Clare County Library
Clare Genealogy

Donated Material: Family Histories, Biographies & Memoirs

The Mac Mahons of Co. Clare by Michael Mac Mahon

 

Source: The Other Clare Vol. 44 (2020)
Donated by: Michael Mac Mahon

'From the great Brian Boroimhe, the second son of Kennedy, descend the O’Briens and the Mac Mahons of Clare’ – Eugene O’Curry1

Like the Barrys of Cork, the O’Reillys of Cavan or the O’Donnells of Donegal, the Mac Mahons too are readily identified with a homeland, in this case Co. Clare, where the name now enjoys preponderance over all others in the county. In particular, the family might be said to have domesticated the landscape of south-west Clare, even stamping their name on the parish of Kilmurry Mac Mahon, one of the principal seats in the old Mac Mahon chieftaincy of Corca Baiscinn.

In order to avoid confusion, it is necessary straightaway to mention that a prominent, though unrelated sept, known as the Oirghialla or Oriel Mac Mahons, has for long been associated with Co. Monaghan where the name continues to be well represented to this day. At their peak in the fifteenth century, they were sufficiently powerful to exact a tribute, known as Cíos Mhic Mathgamhna, from the Norman settlers in Louth and Meath, but afterwards they became subordinate allies of the O’Neills.2

The Mac Mahons of Co. Clare are of Dalcassian stock and, according to O’Curry, they and their kinsmen, the O’Briens are co-descendants respectively of two brothers, Muirchertach Mór and Diarmaid, grandsons of Brian Ború3. Muirchertach managed to assume the kingship of Ireland, and on his death in 1119 he was buried at Killaloe in the church which he had earlier rebuilt ‘in an ornate and beautiful style’4. As descendants of Brian Boru, the Mac Mahons, therefore, are root and branch of the O’Briens, but their subsequent trajectory has been less successful than that of their more politically adroit kinsmen to whom they have always played a subaltern role.

Separate Ways

By the early part of the twelfth century the Mac Mahons had carved out a separate existence, creating a lordship that stretched from the Fergus estuary to Loop Head on the peninsular point of west Clare. In olden times this territory was known as Corca Baiscinn from a people whose ancestry is said to have derived from the Basque region of Spain5. Until medieval times the principal family of the Corca Baiscinn were the O’Donnells (or Mac Donnells), but they quickly fell under the sway of the Mac Mahons. In the Annals of the Four Masters under the year 1158 AD we find the last mention of the O’Donnells as lords of Corca Baiscinn. Thirty years later in 1189 the charter of the Augustinian foundation at Clareabbey was witnessed by ‘M. Mac Mahuna’ as lord of Corca Baiscinn6. It would appear therefore that by the end of the twelfth century the Mac Mahon hegemony was firmly established in the area.

On the death of Donnchadh Mac Mathghamhna in 1488 there emerged two rival claimants to the chieftaincy for the annals inform us that ‘two Mac Mahons were established in his place’7. In any event, from that time forward the territory of Corca Baiscinn appears to have been apportioned between two branches of the family whose seats were the castles of Clonderalaw and Carrigaholt. Some niggling border disputes that still flickered were finally put to rest in 1576 by a solemn deed between Toirdhealbhach, son of Brian Óg Mac Mathghamhna, and Toirdhealbhach son of Brian son of Toirdhealbhach Mac Mathghamhna whereby the boundaries were fixed and decided forever. Moreover, both sides bound themselves and their posterity in a bond of two hundred pounds payable to the Queen ‘to be exacted of whichever of us should ever violate that division’8.

The two lordships which took shape as a result of this agreement are reflected in the modern baronies of Clonderalaw and Moyarta. Interestingly, in the list of names appearing as witnesses to the deed, two of them - Giollabrighde Mac Bruaideadha and Conchobhar Óg Mac Cruitín - are immediately recognisable as those of probably the leading notaries of their day in the county.

Carrigaholt Castle

The picturesque castle of Carrigaholt was the focal point of the lordship of West Corca Baiscinn. It stands on the edge of the River Shannon about two miles north of Kilcredane Point. The castle is still in a reasonable state of repair though the second and third floors are gone. Gone too is the later rectangular ‘house’ which once adjoined the existing tower after the fashion of Leamaneh. In 1580 Carrigaholt was the residence of Turlough Mac Mahon who was described by the Four Masters as ‘of great fame and character throughout Ireland, if we consider the smallness of his patrimony, for he had but one Triocha Céd (barony)’9. A century later the castle was described as having a demesne of 16,000 acres, used mainly for the breeding of ‘mares, colts and deer’10.


Carrigaholt Castle

Turlough Mac Mahon was succeeded by his son Teige “Caoch” (the dim-sighted). This man had an action-filled career and proved a constant thorn in the side of the English during the Nine Years War. In 1598 he captured an English ship that had blundered into Carrigaholt Bay and commandeered it for his own use11. Next, he made a nocturnal assault on Tromra castle, near Miltown-Malbay, which was held by Daniel O’Brien. This was the younger brother of Donough O’Brien, fourth earl of Thomond, who was known as ‘the queen’s great earl’ because of his support for the English. Daniel was imprisoned for a week in the castle of Doonbeg. The government, however, determined that this act of rebellion should not go unpunished, sent a large force into West Clare and Teige and his son Turlough were forced to leave the county. They took refuge with O’Sullivan Beare at his castle at Dunboy in west Cork. Both men were afterwards amongst the few Munster chieftains to lend support to O’Neill and O’Donnell at Kinsale in what is sometimes described as the last great battle for the survival of Gaelic Ireland. Although he survived the battle, Teige Caoch died in the following year from a bullet accidentally discharged by Turlough in the course of some turbulence at Dunboy12. His passing is noted by the Four Masters in terms which reveal another side to the character of this unrepentant rebel:

A man qualified in every respect to rule over any district in the country; he was
bounteous, and a purchaser of wine, horses, and literary works.


For their part in the rebellion Teige and his son were declared outlaws and thus ended the Mac Mahon lordship of West Corca Baiscinn. Their lands were confiscated and granted to Daniel O’Brien, later first Viscount Clare, and remained in the possession of his successors for almost a century until they too suffered attainder after the Williamite Wars. In the subsequent confiscations the estate was granted to a Dutch nobleman, a friend of King William named Arnold Van Keppel, on his elevation by the king to the peerage of England as Earl of Albermarle. This man afterwards sold his interest in the property to three speculators named Francis Burton, Nicholas Westby, and James McDonnell. Francis Burton’s share included Carrigaholt castle and the family continued to occupy it right down to the early nineteenth century.

Clonderalaw


Clonderalaw castle in the parish of Kilmurry-Mac Mahon was the principal seat of the Mac Mahons of East Corca Baiscinn. It first appears in a list of castles in Co. Clare in 1580 when it was owned by Teige Mac Mahon. Other Mac Mahon castles in the barony at that time were Colmanstown, Caheracon, Dangan, Knockalough, Derrycrossane and Doonogrogue. Set on an imposing site at the head of Clonderalaw Bay, nothing of Clonderalaw castle survives today apart from fragmentary remains incorporated in the nearby Clonderalaw House, a large semi-fortified residence built by the Studdert family, but which has now in turn fallen into dereliction13.


Clonderlaw House

The Clonderalaw Mac Mahons cut a minor figure in history although the magnificent tomb erected in the sanctuary of the old Franciscan Friary at Ennis proclaims the family's prestige in former times. Turlough Mac Mahon, Lord of Corcavaskin (d.1472) aided by his wife, Muire (Máire), is said to have restored twelve parish churches and built a monument to himself in St. Mary’s church, from which the parish of Kilmurry Mac Mahon takes its name14. Virtually all traces of St. Mary’s have now disappeared, the ruins pulled down in 1815 to provide material for a Protestant church on the site, but this church too was demolished in 1960, having fallen into disuse for want of a congregation15.

Turlough Mac Mahon’s wife, Muire, is credited with being the benefactress of the beautiful, canopied Mac Mahon tomb in the Ennis Friary16. Rebuilt in the early nineteenth century, this monument has come to be known in modern times as the Creagh tomb due to intermarriage with the Creagh family of Dangan, Co. Clare. In 1885 Major Hugh Mac Mahon and his wife Olivia Creagh received royal licence ‘to take up the name Creagh in addition to and after that of Mac Mahon and to bear the arms of Creagh’17. The Clonderalaw Mac Mahons had close associations, too, with the Augustinian abbey on Canons’ Island in the Fergus, and the name will be found from time to time in papal mandates addressed to the abbot of that house.


The Mac Mahon Tomb, Ennis Abbey

Turlough Mac Mahon, alias Torlach Rua Mac Mahon (c.1560-1629), was head of the East Corcabaskin or Clonderalaw branch at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Through his marriage to Mary O’Brien, daughter of Conor, third earl of Thomond and of Winifred, daughter of Turlough MacBrien Ara, Turlough was connected with the foremost nobility of the county. He was created a baronet and served as high sheriff of Clare in 1609. The extent of the Clonderalaw estate at this period is revealed in an Inquisition following his death, which took place in June 162918. Among the properties listed are the castles of Clonderalaw, Derrycrossan and Dangan with upwards of forty denominations in between. Turlough was succeeded by his son Teige as second baronet of Clonderalaw. He inherited virtually all of the profitable lands along the Shannon from Killimer to Ballynacally. The inquisition also refers to an earlier deed of 1618 whereby Turlough had assigned the castle of Derrycrossan together with various denomination of land mostly in Kilmacduane, Kilmihil, and Clondegad to a younger son, Brian.
Máire Rua Mac Mahon

Turlough’s daughter, Máire Rua or Red Mary Mac Mahon, so-called from her tresses of dark auburn hair, is probably the best-known and most flamboyant of the Clonderalaw family. Married first in 1639 to Daniel Neylon of Dysert, and afterwards to Conor O’Brien of Leamaneh (1615-1651), the exploits and machinations of this formidable lady during the Catholic uprising of the 1640s are the subject of complaints that occur repeatedly in the depositions of the Protestants settlers of the district sworn after the rebellion and are part of the folklore of Leamaneh to this day. Her third marriage, which took place sometime before 1656 to John Cooper, an obscure Cromwellian soldier, adds further to the intrigue that surrounds her life, so that she is sometimes portrayed as the Lady Macbeth of Clare history. Among the many fantastic stories that surround her is one about her wild stallion which unwelcome guests at Leamaneh were sometimes prevailed upon to mount, often with tragic consequences, and another about how she punished her disobedient female servants by hanging them by their hair from the corbels of the castle19.


Máire Rua Mac Mahon (from a portrait at Dromoland courtesy of Grania O'Brien)

Dispossession


The Cromwellian Plan for the Settlement of Ireland that followed the wars of the 1640s impacted heavily on the Mac Mahon domain at Clonderalaw. Leaving aside the stringent conditions which all land-owners were required to satisfy in order to avoid confiscation of their lands, such as the obligation to prove ‘constant good affection’ towards the parliament of England, Clonderalaw, by virtue of its location on the Shannon Estuary, was from the beginning at risk from the so-called ‘line of the sea’ provisions of the plan. This was a clause in an act of September 1653 which required that a belt of land four miles wide, though afterwards contracted to one mile, winging along the coast from Sligo and carried along the Shannon, be reserved to be planted by soldiers in order to more securely confine the transplantees in Connacht and Clare, and shut out relief by sea from abroad20. Clonderalaw was strategically located on this marine interface and in May 1651 the castle was seized by a Capt. Branley, commander of a Parliamentarian ship on the Shannon, and a garrison placed in it21. The supervision of the line of the sea was delegated to Colonel Henry Ingoldsby, a relative of Cromwell22. He was also a trustee for the so-called ‘49 officers’ - commissioned officers who had served King Charles I in Ireland before June1649 and were to receive land in settlement of arrears of pay. Substantial blocks of the Mac Mahon lands in the hinterlands of the castles of Clonderalaw and Dangan and along the estuary were appropriated for this purpose, and Ingoldsby himself appears to have had a share in the pickings23. This man served as M.P. for Clare in the protectorate parliaments of 1654, 1656 and 1659. Later he adopted a royalist stance and was allowed to hold on to his newly acquired lands after the restoration of the monarchy. He was made a baronet and continued to serve as an M.P. for Clare from 1661-1666 and 1695-1699.

Clenagh

The Mac Mahons of Clenagh, a collateral branch of the Clonderalaw family also shared in the general manipulation of land ownership at this time. Clenagh, an estate of approximately 10,000 acres having its headquarters at Clenagh castle in Kilmaleery parish on the eastern side of the Fergus estuary, was held by Mahon Mac Mahon (d.1666) and his son Turlough (d.1657) up to the time of the transplantation when both men were decreed ‘guilty of rebellion’ and the castle was appropriated by Henry Ingoldsby24. However, Turlough’s son, Captain Teige Mac Mahon, managed to recover a substantial part of the estate in 1671 following a petition to the Court of Claims set up to administer the Act of Settlement25. Though Teige himself was declared ‘an innocent papist’, he was nevertheless obliged as surety for his loyalty, to employ his cousin Donough O’Brien, later first baronet of Dromoland, as a trustee. Thereafter, Clenagh was the principal seat of the former Mac Mahon chiefs of Clonderalaw, and it remained in their possession down to 1800 when the family became extinct in the male line.


Clenagh Castle (photo: Martin Breen)

In 1694 Captain Teige’s son, Donough Mac Mahon of Clenagh, married Bridget Barnewall, Donabate, Co. Dublin, daughter of Sir Henry Barnewall, second Viscount Kingsland by his wife Margaret Nugent, daughter of the earl of Westmeath26. During the Williamite Wars Donough was implicated in Jacobite plots and fled to Austria with his eldest son Turlough (Terence). His second son Henry stayed at home and married an O’Brien of Arra. Turlough afterwards became military governor of Pistoia, Tuscany, but died young leaving an only son Stanislaus. When Stanislaus returned to Ireland, he was given possession as the lawful heir of Clenagh by his uncle Henry, who had managed the estate in the meantime27. As a token of gratitude, Stanislaus is said to have given his uncle a prized Mac Mahon heirloom, known as the Brian Boru harp28.

The Brian Boru Harp

According to the family tradition, the harp and gold crown of Brian Boru were presented to the pope by Brian’s son Donnchadh, allegedly in atonement for having slain his own brother Tadhg29. The harp reputedly remained in Rome until the sixteenth century when it was gifted to Henry VIII as Lord of Ireland to mark the conferring by Pope Leo X of the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ on that monarch in 1521. Henry in turn allegedly presented the harp to Ulick De Burgo (Burke), on his elevation to the earldom of Clanricarde in 1543 in consideration of the fact that the first of that family to come to Ireland - William de Burgo, who came with Prince John in 1185 - had married a daughter of Domhnal Mór Ó Briain, the de facto king of Munster. From the de Burgos the harp passed to the Mac Mahons of Clenagh as lineal descendants of Brian Boru on the occasion of the marriage of Stanislaus’s great-grandfather Teige Mac Mahon to the daughter of a later De Burgo earl. After Henry Mac Mahon’s death, the harp somehow passed into the possession of a Dr Mac Namara of Limerick, but in 1782 it was delivered by Chevalier O’Gorman to William Burton Conyngham, one of the leading antiquarians of his day, who presented it to Trinity College30.


Brian Ború Harp (courtesy of Trinity College)

Soon after its arrival in Dublin, however, doubts began to surface about the antiquity of the harp, not least because of comments by George Petrie that certain carvings on the pillar appeared to be no older than the fourteenth or fifteenth century. But others argued that since the harp appeared to be a composite of different instruments, it was only to be expected that decorations might be added at different periods. Eugene O’Curry believed that the account preserved in tradition had an undercoat of truth, and he suggested that the anomalous date assigned to the harp might simply be due to a confusion of names wherby, for instance, Donnchadh Cairprech Ó Briain (who was sixth in descent from the victor of Clontarf), might easily be confused in oral transmission with Donnchadh, son of Brian, thus resulting in the heirloom acquiring a fictitious legend.
But whatever its true provenance, the name Brian Boru still attaches to this venerable heirloom in Trinity College. Restored by the British Museum in 1961, the Brian Boru harp is universally recognised as the emblem of our nation and the logo for Guinness, our much-acclaimed national beverage.

The Coppinger Connection

In the mid-eighteenth century, Stanislaus Mac Mahon of Clenagh held an estate of 10,000 acres in the baronies of Bunratty Lower and Clonderalaw31. He married Lucinda, only child of Sir Walter Esmonde of Cregg, Co. Tipperary. They had two children: Donough, who became a parish priest (abbé) in Paris, and Jane, who in 1777, married William Coppinger of Barryscourt, Co. Cork, a member of one of the foremost families in that county. The Clenagh estate was heavily encumbered at that time, and the marriage settlement records the agreement of Abbé Donough Mac Mahon to have it placed under the management of his Coppinger brother-in-law for the resolution of the debts. At the time of the Griffith Valuation in 1855 William Coppinger, son of William and Jane, held nine townlands in the parishes of Killadysert and Kilfiddane.
William Coppinger never married, and on his death in 1862 his estates in Cork and Clare passed to his nephew, Morgan John O’Connell, a member of parliament for Kerry from 1835-5332. Morgan John was the son of Elizabeth Coppinger and John O’Connell of Grenagh, Co. Kerry, a brother of Daniel, the Liberator. In 1865 he married Mary Ann Bianconi, Longfield, Co Tipperary, daughter of the Italian entrepreneur Charles Bianconi, founder of Ireland’s first public transport network. Within ten years of their marriage, however, Morgan John was dead leaving Mary Ann to manage the estate of upwards of 5,000 acres - mostly at Killadysert and Kilfiddane - that he had inherited from his Mac Mahon grandmother, the heiress of Clenagh. Mary Ann and her son, John Charles Coppinger O’Connell, a child of less than ten years at the time of his father’s death, continued to live for part of each year at Ballylean Lodge, Killadysert.

Blind Teige Mac Mahon

Remarkably, for the daughter of an Italian immigrant and, in her own words, ‘not knowing more than ten words in Irish’, Mary Ann (Bianconi) O’Connell took a deep interest in the oral tradition and genealogical lore of the old Gaelic families especially of her husband’s O’Connell and Mac Mahon ancestors. One of her principal informants was blind Teige Mac Mahon, the ‘last of the shanachies’, an inmate of the Killadysert workhouse and ‘the only thoroughly happy person I ever saw in a workhouse’33. By the time they met, Teige was already something of a celebrity. During two periods spent in Dublin while receiving treatment for a cataract, Eugene O’Curry had introduced him to Dr Petrie, with whom he developed a great friendship. A unique storehouse of the traditional airs and songs of his native county, several of Teige’s contributions were noted down by Petrie and published in The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland in 1855. Petrie’s special regard for Teige is expressed, sometimes almost lyrically, in successive volumes from the Collection and, according to one writer, the importance of his contributions is adequately illustrated in Stanford’s Complete Petrie where the latter part of the entire collection is to a large extent given over to Teige Mac Mahon34.

Mac Mahons of Cloonina (Clooneenagh)


In his youth Teige had been a disciple of the acclaimed West Clare hedge-schoolmaster and lexicographer Peadar O Conaill. Mary Ann discovered that his knowledge of the old families like the Mac Mahons of Cloonina, the O’Briens of Leamaneh, the MacDonnells of Kilkee and Newhall was profound, and it even embraced her own O’Connell offshoots in Kerry and their relatives, the O’Donohues of the Glen. Though born in Killadysert, Teige’s people had come from Kilmurry Mac Mahon where they had been followers of the extinct Mac Mahons of Cloonina in Kilmacduane, an important branch of the old Clonderalaw family35. It was from Teige that Mrs O’Connell first heard of Murtagh Mac Mahon of Cloonina and his wife, the gentle Máire Bhán (‘Fair Mary’) Mac Donnell of Kilkee, celebrated in verses by Seán de hÓra, Seón Lloyd and Tomás Ó Míocháin, for her patronage of the penurious Gaelic poets of West Clare36. Virtually every contemporary poet in the district had been a beneficiary of this lady, and it was on her invitation that Seán de hÓra, poet and blacksmith, left Doonaha and set up his forge at the gates of Cloonina where he remained until her death in 177637.


Cloonina today

Máire Bhán, it seems, was following in the tradition of her mother Isabella, an O’Brien of Ennistymon House, whose munificence was the subject of a laudatory poem by the great Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín beginning A ghéis ghartha ghléigeal…(O Swan of Bright Plumage). George Petrie’s exquisite musical version of this poem, written from Eugene O’Curry’s literal translation of the original, is best known today by its English title The Snowy-Breasted Pearl38. It was claimed by Frank O’Connor as ‘the best version we have of an Irish song in the English language’39.

Writing in 1892 over a hundred years after her death, Mary Ann Bianconi-O’Connell found that stories of Máire Bhán Mac Mahon of Cloonina still flourished in the local folk memory40:

the most vivid tradition of ‘Fair Mary’ [Máire Bhán] still exists in West Clare. My Clare home is about ten miles from hers, in the Mac Mahon country. She was the daughter of important people – Charles McDonnell of Kilkee and Isabel O’Brien of the great house of Ennistymon. Murtagh Mac Mahon of Cloonina, who loved her, had only a long pedigree, a dismantled castle, and an impoverished estate. She was a famous rider and he once saved her out hunting when her horse bungled at a great leap…her parents refused his suit, the lovers eloped, and not only lived happily ever more like lovers in a story, but Fair Mary was renowned for her piety, charity and noble life.

Murtagh and Máire Bhán’s only daughter, Margaret, married an O’Donohue of the Glen in Kerry. At the time Mary Ann was writing, an O’Donohue descendant, Sir Maurice O’Connell, a relative of her late husband Morgan John, was the representative of the Mac Mahons of Cloonina in the female line.

Wild Geese

Ever since the Reformation and the push by the Tudor monarchs to extend their conquest to all parts of Ireland, Catholics, who had the wherewithal to travel, sought opportunities abroad that were denied to them at home. Young men could readily gain admission to the armies of Europe, a continent that seemed to be constantly at war as the newly powerful monarchies of France, England and Spain became torn by economic, social and politico-religious rivalries. France in particular seemed to be heavily reliant on Irish mercenaries. Ever since its entry into the thirty years war it continued to recruit regiments of infantry in Ireland, and in one year alone (1639-40) some 5,000 Irishmen went to France41. And though this migration of men for military service abroad continued throughout the following years, it was only after the siege of Limerick in 1691 that the exodus from Ireland began in earnest. Sarsfield and the 14,000 soldiers who accompanied him to France were the forerunners of the so-called wild geese who, in the words of Yeats, ‘spread their grey wings on every wave’. Nearer home, Lord Clare’s Regiment, afterwards known as Clare’s Dragoons, was formed in 1689 by Daniel O’Brien, third Viscount Clare to serve under James II in the War of the Two Kings. Recruited heavily from Corca Baiscinn and armed, clothed and paid at the Viscount’s own expense, it was shipped to France as part of a troop exchange in April 1690 where it was inducted into the Irish Brigade, one of the most elite units in the French army42. And young men from Clare and elsewhere would continue to service the Irish regiments in France throughout the following century right up to the death of Lieutenant-General Charles O’Brien (sixth Viscount Clare) in 1761 when recruiting waned, and the Irish brigade no longer enjoyed the reputation it once held as one of the linchpin formations in the French army.

But, of course, not all of those who went abroad turned to soldiering for a livelihood. Irish Catholic gentry sent their sons to the Catholic universities or the many Irish Colleges that sprang up, first in Spain and afterwards in France, the Netherlands and Italy as part of the counter-Reformation drive. On completion of their studies some gained employment in the professions and trades while others returned home as priests, often in disguise, to minister quietly and in secret as opportunity presented in the face of an oppressive regime that deemed the Catholic Church an illegal organisation. All of this serves as a background to the story of one such priest, Fr. Michael Peter Mac Mahon O.P., who afterwards became bishop of Killaloe, ruling the diocese for forty-two years from 1765 to 1807.

Bishop Michael Peter Mac Mahon


Bishop Michael Peter belonged to a landed, well-to-do family that traced descent from Turlough Mac Mahon of Feenish Island in the Fergus Estuary who died in 157743. Having lost his lands in the Williamite confiscations, the bishop’s grandfather, Mortagh Mac Mahon moved the family to Tooradile (now Dooradoyle), Co. Limerick44. He had two sons: Maurice, who married Catherine Carey and became a major in the regiment of Alcantara, in Portugal, and Patrick (1681-1769) who married Margaret O’Sullivan of Bantry (of the family of O’Sullivan Beare) in 1707. Patrick and Margaret had three sons - John Baptist, Maurice, and Michael Peter - the last-named born in 1710 or 1711. Since Catholic schools were barred by penal legislation from operating in Ireland, families of the Catholic gentry class, who could still afford to do so, sent their children abroad to be educated. Michael Peter pursued theological studies in Lisbon and joined the Dominican order at their house in that city, probably in the late 1730s. Returning to Limerick sometime before 1749, he became prior of a small Dominican community that had set up quietly in a concealed chapel that became known as the friary of Fish Lane at the rear of a house in Mary Street45. And it was there that Michael Peter Mac Mahon O.P. ministered until he was appointed bishop of Killaloe in June 1765, the third of the four bishops of his name and lineage to be appointed to that see. Little is known of a predecessor, Bishop David Mathghamhna, who died in 1317. Terence Mac Mahon of Clenagh, who registered as parish priest of Kilmaleery, Killadysert and Kilfiddane in 1704, was proposed by James III for the bishopric of Killaloe in 1724 and ruled the diocese until his death in 172846. In the following century bishop Patrick Mac Mahon, having been appointed coadjutor to Bishop James O’Shaughnessy in 1819, succeeded him as bishop of Killaloe from 1829 to 1836.


Chateau de Sully, the Mac Mahon home in Burgundy

The French Mac Mahons


Bishop Mac Mahon’s two younger brothers, Maurice and John Baptist, were also educated abroad. Neither of them returned to Ireland, but both carved out successful careers in France. Maurice served with distinction in the regiment of Fitzjames (Duke of Berwick) in the Irish Brigade and was honoured by being made a Knight of Malta47. He married but died without issue in 1791. John Baptist, the third brother, chose medicine as a career, studying at the University of Rheims before setting up practice at Autun in the Dijon area of Burgundy. There he married one of his patients, Charlotte le Belin, the thirty-nine-year-old widow of Charles de Morey and the beneficiary of his large estate at Sully. She was also heiress to her uncle, the Marquis d’Eguilly48. Having, in accordance with French law, provided satisfactory evidence of his own nobility from the Ulster King of Arms at Dublin castle, John Baptist himself (or Jean Baptiste as he became known in his adopted country), was ennobled by Louis XV as the new Marquis de Eguilly. This man was the founder of the French Mac Mahons, one of whom was to achieve the distinction of Marshal and afterwards President of France. Today the family is represented by the Marshal’s great-great-grandson, Maurice de MacMahon (1992- ) 5th Duke of Magenta and 9th Marquis de MacMahon who manages the estate at Sully, which, since 1967, includes a popular winery.

Apart from John Baptist, other members of the wider Mac Mahon family followed medicine as a career in France. John Baptist’s cousin, Mahon Mac Mahon, a professor of medicine in the Ecole Militaire from 1766 until his death in 1786, was the author of a medical manuscript entitled ‘De leabhraibh Mathgamhna Mac Mahon, Dochtúir leighis, daithle cheithre mbliaghan deag a bParis firgholomtha na Frainnce 1728’ (From the books of Mahon Mac Mahon, Doctor of Physic, after fourteen years study at Paris, a man of learning of France 1728)49. It is now in the British Museum.

President Edme Patrice Maurice de Mac Mahon


John Baptist and Charlotte had two sons, Charles Laure, who became second Marquis d’Eguilly, and Maurice, both of whom left France to fight abroad with the royalist emigres during the Revolution. After the Restoration they returned to France to pursue successful military careers. Maurice, who received the rank of Marechal, married Marie de Caraman, daughter of the Marquis de Caraman by whom he had seventeen children, including four sons50. Their third son and sixteenth child, Edme Patrice Maurice de Mac Mahon, became Marshal and afterwards President of France.

Born at Autun in Burgandy in 1808 and educated at the military college of Louis-le-Grande in Paris and afterwards at the academy of Saint-Cyr, Edme Patrice Mac Mahon entered the army in 1827. Assigned first to Algeria, where he served almost continually until 1854, he soon displayed the qualities that elevated him rapidly through the ranks until he reached the rank of general.

Transferred to the Crimea in 1855 as commander of an infantry division, General Mac Mahon conducted a successful assault on the great Fort of Malakoff at Sevastopol. The British had earlier failed to take this strategic fortress which protected Russia’s military and naval base on the Black Sea. It was during this engagement - having been urged to withdraw by his commander-in-chief who feared that the fortress was mined by the Russians – that Mac Mahon uttered the remark that would forever afterwards be associated with his name - ‘j’y suis, j’y reste’ (here I am, here I stay).


Marshall Mac Mahon, President of France 1873-79

A later victory at Magenta in Italy in 1859 brought even greater distinction to the General. He was congratulated by the Emperor for having saved the army and the empire and rewarded by being created Marshal and Duke of Magenta. The following year a deputation from Ireland, which was joined at Paris by the Young Irelander, John Mitchel, presented him with a sword of honour. In May 1873, he was elected President of the Republic, a post he held for six years. The news of the Marshal’s elevation did not go unnoticed by his kindred in Co. Clare. The Clare Journal of 29 May 1873 reported:

Much excitement and enthusiasm was created in Ennis on Monday on the arrival of the news that Marshal Mac Mahon had been elevated to the head of the French Republic. The Congregated Trades, in their usual national spirit, at once decorated the hall of the Institute. In the large room was displayed the French tri-colour flag with the eagle worked in gold in the centre. About 8 o’clock in the evening, the trades’ brass band mustered in the Institute and proceeded through the principal streets of the town, playing some splendid national and French airs, followed by a large crowd.

President Mac Mahon retired into private life in 1879. He died in October 1893 and was buried with the marshals of France in the chapel of St. Louis at Les Invalides. He is commemorated today by streets, squares and boulevards named Mac Mahon throughout France and former French territories overseas, from Rue Mac Mahon in the centre of Paris to Fort Mac Mahon in the Algerian Sahara.


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