findmypast logo

Topic: county cavan o'clerys

Add reply

Posts Date

Finding Our Clarkes And O'Clerys

By Patrick Clark

A few decades ago my brother, Kevin, and I began a search for our roots.

It started in 1977 when Roscommon-born Father Kevin Flanagan, now a Monsignor and Pastor of St. Lawrence the Martyr Church in Chester, New Jersey, told me that I was actually an O'Clery.

Our family had lost touch with our Cavan relatives. We shook the family tree; a couple of good leads fell out. Kevin used information from Mary (Clarke) Sorensen, our Fairfax, Virginia cousin, and from antiquarian Thomas J. Barron of Bailieborough, County Cavan, to find the birthplaces of our paternal grandparents. Patrick Clarke was born in Ralaghan, Shercock, County Cavan, and Mary Ann McGonnell was born not too far way in Glasdrumman, Knockbride, County Cavan.

Kevin followed the leads. He went to Cavan. Even better, he befriended our "lost" Irish cousins in Nolagh, Killcrossduff, Lecks and Dublin. I learned about the literary O'Clerys of Donegal, hereditary historians to the O'Donnells. I discovered the story of the four O'Clery brothers of Kilmacduagh who were expelled in 1260 by Anglo-Norman knights from their ancient territory around present day Gort. They settled separately in Mayo, Donegal, Kilkenny and Cavan. Thomas O'Clery, third oldest, became the ancestor of the Cavan O'Clerys.

These days, I continue my study of Gaelic Ireland, I find the brambles of its dynastic warlord society engrossing. Kevin continues his efforts to become an Irish speaker, a “gaeilgeoir,” and earn a ring for fluency, a “fainne oir.” Along the way we both became Irish citizens, too.

Here, in brief, is what we have found:

Our grandfather, Patrick Clarke, was born on October 31, 1859 in Ralaghan, County Cavan. His homeplace was a small hilltop farm in Ralaghan between Bailieborough and Shercock. His father, Andrew, was a tenant farmer. His family was religiously and culturally Roman Catholic. He told the 1910 U.S. Census that the language of his household was Irish. Across the ocean his uncle, Peter Clarke, told the 1911 Irish Census that he spoke Irish and English.

Patrick emigrated at age twenty. To become an American citizen, he had to swear to support the Constitution and renounce all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign potentate. Our family understands he repudiated his fealty to Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, with great pleasure. He probably dropped the "e" from his surname to appear Scottish or English and have a better chance of getting work because when he came to the United States an anti-Irish, nativist sentiment still surged.

Mary Ann McGonnell Clarke was born on May 15, 1864 in Glasdrumman, County Cavan. Her homeplace was a cottage on the Glasdrumman side of Ralaghan Road in Knockbride parish. Her father, Francis, was a tailor. Her family was Roman Catholic, too, but we do not believe her family spoke Irish. Our grandmother emigrated as a teenager. Her parents and siblings followed her. We have not yet found her immigration information.

Our grandparents met and married in Newark, New Jersey. They raised a family in its eastside Ironbound section. They never returned to Cavan.

Kevin first visited Ireland in 1978. Our grandparents' birth records were missing in the Public Records Office in Dublin. He recovered the birth record of Francis Clarke, our grandfather's younger brother. It listed his parents, Andrew Clarke, Relaghan, farmer, and Bridget Clarke, formerly Lynch. He also found the birth records of John, Margaret and Michael McGonnell, our grandmother's siblings, which listed their parents: Francis McGonnell, Glasdrumman, tailor, and Margaret McGonnell, formerly Masterson.

By good fortune, Kevin met Mr. Barron, a retired teacher and local history expert, who would help us identity and locate our Clarkes among the scores of Clarke families. Mr. Barron said that our Clarke ancestors had most likely been tenant farmers, illiterate Irish speakers. They probably descended from O'Clerys originally from County Galway. Our O'Clerys would have been kern (foot soldiers) obligated to fight for the O'Reilly Gaelic lords who ruled Cavan until the leaving of the Earls in 1607.

Our McGonnells likely are descended from County Antrim McDonnells. McGonnell is actually a local pronunciation of McDonnell. Our McGonnells had been tenant farmers on the Greville Estate in Glasdrumman townland in Knockbride parish. Their Masterson neighbors lived in adjacent Ralaghan townland in Drumgoon parish.

A branch of these Knockbride McDonnells had been employed as millers at a Corroneary Lough corn mill owned by the Mahood family. The Mahoods were, originally, McWhidds from County Antrim. We surmise the McWhidds brought the parents or grandparents of our great grandfather, Francis McDonnell, from Antrim to Cavan in the late 1700s or early 1800s to work in their flax and linen enterprise.

Kevin received letters in 1979 from Mr. Barron and Mary (Clarke) Sorensen, our second cousin. She is the granddaughter of one of our grandfather's younger sisters, Bridget (Clarke) Clarke. Our great-aunt Bridget was a Ralaghan Clarke who married a Nolagh Clarke.

Mr. Barron pinpointed a location on the Ordnance Survey map. It was a cluster of buildings next to "Ralaghan Fort." He wrote: "The one (dwelling) nearest you as you go up the lane is probably the one in which your grandfather was reared. It is now occupied by the widow of Paddy Clarke, son of Big Frank Clarke. Her name is Mrs. Anne Clarke."

Mary Sorensen confirmed Mr. Barron's educated guess. Our Clarkes' homeplace was, indeed, a hilltop Ralaghan farm. It had a nickname, too. It was called "the crock." This is local pronunciation of "cnoc," Irish for hill.

Kevin, returned to Ireland in 1980. He went to Nolagh. He found Francis "Frank" Clarke, our father's cousin. Frank told Kevin about our Clarke cousins in Killcrossduff and about another cousin, Margaret Clarke (Peg) Davitt, and her son, Michael, living in Dublin.

Kevin went to Ralaghan. He found Annie Clarke, widow of Paddy Clarke, who was Michael Davitt's maternal uncle. Annie Clarke was living with her niece, Fiona. Her neighbor, John Bell, told him an anecdote about our grandfather which his father, Joseph, had told him. The day that Patrick Clarke left for America, Joseph Bell gave him, along with best wishes for a safe journey, a useful memento -- his best shaving knife.

Kevin drove to Dublin and visited the Davitts. Peg Davitt, soft-spoken and regal, filled in some gaps. Our great-grandfather, Andrew, and her grandfather, Peter, were first cousins and farmers. They and their families lived in separate cottages at the "cnoc" and worked their fields nearby.

Michael Davitt took us both to visit the "cnoc" in 1988. On a shoulder of Dhuish Mountain, it hugs a side of Killann Hill topped by a "rath" six hundred thirty-five feet high. The farm was about seven acres. Its ground, too hilly for corn or wheat, had to be planted with oats and potatoes. Our granduncle Philip Clarke, the family moonshiner, was said to have used some of the potatoes to distill his potent "poitín." The one-and-a-half story, stucco, slate-roofed cottage in which our grandfather was born and reared was still standing, now a storage shed.

Parishioners of St. Anne's Church, or Killann Chapel, called our Ralaghan Clarkes "cnoc" Clarkes to distinguish them from Killcrossduff "canny" Clarkes and Nolagh "buckie" Clarkes.

Now we brothers know our origin and stem. We descend from native Irish Clarkes who descended from Thomas O'Clery of the Kilmacduagh O'Clerys. The ancient O'Clerys were kings of Connacht. They descended from druidic pagan O'Clerys who were there when the Romans came. O'Clery means grandson of the scribe.

In 1986 historian Séamas P. Ó Mórdha wrote that Thomas O'Clery’s descendants were still very numerous in southeast Cavan -- particularly in the Bailieborough, Knockbride, Killenkere, Mullagh and Shercock -- under the surname’s anglicized form, Clarke. He said the name is comparatively rare or non-existent in other parts of Cavan.

There you are.

New Yorker Patrick Clark(e) is a retired communications director, a former newspaper reporter (New York Daily News) and a U.S. Marine veteran. A dual American and Irish citizen, his roots are in County Cavan’s Killann and Knockbride parishes. His article, “The O’Clerys: Heriditary Historians and Pents,” was published in History Ireland, May/June 2010.

13 March 2013 16:30
by padraig


I was wondering is it possible to get in contact with Patrick?

I am a Clarke from Mullagh who found that Peter (Canny) Clarke was my Great Great Grandfather.

I would love to get in contact to fill out that side of the tree and find the original homeplace of Peter in Killann.


03 April 2013 17:19
by Noel Clarke

Noel - send me an email at have some info about Peter Clarke and the Kilcrossduff Canny Clarkes that I could email to you. Patrick

25 April 2014 18:36
by Patrick Clark