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Kisimul Castle
Barra Scotland
                                         Photo courtesy of Charles R. Kaiser
                                             Carles R. Kaiser's Home Page

The McGrail Sept of Ireland is a branch of the MacNeill Clan of Bara,Gigha and Conlonsay in the Western Isles of Scotland. The surnames “McGrail” or “McGreal”, were interchangeable in Ireland up until the early 20th century;  both being anglicized transliterations of the Irish -Gaelic name "Mag Reill", which  in turn was the Irish rendition of the Scottish "MacNeill" or "McNeill" ("the Son of Neill"). The "Mc" is merely a contraction of "Mac" (son of) and was also interchangeable and often dropped completely in different locales and in various periods of history.  As well, the letters N and R were easily substituted for each other in Gaelic. "THE MAYO BOOK OF SURVEY AND DISTRIBUTION", as well as other 16th and 17th century sources, arbitrarily used either spelling.

     The Scottish Clan MacNeill, traces it's line back to the  pagan Ancient High King Of Ireland, NIALL OF THE NINE HOSTAGES, who founded the "Ui'Neill"  line of Kings, the first of a 600 year clan dynasty.  He ascended the throne in 379  AD and died in 405 AD.  It was during his reign that St. Patrick came to Erie.(389 AD)  His 21st descendant in line, also named Niall, left Ireland to establish a colony in Scotland in 1049, and founded the Clan Niall on the Island of Barra.  Kisimul Castle was built on Barra in the mid 1000's and remains to this day the ancestral seat of the Clan.

     The Clan flourished and thrived as they practiced their own unique dynamic economy ...Piracy.  Ships entering McNeill waters were inviting prey for these accomplished warriors and seafarers.
Some notable Chieftains of Bara include Neil MacNeill (5th chief) who led the Clan in helping defeat the Norse at the Battle of Largs in 1293.  His son, fought with Robert the Bruce.  In the 1600's the15th chief, Rauri MacNeill ("Rauri the Turbulent") , was a skilled seaman and notorious pirate, who used Castle Kisimul as his base of operation and stronghold.   He was imprisoned in Edinburgh in 1610 after being deposed by his nephew and replaced by his son.  The MacNeill Clan fought on the side of the Jacobites in 1715, and  were led by Roderich Dhu (18th chief).   Later, in the aftermath of the second rebellion, the English would invade Bara in their hunt for Charles Edward Stewart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie"), and the reigning MacNeill arrested and held for a year in London.
      The clan would eventually split into two affiliated entities, the "MacNeill" of Bara, and the "McNeill" of Gigha/Colonsay, under Torquil MacNeil in1427.   While both assumed their own Crests and Tartans, for centuries the McNeill of Gigha/Colonsay bore allegiance to the Chieftains of Barra
     .After 1493 the two branches of MacNeils took opposite sides in the long running feud between the MacDonalds of Islay and the MacLeans of Duart, Barra MacNeils sided with the MacLeans while the Gigha MacNeils fought on the side of the Clan Donald.
In 1493, following the forfeiture of the Lords of the Isles, a feud erupted between the Clan MacLean of Duart and the Clan MacDonald of Islay and Kintyre.  The MacNeill's of Bara sided with the MacLean's  [for whom they had been hereditary pipers and harpists] while the McNeills of Gigha/Colonsay allied themselves with the MacDonalds.  At that point in history, either branch of the Clan would have slaughtered the other without a moments hesition.
           Bara    Gigha/Colonsay

      In the 1400's, the McNeill's sent heavily  armed warriors to fight as mercenaries at the behest of various regional chieftains in their ongoing internecine wars. These families were known as "galloglass". (he term "galloglass" means a "mercenery from abroad", literally "Gall Oglach", i.e. "Foreign Soldier". Oglach is  derived from "Og laoch" meaning a "YoungWarrior"). The McGrails are a galloglass family.
     In one of the earliest references to their appearance "THE ANNALS OF THE FOUR MASTERS", records the death of a Scottish galloglass captain "MacNeill", who was killed fighting for the O'Rourke's.
     The O'Rourkes's owned vast landholdings and were the dominant clan in what was later to be County  Leitrim. In the Gaelic divisions which preceded the seventeenth century, most of Leitrim, along with Cavan, was part of the kingdom of Bréifne. Leitrim became known as Bréifne O’Rourke, while Cavan was Bréifne O’Reilly. The O’Rourkes ruled the territory for more than 700 years until the final dispossessions of the seventeenth century. A number of the  sept (branch of a clan) remained in  the North West of Ireland and became established in Hi Fiachrach, which at one time encompassed what is now Mayo and Sligo in Connaught  The McGrails were described in Milesian Families as being of the "HyBrune" tribe.  Some sources claim that the McGrail Clan is of Dalriadan origin, and specifically from the line of King Dalriadan Fergus Mor MacEarca.  This King was banished from Ireland along with 350 chiftains, in 327 AD.

     In the 17th and 18th Century, the McNeill's sent 58 families from the Western Isles of Scotland to Ireland, and they originally settled in Antrim and Derry.  This was a time of great social upheaval and religious turmoil in Scotland, where the native Catholic population was being forced to convert to the "new" church.  Those who resisted were either banished, hanged, or burned alive. Many of the MacNeills, however, remained true to their Faith, owing in part, to the strength of their Chieftains and the might of their arms in the Hebrides and Western Isles.

The Bara MacNeill 
Tartan (ancient)
    The Gigha/Colonsay 
MacNeill Tartan (ancient)

     One particularly interesting story regarding these original McNeill gallowglass families, concerns the McNeill of Armargh.  Having aquired vast holdings, this powerful family was approached by the English invaders in the 1600's , who demanded that they renounce Catholicism and embrace Henry's new religion, or suffer the confiscation of their lands.  The McNeill refused, and held off the ensuing English attackers for a period of time.  When it eventually became clear that they couldn't fend off the reinforced enemy much longer, seven McNeill brothers gathered their families and fled to various parts of Ireland.  With prices on their heads, and the English hunting for them, some escaped  to Co. Monaghan where they changed the name to "MCGRAIN", others went to Galway and Mayo, where the name became "MCGREAL".  Two of the brothers settled in the remote mountains of Leitrim, where they took the name "MCGRAIL".
Eoin MacNeill, the first Free State Education Minister, cofounder of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1893 and of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, represented DerryCity in the democratically elected first Dail Eireann, in the Mansion House on 21January 1919.

      The name today is extremely rare in Ireland.  It is still to be found primarily in Mayo and Leitrim.  The blessings of civilizaton that Mother England bestowed upon Ireland, (tenant eviction and enforced famine), descimated the population of Leitrim through death and immigration during the 19th Century. My great grandparents endured the staggering heartbreak of seeing  ten of  their children depart, one by one,  in packet ships bound for America.  They never returned.

    The last remaining family member, Fr. Hugh McGrail, died in Leitrim in 1988.  Today, all that is left to bear testament to the family of Stephen McGrail are the headstones in  St. Bridgid's Graveyard in Drumkeerin, and a memorial stone set at the Ancient Abbey of Tarmon, in County Leitrim.

**as with all the other areas of this web site, this  brief overview of the history of the name is on-going, and up be updated as time and accessable data allow.  **

-"The Book of Irish Families Great and Small" --@1992 -Michael C. O'Laughlin
     -The Irish Genealogical Foundation     ISBN 0-940134-08-X

- The Clan Macneil Association of America

-McNeil Family Chronicle and Notes (1400-1900)
  (stored in the Public Records Office in Belfast)

-The Hall of Names, Inc

Currah's Graveyard
at the
Ancient Abbey of Tarmon
County Leitrim, Ireland

(photo courtesy of John Flynn "Drumkeerin on Line")

(These are only a few of the over 1000 various spellings of the name)

Macneil, MacNeil, Macniel, MacNiel, Macneill, MacNeill, Macneal, MacNeal, Macneale,
MacNeale, MacNeilage, Macneilage, MacNelly, Macnelly, MacNeally, Macneally, Mcneil,
McNeil, Mcniel, McNiel, Mcneill, McNeill, Mcneal, McNeal, Mcneale, McNeale,
McNeilage, Mcneilage, McNelly, Mcnelly, McNeally and Mcneally; also: Neil, Neal,
Neale, Neill, Niel, O'Neal, O'Neil, O'Niel, Nelson, Neilson and Nielson.

Other family names recognized :

MacGougan, Macgougan, MacGrail, Macgrail, MacGugan, Macgugan, MacGuigan,
Macguigan, McGougan, Mcgougan, McGrail, Mcgrail, McGugan, Macgugan, McGuigan,
and Mcguigan.

SOURCE- The Clan Macneil Association of America

McGrail Variant Spellings

McGrall           McGreul
McGrael          MacGreal
McGraul          MacGreall
McGreal          MacGreil
McGreil           MacGreul

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