the origins of the Doherty Clan

The O’Dohertys, Lords of Inishowen, descend, according to Irish medieval genealogies, from the ancient royal house of the Ui Niall, one time Kings of Ulster and High Kings of all Ireland. Most Irish genealogists recognise the accuracy of these pedigrees, which are among the oldest in Western Europe. Faithfully memorised by the clan archinnigh or chaplain and recorded by the monks, they trace the O’Doherty line back to Niall Mor Noygiollach, Niall of the Nine Hostages, founder of the O’Neill dynasty, who reigned as 126th Monarch of Ireland from 379 to 405. It was during his reign that a young Roman named Succat was captured on a military expedition to Gaul, and brought back to tend sheep on Slemish, near Ballymena. The boy managed to escape, but later returned to bring christianity to Ireland as St. Patrick. 

A mythological O’Neill pedigree extends back to the Spanish soldier, Milesius, who, according to legend, first came to Ireland some 17 centuries before Christ, and this pedigree connects with those in the book of Genesis, thus tracing our family back to Adam and Eve! 

Little is known of Doherty himself, other than his pedigree, which places him 13th in direct line of descent from Conall Gulban, one of eight sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Conall Gulban had captured and settled in Tir Connail, and gave his name to that part of modern Co. Donegal, where he died in AD 465. The peninsular of Inishowen (the island of Owen), situated immediately North of Doire (the modern city of Derry), was named after his brother. The name Doherty has been variously interpreted as meaning hurtful or disobliging, unlucky, or conqueror of difficulties, and the founder of the Sept probably flourished in the eighth century, possibly in Maigh Iotha, to the South West of modern Derry.

Under the laws of tanistry, by which Irish property and titles were passed on, any suitable direct descendant in the male line, as far as the great grandson of a previous chieftain, could stake his claim to the succession, provided he had the power to back it up and sustain it. This resulted in personal pedigrees being learnt by heart by aspiring leaders, and recorded by the family archinnigh, who was able to write down such important information, and recited the new chieftain’s pedigree during inauguration ceremonies. It also led to frequent feuding amongst brothers and cousins, who would have little hesitation in killing a serious rival, no matter how closely related. There is evidence to suggest that the learning by heart of distinguished pedigrees continued into the early nineteenth century, and that the custom only died out as use of the Irish language declined. 

Five generations after the original Doherty, his great great grandson, Donogh Donn adopted Doherty as a surname, indicating the arrival of a new and powerful sept on the Ulster political scene, gaining in strength with each succeeding generation, until the accession of Donall O’Doherty, Lord of Kinel Enda and Ard Miodhair, the first chief of his name to settle in Inishowen in the latter part of the 12th century. The annalists then record the line of the chieftain down to Conor an Enigh (the generous) O’Doherty, Chief of Ard Miodhair and Lord of Inishowen, who died in 1413, and from whom all modern branches of the family are said to descend. This is largely born out by the O’Dochartaigh pedigrees recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, which identify six distinct sliochts (or branches), settled in different parts of Inishowen. The senior branch was the Sliocht Brian, named after Brian Dubh, from whom the Clan chieftain was generally chosen. They were based at Elagh castle. Sliocht Slane, and its sub branch Sliocht Rosa occupied Inch Island, Sliocht Breasalie came from Clonmany, Sliocht Donnell from Newcastle (now known as Greencastle), and Sliocht Felim from Glenagannon in the parish of Donagh. 

Map of part of Donegal

The sept flourished and expanded their power base in Inishowen over the next two hundred years, and, in 1600 they were firmly established in the Barony, part of which was described in a state paper: “ Beyond it, the mainland of Inishowen, is another river of like nature, as I hear, but I have not seen it as I have this, which cutteth off the far end of the country from all the rest; upon which standeth a wood and a pass, where into the O’Dogherty is now retired with all his people and goods. It is said to be the fertilest part of all the rest, and hath upon it divers castles built of late years to resist the Scots, and it is so full of poor Irish houses, as it seems in a manner but one town.” Chieftain Sean Mor O’Dogherty’s retreat was at Don Yrishe hold, probably the modern Dunargus on the Malin peninsular. At the same time his kinsmen Phelim Brasleigh O’Doherty (of Sliocht Breasalie) was living at Carrick brahey castle, Hugh Boy mack Caire O’Doherty (Sliocht Donnell) in the ruins of Greencastle (then known as Newcastle), while McShane O’Doherty (Sliocht Felim) was at Caldanylie, about a mile north of Donoughmore. Redcastle was the seat of the Chieftain of the McLaughlin clan, whose brother lived at nearby Whitecastle (Garran na nGall).

The last native Chieftain was Cahir Rua (red) O’Dogherty, born in 1587, knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and treacherously killed in 1608, following a brave stand against the English. After his death, family lands in Inishowen were taken on behalf of King James, and allocated by him to Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, as a reward for services rendered in suppressing the troublesome native Irish. Most of the leaders who had supported Cahir Rua fled to Europe, whilst rank and file were pardoned, and allowed to return to their homes as tenants, liable to eviction from lands they had traditionally occupied for generations, replaced by English speaking protestants transplanted from Scotland. Similar immigrants in another part of Ulster were described in the following unflattering terms by a contemporary presbyterian minister, himself of Scottish origin.  “…..all of them, generally the scum of both nations (Scotland and England), who for debt, or breaking and fleeing from justice, or seeking shelter came hither, hoping to be without fear of man’s justice in a land where there was nothing, or but little, as yet of the fear of God…” Such people were apparently encouraged to start a new life in Ireland, and were generally located in the most productive and fertile lands, while the original native occupiers were removed progressively to the more remote areas. It is little wonder that the differing traditions, cultures and religions in Ulster have been a source of problems ever since. 

Cahir Rua’s younger brother, John survived the troubles, and lived out the remainder of his life under English domination. As this became ever more oppressive for adherents of the traditional catholic religion, his descendants moved away from Ulster, and a senior line eventually emigrated in the late 18th century to Spain. In recent years Ramon Salvador O’Dogherty, the senior member of that family, and a direct descendant of Sean Og O’Dogherty (Cahir Rua’s father) has been formally recognised as Chief of the Clan.