Chapter Twelve: The Mac Giolla Fhinnéin

The Mac Giolla Fhinnéin – Lords of Fermanagh


The Catholic Leonards of Fermanagh are the descendants of an old Gaelic clan with a home territory in Fermanagh. They were the Mac Giolla Fhinnéin (pronounced Magilla Nane) and their territory was Muintir Pheodacháin, (pronounced Min-chir Feed-a-con) ‘the land of the Swifts’, a clan displaced by the Leonards in ancient times.  The territory extended roughly from the mouth of the Arney river westwards along the northern shores of Lough McNean to the Big Dog mountains near Garrison — substantially the present parish of Cleenish.

The historian Fr Peadar Livingstone, records “

This (The Mac Giolla Fhinnéin) family were lords of Muintir Pheodacháin and for a time lords of all Fermanagh. Their growth was curbed by the ascendancy of the Maguires. They managed to remain lords of the Pheodacháin (or at least part of it) during the Maguire period” (circa 1300 – 1600).[1]

Another scholar in this field, Fr Ciarán Devlin, considers that the Mac Giolla Fhinnéin belonged to the Cinéal Chonaill in Donegal. and were related to the kings of that sept, but much more closely to the ӒMaoldoraidh family. (see the Clogher Record, 2002, Vol. XVII, page 791 for his piece on the origins of the clan.) Both of these families were ousted from royal power by the rise of ӒDomhnaill about 1200. Some of them evidently found refuge in Muinter Pheodacháin, now the parish of Cleenish, where they adopted the title of Giolla Fhinnéin, ‘the followers of Finnian.’ (St Finnian was a distinguished churchman of the sixth century whose disciple, Sinell, founded a monastery on the island Cleenish from which the parish gets its name). Fr Devlin concludes from the annals and genealogies that there were a number of branches of the Mac Giolla Fhinnéin and that they were for a time prominent in ecclesiastical and civil affairs. Their name appears frequently in the annals between 1231 and 1499 but their importance in civil affairs lessened due to the pressure of the more numerous Maguires. Like other clans who lost civil power they were compensated by stewardship of church lands and ecclesiastical benefices.

The clan system which had survived for centuries in Ireland came to an end with the ascendancy of the English at the end of the 1500s and is marked in history by the ‘Flight of the Earls’ in 1607. From that time English rule prevailed. These were turbulent times: the ravages of the Elizabethan wars in the 1500s were followed by the seizure of lands by English lords and their Plantations in the 1600s succeeded by the Cromwellian persecutions and the Penal laws of the late 1600s and early 1700s. For over two centuries of conquest which Ireland was, in the words of one historian, ‘a most distressful country.’[2]

Yet the native population increased and remained predominantly Catholic. Then came the terrible potato famine of the 1840s which decimated the population and scattered the surviving Irish to the four winds.

In spite of generations of ongoing persecution the remnants of old Irish clans can still be found congregated in their various homelands. Among these are the Leonards still numerous in the upper (western) end of the parish of Cleenish. John O’Donovan, working for the Ordnance Survey wrote of Cleenish in 1834 wrote: “

The Annals [of the Four Masters] throw great light on Muintir Pheodacháin and I was much pleased to find that the Mac Gillions (Mac Giolla Fhinnéin ) were its ancient chiefs, because they are at present by far the most numerous family in the district, but have shamefully anglized their name to Leonard.” [3]

As to having shamefully ‘anglicized’ their name, it is doubtful if the Leonards had any choice in the matter. They were one of a number of Gaelic families who had their names crudely translated by their English overmasters to something that came more readily to the English tongue. It is probable that the name was ‘borrowed’ from English Leonards, namely the family of Quartermaster John Leonard, who was given an estate in Fermanagh after the incursion of General Ludlow of Cromwell’s army in 1652.

The Mac Giolla Fhinnéin (Leonards) were fortunate in their enclave along the Lough McNeans in that, at the Plantation, they were spared the intrusion of Protestant landlords. Bishop Duffy writes: “

In the Plantation of Ulster most of the area of Cleenish was allotted to gaelic landlords and so, by the end of the 17th century most of the population was gaelic Irish with a sprinkling of British settlers filtering in from Enniskillen area and the Sillies valley.”[4]

The Leonards were one of the Gaelic families who got small estates in Fermanagh at the time, presumably in their home area of Muintir Pheodacháin, but it is unlikely that these survived the Cromwellian banishment of Gaelic families in the late 1600s.

The Kinawley Connection

There is an old family story that in the dim past two Leonards from Upper Lough McNean area set out to walk eastwards in search of a more promising country, as far as they could walk in a day’. Their journey took them to Kinawley where they found work and settled there. One of these was the ancestor of our family. There is another theory that our ancestor was one of the victims of the Cromwellian resettlements (of Gaelic families) who was given a small holding in Kinawley. It is doubtful if we will ever know which, if either, is fact. What we do know is that we can trace an ancestor in Graffy, Kinawley — Terence Leonard, born c1778, a tenant of the Crawford estates who appeared to have a security of tenure which could have gone back to the Cromwelliam resettlements. All the evidence indicates that we Kinglass Leonards and our neighbour Catholic Leonards in south Fermanagh, are descendants of the ancient clan of the Mac Giolla Fhinnéin in the homeland of Muinter Pheodacháin.


[1]”The Fermanagh Story” p24 (for publications named see Bibliography)

[2]”The Most Distressful Country” Robert Kee

[3]Letters of O’Donovan p75

[4]”Landscapes of South Ulster : a Parish Atlas of the diocese of Clogher” p56