The O’Learys of Fermoy.


                                                                                                By Peter O’Leary.



You are probably all familiar with the Clan of O’Leary who were the chieftains of the Tuath of Uibh Laoghaire from about 1100 AD up to the destruction of the Clan system in the years following 1689 AD.


It is perhaps less well known that there were other families who took the name of O’Leary in other parts of the country, for example Sligo.  There are fewer remains of these other families with us today.


One of them however  was established in the Fermoy district, and there are many people of this name still in that area, and in Wexford where many of them settled later.  They are not related to the O’Learys who come from Uibh Laoghaire.


This is all quite simply explained.  Surnames were introduced around 1000 AD because of the rapid expansion of the population.   One popular method was to honour one’s grandfather, or an earlier forebear, by using his name in the newly adopted surname.  Thus one of the Clans in Rosscarbery had a much respected ancestor called Laoghaire who had lived in the 6th.c. AD and they called themselves after him, O Laoghaire or descendant of Laoghaire.


This Clan formed part of a large and numerous tribe called the Corca Laoighdhe who were named after a king of Ireland called Luy Maccon who thrived in the early 3rd century .AD.  This tribe originally occupied a territory which was roughly the area of the present day baronies of Carbery, Bantry and Beara together.



At the same time in the 3rd century. AD there was a tribe called the Fir Maige Feine who had a territory mainly situated to the North of the River Blackwater, in North East Co.Cork.  It can be defined roughly by the present day baronies of Fermoy, and Condons and Clangibbon.  (see Journal no 11, page 55).


The modern town of Fermoy is in fact named after the Fir Maige Feine.


One of the families making up the Fir Maige Feine named themselves as O’Leary at the same time in about 1000 AD, and again, honoured some ancestor of their own.

We do not know much of the history of this Clan of O’Leary.  They do however make a brief appearance in the Annals named The Book of Lismore, where they appear as the chieftains of a Tuath or civil parish, known as Ui Becce Abha. 


Their territory lay to the North of the River Blackwater and was centered on their ring fort of Dun Cruadha.  This Tuath today forms the modern civil parishes of   Castletownroche,  Kilcummer, Bridgetown and Monanimy.  It has a river running through it, a tributary of the Blackwater, which is called at times the Awbeg River, and at other times An Fhuinsinn.


These O’Learys were a vassal clan to the major clan in the area, Ui Cheim  (later O’Keefe).  This was one of the Eoganacht family of the kings of Munster which had been planted here to control the region.  Previously to their arrival, the chief king had been Ui Dubacáin (O’Duggan) who  was still a major chieftain but had had to yield up the principle fortress at Glanworth to Ui Cheim.


It appears that O’Leary shared the territory of Ui Becce Abha with another clan called O Gobhann.  Whilst O’Leary was the senior and normally provided the chieftain,  O Gobhann had the curious and unusual privilege of providing a candidate for chieftain in the event that there was not someone suitable from the O’Learys.


The church and burial ground for both these families was at Cill Connuir (Kilcummer).


Other names of clans in this kingdom were Duggan, Buckley, and Dinneen, just like in Rosscarbery at the same time.


Apart from these facts we know nothing of the day to day history of this O’Leary clan.  We do however know the manner of it’s demise.   In about 1100 AD the area was overrun by the Anglo-Norman baron named De Rupes or Roche.  He seized control of all the land and built his principle castle on the site of Dun Cruadha, whose name was changed to Castletownroche.  The clan system was destroyed and the existing land holders became mere tenant farmers under the Roches.


Before reaching Fermoy, the Roches had been granted extensive lands in the Wexford area.  In the 16th.c. one of these Wexford Roches died and left his lands to a Fermoy Roche.  This man thereupon moved to Wexford and took with him many of his tenant farmers.  This event explains the presence today of a number of the Fermoy O’Learys in the county of Wexford.


During the 18th. And 19th. Centuries there was much movement of population within the Country and then by emigration abroad.  Today it is often difficult to identify whether an O’Leary originally came from Fermoy or from Uibh Laoghaire, if that family have moved from their homeland. 


But there are of course a number of families in each district who have lived there for many generations, and about whom we have no doubts of their origin.