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O'Cahan Sept of Ulster

At the height of The Middle ages – while elsewhere in Ireland great Gaelic chiefs were building castles to protect themselves from the Norman invader or their own neighbours, a new force was taking shape amongst the Gaelic peoples of Northwest Ulster. This was the Sept of O'Cathain, part of the larger Clan Owen. At one point almost two-thirds of the present County Londonderry was under the control of the O'Cathain Sept. This did not come about by accident, but by great skill in politics, diplomacy and war. Above all, it came about because of the Loyalty and affection the Gaelic culture and Clan inspired among its people, not just of the O'Cathain Sept itself but also the other confederated Septs.

This website sets out to tell the story of the O'Cathain Sept of Ulster, and variations of the name in Ireland and abroad from earliest times to the present day. Here you can discover something of the history of, one of the oldest surname in Europe, descendants of the Ui Neill Kings of Ulster, O'Cathain, get in touch with other members of this ancient Sept, research your own family tree, find out more about the locations in Ulster connected with the family, and purchase clan merchandise and memorabilia which will help the ongoing development of this site. One thing should be made clear at the outset: the image of a clan or Sept as a distinct group of people all bearing the same name, wearing the same tartan and living in a clearly defined area is far from the truth. Irish Septs or Clans are complex institutions, they continually change with time. For instance the O'Cathain title can be quite confusing from Lord of Craobh, Cianachta, and Fir Li. The various families within the Sept, such as the O'Cathain of the Roe Valley compared to O'Cathain of Dungiven, each held the title of the “O'Cathain”. As late as 1601, when the last Chief of the O'Cathain was expelled from Roe Valley, the very heart of the Lordship, many of the leading tenants were not called O'Cathain. The name O'Cathain is the Gaelic form of O'Cahan & Kane, and will be continually used to define the name O'Cahan, O'Kane, Kane & Keane variations.

The greatest of the war chiefs of the O'Cathain was only ever known to his Gaelic contemporise as Domhnall Ballach O'Cathain. Only non-Gaelic outsiders referred to him as Donagh Ballagh O'Cahan. Surnames were largely unknown among the common people of Ulster until the early seventieth century, when the Gaelic system was in decline. Many then simply adopted the surname of their chief, implying kinship.

“There lives no tribe like the tribe of O'Cathain,
The extensive tribe of ancient arms
By The blessing of Cuinne, the triumph
To any one on earth they never
Gave priority of word or blow;
But were ever first in place
Whether at the feast or fight

One Greater Than, A King of England

It is related of a celebrated ministrel of the County of Coleraine sept of O'Cathain, Rory Dall O'Cathain, who had gone to Scotland on the downfall of his chief, that when King James I. Visited that country, Rory had the honour of being invited to the court. "A Greater than King James has laid his hand on my shoulder," exclaimed the ministrel. "Who was that?" the King inquired " The O'Cathain " Sire," replied Rory Dall O'Cathain.

A Prophecy Fulfilled

A tale is told of the Last of the Great O'Cathain Chief's, Donagh Ballagh O'Cathain, mounted on a superb horse, with his two daughters, visiting the fair at Enagh. On his entry to the hill a beggarman solicited alms, O'Cathain 's response was the lash of the riding whip. The beggarman drew himself up to his full height, and said in a tone that strongly impressed the listeners:

           "Soon the hill without a fair,
            Soon O'Cathain without a horse."

A prophecy later fulfilled.

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