Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit!
For countless many, St. Patrick’s Day is an excuse to party (but really…who knew the Irish ever needed an excuse for that?). Conversely, for others it’s a day of spiritual renewal. Finally, it’s celebrated by many as day to be proud of their Irish heritage—a day to remember those who made the crossing of the sea and those who’ve made the “crossing of the bar”. My great grandpa, along with the traditions of many others, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by planting his Irish potatoes—rain or shine. He would play the fiddle and tell his kids about the rocks in Ireland, in such a descriptive way that when several made a trip to the Emerald Isle, years later, they felt as if they’d already been there (despite the fact that my Doughertys have been in America for three hundred years)!
Near the end of my family history research project, I came across a Walter Dougherty who lived in Boston in the 1730s. In 1739, he was the first Ó Dochartaigh to join the Charitable Irish Society, an organization founded two years earlier by Bostonian Irish merchants and artisans designed to help Irish immigrants and promote the welfare of their fellow Irishmen. As I began to research that organization, I found this Boston association is often acclaimed as having established the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in America on March 17th of 1737—even before the oldest St. Paddy’s Day parade, that of New York City, which has been continuously celebrated since 1762. Recent research has, however, uncovered that the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day celebration and parade in America occurred in March 1601 in St. Augustine, Florida (though, unfortunately, it was a short lived tradition there). Read more at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/blog/uncovering-secrets-spanish-florida/.
We Ó Dochartaighs have a few stories to tell of good ole’ St. Patrick, ourselves. Whether you interpret our history as a traditionalist, a revisionist, or a combination of the two, a good historian can’t help but agree that the legends and stories our ancestors told and believed, whether they were true or not, defined their identity and carved out the very heritage that we share today. It’s with this preface that I share a few of the stories about our ancestors of legend and their interaction with St. Patrick.
Irish genealogies would have it that the ancestor of the Ó Dochartaighs was Conal Gulban the son of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Legend tells of how King Niall captured the boy “Succat” on a raid in Britain, how he was sold as a slave where he worked as a shepherd. Alone in the fields he became a very serious man and began spending his time in prayer. Succat escaped from Ireland, became a priest and was given the name Patricius.
Patricius, whom the Irish called Pátraic, later returned to Ireland and eventually ended up in Donegal where he met some of the boys he knew as a kid, King Niall’s sons, Conall Gulban and Eoghan who had grown to manhood and assumed leadership in Ireland. Conall received Patrick “with great joy; and Patrick baptized him, and confirmed his royal seat for ever.” This marked the first baptism of an Irish nobleman and made great inroads for the missionary to convert more pagans to Christianity.
Conall and St. Patrick became good friends it seems and one day in their conversations Patrick asked if Conall would take up the habit of a monk. Prince Conall replied that he would do whatever Patrick asked of him. Because of his willingness to lay down his kingdom, Patrick then replied, "For the sign of power and protection, and for the proof of thy spiritual worth, shall thou bear thy shield and thy sceptre; the name of a laic shalt thou show; but the mind and the merit of a monk shall thou possess, inasmuch as many saints shall proceed from thee, and many nations shall in thy seed be blessed." With this blessing, St. Patrick struck the battle shield of Conall with his crozier, ‘An Bachall Iosa’ (The Staff of Jesus), imprinting the sign of the cross into it and declared that if his descendants would carry that mark into battle they would be victorious (Life and Acts of Saint Patrick).
It was this legend that gave way to the ancient arms or battle standard of both principal Síl Lugdach families, the Ó Donnell and Ó Doherty. While most know the primary heraldic device of the Ó Donnell arms to be a cross, fewer know that arms of the Ó Doherty, with the red stag, are of more recent design, probably dating to the 1500s. An Irish manuscript, translated and published in 1842, contains a description of the ancient arms of the Ó Dochartaigh Clann as a “battle sword with golden cross” with heraldic supports of “a lion and bloody eagle” over “a white sheet of silken satin”. (John O'Donivan, The Banquet of Dun Na N-Gedh and The Battle of Magh Rath, 1842)
From the description, "his battle sword with golden cross" we envision the primary heraldic charge being a combination of the Holy Cross and battle sword merged. The lion and bloody eagle were probably added in the later medieval period when heraldic supports came into usage. Thus, the emblem of the cross was very significant to the history, hagiography, and legend of the Síl Lugdach—the Ó Dochartaigh and Ó Donnell being the two most powerful and prominent septs of that tribe. This common heraldic design stemming from the same legend supports a common origin or at least a common association of the two families in early medieval times and would seem to indicate that in the early days of our Clann, when our warrior-ancestors, perhaps our progenitors such as Cenn Fáelad (around the 700s) and Dochartach (around the 800s) used of the Cross of Jesus as their battle standard.
On another note, St. Patrick also prophesied that of Conall’s seed would be born a great prophet. This prophet, Colm Cille, or St. Columba, was according to the early legendary genealogies the cousin of Lughaid, the progenitor of the Síl Lugdach tribe, ancestor of the Ó Donnell and Ó Doherty. The connection of these Síl Lugdach families to St. Columba had a major impact on their identity and politics.
Finally, the staff that St. Patrick used to imprint the cross of Christ into Conall’s shield, the bacall Iosa, was later held by St. Malachy in the 12th century, as the successor of St. Patrick. Of particular interest to the Ó Dochartaighs, historic scholars record that St. Malachy Ó Morgair was actually of Ó Dochartaigh blood and that Ó Morgair was, at that time, another sept of our Clann.
I hope this has sparked your imagination and that you’ve had a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day!
Will Dougherty III