The Cleary, O’Cleary or Clarke Family

Cleary, O’Cleary or Clark family crest

(Crest No. 134. Plate 19.)

THE Cleary family, sometimes Anglicized Clarke, is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of Heremon, and belonged to the Hy Fiachra tribe, founded by Fiachra, son of Eocha Moy Veagon, King of Ireland, A. D. 350. The founder of the O’Cleary family was Earca, son of Olliol Molt, King of Ireland, A. D. 463. The ancient name, Cleirighs, signifies “The Clerk,” and was taken from Cleireach, one of their celebrated chiefs in the tenth century.

The O’Clearys held possessions in Antrim, Donegal, and Galway. Another branch of the O’Clearys, or Clarkes, all of the same stock, possessed lands in East Brefney, or the present County of Cavan. The O’Clearys, or Clarkes, were celebrated as the hereditary historians to the O’Donnells, and the learned authors of the Annals of the Four Masters and other valuable works on Irish history and antiquities. They had large possessions in the barony of Tir Hugh, and resided in their castle at Kilbarron, the ruins of which still remain on a rock on the shore of the Atlantic, near Ballyshannon.

Of the many poets of this family, Fearfeasa O’Clery, O’Donnell’s poet, signalized himself at the celebrated victory of the Yellow Ford. The commanders of the two armies, O’Neill and Bagnall, harangued their troops before the opening of the contest, exciting them to high enthusiasm. O’Cleary also harangued them, and produced the words of an ancient prophecy attributed to St. Bearchan, foretelling that at a place called the Yellow Ford the foreigner would be defeated by a Hugh O’Neil. Whether such a prophecy ever existed, or was, as is most likely, evolved from the inner consciousness of the poet, matters not; it had an incalculable effect on O’Neil’s troops, and was a strong factor in the disastrous defeat and rout of the English.

The most noted of this family was Brother Michael O’Cleary of the Order of St. Francis, chief of the Four Masters, who compiled the Annals of Ireland and saved from ruin and oblivion that greatest treasure of a race or people—their history. His collaborators were his brother, Conary O’Cleary and their cousin, Cucogry (Peregrine) O’Clery, men of profound learning and ardent faith, and to these were subsequently added the co-operation and learning of other distinguished scholars and antiquarians. This great and valuable work consists of 11,000 quarto pages and covers the immense space of four thousand five hundred years of Irish history. Cugory O’Cleary was the head of the Tirconell sept of the O’Clearys. He wrote a life in the Irish language of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, which was subsequently incorporated into the Annals of the Four Masters. Several officers of this name served in the Irish Brigade, in France.

In the War of the Revolution this name is honorably represented. Major Andrew McCleary, “whose great size and desperate valor made him peculiarly conspicuous,” fell at the battle of Bunker Hill, and his near relative, Colonel McCleary, fell at the battle of Bennington. Another of this name, Captain James McCleary, commanded in the New York Militia in 1775, and he is referred to in the Life of De Witt Clinton as “one of the bravest officers America can boast.” At the defense of the unfinished forts on the Hudson in 1776, he and a Mr. Humphrey fought with such desperate bravery that a British officer saved them from being killed, exclaiming that it would be a pity to kill such brave men. His troops then rushed in and seized them, sparing them, though they had refused to surrender.

Of the Irish Clarkes, a branch of this family, one of the most conspicuous in modern days was Marshal Clarke, Duc de Feltre, the famous War Minister of Napoleon the First.