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The author will be launching his book at Graiguenamanagh Town of Books Festival, Co. Kilkenny during the weekend of 19-21 August 2022.

Morrissey' s of County Kilkenny

Be prepared for the unexpected when you start probing your family history. My leap into the unknown occurred when I realised neither my children nor their cousins had any real grasp of their roots. To my delight, serendipity and curiosity revealed a rich tapestry of stories spanning millennia centred in Co. Kilkenny, once Ireland’s second city of the Pale.

I discovered my paternal clan had become tenant earth tillers and maids, subservient to Anglo-Irish landlords, courtesy of Oliver Cromwell’s dark reign of terror. They dwelt in the rich valley of the River Nore between Gowran and Thomastown during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Famine.

Coincidently, my mother’s clan The Hoynes, were residing just behind the 16th Century Tudor mansion Rothe House, off Parliament Street in the heart of Kilkenny, at the same time. Little did my parents realise when they tied the knot in Sydney in the 1950s, that theirs was an antipodean union of two Co. Kilkenny families. Their grandparents had emigrated to opposite sides of Australia, around a century before they met at a secret Catholic organisation, ‘The Movement’, formed to counter The Communist Party of Australia’s attempts to control the Australian Labor Party’s Industrial Groups after WWII.

But why did the Morrisseys leave Kilkenny? What forced their hand? And where did they come from originally? Did they descend from Gaelic Kings, marauding invaders or elsewhere? Answering these questions helped me better understand myself and my mob. Stories unearthed wove together. Religion intertwined clan with land. Later modern genetics revealed an unexpected twist in the tale.

Author and former Jesuit Michael McGirr, who has reviewed of over 1,000 books and judged numerous literary awards, described Australians of the Great Irish Famine – One Clan’s Story as “a feast of storytelling and painstaking historical reconstruction ... an engrossing narrative of historical power, told through the lens of the Irish experience”.

Mary Flood of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society praised its “forensically examined source materials” and it being “an impeccable account of a family along their trajectory … should be read by everyone interested in their nineteenth century family origins in Ireland … A rich literary legacy”.

This book of a Kilkenny clan’s epic saga is defined by three overlapping phases – before, during and after An Gorta Mór - The Great Irish Famine. Famine became their catalyst to emigrate to the Great Southern Land. Intrinsically colonial Ireland begat colonial Australia (and Canada and the USA). Once there, they married into many other emigrant Irish families from right across the Holy Isle.

Part One explores two hypotheses as to the origins of the Morrissey’s of Kilkenny. Did they descend from Gaelic Kings of Connacht in the sixth to eighth century or from invading knights and aristocrats in the twelfth century or from elsewhere? Leads are explored, not only in the ancient tales of the Shanahaus or in navigating changing surnames from Gaelic to English or from Welsh, French to Gaelic then English, but by considering stories in light of peer reviewed journal articles and advanced Y-DNA analysis. A search akin to a genetic holy grail emerges as males of the Morrissey diaspora cooperate in a scientific project by sharing their Y chromosome genes with a laboratory to determine the most probable lineage:>groups>morrissey.

The family de Marisco are introduced as the probable Cambro-Norman ancestors of the Morrisseys in Ireland and throughout the global diaspora. Latin texts first introduce these aristocrats in the Ancient Rolls of the English Crown shortly after William the Conqueror’s conquest of England.

The de Mariscos were thorns in the side of the English Crown. William de Marisco fought with France against England in the Battle of Sandwich in the 13th century. His offspring were Lords of Lundy Island, pirates on the Irish Sea. They stymied the ambitions of the Knights Templar for this strategically located rocky outpost off the Bristol Chanell. William junior was captured, dragged to the Tower of London to be hung dawn and quartered for high treason against King Henry III. Others were Oxford scholars and Bishops who counselled Popes.

Geoffrey de Marisco, was sent to Ireland in 1184 to prepare for the arrival of his uncle John Comyn, the first Anglo-Norman Archbishop of Dublin. Well-connected within the Royal Courts, Geoffrey became Justiciar of Ireland three times. He was arguably the most unscrupulous magnate and mercenary in the country, leaving a vast booty of castles, fisheries and abbeys mainly across the south / south west. Theirs was a legacy of fame and infamy right across England’s Celtic Fringe during the twelfth and thirteen centuries. It is said Geoffrey’s body was conveyed for sepulchre from France, where he was exiled, to the Church of the Catholic Military Commandery of Knights Hospitallers he founded at Hospital Co. Limerick, just west of Co. Kilkenny. Much of their property ultimately fell into the hands of the Crown and the mighty Butler dynasty whose vast estates included Kilkenny and Gowran Castles.

With these probable roots, key periods in Kilkenny’s history are illuminated within the ancient See of Ossory, founded by St. Kieran around the 5th century. Kilfane Castle was established by invading medieval knights - the Cantwells. They were the Lords of Kilfane, granted land In the Shadow of the Steeple - Tullaherin Round Tower, in the fertile valley of the River Nore around the 12th century.

Photo by Kevin Pimm.

The Confederates of Kilkenny are introduced in the 17th century as they tried to flatten the Pale, protecting the English from the Irish, only to be met by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan’s barbarous invasion. Kilkenny’s Bishop of Ossory, Dr. Moran, sketched the atrocities that followed during the Counter Reformation around the time he too emigrated to Sydney. ‘Swords stark drunk with Irish blood’ are chronicled, putting the Morrissey’s later exodus into its proper social, political and cultural context. One can’t fully understand their emigration without appreciating the potent mix of popery, Protestantism and potatoes in the isle of saints and scholars, at that time.

Part Two finds the Morrissey’s in the Barony of Gowran during the Rebellion of 1798. This family hadn’t been exiled to Connacht, like earlier descendants of the de Maricos, like McMorrish, Morrishy, Morriss and Morise, or sent to the West Indies as slaves. Their destiny was to be humble earth tillers, subservient to their protestant ‘planter’ landlords, Cromwellian Officers granted land in lieu of services.

Their landlords, the Bushes and later Powers, were Whigs and Patriots in the Irish House of Commons. They were leaders in the Arts around Kilkenny around the time London was reemphasising Ireland’s subordination to England. The Morrissey’s landlords, Sir John and Lady Harriett Power, were enhancing their confiscated estate, Kilfane, with waterfalls, a thatched cottage ornée and enchanted woods during the Age of Romanticism.

Waterfall from Cottage, Kilfane, 1805

Waterfall from Cottage, Kilfane ,1805. George Miller Watercolour, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Sir John founded the Thomastown Farming Society and the famous Kilkenny Hunt with its chase, jumping gates, stirrups, hounds and bogs. His brother Sir Richard founded and managed the Kilkenny Players, bringing a playful insight into how the aristocracy occupied themselves while the Morrissey’s tilled their earth. Their landlord’s vistas of grandeur and spectacles of noble hunting and the arts were rudely interrupted by their tenants’ successive failed potato crops.

Here the Morrissey’s endured The Great Famine, where during ‘Black ’47’ 1,700 paupers suffering typhus, fever and dysentery were admitted to the Kilkenny Union Workhouse with up to two, three and four patients in a bed. The wild scenes at the 1852 Kilkenny elections are depicted as farmers, enfranchised with a vote for the first time, resoundingly beat their ruling landlords at the ballot box for the first time.

Part Three describes a classic chain migration as seven children and their parents departed, never to return. The first were the eldest children, John aged 20 and Bridget Morrissey aged 18 on the barque Thetis during the Famine. On the high seas the flames of romance were kindled between John and the young Mary Kavanagh from Gowran who wed in Sydney in 1850.

Their lives were laced with adventure, hardship and tragedy. They buried eight of their ten children. The lives of their siblings and their offspring are graphically described as they spread out across the vast landscape with their Irish brogue and chutzpah to carve out new lives in the antipodes.

This book is a gripping chronology of real life stories set in Ireland and Australia, as seven siblings emigrate to Sydney, Moreton Bay and the gold diggings before joining the world’s last great gold rush, The Klondike Stampede in Alaska. Trauma, romance and high risk quests intertwine with world wars, secret societies and the law as six generations of a clan help shape Australia.

Author with his family at The Ouncel House, Dungarvan, Co. Kilkenny 2019

Book available at for AU$35.


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