A brief history of our ancestors
Our ancestors were exiled to the Sliabh Luachra area in the late 17th century after their farms were lost
to the Adventurers Act and the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652. Earlier migrations of people to
this region happened after the Desmond Rebellions of the late 16th century. Killeedy is on the outer
edges of Sliabh Luachra. It was a wet, marshy, brushy mountain area not ideal for farming; it would take
a lot of work to reclaim the land. I remember my grandfather, Jim Shanahan, recounting the accounts of
moving up to the mountain; the process was very gradual, as a lot of work had to be done first.
The first account of a Shanahan in Ballagh was of Edward Shanahan in 1714, but in all likelihood the
Shanahan’s presence in the area predated Edward. The Shanahans were part of the Dál gCais, who were
part of the Déisi Muman, a powerful tribe in Munster. Brian Bóruma is perhaps the best‐known king
from the dynasty and was in large parts responsible for carving out their future fortunes. Brian Boru’s
grandmother was a Shanahan.
Glenquin Castle was taken by the Uí Briain (O’Briens), and during the Desmond Rebellions (1569) it fell to
the Geraldines, until the Crown confiscated their lands in 1571. Two very consequential battles, the Battles of Knocknanuss in 1647 and Knockbrack in 1651, caused mass migrations to this area. “Allistrims Jig” and several other songs and poems were composed for the battle by contemporary Sliabh Luachra poets and musicians. “Allstrim” was really Allister McDonnell, one of the leaders of the Confederate army who was killed by Parliment Forces at the battle of Knocknanuss. The survivors of the defeated Confederate armies from both battles took refuge in the Sliabh Luachra area.
This region remained undisturbed and almost unaccounted for until the agrarian disturbances of the
Rockite Movement, which began in West Limerick in the summer of 1821. Our ancestors originally lived in Waterford before being driven west. “To hell or to Connaught” was the order given by Cromwell to the Gaelic Irish. After leaving Waterford, and before they arrived in Killeedy, the Shanahans lived in several places. According to oral accounts the first of these was Ogonnelloe in east County Clare. Once the resettlement act started to fall apart, they moved to the North Kerry area around Castleisland and Ballmacelligot. Even when they lived in North Kerry, they spent time in Killeedy preparing the lands to be able to support a family. The nearby bog gave them a fuel source, and the land would feed them. According to my great grandfather, Michael, eight generations had lived there until his time. The original home was almost invisible from the other side of ditch, and they also had a view of any approaching danger. None of this was an accident; the location of the homestead was very strategic.
A lot of work needed to be done before moving up to Ballagh. The land wasn’t ready for farming right
away as there was poor drainage and too many trees. Land needed to be cleared and drained and
ditches needed to be dug.
Once the Shanahans settled in Ballagh, they made their living in a few different ways that were all tied
to agriculture. Some of our ancestors were blacksmiths and farmers. Another large source of income
was from producing butter. The butter was packed into firkins and loaded onto horses and taken to
Rockchapel area for transportation to the Cork butter market, where it was exported. In 1830, it was
reported by the office of the revenue that Irish farmers sent 30,000 firkins valued at £52,000, with much
of it passing through the Rockchapel mountain path. As a result of this report, many roads were built in
the area, including the road from Castleisland to Clonbanin, and from Ballydesmond to Newmarket.
People in this region had the highest life expectancy in Ireland. Irish culture was alive and well here, in defiance of the penal laws. When I moved to Ireland in 1973, it was immediately apparent to me that Killeedy had an Irish dancing and music tradition that everyone took part in; everyone knew the set dances and old songs. Twenty‐five miles away in the Charleville area where I went to school, these traditions weren’t nearly as strong. I think it’s safe to say that people like our ancestors were responsible for keeping the old Gaelic ways alive. The cattle market day in Newcastle West was a big day. I remember my Dad telling me stories of how he would help his father guide cattle along the 7 mile journey on foot to sell them at the market.
The Jacobite/Williamite wars of the late 17th century ended any hope of getting any properties back that
were lost during the resettlements that happened during the mid‐17th century. Once the 15,000 Jacobite soldiers left after the Siege of Limerick in 1691, the people of Munster were left vulnerable.
One of the “Wild Geese” was Peter Lacy from Killeedy. Lacy, later known as Prince Eugene of Muscovy, is someone our family would have been very familiar with. His family fought in the Jacobite Army and joined the “Flight of the Wild Geese” after the defeats at Aughrim and the Siege of Limerick. The name James is very common in our family, leaving little doubt that they were on the side of James II and the Catholic House of Stuart. Lacy was born in Killeedy in 1678. The name Lacy is still common in the area. James became popular name with supporters of the house of Stuart and James II. Inversely, the name William doesn’t appear in our line.
Our family name was O’Seanacain from the time of Brian Boru when surnames were first used in
Ireland. Like most people in Ireland during the penal times, the O’, Mc, or Mac would have been
dropped to avoid the persecution carried out by crown forces. One of the O’Shanahans from Waterford
emigrated to Spain at this time. In 1720 a young man by the name of Diego O’Shanahan left Ireland for
Gran Canaria. His name in Ireland was James, but in Spain he was called Diego. His father’s name was
Maurice O’Shanahan, and his mother was Maria Barbara (Valois) O’ Shanahan. The O’Shanahans had ties
to Waterford and Limerick, as did our branch of the family then. The Name Maurice is also common to
both families. Are they related to us? I don’t know for certain. I do know that their story is a fascinating
It turns out that quite a few Irish made their way to Gran Canaria around that time, and today there is a sizeable Irish presence there. Maria Barbara Valois, was more than likely part of the French Huguenot
group that came to Ireland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. I have researched the name and
have confirmed that “Valois” was indeed a Huguenot name. The O’Shanahans are very prominent in
Gran Canaria to this day. I have spoken with a few of them and learned a lot about their history.
The Penal Laws were enacted in Ireland in 1695 and being an Irish Catholic Nationalist was considered a
crime. It was during the penal times that the Mass Rock and Hedge Schools emerged. The Catholic faith,
Irish music, dance, and poetry were kept alive then in remote hilly regions like the Sliabh Luachra.
Bounties were put on the head of priests caught carrying out sacraments during this time, and very little
church records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths were kept. If a priest was caught with any record of
carrying out a sacrament, deportation or hanging was the punishment. The records I found for the late
18th century were from the parish of Monagea where my GGGG Grandparents Maurice Shanahan and
Margaret Quirke were married in 1793, around the time the Penal Laws began to be dismantled by
various legislation; the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 put an end to the remaining Penal Laws.
According to the 1823 Connaught Journal, there was a Blacksmith in Killeedy around that time by the
name of James Shanahan. The family of Lord Courtenay (Earl of Devon) had owned the land in the area
since 1591. The infamous “Captain Rock” (the leader of the Rockites) was a blacksmith too, and he
worked for the Courtaneys in Newcastle West. Apparently, the Rockites formed in West Limerick in 1821
because of harsh treatment from the Courtenays and other landlords. According to records, a Protestant
church was burned in Killeedy in 1821 and Courtenay’s son, Thomas Hoskins, was assassinated by
“Captain Rock” and his local group of Rockites. James was arrested for participation, and was convicted
at the Limerick Assizes and sentenced to 9 years in Van Diemens Land (Tasmania). He was released in 1929. I remember hearing stories how he danced a hornpipe while being led onto the prison ship
Mangles‐ defiant to the last!
During my research, I discovered family names that had been in the area for centuries. A lot of them
died off over the years. The Pickleys seem to have been close with the various Shanahan families in
Killeedy through the years. Killeedy had 11 Shanahan families in 1852. Monegay had 10. Most of them were probably related. The name David Shanahan (Coolaleen) was prominent until 1885, when the last David Shanahan married a Margaret Reidy, who was from Chicago. They lived in Killeedy for a while before moving to Chicago. The name “Jim Pickley” also pops up quite a bit in church records, usually as godparents to children in my direct line, as well as the “David Shanahan” line. My Dad recalls hearing Grandad speak of “Jim Pickley.” The Pickleys were close friends of the Shanahans for generations. Cremins, Wards, and Gibbons are other surnames that appear quite a bit in records also.
The 19th century brought quite a bit of hardship and tragedy to our ancestors. Once the Napoleonic Wars were over in 1815, it was safe to sail to the Americas; it was hazardous up until then as ships were routinely attacked. Catholics weren’t all that welcome in the mostly Protestant America then, but the overwhelming need for labor on infrastructure projects on the Erie and Wabash Canals created an opportunity for people in Ireland who wanted a better life. Several expeditions were organized, one of them being the Peter Robinson Expedition. I don’t think the Shanahans were necessarily part of an expedition, but they did follow the same path as those expeditions, sailing from Cobh to Canada. It was cheaper then to sail to Canada than to America.
Some of the Shanahans stayed in Canada, but most went south to the US. My GGG Grand Uncle Maurice and his wife Mary, bought a farm in Canada that they later sold when they
bought another farm in Michigan in 1850. This is the same Maurice Shanahan who is listed in the 1832 Church of Ireland Tithe Applotment records. He remained a farmer until his death in 1889. Three of Maurice and Mary’s sons went on to hold senior management positions in the Bissell Vacuum Company in Michigan. John Shanahan, one of Maurice’s sons, holds several vacuum design patents with the US Patents Office. My great grandfather Michael worked at Bissell for a while with his cousins and uncles during the 1890s. When Maurice and Mary made the voyage to Canada in 1846 they tragically lost 3 of their daughters on the journey while at sea‐ Bridget, Ellen, and Catherine. A family member remembered Mary as being despondent over the loss for the rest of her life, saying, “I lost half of my family coming here”.
Michael Colbert Shanahan (born 4 Mar. 1843 in Ballagh) was another of the Shanahans who ended up in Michigan. He is pictured here with his wife Anna Murphy, who he met when he moved to NY in 1861. It was taken on their wedding day in July of 1861; Michael was 19 and Anna was 17. Anna died in 1876 at age 30, and Michael remarried sometime after. Michael was a brother to our GG Grandfather James, who was born in 1830. Michael died in Grayling, Michigan on 8 Mar According to the 1904 census, Michael and Anna’s son, Maurice, was living in St Louis and was working as a conductor. This is the same job my G Grandfather Michael also had when he lived in St Louis. Maurice died in Los Angeles in 1959.
The Shanahans history in the Syracuse area goes back to the construction of the Erie Canal, starting in Most of the Shanahans who left Killeedy for North America starting in 1815 and up to the 1850s, followed the same path to Canada, and then Orleans County in New York, which is not far from Rochester. Quite a few Shanahans were born in the village of Holley before branching out to places like Western PA, Michigan, and Syracuse, NY. The attraction then to the upstate New York and Michigan areas was due to
construction of the Erie and Wabash Canals, and the various opportunities that arose due to the construction of these canals. There’s even a “Shanahan Lough” on the Wabash that would have been named after one of our cousins from Ballymacelligot, County Kerry. The “Ballymac Shanahans” were
related to the Shanahans in Charleville and Effin. The first FBI agent killed in the line of duty was Edwin Shanahan, in 1925. His people came from the North Kerry area where our ancestors lived before moving to Killeedy. My Grandfather emigrated to America with his brothers Pat and Maurice, and his sister Catherine. Maurice and Pat stayed in Syracuse. My Grandparents met in Syracuse and were married there in 1930. Michael and Anna on their wedding day.
They had two children in America before returning home to Killeedy to take over the farm. To this day
there are still quite a few Shanahans in that area. America wasn’t the only destination for our ancestors who left home. Quite a few Shanahans went to England. My own parents met there at a dance in 1959. We lived in London for the first 10 years of my life before moving to Effin, County Limerick in 1973, on the day that Limerick beat Kilkenny in the All‐ Ireland Hurling Final‐ I’d like to think we brought them some good luck. My parents emigrated to London in the late 1950s. Work was plentiful and the cost of owning a home and affording a decent standard of living was attainable.
My Grand Uncle Michael went to England after WWII as cities needed to be rebuilt after the German bombing raids during the war. When my dad went to London in 1958, he stayed with Michael and his wife Eileen for a while before finding a place of his own. It was common then for young people to go and stay with a relative. This kind of migration is known as “stem migration. “ It was based on kinship and reciprocity, features that were characteristic of life in rural Ireland. It was this kindness that was the foundation of all our journeys. If we didn’t have a family member willing to put us up, we wouldn’t have had a place to go. I am very grateful to my aunt Betty, and my cousin Eileen for doing this for me (although I was too young and selfish to properly appreciate it at the time).
In closing…this is just a brief snapshot of our family history. There are so many stories that I could fill a
book. I have a complete family tree on ancestry.com – just email me at email@example.com. I can
send a free link for anyone who wants to view it. Thanks to anyone who took the time to read.
That’s all for now…