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Survey of the McInerney Sept of Thomond by Luke McInerney, M.A.
Early Erenagh origins: 1100-1200

Thomond and Church Reform

The twelfth century was a critical period in Irish ecclesiastical history as church reform gained momentum, culminating in several high-profile church synods. In east Clare, the mid-twelfth century saw establishment of an airchinneach (erenagh) line directly related to the McNamara deirbhfhine. The deirbhfhine was composed of the ruling inner-kin of a clann who claimed up to fourth generation descent from a chief and who customarily elected and inaugurated new chiefs. It was from the McNamara deirbhfhine of the twelfth century that clann McInerney (Clann an Oirchinnigh) sprung. This airchinneach line was an offshoot of the inner-kin of the ruling McNamaras and a forerunner to clann McInerney. The position of airchinneach would have been an important office not least because of its access to ecclesiastical property and revenue collection.

It is likely that the progenitor of the McNamara airchinneach line, Donnchadha Mac Con Mara, was initially granted mensal lands in the McNamara patrimony of Uí Caisin (baronies of Upper Bunratty and Tulla), thereby reflecting his status as a close member of the McNamara deirbhfhine. This would have become inheritable territory to continue his airchinneach line. It is possible that the sixteenth century McInerney demesne at Ballykilty in the parish of Quin formed part of the original mensal lands of the family. This section will outline the relationship of church reform in the twelfth century and the importance of the office of airchinneach as both an ecclesiastical and lay position.

The three church reform synods of Cashel in 1101, Ráith Bressail in 1111 and Kells in 1152 laid down decrees aimed at addressing the secularisation of the Irish Church. The first synod was held at Cashel under the auspices of Muirchertach Ó Bhriain, High King of Ireland, and under his stewardship agreed to limit the custom of lay local families holding church offices by hereditary means. The problem of the monopolisation of church lands by a lay airchinneach family for generations, often embroiled in dynastic politics and clerical succession issues, was a characteristic of the Irish church.[1] Even after the reforms of the twelfth century the airchinneach or comarba (coarb) still maintained much of their hereditary influence and lands right down to the early seventeenth century.[2] As might be expected the implementation of the reforms was haphazard and certain aspects of the airchinneach office continued largely unchanged. Decrees on the celibacy of clergy and clerical discipline were also covered but implementation was even more fraught.[3]

The office of airchinneach signified a lay guardian of a church or monastic community who was nominated by the bishop as a ‘headman’ of a family of hereditary tenants that occupied ecclesiastical land and who was obliged to provide from his revenue the maintenance of religious services and other obligations due to the bishop.[4] The status of airchinneach was basically that of a territorial lord with all of the attended functions of a local lord such as the maintenance of his own demesne lands, as well as maintenance of the termon lands, by his under-tenants. The key difficulty, though, was that he often transmitted the hereditary office to succeeding generations, despite the prohibition of marriage set down at the synod of Cashel.[5]

By the twelfth century the powerful provincial kings of Thomond – the O’Briens – had consolidated their hold over much of present-day Clare, Limerick and Tipperary and controlled their territories through a client-patron network that included the submission of ‘vassal clients’ or urriagh. These urriagh were subservient to the Rí Ruirech (provincial king) and provided him with rents, tribute and fighting men or land to billet mercenaries upon.[6] In the land of the Dál Cais[7] , the growing power and prolific nature of landholding branches of the O’Briens led to the increasing importance of a few great families at the expense of their lesser vassals.[8] This situation resulted in downward social mobility and the displacement of lesser septs as the dominant families, either through annexation or negotiation, obtained lands and brought them under direct cultivation or levied a tribute upon them. This situation was observed by the Irish genealogist Duald McFirbis who noted, “it is a usual thing in the case of great princes, when their children and their families multiply, that their clients and followers are squeezed out, wither away, and are wasted”.[9] Ruling dynasties consolidated their power by displacing local families and replaced them with their own subsidiaries, many of which were offshoots of the ruling dynasty’s extended family.

In such an environment few vassals of the O’Brien’s achieved the prominence that the McNamaras did by the fourteenth century. The McNamaras – known as Síol Aodh – were active in founding the Clare septs of McClancy, O’Mulqueeny and McInerney whose origins were closely related to the McNamara kings. The following section will present evidence from Irish genealogical sources that the progenitor of the Thomond McInerneys was Donnchadha, the brother of Cú Mara Beg Mac Con Mara, the Lord of Uí Caisin.

Progenitor of the McInerneys: Donnchadha Mac Con Mara

According to two eighteenth century McNamara pedigrees it was Donnchadha Mac Con Mara, the brother of Cú Mara Beg the Lord of Uí Caisin, that Clann an Oirchinnigh sprung. While little is known about Cú Mara Beg, what can be gleaned from the annals is that he was slain at the battle of Moinmore in 1151 against rivals from Connacht and Leinster and was referred to in the annals as the ‘Lord of Uí Caisin’.[10] Therefore, we can speculate that Donnchadha flourished sometime in the 1140s to 1160s and that he was probably a younger brother to Cú Mara Beg. His junior status may have been why he missed out on the McNamara kingship.

Following the church reforms of Muirchertach Ó Bhriain in the early 1100s, Domnall Mór Ó Bhriain King of Munster[11] embarked on an ambitious church building project during the 1160s to 1180s. Domnall Mór Ó Bhriain’s patronage of ecclesiastical centers[12] included the founding of nine monastic houses and three cathedrals at Cashel (1169), Killaloe (1180) and Limerick (1172).[13] Such an ambitious construction effort would have placed a large fiscal burden on the pastoral economy of Thomond as Domnall Mór Ó Bhriain had to rely on the expropriation of livestock, food and labour from the base population to provide the surplus to undertake large-scale building projects.[14] The difficulty of raising revenue from subject clanns and managing the relationship (both financial and political) with the ecclesiastical centers of Killaloe, Cashel and Limerick probably resulted in the employment of the office of airchinneach. The demand to raise the revenue needed to support Domnall Mór Ó Bhriain’s church building projects and to control subordinate clanns possibly prompted the employment of a noble from the leading household of the McNamaras during the mid-twelfth century to act as an airchinneach. This airchinneach from the ruling McNamara deirbhfhine established an independent sept whose descendents were known as the ‘Mac an Oirchinnigh’, or son of the airchinneach.[15] Therefore, the name McInerney reflects its origin as an adopted patronymic of the office of the family’s original progenitor. In later times, the McInerneys were allied with the McNamaras in the thirteenth century wars of Thomond and maintained longstanding links with the O’Briens of Dromoland.

There are two genealogical pedigrees that set down the relationship between Donnchadha Mac Con Mara, the progenitor of the McInerneys, and the ruling branch of the McNamaras. According to a 1763 manuscript authored by Michael mac Peadair Uí Longain[16], Cú Mara Beg had two brothers. One of his brothers was Donnchadha who was the progenitor of clann an Oirchinnigh (McInerney)[17], the other was Maoilseachluinn, the progenitor of clann Uí Maoilchaoine (O’Mulqueeny).[18] A similar pedigree written c1700-1710 by Seaghan Stac confirms the genealogical connection to the main McNamara lineage (see Appendix I).[19] It would appear likely that during the mid-twelfth century Donnchadha Mac Con Mara assumed the office of airchinneach in east Clare. It is possible that Donnchadha was chosen by the O’Briens because of his relationship to the dominant McNamara branch. Whatever the reason, it is no coincidence that his role of airchinneach broadly coincided with Domnall Mór Ó Bhriain’s church building efforts.

An interesting nineteenth century ‘scribal note’ has come down to us by Conchubhar Mac In Oirchinne of Ballybaun in County Clare. In this note, now held at the Royal Irish Academy, the origins of the McInerney family are plainly set down:

…[McInerneys were of the] people who were the bravest and of great deeds that were ever done in Dál gCais, who seeded from the noble people of Síol Aodh in which Donnchadh Mac Con Mara was trained the erenagh of Killaloe and from them came the seed of the Clann an Oirchinne.
[An cinne ba crodha et dob oirbheartidh dá raibh air Dháil gCais do shíolraigh on ceinne úasal Síol Aodh ionnar hoiliog Donnchadh Mac Con Mara an óirchinneach Chill Dá Luadh, is uaig do shiolraigh Clann an Óirchinne]

Unfortunately, in the absence of any forthcoming source material, this claim cannot be corroborated.[21] Edward MacLysaght’s claim that the early airchinneach origin of the McInerneys was “obscure” [22] may not be entirely correct as the foregoing discussion shows that the genealogical pedigrees agree Donnchadha Mac Con Mara was the progenitor of clann an Oirchinnigh. It is likely that the Donnchadha was an airchinneach under the patronage of the O’Brien kings and came from the leading McNamara household located within the triocha cét of Uí Caisin. This would be consistent with the status of the McNamaras as important vassals of the O’Briens.

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Land and Lordship of
Clann Chuiléin: 1200-1550