In the middle ages, Galway had its own version of the E.E.C. (European Economic Community). A prospering free port, its nearest European landfall was Brittany, a 300 mile sea voyage. Commerce, culture and politics were dominated by a closeknit group of powerful families known as the 14 tribes of Galway: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Deane, D’Arcy, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett. According to Dr. Edward MacLysaght, only the Kirwans and D’Arcy’s were true, original Gaels.

   By the 17th century, British expansionism and Irish individualism had dispersed this unique family overlordship. In recent years the revival of interest among Celtic peoples of Europe’s western seaboard has led to an increasing interchange, especially between Brittany and Galway, which is twinned with Lorient. On celebratory occasions the screech of the bagpipes intermingles through Galway’s streets with the boom of the bombard.

   Twinnings of at least six towns in Brittany and Ireland have been arranged and the Association Bretagne - Irelande has preparations under way for a commemoration, possibly on next St. Patrick’s Day. With ambassadorial and ministerial presences they intend to revive the memory of Francis Kirwan, Bishop of Killala, a refugee from Ireland who died in Rennes, France, in 1661. From his Connenara marble factory, the Earl of Mayo, descendant of the de Burgos, has already sent the marble plaque, which is to be added to the fine tomb with which Francis Kirwan was honoured by the people of Brittany, so many years ago.

   As was customary for the aristocratic families of his time, Francis Kirwan, who was born in 1589, went on to study at Lisbon, Portugal, after graduating from his uncle Lynch’s renowned classical school at Galway. Following his Irish ordination he taught for a number of years in the Irish colleges in France. He appears to have a radiant personality and his effectiveness was only temporarily extinguished by some Irish students in Paris whom he tried to persuade to return home on missionary work.

   St. Vincent de Paul was a good friend of his and the 13 bishops, 15 abbots and 30 doctors of the Sorbonne who were present at Francis Kirwan’s consecration as Bishop of Killala in St. Lazaire, Paris, must have relaxed their prayerfulness after he had sailed for Ireland. On the high seas, pirates relieved him of all his books and personal goods.

   At home, Ireland was in the last throes of the struggle between Gael and invader. Kirwan differed with the papal diplomat, Rinnacici, and sided with the old order so that, for years, he became a fugitive who ‘laboured in wild Connacht mountains and in the oceanic islands.’ Eventually he was forced to flee to Brittany where there was a most charitable welcome for Irish exiles.

   Francis Kirwan has been described as an ascetic who, although he was given to the wearing of hairshirts, was always very cheerful and greatly loved. There is no mention of imminent canonization, though miracles have been attributed to him. When he counselled a man who had left his wife to take her back on pain of eternal damnation, the man replied, “I could bear the flames of hell better than my wife’s company.” Bishop Kirwan suggested he try it by putting his hand into the candle. A few seconds of suffering were enough. The cauterization duly healed the marriage.

   Bishop Kirwan could not abide gambling. Discovering it among his clerics, he ordered them to return all they had won, forbidding other gamblers to repay them with their winnings. When he died at 72 he was buried with almost as much ceremony at Rennes as he had been accorded on his ordination in Paris.

   The Kirwan family tends to Bishop’s on both sides of the Christian divide. There was the Right Reverend Stephen Kirwan, born about 1530, educated at Oxford and Paris, who conformed and became the first Protestant Bishop of Kilmacduagh. He appears to have combined the fire with the sword, for he was also appointed one of the commissioners of martial affairs in Connacht.

   Walter Blake Kirwan (1754-1805), having had a conventional education in the seminaries of Europe, at 33 adopted the protestant faith and became a preacher so eloquent that when he applied for charity, not only thousands of pounds overflowed the collection plates, but also the accessories of the congregation, including gold watches and jewellery. At his very last sermon his appeal was still so eloquent that he drew in enough money to found the children’s home, which still bears his name in Dublin. His son, Anthony La Touche Kirwan, took up the family tradition, becoming Dean of Limerick.

   Reverend Dominic Achille Kirwan C.R., descendant of Thomas Kirwan(1839-1912) and Elizabeth Copps(1831-1924) grew up in Northern Ontario, was ordained a priest and his first solemn mass was in Christ the King Church, Sudbury, Ont., in July 1944. He was Principal and President at Scollard Hall from 1947-1953, elected to the Rome chapter in 1965 and was rector at House of Philosophy and St. Eugenes College, Waterloo, Ont. during the 60’s. Rev.D.A. Kirwan was Superior of Bermuda Houses and Pastor at St. Michael’s Church, Bermuda for almost a decade. At 83 years of age, he is presently living the good life at Resurrection College in Waterloo, Ont. 

   There we will leave the numerous priestly Kirwans. Of the female line little is recorded. As was considered suitable, Kirwan girls married their fellow tribesmen. Julia and Emily married into the Martyn family of Ballinahinch, whose brightest star was Richard, Hair Trigger Dick, whose name was changed to Humanity Dick when his friend, George IV, recognized him as the instigator of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Rose Kirwan wrote charming, scenic, Victorian poetry.

   The national libraries of France and Britain hold papers relating to the well-travelled Kirwan family. It helps to follow the line if you know that apart from the Irish O’Ciardhubain, it might also appear as Kyran, Kirovani, Kyrvan, Kyrewan or even Quirovan.

   In the British Museum there is a warrant of Viscount Wentworth for a fiat granting a pardon to Martin Kirovani of Galway ‘for leaving the kingdom without a license on 26th September 1637’. In contrast, the Salisbury Manuscripts record a request from Peter Kyrewain ‘for a license to transport 40 tuns of beer without custom to Galway where there is a garrison of 1600 soldiers and the country all round is waste’.

   Richard Kirwan of the Cregg Castle dynasty was a fighting man of six feet and four inches in height. He went with Dillon’s Regiment at Fontenoy. Louis XV presented him with a watch set round with diamonds and pearls. Too much of a penchant for duelling led to his dismissal from France from which he fled to the imperial service of Austria. He retired to Connemara, with the jewelled watch, which is said to still be in Kirwan hands.

   Edward Kirwan lived in Bordeaux where many Irish military families founded overseas colonies. He suffered imprisonment as a Royalist because his editorials in the Spectator, the paper he edited, were considered too far right wing with the revolutionary authorities.

   There were several medical Kirwans in France, including a doctor James Kirwan who was a physician to the King in 1756. A Kirwan émigré is mentioned as being a member of the nobility of Dauphiny while another, Charles de Kirwan, is recorded as being Sub-Inspector of Forests. Most enduring of this Galway’s family alliance with France is the Chateau Kirwan. Look through the wines of the Medoc in your wine merchant’s list and you may still find the Kirwan appellation. A bottle of Chateau Kirwan goes for $70can.

   In home-based military service the Kirwans have not been so prominent, though Owen Kirwan, a humble Dublin tailor, was a fiery rebel recorded in the British Dictionary of National Biography. A faithful follower of Robert Emmet, he was executed for his activities during the uprising of 1803.

   Richard Kirwan (1733-1812), a nephew of the giant swordsman, remains the most distinguished Kirwan. Chemist, natural philosopher, musician, linguist, scientist and much, much more, he is one of the happier Irish eccentrics. An avid scholar with, of course, a European education and ordination to boot, he quitted the church in favour of the family estates at Cregg Castle, Corundulla, in the County of Galway. He married a penniless but high-born Blake girl from Menlo and spent his honeymoon days in jail for her debts.

   He did not hold this against her. She died sadly young and he went to Dublin and then to London to immerse himself in all kinds of studies, the law in particular. There he numbered among his numerous and diverse admirers Catherine of Russia and Horne Tooke. Returning to Dublin because of ill-health, his entire library was captured by an American privateer so that it now reposes in a small American university.

   At home he found his métier with the brilliant company of the Royal Dublin Society. It was he who contributed to its museum and the Leskeyan cabinet of minerals. A member of the most learned societies, he was the first President of Royal Irish Academy. Honorary degrees were showered upon him but he declined a baronetcy, preferring the honorary title of Inspector-General of his Majesty’s Mines in Ireland.

   Neither in his home nor in the most august company in court or castle was he ever parted from his huge, sheltering hat. All year round he received his friends prone on a couch before a blistering fire. He dined alone and always on ham and milk. Flies terrified him, though not the six large dogs or eagle, which were his pets. His hypochondriacal tendencies did not lose him friends who have given him a charming epitaph, describing him as ‘a good landlord, philosophically indifferent to money’. He died of malnutrition, not because of poverty but because of his too serious efforts to starve a cold. A bust and portrait commemorate him in the headquarters of the Royal Dublin Society.

   The Kirwan pedigrees go back to the time of Milesius. More recently, a family tree has been compiled by Lieutenant Commander Dennis A.R. Kirwan and Sir John Waters Kirwan who themselves feature in Burke’s Landed Gentry of Ireland. They have been soldiers, merchants, clerics, lawyers, scientists and administrators. Their name crops up as explorers from the Polar ice to the Australian outback, with the pyramids of Egypt in between.

   You have to refer to today’s ‘Who’s Who’ to discover a contemporary off-shoot of the Cregg Castle lineage. ‘Sir Archibald Laurence (Patrick) Kirwan, KCMG, CMG., TD, B.Litt., Oxon., Director and Secretary, Royal Geographical Society since 1945, explorer, editor, archaeologist, excavations, historical, political geography, traveller’ ect.

   The Kirwans were the only family amongst the ‘Tribes of Galway’ to establish an Irish origin, tracing a descent from Ir, the second son of Mileius, one of the original Gael’s. They left many fine seats including Castlehackett, Gardenfield, Glan, Lioscananaun, Woodfield and Cregg Castle. Cregg Castle was built by the Kirwan Family in 1645 and is said to be the last fortified mansion built west of the Shannon. It is still inhabited and operates as a hotel in the wild, spectacular Burren County. 

   Castlehackett, occupied by a scholary descendant, is a fine Georgian mansion built in 1703. It looks towards Croch Ma, the legendary mountain home of King Finbarre and his Connacht fairies and is also supposed to be the burial place of Maeve, the Warrior Queen of Connacht.

   Though the Kirwan family has spread around the globe, the mainspring has always been located in County Galway. In that city, close to the Great Southern Hotel in Eyre Square, look up at a Kirwan town house, now a government office, where you will see the Kirwan arms carved in grey limestone. On a tomb at Killanin, near Ross, the arms of the Martin of Ross, and Kirwan families, are impaled, signifying a union long ago within the 14 Tribes of the port of Galway which traded with all of Europe.


  THE DUELLING KIRWANS of GALWAY – The Galway Advertiser


   Sir Jonah Barrington notes in Personal Sketches of his Own Times – his ‘Own Times’ being the mid-18th century – that “Tipperary and Galway were the ablest schools of the duelling science”. Barrington also remarks that, “No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances. The first two questions always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady – wife, were, - ‘What family is he of?’ – ‘Does he blaze?’

   So wide-spread was this method of settling disputes of honour that Ambrose Bodkin, a lawyer who practised in the Connaught Circuit, and several others-mainly lawyers (who were much prone to this summary form of justice)-drew up a set of 26 rules (Galwaymen referred to them as the Twenty-six Commandments) called the Code Duello “for the government of duellists by the gentlemen of Tipperary, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland”, which was adopted at the Clonmel Summer Assizes of 1777.

   There were an extraordinarily large number of Kirwans who fought and died with pistol or rapier in hand. The descendants of one branch of the Kirwan family – that of Cregg Castle, appear to have inherited the duelling gene in distressing numbers.

   Patrick Kirwan and his wife, Mary, daughter of Richard Martin (no mean duellist himself), of Dangan, had seven sons, four of whom were killed in duels. And one of his sons who managed to avoid the family malady, Martin Kirwan, did not escape the family’s No. 1 cause of male fatality, losing one of his four sons to the sword.

   Considering the appalling bad luck that afflicted this particular branch of the Kirwans, it is consoling to learn that one of the brothers of the several Kirwans who fell in combat more than up for his unfortunate siblings repeated failures. The following account is taken from an MS history of the Kirwan family; hence the rather antiquated style in which it is written it is concerned with Richard Bu’ Kirwan (1706-1779).

   Richard Kirwan, also known as ‘Nineteen duel Dick’ and Ristetrd buidhe a’ claidhimh’, was, at six feet, four inches, a giant of a man, who fought for both the King of France and the Austrian Emperor. What follows is the MS account, slightly edited: “Amongst the many men of distinguished ability that Ireland has provided during the last three centuries of oppression and slavery none of them can so justly claim the veneration and esteem of Irishmen more than this much neglected illustrious subject of this memoir.

   “He was born at a time when preferment due to genius was denied him in his own ill-fated country. The consequence was that he was obliged to seek in a foreign land that preferment and applause, and fill a station in society memorable to himself and honourable to his country”.

   Richard Kirwan was second son of Patrick Kirwan of Cregg by Mary Martin. He was born on the 6 June 1706. At the age of 16 he got a commission in the Emperor of Germany’s service. He fought in all the engagements in which the German army were engaged in from 1722 to the year 1759 at which last mentioned period he quit the service in consequence of the death of his kinsman and esteemed friend Ulysses Maximillian Browne, the third Field Marshall, who died from the effects of wounds received by him at the Battle of Prague.

   “Before he left the country to enlist in the armies of a foreign prince, he fought the celebrated Denis Jennings of Cregmore Castle. The story goes that Donaugh Dubh was the dread of the surrounding country, and he was much annoyed to hear that, Richard Kirwan was deemed by the country people a better swordsman than himself.

   One day he dispatched a messenger for the boy to Creg and invited him to a Ball, which he said was to have to commemorate his birth. As soon as Richard received the invitation he gladly accepted of it and set out for Cregmore Castle, not thinking that any danger attended his journey, but as usual in those days wore his long sword. As soon as he arrived at the gate he beheld an old ghostly weathered decrepit man sitting inside the gate wrapped up in a large cloak, cleaning a rusted sword. Our young hero enquired to whom did the sword belong. The old man said it formerly belonged to the renowned Fin Me Caul. He anxiously asked to let him see it. “So!” said the old man “it would cry out to heaven to be in the hands of a coward like you”. Our hero could not bear to be thus insulted attho well knowing the old man to be Denis Dubh Jennings in disguise, at once drew his sword and desired him to defend himself. Black Denis then threw off his disguise, but how astonished must our youth be when he discovered him in armour instead of an old jacket. The bloody conflict commenced, and continuing for upwards of half an hour at length, Jennings fell wounded by his youthful antagonist. No sooner than the clash of their swords were heard than an enormous quantity of peasantry gathered to the scene of action, and to their great surprise beheld Denis Dubh lying on the ground, covered in gore, and apparently dead. They would have killed our young hero if Jennings had not interfered. He assured them that no unfair means had been taken by his antagonist and that he fell wounded and subdued by the superiority of arms and requested that no interruption should be given to the gentleman, and order him to be conducted into the castle and treated with all due hospitality until he would get his wounds dressed. “And I must say” said Jennings “that a better swordsman never came across me”.

   Richard Kirwan was then conducted to the castle and received with hospitality and remained there until next morning, and strange to say, they were ever after the best of friends. This gentleman was considered the best swordsman of the age in which he lived. He is better known by the appellation of, Nineteen duel Dick, the champion of France & Yellow Richard of the sword. His rapier can now be seen at 79 Eccles St., Dublin.




   The manuscript is in a slender leather-bound, unlined notebook measuring 17cm x 10cm, of 30 pages, all but 6 of which are written on. Containing an account of the Kirwan family of Galway, with separate sections devoted to different branches of the family and their traditional seats. Written in pencil at the top of page 54, the signature: Andrew Kirwan, 79 Eccles.

   Andrew was the son of martin Kirwan and Bridget, daughter of Michael McCann. Martin Kirwan (died 1881) was the third son of Richard Bu’ Kirwan, the famous duellist, and Christina, daughter of Nicholas Bermingham, a grandson of the 16th Lord Bermingham of Athenry.

   The Kirwan family are of ancient Irish origin. They deduce their descent from Maoldhbharon, son of Febhrann, son of Finglian, who was the father of Corovane, or Ciorobane, from whom the families of Cregg, Blindwell, Ballyhasna, Silane and Ballygaddy are lineally descended.

   In the commencement of the 11th century this family were the hereditary proprietors of a comprehensive district in the province of Ulster (situate convenient to the Town of Londonderry) and continued in the possession and actual seizen of same until they were expelled by the followers of John D’Coursey in A.D. 1217 or thereabouts.

   They were then obliged to fly for protection to Connought, and soon after settled at a place then called Doonagh na Ballinmore (now generally forgotten) or Dunbally (where they erected a strong castle), which is situate within a few miles of the once famous town of Dunmore.

   Tradition relates that they were from their arrival seized of a considerable portion of the surrounding country, and that large tracts passed away from them by intermarriages to several other Irish families, namely the OKellys, OConnors, OHallorans, OMaddens and OFlaherties.

   But be this as it may, there is at present a portion of land situate near the town of Dunmore which still claims the name of Forin ni Ciorovane, which is in itself most corroborative proof that this family were the ancient owners. As the family became numerous, the younger branches settled in other parts of the extensive inheritance of the family, to wit, Lavally, Ballymanagh, Ballygary, Loughcarrow and Ballyhasna, all situate in the Barony of Dunmore.

   In consequence of a quarrel that took place between the senior Branch of this family and the De Berminghams of Dunmore, or Athenry, Okelly of Athlegue and several other Irish and Anglo-Norman families, this family were obliged to surrender the greater part of their inheritance to the De Berminghams. The senior member of the family, William O Ciorovane, was obliged to go reside in Galway where he became one of the principal, influential men then in Galway.

   Thomas Reigh OCiorobane, his eldest son, who was mayor of Galway in 1534 and died in 1543, was the father of Thomas Oge OCiorobane, alderman of Galway, who died in 1542, leaving Andrew Bane OCiorobane of Galway as his heir, and Stephen OCiorobane, his second son, who is the ancestor of the Castlehackett Kirwans.

   Andrew Bane OCiorobane was married to Anastasia Ffrench of Galway, by whom he had Patrick More OCiorobane, alderman of Galway, who died in AD 1608 and was interred in the Church of St. Nicholas. With his wife, Jane Browne, he had: Andrew, his eldest son, who was alderman of Galway and a man of great wealth (his will is dated 20th August 1639) and he is buried in St. Nicholas; William Oge OCiorovane, his second son; Thomas Oge OCiorovane, his third son; and Edward, called Eman Ar Airgid (Edward of the silver), his fourth son. He was mayor of Galway in 1643 when Galway was surrendered to Sir Charles Coote. He is the immediate ancestor of Dalgan; he died 22nd June 1662.


              Kirwan – General Family History – Galway


   The Kirwans were one of only two Tribal families that were wholly Irish in origin, originally owners of land roughly contiguous with the town of Derry, until after their expulsion by the Norman, John de Coursey, about 1217. The O’Kirivan’s then settled near Dunmore, Co. Galway, building a castle called Dunbally. The family seems to have proliferated in the Dunmore area, even at this early stage trading with Galway while the junior branches settled in and around the town itself. It is alleged that as early as 1280 a William O’Ciorovane was sovereign of Galway.

   Galway was founded in 1232 by William de Burgo and much of its original history was essentially a military outpost. From the time of the de Burgo Civil War in 1333, the Clanricard Burkes were the nominal Lords of Galway, a situation that the independent merchant families found less and less to their liking. In 1396, the Charter of King Richard II granted to the town that year enabled them to begin the long road to autonomy. The Tribes were finally granted a Charter of Mayorality in 1484 by King Richard III. The Charter gave Galwegians 1. Political Power; Right of refusal to outsiders seeking positions of power. 2. Trade; This gave a monopoly on goods bought and sold. 3. Autonomy; This put the town on the standing with other ‘City- States’ that dotted continental Europe in the same era as Venice and Genoa.

   Though by 1649 the Tribes could refer to themselves as ‘an ancient colonie of England’ they neither came from a single ethnic group, nor did they all arrive in town simultaneously. Of the 14, two of the Tribes were Irish, three were Welsh, seven were Norman and two that were Anglo-Saxon/English. All the tribes married almost exclusively with each other for hundreds of years, in some cases marrying cousins from different branches of their own family. The end result was that all fourteen could be regarded as one large super-tribe, so close were the bonds of kinship between them.

   The English Civil War ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and within months, the English Republicans under Cromwell landed in Ireland. The plague reached the town in July, and lasted until April 1650. The following year Cromwellians laid siege to the town. Tribes were thrown out of office, their houses and lands were confiscated, and they were ordered out of town en masse. About a thousand were rounded up and shipped to Barbados as slaves.

   The 1700’s in particular saw many junior branches of the Tribes establish themselves as merchants in France and Spain, where their descendants still live. Others founded plantations and estates in America and the West Indies. Despite this, many branches of the tribes flourished from the 18th to early 20th centuries, often as landlords, merchants and estate agents. The hundred years between the Famine and Declaration of the Irish Republic all but eradicated the last traces of the ancient noble class of these families. Often, the only physical reminder of their past prestige is the numerous examples of their coat of arms, dotted around town, and long-abandoned castles and mansions.

   to be continued…