The O’Reilly Family

O’Reilly crest

(Crest No. 269. Plate 11.)

THE O’Reilly family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon. The founder of the family was Aedh Finn, or Hugh the Fair, King of Connaught, A. D. 630. The ancient name was Raghallaigh, signifying “impetuous,” and was taken from a personage of that name, Prince of Brefney, A. D. 981, one of their celebrated chiefs of the tenth century. They also took the tribe name of Muinter Maolmordha, or the people of Maelmorda, from Maelmorda, another of their celebrated chiefs. This name Maolmordha, or Mulmora, was Latinized “Milesius,” and Anglicized “Miles” or “Myles,” and was subsequently borne by many of their chiefs, and has been a favorite Christian name with the O’Reillys ever since.

The chiefs of the O’Reillys were styled Lords of Clan Malire and Castle Rehan, and Princes of Brefney. Their possessions originally embraced the greater part of the present County of Cavan. The boundary between the Brefney O’Reilly, or East Brefney, and Brefney O’Rourke, or West Brefney, was the river at Ballyconnell; while the O’Reilly principality was separated from Fermanagh, or the Maguire's Country, by the Ballyconnell Mountains. We learn also that at one time the O’Reillys extended their territory and authority into the borders of the English Pale as far as Kilmainham Wood, to the Blackwater, near Kells, and to Crossakeele and Oldcastle, in Meath; from thence as far as Granard, in Longford, and to parts of Westmeath.

In the years 1380 and 1415 it is stated that Thomas, son of Mahon O’Reilly, Lord of Clan Mahon and Prince of Brefney, destroyed eighteen castles of the English in the Pale, and overran the country from Drogheda to Dublin. This Thomas O’Reilly erected a castle at Balling Lough, in Westmeath.

The O’Reillys, exercising independent sovereignty as Princes of Brefney, coined their own money, and a Parliament held at Trim, A. D. 1447, in the reign of Henry the Sixth, by Sir John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, Lord Lieutenant, and another Parliament held at Naas, A. D. 1457, by the Lord Deputy, Thomas Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, passed acts prohibiting the circulation of the Irish coinage, called O’Reilly’s money in the English Pale. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century many valiant chiefs of the O’Reillys are mentioned, who fought several battles with the English forces of the Pale, over whom they gained many victories.

The O’Reillys located on the borders of Meath, were obliged to maintain an incessant warfare to defend the frontiers of Ulster against the English of the Pale, who made constant incursions into the northern territories. Camden, who wrote during the reign of Elizabeth states that the O’Reillys were famous for cavalry; and Fynes Morrison, in his account of the wars of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, states that the O’Reillys of Brefney brought to the standard of O’Neill eight hundred foot and two hundred horse. Colonel Phillip O’Reilly and his kinsman, the valiant Maolmora (Myles the Slasher), brought two hundred chosen men of their own name and other Cavan families to Owen Roe O’Neil at the battle of Benburb.

The O’Reillys maintained their independence down to the reign of James the First, and possessed large property and influence, even until the Cromwellian wars, after which their estates were confiscated. Maolmora O’Reilly, commonly called Myles the Slasher, was a celebrated chief, distinguished for his great strength and undaunted valor. He fought many battles in Cavan and other places during the Cromwellian wars.

The O’Reillys were elected and inaugurated in early times as princes and tanists of Brefney on the Hill of Seantoman. or Shantoman—a large hill between Cavan and Ballyhaise, on the summit of which may still be seen the remains of a Druidical temple, consisting of several huge stones standing upright. In after times the O’Reillys were inaugurated on the Hill of Tullymongan, above the town of Cavan. They had castles at Tullymongan, Ballynacargy, Tullyvin, Lisgannon, Belturbet, Ballyconnell, Cloughoughter, Kilmore, Lismore and Camett, near Crossdoney; at Tonagh and Balinrinke, near Lough Sheelin; at Kilnacrott, Loughramor, and Mullagh; at Tonragee, now Baileborough, and at Muff, near Kingscourt. The ruins of several of these castles still remain.

Edward O’Reilly, Vicar-General of Dublin from 1642 to l648, was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh in 1657. It was at the darkest period of the penal days; the clergy had been banished, or driven into hiding places, and for a time Archbishop O’Reilly was the only representative of the episcopacy in Ireland. As harboring a priest was punishable with death and the confiscation of property, the Archbishop was only able to visit his diocese at long intervals, and in disguise. He was captured in 1666, imprisoned for a long time in England, and finally deported to Belgium. The last years of his life were passed in attending to the interest of Irish seminaries on the Continent.

Hugh O’Reilly, a barrister, and a native of the County of Cavan, was Master in Chancery and Clerk of the Council in Ireland under James the Second, and after the latter’s overthrow he accompanied him to France, where James conferred on him the honorary appointment of Lord Chancellor of Ireland. A few years afterward he published a work entitled Ireland’s Case Briefly Stated,” in which he severely condemned King Charles the Second for his ingratitude to the Irish Catholics who had so faithfully served him, and in which even King James, his master, was not excused. The latter was so offended that he withdrew O’Reilly’s small salary, and deprived him of his titular office—an act quite worthy of a Stuart king.

Alexander, Count O’Reilly, born at Baltrasna, County of Meath, in 1722, entered the Irish Brigade in the service of Spain, and served as Lieutenant in Italy, where he was severely wounded. He afterward took service in the Austrian army, and signalized himself fighting the Prussians in 1758 at the battle of Hochkirchen. In 1759 he entered the French service, and participated in the battle of Bergen, and the capture of Minden and Corbach. On the outbreak of the war between Spain and Portugal he rejoined the Spanish army, was appointed Lieutenant-General, and defeated the Portuguese at Chauves, 1762. Three years later he saved the life of King Charles the Third at Madrid, during a popular rising. Having remodeled the Spanish army and introduced the German discipline, he was created Field Marshal, sent to Havana, and in June, 1768, he took possession of Louisiana, that France had ceded to Spain. After his return, he was appointed Governor of Madrid and Inspector-General of Infantry; and afterward Governor of Cadiz and Captain-General of Andalusia. That he was proud of his Irish ancestry, is evidenced by the fact that in 1790, after his retirement from active service on a pension, he paid an Irish gentleman a thousand guineas for preparing his pedigree.

ount Alexander O'Reilly


Andrew, Count O’Reilly, born in Ireland in 1710, entered the Austrian army, and served with distinction in the Seven Years’ War under Maria Theresa, and in the campaign against the Turks under Joseph the Second. On the outbreak of the war between France and Austria, in 1792, he held the rank of Major, and signalized himself at Marchiennes, and in 1796 at the battles of Amberg and Ulm. He was wounded at Kehl in 1797, and he commanded a body of cavalry at Austerlitz in 1805. In 1809 he was made Governor of Vienna. He died in 1832, having attained the rank of Count and Field Marshal.

Edward O’Reilly, author of an “Irish English Dictionary,” and a “Chronological Account of Nearly Four Hundred Irish Writers,” and other works, died in 1829.

Another somewhat noted member of this family was O’Reilly, the author of that highly interesting book, “Reminiscences of an Emigrant Milesian.” He resided for years in Paris, and was foreign correspondent of a daily newspaper published in London—The Chronicle, if we mistake not. He was a brother of the above-mentioned O’Reilly, author of the “Irish Dictionary,” and who lived at Harold’s Cross, near Dublin. He was the first man that ever sent foreign correspondence professionally and regularly to an English newspaper—a department in journalism which he may be said to have founded and invented—just as another Irishman, W. H. Russell of the London Times, at a later date, founded that other journalistic department in which so many reputations have been gained—that of the war correspondent. This O’Reilly, in the volume mentioned, boasts of his descent from Myles O’Reilly “the Slasher,” above alluded to, with whom, he says “my family claimed relationship.” His mother, he informs us, was an O’Byrne. He was evidently a literary man whose reading was immense, for on every page he quotes a multitude of French, English and other authors. He seems to have spent all his life in a library.

Of this family were Thomas Devin Reilly, and his brother, Eugene Reilly, the former of whom was a prominent figure in the Forty-eight movement. He was one of the most robust intellects and daring spirits of his time, and had he lived, would have had a splendid career. He was not long in the United States when he had acquired a national reputation as one of the most powerful political writers of the day, and at the time of his death, which occurred in his twenty-ninth year, in Washington, D. C., was the editor of the Democratic Review, the organ of President Pierce’s administration. His brother, Eugene Reilly, entered the Turkish army, where by his skill and bravery he soon rose to the rank of Pasha.

The late John Boyle O’Reilly of Boston, Mass., patriot, poet, journalist and littérateur, was also a scion of this distinguished Irish family. The O’Reillys are still extremely numerous in Cavan, and the name is met with wherever the Irish race is found.