The McSweeney Family

MacSweeney family crest

(Crest No. 124. Plate 58.)

The MacSweeney, Sweeny or McSwiney family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon. The founder of the family was Eogan, ancestor of the Northern Hy Nials, and son of Nial of the Nine Hostages. The ancient name of the McSweeneys was Suibne O’Donnell, the first part of which refers to “Arms,” and the second to the “Destroyer.” The name Sweeney was taken from Suibne Mean (“Renowned”), monarch of Ireland, A. D. 628. The chiefs of this sept bore the title of Lords of Tuatha, and their possessions were located in Donegal and Cork.

MacSweeney family crest

(Crest No. 251. Plate 59.)

The McSweeneys were a branch of the O’Neills, and settled in Tirconnell at an early period, where they branched into three great families. These were the McSuineys of Fanaid, who possessed an extensive territory west of Lough Swilly, and whose castle was at Rathmullin; the McSweeny Boghamach, or of Boghani, now the barony of Banagh, whose castle was at Rathain, and which territory included Reachrain Muintiri Birn, now Rathlin O’Bierne Islands, and the MacSweeney Na d-Tuath, or the McSweeney of the Battle Axes. His districts were also known as Tuatha Toraighe, or the districts of Tory Island, a territory near Tory Island, off the northwest point of Donegal County. These McSweeneys’ lands were in the barony of Kilmacrenan. These chiefs were called McSweeny Na d-Tuagh, or McSweeny of the Battle Axes, from the fact of their having been standard bearers and marshals to the O’Donnells and chiefs of gallowglasses. They were famed all over Ireland as chiefs, or leaders, of this heavy-armed infantry.

A branch of these McSweenys, who were distinguished as military leaders, settled in the County of Cork, Munster, in the thirteenth century, where they became commanders under the MacCarthys, Princes of Desmond. Their castles were situated at Clodagh, near Macroom, and at Castlemore, in the parish of Movidy. They were distinguished throughout Munster for their hospitality, and a large stone erected near the Castle of Clodagh bore an Irish inscription inviting all travelers who passed that way to repair to the castle of Edward McSweeney for free entertainment. In some instances this honorable old Irish patronymic has been transformed into Swayne and Swyne, but the great majority of the descendants of this sept write it MacSweeny or Sweeny.

It is not remarkable to find many descendants of this military Irish sept representing it in the Irish regiments of France and Spain. One of these, Captain Miles McSweeny, of O’Mahoney’s Regiment of Dragoons, was granted for his conduct at the battle of Almanza, April 25, 1707, by King Philip Fifth of Spain, the Cross of the Military Order of St. James. Many others of the name won in the service of France the Cross of the Military Order of St. Louis. The Sweeneys are still numerous in Ireland, and in the United States and other English-speaking lands.

Gen. Thomas William Sweeny was born in Cork, Ireland, and came to the United States when twelve years of age. He joined a military organization in New York City, and on the outbreak of the Mexican War, 1846, he was made Second Lieutenant in Burnett’s New York Volunteers. He served under General Scott from the siege of Vera Cruz to the storming of Cherubusco, where he lost his right arm. He received a medal from New York City for his bravery and skill during the campaign. He afterward entered the regular army, and conducted many campaigns against the Indians in the West. With only ten men he held his camp against thousands of besieging Indians from June 5 to December 6, 1851, while Major Heintzelmann had gone to San Diego, Cal., for supplies.

When the Civil War broke out he was in command of the arsenal, St. Louis, Mo., where were stored arms and munitions for sixty thousand men, and forty tons of powder. He had only forty men—raw recruits— and was opposed by three thousand Confederates. When asked to surrender, he replied that he would blow the arsenal to atoms if overpowered. He was wounded at Wilson’s Creek, with General Lyon, and after the capture of Fort Donnelson, in which he participated. General Grant appointed him to conduct six thousand of the prisoners to Alton, Ill.

At the close of the battle of Shiloh a gap was left at a critical moment between General Sweeny’s brigade and General Sherman’s left. For the moment it was the key of the situation. Sherman afterward wrote: “I attach more importance to that event” (General Sweeny’s holding the gap) “than to any of the hundred achievements which I have since heard saved the day.”

General Sweeny, commanding the Second Division of the Sixteenth Corps, Army of the Tennessee, distinguished himself at the battles of Snake Creek Gap, Resaca, Ostennala River, Dallas, Kenesaw Mountain and Atlanta.

In 1866 he participated in the Fenian invasion of Canada, and was with General John O’Neill at the fight at Limestone Ridge, where four hundred Irish-Americans put to rout sixteen hundred British-Canadians. After the collapse of that movement President Johnson restored him to his command in the regular army.