The Brennans of Connacht

By Pat Brennan

The Name of Brennan

The name Brennan is one of the 50 most common names in modern Ireland. It originated as the name of at least six completely different, completely unrelated, septs or extended families. There appear to have been distinct families from Westmeath, Kerry, Fermanagh, Kilkenny, Galway and Roscommon. Most of these septs seem to have originally used the Irish form UaBhrainain or UaBraonain, which was later anglicized as O'Brennan and later simply, Brennan.1 We know very little about most of these families.

  • The Genealogy of MacBranan

    The following is the genealogy of MacBranan, as based on the ancient traditions. Most of the dates are very speculative. From the viewpoint of a modern historian, anything prior to the 4th or even 5th century AD should be considered extremely questionable. Although the genealogy's accuracy is highly suspect (to say the least), this is probably what the people themselves believed.3

    The MacBranan's claimed descent from Eochu Muighmheadon who seems to have been an actual historical person who ruled Ireland around 358AD. The genealogy of Eochu includes many of the ancient, legendary (and probably mythical) kings of Ireland, including two of the most famous, Conn of the Hundred Battles and Cormac MacArt. According to tradition, Eochu Muighmheadon's son Brian had 24 sons (from several wives) and the MacBranans were descended from one of them. The following genealogical information was saved over time because of the importance of some of Brian's other descendants.4 The MacBranans were chiefs or sub-kings of a small, not terribly important region and we probably would not have this type of information on them if they didn't share the genealogy of more prominent families.

      65   Miledh of Spain
    (from whom "Milesian" comes)
      38   Connla Cruaidh-chelgach 
      64Erimhon   37   Olild Cas Fiaclach 
      63Irial the Prophet   36   Eochaidh Folt-lethan 
      62Ethrial   35   Aengus Tuirmech of Temhair 
      61Follamhan   34   Enna Aighnech 
      60Tighernmas   33   Labraidh 
      59Eaboth   32   Blathachta 
      58Smirgoll   31   Esamhain of Emhain 
      57Fiacaidh Labranai   30   Rioighnen Roadhcirca 250 BC
      56Aengus Ol-macaidh   29   Finnloghacirca 200 BC
      55Maen   28   Finncirca 175 BC
      54Rotheetach   27   Eochaidh Feidhleach 
      53Dain   26   Finn (there were three brothers known
    as the "Three Finns of Emhain,"
    sometimes called the three fair sons
      52Sinorna Saeghalach   25   Lughaidh Riabhdhearg
    (grandson of Eochaidh Feidhleach)
      51Olild Olcaein   24   Criomhthann Nia Naircirca 7 AD
      50Gaillcaidh   23   Feredach Finn Feachtnach 
      49Nuadha Finn Fail   22   Fiacha "of the White Cows" 
      48Aedgan Glas   21   Tuathal Teachtmharcirca 76 AD
      47Simeon Brec   20   Feidlimid Reachtmharcirca 111 AD
      46Muredach Bolgrach   19   Conn Ceadchathach,
    Conn of the Hundred Battles
      45Fiacaidh Tolgrach   18   Art Aenfercirca 166 AD
      44Dauch Laghrach   17   Cormac MacArtcirca 227 AD
      43Eocaidh Buadach   16   Cairbre Lifechaircirca 268 AD
      42Iugani Mor (also Ughaine)   15   Fiachu Sraibhthinecirca 286 AD
      41Cobhthach Cael-Breagh (400 BC?)   14   Muiredach Tirechcirca 327 AD
      40Melgi Molbthace   13   Eochu Muighmheadoncirca 358 AD
      39Iarann Gleo-fathach   12   Brian (from whom all the UiBriuin descend)
    Also brother to Naill of the Nine Hostages

    According to the 19th Century's greatest expert on all things Gaelic, John O'Donovan, the ancestry that was particular to MacBranan was as follows. It picks up with Brian (number 12 in the list above). It is obvious that this list is not complete. Unless these people were all remarkably long lived, there are nowhere near enough people to fill the time-span between Ona (circa 460) and Echthighern (circa 1060). We do have corroboration on the existence of Echthighern, Gillachrist and Branain from the Irish annals.

    410Ercus Ruber(from whom the Cenel MacErca descend)
    460Archdruid Ona 
    460FlahniaAlso spelled Flaithniadh.
    460MailmichilName means "devotee of Michael."Possibly the
    progenitor of the Mitchells and/or Mulvihils
    460Uroon (or Uromain)Either his brother, Mulvihill or Mailmichil (above) was
    probably the progenitor of the O'Mulvihills.
    460AdithName sometimes also spelled Aidit.
    1060EchthighernName means "Lord of the Horses."
    1088GillachristName means "servant of Christ."
    1043 - 1120BranainFrom whom the name "MacBranain" comes

    Ancient History Of The Brennans Of Connacht

    The first mention we have about the Brennans in history was in regard to their ancestor Ona. Around 440 AD, the noble Archdruid Ona was lord of a territory in northern Roscommon called Corca Achlann. Corca means "people of." "Achlann" was probably a personal name, so the term "Corca Achlann" simply means "people of Achlann." Therefore, this would be the name of both a tribe and the territory where the tribe lived. This type of small kingdom was known as a tuath (plural, tuatha).

    Ona was of royal blood. Like most of his class, he could trace his ancestry back to the Milesians invaders from Spain who (if the ancient stories and genealogies are correct) conquered Ireland around 500 BC. Ona was the great-grandson of Brian. This Brian was at one time the king of Connacht and was the brother of the famous Irish High King, Niall of the Nine Hostages. (This Naill is famous as the king who kidnapped St. Patrick and brought him as a captive to Ireland.) Through Brian, Ona was descended from the most illustrious high kings of Irish history, including Cormac MacArt and Con of the Hundred Battles.

    Ona And Saint Patrick. According to The Book of Armagh, one of the most ancient books in Ireland, Ona made a present of his residence, called Imleach-Ona, to Saint Patrick. The tale of Ona and Patrick is given in greater detail in the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, written around 600 and attributed to St. Evin (Tripartite Live of Saint Patrick, (Stokes trans, 1887). Following is the story:

    Saint Patrick was on one of his rounds of Connacht and came into the territory of Corca Achlann. "Two brothers were biding in that place, namely Id and Ona. Wizards were they."

    Saint Patrick decided that this would make a good location for one of the churches he was founding. When Ona saw his intention, he asked Saint Patrick what he would pay him for the land. Saint Patrick answered that he would repay Ona a portion of heavenly country for that earthly country.

    "But Ona, esteeming this exchange at a small rate, refused to consent to the wishes of the Man of God. Said Ona, 'Thou hast gold, give some to me for it.'"

    Saint Patrick explained that he had already spent all his money on the erection of churches and the necessities of the poor. However. Saint Patrick was sure that God would provide and said, "God will give me other gold." He then went to a nearby place which had been rooted up by pigs and immediately found a lump of gold which was as large as the amount that Ona had asked for in exchange for his land. Patrick gave Ona the gold in exchange for the land.

    "Because Ona had thus tempted the Lord and had preferred fleeting gold to eternal riches, Saint Patrick said to him, 'Thou shalt not be a king, nor any of thy seed forever.'"

    Ona was highly upset at this prophecy and began crying and begging for forgiveness for his offence. St. Patrick took pity on Ona and told him, "'There will not be a King in Connacht whom your progeny will not assist and promote to the throne.' And experience proves this to be fulfilled. For the Cinel MacEarca are the mightiest and firmest in Connacht, but kings are not taken from among them, nor do they rule like over-kings." (Byrne, 1987, says that this passage means that the rulers of Corca Achlann were not harsh in the manner in which they ruled.)

    "This Ona, now being by the Grace of God changed into another man, voluntary offered to St. Patrick his own fort, which was formerly called Imleach Ona, but from this day, on account of the church built there by St. Patrick, is called Ail-finn."

    (The place is named Ail-Finn from a stone (Ail) from which water flowed. It is called Finn (fair) from the water. The name of Imleach was preserved in the name of the townland of Emlagh, near Elphin.)

    "St. Patrick then blessed Ona and his posterity on account of his penance and liberality, promising, and in promising having the power of an oracle, foretelling for certain that from Ona's seed many men distinguished in the arts of war and the sacred pursuits of peace would be descended. Patrick said, 'Thy seed shall be blessed, and there shall be victory of laymen and clerics from thee forever, and they shall have the inheritance of this place.'"

    In the ruins of the Cathedral at Elphin.

    Patrick's Prophecies Verified. In accordance with St. Patrick's prophecy, none of the descendants of Ona ever became a king. However, the MacBranans did become trusted vassals to the O'Connor kings of Connacht who, in the 10th through the 14th centuries, the MacBranans assisted and promoted to the throne.

    Certainly any Brennan or MacBranan, living or dead, would attest to the accuracy of St. Patrick's second prophecy: That there were many of the family distinguished in the arts of war and peace.

    A branch of the MacBranans were Erenaghs (hereditary lay abbots) of St. Patrick's church at Elphin until at least 1362. This fact could be considered to be a fulfillment of Patrick's third prophecy, "...and they shall have the inheritance of this place."

    MacBranan's Territory of Corca Achlann

      Powerful is the vigor of Clann Brennan,
      And also of the majestic O'Mulmihil.
      They command the strong forces of Corca Achlann of the herds.
        - Topographical Poems of John O'Dubhagain, circa, 1320.

    The Three Tuathas.  Na Teora Tuatha, The Three Tuathas, were Tir-Briuin na Sinna, Cenel Dobtha and Corca Achlann. The Three Tuathas were located in the east of County Roscommon. Tir-Briuin na Sinna and Cenel Dobtha border on the Shannon. Corca Achlann is inland, to west. Corca Achlann (The People of Achlann), was ruled by MacBranan. At one time the clann of O'Mulvihil (sometimes also called O'Mailmichil or O'Mailmiadaig) were probably co-chiefs of Corca Achlann with the MacBranans. Apparently they were from the same stock (see Mulvihill in the MacBranan Genealogy above).5 The MacBranans probably drove them out.6 The MacBranan family are documented as chiefs of Corca Achlann from the time of their ancestor the noble Archdruid Ona,7 son of Aengus, about 460 AD, until 1526. It is probable that the family ruled the area before Ona, but there are no confirming records.

    The Name Corca Achlann. The first mention of Corca Achlann is found in the Book of Armagh as the name of the territory and the tribe of Ona in the story of Ona and St. Patrick. As stated above, this was written around the seventh century, but may have been based on earlier works that were more contemporary with Saint Patrick. This early reference means that the name "Corca Achlann," must go back to at least to the mid-seventh century. It may have even predated Ona and St. Patrick. If so, it could go back into the era of the Celtic conquest. Conversely, it is also very possible that the seventh century writer was not using an ancient name and, writing for a contemporary audience, used the name by which the region was called at the time that he was writing.

    Where does the name "Corca Achlann" come from?8 First, the word Corca means "race of" and seems to always be put together with a personal name. Therefore, Corca Achlann means "Race of Achlann." It is the name of a greatly extended family (sept) and is used in the same way as Clann, Cenel or Muintir. Scholars of early Ireland believe that these sept names were dynastic in origin and were used to delineate the descendants of an important person. Most of them seem to have originated around the fifth and sixth century and replaced earlier tribal names based on collective nouns (e.g., Osraige, meaning "deer-people" or Cerdraige, meaning "smith-folk").9 Following this logic, we have a date between 400 and 600.

    It is unlikely that we will ever know the answer to the origin of Achlann. Whoever he was, whatever his original name was, Achlann was almost certainly a chieftain whose identity has now been lost in the mists of time. The name Corca Achlann continued to be used to describe both the people and the territory of the MacBranans throughout the middle ages. It is last used in the Annals in 1526.

    The Territory Of Corca Achlann. According to the Annals, the MacBranans were hereditary Chiefs of Corca Achlann. The spelling of the name of the territory of Corca Achlann is a problem. It has appeared with numerous different spellings in the various sources. It has also been called Cora Seachlann. Spellings include Corcoachland, Corchlann Corco Ochlann and Cora Eachlinn. For an extreme example, D'Alton (1845) quotes "the rectory of Corcoghlan or Ardcoghlan..." Vestiges of the name have been retained in the names of Clooncullaan Lake near Kilcooly, in Corker and in Bumeachlinn.

    Corca Achlann appears to have been roughly centered on the present-day town of Strokestown and was similar in extent to the modern Catholic parish of Strokestown. At one time Corca Achlann probably extended from Elphin to the western slope of Slieve Bawn Mountain (about 15 miles). The other side of Slieve Bawn was the tuath of Cinel-Dobtha, O'Hanly's land. (The O'Hanlys, the Cinel Dobtha (i.e., the race of Dobtha), were descended from Dobtha, who was the brother of Ona.) The ridge of the mountain was the dividing line. According to the old tradition, there was once a series of standing stones and crosses on the ridge of the mountain to mark the dividing line. The parishes of Bumlin, Kiltrustan, Cloonfinlough, Lissonuffy and Templereagh (now all part of the modern parish of Strokestown) were in Corca Achlann.

    There are a number of place names in the region that reflect the influence of the MacBranans. Cloonybrennan is a townland just to the south of Elphin. Cluane is Irish for "meadow," so this spot marks Brennan's Meadow. Rathbrenan is a townland located about 2 miles west of Roscommon town. A rath is a ring fort and would probably be very old, probably built between 500 and 1,000 AD. Rathbrenan could be translated as Brennan's Fort. There are additional Brennan place-names in Galway and Mayo.

    The Name MacBranan

      Long live the great and brave MacBranan,
      The noble chief of old Corca Achlann,
      Who from his frontiers views the Shannon.
      Around whom flock the tall Ua Siondain,
      The pious Doovhies and the Banans,
      The fierce MacIgoes and the Fanans.

      Until the noble Shannon cease to flow,
      Until the old Baghna's Mount shall sink
      Below the level of Conacia's rich green plain,
      May Ona's heir be ever seen to reign.
        - Topographical Poems of John O'Dubhagain, circa, 1320.

    The descendants of Ona retained the chieftainship of Corca Achlann for over a thousand years. In the 12th century, they took the surname "MacBranan." The family name comes from a man named Branain who died in the year 1120. We don't know much about this Branain except that he was the chief of Corca Achlann and that the was the son of Gillachrist (meaning follower or servant of Christ) and the grandson of Echthighern (meaning Lord of the Horses).

    The word "bran" means raven in Irish. This was a common man's name at the time and may have been given to those with dark hair. Branian indicates small or little. Its use can be literal or it might also used in an affectionate manner. Therefore Branain can be literally translated as "little raven." The descendants of Branain took the surname "MacBranain," meaning "son of Branain." The Old-Irish form "MacBranain" is transcribed as "MacBranan" by the translators of the ancient documents.

    The name MacBranan appears frequently in The Annals of Connacht, The Annals of Ulster, Annals of Lough Ce and The Annals of the Four Masters. These are among the earliest histories of Ireland. These Annals tell us that a number of MacBranan chiefs were buried at the cathedral in Elphin and that others were interred in the Friar's monastery in Roscommon.

    The MacBranans and The O'Connors. For most of the middle ages the MacBranans were under-lords of the O'Connor Kings of Connacht. Although the MacBranans are not important enough to appear in most general history books on Ireland, it is possible to follow the fortunes of the O'Connors and thereby infer much about the events that affected the MacBranans.

    In 1201, Cathal Crobhderg (red hand) O'Connor was inaugurated King of Connacht at Carnfree (Rathcroghran, near Tulsk, County Roscommon). The records of his inauguration list the major nobility and outline their responsibilities to the king. "MacBranan is his henchman and chief of his kern (i.e., light infantry), and the caretaker of his hounds. MacBranan has the perquisites arising from O'Connor's marchership (i.e., frontier region) from Curragh-Kinnetty (near Roscommon) to Kells in Meath."

    In the late 14th and early 15th century, the O'Connor family permanently split into two groups. These were called the O'Connor Don (i.e., brown) and the O'Connor Roe (i.e., red) after the color of the hair of the two contesting leaders. These two factions fought each other, more or less continually, for the next two hundred years. As vassals to the O'Connors, the MacBranans were unable to keep themselves from becoming embroiled in the wars between the two factions. This ultimately led to a split in the MacBranan family as well.

    MacBranan vs. MacBranan. In 1410 things came to a head when, upon the death of the chief, Teige MacBranan, the two family factions could not agree upon a successor. Ultimately, each proclaimed its own leader. The tuath was not big enough for two chiefs. In the summer of 1411, the two factions met at a small river ford in the middle of Corca Achlann to settle the issue. According to the Annals:

    "The battle was won by Conor, son of Sean MacBranan, over the descendants of Conor MacBranan. Here were slain Conn and Maine, sons of Hugh, son of Conor MacBranan, William Finn, son of Conn, and others. This was on a Monday, according to the day of the week. Conn was carried severely wounded to Grencha, and I do not know the manner of his death afterwards. They buried them in the monastery of the friars at Roscommon. These great deeds were done a month before Lammas. And the chieftainship remained with Conor afterward."

    As a consequence of the battle, the ford where the fight took place was afterwards called Beal Atha na mBuille. This is literally, "the mouth of the ford of the strokes (i.e., the strokes of battle)." The town that was later built there is called Strokestown.

    The two MacBranan factions continued to fight with each other for the chieftainship off and on for the next century. Each faction seems to have been supported by one of the O'Connor groups. It is likely that the much more powerful O'Connors encouraged and used the MacBranan split for their own purposes. In any event, all this ultimately resulted in the loss of the chieftainship. In 1526, according to the Annals, "Hugh, son of Teige, who was MacBranan (i.e., the chief), was driven out of his land" by the O'Connor Roe. O'Connor was actually aided in this by some of the MacBranans from the opposing faction. After 1526, there was never again a MacBranan chief, and the name of Corca Achlann disappears from the records.

    Chiefs for 1000 Years

    Obviously, the MacBranans were a remarkable family. They ruled the region of Corca Achlann for 1,100 years. These years were among the most violent and troubling in Irish history. The MacBranans were there to meet St. Patrick. They survived the Vikings and the Normans only to lose the chieftainship in the time of the Elizabethans. Even after that, they remained prominent for another 100 years, until the Cromwellian displacement. What enabled them to flourish for over a thousand years? How did they hold on to their power and position for so long? There are several factors that seem apparent from the story:

    • Geography. Corca Achlann was far enough away from the ocean that it was not within easy raiding distance for the Vikings, or later, the Normans. Also, Slieve Bawn Mountain protects the east side of the territory.
    • The Derbfhine System. This system of inheritance made it very difficult for a family to die off or for enemies to kill them off. If even one cousin "of the name" remained alive, the chieftainship passed to him and the family stayed in power.

    • The O'Conor Kings. As vassals to the powerful O'Conors, the MacBranans were shielded from some of the worst of the Norman/English conquests. When the O'Conor territory was reduced to the "Kings Cantreds," Corca Achlann was within this region. Therefore, when the Normans reached their high water mark in 1270, the MacBranan land was still Irish, and would remain so for another 300 years.

    • English Preoccupation. The English were preoccupied with their empire in France and civil strife in England. Because of the 100 Years War, the War of the Roses, etc., they were unable to truly conquer Ireland until the 1600's.

    • The MacBranans Themselves. The above reasons can be written off to good luck. Still, even by Irish standards, 1100 years is a very long time. It took more than just good luck to last that long. The MacBranans must have been a remarkable family.

      Roscommon Abbey . Many MacBranan chiefs are buried here.

    List of MacBranan Chiefs

    The following is from the various Annals and O'Donovan. Some of the references are vague so, in some cases, this merely represents my best guess.

    Time LineNameComments
    circa 430Archdruid OnaGave St. Patrick the land for the Cathedral of Elphin.
    circa 430Flahnia(or Flaithniadh)
    circa 430Nuadat(or Nuadhat)
    circa 430MailmichilPossibly also the progenitor of the Mitchells.
    circa 430Uroon (or Uromain)His brother, Mulvihill, was possibly the progenitor
    of the O'Mulveys.
    circa 430AdithName sometimes also spelled Aidit.
    circa 1060EchthighernName means "Lord of the Horses."
    1088MoroughBrother of Branain, killed by Rory O'Conor.
    1088DunsheeAnother brother of Branain?
    circa 1088GillachristName means "servant of Christ"
    ? to 1120BranainFrom whom the name MacBranan comes.
    1120 to 1150Diarmait MacBrananBlinded by Turlough O'Conor.
    1150 to 1159+   Gilla-Crist MacBranan"The Stooping Gillie" ?
    ? to 1186Gilla-Patraic MacBrananKilled by the direction of the Muinter-Branain
    ? to 1225Echmarcach MacBranan   Name means "horseman." Killed at Kilkelly.
    ? to 1256Ragnall MacBranan 
    1256? to 1260Conor MacBrananKilled on a raid.
    1260? to 1295Conn MacBrananKilled by O'Kelly's.
    1295Tomaltach MacBrananLasted less than a year. Killed by O'Conallains.
    1295? to 1319Eachmarcach MacBrananDied of battle wounds.
    1319? to 1333Conor MacBranan 
    1333 to 1377Diarmait MacBranan"Diarmait the Lame"
    ? to 1396Conn MacBrananKilled at Creaga by Diarmaid O'Conor Roe
    1396 to 1401Cormac MacBranan1 of 2 chiefs at this time. Teige (below) was the other.
    1396 to 1410Teige MacBrananBuried in Friar's Monastery in Roscommon.
    1411Conn MacBrananOne of two contested chiefs. Killed by Conor.
    1411 to 1447Conor MacBrananKilled kinsmen in 1401 & 1411 to get chieftainship.
    1477 to 1462Tomaltach Carrach MacB 
    ? to 1469Teige MacBrananMurdered by brother and nephew (Domnall).
    1469 to 1471Domnall MacBrananKilled in revenge by Conn, the son of Teige (above).
    1469? to 1488William MacBrananBuried at Elphin.
    1489 to ?Sean MacBranan 
    ? to 1526 Hugh MacBrananSon of Teige. Driven out by O'Conor Roe and sons of
    Echmarach MacBranan. Last "chief of the name."

    The Brennans Pushed Out

    Although they had lost the chieftainship, the family was still considered noble, and it remained very prominent for another 120 years. The MacBranans were the major landowners in the region until they were driven out by the Cromwellian transplantations in the 1650's.

    It is well known that, after the victory of Cromwell and his successors, the Catholic gentry from Ulster, Munster and Leinster were forced to give up their lands and "go to hell or Connacht." Only a relatively small percentage of these transplanters were Gaelic Irish. The Gaels were mostly left on the land as peasants. The transplanters were mainly old Anglo Norman stock. In order to make room for these transplanters, the Catholic landowners in Connacht (like the MacBranans) had to give up most of their lands.

    The winter of 1653-54 was chosen by the English as the time for the exiles throughout Ireland to move on to their new lands in Connacht. The idea was for the new transplanters to make the move during the slack time of year, without disrupting the harvests. Since the Brennans had to get out to make room for the transplanters, they too probably moved sometime between 1652 and 1654.

    When the MacBranan landholders lost their land, their tenants were probably allowed, even encouraged to stay behind and work for the new landlords. Those tenants who were not themselves MacBranans may have stayed in fairly large numbers. Where the tenants were family members or where the lands had been held by brothers or cousins in common, the whole extended family may well have moved out together.

    2,302 English acres, more than one-third of all the land that the MacBranans lost, ultimately were granted to Nicholas Mahon by Charles II after the restoration. The Mahon's huge Hartland Estate also included thousands of acres which had formerly belonged to the O'Conor Roe family. In total, the Mahons acquired almost 30,000 acres, becoming one of the great landed families of Ireland. However, they did not enjoy their gains with impunity. In the 1830's Lord Hartland went insane and subsequently died without a heir. The estate passed to his cousin who then met an untimely death.

    Strokestown today. Note the entrance to the Hartland Estate at the
    end of the street. This is now the Famine Museum.

    Not quite all of the MacBranans lost their land at this time. O'Donovan reports that the ancestor of Hubert Brannan of Lissonuffy was allowed to retain about 350 acres. O'Donovan does not say if he was forced to become a Protestant to accomplish this. A handful of the MacBranans who lost most of their lands, were still allowed to remain in Corca Achlann during the Cromwellian Transplantation. These individuals are listed as "local transplants." In other words, they were forced to move from their original lands into new sites within the same barony.

    It was about this time that the family dropped the "Mac" and became simply Brennan. One of the last documented uses of the "Mac" is in 1649, when Rory Oge MacBranan is included in a list of Irish Officers who served Kings Charles I and Charles II.

    What happened to those who lost their lands? Some may have remained as tenants on their own lands. Most probably left to eke out an existence elsewhere. The census taken in 1659 indicates that, by that date, there were not many Brennans left in the barony of Roscommon.

    Census of 1659. The Census of 165910 counted only those "rated farmers, gentry or aristocracy." Amongst those counted, it lists only the most common names in each barony. Following is a breakdown of the Brennans from Roscommon and the surrounding counties that were listed in the Census of 1659.

    RoscommonRoscommonBrennan & Branan7    
    RoscommonBoyleO'Brennan & Brenan30    
    Roscommonall others--
    Sligoall others--
    WestmeathCorkerieBranan & Brenan5    
    Westmeathall others--
    Kings Co.BallybrittBrenan4    
    Kings Co.all others--

    Corca Achlann was in Roscommon Barony. Almost certainly, more than just these 7 Brennan families remained in Roscommon Barony, but either their numbers had dropped to insignificance or their social/economic status had dropped to the level that they were not counted.

    There were no data for the County Roscommon baronies of Castlereagh or Frenchpark because they did not exist yet in 1659. They were still part of Boyle and Ballintobber.

    The differences in spelling of Brennan may be significant, but probably only reflect different people compiling the data. Note that there are no Mac or McBrennans.

    Data from the Census indicates that most of the Brennans had moved away from the Corca Achlann region by this period. It seems that most of the Brennans had dispersed toward the north into Boyle Barony and into southern County Sligo.

    The question of exactly when they moved from Corca Achlann remains. Most likely there was a mass movement directly after, and as a result of, the Cromwellian confiscations. It is possible however, that, over time, here had been a gradual dispersal out of Corca Achlann. These dispersers would probably have been people who were no longer in the senior branch of the family and so had little vested interest in the chieftainship. A further possibility is that some family members may have moved out of the homeland when the Chieftainship was lost. At this distance, it is impossible to be sure.

    MacLysaght and Woulfe11 recognize a distinct Brennan sept in Westmeath and another in Galway that are unrelated to the MacBranans of Roscommon. Presumably this would account for the 12 Brennan families in Westmeath. If there were Brennans in Galway at this time, they were either not prominent enough or not populous enough to be recognized in the census of 1659.

    MacBranan and O'Brennan. According to MacLysaght, in about 1360 a few of the MacBranans began to substitute an "O" for the Mac. The reason for this is not known. How many changed to the O is also unknown.

    English maps made around 1610 show the clan as O'Brennan. The best known of these maps was made at the request of Queen Elizabeth by Baptista de Boazio in order to show the locations of the various Irish clans. The map's purpose was primarily military. De Boazio may have used the O in the old Irish manner, to mean "descendants of" Brennan. Or, he may have simply made a mistake. It is obvious that many, if not most of the family, were still using the Mac at the time this map was drawn. Certainly the most prominent part of the family was still using the Mac. It is possible, however, that the lower classes within the family called themselves Brennan or O'Brennan, while those who still had pretensions to nobility retained the Mac. The leading members of the family (those eligible for the chieftainship) retained the Mac until the general submergence of the Gaelic order in the mid-1600's.12

    MacLysaght says that most Irish families that dropped the O or the Mac from their names, did so around Cromwellian times, or shortly thereafter. This is consistent with the fact that the Mac in MacBranan had disappeared by the time of the Census 1659.

    It is interesting that, in the 1659 Census, the O'Brennan only shows up in the Boyle/South Sligo area. This could indicate a local trend or it could indicate an idiosyncrasy of the census-taker in the region. It seems likely that only a small percentage of Brennans ever used the the form "O'Brennan." These were centered in the South Sligo and Boyle region. The fashion didn't last. By the mid-1800's all seem to have dropped the "O."

    By the time of Griffith's Valuation, spellings have become standardized. There are no MacBrennans or O'Brennans in Roscommon or in any of the surrounding counties. 95.5% of those recorded are using the spelling "Brennan." The only other spellings used are Brannan (3.4%), Brannon (0.9%) and Brennon (0.2%).

    With the resurgence of national pride in the later 1800's many of the Gaelic families began to re-assume the O and the Mac which had been dropped by their ancestors. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a single instance of a Mc or MacBrennan in Ireland or America, regardless of spelling. It seems that the illustrious name of MacBranain has been permanently lost to posterity.

    After the Famine

    In 1855, shortly after the end of the famine, R. Griffith compiled lists of data on landholders throughout Ireland. Known as Griffith's Valuation of Tenants, this data is invaluable as a tool for the historian or genealogist. This data is not a true census because it is limited to property holders, presumably heads of families. It does not include townspeople, landless people, women or children. The Griffith data shows:

    • After being forced out of their homeland of Corca Achlann, there was very little movement of Brennans to the south or east. The general pattern of movement to the north and west that was begun immediately after the Cromwellian confiscations continued for another 100 years. This is logical because movement in this direction would be a moving away from the pressure of the most intensive English settlement and colonization.
    • By 1858, County Sligo had more Brennans than County Roscommon. By the end of the 19th century, Brennan was the most common name in County Sligo. (Kelly was the most common name in both Co. Galway and Co. Roscommon)
    • In Counties Mayo and Sligo, the baronies directly adjacent to County Roscommon had the highest number of Brennans. This is consistent with a continuing, gradual dispersal from Corca Achlann.
    • There was a sept of Brennans from Westmeath that were distinct from the MacBranans of Roscommon (See also the Census of 1659). Because Westmeath and Roscommon are directly adjacent, there was probably at least some movement of Brennans between the two counties. However, since Westmeath is in the opposite direction from the general post-Cromwell Brennan migration, is seems unlikely that very many of these Westmeath Brennans are MacBranans.
    • MacLysaght and Woulfe both recognize a distinct sept of Brennans from the Barony of Longford in County Galway. It seems that this family was either not particularly numerous or had dispersed early on. They are not listed in the Census of 1659. By the time of Griffith's work, there are only 15 Brennans listed in Longford. They may be from this separate sept.
    • There seems to be no way to sort out which of the Brennans in Galway in the 1850's were originally from Roscommon and which were native to Longford Barony. Certainly, many MacBranans from Roscommon migrated into Galway. By the time of Griffith's work, there were about 120 Brennan families in the county. The greatest density was in Ballymoe Barony, directly west of Roscommon's Ballintober Barony.
    • The Griffith data shows approximately 1000 families of Brennans in Connacht. If we (arbitrarily) assume that half of the Galway Brennans were not from Roscommon and we subtract these 60 families from the Griffith total, we are left with some 940 Brennan families. To this sum must be added those families that Griffith missed and those who were landless. All told, this probably puts the total back up to something more than 1000 families. Making some assumptions (arbitrarily again) about average family size, we can probably state that, by 1858, there were about 5,000 Brennans in Connacht who had originated as Roscommon MacBranans.

    1890 Brennan Birth Data

    A survey of the registrations of births in Ireland in 1890 gives the following data.13
    Brannan/Brannon  1 014 318
    Brennan178 50 36 94358

    The Brannan/Brannons from Ulster were mostly from Donegal. The other Brennans were from Kilkenny, Dublin, Sligo, Mayo, Carlow and Roscommon - in that order of frequency.

    Obviously a single year's data may not be representative. However some tentative conclusions can be based on this data.

      1.  Most of the Connacht Brennans were originally MacBranans.
      2.  At least some of the Ulster and Dublin Brennans were also probably originally MacBranans.
      3.  Consequently, when considering the total of all the Brennan's in Ireland (regardless of spelling),
        it seems reasonable to assume that approximately 1/4 to 1/3 originated as MacBranans.

    Irish Heraldry and the Brennan Coat of Arms

    There is a fair amount of confusion about the use and abuse of "coats of arms." The general rule in Great Britain and most of Europe is that a coat of arms can only belong to an individual, not to a family or sept. The use of the arms is typically passed from father to son. Therefore, from a legalistic standpoint, unless an individual can prove direct descent from the owner of a coat of arms, it is not appropriate for him to use those arms. However, as in many things, the situation is more complicated in Ireland.

    In Ireland, there is some controversy about the ownership of many arms. In some cases, it is quite probable that the arms were the property of the clan or sept and not the individual. (For purposes of discussion, a sept is a group of people whose immediate ancestors had a common surname and inhabited a common territory.) The first records of heraldic devices used by the Irish seem to go back to the Battle of Magh Rath in 637AD. (Since the Norman/English tradition of heraldry seems to originate with either the Carolingians14 or the Vikings, it seems quite likely that the Gaelic Irish tradition of heraldry may actually be more ancient.) The Irish didn't paint their shields like the Normans. They used battle standards, banners or flags. The chief of the sept would use the clan symbols, but would not necessarily pass them on to his sons. In fact, the chief might not pass the chieftainship to his sons either. Upon a chief's death, the sept would choose his successor. Frequently it would be a brother or cousin of the old chief. The sept's heraldic arms would then pass to the new chief.

    In the later middle ages, many of the more anglicized Irish adopted Anglo-Norman customs regarding heraldry. Consequently, many of the Irish armorial bearings (i.e., coats of arms) can be traced to English grants of arms to certain chiefs during the late medieval or early Renaissance period.15 Many of these chiefs are probably the ones who also bought into the English "surrender and regrant" policy whereby the English law of primogeniture was used to secure their position and estates for their heirs, but disenfranchised their own fellow clan members. This was illegal under Brehon Law and Gaelic custom because the chief had no power to surrender lands that were not his, but which belonged to the sept in common. At any rate, the grant or confirmation of arms was part of the government's policy of anglicization. By the mid-1600s, the power of the Gaelic Irish had been truely broken. In an attempt to display what status they retained, it seems that a fair number of these Gaelic Irish started to display arms in the English manner. Apparently many of them simply continued using the same long-standing clan symbols for their new, "English-certified" arms.

    To conclude: Unlike the British system where arms are granted by the King, ownership of Irish heraldic devices were based on use. The arms were owned by the clan. Although some of these arms were recognized by the English as the personal property of certain individuals, this was not necessary appropriate, since neither the chief nor the government had legal title to these arms. Consequently, MacLysaght (the great Irish authority on these things) has argued that, uniquely in Heraldry, in Ireland the coat of arms can belong to the sept and not just one individual. Following this reasoning, it is proper for anyone who is truly a member of a sept to display the arms of the sept. (Conversely, it is not appropriate for members of other septs, even if they carry the same surname, to use this coat of arms.) The controversy seems to be whether one wants to abide by the common, widespread English custom which was imposed on the clans (although, unfortunately, sometimes welcomed by the chief) and possibly illegally promulgated, or whether one prefers to follow the, possibly more ancient, Gaelic custom which was outlawed (or at best ignored) by the English conquers.

    The Brennan Coat of Arms.16 About 1650 the MacBranans dropped the "Mac." They are recorded in the Census of 1659 as Brennan, Branan, O'Brennan, etc. Ireland was going through severe cultural changes at this time. Names were changing and spellings were not yet standardized. It was also at this time that most of the coats of arms for the Gaelic Irish families were recorded by the Ulster King of Arms in Dublin. There is no coat of arms recorded for MacBranan. MacLysaght attributes these arms to "O'Brennan Connacht." Other authors attribute them to "O'Brenon of Ulster and Connacht."

    Since the MacBranans and their descendants were, far and away, the most prominent sept of the name in Connacht, it is highly probable that these are the appropriate arms for the descendants of Branain. The blue lion is also an indicator that these arms belong to MacBranain. This blue lion is used almost exclusively by families from North Roscommon and Sligo.

    The arms consist of "argent, a lion rampant azure, in chief two dexter hands couped at the wrist apaumee gules. The crest is described as "out of a ducal coronet or, a plume of five ostrich feathers alternative azure and or." In plain language, the coat of arms consists of a blue lion standing its hind legs and facing toward the viewer's left. Above and to the left and right of the lion are two red hands. Each is a right hand, cut off at the wrist. All of this is presented on either a white or grey background. Above the "arms" is the crest. The crest consists of a simple gold crown from the top of which five ostrich feathers stick out. The feathers are colored alternately blue and gold.

    pbrennan48@aol.comCopyright 1999Revised 20 January 99

    1     MacLysaght, 1957 and Woulfe, 1923
    2     Orpen, 1892
    3     Much of the information on Ona and his ancestors comes from O'Flaherty's Ogygia (compiled in 1685, but not published until 1793). Some information comes from MacFirbisigh's Genealogies and from Keating.
    4     Notably the O'Connors who were high kings in the 12th Century.
    5     The Brennan coat of arms and the Mulvihill coat of arms have a lot in common. Both prominantly feature the Blue Lion and the Red Hand. This seems to be further evidence that the two families are related.
    6     The last reference to Mulvihill in the Annals is in 1189 when they killed the son of the king of Connacht. Sometime after that (maybe because of that) they seem to have been driven out of Corca Achlann by either the MacBranains or the O'Conors. They are later found in Longford and County Clare.
    7     In more modern times, the feminine version of the name Ona is spelled Una. Una has sometimes been anglicized as Winifred.
    8     Sharkey (1927) quotes a Walter Jones translating Corca Achlann as meaning "'The North Swampy Plain' because it abounded in lakes, marshes and bogs." This may correctly identify the location and topography of Corca Achlann, but it is certainly not correct literal translation of the words.
    9     Patterson, 1994
    10   Pender, 1939
    11   Woulfe, 1923
    12   MacLysaght, 1957
    13   Matheson, 1909
    14   O'Shea, 1996
    15   O'Shea, 1996
    16   The Brennan coat of arms which is most commonly seen in souvenir stores (two lions and a sheaf of wheat on a red background) are the arms of the O'Brennans of Kilkenny. It is not appropriate for members of other Brennan septs to use this coat of arms.