What do we know about life in the Sixtowns before the 19th century?

                      A view over the once Pagan religious site and later Christian pilgrimage site, Lough Patrick.


There is very little written information available about the period before the 1800`s, as regards local history or how people lived their lives. There are only fleeting references to places or happenings, so we are left to speculate how life might have been for the people who lived then.

As for the Sixtowns we know that up until the end of the 1700`s, the population of the place would have been sparce enough, with the majority living on the low lying areas of the Moyola bed. Life was of a pastoral nature with most people living in small clachans here and there throughout the valley floor. Large areas of the valley sides would have been heavily wooded and unavailable for farming. Then, gradually, as the woods were cut down for the making of charcoal, more land would have been made available for agriculture. The people of this era would have only grown what crops they needed to sustain their families and animals. There would have been no market economy in those times as farmers only produced what they needed their families. Dwellings would have been little more than small huts or primitive stone houses. In 1664, the Hearth monies survey was carried out all over the country as a means of assessing people for paying taxes, a sort of poll tax. Anyone who had a hearth in their house was deemed liable to pay a tax to the king. In the Sixtowns, the names are listed thus;

Moyard and Dunarnon (Donoughran on O.S.map)

Shane O`Doherty

Edmund  O`Doherty

Turlough O`Doherty

Donnacha O`Donnell

Donal O`Kennedy

Conor O`Brolchain



Cahir O`Doherty

Donal McLaughlin

Donnacha McColgan



Henry O`Doherty

Murtagh O`Murrin

Dougal McFadden


Moneyconey and Cavanreagh.

Edmund O`Doherty

Owen McDevitt

Owen McColgan

Donal O`Conaghan

Hugh O`Deeny


Owenbeg (northern part of Cavanreagh and Glengamna))

Rory McFadden

Cormac O`Brien

Phelomy O`Hagan

Cathal O`Harkin

The first thing which we will notice about these listings is that the population overall in the Sixtowns is rather small. Of course one could question the accuracy of these findings or we could surmise that a lot of people may have been living in sod houses of a temporary nature, with no hearth in them. This might tend to increase our estimations of what the actual figures for the population were. However, it is most unlikely that the latter scenario was true and that not many people would have been missed out on. Also, the population all over Ireland would have been small at that time so we can assume that it was also low in the Sixtowns.

There are only twenty one households listed so that tells us something of the amount of people living there, given that each name represents the head of each house.
The most startling thing about these listings of surnames is that they are virtually all names only associated with Innishowen. Names like, O`Doherty, O`Donnell, McLaughlin, McFadden, O`Conoughan, O`Deeny, McColgan and O`Harkin are not names which would have been associated with this area at any time. So, how did they come to be there?
Well, there is one school of thought which suggests that the answer would seem to lie in a story about a battle which took place over 800 years ago in the Sixtowns.

The Battle of McLaughlin`s Esker in 1202 AD.

The Annals of the Four Masters tell us about a chief of the McLaughlins who came raiding across Tir Eoghan and plundered the church of Scrine in the year 1203 A.D. The McLaughlins had been a very strong clan in Ulster prior to this time but were now being squeezed out by the O`Neills on one side, the O`Donnells on another and also by the English. In 1177 John De Courcey landed in east Ulster with his English army and McLaughlin, who had been expelled from his kingdom of north Tir Eoghan by that stage, joined him and they began to carry out raids on Donegal, Tyrone and North Derry. One of these raids was on the church of Scrine which at that time lay in the territory of the O`Neill. Having raided the Scrine, McLaughlin camped on a sandy esker to the south of the church. This later became known as Eiscir Mhic Lochlann, or McLaughlin`s ridge. It is not now known where this ridge is, but it is possible that it is either the Shillin hill or a small hill on Crock Ban road near Davagh. Anyway at some stage soon after setting up camp, a party of O`Neill`s men, who had learned of the raid, made a surprise attack on McLaughlin`s men and defeated them in the battle which followed. McLaughlin was killed in this battle and is believed to have been buried close bye.It was also shortly afterwards that the O`Neills wiped the McLaughlins out at the bloody battle of Cameirghe in 1241 driving them out of their power base in north Donegal. So, for the survivors of McLaughlin`s army, in the aftermath of their defeat and with their chieftain dead, there would not have been many places for a McLaughlin to go to in a country now controlled by O`Neill. It is most likely that they took refuge in the surrounding woods and hills, eventually settling down there. It is very compelling to believe that those who still survived in the area in 1664 and were listed on the survey, were in fact the descendants of the remnants of McLaughlin`s army. It may be the best way of explaining the presence of such a concentration of Inishowen surnames in such close proximity to each other in an area where those names are not generally found.


The saga of the bard and O`Neill.


This is a possible site of the sand esker in Tullybrick where the battle took place in 1202 AD.


There is also an interesting story told about McLaughlin`s poet, a McNamee, who decided that since his master was now dead that he would change sides and try to get O`Neill to take him into his employment as his poet.
John O`Donovan tells the story which he got from a John Eldon McNamee, an inn keeper in Draperstown in 1835, who claimed to be a descendant of this bard.

There is a ridge in the townland of Altaeskey in the west of the parish of Ballinascreen, called Eiscir Mhic Lochlainn i.e. McLaughlins esker, which tradition points out as the scene of a desperate battle between the rival chiefs of O`Neill and McLaughlin. In this battle McLaughlin was defeated and slain. At this time McNamee was bard to McLaughlin, but when he saw his body stretched lifeless on the hill, he went over to the victorious O`Neill and bargained with him for, five years at five pounds a year, to be employed as bard in his family; to receive from him clothes suitable to a man of his dignity, and meat and drink at O`Neill`s own table.

When this bargain was completed, McNamee called O`Neill over to where McLaughlin`s carcass lay. “Come over” said the bard “that I may get behind you(on horseback) off the carcass of this boor.(McLaughlin) Gabh anal go rachaidh me air do chulaibh de thoin a bhodaigh!! (This was to impress O`Neill as to genuine his change of loyalty was by treating his former master with such disrespect.)
The bard went home with O`Neill and praised him out of the world for three years but O`Neill never paid him a farthing during all this time. McNamee had by this time cooled in his rhapsodies and demanded his wages off O`Neill.O`Neill thought himself praised enough by this time and wanted to get rid of McNamee, so he told him that he would pay him fifteen pounds if he would go to his brother Henry Aimhreidh (cross tempered) and propose him three question. “I`ll do anything for my money “ said McNamee, “but when I have asked these questions, you will not believe me”. “Well, I`ll send my son with you to bear witness” said O`Neill. So, McNamee and O`Neill`s son set out for Henry Aimhreidh`s house. On their arrival at the house Henry was told that McNamee wanted to talk to him, and the bard was ushered into the Tyrant`s presence. But Harry should ask the first question.An bhard (b`ard) e t-athair, asked Harry.(Now this could be taken as was your father a bard? Or was your father tall?) But the bard pretended to understand it in the sense which he knew very well, Harry did not intend, and answered “ He was not tall or low but he was of the middle size.”Harry became enraged, and said “Are you punning on me?” McNamee said “No, but I am just after doing it”Harry said, “Send a man out to see if the moon is up so I can hang McNamee. “You must have a good long ladder,” said McNamee “ if you intend to hang me out of the moon.”. Upon this Harry fettered the bard and threw him into the turf corner.When his passion had cooled a little, he asked him why he had come to provoke him thus, but the bard made no reply. “ I`ll hang you before the moon is up if you don`t tell me”said Harry. McNamee then answered “I know you`ll hang me whether or not, but I`ll tell you the reason. I have been employed by your brother O`Neill these three years, and I have puzzled my brains to praise him out of the world, and still I have not been able to get one halfpenny from him. Yesterday he told me that he would pay me all he owes me if I would go and ask you three questions, and there is his son he sent with me to bear witness if I would have the courage to ask you three questions. “O`Neill is a great rascal,” said Harry. He knew very well that I would hang you, because I hang everyone who dares to say a word or look crooked at me but now I`ll be up to him.” With this he hung his brother`s son out of the next tree that he met and he let McNamee loose to go about his business.

If the story is true and O`Donovan felt that it most likely was, then we get an idea of the kind of uncivilised behaviour which was common among the chieftains of that era. It is also an interesting piece of history related to the Sixtowns from the 13th century which is a treasure to have.
At this point it would also be important to say that the other possible reason for so many Innishowen surnames to have been in the area in the 17th century was that it was traditional for the erenagh ( the person who was in charge of the church lands) of a church in those times to bring his tenants with him to his new appointment and that it seems that a particular sect of clergy who came to administer at the Church of Scrine came from Innishowen and took his tenants with him, hence those surnames in the Sixtowns.



The Plantation and new settlers come to the Sixtowns.


The next people to settle in the Sixtowns would have been the Scottish and English planters who would possibly have arrived around the second half of the 17th century. These people would have brought with them new ways and methods of farming and would most likely have brought about some changes to the way of life in the Sixtowns. However, there is little if any written or oral history about this era and we can only speculate as to what life was like for the people who lived in this period right up to the end of the 18th century. The Sixtowns was owned by the Church of Ireland and it would have leased out land to tenants. We are told in the McCourt journal that there was a copy of an old joint lease, belonging to the families of Knox and Leslie who owned part of Cavanreagh in 1745, in the possession of the Sinclair family. When Stevenson came into possession of the Sixtowns lands at the end of the 1700`s, all the old leases were more or less wound up.