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Galway’s First Nolan Family – An Overview

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By Roger Nowlan

Starting in the Middle Ages, as English became more and more the language of business and administration, Gaelic family names were gradually simplified and made more pronounceable and recordable in English. In the old Kingdom of Thomond comprising Clare, Limerick, North Tipperary and art of Offaly, the family name Ó hUllacháin was recorded variously as Holohan and Nolan. The latter rendering was mainly due to a variation on the original Gaelic family name which was sometimes given as “Ní hUllacháin”, meaning “Of the Holohans”. In Leinster, the Gaelic family name Ó Nualláin was also recorded as O’Nolan.

Although not related by blood, descendants of the Ó Nualláin and Ó hUallacháin septs do share a common history going back to the 2nd century when Cathair Mor, then High King of Ireland (120-123 AD) lost his life and kingship at the hands of Conn of the Hundred Battles, a brother of Eochaidh Fionn. In the ensuing turmoil, Cathair Mor’s decendants (the Ó hUallacháins, and other septs) and Eochaidh Fionn’s
descendants (the Ó Nualláins) joined forces and did battle for many years against Conn’s son Art (High King: 166-196 AD) and also his grandson Cormac (High King: 227-267 AD).

The first recorded presence of Nolans in Galway goes back to the year 1394 when a tomb to the memory of deceased Nolans of Loughboy was erected in Galway city and subsequently renovated in 1473 by a “Michael O’Nolan” after a fire had destroyed much of the city. The next record of Nolan presence in the city is for the year 1500 when a “Donell Oge O’Nolloghan”, goldsmith, was given his freedom on condition that he take care of one Andrew Fallon in his old age.

Our next and final jump is to the late 1500s when we find reference to a Thomas Nolan (Tomhas and Ó hUallacháin), a subsheriff of Co. Mayo, who, a few years later, in the early 1600s, acquired the castle and lands of Ballinrobe in Co. Mayo, former possessions of the De Burgo family.

From this point on subsequent family genealogy is moderately well documented and indicates that the family’s fortunes grew rapidly primarily though the sale of spirits, having obtained in 1616 a lucrative grant to sell spirit over a wide area in Connaught and neighbouring counties.

Based upon documented genealogy since the early 1600s it is quite evident that the De Burgo (DeBergh, Burgho, Bourke, Burke, etc.) and Nolan families were closely allied, intermarrying with one another. The marriage, in the mid 1600s, of Catherine Nolan, granddaughter of Thomas of Ballinrobe and daughter of
John of Inniscrone, to Walter Bourke (????-1715), Major General of the Athlone Regiment of Foot and later a Count in France, is a clear testament to this fact. This special relationship between the two families may however have already started as early as 1394. This is suggested by the fact that when the Nolans of Galway city first erected a tomb to their Loughboy ancestors, they erected it in a Franciscan Friary founded by the De Burgo family.

Reference: “Galway’s First Nolan Family – An Overview” by Roger Nowlan,
p. 4 , Nolan Clan Newsletter, March 2009

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