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Sweeney History



It is generally accepted that the first permanent settlement of the MacSuibhne clan in Ireland was in Fanad. It happened early in the fourteenth century. Led by one named Murchadh Mear (Mear = the Mad), they manned a fleet of small sailing and rowing boats and crossed the North Channel.

Having sailed along the north coast of Ireland until they neared Fanad Head, they turned south into the long estuary of Lough Swilly, the west bank of which is Fanad. Here they landed.

It had been the custom of the MacSuibhne chiefs, while they were in Scotland, to be inaugurated in Iona by the successor of Saint Colmcille. In Ireland they began to be inaugurated on the crowning stone of Doon Rock, near Kilmacrenan, not far from the native place of Colmcille.

In the year 1516 Ruadhri MacSuibhne built a castle in Rathmullan, on the east coast of Fanad. Nothing of that castle now remains. It was situated between the present road and the sea, on a site still known as Ard an Chaisil.

Ruadhri 's wife, Máire, built in Rathmullan a Carmelite Priory, the ruins of which are still standing. She and Ruadhri brought the Carmelite Friars from Munster. The first prior was a Mac Sweeney from Connacht.

This Máire, we are told, attended Mass at least twice a day: "Three days each week she used to spend on bread and water, with Lenten fast and winter fast, and the Golden Fridays". She died in 1523. Her prayer book is preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

She had a church built in Donegal and one in Connacht, where she was born (O Máille), daughter of Eoghan O Máille, chief of Umalia, County Mayo.

In 1532, Ruadhri 's son, Turlogh, built a castle on the west coast of Fanad, at Carraig na Féile, situated on a promontory of the Mulroy known as Moross (Magh Ras). Part of the castle is still standing.


Towards the end of that century, Rathmullan became the scene of a historic event. In 1587, the Viceroy (Lord Deputy), Sir John Perrot, got ready in Dublin a ship with a good supply of beer and wine. It sailed north and into Lough Swilly, finally anchoring opposite the castle in Rathmullan. The captain gave word that he had wine for sale and invited people on board to sample it.

Among those who came was Red Hugh O'Donnell, not yet fifteen, who was being fostered at Doe Castle by the Mac Sweeneys. Fosterage was very common among leading families in ancient Ireland. It was a gesture of goodwill. The Brehon code entered into great detail on the obligations of foster parents. While on board the ship, Red Hugh was seized and taken to Dublin as a hostage.


Twenty-one years later, Rathmullan was the scene of what came to be known as "The, Flight of the Earls." Hugh O'Neill, on hearing of the death of Red Hugh O'Donnell by poisoning in Spain, and seeing his enemies pressing against him on every side, knew that his cause was lost. A ship was got ready in Brussels to enable him, and those closest to him, to escape from the country, while that was still possible. The ship was brought to Rathmullan by his close friend and fellow soldier, Hugh Maguire of Fermanagh.

O'Neill wept as he left his castle in Dungannon for the last time and headed north to Rathmullan. He was then aged 58.

The ship, flying the French colours, lay at anchor in the bay. Rowing boats, which carried provisions of firewood and water to the ship, were stoned by the Mac Sweeneys, who saw the departure as a betrayal by O'Neill. However, neither then, nor for eight years after, did Hugh abandon the idea of returning with help from the King of Spain. The number of friends and relatives of O'Neill and O'Donnell who boarded the ship totalled more than ninety. At midnight the anchors were raised and the sails unfurled. It was the 14th September, Feast of the Holy Cross.

Under that date the Four Masters commented: "That was a distinguished company for one ship. For true it is that the sea has not borne, nor the wind wafted from Ireland in modern times a party more eminent, illustrious and noble than they were, in point of genealogy, or more distinguished for deeds of renown, feats of arms, and valourous achievements. Woe to the heart that meditated, woe to the mind that planned, woe to the counsel that determined on that project."

The Viceroy, Sir Arthur Chichester, took a different view. He was the chief architect of the Plantation of Ulster and the mastermind that engineered the Flight of the Earls. His Attorney General, Sir John Davies, wrote: "We are glad to see the day when the countenance and majesty of the law and civil government hath banished Tyrone from Ireland, which the best army in Europe and the expense of two million sterling pounds did not bring to pass."

Accompanying Hugh was his chaplain, Patrick O'Loughran. Some time later, this man returned to Ireland. In June 1611, he was apprehended. He was hanged in Dublin on the 1st February 1612. He was one of the seventeen Irish martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul11 on September 27, 1992.

The above was taken from 'The Mac Sweeneys' by Fr. David OFM Cap.

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