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Short Study of a Transplanted Family in the Seventeenth Century
by Edward MacLysaght

MacLysaght origins and antecedents

It would be well, perhaps, before introducing the rather undistinguished but very typical and human seventeenth century men and women who form the subject of this sketch, to give some account of their antecedents: and this I will do as briefly as possible.

The MacLysaghts emerge as a separate Dalcassian clan, an offshoot of the O’Briens, in the thirteenth century; and then for a considerable period, as may be expected of an unimportant sept located in a territory almost untouched by English rule or influence, there are no sources available whereby we can trace the family connectedly. They seldom appear in the State Papers, since such took no cognizance of the “mere Irish” by name, unless they were powerful enough to be troublesome enemies; and the very few native Irish authorities whose records have survived through centuries of war and destruction, had neither time nor parchment to waste on obscure families in remote places. All we know is that in the time of Henry VIII, when for the first time the English Government really began to make itself felt as a power in the land, Macgillysachtys, as they were then called in English,[1] were to be found in considerable numbers in various parts of the Co. Clare, and had, in one case at least, moved into the city of Limerick. The only two walled towns of importance on our Thomond ancestors’ horizon in the fifteenth century were Limerick and Galway; and we may take it that in Clare, even in the northern parts where Galway would be as near them as Limerick, the latter was nevertheless more accessible at least by land, though the journey by the sea from Ballyvaughan to Galway was of course not very formidable.

It is with this citizen of Limerick, by name Edmond Macgillysachty or Éamonn Mac Giollaiasachta that all we McLysaghts who have connexions with the County Limerick are concerned. I am not in a position to say authoritatively that he is the common ancestor of all of us, but I think it is probable.

He was born about 1495. Whether he was the first of his name to settle down in Limerick as a merchant, or whether he followed his father in the same business, we have no way of knowing (as far as my researches go). We know definitely that he was a goldsmith[2] and can therefore regard him as a man of standing and substance, since in the sixteenth century goldsmiths were men of considerable importance, fulfilling as they did many of the functions now performed by bankers (and incurring a certain amount of odium in the process)[3] besides inheriting the tradition of highly skilled gold metal work, for which Ireland was famed from the earliest times. I expected to find this Edmond McLysaght among the first of the “mere Irish” to take out denizenship, in other words to be registered as a native Irishman entitled to be recognized by law as a person with rights as a citizen and not an outlaw, a concession not extended to the mass of the people until the reign of James I. The Fiants which record denization do not, however, include his name, and the fact that we have evidence that his two sons did take it out[4] implies that he did not, since denizenship “emancipated a man and his issue”. We must therefore assume that, though a prominent citizen of Limerick, he neglected to avail himself of what I may describe as this State insurance against ill-disposed neighbours.

We may be certain that he was able to speak English since he lived in the city. Probably none of his Clare relatives could do so at this time. It is interesting to reflect that our people were bilingual for at least eight consecutive generations, i.e. for a period covering the whole of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As regards the origin of the McLysaght family there is no doubt that it is an original Gaelic one, located in early times around Ennistymon in northern Clare; and it is generally accepted by writers on Irish clans and families that the first Macgiollaiasachta or McLysaght [5] was a grandson or great grandson of Domhnal Mor O’Brien, King of Limerick and Cashel in 1174.[6] The family, however, in spite of its illustrious beginning, never attained a position of prominence; and in a somewhat hurried search through the McFirbis genealogies (1666) in the R.I.A. I could find little or nothing about them.

To realise how very remote Edmond’s time is from ours, we have but to reflect that America had only recently been discovered when he was born, and that he was nearly forty years of age before artillery was first used in Ireland.

Limerick itself is described in the sixteenth century as a “wonderous proper city,” “a little London,” [7] and “the strongest and most beautiful of all the cities of Ireland,”[8] though Davies in 1666 paints a far less flattering picture of it. In 1680 it was the fourth largest city in Ireland, its population being less than that of either Galway or Waterford.[9] Stevens, who describes it very fully a few years later says it was inferior to none but Dublin.[10] It was noted for its consistent support of the English crown. This political orientation, however, was turned to hostility by the attempts made during Elizabeth’s reign to force Protestantism on the citizens. In 1574 we are informed that “all the citizens are Catholics except seven or eight young men who embrace the Lutheran heresy rather to please the Lady Elizabeth than for any other reason.[11]

The story of the family from this on, like that of Ireland itself, centres chiefly round land and religion: the idea of nationality and nationalism, so keenly felt by people to-day, was almost unknown in the sixteenth century and only developed gradually after that.

The goldsmith held no land as far as I know - he was simply a business man, to use a modern phrase - though of course he had relatives in Co. Clare, where as clansmen they would have been landholders under the Brehon system. We know from the Four Masters that the Brehon Laws were still in full force in Co. Clare even as late as 1570. The position of such landholders of course differed very materially from that of landowners in fee simple or leaseholders of specified properties such as those we will be meeting in this sketch.

It is not till a couple of generations later that we first see the words “gent. of so and so,” after the name McLysaght or (as it begins to appear in the seventeenth century) plain Lysaght. I may mention here that during the transition period the form Gillysacht was often used. As in the case of certain other Mac names such as McClancy, the prefix seems to have largely fallen into disuse in the seventeenth century[12] and the practice of dropping and resuming the Mac and O, almost to suit individual taste, so commonly observed with names like McCarthy, McSweeney, O’Callaghan, O’Sullivan, etc., is not much in evidence.[13]

Prior to the eighteenth century people were notoriously indifferent to the spelling of English, not only of ordinary words but even of their own names, so that a Mr. Apsley sometimes signed himself Annsley, a Dineley Dingley, and so on. In the records and documents in the English language which I have examined, I have come across no less than thirty-eight variants of the name McLysaght. Many of those are obviously due to the unfamiliarity of law clerks and copyists with Irish names, as for example when it appears in three distinct forms in the same document[14] or, to take another name, when Keating is so far mangled as to be written “Kerther”[15] . In some cases an alternative is given, as “Lysaght alias Mac-Gillysacht” and so on. In the following pages I propose to disregard all these variants, except when actually making a quotation, and to use the form MacLysaght consistently up to the end of the seventeenth century.

Edmond McLysaght, the goldsmith, had I think, three sons; though I would like to have further confirmation that the youngest, William, from whom we and the other Co. Limerick McLysaghts probably derive our descent, was actually his son and not his nephew. The eldest John, was a priest[16] so the line continues no farther there.

The second son Donal, was admitted to denizenship in 1559[17] and his grandson Cornelius was a Co. Clare coroner in 1622.[18]

In books and documents relating to Co. Clare the name is frequently met with. The branch descending from Donal and Cornelius appears to have become Protestant and somewhat Anglicized very early, but in spite of having two married clergymen among them they died out early in the eighteenth century as far as legitimate children are concerned. Other Protestants of the name are mentioned in such works as Frost’s Clare, none, however, being of sufficient importance to be included in Donogh O’Brien’s list of the principal Clare gentlemen in 1690. Up to quite recent times Catholic McLysaghts were still numerous in the county but there are only a comparatively small number left to-day. Their connexion with the family which is the subject of this study is, I fear, too remote to be traced now. I will only mention one of them, Patrick of Kilcornan, who lived in the seventeenth century, for the sake of the epitaph on his tomb in the old cathedral graveyard of Kilfenroa. It is unusually frank, containing as it does the words “Marti et Baccho saepe tributa dedi.”

En passant I may mention that among the fines recorded in the Summonister Rolls McLysaghts appear for such offences as “transgression,” rescue, and “acquitting a prisoner” and one Shane is given as having been fined at Ibreekan, Co. Clare, “for selling whiskey at the exorbitant price of 6d. a pint.”[19]

We now come to William McLysaght. In his case I have only the bare bones and do not know enough about him to clothe them with flesh or character. He carried on the trade of smith at Kilmallock and was admitted to denizenship in 1563.[20] He was born in or about 1530 and we have no record of his death. At first sight it would seem to be something of a come-down that the sons (or even the nephew) of a prosperous citizen of Limerick should be a smith at Kilmallock. We must not forget, however, that at that time Killmallock was the richest town in Munster, excepting the three ports of Limerick, Cork and Waterford, and ranked comparatively as of much more importance than any inland town in Ireland at the present day, as well as being a thriving centre of trade, was considered strategically a cardinal point of South Munster.

A mediaeval atmosphere still hangs around Kilmallock. I never pass through the narrow “Ble Porte,”[21] which half blocks the road from Cork, and see before me the old square Queen’s Castle straddling right across the main street, without reflecting that William may possibly have actually lived in one of the substantial Tudor houses which still stands solidly hard by, looking down towards the ruins of St. Dominic’s on the river below, or at least that those very stones must have met his eyes every day of his life.

The subject of this study is a seventeenth century family, to which I am leading up as briefly as possible, and it is no part of my present purpose to draw a picture of the sort of life our ancestors lived in Kilmallock in the time of Hugh O’Neill and Queen Elizabeth; but it is perhaps worth while mentioning that the trade of smith was then a very different thing from the humble occupation of a present-day blacksmith, shoeing horses and perhaps repairing an occasional motor spring in some dark shanty of a forge. It was not till half a century later that the first Earl of Cork, that prototype of the modern colonial millionaire, set up his foundries and iron works in various parts of Munster during the peaceful period which followed the almost incessant warfare of Elizabeth’s time. The status of our William as a master-smith would, I think, be comparable to that of a small manufacturer in recent times.

In the days when William was a smith, a smith was a producer of essential commodities: not only was he an armourer, manufacturing much of the lighter sort of war material of the time, but from him came the metal work used in building houses and furnishing them when built.

The wars which in the next century left the Co. Limerick comparatively unscathed absolutely devastated the whole of Munster in the sixteenth. Edmond Spenser’s description of the state of the countryside and the almost incredible misery which accompanied the devastation is too well-known to need quotation. Kilmallock was sacked more than once, and by 1583 Munster was practically a desert so far as the open fertile portions were concerned. Nevertheless culture does not seem by any means to have been eliminated, and from the remarks of Stanihurst in 1587 we may infer that the Brehon system was still flourishing at that date.

It is worth noting, moreover, that the policy of confiscation and “undertakers” failed signally in the Co. Limerick. By 1600 the “weeds” (i.e. the Irish) had cast out the English in the county[22] but the planters left their mark on the face of the country by the fencing they did and the trees and orchards they planted.[23]

The armourer side of William the smith’s business must indeed have been kept busy all his life. War was always threatening if not actually raging. In 1588 ships of the Spanish Armada were being wrecked on the coast and, though none of these struck Co. Limerick, exaggerated rumours of the strange doings that followed must have reached Kilmallock. The great victory of Hugh O’Neill at the Yellow Ford in 1598, the March of the Earls southward to Kinsale in 1602, and that of O’Sullivan Beare northwards the following year carried the state of suspense and unrest on into the new century when William was dead and buried.

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Patrick the Sheriff (1564-1625)
& William the Sheriff (1590-1645)