"Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff - come home Paddy Reilly to me", lines from the song by Percy French, pinpoint the
original territory of the great sept of O Raghailligh in County Cavan or the ancient area known as Breffny or in Irish Breifne.
The name literally meaning "descendant of Raghallach", was until recently much more commonly found in English without the
prefix O. Reilly and O'Reilly constitute one of the most numerous names in Ireland, being among the first dozen in the list.
The bulk of these come from Cavan and adjoining counties, the area to which they belong by origin, for they were for centuries the
most powerful sept in Breffny, their head being chief of Breffny-O'Reilly and for a long time in the middle ages his influence
extended well into Meath and Westmeath. At the present time we find them very numerous still in Breffny, heading as they do the
county list both in Cavan and Longford. In 1878 O'Reilly landlords possessed over 30,000 acres. The name has also become Riley,
especially in England. Other variant forms include O'Rahilly, O'Rielly, Rahilly, Raleigh, Reyley, Rielly, Radley, Ridley, Ryley,
and Reillé, though a number of these forms have quite different origins. The individual who gave the sept its name was one
Raghallach ("ragh:" Irish, a race; "ceallach," gregarious) was slain at the Battle of Clontarf, 1014, alongside the High King of
Ireland, Brian Boru. Raghallach himself was of the same stock as the O'Rourkes and therefore of the line of the
great O'Connor kings of Connacht.
The O'Reilly chiefs were inaugurated on the Hill of Seantoman or Shantoman 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 and known as Fionn McCool's fingers.
In later times they were inaugurated on the Hill of Tullymongan, above the town of Cavan; and took the tribe name of Muintir Maolmordha
or the People of Maolmordha, one of their celebrated chiefs. This name Maolmordha or Mulmora was Latinized "Milesius" and
anglicised "Miles" or "Myles," - a favourite personal name among the members of the sept. The patron saint of this family was St. Maedoc.
The O'Reillys were for centuries the ruling family of the kingdom of East Breffny, and at their height controlled most of Co. Cavan and large parts of Co. Meath. The family was widely involved in trade in medieval Ireland and at one time 'reilly' was a term for Irish money, subsequently banned by the English. It has also been suggested that they lived well, as the phrase 'the life of Reilly' indicates. They were also notable as ecclesiastics, the family, since the sixteenth century, providing five Primates of All-Ireland, five bishops of Kilmore, two of Clogher and one of Derry.
Reilly is among the first fifteen names in both Ulster and all of Ireland. It is the single most numerous name in its homeland of Co. Cavan and also in Co. Longford, seventh in Co. Fermanagh and thirteenth in Co. Monaghan, and is found in every county in Ireland.
In 1237 Cathal O Reilly, Prince of Breifne, founded the monastery of Lough Oughter. The Franciscan abbey there was founded in 1300 by Giolla Iosa Ruadh O Reilly and it contains the tombs of several O Reillys. From AD 243 to 1523, there were 39 O Reilly abbots at Kells, County Meath. Saint Oliver Plunket, canonized in 1975, is among their family connections. Since the sixteenth century, five O Reilly bishops have held the primacy of Armagh, as well as five other bishoprics.
The chief fortress of the Breifne O Reillys was on Tullymongan Hill, just outside the town of Cavan. The ruins of the O Reilly castle of Cloughoughter can be seen on a small island on Lough Erne. It was here that Owen Roe O Neill, an O Reilly kinsman, died in 1649. A few years later the Cromwellians destroyed the castle.
The chief of this numerous sept was styled Breifne O Reilly. When the Breifne O Reilly's were driven from their lands, as aristocrats they could offer credentials as exalted as any demanded by the courts of Europe for senior service in their armies. Few other families can boast such variety in the spelling of their name. There are at least seventeen different dialectical variations, including Oreigle, Oragill, Oreille, Orely. The countries in which they settled transformed their name to accord with local pronunciations, for example, Orely in Spain, Oreille in France.
Among the folk heroes of Cavan is Myles O'Reilly, better known as Myles the Slasher. In 1641, the whole of Cavan had fallen to the insurgents under Philip McHugh O'Reilly and Mulmore or Myles O'Reilly who styled himself sheriff of the county. Only two garrisons at Keelagh and Croghan continued to hold out. Sir Francis Hamilton had 200 foot and six horse, three barrels of powder and provisions for six months at Keelagh. Both castles became places of refuge for fugitive English and Scots settlers fleeing from Leitrim and west Cavan. The defense of the castles was hampered by the presence of 700 refugees at Keelagh and 120 at Croghan. Myles sent his father Edmund, to take the two castles. He was joined by a force of the O'Rourkes from Carrigallen and Ballinamore so that together they made up 2,000 men. Hamilton heard of their advance and to prevent them occupying Killeshandra town he had it burned to the ground. He knew that the insurgents could not face the cold of winter in the open.
In a skirmish near Keelagh castle, Edmund O'Reilly was repulsed and Loughlin O'Rourke and Brian O'Rourke were taken prisoners. They were promptly exchanged for Bishop Bedell, Protestant Bishop of Kilmore, his son and his son-in-law, Mr. Clogy, who were prisoners at Loch Uachtair Castle. To prevent the insurgents taking refuge in the woods around, Hamilton burned the country for a radius of three miles around the castle. In another skirmish Fr O'Rourke, a friar, was killed in his habit while leading the rebels and two important men, Owen O'Rourke and Philip O'Reilly, were captured and held as hostages.
When Myles O'Reilly heard of his father's failure to take the castles he withdrew from the siege of Drogheda and marched to Cavan. He was joined by a force from Leitrim and by 300 men under Robert Nugent of Westmeath. Once again the rebels were driven off after a skirmish at Windmill Hill near the town. Myles O'Reilly was so annoyed at his failure to take the castles that he went to Belturbet and had 60 English settlers who had been allowed to stay on in the town thrown from Belturbet bridge into the Erne. In revenge for this Sir Francis Hamilton went to Derewily on the Leitrim border with 100 foot and 30 horse. He surprised 60 natives in a wood there at dawn, killed 27 of them and hanged fourteen others.
The insurgents, who found it impossible to capture strong castles for want of artillery, decided to surround the castles and reduce them by starvation. By March 1642 supplies in both castles were running down. They had lost all contact with the outside world and were hopelessly abandoned. On 8 April, Sir James Craige died. His castle was wasted by disease - one hundred and sixty died of hunger and disease and the remainder were too weak to defend the castle. Hamilton was forced to take on the defence of both castles. A number of men were sent in turn each day to defend Croghan. They could not stay in the castle lest they take the disease. On 4 May the Irish were told of the plight of both garrisons by a fugitive called Barlow who fled from Keelagh to the enemy. They decided to make another attempt to take the castles. Two thousand men under Colonel Philip Mac Hugh O'Reilly drew up before both castles. They cut off the water supply from Croghan by throwing a dead dog and the body of a man into the well which supplied it. The inhabitants were dying of thirst. In Castle-Hamilton or Keelagh the position was little better. They killed their milch cows first, then their horses and dogs and finally were forced to eat hides of animals killed months before. The soldiers began to mutiny and six or seven of them fled to the enemy. Sir Francis himself was sick. He was forced to surrender and an agreement was drawn up between the O'Reillys and the O'Rourkes on one side and Sir Francis Hamilton, Sir Arthur Forbes, Master Bedell and Master Price on the other. The Irish agreed to let the garrisons go free to Drogheda and guaranteed them protection on the way. Sir Francis Hamilton marched out from Keelagh Castle on 15 June 1642. They marched away for Drogheda, with matches burning, banliers full, drums beating and colours flying, and under escort by the O'Reillys.
Myles the Slasher died - defending the bridge at Finea, in 1644. His son Colonel John Reilly lived at Baltrasna, in Co Meath and is said to be the first member of the sept to drop the "O" prefix from the name. He was elected a knight of the shire of Cavan at parliament in May 1689. He raised a regiment of Dragoons for King James. He served in the Jacobite army in the Williamite war, fought at the siege of Derry, the Boyne and Aughrim. He was one of three individuals who was specifically mentioned in the military articles, of the treaty of Limerick, and as a result he was allowed to keep his land. He died in Feb, 1717 and is buried at Kill. John left a son, Thomas, who was father of Alexander who we will mention again in a moment.
Is any other Irish name found more frequently in the army lists of Europe? In the 1700s, Colonel Edmond O Reilly had no less than 33 O Reilly officers under his command, while Colonel Mahon had sixteen in his. In the complicated religious and territorial wars of two centuries ago, there is no doubt that O Reillys fought on every side: French, Austrian, Prussian, Spanish, Italian and Russian. They were professional soldiers who preferred to put their swords at the disposal of the monarchs of Europe than to fight for the colonisers who had overrun their country.
The exploits of the O Reillys abroad span many continents. Count Alexander O Reilly (1722-94) was born in Baltrasna, County Meath, and fought for Spain with the Irish Brigade. He was a Field Marshal and Governor of Madrid, Captain General of Andalusia and Governor of Cadiz. "Was it for this that General Count O Reilly, who took Algiers, declared I used him vilely?" is asked in Byron's poem Don Juan. "General Count O Reilly did not take Algiers", writes Lord Byron, "Algiers very nearly took him". His failure to capture Algiers in 1775 had been a great humiliation.
In 1769, Count Alexander O Reilly sailed for New Orleans with a strong military force. His affability allayed all suspicion and, after investigating the popular leaders, he invited them to a reception where he had them arrested. Five were put to death and others were imprisoned in Havana, which put an end to the revolution. Count O Reilly's rule was regarded as liberal and enlightened. He had such a high regard for his Irish heritage that, not long before he died, he sent home 1000 guineas to have an Irish genealogist set out his pedigree for him. Descendants of the O Reillys of Baltrasna have been in Cuba for two centuries where, as Counts of Castillo and Marquis of San Felipe y Santiago, their lineage is to be found in the archives of Havana. One of Havana's main streets is the Calle Orely. There are also streets in Madrid, Barcelona and Cadiz bearing their name. It was an O Reilly of the St Patrick's Brigade in Mexico who induced Texas, in the 1840s, to join the USA.
Colonel Myles O Reilly fought courageously as a cavalry officer during the terrible war from 1641 to 1653, when the old Gaelic Ireland was crumbling and its soldiers were being driven abroad. He too was forced to flee, but he received high honours and distinctions from the King of Spain as well as from the French monarch. Leaving France for Flanders to serve as Maestro di Campo, he fell suddenly ill and died. A descendant of his, Captain Cyril Beresford Mandy of England, whose mother was an O Reilly, donated a wealth of family papers and portraits to Trinity College, Dublin.
Hugh Reilly of Cavan supported the luckless Stuarts. He was Master of Chancery and Clerk of the King's Council for Ireland under James II, and followed him into exile. In 1693, he published 'Ireland's Case Briefly Stated', which had a wide circulation during the penal times. It was the only published history of Ireland written by an Irishman at that time.
Count Andrew O Reilly of County Westmeath was a Field Marshal in Empress Maria Theresa's Austrian army. He fought a duel and killed his opponent to win his wife, a Bohemian heiress. He gained battle honours at Marengo and Austerlitz. In 1809, when he was Governor of Vienna, he had the humiliation of having to surrender the city to Napoleon. He completed his Austrian service as Chamberlain to the Emperor.
Sir John O Reilly, 3rd Baronet, born in 1800, entered the Austrian service, where he became Major of the Hungarian Hussars and Chamberlain to the Emperor. In 1845 he returned with his wife, Maria Roche, to his Ballinlough home where their first son, Hugh, was born (the first O Reilly to be born there in more than 100 years).
The O Reillys suffered greatly for their Catholic faith during the penal times, and those who managed to retain their houses and land became targets of anti-landlordism in the nineteenth century and the anti-Ascendancy nationalists of the twentieth century who ignorantly believed that all the fine houses were British-owned. Ballinlough Castle in Clonmellon is over seven hundred years old and has evolved from fortress to castle to mansion. In 1812, as part of a marriage settlement, Hugh Andrew O Reilly (b. 1795) changed his name to Nugent. A measure of Catholic emancipation had recently been conceded and Ballinlough was able to continue as one of the rare Irish houses still owned by the Irish Catholic aristocracy. In the 1930s, Sir John's great-grandson, Sir Hugh Nugent (1 904-83), with Lady Nugent, rescued it from demolition by the Irish Land Commission. They restored it to its original grandeur and preserved a wealth of O Reilly memorabilia, including a contemporary portrait of Count Andrew O Reilly. Conscious of the ancient O Reilly lineage, the present Nugent owners like to make a pun about their being "New Gents".
John Roberts O Reilly (1808-73) was one of the Meath O Reillys. He lost his eyesight in a naval battle, but, despite his blindness, he entered the coastguard service and saved many people from shipwreck. He invented the distress flare, for which he was made a naval knight of Windsor.
John Boyle O Reilly (1844-90), poet, novelist and Fenian, was born at Dowth, near Drogheda in County Louth. At the age of eleven he was an apprentice printer with a local newspaper. Later he joined the Fenians and enlisted in the British army in Dublin intending to persuade serving Irishmen to join the Fenians. He was discovered and imprisoned, and spent a year in solitary confinement. In 1867, he was transported to Australia and, two years later, he escaped from a road gang and sailed to the United States, where he settled in Boston and married an Irishwoman. He became joint proprietor of the Pilot, a newspaper which attracted contributors as distinct and varied as Lady Wilde and W. B. Yeats. An accidental overdose of sleeping tablets led to his premature death.
Christopher O Reilly (1835-1910), born in Ballybeg, County Meath, emigrated to Victoria in 1854, and went from there to Tasmania. A mining engineer and farmer, he called his estate at Scotsdale, Brefney, to remind his family of his ancient Irish lineage. He became a politician and was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament's House of Assembly in 1906.
The O Reillys were, and still are, prominent financiers. In the fifteenth century they created their own coinage, by "clipping" English coins - a form of counterfeiting which was later outlawed. The memory of this rebellious enterprise remains in the language. People living remarkably well are described as "living the life of Reilly", or, in the opposite context, there is the man "who hasn't a Reilly to his name". The warrior O Reillys of Ireland have long since diverted their energies into commerce, and, though they no longer manufacture their own coinage, they could be said to generate it!
Frank O Reilly (b. 1922) is a director of the Irish Distillers Group. Graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in engineering, he joined the family firm of John Power & Sons. He was instrumental in merging Ireland's three main whiskey-distilling companies in 1966. He is also chairman of the Ulster Bank and a director of the National Westminster Bank.
A.J.F. (Tony) O Reilly was born in Dublin in 1936. Tony O Reilly, of the unbeatable Lions rugby tour of the 1960s, qualified as a solicitor and, following experience in a variety of industries, became president and chief executive officer of Heinz in 1979. He divides his time between Pittsburgh and his Irish home at Castlemartin, a historic County Kildare mansion. He has also initiated a philanthropic Irish American Association.
There are also prominent O Reillys in England. Sir Patrick D'Arcy O Reilly was a diplomat who was British Ambassador to Russia from 1957 to 1960. Afterwards he was appointed chairman of the Banque Nationale de Paris.
Paul O Reilly (b. 1912), son of Professor Sir Charles O Reilly, former head of Liverpool's School of Architecture, was in the vanguard of post-war British design. In recognition of his work, he was created a life peer in 1978.
On the whole, the O Reillys mostly emigrated to Europe, but several have also made their mark in the USA. Henry O Reilly (1806-86), who emigrated from Carrickmacross in County Monaghan to New York, was a pioneer in the development of telegraphic communication. He edited a variety of newspapers while still very young. He campaigned for the improvement of the Erie Canal, but was frustrated by the outbreak of the Civil War. With financial backing he later erected 8,000 miles of telegraph line, part of a scheme to link Pennsylvania with St Louis on the Great Lakes, but litigation and technical problems sank this promising enterprise.
Alexander O Reilly (1845-1912), descendant and namesake of the Austrian Field Marshal from Baltrasna in County Meath whose descendants are now Spanish, was born in Philadelphia. From 1902 to 1909 he was surgeon general to the US army. He was personal physician to President Cleveland. After the Spanish American war he helped reorganize the army medical system.
O'Reilly is occasionally found as a synonym of O'Rahilly, but this is merely an example of careless registration since O'Rahilly, which is O Raithile in Irish, has no connection with Breffny. It is true that the sept originated in Ulster but they have so long been associated with Co. Kerry and they must be regarded as Munstermen. Especially as Egan O'Rahilly (1670-1726) who was an outstanding poet who was born in County Kerry. He specialized in the genealogy of the leading families of Munster, glorifying them in his poems. During his lifetime the old Gaelic order was swept away, following William of Orange's suppression of the Irish at the battles of the Boyne, Athlone, Aughrim and Limerick. There was no longer any place for Irish literature, and O Rathaille endured fearful poverty, but continued to write poetry until his dying day.