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Irish Genealogy


Of The Children of Kneafsey
the Shrine at the Pictish Fort

Many people of Irish origin in countries overseas take their primary interest in Ireland in trying to locate an 'elusive Irish ancestor'. Being only third generation away, that was not my problem. My problem was to try and discover the meaning of my surname, Ó Cnáimhsighe, now in Ireland generally transliterated from the Gaelic as Kneafsey. After a long wait, like the proverbial buses, two explanations came at once. Both came by way of dictionaries.

Such is the bizarre nature of the explanation leading to the quest for the shrine, I had better start with the one that I consider scientific. As a word, cnáimhsighe is a plural of which the singular would be cnáimhseach. This word is found in the dictionaries. It is a by-name for a midwife. It may also be a name for a woman. Woulfe describes Kneafsey as one of Ireland's few metronymic names, perhaps for this reason. I then found the word cnaimhseag. This means bearberry, a plant which is a mountain heather. Preferring dry scree slopes, it grows above the heather line on mountain fringes. Its main habitat in Ireland is the north western mountains, extending westwards from Antrim. I have taken this to explain why Donegal is the centre of surnames derived from Cnáimhsighe. The plant is oxytocic, which means it accelerates labour. Oxytocin is in routine use in maternity wards, though not sourced from bearberries. This explains the midwife meaning. Finally, flowers are a usual so or women's names. In the English language Heather is popular.

Surnames derived from Ó Cnáimhsighe

It is necessary to lead with this explanation, because these words and meanings must have been common knowledge in 1532, when the Donegal chieftain Manus O'Donnell wrote his 'Betha Colaim Chille' - or 'Life of St. Columba'. In this work he provides another origin for the surname Cnáimhsighe. The story which is the subject of this piece is what came to light when I chased up O'Donnell. The Royal Irish Academy's 'Dictionary of the Irish Language' includes under cnáimhseach a reference to Betha Colaim Chille, which in turn leads to the story of the reliquary of Dun Cruin.

I had then to locate Dun Cruin. Betha Colaim Chille had some place-names and geographic references that helped. I could understand that the people who in 1918 had translated O' Donnell's Irish work had not transliterated Cnáimhsighe into one of the English language variants we all use: they would not have known then that there were 'modern' spellings in existence. Nevertheless, it was some time before it occurred to me that a possible reason why they had not transliterated 'Ciannachta' was because they did not know what had become of the place-name, if anything. The translation had been funded by American Irish in Chicago. When I found that Ciannachta had become Keenaght, I could find what I was looking for: the shrine was not in Co. Donegal, St. Columba's birthplace, but in Co. Derry. Other paragraphs of Betha Colaim Chille provided more clues on the location: 'sand dunes by the sea' and 'fast beside Drum Ceat'.

This information brought me far from Mayo and even beyond Donegal, to the east side of Lough Foyle, where the lough bottlenecks out into the Atlantic Ocean. Dun Cruin is in the parish of Magilligan in what is now Co. Londonderry, in the barony of Keenaght.

St. Patrick had come to the Keenaght 1500 years ago. He had founded seven chapels. One of them was at Dun Cruithne, fort of the Picts, or Cruithini (cruth eineach, face painted.) This became O'Donnell's Dun Cruin. The Ordnance Survey of 1837 has it as Duncrun, and so it remains to this day. (The loss of the 'i' may be a continued simplification. It may be that Cruin is or looks like a genitive, and English practice with words of other languages is to use the nominative as citation case, even where grammar calls for another.) St. Patrick also founded an abbey here.

Two miles north east of Dun Crun used to be the Church of Skreen. It is said this was founded by St.Columba. This name is from the Irish 'scrin', which was the word O'Donnell had used for shrine. Ultimately the word is Latin. There was a monastery called Scrinium Sancte Columbae in the vicinity but it is uncertain whether it was at Skreen Church or Dun Crun.

The Kneafsey interest in the area is because of the 'precious casket' - the reliquary ordered to be made by St. Patrick. The smith, Connla, who began the work, died before it was finished. St. Columba came to the site probably 80 years later. Finding no-one with the skill to finish the casket, he ordered the bones of Connla to be assembled. He then restored the smith to life. Connla lived another 20 years after that and had children. These were called the clann cnaimhsighe, 'be reason that he had been a long time in bones (cnamhaibh aimsir foda) ere he was brought back to life'. O'Donnell says that "moved by the miracle of the completion of the shrine and other miracles, Aidus, son of Ainmarech, King of Ireland, granted to God and Columba the land in which they were wrought, called at this day Ard Meggiolagan and inferior to no ecclesiastical territory in all Ireland at this day 1520". (1520 was the date O'Donnell wrote this. The 'Life' does not provide a year for the completion of the shrine, but. Columba attended the Convention of Drum Ceat in 573 AD, this seems the most likely date for Connla's resurrection.) Thanks to this endowment, the little Duncrun Abbey became one of the richest in Ulster.

The memoir written with the Ordnance Survey of 1837 records the extraordinary veneration paid to the shrine by quoting an account of the parish written by Mr. Beck of Magilligan in 1683:

"In the said parish are the ruins of an old church called the Screen church, which is thought to be vulgar from shrine; in which, before the Reformation, was kept several of popery relics <relicks> as the shrine, a picture that they used with the picture of the Virgin Mary, and hand bells which the priests used in some ceremonies. This is called Columbkille's church, which is counted among them the great saint of the northern parts. And on the 9th day of June yearly, which is Columbkille's day, the Irish come there to perform some devotions and will creep on their knees several times about the same church. The use to this day continued but nothing to what it was before the rebellion, for they would come from the furthest parts of Ulster and Connaught, a great sort, 500 horses and more as I have been told by their priests. I have likewise been told that this parish Magilligan was a sanctuary and that no man might be taken out of it (if escaped thither) for what offence whatever, but this was before British inhabited here".

(Mr. Beck is referring to the rebellion of 1621. This had brought still further desolation to Magilligan, which had already been virtually depopulated by the wars between Elizabeth I and the native chieftains. 'Creeping on their knees' is perhaps how Mr. Beck would probably have described the actions of some pilgrims on Croag Patrick at the present day.)

According to the OS memoir, the probability is that the reliquary in its unfinished state was at Duncrun and it was deposited at Skreen after completion. Duncrun is marked by what the memoir calls a double-cross - a two-armed cross. Today it would be called a Cross of Lorraine. Duncrun is now a scheduled historic site. The site of Skreen church is obliterated. It is close to a railway.

The memoir tells us that it is from O'Donnell's 'Life' that we learn the name of the smith; and that Colgan in a note on the passage, observed that the excellence of this man's work had given rise to many proverbs. When the Irish wish to praise a good craftsman they say, "Connla himself was not a more excellent tradesman". When they wish to represent something as irreparable, they say, "Connla the brazier could not mend it". (Incidentally, the name means 'pure' - appropriate for the shrine work he did.)

O'Donnell did not invent the legend of Connla. He may have invented the Kneafsey association with it. When he gave his explanation of the origin of the surname, his 'readers and hearers' would have known there was a straightforward explanation already existing. They would have known too that this period was 400 years too soon for the use of surnames, these having come in with Brian Boru. When both narrator and audience conspire in a willing suspension of disbelief, the explanation can only be that some kind of humour was in play. Further, I doubt if our family was important enough to be in O'Donnell's work on its own merits. I suspect it was brought in for fun.

It turns out that O'Donnell was a renowned satirist, though it is not thought that he had satire in the 'Life'. Nevertheless, without going into detail here, there are so many oddities in the Connla story as compared to the other resurrections St Columba performed that this may be contemporary satire rather than folklore. Looking for a hypothesis, Edmund Bonner, or Boner, later Bishop of London, a dedicated shrine-buster, was active at the time, working on King Henry VIII's 'press and pulpit' campaign to divorce Catharine of Aragon. Perhaps O'Donnell had him sprung from the type of fantasy he was pledged to stamp out. If this is right, the initial connection between Cnáimhsighe and Bonner would have been the translation of Bonner into Irish as Cnáimhsighe, and not the translation of Cnáimhsighe into English as Bonner. Whatever the reason, the connection was strong. Today, almost 90% of the 770 Cnáimhsighe families in Ireland have become Bonner.

The year 1532 is critical for this hypothesis. It will fail if there is an earlier association of our surname with Connla. There may well be and perhaps time will tell, but for all the other resurrections done by St. Columba, the editors of the 1918 translation of the 'Life' provide a footnote indicating O'Donnell's source. There is none for this. Folklore or satire, however, it is a strange story and like it or not we are part of it.

To provide a brief background on the words, Woulfe says that Bonner/Boner is a pseudo-translation of Cnáimhsighe. It obviously is not an exact translation - just the transfer of an idea suggested by the 'cnáimh' element. The few untranslated families have either Kneafsey in its variant spellings, or Crampsey in its variants. (Donegal often pronounces cr for cn. Gaelic pronunciation varies amazingly.) Woulfe did not have the midwife explanation. The Irish dictionaries were perhaps not then available, but 'cnaimhseag' appears in a Scottish Gaelic dictionary, which predates the publication of his work. It is doubtful if he was aware of it, however.

'Cnáimh' is the genitive of cnámh, bone, and '-seach' is a feminine suffix. Cnáimhseach is not a usual word for midwife and would not be found in the English - Irish section of a typical dictionary. From the enquiries I have made, I would say that without reference to a dictionary, probably no native speaker or academic now knows a Gaelic word for bearberry.

It seems reasonable that an oxytocic plant and a midwife should have the same etymology, but why they should be described by a the genitive of a word for bone with a feminine suffix is something we shall probably never be able to explain. I suspect that the plant came first and the midwifery/woman's name meanings followed from it.

In most modern languages the word for bearberry is just a translation into the language of the botanic Latin, uva ursi, botanic classification having preceded the age of the dictionary. This is what happened with English, though there are about ten folk-words in Britain and America still in use. The three Welsh words are folk-words, dating from the 13th century Myddfai records. A translation from the botanic Latin would produce 'béar sméar' in Irish which would probably have been rejected as an option for inclusion in a dictionary. 'Béar sméar' is what Irish speakers first think of when asked for the Irish for bearberry, but they always say, correctly, 'It can't be this'.The Irish dictionary Gaelic expression, lus na stalóg, describes the flower rather than properties of the plant. It may not be a folk-word and one would need to check that a lexicographer has not made it up.

The historic site today is in private hands in the farm of Duncrun, Bellarena, Limavady. You take the Magilligan road from Limavady. There is a side road to the right called Duncrun Road. A short way along here on the left is Limestone Road. On the left is a farmhouse, white rendered in 1997, from where permission should be sought. A track on the left, uphill side of the house leads into the fields. Go directly forward and continue to rise. A field boundary fence crosses the route but you can get through the wire. At the next field boundary, turn right. On the summit is the Cross of Lorraine. It is not a free-standing cross, but a carving on a slab of stone.

Looking inland from the vantage point and with the Kneafsey story in mind, two features stand out immediately. First, in the foreground, there is the site of an ancient burial ground. One could describe those interred as the cnamhaibh aimsir foda. The working of the land sometimes reveals old bones to this day. Obviously, St. Columba had no difficulty in finding the bones of Connla. Secondly, within half a kilometre, the land rises abruptly from 60 metres to 300 metres, or 1000 feet, to form a cliff face several miles long. Scree has built up all along the foot of the cliff. It is almost inevitable that the cnaimhseag grows there. With both burial ground and scree in the same vista, Duncrun is common ground to the two explanations of the origin of Cnáimhsighe. Manus would have known this as would anyone who heard his version of the Connla story. I think there would have been few of these, in view of the long period of obscurity to which Betha Colaim Chille was destined.

Immediately to the west and north of Duncrun is a raised beach, marked on the 1837 OS map. There is a legend locally that there is a ring in a stone on this beach where ships in olden days used to tie up. Children spend ages trying to find it. The geological timing is wrong, but it may be that O'Donnell would have had the same impression, and would have thought that there had been 'sand dunes by the sea' in St. Columba's day. The shore is now three of four kilometres away, as it may have been 1400 years ago.

The Picts, always in Ireland called the Cruithians, moved under pressure from the Gaels from their original homeland east of the Bann. They held the 'hilly country' district between what became the baronies of Keenaght and Coleraine, in which Duncrun is located. It was called variously Dun Dallaiug, Ard Eolairg, Carn Eolairg and Carrac Eolairg. It was ceded to the northern O'Neills after the battle of Moin daire lothair. Columba himself was of the northern O'Neills. Most of the Picts migrated to Scotland. Much of the success of the Columban church in Scotland is measured in the conversion of the Picts to Christianity. As Connla's skills had died with him so that he had to be resurrected, the thought occurs that he may himself have been a Pict.

What remains to us now from the event at Duncrun in 573 AD?

Betha Colaim Chille was written in manuscript by O'Donnell himself. Though it contains a great deal of material in existence before 1200, it was evidently not intended to be a work of art in itself, as were the productions of monastic foundations, Columban and otherwise. It used vernacular Irish comprehensible to ordinary people and was full of abbreviations. It occurs to me that it was intended to be printed. It would have been the first book to be printed in Gaelic, on the new printing presses that were making their appearance throughout Europe. Its subject matter however was running against the tide of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. Circulating it would probably have been a criminal offence at the time, with Henry VIII's Bill for the 'Advancement of True Religion and the Abolishment of the Contrary' not too far in the future. Iona itself was destroyed in 1561, two years before its millenium and two years before the death of O'Donnell. When the Gaelic language appeared in print a short e later, in both Ireland and Scotland, it was in the service of Protestant religion.

The 1837 OS memoir says that the religious customs as described by Mr. Beck are 'abrogated'. This means they are authoritatively denied or annulled. (In England, Reformation practice was not to allow tenants time off work - 'holy days' - to observe abrogated saints' days, of which there were many.) Connla's 'noble and well executed work' has not survived either. The shrine was in decline when Mr. Beck made his record in 1683. Even so, it had survived for over 1100 years and had therefore been a major destination for pilgrims from much of Ireland over that period of time.

The scale of its attraction is given by 500 horses or more being recorded there. This would not make it as important as Knock is today. Judging from the extent of the car park, together with the on-street provision, I would say Knock has the best part of 4000 car spaces. The difference is not so great as this comparison suggests however, because no doubt the average time commitment of a pilgrimage to Magilligan would have been greater in that era than one to Knock in this.

As for the 'clann cnaimhsighe', the children of Kneafsey, whether they be descended from Connla after his resurrection, or before his resurrection, or whether they had nothing to do with Connla apart from being framed in his legend by Manus O'Donnell, they live on. They enter history proper in 1095 with Scannlán Ó Cnáimhsighe. Having since then achieved neither fame nor great numbers, the name remains little known, even in Ireland.

Though we have the two explanations of the name, I am struck by how nearly we could have had neither. We are fortunate that a nineteenth century dictionary picked up a folk-word for bearberry. We are fortunate that Betha Colaim Chille was not lost or destroyed after the Flight of the Earls, one of whom was Manus' grandson.


Edward Kneafsey

September 1997


Mr. Kneafsey provides a service to genealogist and family researchers. He creates a surname distribution map, researchs a surname and writes a short history. The map and the history are printed on a parchment-like paper and is suitable for framing. We have a copy of Mr. Kneafsey's McConville Map and History hanging in our front hall.

We receive no compensation relating to any of Mr. Kneafsey’s works or to endorse those works. Unsolicited testamonials are alway best.

You can contact Mr. Kneafsey at the URL shown below.

Ed Kneafsey's Web Site

You can e-mail him at

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Ireland: Settlement Patterns of its Surnames
Catholic Churches in Cos. Armagh & Down with records before 1900
Protestant Churches in Cos. Armagh & Down with records before 1853
The First Census of the Fews - 1602