The Origins of The Clan McNamara
By Robert J. McNamara, Contributor
August / September 2002
The roots of the McNamara family are in the distant past of Thomond, the region of Ireland that today is known as County Clare. By the 11th century the sept (or clan) had become the Lords of Clancullen, the territory comprising most of East Clare. The Irish form of the surname, MacConmara, which means “son of the hound of the sea,” eventually evolved into the two most common spellings, MacNamara and McNamara.
With the exception of the O’Briens, the McNamaras were the most powerful family in Clare, and builders and craftsmen in their employ dotted the landscape with more than 200 tower houses and castles, most of which now lie in ruins, although two famous ones, Bunratty and Knappogue, have been restored and are popular tourist attractions.
“The Book of the Four Masters,” an Irish annal compiled in the 1630s from earlier texts, contains numerous mentions of McNamaras fighting with the O’Briens, fighting with other McNamaras, defending their territory against invaders both English and Irish, and, in 1402, founding Quin Abbey: “The Abbey of Cuinche [Quin], in Thomond, in the diocese of Killaloe, was founded for Franciscan friars by Sheeda Cam Mac Namara, Lord of Clann-Coilein, who ordained that it should be the burial-place of himself and his tribe.”
The annals note that a McNamara chief who died in 1428 was “a charitable and truly hospitable man, who had suppressed robbery and theft, and established peace and tranquillity in his territory.” John McNamara, the Lord of Clancullen who died in 1570, was said to be a “noble and majestic man, the favourite of women and damsels, on account of his mirthfulness and pleasantry.” Another McNamara who died a year later was extolled as “supporter of his adherents and friends, and exterminator and destroyer of his enemies.”
In later centuries the McNamaras would, like most of the Catholic Irish, have nearly all their land holdings stripped from them by the English, though some members of the clan managed to retain land and power through various machinations. One of the most famous McNamaras from the dark days of the Penal Laws was John “Fireball” MacNamara of the powerful Moyriesk MacNamaras, who possessed landholdings in East Clare. A noted duellist who dispatched scores of opponents, his pistols were called “Bas gan Sagart,” or “death without the priest.” He was reputed to have fought against the English at Vinegar Hill in 1798, and varying versions of his life have him either being hanged as a highwayman or living out his days peacefully in a thatched cottage near Quin. His tombstone can be seen in Quin Abbey.
Donnchadh Ruadh MacNamara (which in English would mean “Dennis of the red hair”) was a noted poet in the Irish language who died in 1815 at the age of 95. His best-known verses are “The Fair Hills of Ireland” and a lengthy narrative, “The Adventures of a Luckless Follow,” about a presumably mythical voyage to North America. Legend has it that Donnchadh Ruada had studied at Rome to be a priest, but was unsuited to clerical life and returned to Ireland to live a rambling life as both poet and schoolmaster.
Many thousands of McNamaras left Ireland during the great waves of emigration, and today the name is scattered across the world. Notoriety was attached to it in 1910 when two labor activist brothers, James and John McNamara, were accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times, which was rabidly anti-labor. The McNamara brothers were represented by Clarence Darrow in a case that gripped the country. Darrow eventually convinced the brothers to plead guilty, they served long prison terms, and the raging controversy about their actual guilt and Darrow’s involvement in the case is still being debated.
In modern times the best-known McNamara was Robert S. McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations before becoming president of the World Bank. McNamara’s name, of course, will always be linked to the tragedy of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
On the baseball diamond. John McNamara served as the manager of several major league teams, and will perhaps be best remembered for having piloted the Boston Red Sex in 1986 when they won the American League pennant and seemed to be ending the perennial Red Sex jinx, only to lose to the Mets in an unforgettable World Series. Other athletic McNamaras include Golfer Melissa McNamara, who played on the LPGA tour and now coaches at the University of Tulsa, and Julianne McNamara, who won a gold medal as a gymnast in the 1984 Olympics.
A most unlikely place to find a McNamara might be in the British Parliament, but Kevin McNamara has represented the city of Hull North in the House of Commons for more than three decades. At the McNamara gathering in Clare, Kevin was introduced as a “true friend of Ireland,” and he gave a stirring talk about Ireland’s unique place among nations as an advocate of human rights. Kevin described his family as “Liverpool Irish,” adding “We are like Boston Irish, only we didn’t have the good fortune to land in Boston.” ♦