Clan History

Dysert O`Dea Clan > Clan History

O’Dea Clan Origins

The O’Dea clan came originally from County Clare where there is a fortified tower house over 500 years old known as O’Dea Castle at the 80-acre (320,000 m2) townland of Dysert O’Dea (Irish: Dísert, meaning “hermitage”).  The ruins of Dysert O’Dea Monastery, round tower, and St. Tola’s high cross are 265 metres to the south-southwest of the castle in the adjacent 260-acre (1.1 km2) townland of Mollaneen (Irish: Molainín, meaning “the little hill”), near Corofin.

The name O’Dea is normally pronounced oh-dee, and sometimes oh-day, in English.  Clan descendants may have the surnames Alday, Allday, O’Dea, Dea, Day, Daye, O’Day, O’Daye, Dee, Dees, O’Dee, Godwin, or Goodwin.

O’Dea Coat of Arms

The origin of the O’Dea coat of arms is one of the most ancient in Europe; going back many centuries before the invasion of Ireland by the Celts.  The green serpents depicted refer to the legend of Gaodhal Glas and the children of Israel, related in the early genealogy; while the sword shows that the O’Deas were a warlike tribe dedicated to the defence of their territory.

The original description of the shield from Burke’s General Armoury is as follows:

“Argent a dexter hand lying fessways, couped at the wrist cuffed indented asure holding a sword in pale all proper in chief two snakes embowed vert”.

When translated into modem English it reads:

“Silver, a right hand lying horizontally, severed at the wrist in a blue indented cuff holding a sword vertically, all natural and two green snakes in the upper third”.

Early History

During the early centuries of the first millennium A.D., lands were allotted to the various Celtic clans of noble pedigree. The O’Deas became lords of that part of North West Clare between the river Fergus to the East, the Burren to the North, and the Atlantic ocean to the West.

Early in the 8th century a pious hermit named Tóla was given a plot of land near the O’Dea stronghold. Here he set about organizing a small monastic community. Tóla built a little church in Dysert about 700 A.D., parts of which are incorporated into the present church at Dysert O’Dea.

The chief who gave his own personal name to Clan O’Dea was Déaghaidh (pronounced Day), who is referred to in Keating’s History of Ireland under the year 934 A.D, where he describes the rescue of Ceallachán (King of Munster) from his capture on a Viking ship at Dundalk. “Cinneide (Brian Boru’s father) also brought five hundred men from Dal gCais (Co. Clare) under Déaghaidh son of Domhnall (ancestor of the O’Deas) together with those who came from the other free clans of Munster.” The O’Deas, therefore, were one of the first families in Europe to have a surname, which they adopted before King Brian Boru made it compulsory early in the 11th century.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of chaos throughout Ireland. There are many references to the O’Deas showing that they were involved in numerous civil wars and inter-tribal conflicts. In August of 1317, a great meeting of the Dalcassian chiefs was held at Rathlaheen. It was decided that they would meet a week later at Ruan, from whence they marched northwards past Tullach O’Dea until they reached the Cistercian Abbey of Corocomruadh. Numbered in this great army were many of the major and minor clans of County Clare. In opposition, Donnchadh, grandson of Brian Rua, gathered his forces and was overwhelmingly defeated in the battle of Lough Raska near Corcomruadh Abbey.

Copyright © 2001 Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Dysert O Dea Clan Association.

The Battle of Dysert O’Dea, 1318

When Richard de Clare heard of the devastating defeat of his allies at Corcomruadh, he decided to attack O’Dea at Dysert and so cut off the strong arm of the combined Gaelic opposition. His troops arrived at Ruan on the morning of May 10, 1318, and were divided into three columns. The first column, headed by his son, marched northwards to Tullach O’Dea to cut off help which might arrive from O’Connor of Ennistymon. The second division marched southwards towards Magowna to intercept any support from that side. The third division, under his own command, marched westwards towards Dysert O’Dea, the home of Conor O’Dea.

The Battle of Dysert O'Dea
The Battle of Dysert O’Dea

When Conor got news that such a large force of English and Irish mercenaries were advancing on him, he sent messengers to the neighboring clans for aid while he hastily put together a strategy for defense. With a small band of followers, he maintained a stand at the ford on the Fergus (where Macken Bridge now stands) and held back the Anglo-Norman advance while his men took up an ambush position behind him. De Clare, seeing only a small body of Conor O’Dea’s men at the ford, rushed across with some English knights and was immediately surrounded by the O’Deas. He was felled by the axe of Conor O’Dea himself and was hacked to pieces by others while the main body of his troops looked on helplessly from the opposite bank of the stream.

The enraged Anglo-Normans fought their way across the stream and surrounded the O’Deas. Suddenly, Feilim O’Connor’s troops charged down the hill of Scamhall (Scool) and cut a path through the English to join O’Dea in the fray. De Clare’s son arrived on the scene and was cut down and killed by Feilim O’Connor.

About this time news reached Muircheartach O’Brien, who was encamped about 10 miles east of Dysert O’Dea, that O’Dea and O’Connor were sorely pressed by the English. He and his men rushed to the battle as fast as their horses could gallop. O’Connor was first to see them arrive and thought they were more English reinforcements which caused him to despair, but he was soon delighted when he heard their Gaelic war cries.

Soon Lochlann O’Hehir and the MacNamaras joined the fight. The English continued to fight bravely and fiercely. Their commanders fell where they stood and they were annihilated almost to a man. Those of the race of Brian Rua who made it across the Shannon were banished forever from the Kingdom of Thomond. Later the Irish arrived at Bunratty to find the castle ablaze and de Clare’s wife and household fled to England.

Since that day in May 1318, no Englishman held power or land in Country Clare for over two hundred years. So began an era of peace and prosperity which had not been seen since the coming of the Danes five hundred years before.

Copyright © 2001 Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Dysert O Dea Clan Association.

Later Middle Ages

In 1395, Richard II came to Ireland bringing with him a large army to subdue the Irish chiefs. His representative, the Earl of Nottingham, arrived in Co. Clare to proclaim the king’s rule. The Irish decided to play along with him for the sake of peace, and met him at Magh Adhair on March 14th, 1395, where each chief submitted to him on behalf of his people. Ruaidhri O’Dea represented his clansmen of Cineal Fearmaic. After Richard II went back to England, the Irish returned to the ways and laws of their ancestors.

During the 15th century, the O’Deas set to work building towerhouses. These were tall narrow towers of between 60 and 80 feet height usually containing four major stories and six minor anterooms. The towers were surrounded by high farmyard walls knows as bawns and many had banquet halls and other adjoining houses. Between 1450 and 1550, over 210 of these houses were built in Co. Clare although there are less than 80 standing today, many in a very ruinous conditions. The Dysert O’Dea towerhouse was built between 1470 and 1480 by Diarmaid O’Dea.

During the 16th century, many fierce arguments occurred within clans because of the the new English legal system that was slowly replacing the old Brehon Laws. According to English law, the eldest son of a chieftain automatically became the heir, not only to his land and possessions but also to his “title”. This was of course not acceptable to most Irish clansmen who had been electing their leaders for over a thousand years. Many chieftains and landowners could see the benefits of this new system, particularly for their own descendants, and so Ireland became immersed in numerous petty wars.

The Inchinquin Manuscripts, which cover the period between 1500 and 1900, contain several references to the O’Deas, referring to land titles, inquisitions, and letters. During this period, land was often mortgaged and the mortgages traded between speculators. The confusion was aggravated by the problems of language and the slow change-over from Brehon to English Law. Often Gaelic deeds were declared null and void by English juries who used the law to acquire land for themselves. On the other hand, many Irish landowners could be equally vindictive and refused either to redeem a mortgage or quit the premises on the grounds that they were ignorant of English law.

During the 1500’s, the Dysert O’Dea castle and town changed hands many times. One of the most important manuscripts of the Inchiquin collections is an award of Dysert Castle and lands made by Connor O’Dea Bishop of Kilmacduagh to two of his kinsmen, Diarmaid Og O’Dea and Domhnall O’Dea. The deed was agreed to at Dysert in 1568. But the ownership was not secure for long. Another document, dated October, 1594, is a “Precept issued by Thomas Dillon, Chief Justice of Connaught to the High Sheriff of Clare to give peaceful possession of certain lands in Dysert and Inchiquin to Daniel Neylon Bishop of Kildare and John his son, on the grounds that the present occupiers have been found guilty of various crimes and disturbing the peace! By 1659, most of the O’Dea property in Munster and Leinster had been confiscated. The census of that year shows only 11 O’Dea landlords left in the Barony and all of those seem to have been tenants on one hundred acres or less.

After the Cromwellian and Williamite wars in the latter half of the 17th century, thousands of Irishmen emigrated to France where they were guaranteed service in the army of King Louis. The O’Deas were no exception. Two sons of Michael O’Dea of Dysert, James and Donough, followed their uncle James into the Irish Brigade.

Thus began the demise of the poor Catholic peasantry left behind, leaderless after the cream of Gaelic nobility had been forced to leave for the continent. The population of the O’Dea lands, though greatly reduced by war, emigration, and enforced slavery in the West Indies, was supplemented by transplanted Catholics and new English settlers. It rose steadily in the parish of Dysert from about 2,000 people in 1690 to over 7,000 by 1840. Most of these were now landless laborers living in cabins and ditches, surviving solely on potatoes and buttermilk. When the potato blight came in 1846 and 1847, it brought destitution and starvation. The great Potato Famine resulted in over one million deaths in Ireland from starvation and disease, and the emigration of over one million people to Britain, the United States of America, and Australia. For this reason, most O’Deas and O’Days live outside of Ireland.

Copyright © 2001 Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Dysert O Dea Clan Association.

Dysert under Synge

After the “Flight of the Wild Geese” in 1691 and the institution of the Penal Laws, which mitigated against Catholic ownership of land, commercial business, or even a basic education, most of the lands of the ancient Gaelic overlords were held by Protestant landlords of English descent.

These landlords neither spoke Gaelic nor understood the ancient customs and folkways of their tenants. This led to much hostility between peasants and gentry which continued in some areas of Ireland up to the present century.

Most of the lands of Dysert (which for centuries belonged to the Diocese of Killaloe) went to the family of Synge which had been involved in ecclesiastic affairs in the Established Church since the 1670s. Nicholas Synge was Bishop of Killaloe in the middle of the eighteenth century and was probably responsible for the building of the fine three-story house at Carhoo in Dysert. Edward Synge, who gained control of the land in 1823, was a religious fanatic who swore to stamp out the great evil of “Papism”. Edward Synge build schools which taught religious instructions most of the day. Through strongly opposed by the parish priest in Corofin, he continued his religious missionary zeal until his Dysert school was burned during the night in 1826. Synge himself captured two of the miscreants where upon a police guard was placed upon his house. Things came to a head on Ash Wednesday in 1831, when shots were fired at Edward Synge’s car as he was returning home from Corofin. His driver was killed while Synge was miraculously saved by a Bible he always carried in his breast pocket. (The Bible and bullet are today on display at the Corofin Heritage Center.)

Edward’s son, Francis Hutchinson Synge, took over the Dysert lands in the latter half of the nineteenth century and carried out much needed repairs to the old chapel of the O’Deas, the round tower, and the high cross. He is buried under a stone of polished granite just outside the walls of the Dysert O’Dea church.

Copyright © 2001 Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Dysert O Dea Clan Association.

The Last Heroes

Patrick O’Dea

Patrick O’Dea was born in 1903 at Corrowmore North, Doonbeg, Co. Clare. He attended the local National School at Clohanes where he began his athletic career. His favorite pastime was swimming and he was destined for a brilliant career as a long distance swimmer.

In 1920 the War of Independence in Clare was at its worst, with the infamous Black and Tans shooting and burning indiscriminately. Patrick joined the Republican Army and became a member of The West Clare Active Service Unit. In July 1920, volunteer Patrick O’Dea was fatally wounded during an engagement with British troops at Ballykett near Kilrush. He was only nineteen years of age.

So ended 1000 years of O’Dea opposition to foreign rule in Ireland, an opposition which began with Déaghadh fighting the Vikings at Dundalk in 943 and ended with young Patrick’s death in 1922.

O’Dea Road in Kilrush, Co. Clare is named after him.  (Reference: ‘Kilrush from olden times’  (page 77) by James T. McGuane.)

Copyright © 2001 Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Dysert O Dea Clan Association.

Captain Michael O’Dea


The Restoration of Dysert O’Dea Castle

In 1968, Mr. John B. O’Day of Wisconsin was touring Ireland when he discovered that Dysert O’Dea Castle was for sale. He immediately set about purchasing the ruin and between 1971 and 1983, he carried out much needed repairs to the building in order to protect what remained of the castle from the elements. Since that time Dysert O’Dea has become one of the most visited sites in Clare and is today the site of continuing archeological investigation.

Copyright © 2001 Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Dysert O Dea Clan Association.


With many thanks, this history is taken from:

O’Dea, Ua Deaghaidh: The Story of a Rebel Clan, by Risteárd Ua Cróinín.
Ballinakella Press, Whitegate, Co. Clare, Ireland, 1992
ISBN 0 946538 07 7 Reprint, 2001

Other facets of the history of the O’Dea Clan may be found in the “Learned Families of Thomond” series on the Clare Library web site.

Copyright © 2001 Risteárd Ua Cróinín and Dysert O Dea Clan Association.


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