by Willie O'Kane


County Monaghan, comprising some 136,000 hectares, is a landlocked county, having boundaries with four other Ulster counties — Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh and Cavan — as well as with Louth and Meath. The county name derives from Muineachan, the place of the thickets. Much of the county is a mix of rounded hills and poorly drained uplands interspersed with more fertile and manageable soils on the lower parts where limestone predominates. The highest hills are the Slieve Beagh range in the north-west, along the Tyrone border. Reaching around 1,200 feet in height, the range is somewhat isolated and featureless. Other mountains are Cairmore, with its deep upland lake, and Crieve Mountain overlooking the southern part of the county. The Blackwater is the chief river in Monaghan, and today most of the county is given to pasture and beef farming with sheep on the higher farmland. Nearer the main towns, potatoes and cabbage are grown, while in the northern part, near Tyrone, there is a concentration of mushroom-growing industries.


Monaghan is the county town, being the episcopal seat of Clogher diocese and noted for St Macartan’s Roman Catholic cathedral. The town has long served a relatively prosperous mixed-farming area, and despite a decline in local industries over the past few decades, evidence of its former solidity remains in buildings like the Market House, dating from the 1790s, the Westenra Hotel and the nearby printing works producing the Northern Standard newspaper. Clones, 12 miles west of Monaghan, possesses a fine high cross in the market place and several notable Georgian houses. The chief GAA playing field in Ulster is located here, and provincial matches regularly attract tens of thousands to the town. Castleblaney, at the head of Lough Mucknoo, one of the largest of Monaghan’s many lakes, is the hometown of ‘Big Tom’ McBride, pioneer exponent of the hybrid musical form known as ‘Country and Irish’. Other towns include Newbliss, Emyvale and Ballybay. Carrickmacross, in the south-west of the county, is noted for its fine lace, a tradition stretching back several centuries and today carried on by a dedicated co-operative movement.


Principal Names
As to be expected, there is a great variety of family names in Monaghan, mainly of native Ulster origin, although in the Ulster Plantation many Scots and English settlers arrived in the county. Prominent Monaghan names, in no particular numerical order, are McMahon, McKenna, Hughes, McCabe, Smith, Kelly, Maguire, Murray, Woods, O’Connolly, Duffy, Leslie, Hamiliton and Shirley.


A very numerous Monaghan name, McKenna comes from Mac Cionaoith, a Meath sept who came into Ulster as swordsmen for the Fir Leamtha of Clogher. Refusing to pay rents on their lands after 1606, the McKennas were dispossessed and several branches moved north and east to Derry and Down. The last chief of the name was Patrick McKenna (died 1616 near Emyvale), and one of the most famous bearers since was Juan MacKenna (1771-1814), who with Bernardo O’Higgins took part in the liberation of Chile. Some McKennas became known as McKinney, although in Ulster most of the latter name are descended from Scottish settlers.

Most bearers of this name are from the Ulster sept O hAodha (descendants of Hugh), who were mainly concentrated in parts of north Tyrone and Donegal. In Monaghan, a closely related variant, O hAoidh, became Hoey. Hughes was also a common surname in England and Wales from the Middle Ages, and the name was borne by many seventeenth century settlers in Ireland.

MacMahon, one of the top five names in Monaghan, derives from mathghamban, a bear. They are descended from Mahon O’Brien, grandson of Brian Boru. MacMahon was a leading sept of the kingdom of Oriel and prominent in south Ulster from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. They were among the leaders of the Catholic Confederacy of the mid-seventeenth century, during which the last MacMahon chief, Hugh, and Heber MacMahon, Bishop of Clogher, were executed. In the eighteenth century three MacMahon Bishops of Clogher went on to become Primates of all Ireland; they were Hugh MacMahon, (died 1737), and his nephews Bernard, (died 1747) and Ross Rod, (died 1748).

The sixth most common name in Monaghan, McCabes are descended from Scottish gallowglass who, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, fought for the O’Reillys and O’Rourkes of Breffny. They were also in the service of MacMahon and became a prominent family around Monaghan town. In common with many other families they lost their lands after the Williamite wars at the end of the seventeenth century, although remaining a widespread name in the county.

With its variant Smyth, this is one of the most common names in Ulster and can be of Scottish, English or Irish origin. The most widespread derivation of the name is from (black)smith, and in England in particular would have arisen from a family’s association with the trade of farrier or armourer. In Cavan, and to some extent in Monaghan, certain members of the MacGabhann and O Gabhan septs, usually anglicised as McGowan, took the name Smith on the basis of the name Mac Gobha, ‘son of the smith’.

Kelly/O’Kelly comprises the second most common Irish surname after Murphy, and derives from a number of different O’Ceallaigh septs. Ulster Kellys are descended from Rochadh, son of Colla-da-Crioch, a fourth century king of Ulster and first king of Oriel.

Appearing also as Traynor and Trainor, this is among the top seven Monaghan names, particularly in the north of the county. It comes from the Gaelic Mac Threinfhir(trean=strong, and fear=man) and in some instances holders of the native Ulster name were anglicised as Armstrong. Some Trainors in Ulster are of English descent, dating from the Plantation period. That particular line derives from the Middle English verb trayne, to lay a train, or snare.

This is the most popular Monaghan name and derives from O’Dubhthaigh, descendant of Dubhthach, the black one. The Monaghan Duffys are famed in the ecclesiastical history of Clogher diocese, contributing many priests during the penal times of the early eighteenth century. The sept was centred around Clontibret, where Patrick O’Duffy, Chief of Teallach Gealacain, is recorded as early as 1296. Charles Gavan Duffy (1816-1903), the prominent Young Irelander, was a Monaghan man who went on to become prime minister of Victoria, Australia, as was also Eoin O’Duffy, first commissioner of the Garda Siochána, and first president of the Fine Gael party.

This name came almost wholly from Scotland with the Plantation, which saw many Hamiltons settling in Monaghan, Cavan, Armagh and Tyrone. Its derivation is most likely from Hambleton in Yorkshire; Walter Fitz Gilbert of Hambleton was granted lands in Scotland in the late thirteenth century by Robert the Bruce, and his grandson became David de Hamilton. Though largely Protestant, some Ulster Hamiltons are Catholic, descendants of the Catholic Sir George Hamilton, one of the chief undertakers of the Plantation, who settled large tracts of lands around Ardstraw in north-west Tyrone.

A common English name deriving from Middle English atte wode, ‘at the wood’, Wood found its way to Ireland at the Plantation of Ulster, where in the centuries since most have added an ‘s’. In Ulster, many of the name are of native Irish stock, due to Anglicisation of Gaelic names containing the word coill, meaning ‘wood’. An example of this would be MacEnhill, (Mac Conchoille) from con, ‘hound, and coill, ‘wood’, who were a sept located near Omagh, County Tyrone.

Connollys are numerous in Monaghan (ranked third in 1970) and derive from the O Conghaile sept who were driven north into Ulster by the Normans and came to prominence in the fifteenth century. The area associated with the Connollys is mainly between Monaghan town and Clones, and the name is commemorated in Drumconnolly and Mullaghconnolly. Monaghan Connollys played a leading part in the 1641 Rising, though one of them Owen Connolly, famously betrayed the rebels’ plans. James Connolly, socialist writer and co-leader of the 1916 Dublin Rising, was born in Edinburgh in 1868 of a Monaghan family.

The Surname Monaghan
Monaghan — also spelt Monahan — is a surname as well as a county name, but there is no connection between the two. The name is chiefly to be found in the Counties of Galway, Mayo and Fermanagh, all of which are not far from the original home of the O’Monaghans in County Roscommon. The Annals of the Four Masters record O’Monaghan as Lord of the Three Tuathas of Roscommon in 1287, about the time they were displaced form the lordship by the O’Hanlys. The surname derives was a famous Connacht warrior of the ninth century. Manacháin also denotes a monk and the name is often translated as Monk or Monks. Dick Monk, who was one of the 1798 rebels was also known as Richard Monaghan.

Patrick Kavanagh

O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And you gave me your clod-conceived.

Just north-east of Carrickmacross is the hamlet of Iniskeen, near which Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) was born in the townland of Mucker. His poetry, increasingly recognised as among the best of any Irish writer, celebrated the dignity of life amid the small farms and country people he knew so well. It also poignantly records the price exacted by the ties of land and kinship, and the anguish of struggling to establish identity and purpose in a society that had little appreciation of artistic values. In his poem Stony Grey Soil, he articulates the paradox of the poet’s relationship with the land:-

Mullinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco —
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.

Kavanagh’s powerful evocations of rural life in the early years of this century, together with the seminal influence of his work on later Irish writers like Montague, Heaney and Mahon, have led to Kavanagh’s stature assuming a new significance during the past two decades.

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Irish Roots Magazine in which it was first published in issue 2, 1998, pages 12-13.

Published by: Belgrave Publications
Year written: 1998
Copyright owned by: Belgrave Publications

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