sidney, when hosted by Manus’s son, Sir Hugh Dubh O’Donnell , observing it to be the greatest fortress in all Ireland by 1566.

Manus O’Donnell was also known to retain his regal prerogatives, as King of Tyrconnell:

“which title this family always retained notwithstanding the English endeavours to abolish and abrogate, as well as all other Irish titles and customs, as witnessed by Sir James Ware in his annals of Ireland, where he calls this Manus, ‘Petty King of Tyrconnell’”

Regional alliances, invasion, encroachment and the decline of Tyrconnell

Over time the north-west became the refuge of Gaelic culture and power, but one where the progressive impoverishment of the majority was not offset by the weakening but increasingly Europeanised elite. With time, and English encroachment, these Gaelic elites lost followers not only through warfare, but also through migration away from an insecure, post-transhumance and vagabondic existence towards settled areas under the rule of more-predictable law, and the prospect of learning crafts and gaining employment in the trades and manufacturing in the new and monetised economy. 

The Crown was alarmed at the extent of Scottish support from the Isles and Highlands, and Glasgow, to the Ulster rebellion in 1598, which went as far as trading in victuals, and selling them weapons, armour, bullets, gun-powder, and other munitions of war. A proclamation by the King threatened confiscation (with half to the informer) to anyone who aided them. It was by no means obvious that the Gaelic Ulster was destined to succumb to the more powerful English and their expanding realm.  

Tyrconnell, and indeed Tyrone, were already in a process of modernization and adaptation to the emerging norms of the Renaissance.  Their relative isolation – and prolonged independence - from the rest of increasingly Anglo-Norman Ireland was much enabled by the natural barrier of many lakes, marshes, and mountains.

Vanquished or seduced frequently – between rebellions – Tyrconnell’s rulers were offered terms less favourable than their desires, from knighthoods to baronies or earldoms at most. Sometimes, it could be advantageous to reach accommodation with the English, but one always ran the risk that whilst the English Crown or the monarch personally would manifest frequent reconciliation, clemency, pardon, and re-grant, its intermediary agents in Ireland were almost always more avaricious. Their personal interests usually prevailed to the detriment of the demonized Irish who were as persistently betrayed and undermined as they were conciliatory themselves.

The conundrum of adapting to change

During the centuries of O’Donnell rule, Tyrconnell developed many of the trappings of an emergent medieval state, with 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 governance of Tyrconnell was based on the ancient Brehon laws of Ireland.  Tyrconnell was in fact the last bastion of that ancient Gaelic sovereignty, and until the demise of O’Donnell sovereignty in Tyrconnell, i.e. in the early 17th century, they ruled Tyrconnell (counting at that time the north-west of Ireland, including much of western Ulster, and northern Connaught), according to the Brehon system.  As things have developed, it is only in comparatively recent times that reference has been made in modern Irish courts to the Brehon Laws of ancient Ireland, e.g. in an attempt to solve difficult questions relating to fisheries.  Hence for example, by the time that the English Crown seized Tyrconnell, it was unable to grant rights to fisheries and tidal and navigable waters, having been so prohibited by Magna Carta, which came about long before the conquest of Tyrconnell.  However, this did not prevent the Crown from depriving Rory O’Donnell of these rights, when in the grant to him of the Earldom of Tyrconnell it reserved the fisheries of the port of Ballyshannon and all the rivers and lakes associated with its castle and town, and indeed of passing on some of the regalities to John Bingham of Dublin in 1603 under a Crown lease.

The Elizabethan conquest of Tyrconnell ended an entire system of governance, unique in Europe and the world, as the only remaining Celtic sovereignty, the last independent vestige of almost three thousand years of Celtic civilization in Europe, a culture that, before the advent of the Roman Empire, had once spanned and roamed free from Ireland and Spain in the far west to Ukraine and down to central Turkey in the far east, and the zoomorphic artwork of which marked the western thrust of a cultural continuum reaching back to the Altai region on the frontiers of China, and a deep Scythian heritage.

From a pseudo-modernist perspective of international legal evolution it has been disputed, controversially and not entirely convincingly whether Ireland as a whole was ever a state prior to the Anglo-Norman/English invasion, disregarding, with the superiority and disdain typical of the invader, the history, law, and tradition of the indigenous High Kingship. Despite such questionable perspectives, at sub-island level there can be no doubt that nascent medieval state-principalities were in evolution. Tyrconnell was one of the last of these to survive, and was effectively a medieval proto-state, recognized as an independent power in its diplomatic relations and treaties, and regardless of the disputed surviving legality or application of the Bull Laudabiliter of 1155 or of the Treaty of Windsor of 1175.


O’Donnell Castles, Forts, Mansions, Manors, and other Estates in Ireland 

Donegal Castle (Seat of Princes)

Lough Eske Castle

Ballyshannon Castle

Ballymote Castle

Caislean Gearr/Ardfert Castle

Lough Garton Fort

Rathdonnell tumulus

Lifford Castle

Castlefin Castle

Caoluisce Castle

Ramelton Castle/Manor

Tory Castle

Scarriffhollis Castle

Truagh Castle

Larkfield House

Newport House/Manor


Murvagh Manor

Fahyness Manor

Moore Hall

Map of the Kingdom of Tyrconnell in Ireland

And the maximum extent of areas under the control and influence

of its ruling dynasty,  the O’Donnells,  in the 15th and 16th centuries.


Sources: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Four Masters), and Keating/Dineen, Lewis, Lynch, Mac Eiteagain & Simms

Map based on the account in Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh’s Beatha Aodha Ruaidh O’Domhnaill – The Life of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, Prince of Tyrconnell (1586-1602), originally written around 1603, and translated centuries later by Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., M.R.I.A, and published by Sealy, Bryers, & Walker, Dublin, 1893.

© Francis Martin O’Donnell, 2013.    

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