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The Rise of the O'Cahan's and the Reform Movement


The Church reform movement in Ulster centres around Armagh and the figures of Ceallach, Comharb and Bishop from 1106 to 1129, and Malachi, Bishop of Down from 1124, and Bishop of Armagh from 1129.
He brought new monastic Orders to the North, notably Erenagh for the Order of Savigny The authors Gwynn and Hadcock say that the first Augustinian Abbey was founded in the 1130’s Augustian Order for Malachi’s Bangor Abbey.

The monks acted with the new idea of bishoprics to bring the Irish church into line with the ideas of the rest of Europe. The Church before asserted ‘ownership’ over people, now ‘ownership’ was delegated by these new dioceses. This meant that the territories of bishops had now fixed lines round dioceses, this probably just defining already existing loose territories; Along with the estate lands of abbeys; Both having fixed centres at cathedrals or churches.


To examine the coming together of ecclesiastical and political strands in the 12th century I will study The Cianachta as it was geographically close enough to Armagh to feel the effects of the reform movement and an area which was politically active in the 12th century.

The ‘Cianachta’ is basically a blanket term for a group of people who inhabited the area in Co. Derry around the Roe Valley . But what differentiates this area from other Northern Kingdoms? The simple answer is the O’Cahan family (modern day O'Cahans are the O'Kanes); who were to take over the area of Cianachta and surrounding territories in the 12th century, making them one of the most powerful families in the Northern half of Ireland; a power which they sustain until the 17th century.

FEW of the remaining Northern Kingdoms had the longevity of the O’ Cahan clan and it is for that reason that the heartland of Cianachta is worthy of study.

We can see in this land the

1) struggles of an emerging lordship;
2) its relationship with the existing overload, (namely Mac Lochlainn)
3) and the role of the church in shaping their Lordship.

These factors begin to be of importance in the 12th century and we have the added advantage of Dungiven being one of the few Churches still standing which date to the 12th century along with Bovevagh and Banagher.

The O’Cahans , who were direct descendants from King Niall of the Nine Hostages, rise to power came to a head in 1138 at the expense of the traditional lords of Ciannachta: the O’Connors who occupied the area with authority since 400 AD.

Although the lacuna in the “Annals of Ulster” between 1132 and 1155 deprives us of our most important contemporary source for the period during O’Cahan’s emergence as a powerful Lord , we do know however, that it is in the O’Cahan’s military support for the Mac Lochlainns that their rise to power is based. They were essentially the Mac Laughainn’s muscle in times of war.

The relationship between these 2 clans is very interesting as we can see that even after the Mac Lochlainn Kings had lost their grip on their King-ship in 1166, the O’Cahan family could still be found fighting with Mac Lochlainn in the 1180’s. It was only in the 1190’s that the O’Cahan’s began to turn against the Mac Lochlainns.


The earlier lords had been associated with the churches of Banagher and Bovevagh. Now Dungiven Church takes the place on behalf of the O’Cahans It perhaps is a symbol of their victory in the middle of the 12th century, which is not a castle, which we would initially believe to be associated with victory , but a church.


In assessing the attitude of particular Irish Kings to the reform movement we must realise that whether Cistercian or Augustinian Orders are the benefactor, the patrons interest in the Church should always be seen in the light of his political ambitions.

It is safe to say that although the Reform Movement and the Secular Lords can be seen to have close connections in the 12th century, these Lords may have embraced the Reformers for reason which were far from Spiritual Morality yet not totally political either!!!


But why did the O’Cahan’s bring in an Augustinian Canon and what significance has it that they are placed at one of the main power points of their family? I believe that this is a definite message by the O’Cahans : they are in one sense rebelling against the old regime and in another sense aligning themselves with religious and political reform.

By choosing the Augustinian Order a lot of people were displaced and offended, so why do it? Well, the ‘Augustinians’ were

* 1) clearly a continental phenomenon - choosing them over traditional Irish church trends was boldly stating that the O’Cahans were original and current in their thinking towards the politics of religion.
* 2) Their choice of the Augustinians could also be an expression of difference from the MacLochlainns who tended to be lukewarm in the cause of Reform.

They were eager to associate themselves with European elements of society, (which we can see later from the tomb), but it also was a celebration of power. They were clearly successful at sustaining this association and patronage as the Abbey and the O’Cahan’s went on for at least another 400 years until the Plantation of Ulster.

In a way choosing the Augustinian Order was the most economical, they were :-
1) easy to keep
2) good guests
3) and were self-sufficient.
4) They didn’t need new land, as they used existing churches,
5) and were an asset to society with their genuine piety.
Perhaps this was a reflection of how the O’Cahan’s saw themselves? Does this all show great trust and confidence in the new Order by the clan?. If so surely not as many people were offended by them as originally thought, this possibly was seen as a good thing by the people which was backed with the support of their very own Lords.

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