Rise & Fall: The Maguire Kings of Fermanagh

The Maguires held sway over Lough Erne for over 300 years

Last updated: 07 Feb 2024

In the 1580s, the Gaelic order within Ireland was turned upside down when the Tudor army of Queen Elizabeth seized control of Munster while the queen’s lawyers tricked the chieftains of Connacht into surrendering. In the north-west of Ireland, a long overdue alliance was forged between the O’Neills, the O’Donnells and the Maguires, a family who had held sway over Lough Erne for over 300 years. It was to be the last hurrah for Gaelic Ireland.

In a quiet field above the County Fermanagh town of Lisnaskea stands an ancient mound, almost certainly a Neolithic burial tomb, known locally as the Moat Ring, or Sciath Gabhra in Irish. Sometimes it named as the Hill of Cornashee. This is the spot where fifteen men were crowned as Kings of Fermanagh between 1264 and 1589. All fifteen belonged to the Maguire family, once among the most prominent dynasties in the north-west of Ireland. By the standards of most Irish kings, and indeed of many European kings, the Maguires boasted a remarkably serene track record. Their reigns averaged over two decades each, with many notching up over forty years, while challenges to the throne were rare and only one of the fifteen was assassinated.

Occasionally they were obliged to arm and defend themselves against the O’Neill’s, O’Donnell’s or the other clans that threw a punch every now and then – the O’Rourkes, the O’Reillys, the McGoverns, the McKiernans, the O’Hanlon’s, the MacMahon’s … Sometimes, it was the Maguires ambition to dispossess such rivals. The barony of Clanawley, for instance, is named for Amhlamh [pronounced Ow-lee] Maguire, a younger son of one of the kings, who headed to the west side of the lake to seize the area from its previous occupants.

Likewise, Clankelly is named for Donnchadh Ceallach Maguire who wrestled control of that townland from the MacMahons. And, of course, there were some internal squabbles but, in general, County Fermanagh and the Lough Erne region under the Maguires was a stable and prosperous place for nearly three centuries, with the throne passing from father to son, father to son, and mostly to the eldest son.

Patrons of the Art

The Maguires were exceptionally progressive, their households replete with historians, poets and learned men who received their patronage. There were three hereditary families of poets – Ó Fialáin [pronounced O’Feel-loin, aka Phelan], Ó hEodhusa [pronounced O-hoe-iss-sah, as in Hussey] and MacRibheartaigh [pronounced Mac-Rear-tee]. There were two families of historians, the Ó Cianáin [pronounced O-key-noyne, as in Keenan] and the Ó Luinin [pronounced O Lynn-een, generally taken as Lineen or Lennon], while their hereditary lawyers were the Ó Breslen and their hereditary physicians were the Ó Cassidys of Coole on the eastern shore of the Upper Lough. They were also tremendous benefactors of the Christian church, introducing new orders, endowing churches and embarking on pilgrimages to Rome and Santiago de Compostella in Spain. In their twilight, several Maguire princes abdicated in good time to prepare for their death.

Donn Mor & Don Carrach

The family descend from Donn Mor Maguire, a warrior who witnessed attempts by the Anglo Norman authorities in Dublin to build castles at Clones, County Monaghan, and Belleek and Cael Uisce, County Fermanagh, during the reign of King John. Cáel Uisce is thought to have been located either at Castle Caldwell or at the very spot where the River Erne leaves Lower Lough Erne. Donn Mor lived to see all three castles destroyed by the indigenous Irish.

In 1258, Cáel Uisce was the setting for ‘a general meeting of the provincial kings of Ireland.’ There had been a plan to elect one supreme king of Ireland at the meeting but the O’Briens and the O’Neills were both in attendance and neither was prepared to accept the other family as supreme so the event broke up without a resolution. i Four years later, Donn Mor’s son Donn Carrach Maguire was the first of the line to be crowned king of Fermanagh. Hailed by the bards as ‘Ireland’s Most Generous Lord’, he lived at Lisnaskea and reigned for forty-two-years until 1301 when, as the Annals of Ulster recorded, he ‘rested in Christ’.

Donn’s descendants continued to expand the Maguires territory, albeit as a subservient family to O’Donnell of Tir Conaill [Tyrconnell] who was, for the most part, subservient to O’Neill of Tyrone. In fact, the Norman influence also prevailed into the 15th century as the entire area was held by Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster, the father-in-law of Robert the Bruce. In 1342, it was recorded that de Burgh’s grandson received tribute of eighty cows from Ruadhri Maguire, King of Fermanagh, a man described in the Annals of Clonmacnoise as ‘one that bestoed most of gould, Silver, cattle & other guifts upon poets & bards & others of theire kind in Ireland’.

Philip of the Battle Axe

Among the most influential Maguires was Philip of the Battle Axe who reigned from 1363 to 1395. He earned his moniker by fending off attacks by rival MacMahon, O’Neill and O’Connor chieftains in a series of gruesome battles. Fermanagh essentially took on the county’s present shape and size on his watch when he established it as a buffer kingdom between the warring realms of Ulster and Connaught. His greatest asset was a fleet of white sail boats on Lough Erne that gave him mastery of the waters. At one point, his fleet sailed into Lough Oughter in County Cavan and captured the O’Reilly chief who subsequently became his foremost ally.

Hugh the Hospitable

Hugh the Hospitable, Philip’s son, built the original castles at Enniskillen and Monea and was widely applauded for his virtue and munificence. Once a year, he would seat himself beneath a whitethorn tree at Monea at sunrise, from where he would receive his extended family and neighbours, listening to their woes, dispensing wise counsel and handing out dowries to girls whose fathers were in financial difficulty. A frequent pilgrim to Rome, Spain and Italy, he was returning from the Holy Land when he died in Kinsale, County Cork, in 1428. The castle at Enniskillen was strategically a rock solid spot to build a fort because it was on an island between Upper and Lower Lough Erne, enabling the Maguires to control the passage of all ships to-ing and fro-ing between the lakes, and to keep an eye on the way goods were being distributed to the surrounding areas. A poetic description of the castle at Enniskillen appeared in the Book of O’Conor Don in 1480: ‘When one comes to its threshold one, sees a herb-garden and ships, and there is only a fence between them. A strip of lake by the side of the house, a green clearing in front of it: the reflection of its purple outlines – a borrowed beauty – in the lake.’ ii

Enniskillen Castle

Thomas Óg & the Spirit Sail

Hugh’s successor, Thomas Óg Maguire, aka Thomas the Younger, was considerably less pious. He once decorated his garden with the heads of sixteen O’Rouke nobles whom his men had slain during a raid on their strongholds at Bawnboy and Ballyconnell. A 15th century poem to Tomas Óg records ‘a forest of masts is on the Éirne – it makes one start with joy to see them.’ Indeed. The annals also record how Tomas Óg collected tribute from the districts north of Lough Erne and, then, “he embarked in one of the vessels of his fleet, and sailed up to Galloon [on Upper Lough Erne], where he kept a house of general hospitality for a month while collecting the tributes of the southern districts.’

Thomas Óg’s descendants were the senior or ‘Lisnaskea’ branch of the Maguires while those of his brother Philip became the junior or ‘Enniskillen’ branch. These two branches evolved into increasingly bitter rivals as the crown passed from one to the other over the ensuing century.

By 1500, the family owned almost all of the present county of Fermanagh and manned all the principal positions; the bishops, archdeacons, priors and parish priests were all Maguires, while most other families kowtowed to them. The Maguires loyalty swung between the O’Neill and O’Donnell families as those two warring dynasties vied for supreme power in north-west Ireland. I am unsure who murdered Cúchonnacht Maguire, the 11th Prince of the family, in 1537. The only Maguire prince to be assassinated, he met his maker on the island of Craghan in Lough Erne. He was initially buried on Devenish Island but his remains were later removed to Donegal Abbey.

At St Molaise’s Church on Devenish Island, of which the Maguires were patrons, you’ll find what looks like the prow of a sailing ship incorporated into their crest. On a lichen-encrusted Maguire gravestone on the island, you can also still just about make out the shape of a ship with sloped masts, a sprit sail rig perhaps, as in a four-sided, fore-and-aft sail. Certainly the spirit sail would have been a common sight on Lough Erne in the medieval period, right through until the invention of the outboard motor.

Devenish Island

Tudor Advance

In the 1580s, the Connaught poet Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn [aka Blind Tadhg O’Higgins] penned a 40-line poem called ‘Enniskillen’, which opened with the line ‘Enniskillen, with its glistening bays and melodious falls…’ He goes on to describe: ‘The strand beside the court, on the fairy-like bay of murmuring streams, was crowded with such groves of tapering ship-masts that they concealed the beach and its waves.’ iii He makes it sound like a 21st century yacht club! He also remarks on ‘a company of artificers binding vessels’, which sounds like a team of boat builders at work – planking up new boats and making the vital tools, the oars, the spars, the sails and so on.

I have read that the Maguire chieftains’ had 1,500 boats patrolling their lakes and waterways at their peak, which certainly sounds like an exaggeration but perhaps not.

However, even while the ink was drying on Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn poem, Ireland was being shaken to its core by the unstoppable power of the Tudor army of Queen Elizabeth. The queen’s army had already seized most of Munster and, in 1585, they effectively took control of Connaught. Almost all of Ireland was now under Crown control, bar certain pockets of Ulster. Elizabeth’s reign coincided with that of Cúchonnacht II, one of the most scholarly Maguire chiefs. He acceded to a request to surrender his lands to the queen in 1585; he received them back without its church lands. When the Tudor administration in Dublin formally shired Fermanagh the following year, Cúchonnacht must have known the end was nigh.

It fell to Cúchonnacht II’s son and heir Hugh (Aodh) to defend his ancestral kingdom. In 1589, this fearless young man stepped down from the coronation stone at Lisnaskea as the 15th Maguire chief of Fermanagh. He realised that his late father’s conciliatory attitude to the Tudors was a ticket to nowhere. Loyalty to the Crown clearly counted for little; the teenaged Red Hugh O’Donnell, whose father had been a loyal supporter of the Crown, was banged up in Dublin Castle for four years. Hugh Rua McMahon’s friendship with the Tudors had ended when they hanged him outside his own front door.

Initially Hugh Maguire played the game, accepting a knighthood in Christ Church Cathedral in 1591. The following year he helped Red Hugh, his cousin, to break out of Dublin Castle. Both men now realised that the Tudors posed an existential threat to their world. They gradually persuaded the region’s most powerful noble, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, raised in Queen Elizabeth’s court, that he must come on board.

As the Nine Years War began, so Ulster became a battleground between the warring armies of Protestant England and Catholic Ireland. Initially Maguire and his allies managed to push the English out of Fermanagh but reinforcements returned, captured both Enniskillen and Lisnaskea and installed a string of garrisons from Newry all the way to Ballyshannon, including Monaghan, Benburb and Lisnaskea.

The Irish enjoyed some exceptional successes, not least when O’Neill’s great victory at the battle of the Yellow Ford gave him complete power in Ulster in 1598. However, when their armies moved south, the campaign began to flounder. In 1600, Hugh Maguire led his men as far south as Cork where he rashly decided to raid an English camp; he completely underestimated his opponents who overwhelmed them, killing 32 Maguires, including Hugh, his son, his foster-father and his chaplain. Legend holds that Hugh’s horse refused to eat after his death and withered away. Hugh was buried alongside his ancestor and namesake, Hugh the Hospitable, founder of Enniskillen, who had been buried in Cork 172 years earlier. Writing in the 1830s, John O’Donovan claimed that Hugh’s direct descendants were to be found working as sailors in cross-channel coal ships at that time.

The loss of Hugh Maguire was an enormous blow to the Gaelic alliance, not least when a power struggle among his heirs saw one claimant form a treacherous pact with the Tudors that paved the way for English conquest of the region. This came just as O’Neill and O’Donnell saw their dreams shattered by an absolute English victory over their combined forces at Kinsale.

Cúchonnacht Óg & the Flight of the Earls

Hugh Maguire’s brother Cúchonnacht Óg (Constantine) is considered the last Maguire king of Fermanagh, although he was never crowned. He returned from the defeat at Kinsale to find his lands devastated by the English conquerors. By 1605, over half of his estate had been seized and parcelled out to planters. Maybe he considered a fight but one might bear in mind the words of Sir John Davies, the Attorney-General of Ireland, who toured the area in 1607 and observed, ‘Generally the natives of this country are reputed the worst swordsmen in the north, being rather inclined to be scholars or husbandmen, than to be kern, or men of action’.

As mentioned, there was indeed an unusually large number of hereditary learned families in Fermanagh – bards, historians, harpers and master craftsmen. In any event, come 1606, Cúchonnacht Óg was in France where he purchased a Breton vessel in Rouen, dolled it up as an innocuous fishing boat and sailed it back from Dunkirk to Lough Swilly in County Donegal. On 14 September 1607, approximately one hundred passengers boarded Cúchonnacht Og’s ship at Rathmullan. The ship duly sailed for France with the cream of Ireland’s Gaelic nobility in what became known as the Flight of the Earls.

Having reached Quillebeuf in Normandy, most passengers went overland to Rome to meet the pope. Cúchonnacht Og was among those who reached Rome but, always restless, he was determined to convince the Spanish king to send a new Armada to Ireland. In the summer of 1608, he joined forced with James MacMahon and boarded a ship at Naples that was bound for Spain. While staying a night at Ostia, both men became violently ill with fever and died. They were buried in a Franciscan monastery near Genoa.


The remaining Maguire lands in Ireland were subsequently vested in his kinsmen Bryan, who was created Baron Maguire of Enniskillen in 1627. Bryan sponsored the celebrated Annals of the Four Masters but his sons were also fated for a sticky end. His son Connor, the 2nd Baron, was hanged, drawn, and quartered in London for high treason after the Irish Rebellion in 1641, while his brother, Colonel Rory Maguire, was killed in a skirmish in 1648. It was Rory who destroyed Tully Castle, by Derrygonnelly, the ruins of which still stand on the southern shores of Lower Lough Erne.

Tully Castle

Over the next century, the titular Barons Maguire of Enniskillen served in the Jacobite and French armies, with the last one serving as a captain in the Comte de Lally‘s Regiment of Irish Infantry. iv Thus runs the rise and fall of a remarkable dynasty who ruled the Erne for several hundred years.


i Tadhg Cael Uisce Ó Briain (born c. 1230, died 1259) was the eldest son of Conchobhar na Siudane Ó Briain and Tánaiste of Thomond. He received the suffix “Cael Uisce” from the having attended the conference of Cael Uisce on behalf of his father and refusing to acknowledge Brian Ua Néill as High King. He died in 1259, pre-deceasing his father. See The History and Topography of the County of Clare by James Frost, 1258 here. ‘A general meeting of the provincial kings of Ireland was therefore convoked, at a place called Cael-uisce, on Lough Erne, near the present Castle Calwell [sic], and Conor O’Brien, being unable to attend in person, sent his eldest son Teige, called in after times, from that incident, Teige Cael-uisce, to represent him in the assembly (A.D. 1258). As the best means of resisting the English, it was proposed, that one supreme king of Ireland should be acknowledged, with full powers vested in him, to call out and command the forces of the whole country. This was agreed to, but when it came to the selection of the supreme ruler, a contest arose between O’Neill and O’Brien as to which of the two should be the man to be chosen. O’Neill’s right was regarded as paramount and unquestionable, but O’Brien would not yield, and as a consequence, the conference broke up without arriving at any definite settlement of the question. Since Ireland was first inhabited up to the present day, no act more fatal to her true interests ever happened than this. The opportunity was lost, never to return, of annihilating the power of England, then in its weakness. The example of Brian Boroimhe, who by means of his sole sovereignty over the whole island was able to extirpate the Danes, was forgotten by his descendant Teige Cael-uisce, and by his act of vain folly, the island has since remained a scene of anarchy, fomented by the machinations of the unscrupulous stranger. Teige died in the following year, but it had been better for his country that he was never born.’

ii Beith ré dán dlighidh ollamh, petition to Tomás Óg Mág Uidhir († 1480) by Cú Chonnacht Ó Fialáin [The Book of O’Conor Don, 246b]

iii The full poem is here. Poor Ó hUigin was fated to be murdered in 1591 by members of the Ó hEadhra [O’Hara] family along with his wife and child after he mocked them in a poem. They cut his tongue out before they killed him. 

iv A branch of the Maguire family lived and farmed on Inisliroo, known locally as Rabbit Island, a short crossing by boat from Knockninny Quay near Derrylin.

Further Reading

  • Bunbury, Turtle,'Ireland's ‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’ (Thames & Hudson, 2020)

  • Clark, Michael, The Sailing History of Lough Erne, Clogher Record, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2005), pp. 501-540

  • Livingstone, Father Peadar, ‘A Fermanagh Story’ (Cumann Seanchais Chlochair, 1969)

  • Martyn, Adrian (2016). ‘The Tribes of Galway, 1124-1642’

  • Simms, Katharine. “The Medieval Kingdom of Lough Erne.” Clogher Record, vol. 9, no. 2, 1977, pp. 126-141.


Researched and written by Irish historian Turtle Bunbury, the history of Irish Waterways and their environs is the result of extensive original scholarship through the National Archives and contemporary newspapers, as well as the expertise of local historians and academic historians.

With thanks to Sarah McHugh, Vicky Herbet, John Patterson, Raphael Mullaly and the Maguires of Charlotte, North Carolina.


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