Roots: O’Flaherty

By Laura Capuano, Contributor
June / July 2005

O’Flaherty (also Flaherty) ancestors have been documented since the time of Christ. One of the first Irish historians, Roderick O’Flaherty, recorded their history in Ogyia, published in London in 1685, in which he said they originated from Scythia and came to Ireland with a traveler called Milesius. Descendants of Milesius founded the tribe Ui Briuin who were thought to witness the arrival of St. Patrick and the spread of Christianity.

The tribe Ui Briuin split into three groups, one being Ui Briuin Seola. Ui Briuin Seola evolved into a tribe called Muinter Murchada, the chief being Murchada, and the O’Flahertys get their name from a descendant of Murchada.

The O’Flaherty crest is somewhat of a surprise to many. While the clan is known as the “ferocious O’Flahertys,” their crest features the most unthreatening of creatures: the lizard. The clan honored the small creature because of an ancient story whereby a young warrior of the Ua Briuin Seola tribe (ancestors of O’Flaherty) was alerted to the approach of enemies by a lizard. The small reptile ran across his face as he slept and he made it back home unharmed. The “ferocious O’Flahertys” are still, as they always have been, most numerous around the area of west Connaught.

Though their ancestors had been around for many centuries, the first mention of this particular clan was in 1034, with the death of Mureadhach Ua Flaithbheartach. A minor O’Flaherty sect was found in County Donegal and there the name was corrupted by the local dialect and became known as O’Laverty. In Connaught, the O’Flaherty tribes controlled the area north of Galway but suffered great defeats and were forced over to the west of Loch Corrib in 1235 by the Norman invasion. West of the Corrib, the tribe survived and established a stronghold and was virtually independent for the next 400 years. During this time they built some of the first castles in Ireland, Castle Galway in 1124 and Aughanure Castle near Oughterard, County Galway. Galway City itself was controlled by the Normans and the residents were so fearful of the O’Flahertys that they constructed a wall around the town and here they inscribed the prayer, “From the ferocious O’Flaherties, Good Lord protect us.”

And so the O’Flahertys remained steadfast in their control of the area west of the Corrib until 1653 when the English finally took the last piece of their territory, the island of Inisboffin. Like the rest of Ireland’s oppressed, the O’Flahertys suffered poverty and injustice during the time of British domination and were not unique in fleeing overseas during the nineteenth century.

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was a notable member of this clan. Born in Kerry, he was ordained in Rome and became known as the “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” for his role in helping the Allies in World War II. The Monsignor and other priests organized escape routes for the soldiers out of German-occupied Italy. Monsignor O’Flaherty eventually returned to his native Kerry where he died in 1963.

Liam O’Flaherty(1897-1984) was born on the Aran Islands and became an important writer of the 20th century. Following a stint in the British Army during WWI and lending a hand to the Civil War in Ireland, he moved to London where he began writing. Though he is best known for his short stories, both in English and Gaelic, his 1925 novel, The Informer, established him as a writer.

The O’Flaherty clan has spread to the U.S. as well. One of the most important American female writers, Kate O’Flaherty Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1851, the daughter of a wealthy Irish immigrant. After suffering the loss of both her parents, her brother and her husband, a doctor suggested that she take up writing to express her hurt and grief. By the time of her death in 1904, she had published two novels and over one hundred short stories. Her masterpiece is widely regarded as her 1899 novel, The Awakening, which deals with the adultery and suicide of a woman. Though now considered a classic, the book was heavily criticized and described as pornographic, which led O’Flaherty Chopin to write little after its publication.

Another Irish-American writer Bob Flaherty, has just penned his first novel, Puff, which is reviewed in this issue.

In sports, John Flaherty is the backup catcher with the New York Yankees and was recently honored by Irish America magazine as one of Irish America’s Top 100. Flaherty has become known as a very capable backup and last year he started 35 games and batted .252 with six home runs and 16 RBIs. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 1988 and enjoyed a stint with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before landing at Yankee Stadium. With the Yankees not having won a World Series since 2000, let’s hope Flaherty still has his ancestors’ ferociousness and can help them to victory this year. ♦

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