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genealogies of the families

A Short History of the Devlin Name

By Dan Devlin of Hudson, New Hampshire

Dan Devlin of Hudson New Hampshire

The name Devlin is of Irish and Scottish origin. It is the Anglicized form of the Gaelic O' Dobh(a)ilein (meaning the Descendant of Dobhailean, a personal name of uncertain origin, probably from a diminutive of dobhail (unlucky) (unfortunate) with a common translation from the Gaelic being "Descendant of the loud, or boisterous one". Variations are O'Doibhlin and O'Devlin.

In 1211 'The Annals of Loch Ce' record the death of O'Devlin, Bishop of Kells, in Meath. Since there was at that time a Sept of O'Devlin among the Desians in Sligo, which, if not extinct, is probably not now represented by any bearing the Anglicized form of the surname assumed by the O'Devlins of Tyrone. According to The Surnames of Ireland by Edward MacLysaght, "There was also a distinct Sept in Co. Sligo, but their name has strangely often become Dolan."1

The first unmistakable reference to the O'Devlins of Tyrone occurs in the mid-thirteenth century. After the Battle of Downpatrick (1260), MacNamee, Hereditary Poet to O'Neil, composed a poem called the Lament for O'Neil, in which he mourns the death of his king and of the many nobles of his race who were slain with him. Among the latter was The O'Devlin, Chief of Muintirevlin, of whom the poet sings:

"Alas deep grief overspread the country
To anticipate the death of O'Devlin
Gofraidh, our grief unto the Judgement Day
Generous of his banquet (?) was the youth"2

That Gofraidh was the Chief of the People of Devlin is shown by the position of his surname, which precedes the Christian name, since according to the Irish custom O'Devlin, like O'Neil, was in itself a title. From 1260 to 1495, the next year when we hear of the O'Devlins of Tyrone, is two hundred and thirty-five years. It was in that year that both The Annals of the Four Masters and The Annals of Ulster record the death of Tiernan O'Devlin. Nothing more is said of him, so that the only inference that we can draw is that he was at least of sufficient importance to make his death worthy of record.

In 1532, in both The Annals of the Four Masters and The Annals of Ulster it is recorded that Felim the Devlinite, or Devlinian (in Irish Doibhlinech), son of Art, son of Conn O'Neill, took part in a raid on the Maguires, a Clan Colla Sept that, since their rise to be the chief family of Fermanagh in the latter part of the thirteenth century, had been vassals of the O'Donnells. The Annals of Loch Ce', which were compiled at the end of the sixteenth century for Mac Dermott, Chief of Moylurg, in Connaught, record the death of Domnal Oge O'Devlin in 1584, forty-four years after the last entry in The Annals of Ulster. Oge means "junior", so that this may very well have been the son of Domnall O'Devlin who was hanged by the Maguires in 1540. Since the Maguires were adherents of the O'Donnells, and the O'Devlins were followers of the O'Neills, they were engaged in the centuries of intermittent warfare between their respective leaders. During this period the O'Devlins seem to have retained, if not increased, their standing, since even as late as 1608, when the clan system was abolished, we find them classed by the English as one of the principal septs of the Clan Owen.

Later a Patrick O'Develin is listed as one of the leading figures of the rebel movement in the Portadown area in 1641. The name Devlin does not appear in the "census" taken in 1659, since the returns for County Tyrone are missing from that report. It should also be noted that a smaller sept of this name was established in Sligo, holding lands in the barony of Corran there. One of the members, Gillananaev O'Devlin, was granted the coveted position of standard bearer to the chief of the O'Connors. He was slain in battle in 1316. Descendants of this family have since dispersed and this name is no longer found in any numbers in that county. Another notable bearer of this name was Anne Devlin (1778-1851). the faithful servant of Robert Emmet, who would not betray him to the authorities despite imprisonment and torture.

As mentioned previously, the Devlins were followers of the O'Neills. As a matter of fact the Devlins, The MacCawells and the Mac Murroughs were the true kerns of the O'Neils. A kern was a standard bearer of sorts, but even more so a trusted agent of the leading family who was responsible for seizing prisoners and keeping them in custody, among other duties.

It is not know whether the O'Devlins had a coat of arms during the clan days. At the time of his pardon by the English in 1601, The O'Devlin and others of his Sept are described as gentlemen, a term ordinarily confined to those having a coat of arms, at least in England. If they did have arms at that period it is unlikely that they were the same now used by their descendants, which apparently date from the nineteenth century. The coat of arms consists of a representation of the Cross of Ardboe on a blue field surrounded by three stars in a triangular pattern. Under the shield is the Devlin motto "Crux Mea Stella". The actual Cross of Ardboe is eighteen feet high and stands on a double-graduated pedestal. On the front center is a representation of the crucifixion, accompanied by the other panels containing elaborately carved Biblical scenes, One of the upper circular quarter-bands of the crossed arms is broken; otherwise the cross is in good condition. This cross probably inspired the Devlin motto - Crux mea stella. In fact the O'Devlins may very well have erected this cross, since such crosses were constructed about the time that they, or their immediate ancestors, first occupied Muintirevlin, and the O'Devlins would have been in those days the leading Sept in that vicinity, and probably the principal patrons of the abbey and afterwards of the church, at Ardboe.

The following is an edited excerpt from the book Muintirevlin Remembers, The History of the People Around the Old Cross, a publication of Muintirevlin Historical Society researched and edited by Pat Grimes:

'Muintirevlin is the old name for the lands on the western shores of Lough Neagh, south of the Ballinderry river. In Irish it was Muintir Doibhlin - the people of Devlin, or the land where the O'Devlins lived.

It seems fairly certain that at some time in the middle of the 11th century, the ancestors of the O Devlins first occupied the territory later known as Muintirevlin. There genealogical line has been traced back to the famous king, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who ruled from Aileach in the Inishowen peninsula. The ancestors of the O Devlins in earlier times occupied Drumleene, which is just north of Lifford.

With the expansion of the O'Neill clan from its original territory in Inishowen, new lands were occupied throughout Tyrone, and the lands around Lough Neagh were given to the forefathers of the O'Devlins. Incidentally, the use of surnames only came into being around this time (the 11th century) and it has been possible to pinpoint the first Devlin with a fair degree of accuracy. Father Eamon Devlin writes:

"The man from whom the surname O'Doibhlin came was the great great great grandson of Domhnall Dabhaill who died in 915. He was also the great great grandfather of Gilla Mac Liag O Donnghaile who was killed in battle in 1177. From it we can conclude that Domailen (the original Devlin) lived about the middle of the 11th century."

From earliest times until the break-up of the Gaelic clan system at the beginning of the 17th century, the O'Devlins were, with their kinsmen the O'Donnellys, the real fighting force of the O'Neills This was in fact a very important function - the O'Devlins and O'Donnellys after all came from a line of kings. At this time battles were fought only by people of this kind.

Can we define with any accuracy the boundaries of Muintirevlin, over the period of almost 600 years when The O'Devlin ruled it? It was bounded, of course, by Lough Neagh to the east, by the Ballinderry river to the north, running to the west as far as Coagh, south towards Stewartstown, and east again to the lough shore. It was in fact a much larger territory than the present electoral ward of Muintirevlin, which corresponds with the ancient monastic lands of Ardboe. These monastic lands were governed, not by the O'Devlin, but by the church.'

No Irish map of the O'Devlins' ancestral possessions, dating from the clan days, has come down to us, but an English map of territories confiscated to form the Ulster Plantation was issued in 1610 after preparation in the preceding years. On this map Muintirevlin is represented as containing more than 14,000 acres, or in excess of twenty-two square miles. The larger part, by about 2000 acres, lay in the northern portion, Revelin Yetra. The souther part was known as Revelin Outra the two being corruptions respectively of Irish words meaning The Lower and Upper People of Devlin (i.e. Muinter Dhoibhil'en I'ochtarach and Muinter Dhoibhil'en Uachtarach. This terminology has confused some people, as the Upper territory lies to the south and the Lower to the north, but there is a simple and logical explanation for these terms. Those who live adjacent to Lough Neagh regard it not as a fixed body of water, but as the central part of the Bann drainage system, with the water, even in Lough Neagh, perpetually flowing northwards to the sea. It follows that any land nearer the source of the water is "up", and the land further downstream is "down" or "low", hence Muintirevlin "Lower". Indeed the same terminology is used in the area to the present time, with the northern part of Ardboe parish (Moortown) being known as lower Ardboe. These designations may refer to a prior division, during the clan days, made for convenience of administration, although there was only one chief for the whole territory, as may be seen by reference to the pardon granted to The O'Devlin and his followers in 1601.'

On the other hand it is possible that these divisions in Muintirevlin may refer to an original occupation of this territory by two branches of Devlin descendants. Mr. James E. McGuire suggests that this division may date from a period when the O'Devlins and the O'Donnellys occupied Muintirevlin jointly, "People of Devlin" would have been equally descriptive of either Sept. Later, at a time for reasons unknown, one branch of Devlin's descendants may have acquired the territory of Ballydonnelly and have adopted Devlin's father, Donnelly, as their eponym. At any rate there seems to have been no territory known as Muinter Dhonnghaile, but only Baile U'i Dhonnghaile (Ballydonnelly), which means "town of the O'Donnellys", and is a geographical rather than genealogical designation.

Joseph Chubb Develin, writing in 1951, suggests that the seat of the O'Devlin was probably at An Chraobh (Crew), near the present-day Stewartstown. He wrote:

"The seat of the O'Devlin, chief of his sept, was probably at An Chraobh, (Irish for "the Mansion"), and the original name of the townland inwhichit was located seems to have been Gaigh. It was at An Chraobh that Andrew Stewart, Lord Ochiltree, built a castle when the Muintirevlin was assigned to him as "undertaker" by King James I at the time of the confiscations in 1610. In fact a contemporary document speaks of Irish houses, later occupied by British tenants, as located near the new castle. Such a settlement was likely to have accumulated in proximity to The Devlin's residence. The fortified mansions of the former chiefs, ar at least the defensive earthworks and stockades attached to them, were often taken over by the new settlers, as they were ordinarily well located for the purposes of defence. Arounf this castle of the new owner grew what is now the village of Stewartstown."

Most present day Devlins in Ireland still live near their ancestral home on the western shores of Loch Neagh. Mr. John Devlin said that, since about 1926 the land in the electoral division of Muintirevlin has been purchased from the landlord and is now owned by the former tenants. On this land, and in its vicinity, there are so many Devlins that in order to distinguish families and additional nickname is added to the surname as: Devlin-Bans (White) (Mr. John Devlin says that they are hereditarily blond among the Devlin-Bans to the present day); Devlin-Dhu (Black); Devlin-Gaes (Wee); Devlin-Gabba (pronounced Go and meaning "blacksmith" in Irish); Devlin-Mor (Big); etc. Mr. John Devlins family are known as the Devlins of the Old Cross.3

Writing of the modern electoral division of Muintirevlin, Dr. J.G. Devlin says: "The land of Devlins is certainly well known to me for I was born there and until over the age of twenty spent nearly all my time in it. The land is extremely flat, bogs abound, fields are small and the people are generally poor. Along the shore of the Lough the people earn their living by fishing (eels in the summer, trout and Pollan in the winter.) About a half a mile to a mile inland, most of the inhabitants are farmer, owning small thatched two-roomed or three-roomed dwellings which usually abut on the roadway, and a few acres of land, on the average about ten to twelve acres per farmer. The crops raised are potatoes, corn, to a less extent wheat, flax, turnips, etc. Barley I have never seen growing in Ardboe, though in County Antrim I have seen it often. The Devlins are most plentiful in those town lands bordering Lough Neagh on its western side ( Kinturk, Aneterbeg, Anetermore, Ardain, Moortown, Kinrush, Sessiagh, and Farsnagh, although they have of course permeated peripherally..."4

At an undetermined date after the clan days (post 1608), but not later than the eighteenth century, some of the family moved to the parish of Clonmany on the Inishowen peninsula in the county of Donegal, north of the city of Derry. Although there were no Devlins listed in the 1659 Census of Inishowen or the 1665 Hearth Money Role of Clonmany; the Irish Linen Board's Flax Growers Bounty List of 1796, which listed individuals who had received awards for planting a specified acreage of flax, included three Devlins from Clonmany who were eligible for a planting award, they were: John Devlin, Michael Devlin and Owen Devlin. By the middle of the 19th century 45 of the 79 Devlins in Donegal were concentrated in the parish of Clonmany.

The story passed down through the generations of Devlins in Clonmany, as told by a local farmer, is that the Devlins there were dispossessed of their land in Ardboe by the English or Scottish and had to leave. It is quite possible, even probable, based on the apparent timeframe and the history passed down through the generations, that the migration of Devlins from Ardboe to Clonmany occurred after the Battle of the Boyne (1690), during the Penal Laws.

The Penal laws accentuated the differences between the Irish establishment and its opponents. Having established an exclusively Protestant legislature in 1692, a comprehensive series of coercive acts against Catholics were implemented during the 1690s. Catholics where excluded from the armed forces, the judiciary and the legal profession as well as from parliament; they were forbidden to carry arms or to own a horse worth more than 5 pounds; Catholic bishops and clergy were banished in 1697; Catholics could not hold long leases on land or buy land from a Protestant; when Catholcs made their wills. property had to be divided equally among children, unless the eldest conformed to the Anglican Faith; they were forbidden to run schools or to send their children abroad to school. By 1703, only 14% of the land in Ireland remained in the hands of the Catholic Irish, in Ulster the figure was 5%.

The Plantation of Ulster, which had begun years earlier in 1610 but continued through the early 1700s, attempted to attract not only British gentry but colonists of all classes. The colonists were Protestant and represented a culture alien to Ulster. This policy of comprehensive colonization was a result of the advice of the Solicitor General to King James I, and was an attempt to replace on entire community with another. The Catholic Irish remained in conditions, which emphasized their suppression. They were relegated to a state below servility, because the Planters were not allowed to employ native Irish as servants in the new Plantation towns, which they built. The towns were fortresses against the armed resentment of the Irish. In rural Ireland, they were banished from the land they hadd owned and worked and were settled on inferior, boggy land usually in mountainous regions.5 This is exactly the type of land that exists in and around Clonmany.

Clonmany is about fifty miles to the northwest of Muintirevlin, consequently this migration did not entail much of a journey for the pioneers among the Devlins who started this settlement. They carried with them to their new environment the custom of adding cognomens to their surnames, in the same manner as now used in Muintirevlin.

This was territory that had been taken from the Clan Owen in the thirteenth century and occupied by the O'Dohertys of the Clan Conall, under whose rule it remained until the Confiscations of the seventeenth century. While they retained sovereignty in Inishowen it seems unlikely that the O'Dohertys would have welcomed members of the Clan Owen to their territory, considering the enmity that they must have felt towards them as a result of centuries of warfare, and this is substantiated by an Elizabethan Fiant, in which no O'Devlins appear among several hundreds of his followers in The O'Doherty's pardon, granted by the English after the Nine Years War. Further negative evidence of the comparatively recent arrival of Devlins in Clonmany is found in the absence of their name from any lists of Inishowen septs in the clan days, and from a census taken in Inishowen in the middle of the seventeenth century. Of course when it is considered that Owen, the founder of the clan, which bore his name, occupied Inishowen in the fifth century, that this peninsula continued to be the headquarters of the descendants for many centuries after the time, the Devlins living in the Clonmany parish may be regarded as having returned to their ancestors' earliest habitation in Ulster.

Twenty one methods of spelling Devlin in Irish have been discovered, and more than thirty variations in English.


1. MacLysaght, Edward, The Surnames of Ireland, sixth edition, (Irish Academic Press Limited, Blackrock, Co. Dublin: 1991), p. 81
2. Develin, Joseph Chubb, The History of an Irish Sept - The O'Devlins of Tyrone, (7017 McCallum St., Philadelphia: June 1951). Call number CS499.036D4 1951
3. Develin
4. Develin
5. www.Irelandseye.com, "Background to the Irish Conflict"