The O'Learys of Fermoy


To most of us, the O Learys and Uibh Laoire are synonomous. We think that in olden times, all the O Learys came from Uibh Laoire, and there were no other O Leary families apart from these.


This has led to the popular belief in modern times, if you are an O Leary, or a Leary, living in America or England, that your forebears must have come from this Parish of Uibh Laoire.

It has always been a point of some doubt, but up to now we have had little reason to think any different. That is to say, until recent times.


Now we know that this was a wrong assumption. When surnames were introduced into Ireland in the 11th.c., some say by King Brian Boru, most of the population selected a name which either honoured their Father (the Mac names) or their grandfather, or some earlier ancestor (the O names).


Laoire (Laoghaire) was not a common first name but there seem to have been more about than we think. There were about half a dozen families in various parts of the country who adopted the name O Leary in honour of one of their ancestors. Many of these families have since died out. One family in Co.Sligo who called themselves O Leary, were still frequently being mentioned in the 16th.c. Fiants, and most seem to have been servants or followers of the O Hara’s. We don’t know for certain that they still exist, but there are one or two families in Co.’s.Sligo and Mayo to this day, called O Leary, who may be their descendants.




Now we have come to the conclusion, with the small single exception of O Learys in Sligo, that there remain only two great clans of O Learys populating the World, and they are the O Learys of Uibh Laoire and the O Learys of Fermoy.


We don’t know their relative sizes, but both are substantial. They were two clans who both came from Co.Cork, one West Cork the other East Cork, but who were in every other respect totally unrelated. Their places of origin were only about 40 miles apart, but so great was the spread of population movement in the 18th and 19th.c. that they moved across the County and intermingled in a manner which makes them difficult to distinguish today.

The only hope we have in deciding which family any one person comes from is that there were different patterns of first names which are some help, particularly in the earlier generations. In the 20th.c. when people are called Darren, Garth or Chuck, such subleties are removed from us.


Most of us know about the origins of the O Learys of Uibh Laoire. Originally part of the Corca Loigde tribe from South Carbery, claiming descent from King Luy Maccon, they lived in the Rosscarbery area where they were chieftains owing allegiance to the head of the Corca Loigde, later to adopt the surname of O Driscoll. When our branch adopted the surname of O Leary after one of their ancestors in the 6th.c. they were soon to be dispossessed of their ancient lands in Rosscarbery, and moved to Uibh Laoghaire where they have remained ever since. To be more accurate, Uibh Laoire has remained their ancestral homeland, but in fact only houses about 30 O’Leary families today. The rest of them, probably numbering over 40,000 men, women and children, are scattered around the globe, with the majority having addresses in America, other parts of Ireland or in England.


O Learys of Fermoy.


Which brings us to the O Learys of East Cork. Their existence has always been known to those who have studied The Book of Fermoy, but their significance may have been missed.

The central part of the land along the River Blackwater was occupied by a tribe called the Fir Maige Fene. They were Eireannach people but in no way related to the Corca Loigde. By the 10th.c. this area was under the control of an Eberian family, the O Keeffes, and one of their sub-chieftains who ruled the Tuath of Hy Becc Abha was named O Laoghaire. His residence was Dun Cruadha. (Castletownroche)


After the Anglo-Norman invasion one of the lesser Barons who was granted land in this area was Roche. He set up his power base there and built his castle on Dun Cruadha, at the same time destroying all local Gaelic structures. These O Learys became mere tenants of the Roches, in which status they continued to flourish for the next four hundred years. Despite their subservient state, they were very populous.


After the break up of the Gaelic and Anglo-Norman systems in the 17th.c. there was much population movement, and many of these O Learys spread from Castletownroche (as Dun Cruadha had now become) into North and East Co.Cork. One branch went to the Fethard area of Co.Wexford as tenants of a Roche who acquired land there. They are still in that area in large numbers. Like many such family groupings, in the 18th. and 19th.c. they continued their expansion through Kerry, and eventually by emigration throughout the World.


First Name Analysis


Their patterns of first names were different to the Uibh Laoire O Learys because of this overlordship. They tended to ape their superiors by using their first names, as was common. So we find regular use of names like David, Edmond, Edward, George, Henry, Philip, Richard, Walter, William, amongst the men, and Elizabeth, Sarah, amongst the women.


The men of Uibh Laoire used a small number of Gaelic names, including their English translations. To the fore were Amhlaoibh (Humphrey), Art (Arthur), Conogher (Cornelius), Diarmuid (Dermot), Doncha (Denis), Donal (Daniel), Partolan (Bartholomew), and Tadgh (Timothy). Other men’s names included some which were only used by a few clans, and certainly never by the Fermoy O Learys. Such as Fineen, Liseagh or Ceadeach. The women usually confined themselves to Catherine, Ellen, Hanora (-in it’s many forms), Julia, Siobhan and Sile.


When doing an analysis of the names of a family to determine which clan it fits into, one has to ignore certain names which are commonly used by both. These include the "holy" names such as Andrew, John, Joseph, Michael, Patrick and Peter amongst the men; And Mary, Margaret and Ann(e) amongst the women.


It will be noticed that the Fermoy names are English and are in common use by the Roche family also. The most common Roche name was David, and this is an important indicator in such a test.


If you are looking at an O Leary family which has a family tree going back to 1800-1850 you will fairly easily pick out a name pattern so long as there are plenty of children. As you move forward in time you find the patterns begin to merge a bit, and then eventually you get to the modern usage where the proud parents select the names of film stars, pop artists, or other replacements to the time honoured names. At this point your analysis will break down