John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters of King’s County, 1837 – 1838: Banagher, Clonmacnoise, Fercall, and Durrow. By John Dolan

Ordnance Survey of Ireland 1824 – 1842

John O’Donovan stayed in Banagher from 10-21 January 1834 where he was accompanied by Thomas O’Connor. As mentioned in a previous blog he used his time there to look at two historic sites in particular, in addition to his normal work. He first concentrated on Clonmacnoise, writing his first substantial and detailed letters on 15 January 1838. This followed on from his request that documents be sent from Dublin ahead of his arrival. He had visited Clonmacnoise and had collected a considerable amount of information about the church site and general area.

He first concentrated on the individual monuments on the site as detailed in earlier manuscripts and associated the monument to the relevant family names. His local contact was a man named Patrick Molloy but O’Donovan was sceptical about the accuracy of the information provided by him. In addition, he dealt with the map produced by Sir James Ware dated 1705; on this map Ware had identified 10 churches at Clonmacnoise, see below. For each monument O’Donovan checked the age of each as indicated in the Annals, checked the background of each one and compared that to a report in Petrie’s possession.

Of the 10 churches on James Ware’s 1705 map only eight survive – seven churches and O’Rourke’s Tower. There is also mention in one of the Annals to an Eacleis Beg (small church) which no longer exists. He then checked mention of a nunnery in a number of annals dated 1067, 1170, 1180 and identified its location.

ware's map 1705 of 10 churches Antiquities 1705 p 136

Ware’s map 1705 of 10 churches

O’Donovan then focused on the name in Irish for Clonmacoise. He identified the earliest name for the area as Druim Tipraid from Tiprad, King of Connacht. He discounted Charles Vallency’s translation of the name Cluain Mac Nois as ‘the resting place of the sons of the chiefs’. He discussed another version of the name from the Annals of Inisfallen that it was named after Nois Maccaid, King of Connacht.  He examined an old translation of Cluain Muc Nois- the Cluain of the Swine of Nois. He challenged the normal understanding of the word Cluain at that time as meaning a resting place, tomb, grave or burial place. Today’s understanding of Cluain is that of meadow or pasture.  The official name in Irish is Cluain Mhic Nois.

Again, here are a selection from the 39 names used for Clonmacnoise from from 800 – 1838:

800/830s           Chluan maicc Nois

1216                 Cloannsis

1397                 Cloannen.

1570                 Clonmaknoyse

1627                 Clonvicknose

1837                 Cloonmacnoise

One of his interesting investigations related to references to a stone inscribed in Irish, English, Greek and Hebrew. He finds most of the earlier information on this stone unsatisfactory.  Both Mervyn Archdall  and Coote had mentioned this multi-lingual inscription which was subsequentially repeated by Seward and Carlisle. Undoubtedly, the school at Clonmacnoise would have been one of the major schools in the country during the Early Middle Ages. Irish, Latin, Greek and English would have been on the curriculum along with Mathematics and religious studies; unfortunately, there is no evidence that Hebrew was ever taught in Ireland at this time.  It astonished O’Donovan that the earliest reference to this inscription was from the Registry of Clonmacnoise that mentioned Hebrew characters on a tombstone.  His conclusion was that a cleric entered this particular addition to enhance the reputation of St. Kieran and Clonmacnoise, thus forging this account.

However, one of the very unusual graveslabs not mentioned by O’Donovan was bi-lingual – the name of Colman in Irish with the word bocht (poor) added in Ogham below.

Colman, the poor

Graveslab of Colman, the Poor

 The O’Rourke’s Tower – Drawing by George Petrie and modern photo of tower

The Territory of Fercall (Feara Ceall), O’Molloy country.

While in Banagher, O’Donovan decided to map out the extent of the territory of Fercall.  The difficulties found by the survey all over Ireland irrespective whether the name is presented in Irish, Latin or English is that names of villages, townlands, towns etc were spelt phonetically. There are multiple ways that Fercall was recorded in the ancient manuscripts, maps and other documents. Here are some examples: Fercall, Fearcall, Feara-Ceall, FeraKeall, Fera-Keall, Fera-Kaill. In fact, it was to take until 1705 years before the first ever Irish-English dictionary was published, and that by a Welshman.

OS Map of Clonmacnoise 1838

OS Map of Clonmacnoise 1838

O’Donovan’s efforts were the first official attempts to agree how place names should be spelt, a task that still presents difficulties today, for example Dingle in Kerry where the names Dingle/An Daingean or Daingean Uí Chúis are in use.

O'Donovan's map of Feara Ceall

The early boundaries of Fercall resonated with the reorganisation of the Irish dioceses, starting with the Synod of Rathbrassil (1111AD) and concluding with the Synod of Kells (1152AD). This reduced the number of diocese in Ireland considerably, including the diocese of Saighir (Seir Kieran) which was transferred to Ossory. The diocese of Mide was to the north, Kildare to the east, Ossory to the south and Killaloe to the west of Fercall.

Two physical features are very evident in Fercall, the river Brosna and the Eiscir Riada. Fercall was bounded on the north and west by the Dealbhna Eathra, on the south by Ely and on the east by Offaly.

Abbe Mageoghegan suggested that Fercall belonged to Munster and the O’Carroll country, while Geoffrey Keating suggested that it was part of Meath.

O’Donovan examined documentary references to monasteries to prove that they were in Fercall.  The Life of St. Elo stated that Fiod Elo (Lynally) was in Fera Keall. Quoting the Annals of Clonmacnoise for 1210 shows that Kill-more (Great Wood) was the Great Wood of Fearkeall.  Both Drumcullen and Kinnity were confirmed in Fercall. Colgan suggested that the monastery of Durrow lay in the district of Meath commonly called Fera-Keall, while Adamnan’s Life of St. Columbkille tells us that Durrow ‘lies on the southern district of Meath commonly called Fera-Kaill’.


There are four Durrows in Ireland, one each in Laois, Westmeath, Galway and Waterford. The boundary between Westmeath and Offaly splits between Durrow Abbey and the Demesne.  The ancient church and monastery sites are in the Offaly side on current maps.

For O’Donovan Durrow is as much about Hugh de Lacy as it is about the monastery. The original monastery at Durrow was founded by St. Columba (Colmcille) around 553 AD, he had also founded 26 other monasteries by the age of 25.  He moved to Scotland, founded the abbey at Iona and became a missionary evangelist spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland.

Writing from Tullamore on January 6th1838 O’Donovan was particularly interested in the death of Hugh de Lacy. His first account is from the Annals of the Four Masters for 1186AD where de Lacy arrives at Durrow-Columbkille with three Englishmen to view the progress of the building of his castle. The castle in this case seems to be a motte, rather than a motte and bailey or a stone castle like the one he was building at Trim. The Annals continue ‘but one youth was of the men of Meath came to him, with an axe concealed under his garment. His name was Giolla-gan-ionathar O’Meeyey, and he was the foster son of Fox himself. He gave De Laci one blow, and cut off his head’.

O’Donovan discounts Moore’s History of Ireland which stated that in 1186 De Lacy ‘met his death this year, from a hand so obscure that not even a name remains associated with the deed’. He further challenges the Annals of Innisfallen for 1186 where it is claimed that ‘the powerful Lord of Meath was treacherously slain by an Englishman’. O’Donovan contends that when the Annals of Inisfallen were translated by Peter Connell and amended by O’Flanagan and O’Reilly that the translation of the word into Englishman was incorrect.

Hugh de Lacy

He returned to this issue when writing from Banagher on 14thJanuary 1838 and where he quotes the original manuscript from Trinity College ‘1186 Hugo de Lacy tiagharna comhachtach na Midhe ro mharbhadh (a nhfeall) le Galloglach agus e ag deanamh caislean a nDurmhaigh Coluim Cille’ (1186. Hugo de Lacy, the powerful, Lord of Meath, was treacherously killed by ‘a Gallowgass’ while erecting a castle at Durrow-Colmbkille’. He returned to Connell’s interpretation of Galloglach as meaning the Gallowglass mercenary soldiers used by both Irish and Norman leaders in the account at Durrow.  O’Donovan regarded these as Irish soldiers armed with a battle axe of the Gallowglass style.

O’Donovan regarded the account in the Annals of the Four Masters above as the most reliable record of the event.

Hugh de Lacy

Placenames for Durrow over time from

1400                        Durriache

1441                        Durmmach

1548                        Durro

1574                        Dorowe

1837                        Durrowe

1969                        Durmag

AS (Ante Scriptum). Before O’Donovan and O’Connor arrived to survey Kings County, Thomas O’Connor had a written a letter from Tyrrelspass on 11 October 1837 about the death of de Lacy. Named after the Tyrrell family who arrived in Ireland with William the Conqueror the castle was started in 1411, well after de Lacy arrived at Durrow.

O’Connor records a different version of the killing of de Lacy, this account is folklore as O’Connor writes ‘it is said…’, ‘I was informed…’. His account continues ‘Sir Hugo De Lacy happened to be taking a view of the work, and been attacked by two men Dennis Kelly, who had a mattock as a weapon and Simon Carney, who made use of a spade was killed on the spot’.

The National Folklore Commission has a number of their collections online at Searching online identified many stories about Hugh de Lacy; 22 from Meath, 18 from Westmeath and 8 from Offaly.  Here is one account from the National School in Clara: ‘[This legend is pretty general. I first heard it from Tommy Flattery p. 11]’.

National Folklore Schools Collection

‘ When the Normans came to Ireland in 1169-1172 the king gave a piece of land to each chief. He gave Westmeath and Offaly then called the Province of Meath to Hugh de Lacy. Then when Hugh came to take up his part of the country,he found the people did not want him so he had to fight against them. In order to keep his soldiers safe he had to build castles. He built one in Kilclare and another in Horseleap. These castles were built with stone and there was a moat around the castle so that it would be hard for an enemy to attack the castle. When Horseleap castle was attacked the enemy managed to cross the moat. So Hugh de Lacy jumped the castle wall and moat on his horse. The village of Horseleap is called after that.
He also built a castle near Durrow and it is said he took the stones of Durrow Abbey to build it. Hugh used to visit this castle as it was being erected. A man named Fox went to help the men to build the castle. One day Hugh came to see the men at work and his man crept up behind him and killed him with a hatchet so that was the end of Hugh De Lacy.’

Remarkable that a tale recorded by folklore the 1930s should be so close to the record in the Annals of the Four masters for 1186AD.