Turtle Bunbury

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Above: The neoloithic passage grave above Lisnaskea upon which
15 of the Maguire Kings of Fermanagh were crowned between
circa 1260 and 1600.


Much of the following is taken from ‘A Fermanagh Story’ (1969) by Father Peadar Livingstone (1932-1989).

As Kings of Fermanagh, the Maguires were the third most influential family in north-west Ireland for over three hundred years, subservient only to the O’Neills and the O’Donnells. By the standards of other Irish kingdoms, not to mention other European kingdoms of this period, they enjoyed a remarkable track record. Only one of 15 Magurie princes was assassinated, their reigns averaged over 20 years each – with many notching up over 40 years - and challengers to a prince’s rights were rare. Occasionally there were obliged to arm and defend against O’Neills and O’Donnells, or to resolve internal family squabbles, and some of the Kings were more prone to invade neighbouring lands than others. However, in general, Fermanagh under the Maguires was a peaceful place for nearly 300 years.

They were not simply peaceful but they were progressive and contemporaries considered them more virtuous than most. ‘Few chiefs were attended by so many historians, poets and learned men’, writes Livingstone, and they were ‘great benefactors of the church’, introducing new orders, endowing churches and respecting the rights of the church. In their twilight years many of these ‘God-fearing men’ retired in time t prepare for death, embarking on pilgrimages to Rome or Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

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Above: Fermanagh is marked in red.


The origin of the Maguire family is understandably hazy. Peadar Livingstone notes that ‘faulty-looking genealogies give them an Oriel pedigree’ and ascribes a possible Westmeath ancestry. A man called Donn Mor Maguire was alive in about 1200 and is thought to have lived in the parish of Aghalurcher, near the towns of Maguire's-bridge and Lisnaskea.

Donn Mor would have been alive when John de Grey, the Norman Bishop of Norwich and King John’s Justician or chief minister, and Gilbert de Costello came to Belleek in 1211 and built a castle at Caol Uisce. The following year they built a motte and bailey fort behind St Tighernach’s church in Clones. Both castles were quickly burned down by the O’Hegny (O’hEignigh) Kings of Fermanagh, in alliance with the O’Neills, killing Costello, and driving the Normans out of Fermanagh.

In Donn Mor Maguire’s time, the O’Donnells succeeded the O’Hegny as the most influential family in the area. Maguire appears to have thrown his lot in with the O’Donnells and his son or perhaps his grandson may have been involved when, during the 1250s, a force led by Godfrey O’Donnell laid waste to the Normans who had returned to rebuild their castle in Belleek. This time the Normans were expelled from the region for good.


In 1302, the Annals of Ulster record: "Donn Maguire, King of Fermanagh, namely the first King of Fermanagh of the sons of Maguire, rested in Christ." Although his estate was relatively small, it quickly swelled and by 1400 the family was arguably the most powerful in Fermanagh. By 1500, they owned most of the present county and manned all the main positions – the bishops, archdeacons, priors and parish priests were all Maguires, while all other families – except Flanagan of Magerhaboy – kowtowed.

DONN CARRCH MAGUIRE (reigned c. 1260-1302)

Hailed by bards as ‘Ireland’s Most Generous Lord’, Donn enjoyed a long reign as king. His son Amhlaoibh (Auley) crossed Upper Lough Erne and added the formerly Breffny lands of Clanawley and Knockninny / Derrylin to the Fermanagh kingdom.

Donn probably lived in Lisnaskea (the fort of skea) where his descendants were crowned at Sciath Gabhra (Skeagoura), now known as Cornashee, an ancient mound (a probably a Neolithic pre-Christian burial site) a mile north west of Lisnaskea. Known locally as The Moat Ring, Sciath Gabhra is variously translated as the “Assembly of the White Mare”, the “Assembly of the Shield” or the “Assembly of the White Thorn”. The white mare as well as the shield and the white thorn were intrinsic to these ceremonies, while signal fires were also set ablaze on the mound. An Irish tradition of carrying a field stone to place on the mound continues even today.

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Above: Donn’s ghost is said to haunt Benaughlin mountain, just
south of Florence Court, where he hurls a mass of rocks down
the mountain side shortly before the death of the Maguire chief.

Donn’s descendants continued to expand their territory, albeit as subservient to O’Donnell of Tyrconnell who was, for the most part, subservient to O’Neill of Tyrone. From him descends the main line of Maguire, as well as the MacManus family of Belle Isle.

PHILIP OF THE BATTLE AXE (reigned 1363-1395)

One of the big medieval Maguire’s was Philip of the Battle Axe who secured and increased the size of the Fermanagh and established it as a buffer kingdom between the warring kingdoms of Ulster and Connaught. He conquered Knockninny (by which Knockninny Country House, www.knockninnyhouse.com , now stands) and pushed the boundaries out to Swanlibar, Ballyconnell and Belturbet. He earned his moniker by fending off attacks by MacMahon of Monaghan, O’Neill of the Clogher Valley and especially O’Connor of Roscommon, whom he initially defeated at Drumsroohill on the Arney River in 1366.

A full blown war between the MacManus, O’Donnell, O’Rourke and Maguire family culminated in victory for Philip who, as Livingstone notes, had ‘mastery on the water’ and established a fleet of white sail boats on Lough Erne that make it up into Lough Uachtair where they captured the O’Reilly chief and made him his ally. Philip became famous through Ireland and Scotland.

THOMAS THE GREAT (reigned 1395-1430)

By 1400, the Maguires were in total control of Fermanagh. Philip’s son Thomas Mor inherited a secure and wealthy kingdom in 1395, the year in which Richard II came to Ireland to try in vain to subjugate the Leinster chieftains. Relative harmony between the Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Norman lords prevailed during this time, astonishing by European standards of the time. Thomas took it easy, the occasional raid or disciplinary foray against impudent sub-lords.

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Above: Monea Castle, near the Lough Erne Resort, on the
site of a castle built by Hugh the Hositable.

His brother, tanaiste and heir apparent was Hugh the Hospitable, a pious man hailed in the Annals of the Four Masters as "the most famous and illustrious man of his time for hospitality". He was the builder of the original caste at Monea where he held an annual gathering. ‘Tradition tells that once a year he held a great meeting at Monea. At sunrise Hugh used to position himself at the butt of a whitethorn tree. Here he received all the nobility of the Maguires and their neighbours. The old were especially welcome, but pride of place went to the youth preparing for marriage. Girls who lacked a dowry got one from Hugh and all benefited by his advice and words of wisdom’. Hugh left the castle to his sons who were a rather more troublesome crew; one of them slew the O’Flanagan chief inside his own home. In later life Hugh moved to Enniskillen and it was he who founded the castle. He made many pilgrimages to Rome, Spain, Italy and the Holy Land. In 1428 he returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land but died in Kinsale on the night of his return. His nephew Thomas – son of Thomas Mor – had travelled to Kinsale to meet him and brought his remains to Cork for burial. 172 years later, another Hugh Maguire, the 15th, last and greatest of all Maguires, would also be buried in Cork following his death in action during the Nine Years War.

THOMAS THE YOUNGER (reigned 1430-1471)

Thomas the Younger, who buried Hugh the Hosiptable, was taioseach for 41 years. He became an ally of O’Neill, joining him on various raids of Connaught (via river to Belleek), Donegal, Inshowen and the Pale. He also successfully reduced his subordinates and some of his more aggressive neighbours. In 1457 he raided the O’Rourke strongholds of Bawnboy and Ballyconnell, returning with the heads of sixteen O’Rouke nobles which he placed on posts in his garden. The consequence of his assaults was that the kingdom expanded a good deal under his watch. His son Ross became Bishop of Clogher from 1447 to 1483.

A major episode of sibling rivalry with his brothers Philip and Donall Ballach in 1439 was only resolved when Donall was granted Enniskille Castle. It later became Philip’s stronghold and he developed it as a fortress to rival Lisnaskea. Philip, who tended to favour O’Donnell, became Thomas’s greatest rival although the brothers never actually fought. Philip was forefather of the junior or Enniskillen branch of the Maguires. Thomas was forefather of the senior, Lisnaskea family. Philip died in 1470 and a year later Thomas retired and handed Fermanagh to his son Eamonn.

EAMONN OF COOLE (1471-1484)

Eamonn was a complex character who had actually joined his uncles Philip and Donall Ballach in their 1439 rebellion against his father. In his first year, he attacked his cousin Tarlach, son of Philip of Enniskillen, and also drew the wrath of the MacMahon of Monaghan and McDonnell of Clankelly. God went against him in 1478 when a hurricane swept through the kingdom destroying crops, houses and churches. A ship arrived into Assaroe that same year carrying fever that killed many of his people.

Tarlach, now an ally of O’Donnell, was growing in power until O’Neill pounced – burning Tarlach’s house at Drumsroohill in 1475 and murdering Tarlach in 1481.

Both O’Donnell and O’Neill raided Fermanagh in 1483. The following year Eamonn’s son Giolla Patrick was murdered at Aghalurcher Church.

At this point the junior branch declared Tarlach’s brother John to be ‘the Maguire’ while the senior branch opted for Eamonn’s younger brother Thomas. Eamonn was obliged to submit in 1486 in order to secure the release of his captured sons and he retired to Coole East while John became the Maguire.

JOHN I (1484-1503)

John, head of the junior Maguires, became King of Fermanagh shortly before the Tudors came to power in England after the battle of Bosworth. John established Enniskillen as the new capital of Fermanagh. He was effective, fair and ruthless, hanging a man for stealing cattle, while holding a vague peace with O’Neill and O’Donnell, although O’Neill was prone to attack and burn. Enniskillen Castle under John became the subject of a poem by Tadhg Dall O Huiginn:

"As he is far off the uproar of the chase greets the poet. In wood and field wolf hound and greyhound greet him. Nearer he sees the horses being trained. Abreast the mansion, the masts of a flotilla stand up like a grave along the shore. The hall is crowded with poets and musicians. In another quarter, ladies and their women embroidered rare tissues and wove golden veils. Elsewhere fighting men abound. Tradesmen of all kinds abound — mantles are made and swords are sharpened, wounded men are attended to by doctors, criminals are being punished, part of the day is spent listening to romances. Wine is drunk to supper. Bedtime comes , for the gentlemen couches are strewn, coverlets of down are provided. A sharp guest is aware that his host is on the move. The next day many a woman's wail for her husband goes up beside Lough Erne and many a prisoner with his face slashed is led in’.


The Maguires of Lisnaskea resumed control when Conor the Great, (1503-1540) of the senior line succeeded John in 1503. The next forty years were a time of considerable tension as O’Neill and O’Donnell vie for power, testing their armies in Fermanagh. Conor the Great, being of the senior line, sided with O’Neill, prompting O’Donnell to invade Fermanagh in 1508 and oust Conor’s sidekick in Enniskillen Castle with a man he, O’Donnell, could trust. Conor and O’Neill then attacked and burned poor Enniskillen Castle. Sporadic war continued through into the 1520s.

Cuchonnacht (1527-37) reclaimed the title for the junior line in 1527. Initially allied to O’Donnell, as the junior branch always was, he found himself swinging towards Conn O’Neill. During his reign, Silken Thomas launched his ill-fated rebellion against Henry VIII’s administration in Dublin and Kildare, after which the Pale was extended to include much of the Midlands. Indeed, Henry VIII was declared head of the Irish church in 1537, the same year that Cuchonnacht was succeeded by Giolla Patrick.

Giolla Patrick (1537-1540), the last of the senior line to rule, annoyed Conn O’Neill so much that O’Neill raided his territory in 1537 and 1539 who then deposed him, installing John II of Enniskillen of the junior line as ‘the Maguire’.

JOHN II (1540-1560)

During John’s reign, the impact of the Tudor invasion of Ireland began to have an impact on the hitherto almost self-contained politics of Fermanagh. In 1541, soon after he took the throne, Henry VIII welcomed the submissions of the Irish princes and became ‘King of Ireland’. The princes, including Conn O’Neill and Manus O’Donnell of Tyrconnell, surrendered their lands but were then regranted them under the conditions of the English land tenure system. John Maguire did not surrender. That said, although married to an O’Neill, he helped the English in their hunt for Shane O’Neill, for which he was paid just over £16.

Things came to a head in 1562 when John reported that O’Neill had ‘burned his corn and hoses east of the river and killed 300 of his labourers’. In 1563, O’Neill made peace with the English, demanding Maguire pay him tribute. Maguire refused, prompting O’Neill to invade Fermanagh in 1566, place wards in Enniskillen, expel John and install his brother Cuchonnacht II as the new taioseach.

CUCHONNACHT II (1566-1589)

Although posterity would record him as a man of peace, one of his first acts was to help Lord Deputy Sidney [defeat and murder?] his patron Shane O’Neill in 1567. That earned him the trust of the English. He married twice, the daughters of Shane O’Neill and Manus O’Donnell respectively, and paid enough tribute to keep invaders from his kingdom. His time was one of considerable calm before a great and terrible storm. A scholar and patron of learning, he founded a new Franciscan abbey at Lisgoole which was not destined to last long. [The last recorded friar died in 1811.]

He was generally compliant, accepting the O’Donnells as his overlords. When the Council of Trent put an end to prince’s appointing people to church office, he went along with it. When Lord Deputy Perrot shired Fermanagh and five other shires in 1586, he likewise played ball. And when requested to surrender Fermanagh in 1585, he did so, receiving it back without its church lands the following year.

He perhaps should have been more wary. Elizabeth’s army had seized Munster from the powerful Earl of Desmond in 1583 and two years later Sir Richard Bingham had effectively taken control of Connaught. All Ireland was now subdued, bar Ulster.

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Above: View across Fermanagh and Lough Erne.

HUGH MAGUIRE (1589-1600)

In 1589, 420 years after the Normans arrived and just months after the Armada failed, the fearless and energetic young Hugh Maguire, son of Cuchonnacht II, stepped from the coronation stone at Lisnaskea as the 15th Maguire chief of Fermanagh, a kingdom still covered in covered with forest, lakes and rivers. He knew then that his enemy was not one of his clan neighbours but a nation fast becoming one of the most powerful on earth. He had seen his father’s friendship wit the English and his conciliatory attitude to the shiring and such like. And yet friendship could not be banked upon. English seneschals and sheriffs were now ruling the roost in Monaghan and Cavan. Hugh Rua McMahon was friendly to the English and they hanged him on a tree outside his own front door. So too had his cousin Red Hugh O’Donnell, now held shackled in Dublin Castle for four years. He also had to contend with challenges from Conor Rua Maguire of the Lisnaskea branch.

Initially he played the game, accepting a knighthood in Christ Church Cathedral in 1591. The following year he helped his reckless Red Hugh in his dramatic jail break which was considered an act of rebellion. These men wit O’Rourke of Breffny and MacMahon realised the Gaelic world was in danger and bonded to protect it. And slowly the most powerful noble Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, raised in Elizabeth’s court, also came on board, as the battle for Ulster became a war between Protestant England and Catholic Ireland. In 1593, O’Neill’s daughter married Maguire.


In December 1592, prodded on by his newly freed cousin Red Hugh whom he greatly admired, Maguire and O’Rourke plundered Connaught. This prompted the Binghams to invade Fermanagh the following year, while senescahls from Monaghan and Cavan also enter Fermanagh and start to kill Maguire’s men, women and children. When the Lord Deputy ignored Maguire’s plea for protection, it became apparent that the war was on. In May 1593, Maguire attacked the English, sparking off what would become the Nine Years War, driving all the English from Fermanagh, pushing down into Connaught and west to Ballymote. He also completely routed Bingham’s army at Tulsk, although the Archbishop of Armagh was slain.

The English sent Hugh O’Neill, still considered loyal, to negotiate a peace. Secretly plotting for Spanish assistance, O’Neill declared a six month truce but Elizabeth was simply too livid with Maguire to accept that. She ordered Marshal Bagenal to march north. He arrived in Monaghan, via Newry, where he was joined by 1400 men under the aforesaid Hugh O’Neill, who was still biding his time for Spanish back up and needed to stay in favour. They marched together to Enniskillen which they were unable to take, largely because Bingham was supposed to help them but failed to show up. Instead they went around to the Ford of Golune at Cloghore (where the Cliff Hydroelectric Power Station stands today) where the two armies met but Maguire’s men, tipped off by Tyrone, were obliged to flee.

After Golune, the English also seized Lisnaskea and installed an English governor there with a garrison as part of their policy to put a string of garrisons from Newry to Ballyshannon, including Monaghan, Benburb and Lisnaskea. Enniskillen Castle was a vital cog and it fell in February 1594 to the army of Sir James Dowdall, Governor of Lisnaskea. Hugh Maguire was distraught at the loss and laid siege, assisted by Red Hugh and Tyrone’s brother Cormac MacBaron O’Neill. When Sir Henry Duke set out from Cavan to relieve the siege, Hugh Maguire met him at Drumain Bridge on the Arney, utterly routing Duke, killing 400 men and obliging them to leave so much of their supplies behind that it became known as the Battle of the Biscuits. That said, Maguire could not get Enniskillen Castle back and in September 1594, the Lord Deputy came north with a large army, relieved the siege and sent Maguire reeling backwards.

By 1595, Maguire had been joined by both O’Neill and O’Donnell. He and Red Hugh destroyed Longford and seized 10,000 cattle while Hugh O’Donnell routed Marshal Bagenal at Clontibert. Maguire also retook Enniskillen Castle which was a source of considerable joy to him. There were endless peace talks during this time, with both sides buying time. In April 1596, Maguire even went down on his knees in Dundalk market house and begged for forgiveness but that same month he wrote to Philip II of Spain expressing his admiration. The Ulster princes held their ground in 1597, fending off two major English expeditions, and then O’Neill achieved his great victory at the battle of the Yellow Ford in August 1598 on the Blackwater, giving Tyrone complete power in Ulster.

The rebellion swiftly moved south into Leinster, East Munster, Connaught and Thomond. Maguire was with them when they routed the English in the Curlew mountains and he joined O’Neill during the latter’s tour of the South, a somewhat desperate attempt to rally support. They travelled far and wide, reaching as far south as Cork where Hugh Maguire decided to lead a raid with 45 horse and 16 guns on Saturday 11th March 1600. He underestimated his opponents, Sir Henry power and Sir Warham St Leger, who overwhelmed them with a superior force, killing 32 Maguires including Hugh, his son, his foster-father and his chaplain. Maguire had a lance and was taken out by St Leger with a pistol and two bullets but both men died, Maguire after he limped back to his camp. Legend holds that his horse refused to eat after his death and withered away. He was to be buried alongside Hugh the Hospitable, founder of Enniskillen, far, far away in Cork City.

The loss of Hugh Maguire was an enormous blow. A power struggle now ensued in Fermanagh between Conor Rua of the Lisnaskea branch and Hugh’s brother Cuchonnacht Og. With Red Hugh’s backing, Cuchonnacht Og became the new Maguire although he was never formally installed at Lisnaskea. In response, Conor Rua went over to the English side, opening an avenue to victory in Fermanagh. O’Neill’s army was now exhausted, the countryside ruined by wat, his money was running low and there was still no foreign aid. The alliance was cracking up.

In 1601, Don Juan d’Aquilla arrived into Kinsale with a force of 4000 men. O’Nell and O’Donnell marched south to meet him, an extraordinary march through desperate cold conditions, with Cuchonnacht Og leading the Maguires at O’Donnell’s side. Their eventual defeat at Kinsale was utterly crushing; amongst the dead was nearly every man in Cuchonnacht Og’s infantry. He returned home with his exhausted survivors while Red Hugh fled to Spain, only to die young in 1602.

Back in Fermanagh, he still had to contend with Conor Rua and English machinations until he united with O’Rourke of Leitrim and O’Sullivan of Gelngarriff to oust Conor Rua before journeying up to meet O’Neill. They arrived to discover he had already surrendered to the English at Mellifont on 30 March 1603, as had Rory O’Donnell. Cuchonnacht Og had the distinction of being the last man to give in. Under other circumstances, he might have made an excellent rule but the old world order was collapsing fast and by 1606 he was in Roeun where he purchased a vessel with which he returned to Ireland the following year and loaded up 100 passengers – the cream of Ireland’s Gaelic nobility - who left Rathmullan, County Donegal, on 14 September 1607 for Quillebeuf in Normandy, France, and from there to Rome. The event became known as the Flight of the Earls.

I’ll leave it to Peadar Livingstone to complete the saga:

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With thanks to Sarah McHugh (Manager, Museum Services, Fermanagh County Museum), Vicky Herbert (author of numerous books on the area available here), John Patterson, Raphael Mullally and the Maguires of Charlotte, North Carolina.