Sitric O’Sruithén

According to the Annals of the Four Masters—a chronicle of Irish history compiled in the early 17th Century from various sources by four Franciscan monks in County Donegal, Ireland—in the year 1204 AD, “Sitric O'Sruithén, Erenagh of Conwal, i.e. head of the Hy-Murtele, and chief man of all the Clann-Snedhgile for his worth, died, after exemplary penance, and was interred in the church which he had himself founded.” 

It is widely believed that some Strains descended from this 13th century Irish chieftain.  But who was he?

Notes regarding the Annals by translator John O’Donovan explain that “Clann Snedgile were a tribe of the Kinel-Connell, seated in Glenswilly, to the west of Letterkenny. They descend from Snedhgil, son of Airnealach, son of Mealduin, son of Kinfaela, son of Garbh, son of Ronan, son of Lughaidh, son of Sedna, son of Fergus Kinfada, who was son of Conall Gulban, ancestor of the Kinel-Connell."  So the clan that Sitric belonged to was distantly related to the O’Donnells and was a branch of the Northern Uí Néill—the descendants of the 5th Century Irish Warlord, Niall Naoigiallach, or “Niall of the Nine Hostages”.  The Irish name for Donegal, Tir Chonnail, or “Land of Conall” reflects the fact that this region was inhabited by Conall and his descendants.

There is some disagreement over the meaning of Sitric’s surname.  Some argue that Sruithén meant “stream”, akin to the modern Irish word, “sruitheáin”.  However, according to The Dictionary of the Irish Language—a compilation of Old and Middle Irish words and their meanings—a “sruith” was a venerable elder.   Suithén was possibly a diminutive form, meaning something like “little wise man”, and the prefix “Ua” or “Ó” means “grandson of” or “descendant of”, so the name O’Sruithén likely meant “descendant of the little wise man.”

The name “Sitric” is another puzzle as it is Norse in origin.  However, the Vikings had been in Ireland for some four hundred years by Sitric’s time and had left a strong impression on Donegal.  In fact the name Donegal comes from “Dun na nGall”—or “fortress of the foreigners”—and refers to the Viking settlements in the region.  The Vikings introduced many new words of Norse origin into the Irish language and apparently some Norse names were borrowed by the Irish too.

The previous chieftains of Clan Snedgile mentioned in the Annals were the O’Tairchirts, whose surname appears to come from the Old Irish word “tairchert”, meaning just or righteous.  The Four Masters record that in 1197 a band of Normans under John de Courcy invaded the Inishowen peninsula and were met by the Kinel-Conell.  In the battle that ensued over two hundred of the Kinel-Conell were slain, including “Donough O'Tairchirt, Chief of Clann-Snedhgile, the prop of the hospitality, valour, wisdom, and counsel of all the Kinel-Conell.”

At this time in Irish history the kings and chieftains of Ireland were selected under the system of tanistry.  The successor, or tanist, of the fallen chieftain would have been elected by the males of the clan in assembly and was not necessarily the son or close relative to the previous leader, although he did have to share an ancestor by male-line descent with the former chieftain.  So O’Sruithén was likely selected as the new chieftain of the clan “for his worth” or by reason of his stature within the clan.

The Annals record that he was the “Eranagh” of Conwal.  According to Edward McLysaght, the erenagh [airchinnech], or “head”, was an abbot who, “by the 11th Century…had become a lay lord, whose family held the office and the church property from generation to generation.” The erenagh “claimed for his land…those privileges and exemptions which had from of old been accorded to ecclesiastical property.”  O’Sruithén would have been an important figure indeed.

His domain was Conwal, or Congbail Glinne Suilig, meaning “the Monastery of the Glen of the River Swilly”.  It is an ancient parish church, now in ruins, near the River Swilly, in the barony of Kilmacrenan, in County Donegal about two miles from Letterkenny on the road to Dunglow.  (See photos here).


(Many thanks to Damian Strain for contributing much of this information.)


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