The individual tribe comprised a number of clans which each descended from different but related ancestors. As time went by, it was common for clans to further subdivide into new clans typically as the result of sibling rivalry.
Early Brehon law described the complex methods of defining kinship within the male-dominated clan in terms of levels of family relationship. The primary unit was the immediate family of the same generation - i.e. brothers. The secondary unit was the extended family including two generations - i.e. brothers, sons and nephews. The tertiary unit was the tenuously extended family including three generations - i.e. brothers, sons, nephews, grandsons and grandnephews; and so on.
Administration effectively started at clan level, where the senior heads of the primary family units would jointly elect a clan chieftain from the pool of eligible males. In cases where leadership was closely contended, it was common for a deputy or tanaiste to be elected to assist and succeed the chosen leader or taoiseach. These terms of office are still used in Irish government to this day. In the early days, eligibility was relatively unrestricted and all adult males of sound mind and limb would be considered. As the centuries passed, it was observed that physical traits desirable in a leader - wisdom, strength, good character, etc. - were frequently passed on to direct descendants. Gradually, the rules for eligibility were modified so that the candidates needed to belong to the quaternary family unit of the previous chieftain (down to great grandsons and great grandnephews). The office of chieftain was usually a lifetime post, but often prematurely terminated by neighbouring warring tribes.
Above the level of clan, the tuatha were generally governed by a minor king who was also the chieftain of the most dominant clan in the area. At any given time in the middle ages, there were up to 150 tuatha or petty kingdoms, and it is for this reason that most Irish families can rightly claim to be descended from an old Irish king.
Above the level of tribe, the land was divided into larger provinces governed by a major king who was also the leader of the most dominant tribe in the area. These kings were frequently at war with each other, vying for greater power and the glorious title of undisputed high-king or ard-rí. This title was often claimed but seldom effectively attained, so the ambitious king was usually obliged to settle for the lesser title of high-king with opposition.
Since land was commonly owned by related families and normally inherited through the male line, the details of genealogical descent were always carefully noted and memorised by the family members. As dominant families emerged, families of hereditary bards developed to record key genealogies (not without embellishment) in the form of elaborate poems passed down from father to son by word of mouth. In later years, the hereditary bards used parchment to serve the same purpose of safe-guarding family territorial rights.
Formal surnames evolved in Irish society around the tenth and eleventh centuries, and therefore rank among the oldest surnames in Europe. The majority of these surnames are patronymic and signify direct descent through the male line from a distinguished personage well known in the locality. The prefix Mac (= son) signifies first generation descent, whilst the prefix Ó (= grandson) denotes second generation (or later) descent.
The surname O'Flannery (or more commonly Flannery, since the prefix O was generally dropped in the nineteenth century) is usually an Anglicisation of the Gaelic surname Ó Flannabhra, and signifies descent from a person named Flannabhra. However, it is equally important to note that both Flannery and Flannelly were used as an Anglicisation of the Gaelic surname Ó Flannghaile, a name which signifies descent from a person named Flannghaile.
It is interesting to note that the accent or fada over the prefix Ó, which serves to lengthen the sound of the vowel, was gradually modified to an apostraphe ' by the early scribes in order to render the closely spaced lines of manuscript more aesthetically attractive.
Flannabhra was a Gaelic personal name, not uncommon in the early and middle ages. The name is a compound of flann (= ruddy) and abhra (= eyebrow or brow), thus the literal meaning is "red eyebrow". This descriptive name possibly referred to a person with prominent red hair.
Flannghaile was another Gaelic personal name. The name is a compound of flann (= ruddy) and ghaile (from gal = fury), thus the literal meaning is "red valour". This descriptive name possibly originated with a person who displayed valour in combat or sport.
In general terms, there are two distinct septs of Ó Flannabhra which developed independently in two different regions, namely Connaught and Munster. The Connaught sept of Ó Flannabhra was of Uí Fiachrach Muaidhe. The Munster sept of Ó Flannabhra was of Uí Fidhghente. Contentiously, there arises the issue of the sept of Ó Flannghaile, which was also of Uí Fiachrach Muaidhe in Connaught, and thereby hangs an interesting tale . . .
Theoretically, Ó Flannghaile is a different family to either of the septs of Ó Flannabhra, and this is a point well recorded by the foremost genealogists Woulfe and MacLysaght. However, the two septs of Ó Flannabhra in Connaught and Munster are equally distinct and unrelated; and it is now virtually impossible to effectively distinguish between the Connaught sept of Ó Flannabhra and Ó Flannghaile. For all practical purposes, the sept of Ó Flannghaile must be included with the two septs of Ó Flannabhra - not because this is the path of least resistance, but because its exclusion would doubtless exclude many Flannerys whose surnames have been corrupted by translation and transcription over the generations. It is worth noting that there are still individuals in Ireland who use the surname Flannery in English and Ó Flannghaile in Irish. Thus, academic purism should give way to reality, and all three septs ought to be included in the Flannery Clan.
Uí Fidhghente in Munster
The River Maigue rises near Ardpatrick in south County Limerick and flows northwards to join the River Shannon, effectively bisecting the county into two halves. Historically, Uí Fidhghente was the half of County Limerick to the west of the Maigue.
The annals state that the tribes of Uí Fidhghente descend from Oilioll Olum (Oilioll of the bare ear - because "his ear was bitten off by the Dé Dánann maiden Áine as he was ravishing her"; king of Munster, who died in 234). He was a son of Eoghan Mór (otherwise known as Mogh Nuadhat, king of Munster, who died in 166) from whom the Eoghanacht tribes of Munster were named.
Oilioll married Sadhbh, a daughter of Conn Cetcathach (Conn of the hundred battles; king of Connaught, who died in 157) after whom the province of Connaught was named. There was great rivalry between Conn and Mogh, who effectively ruled the northern ("Conn's Half") and southern ("Mogh's Half") portions of Ireland respectively. The marriage of their children may have been a strategic alliance. As a consequence of this ancestry, Uí Fidhghente (also known as Uí Ghabhra) was exempt from all tributes and hostages to subsequent kings of Munster.
The genealogical poem attributed to Saint Beanán (Saint Benignus, who died in 468) but subsequently enlarged and continued to a much later period, forms part of the old Book of Rights and includes the following verse :
"The Eoghanachts pay no tribute, for theirs are the lands that serve Caiseal, The Clanna Chais, or the people of Raithleann, or of Gelann Amhain, or of Locha Lein, or of the Uí Fidhghente, or of Aine Cliath, pay no tribute."
The chief families of Uí Fidhghente were the O'Coileáin (Collins), O'Cinnfhaelidh (Kennelly), O'Flannabhra (Flannery) and Mac Inneirghe (MacEnery). Although many Flannerys remain in Limerick to this day, they have also dispersed throughout neighbouring Counties Clare, Tipperary, Kerry and Cork, as well as emigrating overseas.
The Book of Rights records the following annual tribute from the king of Munster to the chief of Uí Ghabhra (otherwise Uí Fidhghente) to ensure his political support. It is worth noting that most chiefs only received multiples of six or seven items.
"Ten steeds to the king of Uí Ghabhra,
Ten shields, ten swords fit for battle,
Ten drinking horns in his protective fort,
Without hostages from him, without pledges."
Uí Fiachrach Muaidhe in Connaught
Historically, Uí Fiachrach Muaidhe was an area of land in the north of Counties Mayo and Sligo, and at one time stretched from the River Moy as far north as the River Erne. Uí Fiachrach Muaidhe formed part of the greater region known as Uí Fiachrach, which occupied most of Counties Galway, Mayo and Sligo. For the majority of its history, Uí Fiachrach was bounded by the River Robe in the south of County Mayo and extended northwards to the River Cowney which discharges into Sligo Bay at Drumcliff.
Uí Fiachrach was named after Fiachra Foltsnathach (Fiachra of the flowing hair), son of Eochaidh Muighmheadhoin (Eochaidh of the moist middle - because "he was much troubled by the flux of the belly" or dysentery; king of Connaught and much of Ireland, who died in 366). Eochaidh was a grandson of Conn Cetcathach.
Uí Fiachrach Muaidhe was named after Fiachra Ealgach, son of Daithi (the last pagan king of Connaught) and grandson of Fiachra Foltsnathach. The annals state that the tribes of Uí Fiachrach descend from Eochaidh Muighmheadhoin, but there is a certain amount of ambiguity concerning the precise lineage of the family and several possible genealogies have been suggested. As a consequence of this ancestry, Uí Fiachrach was usually exempt from all tributes and hostages to subsequent kings of Connaught. St. Beanán's genealogical poem in the Book of Rights includes the following verse :
"The free tribes of Connaught without sorrow,
No ample tribute of them is due;
The Uí Briuin of the ships of the seas,
The Siol Muireadhaigh of the tribes.
The Uí Fiachrach of the great plain,
The Cineal Aedha, - not unjust,
They are not liable to rent or tribute,
To give to the king of Connaught."
This privilege features in the records for the inauguration of Cathal Croibhdherg O'Connor (Charles the Red-fisted; king of Connaught 1201 - 1224), but appears to have briefly lapsed for a short time until it was reinstated in 1213 when Donnchadh O'Dubhda (the O'Dowds were the senior sept of Uí Fiachrach Muaidhe) sailed a large fleet into Clew Bay, and compelled Cathal Croibhdherg O'Connor to give up every claim to the tributes which the latter demanded out of the principality of Uí Fiachrach.
The genealogical poem by Giolla Íosa Mór Mac Firbis includes the following verses :
"The O'Mailchonaires without a blot,
The O'Flannabhras without oppression,
The O'Seghdas of rich prudence,
Heroes who reject not men of learning."
"The O'Flannghailes, who reported no fault,
A people of most universal bravery,
Dwell around Lough Glinne of hospitable men,
Youths with whom valour is a hostage."