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McGrath of Ulster

“When I set out from the Termon, the Lord of the place who is a great Lord (the McGrath, the Comharba, Muiris, son of Nicholas) and his brother, who had great devotion to Saint Patrick and helps much to direct the pilgrims, volunteered to go with me and accompanied  me as far as the monastery (on Saints’ Island) where I was very well received….” 
Raymond, Viscount de Perelhos, a Spanish noble and pilgrim, 1397 AD.

The Clan McGrath of Ulster historically occupied the territory within the confines of the Barony of Tirhugh, Co. Donegal and adjacent counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. The McGrath Chief held the hereditary title of Corab (In Gaelic: Comharba) and Termoner of Lough Derg. However, in the late 16th century many McGraths from the Termon followed Archbishop Miler McGrath to Cashel in Tipperary and the neighbouring county of Waterford when he received the Anglican Archbishopric of Cashel. We are fortunate to have the names of these Ulster migrants from a contemporary document, a pardon issued in 1608 by King James I to Archbishop Miler McGrath and his followers.

To this day the McGrath name is still marked in the landscape of Ulster, the area of Termonmagrath is the location of the Castle McGrath and the pilgrimage site of Lough Derg. The Clan McGrath controlled the routes to the lough and the revenues from pilgrims making their way from across Europe to the site.  To the north of Termonmagrath just outside Ballybofey is Carrickmagrath (the rock of the McGraths), the possible inauguration site of the McGrath Chiefs.

Carrickmagrath Portal Tomb – Possible inauguration site of the McGrath Chieftains?

Research has identified a possible contender for the site, a Dolmen or portal tomb only rediscovered in 1988. It stands on a ledge, close to the top of a prominent hill but hidden from view by a mature forest. The monument consists of a roofed chamber facing NE and stands towards one end of a long cairn. Two longitudinally set portal stones either side of the sillstone mark the front of the chamber. Built between 3000 and 2000BC they are general held to be tombs but may have had other ritual significance.
The stones we see now would have originally been covered in earthen mounds, with the area below the capstone forming an entrance leading to the tomb proper. Hence the correct name of Portal Tombs.

The inauguration of the O’Neill Chief

Having such a monument in a prominent position, built before people fully understood who and how these were built, meant that in Irish folklore and tradition, these were seen as significant locations with otherworldly or magical significance. The perfect location to inaugurate a Clan Chief? Perhaps. To have such an ancient monument on land associated with our Clan history is indeed a proud connection in to our very deepest roots.

So how did the McGraths end up in Ulster? We know from the Annals of Ulster that a McGrath was Chief and Corab of Termonmagrath by 1290AD. The close alliance built over many years with the O’Neill Clan of Ulster may have its origin in an invitation to the McGraths to come to the Termon and act as independant holders of the neutral territory of the warring Clans of O’Donnell, O’Neill and Maguire. The Termon and the Termoner was in effect a diplomatic space for negotiation to settle disputes. It has been suggested that the McGraths may have been offered the Termon to settle and run as a neutral outside observer with links to the powerful O’Brien Clan of Thomond. Along with the Termon lands, as Corabs the Clan McGrath were responsible for the administration of the famous pilgrimage of Lough Derg.

Medieval Pilgrims

We are fortunate to still possess some wonderful descriptions of medieval pilgrims making their may to Lough Derg. These pilgrims received the hospitality of the McGrath. One such Spanish pilgrim,the noble Raymond, Viscount de Perelhos, writing in 1397AD, left us this vivid description of his visit to the Termon on his way to Lough Derg:

” I made my way through various lands as far as one of their towns called Termin (Termon). They did harm to no one, but they hold Saint Patrick in great devotion. And for long both Kingdoms and Kings have kept the town in safety. And the pilgrims who go there are obliged to leave their beasts there, for neither horses nor beasts could pass the mountains or the waters. So that thence I went on foot to the town where the Priory is (i.e. Saints’ Island, then connected to the mainland by a causeway)….The bogs are so great in Ireland that scarcely upon the highest mountains can one pass through the waters. And even then one goes knee deep, so that on foot there is the greatest difficulty, and on horseback even greater, and it would be wonderful if anyone could pass over it. When I set out from the Termon, the Lord of the place who is a great lord (The Mac Craith / McGrath, the Comharba, Muiris, son of Nicholas) and his brother, who had great devotion to Saint Patrick and helps much to direct the pilgrims, volunteered to go with me and accompanied  me as far as the monastery (on Saints’ Island) where I was very well received….”

Most of the Gaelic genealogies and pedigrees of the 15th and 16th centuries accept the Clan McGrath of Ulster as descendents of the McGraths of Thomond and in turn have an hereditary link to the Princes of Thomond and Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. 

The Clan McGrath of Ulster are also related to many of the noble families of Ulster by way of blood and the practice of fosterage, including the O’Neills of Tyrone, the O’Donnells of Tyrconnel (Donegal) and the Maguires of Fermanagh. We know from the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters the names and lineage of the McGrath Chiefs from the 13th century until the eventual demise of the Gaelic order in the 17th century.

McGrath of Waterford and Tipperary

By the 16th century the McGraths of Thomond had spread out from Clare to the counties of Waterford and Tipperary were they had established the bardic school at Cahir.  

The best known Waterford McGraths, often referred to as McCragh, were located on the eastern slopes of the Knockmealdown Mountains. These families were descended from the Mac Craiths of Thomond and were associated with the Fitzgerald family (Earl of Desmond). The McGraths and O’Briens were invited to occupy the slopes of the Knockmealdown and Commeragh Mountains respectively, to protect the Fitzgerald territory from incursion from the North.

The head of the sept in the early 1600’s was Philip McCragh of Sliabh Gua who constructed a castle called Sleady Castle in 1628 at Curraghnasleady. Part of the walls of this impressive 17th century, four story structure are still standing. Sleady Castle is located just east of Cappaquin a little off the road to Clonmel. A further castle was constructed at Mountain Castle where Philip lived prior to the completion of Sleady Castle. 

A tower house at Abbeyside across the river from Dungarvan was built by a member of this sept in the mid 1500s. They were protectors and patrons of the nearby Augustinian Abbey. The castle was finally demolished in the 1960’s. The site of the castle was marked with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in 2015. 

There were also other branches of the Waterford family living nearby: McCraghs in Ballynagilty north of Sleady Castle and McCraghs of Lisfinny southwest of Lismore (McCragh of Lismore Muchada).

The Civil Survey of 1654AD for Co. Tipperary effectively groups together three main clusters of McGraths. One group are the descendents of the Ulster McGraths who arrived with Archbishop Miler McGrath to central Tipperary.  In this time of religious conflict and war Archbishop Miler brought 200 men-at-arms from Ulster that included McGraths and their bannermen from Clan McMenamin and Clan Monaghan. all acting as Miler’s personal bodyguard. This migration from Ulster increased McGrath numbers in the region where their descendants reside to this day. The other Tipperary family was listed as McCragh in northwest Tipperary and the third was again listed as McCragh in the Cahir area. 

A further McCraith family occupied the tower house at Loughlohery both before and after the Cromwellian transplantation that removed many Irish families from their homesteads. Their descendants still occupy the townland of Loughlohery to this day. Over the subsequent years some of these McCraghs migrated into Co. Limerick, Co. Cork and Co. Waterford.

The Clan McGrath today

Today the Clan McGrath is represented by two active septs, these septs are located in the ancient Clan territories of Ulster and Waterford and Tipperary. Both septs are registered Clans of Finte na hEireann (Clans of Ireland)

The Ceann Fine of the Clan McGrath of Ulster is Seán Alusdrann Mac Craith. Seán chairs the Cumann Chlann Mhic Craith (Clan McGrath Society) . 
Membership of the Clan Society is FREE and information on how to join can be found by clicking on the ‘SOCIETY’ tab on the main menu.  The Clan McGrath Society welcomes new members and seeks to promote and preserve our ancient heritage by organising events including the International McGrath Clan Gathering 2020 which will take place in our ancient northern ancestral territories of Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

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