O'Meara Family Origins

I have dusted off some research completed when I was working towards my M.Phil at Trinity.  Agh, memories...one of the many things I've found is an essay (below), written about the History of the O'Mearas.  I may have been born an O'Meara but I became a historian for my sins.  Enjoy.

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     The history surrounding the O’Meara family in and around Toomevara in the later Medieval period is anything but complete.  Due to a substantial lack of information in primary sources it is difficult to recreate the part they played in the history of Ormond or the Diocese of Killaloe.  From certain sources, however, it is possible to piece together information illustrating the establishment of the O’Mearas as an ecclesiastical family and their influence on the priory of Toomevara, including but not limited to, the family supplying members to the position of warden of Toomevara, prior of St. John’s at Nenagh, rector of Latteragh, and the chancellorship of Killaloe.  





     The origin of the O’Meara family is somewhat obscured.  The Book of Munster lists the O’Mearas (Ui Mheadhra) as belonging to Dal gCais, and links the O’Mearas and O’Briens though the same common ancestor.(1) Dermot Gleeson, however, contradicts this assertion in his article “The Priory of Tuaim Donain” in Molua,  by stating that while the O’Meara family had roots in the Northern Tipperary area by the fourteenth century, they were certainly not from this area “...being neither of the Dal gCais or Muscraige”(2), and goes on to assert in The Last Lords of Ormond that they were a part of the Eoghanacht.(3)  The fact that Gleeson has made a point to go out of his way and state that the O’Mearas were not part of the Dal gCais leads me to believe that he is aware of the contents of The Book of Munster and purposefully contradicts it.  I am not able to, however, find any reference for this theory, nor for Gleeson’s statement of origin concerning the O’Mearas, whom he places as originating in the Southern Tipperary/Co. Waterford region.  The journal from Toomevara, Toomevara: The Unbroken Chain, published in 1981 makes this same claim.(4)  Gleeson goes on to suggest that some link between the Northern Tipperary and Southern Tipperary/Co. Waterford O’Mearas was maintained as one Teige O’Meara of Lissiniskey went to Waterford to die in 1636, Dr. William O’Meara of the Waterford Diocese became Bishop of Killaloe in the eighteenth century, and by the fact that there are still O’Mearas from the Carrick-on-Suir area by the twentieth century.(5)  Regardless of their origins, the O’Mearas were able to gain land and position shortly after their arrival, and strongly established themselves in Lissiniskey.  Since The Book of Munster was written in the seventeenth century, it is quite possible that the O’Mearas created their genealogy therein in order to establish a link to the Dal gCais and Brian Boru, thereby adding prestige to their name and family.

     While the origins of the O’Mearas are enshrouded in mystery, the impact they had on the priory of Toomevara is clear.  The name “Toomevara” is not itself an ancient name.  The older name of the priory is Tuaim Donain, and is often referred to as Thoym or Thom(e).  As all references to this area prior to 1654 are of the older names, it is clear that the name Toomevara dates to the late sixteenth century or later.(6)  Tuaim Donain is so named due to one St. Donain who is suggested to have founded a monastery there in the seventh century, but Gleeson asserts that concerning the history of the priory, “of this foundation, or of its founder, nothing can be written of any certainty.”(7)  It is obvious that the priory grew out of an earlier monastic settlement and later became an Augustinian daughter house to the priory of Mona Incha.  The very fact that the name was changed from Tuaim Donain to Tuaim-Ui-Mheadhra shows the tremendous impact the O’Mearas had on this region.  Toomevara always served as a minor house to the canons regular, and is situated in the Diocese of Killaloe, in the barony of Upper Ormond.  

     The first primary source information that mentions the O’Mearas is the Calendar of Ormond Deeds, where we find one Alan O’Meara (O’Maghra) the recipient of land granted by the Earl of Ormond, James Butler, for a period of sixteen years, the land being “...’Les Rathyns’ in Clandinoal”(8), which is suspected as being Lisrathdine.(9)  The O’Mearas continued through the later Middle Ages as clients of the Earls of Ormond, and indeed they were quite “...favored by them.”(10)  There is some information that suggests that one branch of the O’Meara family from Lorrha became closely associated with the Earls and, acting as their family physicians, even moved with them to Gouran in the later part of the fourteenth century, eventually going to Kilkenny Castle.(11)  The O’Mearas fate was also linked closely to the priory of Toomevara itself for the remainder of the Medieval period, where they supplied many to important ecclesiastical positions.  

     The first reference to the priory of Toomevara occurs in 1325, while the first reference connecting the priory to the O’Meara family takes place in 1403, when the warden (superior) of Thom, John O’Meara, was able to obtain the rectory of a parish church at Latteragh by petitioning the Pope to grant him the rectory as the previous rector, Thomas O’Cormacain, had not been ordained within one year as he was supposed to be, which therefore constituted a vacancy of the rectory, and further, O’Cormacain was dead.   The next year, in 1404, the same John O’Meara obtained from the Pope the advowson of Templedowney parish, as Lateran Registra vol. CXV in the Calendar of Papal Registers informs us.(12)  This parish was also obtained on the grounds that the previous rector had not been ordained within the proscribed amount of time, and was therefore illegitimate.  The O’Mearas continued to exert a strong influence in these areas, their hold on Latternagh alone lasting for three generations.  After John O’Meara, his son William O’Meara had the rectory confirmed to him by papal provision in 1421, and two years later Patrick O’Meara received provision of the rectory.  References to these two aforementioned O’Mearas can be found in the “Obligationes pro Annatis Diocesis Laonionsis 1421-1535” in Archivium Hibernicum vol. X, which not only states when they received the rectory, but also states the circumstances of how the position was left vacant.(13) Another valuable source for information concerning the O’Mearas is the Calendar of Papal Registers, as the O’Meara family occasionally ran into some problems in holding their titles and occasionally they (or the person whom they had succeeded) found it necessary to petition the Pope.

     In addition to Toomevara, the O’Mearas were able to exert some influence over the priory of St. John at Nenagh.  In 1421, the same William O’Meara who was confirmed rector of Latteragh was made prior of St. John’s, and held that position until his death in 1426.  There is a reference to this, again,  in the Archivium Hibernicum which states that one Thomas Mascraych shall receive the priory as “Willhelmi O’Meagra” has died and therefore left the position vacant.(14)  Almost one hundred years later, in 1511, Thateus O’Meara received the position of prior, and the O’Meara family was able to retain this position up until the dissolution of the priory.  It would seem by this statement that the O’Meara family held a continuous position in the priory, but we know that in 1526 the priory was once again vacant, and when the Earl of Ormond appointed cleric Thateus O’Meara to this position, it was contested.  Although able to keep his hold on the priory, O’Meara’s position was threatened when the O’Carrolls, in a political move, tried to motivate their prior of Seir Kieran’s to oust the Butler’s prior of St. John’s.(15)

       Thateus O’Meara then acted as prior of St. John’s at Nenagh up until the dissolution in 1551, potentially giving him a close to a forty year term as prior.  There is mention of him, as prior, in the Calendar of Ormond Deeds as a witness to a legal document in 1543.  Further references during this time period are to be found in the Irish Monastic and Episcopal Deeds 1200-1600 which state the following:  “Notorial instrument recording evidence given on behalf of Piers Butler, Earl of Ossory, before Prior Thady Omeary, official to the Bishop of Killaloe in the Deanery of Ormond, relating to the Earl’s claim to the Lordship of Ormond, 1533 (September 18)”.(16)  When the priory was finally dissolved in 1551, O’Meara was granted a pension of £10 per year. 

     The ability of the O’Mearas to hold onto their ecclesiastical titles and holdings in Toomevara becomes more interesting as the fifteenth century unfolds.  In the 1440s, one Patrick O’Meara was warden on and off throughout the decade.  It is also clear that although the O’Meara family had held the position of warden at the beginning of the century, the position was lost when Henry Olahymy (O’Lachtnain) is able to obtain the position due to the death of John O’Meara.  In 1441, a canon from Seir Kierans named Patrick O’Meara contested the validity of O’Lachtnain’s position as warden by travelling to Rome to petition the Pope.  O’Meara attacked O’Lachtnain by stating that he was guilty of simony and not celebrating mass, but in addition to this he “...kept divers concubines by whom he had begotten offspring, still alive, and uselessly consumed with the said concubines and offspring certain good of the said monastery of Thomdouym.”(17)  Having served his petition, a Papal Mandate was issued to the Diocese of Killaloe, instructing three clergy members there to look into the matter, and if they indeed found O’Lachtnain to be guilty of the charges, then he was to be deposed with O’Meara appointed in his stead.(18)  This is exactly what happened, and needless to say, O’Lachtnain did not go quietly.

     From the Calendar of Papal Letters it is known that O’Lachtnain set out for Rome to appeal his case, and by 1443 was reinstated as warden on the technical basis that O’Meara had neglected to represent the accurate value of the priory in his petitions to Rome.  O’Meara was supposed to have been removed but evaded this fate by entering into an agreement with O’Lachtnain.  The agreement was simoniacal in nature, and provided that O’Meara would remain warden while giving O’Lachtnain a percentage of the money gathered from the parish of Aghnameadle.(19)  In a last attempt to be reinstated as warden, O’Lachtnain travelled to Rome once again to petition his case and confess his sin of simony, hopeful to be the recipient of absolution and the wardenship.  Although O’Lachtnain received absolution, O’Meara was able to remain warden at this time, and through at least 1466, when the Calendar of Ecclesiastical and Monastic Deeds lists Patrick O’Meara, warden of Toomevara, as a party to the litigation of a parish nearby.(20)

     Undoubtedly the area in which the O’Mearas were able to exert the most strength was in and around Toomevara and Nenagh.  However, there is some data that implicates this ecclesiastical family as being involved with the chancellorship of Killaloe, although it appears that the family was certainly not able to exert as strong a hold on the chancellorship of Killaloe as they were in their other spheres of influence.  It appears that one Cornelius O’Meara was granted the chancellorship of Killaloe in 1404, although he was only ten years old at the time,  and the product of a sub-deacon father and an unmarried mother.(21)  In April of 1404 Pope Boniface IX dismissed the fact that Cornelius would have been ineligible for the position on two counts (his age and illegitimacy), and granted to him the chancellorship.  Gleeson sites the logistics of this case as a prime example to “...the extent to which abuses could be, not only tolerated, but even encouraged in the confusion caused by the Great Schism...”,(22) and it would seem plausible that due to O’Mearas young age, he was perhaps used as a pawn caused by some political motivation.  Of course, his posting did not go without a challenge.  A man who had held the position prior to 1404 named John O’Hehir contended in 1411 that O’Meara had received the position under false pretences and the dispute over this was turned over to Henry Conway, the bishop of Clonfert, to decide who had the right to the chancellorship.(23)  Bishop Conway ruled in favor of O’Meara, which displeased O’Hehir as  he appealed to Pope John XXIII.  In addition to Cornelius O’Meara being provided to the chancellorship, there is also evidence in the Archivium Hibernicum that one Liam O’Meara was provided to the chancellorship in February of 1481, although he only managed to hold this position for two months, at which time he was replaced.(24)

     As in the priory of St. John’s at Nenagh, the O’Mearas were able to continue to hold Toomevara up until the dissolution, although this was not, at times, an easy venture.  Patrick O’Meara’s wardenship was once again threatened in 1463 by the O’Lachtnain family when they attempted to lay claim to one of the parishes within the wardenship.  By this time the wardenship contained the parishes of Aghnameadle (obtained in 1325), Templedowney (obtained by John O’Meara in 1404), and Kilderrydadrum (obtained in 1450), Kilderrydadrum being the parish that O’Lachtnain contended was being abused by those in power, as “...the church was almost ruined, the cure was abandoned, and many of the parishioners have died without confession, and the sacraments of Extreme Unction and Eucharist,” (25) and as slanderous as these accusations were, Kilderrydadrum remained a part of Toomevara. 

     After the reference found placing Patrick O’Meara as warden in 1466, it is almost thirty years before evidence is found linking another O’Meara to the wardenship.  From an excerpt in the Archivium Hibernicum one “Guillemi Imeara” takes over as warden (“custos”) of Toomevara by consent of Pope Alexander VI in 1493.(26)  Up to this point, the O’Mearas have served as wardens of Toomevara on and off for eighty-nine years for a combined possible number of years in service around sixty-five, and this achieved only after having arrived in the area the century before.  

     From the sixteenth century, there are references that show how the O’Mearas were able to maintain their strength in this area.  Although they eventually lost both priories to the dissolution in 1551, it is significant that they were able to retain them up until this time.  A glimpse of the possible power and influence they held over the area occurs in the Calendar of Ormond Deeds, wherein three O’Mearas act as witnesses to a legal document in 1543, including the previously described Thateus O’Meara, prior of St. John’s at Nenagh.  The other two O’Meara signatories are Donal O’Meara, warden of Toomevara, and John O’Meara, “captain of his nation”.(27)  Although Gleeson mentions this reference in both The History of the Diocese of Killaloe and his article in Molua, there is no further discussion concerning the possible definition and/or implications surrounding the aforementioned John O’Meara as “captain of his nation”, and therefore I would venture to assume that it indicates nothing more than his leadership of and responsibility to the O’Meara family in whole or in part.

     Another source that lends evidence to how the O’Mearas were able to keep the priory as long as they did occurs in the Medieval Religious Houses in Ireland which states that while Donal O’Meara was warden of Toomevara, on June 28, 1541, he “...and his co-brethren were ordered to secular habits, as the monastery was situated among the Irish so that the king would have little profit by its dissolution, and the warden was then building a castle.”(28)  It is noteworthy that the priory intentionally changed to secular habits motivated by self-preservation, but more importantly Gleeson writes in Molua  that the castle was being built by Donal O’Meara in an attempt to “...resist the Irishmen as for the defence of the king’s subjects.”(29)  As the O’Mearas were a Gaelic-Irish family, the reference to them constructing a castle primarily as a defence against the “Irishmen” is interesting.  Of course, the O’Mearas were clients of the Earl’s of Ormond, it is known that they actively suported them, and in this instance they acted as a kind of buffer zone between the Earls of Ormond and the Irish families in the area.(30)  It is quite apparent that the O’Mearas were not able to hold onto their positions as they did solely by themselves, but that the strong relationship they had cultivated with the Earls of Ormond certainly benefited their position.  Gleeson goes so far to state that it was solely through the Earl of Ormond’s interest that the O’Mearas were able to retain possession of Toomevara at all.(31)  Even with the favor of the Earl, the priory of Toomevara, like that of St. John, was dissolved in 1551.  The warden of the priory at this time was John O’Meara, and while officially dissolved in 1551 it would appear that it was not until John O’Meara was succeeded by Matthew O’Meara that the priory was finally surrendered to the Crown, some ten years later.

     Although the O’Mearas were certainly negatively affected by the dissolutions of the priories, they were still (surprisingly) able to remain an empowered family in that area.  In December of 1585 the property of the priory of Toomevara was granted to Miler Magrath,  archbishop of Cashel, who married Anne O’Meara of Lissiniskey, another area in which the O’Mearas exerted some control.  About a decade after the property was turned over to Miler Magrath, the O’Mearas of Lissiniskey began to expand their land, taking advantage of the smaller landowners who were fearful of plantation.(32)  Even during the Cromwellian plantation, when so many Irish families were displaced, “...the O’Mearas by a stratagem held onto their lands.”(33)  It was during the sixteenth century that secular buildings were added to the priory site in Toomevara, which may be credited either to the O’Meara family or to Archbishop Magrath.(34)  The O’Mearas of Lissiniskey were able to hold onto their land through to the eighteenth century, one of the few families in the Ormond area able to do so, while other O’Mearas in the surrounding areas of Northern Tipperary were not so fortunate and lost all possessions during the land confiscations.(35)

     In the later part of the sixteenth century, the seventeenth century, and beyond, little is known of the O’Mearas as an entity, besides the ability of the O’Mearas of Lissiniskey to consolidate land.  In the political sphere, it is known that they did not revolt like other Irish families during the Tyrone Rebellion,(36) and it would appear to be during this time that the O’Mearas made the switch from ecclesiastical family to medical family.  In the early seventeenth century practiced one Dr. Dermot O’Meara, who was educated at Oxford, was the physician of the tenth Earl of Ormond (Thomas Dubh) and possibly possessed an original document of the Annals of Nenagh.(37)  Perhaps most famous is Dr. Barry O’Meara, who was requested by Napoleon to act as his personal physician in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.(38)

     The O’Meara family during the later Middle Ages moved from their place of origin in So.Tipperary/Waterford to become an established ecclesiastical family with their places of influence including Lissiniskey, St. John’s at Nenagh, the rectory at Latteragh, the Diocese of Killaloe, and Toomevara, which they gave their name to.  Outside the ecclesiastical elements of the family, there is little mention of them until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when they stand out for the accomplishment of being able to hold onto their lands, and begin to make the change of becoming a medical family.  Through such preserved documents as the Calendar of Ormond Deeds, Archivium Hibernicum, and the Calendar of Papal Registers, it is possible to trace a thin thread that links the O’Meara family to various church offices throughout the roughly one-hundred and fifty years they reigned as a church family centered around Toomevara, from the beginning of the fifteenth century through the mid-sixteenth century.  




 End Notes

(1) O Donnchadha, ed. The Book of Munster. (Dublin, 1940), p.307
(2)Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.29  
(3) Gleeson, Dermot F. The Last Lords of Ormond. (London, 1938), p.126
(4) Boland, T., Kennedy, J., Shanahan, T., ed.s. Toomevara: The Unbroken Chain. (Birr, 1981), p.37
(5) Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.29
(6) Boland, T., Kennedy, J., Shanahan, T., ed.s. Toomevara: The Unbroken Chain. (Birr, 1981), p.51
(7) Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.29
(8) Curtis, Edward, ed. Calendar of Ormond Deeds vol. II. (Dublin, 1934), p.22
(9) Gleeson, Dermot F. Gwynn, Aubrey. A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin, 1962), p.343 
(10) Ibid., p.343
(11) Boland, T., Kennedy, J., Shanahan, T., ed.s. Toomevara: The Unbroken Chain. (Birr, 1981), p.51
(12) Bliss, W.H. & Twemloe, J.A., ed.s. Calendar of Papal Registers: Papal Letters vol. V, 1396-1404. (London, 1904), p.598; Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.30
(13) Gleeson, Dermot F., ed. “Obligationes pro Annatis Diocesis Laonionsis 1421-1535”, in 
Archivium Hibernicum vol. X. (Maynooth, 1943), p.1-2; Gleeson, Dermot F. & Gwynn, Aubrey
A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin, 1962), p.478 
(14) Gleeson, Dermot F., ed. “Obligationes pro Annatis Diocesis Laonionsis 1421-1535”, in 
Archivium Hibernicum vol. X. (Maynooth, 1943), p.11; Gleeson, Dermot F. & Gwynn, Aubrey A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin, 1962), p.478
(15) Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.481-482
(16) White, Newport B., ed. Irish Monastic and Episcopal Deeds (Dublin, 1936), p.247
(17) Twemlow, J.A., ed. Calendar of Papal Registers: Papal Letters vol. IX, 1431-1447. (London, 1912), p.410-411
(18) Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.32
(19) Gleeson, Dermot F. & Gwynn, Aubrey. A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin, 1962), p.473-474; Twemlow, J.A., ed. Calendar of Papal Registers: Papal Letters vol. IX, 1431-1447. (London, 1912), p.410-411   
(20) Gleeson, Dermot F. & Gwynn, Aubrey. A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin, 1962), p.476; Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.33
(21) Gleeson, Dermot F. & Gwynn, Aubrey. A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin,    1962), p.387
(22) ibid., p.387
(23) ibid., p.387
(24) ibid., p.528
(25) ibid., p.475
(26) Gleeson, Dermot F., ed. “Obligationes pro Annatis Diocesis Laonionsis 1421-1535”, in 
 Archivium Hibernicum vol. X. (Maynooth, 1943), p.83; Gleeson, Dermot F. & Gwynn, Aubrey
 A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin, 1962), p.475
(27) Curtis, Edward, ed. Calendar of Ormond Deeds vol. IV. (Dublin, 1937), p.244
(28) Gwynn, Aubrey & Hadock, R. Neville. Medieval Religious Houses Ireland. (London, 1970), p.195
(29) Gleeson, Dermot F. “The Priory of Tuiam Donain”, in Molua. (Dublin, 1940), p.35
(30) ibid., p.35
(31) ibid., p.35
(32) Boland, T., Kennedy, J., Shanahan, T., ed.s. Toomevara: The Unbroken Chain. (Birr, 1981), p.51
(33) ibid., p.37
(34) Gleeson, Dermot F & Gwynn, Aubrey. A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (Dublin, 1962), p.215
(35) Gleeson, Dermot F. The Last Lords of Ormond. (London, 1938), p.128
(36) ibid., p.21
(37) Gleeson, Dermot F. “Annals of Nenagh”, in Annalecta Hibernica X-XII, 1941-1943. (Dublin, 1943), p.158
(38) Boland, T., Kennedy, J., Shanahan, T., ed.s. Toomevara: The Unbroken Chain. (Birr, 1981), p.51



                                                            Bibliography

1.  Bliss, W.H., & Twemloe, J.A., ed.s. Calendar of Papal Registers: Papal Letters vol.
        V, 1396-1404. (Stationery Office, London), 1904.
2.  Boland, T., Kennedy, J., Shanahan, T., ed.s. Toomevara: The Unbroken Chain
         (Tribune Printing and Publishing Group, Birr), 1981.
3.  Curtis, Edward, ed. Calendar of Ormond Deeds vol.II. (Stationery Office, Dublin), 
        1934.
4.  Curtis, Edward, ed. Calendar of Ormond Deeds vol.IV. (Stationery Office, Dublin), 
        1937.
5.  Gleeson, Dermot F., ed. “Obligationes pro Annatis Diocesis Laoniensis 1421-1535”, in
         Archivium Hibernicum vol. X. (J. English & Co., Maynooth), 1943.
6.  Gleeson, Dermot F., ed. “Annals of Nenagh”, in Annalecta Hibernica vol. XII.
         (Stationery Office, Dublin), 1943
7.  Gleeson, Dermot F. The Last Lords of Ormond. (Sheed & Ward, London), 1938.
8.  Gleeson, Dermot F. & Gwynn, Aubrey. A History of the Diocese of Killaloe. (M. H.
         Gill & Son LTD., Dublin), 1962. 
9.  Gwynn, Aubrey & Hadock, R. Neville.  Medieval Religious Houses Ireland
         (Longman, London), 1970.
10. Twemloe, J.A., ed. Calendar of Papal Registers: Papal Letters vol. IX, 1431-1447.
         (Stationery Office, London), 1912.
11.  White, Newport B., ed. Irish Monastic and Episcopal Deeds. (Stationery Office, 
         Dublin), 1936.

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