The ancient territory of Lecale derives its name from two Irish words Leath-Cathail-the portion of Cathal-and has been so named from one of its early princes Cathal (pronounced nearly Kahal), who seems to have lived about the year 700. Dr. Reeves has given his pedigree from the Book of Lecan, "Cathal (from whom Leath-Cathail) son of Muireadhach, son of Aengus, son of Maelcobha," &c. The "Annals of the Four Masters" record, A.D. 646. "Maelcobha, son of Fiachna, son of Deman, King of Uladh was slain by Congal Cennfoda." Which shows that Cathal must have lived about the year 700. He belonged to the Dal Fiatach family, descendants of Heremon, son of Milesius, and was therefore of a different race from the Magenises and MacArtans, who were descendants of Ir, son of Milesius. The Irrians supplied, with a few exceptions, Kings to the throne of Ulster, up to the year 332, when they were driven by the descendants of Heremon into the territory forming the present dioceses of Dromore and Down and Connor. Fiatach Fin was one of those exceptions, he was of the race of Heremon, yet about the year of our Lord, 108, he mounted the throne of Ulster, and his descendants, called the Dal-Fiatch, ever afterwards became commingled with the race of Ir, generally called the Clanna Rury, from one of their princes Rury Mor.
The Dal Fiatach were involved in the ruin that befel the Irrians in 332 ; but even in the circumscribed kingdom within the Counties of Down and Antrim, to which they were limited, and to which they still proudly gave the name Uladh, which once denoted the entire province, the Dal-Fiatach possessed the greater portion of both territory and influence. The territory of the Clanna Rury, even in the time of St. Patrick, extended only from the Black Staff to Drumbo, and from Cumber to the Causeway River. The remainder of the country was in the possession of the Dal-Fiatach or other tribes. Yet the Clanna Rury - the MacArtans and the Magenisses - continued to hold undisputed sway over their own little territory to the close of Elizabeth's reign, long after the other tribes had succumbed to fresh invaders. Lecale in the time of St. Patrick was possessed by the Dal-Fiatach. It was at that time named Magh-Inis-the insular plain, and to this day, the country people call it Isle-Lecale, because with the exception of the parish of Inch and the townland of Dundrum, with eight other townlands of the parish of Kilmegan, Lecale is a peninsula almost surrounded by the sea. Dundrum was considered a portion of Lecale in the year 1147, as the "Four Masters" at that year record that the Cinel-Eoghain defeated and pursued the Ulidians "till they reached the shore of Dundroma in Leath-Caithail." The "Four Masters" employ the name Magh Inis for this territory up to the year 823, but Lecale from 850 forward. Colgan states that Lecale was called Triucha ched na soillse - the territory of light. It obtained this name from the legend concerning St. Patrick's death, as related in the "Tripartite Life." "And for the space of twelve nights, i.e., whilst the divines were waking him with hymns, and psalms, and canticles, there was no night in Magh-inis, but angelic light there; and some say there was light in Magh-inis for the space of a year after Patrick's death" (Mr. Hennesy's Translation of the Irish Tripartite Life).
The Book of Rights informs us that the King of Ulster was entitled to -
Three hundred hogs from the territories of Cathal,
The following are some of the principal events in the history of Lecale:-
A.M. 3520. The death of Irial Faidh, son of Heremon, in whose reign Magh-inis was cleared of wood, and Rath-Croich erected in it.
A.M. 3656. "The battle of Cul-ard in Magh-inis," which was one of the battles Tighernmas, King of Ireland, fought against the race of Heber and others of the Irish and foreigners.
A.M 3942. "This was the twentieth year of the reign of Finnachta over Ireland. He afterwards died of the plague in Magh-inis, in Uladh."
A.D. 432. "Patrick came to Ireland this year, and proceeded to baptize and bless the Irish; men, women, sons, and daughters."
A.D. 493. "When the time of St. Patrick's death approached, he received the Body of Christ from the hands of the holy Bishop Tassach (of Raholp), in the 122nd (year) of his age, and resigned his spirit to heaven." Lecale is several times mentioned in our annals; however the entries generally record the deaths of its princes, or invasions by the Kinnel Eoghain. Up to the English invasion, the territory was invariably ruled by princes belonging to the Dal-Fiatagh families.
A.D. 1177. "An army was led by John De Courcy and the knights into Dalaradia and to Dun-da-leathghlas (Down-patrick). They slew Donnell, the grandson of Cathasach, Lord of Dalaradia. Dun-da-leathghlas was plundered and destroyed by John and the knights who came in his army. A castle was erected for them there, out of which they defeated the Ulidians twice, and the Kinel-Owen and O'Niels once; slew Connor O'Carrellan, chief of Clandermot (Clon-dermot, County Derry), and Gilla-Macliag O'Donghaile (O'Donnelly), chief Feardroma (the district around Castle-Caulfield, County Tyrone); and Donnell O'Flaithbheartaigh (O'Laverty) was so wounded by arrows on the occasion that he died of his wounds in the Church of St. Paul, in Armagh, after having received the Body and the Blood of Christ, and after extreme unction and penance. Many other chieftains were also slain by them besides these." Along with, or shortly after, De Courcy, there came as colonists the Man-devilles, Audleys, Copelands, Russells, Whites, Savages, Swoordes or Crollys, Fitzsimons and others, who studded Lecale and the adjacent portions of the county with castles, in order to protect themselves against the natives. Nevertheless, the moment that internal dissensions among the Anglo-Normans weakened their power, the native race exhibited its readiness to reoccupy the rich lands of Lecale. The Kinel-Owen, under Bryan O'Neill, attempted, in 1260, to seize on Downpatrick, but in this they failed, though about the same time they succeeded in seizing on and colonising the most of the counties of Down and Antrim. These colonists were called the Clannaboy (Clann-Aodha-Bhuidhe) from their leader Aedh boy O'Neill. From them a large portion of the Catholics of the two counties are descended. About the same time, and probably in consequence of that invasion, some of the native Irish were able to effect settlements in Lecale, so that our annalists style some of them "Lords of Lecale ;" thus:
A.D. 1276. "Dermot MacGillamurry, Lord of Lecale, died" (Four Masters); but the same entry in the Annals of Lough Ce, is "Diarmuid, MacGillamuire (servant of Mary) O'Morna (O'Murney), King of Uladh, died."
A.D. 1391. " MacGill-Muire, i.e., Cu-Uladh O'Morna, chief of Hy-Nercha-Chein and Lecale, was slain by his own kinsmen." Hy-Nercha-Chein appears to be the district about Castle-Espie.*
Lord Leonard Grey, the Lord Deputy, marched into Lecale in the year 1539, when it is said he profaned the relics of St. Patrick, St. Bridget, and St. Columbkille. He gives the following account of his expedition:- "For as much as Mr. Treasurer was farmer of the King's country of Lecayll, and that Savage, chyeff capitain of his nation, would not pay his farm into the Treasurer; and besides, that the said Savage had brought into the said country divers Scottys, which had much of the said country in their subjection, it was concluded betwixt the said Mr. Treasurer and me that we should have gone towards the said Lecayll. And so with the host we set forward, and entered into the said country, and took the castells there, and delyvered them to Mr. Treasurer, who hath warded the same. I took another castell, being in M'Guons' country, called Dundrome, which, I assure your lordship, as it standeth, is one of the strongest holds that ever I saw in Ireland, and most commodious for defence of the whole countrey of Lecayll, both by sea and land; for the said Lecayll is invironed round about with the sea, and no way to go by land into the said country, but only by the said Castell of Dundrome. I assure your lordship I have been in many places and countries in my days, and yet did I never see for so much a pleasanter plott of ground than the said Lecayll for the commoditie of the land, and divers islands in the same, invironed with the sea, which were soon reclaimed and inhabited, the king's pleasure known."-State Papers, Vol. III.
Sir Thomas Cusake, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, writing to the Duke of Northumberland, 8th of May, 1552, says:- "The next country to the same eastward is Lecaill, where Mr. M'Brerton is farmer and captain, which is a handsome plain, and champion country of 10 miles long and 5 miles breadth, without any wood growing thereon. The sea doth ebb and flow round about that country, so as in full waters no man may enter therein upon dry land but in the one way, which is less than two miles in length. The same country, for English freeholders and good inheritance is as civill as few places in the English Pale."- Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts.
Marshal Bagenel's Description of Ulster, written in 1586, says:- "Lecahahull is the inheritance of the Earl of Kildare, given to his father and his mother by Quene Marie; it is almost an island and without wood. In hit is the Bushop's Sea called Downe, first built and enhabited by one Sir John Coursie, who brought thither with him sondrie English gentlemen and planted them in this countrey, where some of them yet remayne, thoughe somewhat degenerate and in poore estate; yet they holde stil their freeholdes. Their names are Savages, Russels, Fitzimons, Audleis, Jordans, and Bensons." The lands of Lecale were held previous to the "Reformation," either by the great religious corporations in Downpatrick or by the descendants of the early English colonists. The Church lands, having become vested in the Crown, were leased to the Earl of Kildare, and after the expiration of that lease, came into the possession of the Cromwell family. They still form the Downpatrick estate, except large portions of them that have been sold or leased off by the Cromwells or their descendants. The estates held by the descendants of the early English colonists were almost all confiscated under the Act of Settlement, after the termination of the civil wars of 1641. Of those that escaped on that occasion nearly all were confiscated after the war of the Revolution. The Earls of Kildare are, however, still represented by their descendant. Lord de Roos, of Strangford; and John Russell, Esq., Count of the Holy Roman Empire, as descendant of George Russell, the ninth baron of that name, still possesses two townlands, which his family, though Catholics, always retained. When the Catholics were driven off the territories granted to the Hamiltons and Montgomerys, to make room for Scotch settlers, they found a place of refuge in Lecale, where the descendants of the early English colonists were Catholics, and were then in possession of their estates; even the Cromwell family treated them with kindness. Hence, though the soil of Lecale is superior to that of the other parts of the county, and the defeated party is generally driven to the worst lands, there were on the 2nd of April, 1871, in Lecale, exclusive of the nine townlands of Kilmegan, for which no special return is made, 12194 Catholics, out of a population of 19611.
* The O'Gilmores and O'Murneys did not belong to the Dal Fiatach race which anciently occupied Lecale. According to a pedigree of Cionaeth O'Morna (Kenny O'Murney) of this race, chief of Lecale, given by MacFirbisigh in his genealogical work, the Earcha Chein are a Connaught tribe, descended from Duach Galach, King of Connaught, in the fifth century, but no account has been discovered of how or when they settled in the county of Down.