MacCawell/McCaul (Irish: Mac Cathmhaoil)
Family name
Meaning "Son of Battle Chief"
Region of origin Tyrone, Ulster, Ireland.
Related names Cowell, McGirr, Campbell, Caulfield, McCall.
Parent house Cenél Fearadhaigh / Cenél nEógain / Uí Néill
Titles Chief of the Councils of the North, "Peace-maker of Tyrconnell, Tír Eoghain & Airgíalla", Taoiseach (Chiefs) of Kinel Farry (Clogher).

McCaul, McCall, and MacCawell is an Irish surname, derived from the Gaelic Mac Cathmhaoil, meaning the "son of Cathmhaol", descendant of being implied. The name Cathmhaoil itself is derived from cath mhaol meaning "battle chief".[1] The Mac Cathmhaoil were the leading family of Cenél Fearadhaigh, of the Uí Néill, and were based around Clogher in modern-day County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.[1] They were one of the seven powerful septs that supported the O'Neills. The name is now rare in Ulster as it has been Anglicised under various different forms such as, Campbell, McCawl, Caulfield, McCall, Alwell, Callwell, McCowell, McCuill, Howell, MacHall,[2][3] and McQuade.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10]

The height of their power was in the 12th century where their territory covered most of modern County Tyrone, and deep into County Fermanagh.[1] By the mid fourteenth century their power in Fermanagh, was broken by the rise of the Maguires.[1] Having controlled the seat of power of the diocese of Clogher, the MacCawells provided many abbots, deans, canons etc. to it and neighbouring dioceses including two bishops.[1] By the end of the sixteenth century there appears to have been a large migration of the sept into the modern counties of Down and Armagh.[1]


The MacCathmhaoils took their patronymic name from Cathmhaol in the 12th century, descended from Feradhach (or Fearadhaigh), grandson of Eoghan son of "Niall of the Nine Hostages" a 5th-century Irish King . They were the leading sept of Cenél Fearadhaigh, sometimes called Cenél Fearadhaigh Theas or Cinel-Farry, based in the barony of Clogher, to distinguish them from the offshoots of Cenél Fearadhaigh who remained in Inishowen or thereabouts. After this expansion into mid Ulster with Cenél nEoghain, the MacCathmhaoils were fixed in the Clogher area of County Tyrone, the former capital and inauguration site of Airgíalla. As Cenél Fearadhaigh, it was their function to hold a bastion for Cenél nEoghain against Cenél Conaill on the northwest and the descendants of the Three Collas on the south-west and south.

In the Annals of the Four Masters, under 1185 (16 years after the Norman invasion of Ireland), the second mention is made of a MacCathmhaoil with "Gillchreest MacCathmhaoil, head chieftain of the Cineal Fereadaidh being "the chief of the councils of the north of Ireland", who was slain by Teag O'hEighnigh (O'Heaney) from Tir-Manach (Fermanagh), aided by Muintir Chaonain (O'Keenan). This Gillchreest MacCathmhaoil, was also head chieftain of clan Aongusa (Magennis? McCann?) of eastern Ulster, clan Dubhinreacht (O'Dubhin? Devaney), clan Fogarty O'Ceannfhoda (Tirkennedy in Fermanagh),[11] and clan Colla of Fermanagh." The townland name Druim Mhic Cathmhaiol (Cathmhaoil’s Ridge) on the border of Armagh and Louth might attest to a regional leadership role (in the "Councils of the North") [12] organizing the defenses of Ulster against the Normans.[13] The family name, in a much truncated form, is also preserved in the townland name Clonmakate in north Armagh adjacent to Maghery, (near Lough Neagh and the Blackwater); the original form was Cluain Mhic Cathmhaoil ‘Mac Cathmhaoil’s meadow’.[14] The inauguration of the Cineal Fereadaidh Chiefs probably happened at ancient royal site of Clochar Mac nDaimhín.

They receive mention in Ceart Ui Néill (see The Rights of O'Neill) being, along with MacMurchaidh and O'Devlin, classed as "fircheithearna" (i.e. "true kerns") of Ui Néill. A Kern (soldier) was a Gaelic soldier, specifically a light infantryman of Gaelic Ireland during the Middle Ages. From Ceart Ui Néill 14. "it is their duty to take and to guard hostages; and they are bound by their office to keep watch for the first three nights in camp and on a hosting..." and elsewhere "In his time, it was usual to for victorious conquerors to take captives, usually of exalted rank, as hostages for the good (i.e. subservient) subsequent behaviour of the vanquished".[15]

Later they became an important church family. They were also Brehons (judges of Irish law) in Cenél nEoghain (Tyrone), are famous in Irish history for their learning and the many dignitaries they supplied to the church. In Cenél nEoghain about this time, 1300, the Mac Cathmhaoils were the hereditary advisers of the king,[16] being one of the seven main septs of the Cenél nEoghain Ui Neill. The family's importance is obvious from a glance at the events listed in connection with them under MacCathmhail in the index to the Annals of Ulster.

Family Tree

This is one version of a list of male descendants from Niall of the Nine Hostages to Raghnall MacCathmhaoil who is claimed as being the first to use the Mac Cathmhaoil surname, seven generations removed from the ancestor whose name he chose to bear:

The Annals

Below are some entries from the annals the Annals of Ulster and The Annals of the Four Masters regarding the MacCathmhaoil (anglicized as MacCawell) the leading sept of Cenél Fearadhaigh and further below some their descendants. Note: Alternative spelling of names found are listed after name.

Reformation and Dissolution

The religious and political turmoil of late medieval, Early Modern Ireland, reformation (1517-1750), counter reformation (1545-1648) is reflected in some of these figures. For the church, it became a "battleground for profit and cultural hegemony" where after the Plantation of Ulster a new Protestant ruling class took ownership and later instituted the Penal Laws.[41] Sources found in texts other than the Annals of the Four Masters. (see Dissolution of Monasteries in Ireland) and Clogher & St. Marcartan's Cathedral, history 500–1970)

Plantation and Dispossession

The Plantation of Ulster and penal laws (1607-1920s) period is reflected in these figures, where it was said, "With only two, or perhaps three exceptions, every native landlord, and every native tenant within the bounds of the six counties was dispossessed and displaced;..." Later the Penal Laws were intended to degrade the Irish so severely that they would never again be in a position to seriously threaten Colonial rule.[54] From sources other than (and after) the Annals of the Four Masters, with names spelled as they were found.

Jacobites and Republicans

With the defeat of James II in 1690, most native Irish were reduced to the role of a servant class within their own country. In this era, Catholics are not permitted to vote, marry a Protestant, join the armed forces, bare arms, even for protection, or be educated as Catholics abroad. They made up 70% of the population of around 2 million, yet own only 5% of the land. While the hope that the Jacobites would regain their power diminished, new hope arose from abroad with the revolutions and new republics in USA and France.

Famine and Emigration

In 1801 the Act of Union was passed by the Parliament of Ireland abolishing itself in reaction to the Rebellion of 1798. The second United Irishmen Rebellion failed in 1802 and Catholic emancipation didn't happen until 1829, but without Tithe reform so the Tithe war followed from 1831-36. Poverty, lack of opportunity, high rents and discrimination forced thousands to leave for North America, the largest exodus happening during the Great Irish Famine (1845–49) leading to an estimated 1 million deaths and emigration of a further 1 million people. However many emigrated before this time, and for some Nova Scotia was the first stop in the New World, where "McCaul Island", near Cape Breton, would bear testament to some family members new home. Many new branches of the family formed abroad including the "Caul" in Canada who many have gotten the "Mc" dropped in their name perhaps due to being orphaned as a result of the famine. Others came from better circumstances but still chose to emigrate. Still Catholics, faced much of the same institutionalized discrimination in the new world.


The Gaelic revival in the late-nineteenth-century national revival of interest in the Irish language and Irish Gaelic culture (including folklore, sports, music and arts). Irish had diminished as a spoken tongue partially as a result of the famine and poverty, remaining the main daily language only in isolated rural areas. Some of these figures where part of that revival.


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