The O'Sheas of Tipperary and Kilkenny

The O'Sheas of Tipperary and Kilkenny

Part One

By Jared L. Olar

September 2012-May 2016

IN THE SUMMER of 2012 and Spring of 2013, y-DNA testing of Paul Hardy Shaw of Tennessee -- whose Shaw lineage had been thought to trace back to a branch of my mother's Shaw family -- revealed the possibility that his male-line ancestry was ultimately of Irish origin. It was a surprising discovery, because our Shaws had a tradition that they were of Scottish descent and have been culturally and ethnically "English" for as long as we have record. Nothing in our tradition or in the historical record indicated a possibility that our Shaws could have been Irish rather than English or Scottish. The y-DNA of Paul's Shaws, however, does not match any English or Scottish Shaws in the Shaw DNA Project, and subsequent y-DNA testing on members of my own Shaw family has established that in fact Paul's Shaws are a separate family in no way connected to my mother's Shaws. Instead, Paul Shaw's y-DNA closely matches the y-DNA of the O'Sheas of County Tipperary, Munster, and County Kilkenny, Ireland.

That means his ancestral surname of "Shaw" had formerly been something like "Shay" or Shea or O'Shea, or Shee or O'Shee. Paul's earliest proven male ancestor was a graduate of Dartmouth named DARIUS SHAW, who previously had been thought to be the same as a Darius Shaw who was born in 1767, one of the sons of Jonathan Shaw IV of my mother's Shaw line. The immediate origins of Paul's ancestor Darius are currently unknown, but y-DNA testing proves that Darius was a male-line descendant of the O'Sheas of Tipperary, perhaps from a branch of that family that settled in southern England before coming to, or being brought to, New England in the New World.

Though Paul Shaw's family is unconnected to my Shaws, for those who are interested in the wider topic of Shaw genealogy in Ireland here is an account of the Irish families that bear or have borne one of the common "O'Shea" variants, starting with the origin of the O'Shea surname in medieval Ireland. This account is chiefly based upon the historical and genealogical resources compiled at O'Shea Surname: O'Shea, Shea, Shay y-DNA and Family History Weblog, especially the essays of James O'Shea, one of the co-administrators of the O'Shea Y-DNA Surname Project.

The O'Sheas of County Kerry

The surname of "O'Shea" originated in County Kerry in Munster, in the far southwest of Ireland, in the ancient Gaelic kingdom of Corco Duibne along the shores of Dingle Bay. The situation of the kingdom of Corco Duibne and its dominant tribes is described by Ireland's History in Maps in this way:

"The territories of Corco Duibne were anciently said to include the baronies of Corkaguiny (Ua Failbhe, or O'Falvey), Iveragh (Ua Séghdha, or O'Shea), Magunihy (e.g. Ua Congaile, or O'Connell), and part of Dunkerron. Ua Failbhe and Ua Séghdha were noted in the Annals as chiefs of Corco Duibne. Ua Séghdha and Ua Congaile were noted as chiefs of Magh gCoinchinne. Ua Congaile (O'Connell) were originally chiefs in the barony of Magunihy in county Kerry, and about the middle of the 11th century they were driven into Iveragh by the Ui Donnchadha. The chief of Ua Séghdha was ousted by the MacCarthys in the early 12th century. Following the English Invasion the Ui Suilleabhain (O'Sullivans) and MacCarthaigh (MacCarthys) were driven into west Kerry, and ousted the original occupiers (Hogan, On. Goed.)."

As Ireland's History in Maps's explains, according to ancient Irish tradition and legend, the tribes of Corco Duibne traced their origin from an Irish High King named Conaire II Caemh, said to have reigned during the second century or early third century A.D. According to Irish legend, Conaire II belonged to an ancient Irish people known as the Erainn (called "Iverni" by the ancient geographers of the Roman classical world), whose ancestral eponym was Ailill Erann. Most Gaelic pedigrees of the Erainn trace their legendary, semi-mythical genealogy back to the Milesians (Gaels), but more recent scholarship suggests that the Erainn may in fact have been Fer Bolg, who are said to have settled in Ireland prior to the coming of the Milesians. Thus, in James O'Shea's A History of the O'Shea Clan (July 2012), we read:

"On either side of Dingle Bay and inland eastwards lived the Corcu Duibne descended from possibly the first wave of Celtic immigration called the Fir Bolg and also referred to as Iverni or Erainn. Legend has it that these Fir Bolg, . . . possibly the ancestors of the O'Shea clan, landed in Cork."

It may be significant that the 12th century Book of Leinster's idiosyncratic and somewhat garbled genealogy of the Erainn identifies their eponymous ancestor as "Ailella Erand De Bolgae" -- Ailill Erann, god of the Bolgs, or Ailill of the Iverni, god of the Bolgs. This genealogy from the Book of Leinster then proceeds to trace Ailill Erann back to the Milesians rather than the Fer Bolg, but nevertheless, the statement that Ailill Erann had been worshipped as a god by the Fer Bolg could be a stray survival of an earlier tradition in which the Erainn were identified as Fer Bolg rather than as Milesians or Gaels. An alternate explanation is that the eponymous tribal patriarch of the Erainn settled among the Fer Bolg and later came to be deified by them, but it seems more likely that Ailill Erainn was the name of the Bolgian god whom the ancient kings of the Iverni claimed as their ancestor. It may also be significant that, according to Irish myth and tradition, the migrating Fer Bolg landed at Cork when they first arrived in Ireland -- County Cork is adjacent to County Kerry, along the eastern border of Kerry.

Be all of that as it may, according to Irish legend the Erainn High-King Conaire II had three sons: Cairbre Musc (ancestor of Muscraige and Corco Duibne), Cairbre Baschain (ancestor of Corco Baiscind), and Cairbre Riata (ancestor of Dal Riata, from whom came the Kings of Scotland). In the Book of Leinster, the genealogy of Muscraige is traced from Cairbre Musc's son Connath or Con-Nuadat, while Connath's brother Corc Duibhne is said to be the eponym and ancestor of Corco Duibne. The Ua Failbhe or O'Falvey clan were said to be the senior descendants of Corc Duibhne, and the medieval annals show that the kings of Corco Duibne often came from the Ua Failbhe. However, Corc's junior descendants, the Ua Séghdha or O'Shea, occasionally succeeded in contesting the kingship with their elder cousins.

The Erainn are believed to have invented the ancient Irish script known as ogam, because more than a third of all ogam inscriptions have been found in County Kerry. Some of these inscriptions show that the Corco Duibne certainly existed as a tribe or group of tribes as early as the fifth century A.D., and one of them mentions a "DOVINIA," a matriarch or female ancestor of the Corco Duibne tribes. The tribal name "Duibne" is no doubt derived from the name of their matriarch Dovinia.

This is a drawing of a stone inscribed in ancient Irish ogam script. The stone was found at Ballintaggart in County Kerry. The inscription reads: "MAQQI IARI (K)[OI] MAQQI MUCCOI DOVVINIAS," mentioning Dovinia or Duihind, ancestress of the Corco Duibne. The drawing is the work of Richard Rolt Brash (1817–1876) of Cork and was published in his posthumous work, "The Ogam Inscribed Monuments of the Gaedhil in the British islands" (1879).

Dovinia appears in one of the versions of the eighth century Irish saga known as "The Expulsion of the Déisi," where she is called DUIHIND, daughter of Conaire II. (See also Francis John Byrne's Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1971, page 166-167) According to this saga, Cairbre Musc, a chieftain or subking in Munster, impregnated his sister Duihind, who gave birth to twins named Corc Duibhne and Cormac. (Stories of incest are not uncommon in ancient Irish myths and legends of royal or tribal origins.) The saga goes on to say that Cairbre Musc's incest put his realm under a curse, and the people under his rule wanted to have Corc and Cormac sacrificed to end the curse. Cormac was given up to be slain, but a druid took Corc Duibhne to an island off the coast of County Kerry to ritually purify Corc of the curse. He was then sent to his grandmother Sarait. Later Corc served as a hostage at the court of Sarait's nephew Cormac mac Airt, High-King of Ireland, where he became a foster-son of Óengus Gaíbúaibthech, one of the chiefs of the Déisi. Corc joined Óengus when the Déisi were banished from Tara, fighting alongside his foster-father in battle and accompanying the Déisi on their migrations which led them to County Kerry. According to the saga, Corc tried to convince the Déisi to settle at the island where he had been freed of his curse, but they chose to migrate further north, while Corc remained behind and founded the kingdom of Corco Duibne. This legend from "The Expulsion of the Déisi" is also related in Father Geoffrey Keating's 1629 "History of Ireland" (1866, translated by John O'Mahony, pages 337-338) up to the point where Corc was sent to his grandmother Sarait. In O'Mahony's edition of Keating's history, Dovinia is called "Dubinn" and her son is called "Corc Dubinn."

In the pedigree chart below is shown a pedigree of Corco Duibne, including the legendary descent of the tribes of Ua Failbhe (O'Falvey) and Ua Congaile (O'Connell), as found in medieval Irish manuscripts such as the Book of Leinster (see O'Brien's Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae (1962, 1976), vol. 1, pp.378-379) and supplemented by medieval Irish annals. However, in John O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees (1892, vol. 1, p.445) one finds an O'Falvey genealogy, shown below to the right of the pedigree chart, that differs almost completely from what is found in the old medieval manuscripts. Also, various unsourced family trees at include a few variants of a synthetic and manifestly spurious O'Shea genealogy, shown below to the right of O'Hart's O'Falvey genealogy, that purports to trace the O'Shees of Counties Tipperary and Kilkenny back to the O'Sheas of County Kerry and thus to the Corco Duibne. (For ease of comparison of these genealogical traditions, the chart below omits the latter segments of the O'Shea genealogy extending down to the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Sheas.) O'Hart's pedigree and these synthetic O'Shea genealogy variants are later traditions than the medieval Gaelic genealogies, and thus are not reliable nor as likely to be as accurate as the older Gaelic manuscripts -- but of course one must keep in mind that even the medieval genealogies are often legendary in whole or in part. Even so, it's likely that these various traditional genealogies include strands that are authentic and accurate.

                                    Conaire II                                Conaire II     Conaire        Conaire
                                         |                                      |              |              |
                                    Cairbre Musc                              Cairbre Musc   Cairbre Musc   Cairbre Musc
                                         |                                      |              |              |
                                    Corc Duibhne                              Eocha          Corc Dubh      Corc Duibhne
                                         |                                      |              |              |
                                    Cormac Find                               Crimthann      Cormac Fionn   Conchobhar
                                         |                                      |              |              |
                                      Irchond                                 Lorcan         Torcanus         |
                       __________________|____________________                  |              |              |
                      |        |        |       |     |       |                 |              |              |
                    Nuden   Rathach   Erach   Mael   Cro   Era Ség            Tuathal        Nudinus          |
       _______________|_____________________           _______|_______          |              |              |
      |       |         |          |        |         |       |       |         |              |              |
   Braccan  Corcan  Tarbanach  Lughaidh  Flannan    Gaine  Corcan  Cailech    Alioll         Feargus          |
      |                                               |                         |              |              |
 Nad-Saiglend                                       Echach                    Dungal         Gergimus         |
      |                                               |                         |              |              |
   Ciaran                                           Enna                      Maolruanaidh   Dubdabarcus      |
      |                                               |                         |              |              |
    Falbe                                          Thacan                     Tomaltach      Seagha         Seagha
      |                                           ____|_____                    |              |              |
      |                                          |          |                   |              |              |
   Munechan                                     Nere     Conach               Morogh         Olchobar       Olchobar
      |                                          |                              |              |              |
   Fir-feda                                   Tuadgaile                       Aodh           Feargus        Feargus
      |                                          |                              |              |              |
   Cathra                                     Rechtabrad                      Duach          Floinn         Floinn
      |                                          |                              |              |              |
   Tipraite                                   Nechtan                         Dubhcron       Brodain        Broghain
      |                                          |                              |              |              |
   Olchobur                                   Ciarican                        Colga          Ciaran         Ciaran
      |                                          |                              |              |              |
   Fland                                      Echthigern                      Failbhe        Failbhe        Failbhe
      |                                          |                           (O'Falvey)        |              |
   Longbardan                                  Tadc                                          Cormac         Cormac
      |                                                                                        |              |
   Anrothan                                                                                  Corc           Corc
   ___|_________                                                                               |              |
  |             |                                                                              |              |
 Falbe        Congal                                                                         Seagha         Seagha
(O'Falvey)  (O'Connell)                                                                     (O'Shea)       (O'Shea)
  |           d.989                                                                            |              |
  |             |                                                                              |              |
Crinan       Mac Raith                                                                       Olchobar       Olchobhair
d.1027        d.1013                                                                           |              |
                                                                                             Floinn         Floinn

Curiously, the medieval Irish genealogical manuscripts do not identify the tribe and lineage of Tadc mac Echthigern. However, since the manuscripts identify Anrothan's sons Falbe and Congal as the ancestors and patronyms of two of the three Corco Duibne tribes, the Ua Failbhe and the Ua Congaile, almost certainly the lineage of Tadc mac Echthigern represents the third Corco Duibne tribe of Ua Séghdha (O'Shea). If so, then presumably the Ua Séghdha derived their name (or claimed to derive their name) from ERA SEG (or Ir Ség), youngest of the six sons of Irchond mac Cormac Find. Alternatively, the 16th century MS 2153 in the National Library of Ireland says the clan derived its name from its ancestor SHEADH MAC CUIRC, said to have been born circa A.D. 730 in Iveragh, County Kerry, and "who was renowned for his martial deeds" (See James O'Shea's "Conjecture on the Origins of the O'Sheas of Tipperary and Kilkenny," August 2012, page 1). However, the tradition in MS 2153 is much later than that presented in the Book of Leinster, and thus is less likely to be accurate.

Examining more closely the two variants of the O'Shea genealogy, we see that "Sheadh Mac Cuirc" is the "Seagha mac Corc" shown in the above chart. The synthetic O'Shea genealogy also includes an earlier "Seagha" -- and the greatest difference between the two variants of this genealogy has to do with the genealogy of this earlier Seagha. In one version, this Seagha is said to be the son of "Conchobhar," son of Corc Duibhne. Other early sources and genealogical manuscripts know nothing of a son of Corc Duibhne of that name, and it seems likely that "Conchobhar" represents Corc Duibhne's brother (not son) "Connath" or "Con-Nuadhat," who appears in medieval Irish genealogical tracts as the ancestor of the Muscraige. But in the other version of this O'Shea genealogy, Seagha's genealogy is traced through a series of six names to "Corc Dubh" (i.e., Corc Duibhne). Four of those six names are unusual, standing out from the rest of the genealogy because they are latinised forms, whereas the rest of the names are Gaelic forms. Significantly, the names "Nudinus," son of "Torcanus," can be recognised in the Book of Leinster's genealogies of the Corco Duibne, which show "Nuden" as eldest son of "Irchond." However, the Book of Leinster does not list any "Feargus" among the sons of Nuden, and apparently traces the O'Shea tribe from Nuden's youngest brother Era Ség rather than from Nuden. Also, not only does the Book of Leinster's "Irchond" appear in the O'Shea genealogy as "Torcanus," but it seems that "Torcanus" appears as "Lorcan" in O'Hart's genealogy of the O'Falveys. It is also noteworthy that the names "Olchobur" (Olchobhar), "Fland" (Floinn), and "Falbe mac Ciaran" (Failbhe mac Ciaran) are present in both the Book of Leinster's Corco Duibne genealogies and the synthetic O'Shea genealogy.

In light of these observations, we may safely conclude that the genealogical relationship of the Ua Séghdha to their fellow Corco Duibne tribes, the Ua Failbhe and the Ua Congaile, was not especially a close one. Furthermore, it seems probable that the synthetic O'Shea genealogy was crafted by someone who was familiar with only some of the Corco Duibne genealogical traditions that are represented in the Irish medieval genealogical manuscripts. As for the eponymous O'Shea ancestor "Seagha mac Corc" (Sheadh Mac Cuirc), he might even be a garbled memory or doublet of "Era Ség mac Irchond" -- or perhaps "Seagha mac Corc" simply represents the fact that the Ua Séghdha's name-father was a member of the Corco Duibne. It could also be the case that the O'Shea's eponymous ancestor Seagha mac Corc really existed, and that the name "Corc" was popular in this tribe simply because it was a part of the Corco Duibne.

The kingdom of Corco Duibne was nominally subject to the Eoghanacht Locha Lein, who were a branch of the dominant royal family of Munster. As James O'Shea says in his A History of the O'Shea Clan:

"The Eoganacht Locha Lein were associated with the powerful Eoganacht race, originally based around Cashel in Tipperary. By both military prowess and political skill they had become dominant for a long period in the South of Ireland, exacting tributes from lesser kingdoms such as the Corcu Duibne. At the time this amounted to 1,000 cows and 1,000 oxen -- a substantial transaction for a society who measured wealth in terms of ownership of cattle. The Corcu Duibne, occupying territory that was remote, heavily wooded and consequently difficult to both access and manage from a remote site, were an independent people, who continually struggled to maintain that independence. In fact the Eoganacht considered the level of their independence as unacceptable and possibly as a consequence did not always fulfill their own responsibilities as overlords, often neglecting to give them the gifts due to them as sub-kings."

Further on, James O'Shea discusses the three tribes of Corco Duibne and the origin of the O'Shea surname:

"The people of the Corcu Duibne split into three distinct dynasties or septs, each named after an ancestor whose memory as a valiant warrior and wise ruler had remained in the folklore. The people on the south shore of Dingle Bay chose the name of an ancestor called Seagha or Seaghdha, to become the Ua Seaghdha, or literally the 'grandson' or 'descendant' of Seaghdha. The name itself comes from the same Gaelic root as the word for 'hawk', giving rise to conjecture that it means 'hawk-like' or 'dauntless'. Later the 'Ua' became 'O' and the 'Seaghdha' became anglicised to 'Shea', giving rise to the current Irish surname of 'O'Shea'. The remainder of the Corcu Duibne territory was divided between the Ua Failbhe (O'Falveys) on the north shore of Dingle Bay in what is now the barony of Corkaguiney, and the Ua Congaile (O’Connells) inland in an area approximating the western part of the present barony of Magunihy . . ."

Concerning the etymology of the name "Seagha" or "Seaghdha," James O'Shea mentions in a footnote: "The Irish for 'Hawk' is 'Seabhac'. It has also been suggested that the name could be equally derived from 'Seaghais' (pleasure, delight) or 'Seagal' (rye)." Interestingly enough, some have said that the Scottish Highland Clan Shaw derived its name from the Old Gaelic word "seaghdha," happy or lucky (See Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk's The Highland Clans (1967), page 128). More likely Clan Shaw's surname comes from a Gaelic word meaning "wolf-like," and in any case there is no historical or genetic connection between Clan Shaw and the O'Sheas of Kerry.

The following outline of the history of the kingdom of Corco Duibne has been compiled from three important compilations of old Irish Annals: the Annals of Innisfallen (AI), the Annals of Ulster (U), and the Annals of the Four Masters (M):

    AI785   Death of Échtgal, king of Corcu Duibne.
    AI793   The battle of Conchenn, in which the king of Corcu Duibne fell.
    M903    The battle of Bealach-Mughna was fought by Flann, son of Maelseachlainn,
              King of Ireland, and Cearbhall, son of Muirigen, King of Leinster, and
              by Cathal, son of Conchobhar, King of Connaught, against Cormac, son of
              Cuileannan, King of Caiseal. The battle was gained over Cormac, and he
              himself was slain, . . . These were the nobles who fell along with him:
              . . . Colman, Abbot of Ceann-Eitigh; and the lord of Corca-Duibhne. . .
    AI989   Congal son of Anrudán, king of Corcu Duibne, dies.
    AI1013  Mac Raith son of Congal, king of Corcu Duibne dies.
    AI1027  Death of Crínán son of Fáilbe, king of Corcu Duibne.
    AI1040  Death of Gilla Meic Oíbleáin Ua Congaile, king of Corcu Duibne.
    AI1041  Ua Ségda, king of Corcu Duibne was slain.
    AI1042  Mathgamain Ua Fáilbi, royal heir of Corcu Duibne was slain.
    AI1062  Two of the Uí Fháilbi, royal heirs of Corcu Duibne, were slain by the Uí Echach in Baí Bérre.
    AI1063  Cú Dub Ua Fáilbe, king of Corcu Duibne dies.
    AI1064  A great foray by Tairdelbach into Corcu Duibne and Eóganacht, and it is impossible to enumerate all the
              cows and other cattle taken on that raid.
    AI1066  Loingsech Ua Domnaill, another king of Uí Echach, was slain by the Corcu Duibne.
    AI1096  Mathgamain Ua Ségda, king of Corcu Duibne, rested in Christ.
    U1096   Mathgamain Ua Ségdai, king of Corco Duibhne, Conchobor Ua hAiniarraid,
              king of Ciannacht, and Ua Céin, king of Uí Meic Cairthinn, fell by one another
              in battle.
    U1103   Slaughter of the Men of Munster, around the two Ui Brie, that is, the two royal heirs
              of the Dessi and around Ua Failbhe, that is, heir apparent of Corco Duibhne.
    AI1115  The slaying of Lochlainn Ua Fáilbi by Murchad Ua Ségda.
    AI1118  Tadc Ua Ségda was slain by the foreigners of Luimnech and by Ua Fáilbi, each having committed
              treachery against the other.
    AI1124  Murchad Ua Ségda, king of Corcu Duibne, was banished by Cormac, son of Mac Carthaig.
    AI1127  Murchad Ua Ségda, In Gilla Manntach Ua Fáilbi, and Cathal Ua Cathuil were slain.
      1138  Mathgamain h-Úa Concobair, rí Cíarraige and Corco Duibni, tanaisti ríg Muman, died.
    M1158   Ua Failbhe, lord of Corca Duibhne, was slain by the Ui-Séghdha.

In his essay A History of the O'Shea Clan, James O'Shea puts flesh and bone on the annals' skeletal outline of Corco Duibne's history. O'Shea quotes a topographical poem composed around 1400 by the Irish historian Giolla na Naomh O Huidhrin, who described the three tribes of Corco Duibne in this way:

     O’Conghaile (O’Connell) of the slender swords,
     Over the bushy forted Magh O’gCoinchinn (Magunihy);
     A hazel tree of branching ringlets,
     In the Munster plain of horse-hosts.
     From the Maing (the River Maine) westwards is hereditary to them;
     O’Failbhe (O’Falvey) is owner as far as Fionntraigh (Ventry, Dingle peninsula)
     O’Seagha has obtained without denial,
     A country not wretched; he is king of Ui-Rathach (Iveragh peninsula)

As O'Shea explains, "Iveragh" comes from the Gaelic placename "Ui Rathach" (cf. Rathach mac Irchond in the pedigree chart above). O'Shea describes the geographical situation of the old O'Shea homeland as follows (emphasis added):

"The area occupied by the O’Sheas known as Ui Rathach later became known as Iveragh, by which the whole peninsula takes its name and the majority of the land area on the peninsula became known as the barony of Iveragh, where Cahersiveen is currently the main town. Then the chief seat of the O’Sheas was located at Sisceann Ui Sheaghdha ["O'Shea's Marsh"] near the source of the river Inny in the centre of the Iveragh peninsula. This area is no longer so called, but it is shown on a sixteenth century map as Sheskinan and in a later nineteenth century map as Sheskanane. Its northern boundary would be close to the current spectacular pass of Ballighisheen (Oisin’s Way), which divides Iveragh from Glencar. . . the O’Shea territory may have extended north to the present coastal town of Castlemaine, as a later family pedigree mentions an O’Shees cove on the banks of the river Leman, at its entrance into the sea in the county of Kerry. There is no current cove called O’Shee but the river Leman may well be the present river Laune running from the lakes of Killarney to the sea at Castlemaine. Another important O’Shea centre was at Ballycarbery, on a sea inlet close to Cahersiveen. There is a tradition that Cairbre O’Shea, whose windswept grave can still be seen at the site, built a Caher or fort here. Later the McCarthys, recognising the suitability of the site, built a magnificent castle there, whose ruins are still prominent."

As we have seen, the medieval Irish annals show that the O'Connells held the kingship of Corco Duibne around A.D. 1000, but they were soon challenged by their close cousins the O'Falveys and their distant cousins the O'Sheas. As James O'Shea says in his O'Shea Clan History:

". . . although close kin and near neighbours, the two dynasties [of O'Falvey and O'Shea] conducted an incessant and bitter rivalry that effectively ensured that neither side ever rose to more than local prominence. Possibly in a diplomatic onslaught to limit the damage being caused by this rivalry, an agreement was brokered to alternate the Kingship of the Corcu Duibne between the two families. This wasn’t a great success, as in 1115 Lochlainn O’Falvey is recorded as slain by Murchad O’Shea and some years later, possibly in a retaliatory strike, Tadg O’Shea was murdered by the O’Falveys assisted by the foreigners (Norse) of Limerick. The recruitment of the foreigners by the O’Falveys may indicate that at the time the O’Sheas were in the ascendancy. As well as fighting amongst themselves, both used their naval expertise to fight with neighbouring coastal tribes such as the O’Mahonys in West Cork."

The prolonged feuding between the O'Shea and O'Falvey tribes weakened the subkingdom of Corco Duibne and made it vulnerable to attack from neighboring Eoghanachta kings -- namely, the McCarthys of Desmond, as James O'Shea explains:

"Under new leadership the McCarthys began a period of expansion which due to the strength of their various neighbours in other directions had, by necessity, to be directed westwards from Cashel towards Cork and Kerry. By 1110 by both military and diplomatic means the McCarthys had expelled many local kings in Kerry and had commenced occupying lands around Killarney. By 1124 they had advanced into the O’Shea heartland and their charismatic leader, Cormac, expelled the O’Shea chief, Murchad, who did rally his followers but was slain shortly afterwards trying to regain possession of the clan’s hereditary lands. The O’Sheas did seem to retain possession of some lands, at least for some short time, probably being forced to pay higher tribute to their McCarthy overlords. Despite the McCarthy threat they continued to quarrel with the O’Falveys whose king they managed to kill. This may have the final O’Shea triumph, as it is the last reference to them in the various annals."

Having reduced the Corco Duibne tribes to subjection, the McCarthys and other Eoghanachta tribes of Munster in their turn found themselves threatened following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in A.D. 1169. The Anglo-Norman threat to the Munster dynasties proved fatal to the kingdom of Corco Duibne:

"International events now seriously impacted on the beleaguered O’Sheas with the arrival in Waterford of the Anglo-Normans, who quickly moved west threatening Cashel and occupying Cork city. The McCarthys, O’Sullivans and O’Donoghue were all forced west, dispossessing less powerful clans and occupying lands in West Cork and throughout Kerry where they had tactical military advantages over the heavily armoured Anglo-Norman forces. The McCarthys were by 1200 firmly in control of all O’Shea lands in Iveragh although fighting for their lives on other fronts. They staunchly defended Iveragh, settling their wives and children in an area near the present Waterville while they tackled the formidable invaders. Thus by this time the ancient kingdom of the Corcu Duibne on both sides of Dingle Bay had disappeared without trace, unfortunate victims of the power struggles of greater dynasties and foreign invaders where there was little room for lesser kings. One of the few place name reminders of the once powerful O’Sheas is the small townland of Ballyheabought (Baile Ui Sheaghda) near Dingle."

The end of the Gaelic subkingdom of Corco Duibne did not, of course, mean that the O'Falveys, O'Connells, and O'Sheas became extinct. Though dispossessed of their former lands and status, these clans continued on in County Kerry, also sometimes spinning off branches who moved to other parts of Ireland. James O'Shea notes that the O'Falveys were employed by their McCarthy overlords as admirals of their fleet, while the O'Connells served as constables of the McCarthy castle of Ballycarbery. However, during the period from about 1200 to 1600 the O'Sheas of Kerry apparently experienced such a drastic reversal of their fortunes that they all but disappear from the historical record. One of the rare occurrences of the surname in Kerry during that period was in 1473, when, as mentioned by James O'Shea in his O'Shea Clan History, a priest named "Dermit Osega" (Diarmait O'Séghdha or "Dermot O'Shea") was vicar in Killarney. O'Shea also says, "Records do show that in 1600 McCarthys possessed about 60% of Iveragh with O’Sullivans the majority of the remainder with O’Sheas owning nothing . . . There is evidence that the O’Sheas gravitated towards service and contact with the O’Sullivans, who had acquired vast tracts of land in South Kerry and West Cork, rather than the McCarthys." Despite their change of fortune, and through periods of time when their numbers dwindled, the O'Sheas of Kerry did not die out nor utterly abandon their ancestral homeland. Rather, the O'Sheas remained in Kerry, where descendants of this ancient clan still live today.

O'Sheas outside of County Kerry

During the period when the O'Sheas of Kerry had sunk into obscurity, other families named "O'Shea" began to appear elsewhere in Munster and also in Leinster. In Sir William Petty's 1659 survey of Ireland, "tituladoes" (i.e., prominent individuals) and Irish families surnamed "Shea," "O'Shea," "Shee," "O'Shee," "Sea," and "McShea" could be found not only in Kerry, but also in the counties of Clare, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, Kilkenny, and Laois. Remarkably, Petty found only 63 O'Shea families in Kerry and no tituladoes of that name, whereas Tipperary had 131 Shea or O'Shea families and only one Shea titulado, and Kilkenny had 100 Shea or Shee or McShea families and eight tituladoes of those names, while Cork had 71 O'Shea or Shea families and no tituladoes of those names, and Waterford had 12 Shea or O'Shea families and 8 Sea families and no tituladoes of those names. Traditionally these other O'Shea families were believed to be branches of the Kerry O'Sheas. In particular, the O'Sheas of Tipperary and Kilkenny have a tradition that they were descended in the male line from the Kerry O'Sheas. However, modern testing of the Y chromosome has shown that in fact at least four genetically distinct O'Shea families arose in Ireland. These four genetic groups are:

1. The O'Sheas of County Kerry, who, as we have seen, were the oldest group of O'Sheas in Ireland, arising as one of the three royal tribes of the Corco Duibne and adopting the surname Ua Séghdha during the 11th century. The majority of participants in the O'Shea DNA Project belong to this group. The O'Shea surname formerly was grouped with the South Irish sub-clade, which includes the Eoghanachta and other Munster clans, but single nucleotide polymorphism testing has shown that the Kerry O'Sheas are L513+, which sets them apart from the South Irish sub-clade.

2. The O'Sheas of County Cork, an extended family of O'Sheas from the Macroom-Millstreet area in the northwest of County Cork. The second largest group of participants in the O'Shea DNA Project comes from this family. These O'Sheas are Z255+.

3. The O'Sheas of Counties Tipperary and Kilkenny, who first appeared under the surname of Osseth or Oshethe ("O'Shee") in Tipperary in eastern Munster in the late 13th century, and from thence spread to the neighboring county of Kilkenny in Leinster, where they assumed power as sovereigns of the city of Kilkenny. Members of this family later appear with the related and similar surnames of "Shee," "O'Shea," "Shea," and (rarely) "McShea." This is the third largest group in the O'Shea DNA Project. The Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Sheas belong to the Irish Type IV sub-clade, which includes Irish families of Anglo-Norman descent (or probable Anglo-Norman descent) as well as other European families with no historical connection to Ireland. It is from this group of O'Sheas that Paul Hardy Shaw's family is descended.

4. Other O'Sheas of County Kerry, a very small group of O'Sheas from Dingle in County Kerry who, surprisingly, are genetically unrelated to the main group of Kerry O'Sheas. Like the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Sheas, this group is L1066+, but these O'Sheas do not belong to the Irish Type IV sub-clade.

As mentioned above, the O'Sheas of Tipperary and Kilkenny had a tradition that they were male-line descendants of the original O'Sheas of Kerry. However, DNA testing has revealed that the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Sheas could not have descended in the male-line from the Kerry O'Sheas, because these two groups of O'Sheas belong to completely different genetic sub-clades. It is important to note, however, that there is an alternate tradition that claimed the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Sheas were not a branch of the Kerry O'Sheas at all, but rather were descendants of the Eoghanachta, Munster's dominant tribal group from whom most of the ancient kings of Munster descended or claimed to be descended.

This alternate tradition was mentioned a few decades ago by Albert E. Casey in O’Kief, Coshe, Mang (vol. XI, page 2374). Casey refers to the tradition that the O'Sheas were descended from Cairbre Musc, son of the High-King Conaire II, but adds that:

". . . the Munster Annals and other trustworthy records, draw their line of descent from Olliol Ollum, king of Munster, through his eldest son, Eoghan More, ancestor of the Eoghanachta of that province. The truth seems to be that there were in Desmond two families of this name, who were of a totally different race, viz. the O’Sheas of Iveragh, descendants of Corc, son of Cairbre Musc, son of the monarch Conary, and the O’Sheas of Corcaguiney, who derived their descent and surname from the Seaghda, of the line of Eoghan Mor."

Casey copied these words directly from Richard Francis Cronnelly's 1864 Irish Family History (part I, page 247). Cronnelly was mistaken to distinquish between the O'Sheas of Iveragh and the O'Sheas of Corcaguiney, because, as we have seen, it was the same O'Shea clan who were both kings of Iveragh as well as kings of Corco Duibne (Corcaguiney), and early Irish legend traces that clan's genealogy back to Corc, son of Cairbre Musc. Cronnelly later was cited in John O'Hart's 1887 Irish Pedigrees (vol. 1, page 757). O'Hart identifies the O'Shees of Tipperary and Kilkenny as descendants of the O'Sheas of Iveragh and Corcaguiney, whom he says were descendants of Cairbre Musc. But in a footnote, O'Hart says:

"According to Cronnelly’s 'Irish Family History,' there was also in Desmond a family named O’Seagha ('seagha :' Irish, ingenious, crafty, cunning), of the line of Heber, who took their name from Seagha, a descendant of Eoghan Mor, son of Olioll Olum . . . The two sirnames O’Seaghdha and OSeagha would be pronounced alike ; but, it may be observed that the Four Masters do not mention the latter name."

This attests to the supposed existence of a family of Eoghanacht O'Sheas in Desmond, distinct from the O'Sheas of Iveragh, but O'Hart did not make Cronnelly's mistake of locating the Eoghanacht O'Sheas in Corcaguiney as if the Corcaguiney O'Sheas were a separate family from the Iveragh O'Sheas. This tradition of O'Shea descent from Eoghan Mor is found even before Cronnelly, however, as we see in Father William Healy's 1893 History and Antiquities of Kilkenny (vol. I, page 131):

"Playfair says that the ancient family of Shee is descended from the house of Olioll Olium, King of Munster, in the year 250 of whom in a direct line descended Odamus (sic) O'Shee, father of Robert, father of Richard, whose son Robert had a son Richard who was father of Cormack O'Shee of Cloghran, in the County of Tipperary. This agrees with Keating's account who derives the orign (sic) of the family from the same stock -- Oiliolir Olum. 'From this Oiliol Olum's spreading branches descended the following families according to the Munster Annals, viz., O'Shee, the Shealbhach, the Maothains, &c.'"

Examining this quote from Healy, it should first be noted that "O'Shee" is an alternate spelling of "O'Shea," and in particular was a version of the surname that was found not infrequently among the Tipperary/Kilkenny group. "O'Shee" was pronounced identically to "O'Shea." Secondly, "Playfair" is William Playfair, compiler of Family Antiquity of the British Nobility (also called "British Family Antiquity") and British Baronetage, which were printed from 1809 to 1811. Playfair treated the baronetage of Ireland in volume IX of his "British Family Antiquity" and in volume four of his "British Baronetage." Finally, Keating is Father Geoffrey Keating, who published his History of Ireland in 1629. Regarding Healy's quote from Keating, compare page 194 of the 1826 American reprint of T. Comerford's English translation of Keating, where we find:

"From this Oilioll Olum's spreading branches descended the following families according to the Munster annals, viz. O Shea, Shealbach, Maothains, Giarains, Croneens, and Glaimhins, &c."

Despite a few differences of wording, evidently Comerford's translation of Keating is the source of Healy's quote. In addition, this passage from Comerford's Keating seems to be where Cronnelly's reference to "the Munster Annals" came from. I do not know, however, which "Munster Annals" those might have been. Curiously, this sentence from Comerford's Keating does not appear in the corresponding passages of John O'Mahony's 1866 English translation of Keating's history, nor in David Comyn's and Father Patrick Dineen's 1908 English translation of Keating. In addition, neither the Comerford nor the Comyn/Dineen versions of Keating mention the origins of the O'Sheas anywhere else. O'Mahony's version, however, has this to say on page 693:

"From Carbri Musg, are named all the septs of the Musgraide that dwell in Munster, and of this race is O'Falvy, O'Connell, and O'Shea of Desmond, and O'Quirk of Musgraide."

This accurately represents the testimony of the medieval Irish annals and genealogies regarding the Corco Duibne. However, once again we find that this passage from O'Mahony's Keating does not appear in the corresponding passage of Comerford's Keating and Comyn/Dineen's Keating. Instead, the equivalent passage in Comyn/Dineen reads:

"From Cairbre Musc is named every Muscruighe in Munster and of his progeny are O Failbhe of Desmond and O Cuirc of Muscruighe."

Comerford's Keating says almost the same thing as Comyn/Dineen, but uses a more anglicised spelling of the proper names. From this, it appears that O'Mahony had glossed or amplified this passage, adding to Keating's statement the references to O'Connell and O'Shea. By the same token, it appears that the statement in Comerford's Keating that the O'Sheas were an Eoghanacht tribe is also a gloss, not something written by Keating. It appears that Keating did not say anything about the origins of any O'Shea tribes or families.

Thus, we can affirm that the Eoghanacht tradition of O'Shea origins was extant by the early 1800s, but it is, to say the least, uncertain whether or not it was extant as early as Keating's day in the early 1600s. I am currently unaware of any evidence that this tradition is older than the early nineteenth century, so I cannot determine if it has any basis in fact. DNA testing has determined that the O'Sheas of Tipperary and Kilkenny belong to the Irish Type IV sub-clade, which means they certainly did not originate from a scion or sept of the Eoghanachta, who belong to the South Irish sub-clade. Where, then, did the tradition of Eoghanacht descent come from? As mentioned above, the Tipperary/Kilkenny family claimed to be descended in the male-line from the ancient O'Shea clan of County Kerry, not a branch of the Eoghanachta. DNA testing also shows that tradition to be erroneous, because the Kerry O'Sheas do not belong to the Irish Type IV sub-clade as the Tipperary/Kilkenny family. Neither are the Kerry O'Sheas a branch of the Eoghanachta, because the Kerry O'Sheas are L513+, a single nucleotide polymorphism not found in the South Irish sub-clade.

Judging from the facts available at this time, the Eoghanachta tradition of O'Shea origins can be accounted for in the following four ways:

* An early writer on Irish noble genealogy, unaware of the medieval manuscripts that identify the Kerry O'Sheas as a tribe of the Corco Duibne, erroneously concluded that, as a Munster tribe, the Kerry O'Sheas were Eoghanachta. Because the Tipperary/Kilkenny family claimed descent from the Kerry family, they too came to be misidentified as Eoghanachta, or --

* An early writer on Irish noble genealogy, unaware that the Shees or O'Shees of Tipperary/Kilkenny claimed descent from the Kerry O'Sheas, erroneously concluded that, as a Munster tribe, the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Shees were Eoghanachta. Later, other writers who knew that the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Shees claimed to be a branch of the Kerry O'Sheas also erroneously concluded that the Kerry family were Eoghanachta, or --

* In addition to the Kerry O'Sheas, of Corco Duibne descent, and the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Sheas, very probably of Anglo-Norman descent, perhaps there was another O'Shea tribe in Munster who were in fact a sept of the Eoghanachta. An early writer, unaware of the medieval manuscripts that identify the Kerry O'Sheas as a tribe of the Corco Duibne, erroneously imputed the Eoghanachta origins of this suppositious O'Shea tribe to the Kerry O'Sheas. Then, because the Tipperary/Kilkenny family claimed descent from the Kerry family, the Tipperary/Kilkenny family too came to be misidentified as Eoghanachta, or --

* In addition to the Kerry O'Sheas, of Corco Duibne descent, and the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Sheas, very probably of Anglo-Norman descent, perhaps there was another O'Shea tribe in Munster who were in fact a sept of the Eoghanachta. An early writer, unaware that the Shees or O'Shees of Tipperary/Kilkenny claimed descent from the Kerry O'Sheas, erroneously imputed the Eoghanachta origins of this suppositious O'Shea tribe to the Tipperary/Kilkenny O'Shees. Then, because the Tipperary/Kilkenny family claimed descent from the Kerry family, the Kerry O'Sheas too came to be misidentified as Eoghanachta.

Whichever of these explanations is correct, subsequently writers on Irish history and genealogy rediscovered that the Kerry O'Sheas were a Corco Duibne clan. Then, as we have seen, writers during the 1800s concluded that there must have been two separate O'Shea families in Desmond: one that was descended from Cairbre Musc and another that was descended from Eoghan Mor. As it turns out, there are more than just two separate O'Shea families in Munster, but it is uncertain if any of them can be linked genetically to known Eoghanachta families. At the very least we can say that the given name of Séghdha ("Shea") probably was not unknown among the Eoghanachta. For example, one of the leaders of the Munster host on the expedition to rescue Cellachán Caisil, King of Munster (died A.D. 954), was named Seaghdha (see O'Mahony's Keating, page 541, where he is called "Segha"). During the attack on Cellachán's captors, the Munster host boarded a viking ship. Seaghdha and his fellow captain Conall seized Thorir and Magnus, brothers of the viking chief Sigtrygg, and jumped overboard with them, so that all four men were drowned. It is unknown whether or not this Munster captain named Seaghdha was a member of the Eoghanachta, but it is a possibility. However, neither is it known if this Seaghdha had any descendants, let alone descendants who took their tribal or family name from him.

Continue to The Shees of Tipperary and Kilkenny.


The O'Shea Y-DNA Surname Project
O'Shea Surname: O'Shea, Shea, Shay y-DNA and Family History Weblog

The Shaw Genealogy

Return to Website Index

You may contact me with genealogical questions by clicking here.