Kingdom of Briéifne
In ancient times the area that became to be known as Bréifne was said to be occupied by the Erdini, called in Irish ‘Ernaigh’, who possessed the entire country bordering Lough Erne.
At the beginning of the Christian era in Ireland (circa 5th–6th century) tribal groupings believed to be in or near Breifne included the Glasraighe, Masraige, Dartraige, Armhaighe, Gallraighe, the Fir Manach, and the Gailenga.
Around the 6th century a people known as the Conmaicne Rein are thought to have moved north from around the present Dunmore in County Galway and settled in Magh Rein (the area around Fenagh). From here they peopled what is now South Leitrim, which became known as Magh Rein, and its inhabitants as the Conmaicne Magh Rein. They consisted of different family groupings – Muintir Eolais, Muintir Cearbhallain (O Mulvey), and Cinel Luachain, among others.
About the 8th century, the area since known as Breifne was conquered and settled by the Uí Briúin who were a branch of the royal family of Connacht. The Uí Briúin established themselves first in modern county Leitrim and then into what is now County Cavan. It can be argued that there is no contemporary evidence to support these speculations. It is a great pity that this entire entry does not display any critique of historical sources.
By the 9th century the O’Ruaircs had established themselves as kings of Breifne.
In the 10th and 11th centuries the O’Ruairc kings of Breifne fought some battles for the title of king of Connacht, four different kings of Breifne gaining the title.
During the 12th century the reign of Tighearnán Ua Ruairc, the kingdom of Breifne was said to comprise most of the modern counties of Leitrim and Cavan, and parts of Longford, Meath, Fermanagh and Sligo.
In the 16th century Breifne O’Rourke eventually became Co. Leitrim and Breifne O’Reilly became Co. Cavan.
In medieval times, the area of Cavan was part of the petty kingdom of East Bréifne or Brefney O’Reilly after its ruling Gaelic family. This in turn was a division of the 11th century Kingdom of Bréifne. For this reason the county is colloquially known as the Breffni County. A high degree of defence was achieved by using the natural landscape of drumlin hills and loughs. The poorly drained heavy clay soils contributed as an obstacle against invasion.
Historically, Cavan was part of the western province of Connacht, but was transferred to Ulster in 1584 when Bréifne was shired and became the county of Cavan. In the south, the Lough Sheelin area was part of Leinster until the late 14th century.
Parts of Cavan were subjected to Norman influence from the twelfth century and the remains of several motte and bailie fortifications are still visible mainly in the east of the county, as well as the remains of stronger works such as Castlerahan and Clogh Oughter castle. The influence of several monastic orders also owes its origins to around this time with abbey remains existent in locations such as Drumlane and Trinity Island.
The Plantation of Ulster from 1610 saw the settlement and origins of several new towns within the county that include Bailieborough, Cootehill, Killeshandra and Virginia. Existing towns such as Cavan and Belturbet became over time more important as trading centres. Wars aimed at trying to unsettle the Plantation only led to further plantations of English and Scottish settlers into the county and the beginnings of a thriving flax and linen industry.
Some areas of Cavan were hard hit by the Great Famine potato blight between 1845-49. The winter of 1847 is particularly noted for the high levels of deaths nationally caused by diseases such as typhus and cholera. Several instances of eviction also occurred during the nineteenth century, with one such story where the local landlord in Mountnugent parish decided to evict over 200 people. The famous ballad “By Lough Sheelin Side” is based on this event witnessed by the local Catholic priest.
In ancient times Leitrim formed the western half of the Kingdom of Breifne. This region was long influenced by the O’Rourke family of Dromahair, whose heraldic lion occupies the official county shield to this day. Close ties initially existed with East Breifne, now County Cavan, and the O’Reilly clan seated there. The Normans invaded in the 13th century and occupied the south of Breifne. Much of the county was confiscated from its owners in 1620 and given to Villiers and Hamilton. Their initial objective was to plant the county with English settlers. However, this proved unsuccessful. English Deputy Sir John Perrot had ordered the legal establishment of “Leitrim County” a half-century prior, in 1565. Perrott also demarked the current county borders around 1583. Five forests are traditionally said to have stood in Leitrim up till the 17th century.
Leitrim was first hit by the recession caused by the mechanisation of [linen] weaving in the 1830s and its 155,000 residents (as of the 1841 census) were ravaged by the Great Famine and the population dropped to 112,000 by 1851. The population subsequently continued to decrease due to emigration. After many years, the wounds of such rapid population decline have finally started to heal. Agriculture improved over the last century. Leitrim now has the fastest growing population in Connacht.
Working of the county’s rich deposits of iron ore began in the 15th century and continued until the mid 18th century. Coal mining became prominent in the 19th century to the east of Lough Allen in Sliabh an Iariann and also to the west in Arigna, on the Roscommon border. The last coal mine closed in July 1990 and there is now a visitor centre. Sandstone was also quarried in the Glenfarne region. William Butler Yeats spent the turn of the twentieth century fascinated with Lough Allen and much of Leitrim. In the northwest, 11 km from Manorhamilton can be found Glencar Waterfall, which was an inspiration to Yeats and is mentioned in his poem The Stolen Child.
At various times in its history, it has been known as County Tirconaill, County Tirconnell or County Tyrconnell (Irish: Contae Thír Chonaill). The former was used as its official name during 1922–1927. This is in reference to both the old túath of Tír Chonaill and the earldom that succeeded it. County Donegal is famous for being the home of the once mighty Clann Dálaigh, whose most famous branch were the Clann Ó Domhnaill, better known in English as the O’Donnell Clan. Until around 1600, the O’Donnells were one of Ireland’s richest and most powerful Gaelic (native Irish) ruling-families. Within the Province of Ulster only the Clann Uí Néill (known in English as the O’Neill Clan) of modern County Tyrone were more powerful. The O’Donnells were Ulster’s second most powerful clan or ruling-family from the early 13th-century through to the start of the 17th-century. For several centuries the O’Donnells ruled Tír Chonaill, a Gaelic kingdom in West Ulster that covered almost all of modern County Donegal. The head of the O’Donnell family had the titles An Ó Domhnaill (meaning The O’Donnell in English) and Rí Thír Chonaill (meaning King of Tír Chonaill in English). Based at Donegal Castle in Dún na nGall (modern Donegal Town), the O’Donnell Kings of Tír Chonaill were traditionally inaugurated at Doon Rock near Kilmacrenan. O’Donnell royal or chiefly power was finally ended in what was then the newly created County Donegal in September 1607, following the Flight of the Earls from near Rathmullan. The modern County Arms of Donegal (dating from the early 1970s) was influenced by the design of the old O’Donnell royal arms. The County Arms is the official coat of arms of both County Donegal and Donegal County Council.
The modern County Donegal was shired by order of the English Crown in 1585. The English authorities at Dublin Castle formed the new county by amalgamating the old Kingdom of Tír Chonaill with the old Lordship of Inishowen. However, the English authorities were unable to establish control over Tír Chonaill and Inishowen until after the Battle of Kinsale in 1602. Full control over the new County Donegal was only achieved after the Flight of the Earls in September 1607. The county was one of those ‘planted’ during the Plantation of Ulster from around 1610 onwards.
County Donegal was one of the worst affected parts of Ulster during the Great Famine of the late 1840s in Ireland. Vast swathes of the county were devastated by this catastrophe, many areas becoming permanently depopulated. Vast numbers of County Donegal’s people emigrated at this time, chiefly through the Port of Derry. Huge numbers of the county’s people who emigrated were to settle in Glasgow in southern Scotland.
The Partition of Ireland in the early 1920s was to have a massive direct impact on County Donegal. Partition cut the county off, economically and administratively, from Derry, which had acted for centuries as the county’s main port, transport hub and financial centre. Derry, together with West Tyrone, was henceforward in a new, different jurisdiction officially called Northern Ireland. Partition also meant that County Donegal was now almost entirely cut off from the rest of the jurisdiction it now found itself in, the new dominion called the Irish Free State. This dominion became fully independent in April 1949 when it left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland. Only a few miles of the county is physically connected by land to the rest of the Republic. The existence of this border, cutting Donegal off from her natural hinterlands in Derry City and West Tyrone, has greatly exacerbated the economic difficulties of the county since partition. The county’s economy is particularly susceptible, just like that of Derry City, to the currency fluctuations of the Euro against Sterling.
Added to all this, in the late 20th-century, County Donegal was, by the standards of the rest of the Republic of Ireland, to be adversely affected by The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The county was to suffer several bombings and at least two assassinations. In June 1987, Constable Samuel McClean, a Donegal man who was a serving member of the R.U.C., was shot dead by the I.R.A. at his family home near Drumkeen. In May 1991, the prominent Sinn Féin politician Councillor Eddie Fullerton was assassinated by the U.D.A. at his home in Buncrana. This added further to the economic and social difficulties of the county. However, the Good Friday Agreement (G.F.A.) of April 1998 has been of great benefit to the county.
It has been labelled the ‘forgotten county’ by its own politicians, owing to the increasing regularity with which it is ignored by the Irish Government, even in times of crisis.