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Downey and O'Reilly Surnames

(O) Downey Ó Dúnadhaigh (the basic word is dún meaning fort). This is an ancient surname. The larger of two septs so called is of west Munster (Kerry) where it is often made Downing; the other is of the Síol Anmchadha located in Galway.

In County Galway they were kinsmen of the O Maddens who were important chieftains until the twelfth century. The name is still numerous in this area, but without its "O" prefix. The Síol Anmchadha were a branch of the Uí Maine. The Uí Maine were one of the ancient population groups that were located in mid-Galway and south Roscommon.

A much larger sept were chieftains in Luachair, which covered parts of counties Limerick, Cork and Kerry. Today this is still an area where the name is quite common, although it is often anglicized to Downing.

The abbreviated form 'Downey' without it's 'O' prefix is sometimes used for Muldowney and for MacEldowney as well as O'Downey, and it is often confused with Moloney because of a similarity in the Irish form. Doona is a branch of the O'Sullivans which has become Downey in modern times.

Richard Francis Downey (1881-1953) of Kilkenny was famous for two things. At the age of forty-seven he became the youngest Roman Catholic archbishop in the world when he was appointed to the Liverpool diocese. Although only five feet four inches tall, he weighed eighteen stone in 1932. However, by 1939 he had reduced his weight to nine stone, receiving letters of admiration and enquiry from all over the world.

John Downey emigrated from County Roscommon to San Francisco with $10 in his pocket during the time of the California gold rush. He opened a drug store, made a fortune and became Governor of California.

L.C. Downey of New York wrote A History of the Protestant Downeys of Counties Sligo, Leitrim, Fermanagah and Donegal in 1931.

James Downey was deputy editor of the Irish Times in the 1980's.

Liam Downey, an agricultural scientist, introduced foil packaging for butter, making Ireland one of the first in Europe to adopt this method.

(O) Reilly Ó Raghailligh The name O'Reilly comes from the Irish chieftain Ragheallach (rag means a race, and ceallach means gregarious) who lived at the time of Brian Boru and, like him, was killed at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. He was a great-grandson of Maomordha, a descendant of the O'Conors, Kings of Connacht - and anciently descended from Aodh Fion, King of Connacht in the 7th century. At one time they ruled the network of lakes around Lough Erne, where their chieftains were inaugurated and they had their fortress at Lough Oughter. As they multiplied, they spread out to County Longford, Meath, and Cork.

Their chief was named "Breffny O Reilly". The word Breffni in Gaelic means hilly country, a name which aptly suits the area known as Breffny O'Reilly, which in 1584 was declared a county, and named its main town of Cavan. Nearby in Cavan(town), the chief of this name was located on Tullymongan Hill. Shantemon Hill, only a few miles away, was the ancient inauguaration place of "The O'Reilly."

When they were driven from their lands in the seventeenth century, their aristocratic genealogies assured them of seniority in the armies of Europe, and their name took on a variety of spellings including Orely in Spain and Oreille in France. At one time there were no less than thirty-three O Reilly officers under the command of an O Reilly.

They commanded armies in Spain and South America, where they also governed. There are still streets bearing their name in several Spanish cities, and also in Havana. In fact, descendants of theirs can still be found in Cuba.

The O Reillys were clever financiers. In the fifteenth century they devised their own coinage, which probably gave rise to the saying, "living the life of Reilly". Conversely, there were those who "hadn't a Reilly to their name". This "O'Reillys money" which had been used by the family as currency, was outlawed in the English pale in the 15th century.

The O Reillys in the Middle Ages were good churchmen and built abbeys and held many bishoprics. They also boasted a relationship to Saint Oliver Plunkett. The patron saint of the family was "St. Maedoc."

In the nineteenth century some were poets and many were politicians, often punished for their patriotism by transportation to Australia, where, they contributed to local administration and to politics.

In Ireland, they became successfully involved in the native whiskey distilling business.

Today, it is one of the most numerous names in Ireland, especially so in Co. Cavan and Meath. It is actually the 12th most numerous surname in all of Ireland.

Co. Cavan is a particular stonghold of the name. Myles "The Slasher" O'Reilly was the heroic defender of the bridge at Finea in Co. Cavan in 1646 where he and a force of one hundred held out against a 1,000-strong Cromwellian army. O'Reilly is commemorated by a cross in the main street of Finea, a pretty village on the banks of the River Inny. One County Cavan town in the heart of O'Reilly county was immortalized in Percy French's ballad, "Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff".

The most famous holder of the name today is Dr. A.J.F. (Tony) O'Reilly, the wealthest man in Ireland. He is the head of the Heinz Corporation in the USA and he is also involved in many other consortiums, including newspapers. He is a former rugby hero, who played for Ireland.

The prefix 'O' has been widely resumed in the anglicized form.

Surname information was researched using several sources, including:

The Surnames of Ireland, by Edward MacLysaght.

The Little Book of Irish Family Names, by Ida Grehan.


The Dictionary of Irish Family Names, by Ida Grehan.

The Great Families of Ireland, by The Irish Genealogical Foundation.

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