NOTE:  I received this very interesting information on the HERLIHY families of Ballyvourney from Jim HERLIHY in Australia. I have been unable to find his contact address and have not asked for his permission to publish this on our web pages. If anyone has contact with Jim I would appreciate receiving contact details. And if you see this Jim, could you contact me and give me formal permission or otherwise. Thank you.


The following is a chapter from the unpublished book that my uncle Dr Victor Couch was writing at the time of his death. He and his wife, Evelyn Herlihy, had visited Ireland many times over a forty year period and had done much research on their respective families. Some of the History of the Herlihys will be familiar to those who have read the History of the Herlihy's by Patrick Herlihy posted on this website. The rest contains a short history of St Gobnait, much associated with the Herlihy's of Ballyvourney and account of how many years of research can still end in an impenetrable wall.

Jim Herlihy



Dr Victor Couch

As Evelyn looked on her father's ancestry, there was a HERLIHY line back to the time of Oliver CROMWELL. This was reinforced by an injection through three families. The first was the Ballyvourney farming heritage through Daniel and Ellen, the second was the tenant farming of John and Mary at Ovens, Co. Cork and the third was the first generation Australian family represented by Daniel and Brigid. They became an accomplished migrant family under the guidance of Brigid Moore, a descendant of an extraordinary family, the Moore's of Athy, County Kildare.

The record of Evelyn's mother was shorter and less dramatic. Her surname, GAFFNEY, reflected a pattern of family scattered across Co. Roscommon. From there James GAFFNEY sought adventure in the Californian goldfields before making contact with New Zealand and Australia. He married Maria COONAN who gave to James and their daughter Jeanette the same serenity and friendship expressed by the COONAN and DOHENY families. A cabinetmaker, James offered a home in a stimulating part of The Rocks, Sydney.



There is no doubt that O'HIARLAITHE is an ancient a name as many in Ireland. In the 14th Century, an O'HIARLAITHE was Chieftain of Vathney, a tribal territory in the west of Co. Cork. This explains the derivation of the word O'HIARLAITHE as meaning in English "PRINCE OF THE WEST"�. The surname became anglicised as O'HERLIHY.

About this time the O'HERLIHY's were granted a Coat of Arms. The crest shows "ducal coronet mounted above argent on a cross gules portraying three owls". Somewhat later the Ballyvourney O'HERLIHY's were granted separate Arms, the three owls being deleted and replaced with "Argent on a cross gules five frets or" and the crest "Out of an antique Irish crown or, emerged a peacock proper". Evelyn and I jokingly asked " if this was not a shift from wisdom to vanity?" The motto for each Coat of Arms was "Dextra Cruce Vincit" - "My right hand conquers by the cross". As events will show the O'HERLIHY's of Ballyvourney fought with prayer and poetry, less with the sword.

Ballyvourney was the main habitat of the O'HERLIHY's up until the 18th Century. It is set in a horseshoe shaped valley cut deep in the hills behind Macroom and bound by the mountains of Kerry on one side and the Sullane River on the other. One member of the Irish Ancestral Research Centre at Coventry, England, was Patrick HERLIHY  He observed: "It is easy to see why this is one of the places where the Irish Chieftains remained in control when much of eastern Ireland and the coastal areas were taken over by the Norman's, Welsh and later English invaders from the 12th Century onwards."�.1

In this protected valley, approximately two miles square, lived the O'HERLIHY's. They were tenant farmers on church lands of Ballyvourney, giving them a close association with the clergy. It was a type of feudal system with the Chieftain, Thomas O'HERLIHY, living in the castle nearby and twenty O'HERLIHY families working their farms across some 1200 acres of the valley. The castle has been graphically described as being adjacent to "CARRAIG LIAM McTEIGE O'HERLIHY"  -  "the rock where Liam McTeige O'HERLIHY was hanged"�2.


To understand the full significance of the HERLIHY ancestry it is imperative to access the pervading influence of Naomh GOBNAIT. In the 7th century "an angel appeared to her and told her to travel on till she would see nine white deer grazing together. On that spot she would found her abbey"�3. This she did on the south bank of the Sullane River at Ballyvourney, the “town of the beloved�, a small village ten miles west of Macroom. Here she established her abbey and became its first abbess, her feast day being 11 February. This abbey became self-sufficient through farming and related activities.

Naomh GOBNAIT's miracles are well documented, especially those relating to persons suspected of smallpox. The Oaken Statue of St Gobnait at Ballyvourney was much venerated through the centuries. John Richardson records in 1727: "The image is kept by one of the families of the O'HERLIHY's, and when anyone is sick of the smallpox they send for it and sacrifice a sheep to it and wrap the skin about the sick person, and the family eat the sheep"�4. Such was her charisma that the Ballyvourney Church dedicated to St Gobnait became the religious centre for Muskerry: "The deep love the people of Muskerry have for St Gobnait is proved by the fact that never a day goes by but someone is seen praying quietly on the slopes of Gort na Tiobratan"5. In recognition of her saintly impact, Pope Clement VIII in 1601 granted "a special indulgence of ten years and quarantines to the faithful who would visit the Church of St Gobnait in the Parish of Ballyvourney in the Diocese of Cloyne on her feast day and would pray for peace amongst Christian princes, for the expulsion of heresy and the exaltation of Holy Mother Church"�6. Ellis Ui Dháiligh, the definitive scholar on St Gobnait, sums up: "She deserved to be more widely known, because she helped to keep the faith alive in Penal times"7.


St Gobnait, the "Patron Saint of Ballyvourney', inspired a deep faith commitment in the O'HERLIHY's. This was reflected in the families' role model, the celebrated and saintly Thomas O'HERLIHY who was appointed Bishop of Ross in 1561. Six months after his consecration, Bishop O'HERLIHY was one of three Irish Bishops at the Council of Trent. The Council commenced in 1545 with its culminating session in 1560-63. The decrees of the Council were issued through a Papal Bull in 1564. On his return from the final session "he zealously promoted the decrees of the Council until forced to take refuge on an island off the coast, where he was arrested in 1571"�8. He was confined to the Tower of London but rejected all pressures to make him renounce his religion until eventually his release was secured. He continued to minister to his people until his death in 1579.

From the 15th Century onwards, priests of the name O'HERLIHY were prominent in the dioceses of Cork and Cloyne. The O'HERLIHY's were Erenaghs or Guardians of Saint Gobnait's Well and Shrine at Ballyvourney. Additionally O'HERLIHY families in turn undertook the custodianship in secret of the much-venerated Oaken Statue of St Gobnait. This they did from 1652, when CROMWELL confiscated their lands, until 1843 when "the hereditary representative on the female side, O'BRIEN of Dunmanway, fearing for the safety of the statue, handed it over to the Parish Priest of Ballyvourney where it is still resorted to for cures"�9. Not surprisingly the Priest's Tomb at St Gobnait's Shrine contains the burials of 24 priests, 18 of whom are O'HERLIHY's.


CROMWELL invaded Ireland from 1649-52. He smashed the resistance of the Irish Chieftains but did not quell the spirit of the O'HERLIHY's. In 1652 their lands were confiscated and placed under the control of Colonel John COLTHURST. After the O'HERLIHY's had been dispersed and in the black time that followed, the O'HERLIHY spirits were kept alive by song and poetry. As Patrick HERLIHY found "what is developing is not an account of rough and savage tribesmen waging war against invaders but of a family associated with scholarship and piety"10. Even before CROMWELL's invasion, the family was known for its learning and poetry. Festivals of poetry were held at the homes of the O'HERLIHY's of Ballyvourney. Quite a number of O'HERLIHY's composed poems in Irish in the 18th Century, several of them no doubt in the Ballyvourney area. In essence the O'HERLIHY's were being identified as poets, priests, teachers and scholars.

Of the twenty O'HERLIHY families in Ballyvourney at the time of Cromwell, fifteen escaped across the mountains to Co. Kerry or dispersed elsewhere. By the mid-19th century "on the COLTHURST estate (the old O'HERLIHY estate) there were five O'HERLIHY  tenant farmers"�11. From one of these families the Australian HERLIHY's are descended.

The last lay Chief of Ballyvourney was described as "a gentle giant having a kind way with words"�. He was Sean, son of Tadhg, who died 1864. Another notable leader was Father John O'HERLIHY, an outstanding schoolmaster, who is buried with his fellow O'HERLIHY clergy in the Priest's Tomb within the Shrine of St Gobnait.


Evelyn and I met Father CROWLEY, Parish Priest of Ovens, Co. Cork in 1987. Previously we had written to him seeking the Irish roots of Daniel HERLIHY. When we arrived in Ovens, we were treated royally by Father CROWLEY.  Fortified with a few whiskies we were shown over his church, built in 1831, where Daniel and his sister Ellen worshipped. Father promised to refer our data to James HERLIHY, a young, energetic consultant in Ancestral Research who lived in the adjoining town of Ballincollig. He was embarking on a History of the HERLIHY's of Cork.

During the next two years he provided us with much of the material used in this family history. Importantly he traced the HERLIHY's of Ovens back to one of the five families resident in Ballyvourney in the 19th Century. On his computer he had 600 HERLIHY's recorded in 31 different spellings of the surname. No wonder people in Australia have some difficulties with its spelling!

In 1989 Evelyn and I spent an evening with James. He called at Maureen CRONIN'sThe Milestone", our bed and breakfast residence at Ovens. He took us in the twilight to the ruins by Kilcrea Friary to see the headstones above the graves of Bishop Thomas O'HERLIHY, and of the parents of Ellen HERLIHY, a sister of Daniel's father. Returning to our residence, James then took us through a mass of documents. He had found from the Tithe Applotments Books for Athowen Parish 1827, the farm at Ovens where John, Daniel's father, was a tenant of Samuel McCARTHY. He showed us how to locate the farm. He gave us the names of three men who had married HERLIHY women, all living at Ballyvourney: Michael O'LIONARD, Donal McSWEENEY and John O'RIORDAN. At midnight, somewhat punch drunk, we bade him goodnight. Evelyn never wanted to hear the word "HERLIHY" again!

The next day we travelled to Ballyvourney to meet our three wise men. On our return to Ovens we dined at Trapper Jaks Tavern. I announced to those at the bar that Evelyn was a HERLIHY. With that Derry HERLIHY left Evelyn with the locals and took me to a very old stone house which had a timber structure added to it. It was the home of Ellen HERLIHY who had returned from Australia with her stepfather in 1850; it turned out to be the original home built by John HERLIHY and of course, the home of Daniel and Ellen. It was on the slope of the hill overlooking his farm; this comprised 18 acres, on which he paid in 1827 a tithe of "one pound thirteen shillings and five pence".


Our day in Ballyvourney was an extraordinary experience. We went first to the home of Michael O'LIONARD, Headmaster of St Gobnait's High School. His wife, formerly Evelyn HERLIHY, gave us morning tea. In discussion we learned that there was no longer any male HERLIHY's farming at Ballyvourney. We met Denis HERLIHY, 18 years of age, who was about to leave for study at Cork University.

Michael proudly showed us his high school in which his curricular is in Irish (ie Gaelic) with English as the second language. We were then introduced to the Parish Priest of St Gobnait's Church, which was located nearby. We were given the great privilege of holding the Oaken Statue of St Gobnait, this being the one which was in houses of the O'HERLIHY's over three centuries and is now in the Sacristy of the Parish Church. Ellis Ui DHAILIGH gives this description: "St Gobnait's statue is of oak and shows traces of five coatings of paint over a gesso base on the wood. It is twenty-seven inches high. The back is hollowed out from shoulders to base. It is worn from being touched, the painted face of St Gobnait now reduced to one large eye"12. Pilgrims to St Peter's, Rome, have over the centuries worn down the great toe on the marble statue; pilgrims to St Gobnait's Church have made the statue of the Saint extraordinarily unreal."

The Parish Priest invited Michael and the two of us "to perform an abridged version of the Rounds". This is the sacred ceremony held each year "on Valentine's Eve and on Whitsun Thursday". There are five Stations, at each of which prayers are recited. The Stations in order are St Gobnait's House, St Gobnait's Grave, the Courtyard of St Gobnait's Church, inside the Church and at the Priest's Tomb. The ceremony concludes with this prayer: "O Gobnait, bring us safely through the coming year and save us from every harm and infirmity especially smallpox."  Even in the abridged version of the full ceremony Evelyn and I were able to absorb the spirit and the faith of the Ballyvourney O'HERLIHY's. Michael then took us to Donal McSWEENEY, a 60 year-old farmer whose wife, a HERLIHY, had recently died. He lived with his mother, now in her nineties. Whilst Donal, with Michael, was organising his papers, his mother poured each of us a large glass of Tullamore Dew. She did not allow for water to be added. Being only Gaelic speaking, she took some time to understand our gestures. Then followed this revealing conversation:

Donal: "What was your grandfather's Christian name?"

Evelyn: "Daniel."

Donal: "What was his father's Christian name?"

Evelyn: "John."

Donal: "Was Daniel his eldest son?"

Victor: "Yes."

Donal: "Daniel, being the eldest, he had to be named after his grandfather. We now go back to the Daniel HERLIHY's of this period."

The period referred to was roughly 1790 to 1810. Donal was talking about it with Michael as though it were yesterday. Both are members of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. Of the five HERLIHY families at Ballyvourney in this period, two had a Daniel as head.

We then decided to visit John O'RIORDAN, another farmer about Donal's age. His wife, a HERLIHY,  had died a few years previously. Both Michael and Donal regarded John as the best source of HERLIHY ancestry. Of the two HERLIHY  families with Daniel as head, the wife in each case was Ellen; the eldest son in each case was John; there were ten children in each family. John O'RIORDAN then asked for the children of Daniel and Bridget's Australian family. They were Mary, John, Joseph, Thomas, Ellen, Annie, James, Margaret and Edward. These names seemed to be equally distributed across the two Ballyvourney families. The result was a dead heat! John O'RIORDAN with his encyclopaedic memory and no written notes indicated that there seemed to be no recorded way of solving the riddle. We met a man who could talk about events 200 years ago as though they were recorded yesterday.


1.     Patrick Herlihy, The Herlihy Family, Irish Ancestral Research Centre, Coventry, England p.1

2.     Brochure: The O'Herlihy Clan, compiled by James F. Herlihy, Consultant in Ancestral Research,                     Ballincollig, Co Cork, Ireland 1993.

3.     Ellis Ui Dháiligh, St Gobnait of Ballyvourney, Irish Messenger publications, Dublin, 1983 p.6

4.     John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland, 1727.

5.     Ellis Ui Dháiligh, op. cit. p.3

6.     Ibid p.13

7.     Ibid p. 3

8.     R. Henehion, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, "Family Names of County                 Cork", January-June 1968, p. 189

9.     Ibid p. 191

10.    Patrick Herlihy, op. cit. p. 3

11.    R. Henehion op. cit. p. 191

12.    Ellis Ui Dháiligh, op. cit. pp. 23-243