McKenna łAn Triucha˛

After the name McMahon, the most common surname in Co. Monaghan is McKenna, and searching for McKenna ancestry, particularly in the north of the county, can frequently become more difficult than looking for the proverbial Śneedle in the haystacką.

Visitors from abroad, with such a search in mind, must be sure of the name of the townland from which their ancestors emigrated and also have some idea of the nick-name or ‘family name’ (as they should be more correctly termed) of the McKennas involved. Based mainly in North Monaghan, this family name has a very long and interesting history, as well as figuring prominently in the annals of the county, and its association down through the years with neighbouring counties, but particularly with the O’Neills of Tyrone.

Legend tells that, in the fourth century, the first McKenna to arrive here was a Hugh McKenna, a minor king or prince from the Kells area of Co.Meath. An avid huntsman, he roused a huge stag on one occasion and pursued it for two full days and nights before finally catching up with it and plunging his dagger into the heart of the beast - at a fort, just north of Emyvale, which, to this day, is still called ‘Liskenna’ (from the Irish ‘Lios Sceine’ meaning ‘the fort of the knife’).

Tired out from his exhaustive hunting and journeying, McKenna was entertained by the local chieftain, a man named Treanor; he then remained on as Treanor’s guest, fell in love with his daughter, and eventually married her. In the interim he received word that his kingdom back home in Meath had been usurped by a fellow kinsman, so instead of returning to Meath he decided to remain on in the north of what is now Co. Monaghan, where he had been made feel so welcome. That lovely legend is still recalled in the McKenna logo or ‘coat of arms’, which depicts a huntsman on horseback, a stag, two hounds, and two crescent moons, signifying the two days and two nights that McKenna had followed the hunt.

Through time, the McKenna offspring and later descendants became very numerous, and these ultimately overcame all neighbouring tribes, to eventually establish for themselves a small kingdom between the McMahons to the south and the O’Neills to the north. This little kingdom or ‘tuath’ as it would have been known then, extended from the Blackwater at Aughnacloy to the ‘lesser’ Blackwater at Monaghan, and from the Slieve Beagh mountains in the west to the castle of Glaslough in the east, encompassing the present parishes of Donagh (sometimes called ‘Upper Truagh’) and Errigal Truagh, an area of approximately eighty square miles.

Of course, the story of the hunt was mere legend, but later history records that McKenna’s tiny kingdom was well and truly established by the time of the arrival of the Normans in the twelfth century (1169). It became known as ‘Triucha Chead a’ Chladaigh’, which loosely translated, simply means the ‘Barony of the Ring Forts’. The parishes of Donagh and Errigal Truagh have a greater proliferation of ring-forts than any other area of its size in Ulster.

Headquarters of the Clan McKenna was firmly established at Tully Hill, just south of the present Emyvale village, and this would survive for an amazing five hundred years - from the mid-12th century to the early 17th century. Originally, a series of three ring forts stood on this hill but only the inner ring and half of the outer ring of the northern fort remains to this day. The fortifications also included a ‘crannog’ on Tully Lough, below the western slope of the hill, and part of this may also still be seen. The 12th century McKenna High Cross and the McKenna Chieftains grave may also still be seen in the neighbouring Donagh Old Graveyard.

Through the centuries the McKennas became embroiled in the tribal wars that prevailed in Ulster right down until the demise of the Gaelic Chieftains at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
They were frequently at war with O’Neills to the north and with the McMahons to the south, often helping the one against the other, and even occasionally at war among themselves as different branches of the family vied for over-lordship.

They were very much a part of O’Neill’s army at the Battle of Clontibret in 1595 and again at the Yellow Ford in 1598, but, just as they were part of these great victories, they also had to share in the defeats, and they were in O’Neill’s army again at Kinsale in 1601.

Following the retreat from the tragedy of Kinsale, they were pursued by Mountjoy and the English, who established a new fort for themselves at Monaghan. From there, Mountjoy’s forces destroyed most of McKenna’s fortifications at Tully, Emyvale. The centre fort was completely obliterated and was never restored, but the southern and northern forts were re-built by McKenna who, despite the previous disaster, was again very much involved in the Insurrection of 1641, a war that continued right up until the Cromwellian Settlements of 1652. As punishment for his part in that lengthy war, McKenna’s territory was again invaded and ravaged by English forces under Hamilton in 1642, and again under Stewart in 1643.

Probably the greatest of all the McKenna chieftains was Patrick McKenna who came to power c.1580, but he was unfortunate in that, at that time, the English were encroaching from the south and trying to establish a ‘shire’ in what is now Co. Monaghan. Patrick, who had fought in all the battles of the Nine Years War (1594-1603) died in 1612 and was succeeded by his grandson Niall McKenna, who was leader during the 1641-52 wars.

By 1652, his territory had been so ravaged that he emigrated to Spain where he joined the Spanish army and later died there. Niall was succeeded by his nephew, Phelemy McKenna, who, with four of his sons, was murdered by English forces in 1666 and is buried in Donagh Old Graveyard. His fifth son, Major John McKenna was later appointed High Sheriff of Monaghan by James 1st, and it was this Major John McKenna who led the Catholic Irish forces at the Battle of Drumbanagher, near Glaslough, in 1688, following which he was executed. He too is buried at Donagh.

The Battle of Drumbanagher is sometimes refereed to as ‘The Opening Shots of the Williamite Wars’, but even more frequently it is referred to as ‘McKenna’s Last Stand’ as it was this battle that really brought an end to the power of this once great family.

Defeated at Drumbanagher, the influence of the McKenna Clan declined rapidly and, with the various Plantations of the 17th century, practically all their lands were confiscated and transferred to alien ownership. Despite this, the McKenna name never died but, on the contrary, increased to an amazing rate, to such an extent that the McKennas far outnumber all other surnames in North Monaghan today and is second only to the McMahon name in the entire county.

Many have made great names for themselves in both Irish and World history. General Juan McKenna became prominent in the Liberation of Chile; an Adjutant McKenna held senior office in the 1798 French Expedition led by Napper Tandy; Reginald McKenna became British Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early part of the 20th century and might even have become Prime Minister; Siobhan McKenna became a famed Hollywood screen actress; etc. etc. Just a few of the many who made headlines throughout the globe.

The late Sir Shane Leslie in his excellent book ‘Long Shadows’ wrote: - “Daniel O’Connell brought their (McKenna) Chief from our (Leslie) estate in Truagh (barony of) to London to open a bank. The McKenna family were successful outside their own country; producing a Dictator in South America and a Justice of the Supreme Bench in Washington; O’Connell’s proteges in England were successful bankers. One grandson, Reginald McKenna, became Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer and later presided over the Midland Bank. There was even a moment when, occupying a City of London seat, he might have stopped a gap in Downing Street.”

On the GAA front, the McKenna name has regularly featured very prominently on Emyvale, Truagh, Scotstown and Clogher (Co Tyrone) club teams down through the years. This is only to be expected as the north-Monaghan and south-Tyrone areas form the back-bone of what can truthfully be described as ‘McKenna Country’ but the name also crops up regularly in other clubs much further afield. In the very south of the county, three McKennas, for a long period, manned the full back line of the Inniskeen team, while every single club in Monaghan, without exception, has had a McKenna player at some stage or other. Niall McKenna of the Scotstown club was a selector with county underage teams in recent years, while Sean McKenna from the Monaghan Harps club is a leading Co. Board official and also one of our leading referees, as is Hugh McKenna from the same club. Further north, Eugene McKenna was joint manager of the Tyrone senior team for several years.

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2002