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Beginnings in Ancient Ireland
n studying the culture of a people it must be understood that they were greatly influenced by the people who went before them. It is useful, therefore, in studying the history of an Irish family, to give some consideration to the people from Ireland's ancient past who set the pattern for the society which later evolved. Such knowledge can help to explain the characteristics, customs and beliefs of the people today. For
historical reasons the imprint left by Ireland's ancient people has endured to a much greater extent than has been the case in most other European societies, and these imprints are still evident even today.

Archaeological finds indicate that Stone Age men were living in Ireland around 5000 B.C. and possibly as far back as 8000 B.C. Where they came from and what sort of society they had is not known. Stone structures, similar to those at Stonehenge in England but on a smaller scale, are found, but their purpose can only be guessed at. Passage graves, burial chambers and dolmens built by these Neolithic people still dot the country.

The people who contributed most to what eventually became 'Irish' society were the Celts, who arrived in Ireland somewhere between 1000 and 200 B.C. They probably arrived gradually over a long period of time, rather than by a single invasion. An understanding of the Celts and their society is useful in studying Irish family history, because it was they who had the greatest impact on Ireland and they whose imprint can still be detected today.

Just when the Celts arrived in Ireland is not known, but archaeological finds show that they were well-established there by about 500 B.C. and possibly earlier.  It is likely that there had been earlier invasions by people other than the Celts. Legend suggests the arrival of Milesians from Spain; they may have been Basques or Celtiberians. The pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland are believed to have been small and dark; the Celts in general were tall and blond or red-haired. Both these physical types are still evident in the Irish people today, despite centuries of immigration and inter-marriage.

Other early visitors, according to legend, were the Danaans, a magical people who were said to come from Greece. It is possible that people from a number of civilisations visited Ireland, including the Mycenaean Greeks, who might well have called as friendly traders. Their coming and going over several generations may have given rise to the Irish belief in "fairies", beings who could make themselves disappear and reappear at will, sometimes bringing gifts. The Celts, too, believed in magic. It is likely that the beliefs of the Celts and of the pre-Celtic inhabitants became fused, to produce the Irish belief in fairies and leprechauns, the "little people." Even after the coming of Christianity the Irish belief in fairies and magic remained strong, and they appear in many of the myths and legends, including those of the MacAuliffes which appear in later pages.

Even when they ceased to be nomadic, the Celts remained tribal. Despite the large populations they grew to and the vast land areas they occupied, there never was a Celtic empire. The tribes often fought with each other, and there was no overall ruler to rally all the tribes. It was that lack of central authority which allowed the Celts in Europe to be overrun by the numerically smaller, but administratively stronger, Romans. The same tribal systems were followed by the Gaels in Ireland; a lack of central authority and frequent inter-tribal fighting made the Irish vulnerable to attack from outside over the following centuries.

The Celts in Ireland became known as the Gaels. The basic social unit of Gaelic society was the Tuatha, in which the members took great pride of ancestry. It can be translated as nation, tribe, clan or sept. The word sept is usually used to describe the Irish type of this social unit. It consisted of men and women belonging to the same extended family. Several septs might constitute a larger clan.
The leader of the sept or clann had to be strong, brave, skilful, virile and, if possible, handsome, for he represented the collective consciousness of the tribe. It was as such, and not as an individual, that he ruled. Among the O'Neills the chieftain was 'The O'Neill', among the O'Donovans he was 'The O'Donovan' and among the MacAuliffe's he was 'The MacAuliffe', or simply 'MacAuliffe". References will be found in these pages, and in various documents or reports, to 'MacAuliffe' as a singular person - that means the chieftain; while others may need further identification, the chieftain alone, as the embodiment of the clan, is simply 'MacAuliffe'. 

The chieftain owned little more than did any other member of the sept. He was not the 'owner' of tribal land, which was owned by the tribe collectively; the chieftain ruled it on the clan's behalf. The chieftain was subject to the same laws as the rest of the clan. Marriage existed in a fairly loose sense - bigamy was not unusual. In practice the chieftain had more sexual freedom. Young women might be honoured by the attention of the chieftain, and for the sept it was desirable that the chieftain should father as many children as possible who, through the system of fosterage, would strengthen the dominant class.
Picture of 15th Century Irish family
Irish family about 15th century. Note the child with bagpipes.
A sept consisted of a number of families which were in themselves miniature versions of the clan itself. They owed obedience to the clan chieftain or a ri (king) to whom they paid taxes (in the form of cattle, sheep, grain, etc.) and to whom they were bound to provide warriors in time of war. In ancient times the extended family system (tuatha) was strengthened by a system of fosterage. Children often were not brought up by their parents but by their cousins or aunts or uncles. ( A faint echo of this can be detected in the appointment of god-parents). This not only cemented the sept as the main unit of society but made legitimacy less relevant than in a purely patriarchal society.

All real property, such as land, cattle, sheep, etc., was the property of the whole sept. When a new leader was needed the best man within a certain kinship of the old was selected. This might be a son or it could extend up to a second or third cousin and the more children the old leader had the wider the choice for his successor, the Tanaiste. The heir was usually accepted well before the old chieftain's death. Until the arrival of feudalism, disputes over succession seem to have been so rare as to merit only the occasional mention in the sagas. At least two are recorded for the McAulifes, however.

The Gaels recognised the power of words, and the work of poets was held in high regard. A poet was an important member of a chieftain's retinue. Among his duties was the glorification of the sept, in the person of its chieftain, and the vilification of its enemies. (In today's context the poet of old might be seen as the forerunner of a publicity officer, or even a propaganda minister). Henry MacAuliffe, born about 1720, found fame in his native County Cork as a poet whose satirical works helped to lift the spirits of the people. The bard was a storyteller and musician, a sort of wandering minstrel, though some might be more or less permanently attached to a chieftain's retinue. Though more numerous, the bards were of lesser importance and seemed mostly to interpret and spread the work of the poets, though they might also compose some poetry and songs of their own.

Ireland in earlier times was without roads, and most of the country was forest or bog. Woodland tracks or ridge walks connected the clearings where the septs grazed their livestock or cultivated their fields. Hospitality was offered to strangers and the bard, who brought his stories, poems and songs, along with news and gossip from beyond the mountains was particularly welcome. These wandering bards were active right through to the 19th century.

During a period of more than 1000 years the Celts in Ireland were largely undisturbed by the outside world; even the Roman Empire left them largely alone. Their wars were inter-tribal skirmishes, mostly over possession of livestock, boundary disputes, or to avenge insults. Relics of fortresses are still to be seen throughout Ireland. The Celtic/ Gaelic culture remained the dominant influence in Ireland well into the 18th century.

The first Viking raid in Ireland occurred in AD. 795. These inhabitants of Scandinavia were skilled sailors and the invention of the keel by the Norwegians about 600. AD.  made it possible for their longboats to be used on long sea voyages. The Vikings had already launched attacks on other European settlements, taking advantage of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Booty was their goal and some of these settlements offered rich pickings. The first to raid Ireland were Norwegians, though later the Danes joined in. Ireland has many waterways, easily negotiable by shallow boats, so virtually no place in Ireland was safe from the raiders. In time the Vikings established permanent land bases in Ireland. Later these strongholds became towns and Viking and Irish became mixed. Eventually, by inter-marriage, the sharing of Christian beliefs and the adoption of the Irish language, the small Viking population was absorbed into the larger Irish one.

The first Normans landed in Ireland in 1167, at the request of one Dermot MacMurrough who had become King of Leinster by violent means. He had himself been driven out and fled to Wales, where he recruited Welsh and Norman mercenaries to return with him to recover his throne. The Normans stayed in Ireland, building fortified castles and introducing feudalism. The new arrivals included some of the founders of famous Irish names such as FitzGerald, Burke, FitzGibbon and Prendergast. In time, like other invaders before them, the Normans became absorbed into Ireland, speaking the Irish language, and adopting Irish ways.

The threat of a strong Norman presence not subservient to England caused alarm to the English King Henry II, so that he himself followed with a strong army. The Normans swore allegiance to the King, but this English invasion was to be the first of many which would take place over the following centuries. Indeed, the story of Ireland from this point right up until the 20th century is the story of conflict with England, of resisting invasion or rebelling against it. The story of the MacAuliffe sept, is very much a part of that same pattern, as they were forced to fight for their lands and their homes, resisting the invader and the new ways which the invader tried to force on them. In the end the fight was lost, the land confiscated, and many of the clan are today scattered to far parts of the world.
McAuliffe Origins
Who are the MacAuliffes and where was their 'land of great prosperity'?
Because the name "Auliffe" resembles the Viking name "Olaf" it has been believed by some people that the McAuliffes are of Danish or Norwegian descent , especially since the name first appeared in Ireland after the Viking settlements. In some books and writings it will be found stated as fact that the McAuliffes are of Viking origin, but that is true only of the name.  Olaf, the King of Norway, was killed in battle in A.D. 1030.  Hecame to be venerated as a saint and devotion to him spread even to Ireland because of the influence of Viking settlements there. Churches were built in his honour and his name became popular as a Christian name for boys, taking the Gaelic form 'Amhlaoibh', which was later anglicised as 'Auliffe' or 'Humphrey'  (naming a child after a saint is still a common practice today). In The Annals of the Four Masters can be found a number of records of the name Auliffe being used at about this period, including the following references to chieftains:

1180. Auliffe O'Toghda, Chief of Bredagh, was killed by O'Gaughan, Chief of Moy-heleag.

1207. Murray, the son of Roderic O'Conor, and Auliffe O'Farrell, Chief of Annaly, died.

1208. Auliffe O'Rothlain, Chief of Calry of Coolcarney, was slain by O'Moran.

The Gaelic origin of the MacAuliffes is further confirmed by Edward MacLysaght, who writes in his book "Irish Families"  -  "It does not follow that ... are of Norse descent, since several families of undisputed Gaelic Irish origin have surnames derived from Norse personal names as, for example, McAuliffe, McManus, McRannall."

The McAuliffes are definitely of Celtic origin, being a branch of the powerful MacCarthys. All who bear the name 'MacAuliffe' (and its variations) are descended from Auliffe Alainn ('Humphrey the Dandy') MacCarthy,the son of Donough MacCarthy, the son of Murcharch MacCarthy, the son of Teige MacCarthy, who was King of Desmond (south Munster) from 1118 to 1124. Auliffe was probably born around A.D. 1200 and his mother may well have been  a Dane from Cork or Limerick where there were sizeable Danish populations. At this time surnames, while well-established in Ireland, were not always as fixed and permanent as they are today and could be changed in a man's lifetime. Often the name given was derived from physical appearance or character, from an occupation or place of abode, a weapon of war or something of religious significance. Probably Auliffe Alain was a colourful and well-known person (the name 'Humphrey the Dandy' certainly suggests this) and so it was not strange that his children came to be identified as 'Mac Auliffe', i.e 'the sons of Auliffe', and so a new surname was born. The first  McAuliffe was therefore of MacCarthy blood, a great grandson of Teige MacCarthy, King of Desmond. It should be noted that the prefix 'Mac' applies only to sons; for daughters the correct prefix was 'Ni'. Thus Mealane (Meelan), the subject of one of the clan legends, is referred to as Mealane Ni Amhlaoibh (Mealane Ni Auliffe).

The Norman invasion at the end of the twelfth century caused great confusion amongst the Irish tribes. Until then the MacCarthys, along with others, had occupied the fertile lands of Tipperary. Their old enemy the O'Briens took advantage of the situation and harried them whenever possible. Faced with these combined attacks,  the MacCarthys, the O'Sullivans, the O'Donoghues, with their followers moved to the south-west of the province and took over from the older inhabitants the western half of County Cork and South Kerry. It is most likely that the MacAuliffes, then few in number, moved with their parent clan, the MacCarthys, into Cork. In time they developed into a clan which by the year 1400 A.D. had consolidated itself in the northwest of the barony.

In the 16th century Duhallow was ruled by four clans; the MacDonagh MacCarthys of Kanturk, the MacAuliffes of Clanawley, the O'Callaghans of Clonmeen and the O'Keeffes of Dromagh. The MacCarthys, the MacAuliffes and the O'Callaghans were all of the same stock from the Eoghanacht tribe which had been the ruling tribe of Munster for hundreds of years up until the time of Brian Boru. The O'Keeffes were of different stock but also belonged to the Eoghanacht tribe. Another smaller clan, the O'Noonans of Tullylease, had been in Duhallow for much longer than the others but had no say in the political affairs of the barony. They were guardians of the monastery of Tullylease.

The MacDonagh MacCarthys were Lords of Duhallow, but they in turn owed allegiance to MacCarthy More, the Prince of Desmond, which included the baronies of Duhallow and Muskerry in Cork. The other clans had to pay tribute or dues to both but especially to the Lord of Duhallow. Payment was usually made in the form of cattle, sheep, honey, oats, beer or whiskey. In addition the other three clans had to contribute soldiers, and also to entertain the lord and his retinue twice a year. Finally the Lord of Duhallow and his retinue had rights to hunt and to fish anywhere in the barony.
The McAuliffes have sometimes been said to have 'a touch of Blarney'  -  there may be more truth in that than realised, for Blarney Castle, home of  the famous Blarney Stone, was built and  occupied by a sept of the MacCarthys who, as we have seen above, are kin to the McAuliffes.
Much of the information on this page is derived from
D.H Allen 'The McAuliffes of Clanawley'1991.
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McAuliffe Origins
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This page last updated 10 May 2011

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