Sunday, August 31, 2014

Being “More Irish Than the Irish”

As I pursue the history of the counties of Ireland from which our family’s ancestors originated, I become more and more plagued with a question: just who were those original Irish, anyhow?

I’ve wanted to prepare myself, as best I can, for our genealogical research trip to Ireland in October, and have systematically been reviewing what can be found on the history of the Irish counties of Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Mayo. In addition, I’ve been researching the historic roots of the surnames of particular interest to our family: Falvey, Flannery, Flanagan, Kelly, Molloy, Stevens and Tully.

While I haven’t gotten far into this process, it has resulted in a few observations. One, of course, is that every name in Irish history—no matter how obscure to this innocent bystander—seems to be prefaced by the adjective, “famous.” If not, the term substituting for that would be, “infamous.” “Legendary,” “noble,” and “chief” feature prominently on that list as well.

A closely related observation is that the Irish history seems to have been full of turmoil. If you, as a non-Irish reader, had assumed the main stage in this conflict would have been between the native Irish and their English aggressors, think again. That was only part of the story.

And yet, who were those original Irish? It becomes harder and harder for me to determine. (I’m certainly not willing to pursue an advanced degree in the subject, so perhaps when my anthropology-studying college student achieves her ultimate goal, she can enlighten me on the murky pre-dawn-of-history origins of the “Irish race.”) As I push back through the centuries of war, bloodshed, political intrigue and double-crossing, I keep striking the perpetrators off my list. No, not the British. Not the Normans: they were the very ones for which that phrase, "More Irish than the Irish," was once coined. Besides, they came after the Danes, who came after those other Norse invaders. With a sequence like this, I begin to wonder, “And who came before them?”

Since I have a solid address for our pre-1850 Molloy and Flanagan families in the southeastern portion of County Limerick, I took a look at the history of both the county and city of Limerick. Just as castles elsewhere on the island revealed the turmoil inherent in regional history in other parts of Ireland, the strongholds of Limerick told the same story, taking me from the Uí Fidgenti of the fourth century through traces of the last vestiges of one sept around the barony of Upper Connello—the very location in which the deserted Ann Flanagan Molloy had been addressed by the letter from her suddenly-emigrating husband.

The Uí Fidgenti were undoubtedly not the first in the region that we now know as County Limerick. Likewise, they were not the last to arrive there as invaders. Various factions of Vikings whose struggles besieged the area gradually gave way to invading Normans. With the point often being made that the Normans so adopted Irish customs as to be known as “more Irish than the Irish,” I begin wondering to which, of all these foreigners encroaching upon the Irish island, my husband owes his “Irish” heritage. After all this history, was he even Irish, at all?

A little detour into the world of genetic genealogy added one detail to bolster that speculation: my husband’s Y-DNA test returned, offering the possibility that his roots included some Viking origins. Does a Viking ancestor claiming turf upon the shores of Ireland make one Irish? Or Norse? Or do we simply succumb to the obvious result of having been awash in centuries of the history of foreign conquest, and claim for his ethnic heritage, American?

Above, right: Historical map of the island of Ireland in 1450, designating the areas held by native Irish versus Anglo-Irish lords or the English king; map released into the public domain by its creator, Wesley Johnston; courtesy Wikipedia.


  1. I like this map, it shows my O'Brien people. I hope you have an enjoyable trip!

    1. Glad you like it! I find maps to be fascinating and was quite glad to find this one.

      While I'm not as widely traveled as you are, I sure am looking forward to this trip! It will most certainly be a learning experience for me.

  2. I've no idea how factual this website is - but it makes for some interesting reading:

    1. Oh, this is the kind of site where I could get lost! You're right, Iggy: who knows how factual it all is. But at least the writer provided some sources.


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