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The O’Donnells & The Wild Geese

Brief History of the Wild Geese

The First Flight of the Wild Geese took place in 1607, when Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, the respective Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell (now Donegal) set sail from Loch Swilly on Co. Donegal. They never returned to their native land.

By the late 1650’s, The remaining O Donnell families found themselves in Ballycroy Co Mayo with many of their kinspeople, mcGinty’s, McManamons, Cafferkeys, Leneghans, Conways etc. They settled in the various town lands of Ballycroy and over time extended to other parts of the county. In the 1700’s the O Donnells changed the home place to Newport and even though they also changed religion to avoid persecution and the loss of their land, The Newport O Donels changed the spelling of the name around 1800, the infamous Neal O Donel was fostered to the O Donnells of Claggan as was the Celtic custom of the time, the Claggan O Donnell’s were thereafter known as the O Donnell sirs, (still in use today) The O Donnell, Mullarkey, Butler and Leneghan families of Claggan are direct descendants as are the Cooney, Campbell, McGinty and O Donnell families of Tonragee.

Of those that left Ireland, many became soldiers of fortune (Wild Geese) and made their presence felt in the world. They fought in every major conflict from the days of Louis XIV to the last world war. They founded four navies and were particularly active in the foundation of the United States, Chile, Peru, and Mexico. They were to a great extent responsible for opening up the western states of America, and were particularly active in the Boer War in South Africa. They fought on both sides in the American Civil War. They fought for the French Revolution. Four were among Washington’s principal aides, just as four others were signatories of the American Declaration of Independence. Over sixty fell at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, whilst Chief Sitting Bull wore the medal of one of the Wild Geese around his neck until he died.

Red Hugh O’Donnell and his brother Rory both made their way to Spain during the early years of the seventeenth century, and their descendants have been prominent in Spanish society ever since. Leopoldo O’Donnell became Prime Minister of Spain in the nineteenth century. The principal street in Madrid is called Calle O’Donnell.

Ballycroy Connection

The families that made Ballycroy their home in the late 1650’s had suffered extreme hardship for a number of decades and had just been subjected to Cromwell’s cry “to Connaught or to hell”

The band of families had seen treachery and betrayal on a grand scale and was all too aware of the devastation caused by informers. They were deeply suspicious of outsiders and even 400 years later remain close knit. By the time they had reached Ballycroy, they were viewed as a spent force and not seen as a threat, like the Native Americans being forced onto the reservations.

However, within a few generations, the broken O Donnell family had suddenly acquired vast tracts of Land across the county and built a magnificent house in the new town of Newport-Pratt.

The acquisition of the wealth remains shrouded in mystery, there were no informers to speak of and no evidence of treachery or betrayal. It appears to have been a very closed shop!

Bellacragher “Bay of the Plunderer”

The Name of the sheltered coastal inlet where they were based gives a clue of sorts Bellacragher, its Irish meaning being “Bay of the Plunderer”

Piracy and smuggling were an integral part of life in the 1700’s and the O Donnells with their extended family in Holland, France and Spain were in an excellent position to develop business franchises, a sort of 18th Century IDA (Irish Development Association).

The writer Maxwell in his 1816 book “Wild Sports of the West” gives an excellent description of boarding a smugglers vessel “The Jane” as she unloaded off Ridge point Achill while lookouts were posted for a Royal Navy cutter that was hunting it down. The ship was unloaded and off before the Navy arrived.

Bellacragher Boat Club embodies the spirit of those people that found themselves along the bay 400 years ago.

The people on the shores of Bellacragher Bay in the 21st century still find themselves in a very disadvantaged area with little or no help from the ruling class; some of them have revived their marine tradition and with the skill of sailing the fastest boats enjoy the thrill of not getting caught!


The source of The O Donel (the Newport ones that changed name and religion) wealth was a mystery to everyone outside the extended family circle/friends and remained so for hundreds of years.

Recent research discovered the link with the family and their income by “the chance remark in the autobiography of Rev. James Coigley, of 1798 fame. It was derived from the honourable occupation of smuggling, then prevalent on the west coast of Ireland. Sir Neal was a shipowner and traded as far south as Cadiz, Spain. Revenue officials seized several hogheads of wine from his Melcomb premises in 1790. He retaliated by suing the Crown for trespass and the breaking open of doors, etc. After protracted court proceedings he was awarded £1,500 damages and costs.

Sir Jonah Barrington, in his “Personal Sketches”, recounts that arriving “through deep snow, bog roads, and after several tumbles” at the inn of a Mr. Jennings at Hollymount, near Kilcommon, Co. Mayo, he was treated to the finest old claret, declared by his host to be “of the real smuggling of Sir Neal O’Donnell’s own cutter, Paddy Wheack, from the Isle of Man”. He was further assured that “Sir Neal (a Baronet of Newport), never sent a bad hogshead to any of his customers, his honour’s brandy, likewise, was not a lot worse than his claret, and always tasted best on a cold morning”.

Fosterage was still a way of life in the West. Sir Neal himself had been brought up in a lowly house in Ballycroy. He continued the custom with his children.”

(We didn’t do too bad coming from a lowly house in Ballycroy! At least we are still around!)

Claggan, Ballycroy is the place that Colonel Manus ODonnell, grandfather of Sir Neal O Donel, made his first homestead after Manus’ father Rory lead 2000 people from Donegal to Co Mayo once “transplanted” by Cromwell in 1654.

man dressed up as a sailorTHE WILD GEESE & THE SPANISH ADMIRALTY

 Although they lived on an island, the Irish, as the Celts before them, were not drawn to the sea.  Unlike the Vikings, the English, the Portuguese and other island and coastal peoples, the Irish did not develop superior seafaring skills or build ships for trade, exploration or colonization.  The people of Ireland confined themselves to coastal fishing and did not sail large vessels to Europe for commerce or into the Atlantic for exploration. Yet despite their lack of a seagoing heritage, many of the Irish émigrés entered the Spanish navy.

The Irish émigrés were attracted to the Spanish navy because of the high social standing accorded to naval officers.  In the 16th and 17th centuries naval officers were highly regarded because it was mainly the navy that protected Spain’s rich, far-flung empire.  Spain’s large navy had a complex mission.  Ships had to patrol the Atlantic, protecting convoys of galleons laden with the treasures and products of the New World.  At the same time, ships had to guard the Spanish and South American shoreline from privateers and pirates who would raid coastal settlements.  In times of war against naval powers like England, France and the Netherlands, the navy had to blockade enemy ports and engage enemy squadrons to deny them the use of the seas.  To support its large navy, Spain needed many officers and sailors to crew the ships.

Because the Irish émigrés were well-educated and many of them came from families that the Spanish recognized as noble, they were ideal candidates for naval officers.  All naval officers required enough education to grasp spherical trigonometry and astronomy in order to navigate vessels on the high seas.

Once naval officers advanced to the rank of captain and commanded a ship, they often operated independently with little communication with the Spanish Admiralty.  Ship captains on an independent mission were at liberty to interpret and change their orders in accordance with the varying circumstances they encountered on distant seas.

This self-reliance required of ship captains appealed to the vision of the lone Celtic warrior challenging his enemy in battle that was inherent in Irish heritage.  The Spanish naval service provided one of the few opportunities in the contemporary world for an individual to exercise independent judgement in warfare.