Lough Swilly – the Lake of Shadows, the Lake of the Eyes – Buncrana, Inishowen, Donegal… I came to scatter my father’s ashes in his hometown in the Solstice of 2014. My father once took me to see Frank McGuinness’ play The Bread Man, which has a Donegal setting and is about McGuinness’ father. My father had the courage to go upto McGuinness at the Gate Theatre. His gambit was: “Hi Frank. We’re from the same town: Buncrana.” This had the two of them chinwagging for the rest of the interval.


The McDevitts are an offshoot of the O’Dohertys. David O’Doherty – who died in 1208 – became a chieftain of Inishowen, and the new name was created: MacDaibhead, the Sons of David, a pinch of Irish-Israelitism that came in with the Normans. The McDevitts and O’Dohertys remained close… too close for comfort, perhaps.


The two families’ heraldry is identical, three pentagrams, stag trippant, though the vizors and bunting may vary.





Four hundred years after the death of David, the O’Dohertys and McDevitts were still in cahoots, plotting against the English from their headquarters in Buncrana. Their uprising was just after the Flight of the Earls and the Ulster Plantation, but is much less well-known. I took my father’s ashes to Cahir O’Doherty’s Keep to see if any hospitality was on offer. Cahir had been fostered by McDevitts and his fellow rebels included Phelim McDevitt, Hugh Boy McDevitt, Shane McDevitt and Eamonn McDevitt. The McDevitts had Spanish connections. A Spanish chronicler noted that the Inishowen McDevitts lived on milk, raw beef and whiskey.


The Keep is what survives of a Norman Castle. The first two levels are from the 1330s. In 1602 Hugh Boy McDevitt added a floor for Cahir, who was a towering 6 foot four inches.
They were planning to use the Keep as a military base and were  looking for Spanish aid. According to one historian: “On the morning that Cahir led his army into Derry in 1608, the Clann Daibhead were in the vanguard. They were credited with setting fire to the wooden buildings there. This led to the burning of the city and much inconvenience for the English and Scottish planters resident there.” McDevitts later became known to planters – pejoratively – as ‘Derryburners’ or ‘burnderries’; though there have been a couple of Bishop McDevitts who served in Derry since.


I placed my father’s photo on one of the windows, with a red rose-bud, and began the scattering. It was the hour before dusk, the ‘magic hour’. I scattered the ashes through several portals.




This window I couldn’t reach.


The fort is sealed off. Another window offered a tantalising view of the interior. It seemed a safe place to bestow the ashes of a family member, very clean and clear inside.


At the side of the fort was a gateway which led down to the the River Crana.




This is the six-arched Castle Bridge where the river is quite grassy and boggy.


The river is very beautiful in full spate.



Here, I am scattering from the bridge into the river.


This is a historic path because it was the first track to lead into Buncrana. Many McDevitts must have trod it going in and out of the town. Buncrana was then based around the defensive tower of the Keep and was north of the river. The town later developed south of the river.



This wall is the oldest part of the ancient site. What remains is small. Most of the original wall was used to build Buncrana Castle.


This stone commemorates the O’Dohertys.


This is Buncrana Castle but is nothing to do with McDevitts or O’Dohertys. It was built in 1718 by George Vaughan who also built the Castle Bridge and Buncrana Main Street. It is where Wolfe Tone was kept prisoner for a night after he’d been captured on Lough Swilly. Today it is privately owned and not open to the public.


On the ‘Lake of Shadows’ anything can happen. A wild lily…


A baby dolphin, unfortunately dead…


And a lamppost-cum-Celtic cross…


I wrote my father’s name in the sand.


And completed the scattering.


The following day I went to St Marys Catholic Church in nearby Cockhill to see if there were any McDevitts in the graveyard. The main church in Buncrana is Church of Ireland. The Catholics were shoved out of town by the British authorities who overlorded the area for centuries until the advent of the Irish Free State, even using Buncrana and Lough Swilly as a naval base during WW1.


McDevitts are rare enough. The McDaid anglicisation of the name is more common. There were many McDaid graves, but only three McDevitt graves. There is a 50% chance of any McDevitt being a blood relative of any other. I don’t know if Patrick or Mary McDevitt are relatives.



Nor I am aware of any connection with Annie McDevitt, who seems to have worked in the Emporium on Lower Main Street, or her nephew James McDevitt who is from New York.


However, the most astonishing moment was yet to come. One McDevitt was not listed on the cemetary index. Staff working in the grounds told me about an unusual grave. It had been unmarked until about 25 years ago, when a hand-made wooden cross appeared.


Though the paint has faded, what it says is “PATRICK McDEVITT DIED 1928 AGE (2)”. This made me remember that my father had had a brother called Paddy who died in babyhood. He was born in 1927. The bracketed age would be slightly out if he died in 1928; he would still only have been one year old. However, as the name is rare anyway, and not many Patrick McDevitts could have died in childhood at that time, it’s still a serious possibility that this is the grave of my uncle. It’s a mystery though. Who erected the cross? Why was the grave unmarked? Is the information correct? Is he really buried there?


I have subsequently emailed Fr Patrick McGonagle, the curate of the parish. He replied: “The only record I can find here is a Patrick Gerard McDevitt born 23 July 1927. His parents were Joseph McDevitt and Kathleen McCauley. I cannot find any record of burial for anyone McDevitt between 1927 and 1930.” They are my grandparents. (I met my grandmother a few times as a child, but never my grandfather). They moved on from Buncrana and the growing family grew up in Monaghan.

It was all thirsty work. A drink at O’Dohertys was well-earned.


On the way back to Dublin, the bus stopped at Lifford. This was the town where my ancestor Phelim Reagh McDevitt was executed by the British in 1608 for his part in the Derry Rebellion. They didn’t use this contraption, thankfully. He was hung. McDevitts were about 13% of the rebel army, but the name appears often in the 1609 Pardon List.


In Dublin, I drank at the two most appropriate pubs. McDaids is the most famous literary pub in Ireland, a beautiful small decorated shack where Patrick Kavanagh held court and many writers came to meet him, including my own favourite Michael Hartnett.







Goodbye Dad.


Photos: Julie Goldsmith

N.B. Huge thanks to Julie for accompanying me to Ireland on this challenging mission and for taking such wonderful photographs. Here’s one I took of Julie at the entrance to Trinity College Dublin with her famous namesake in the background.



I also owe a huge thanks to an American clansman, Matthew McDavitt, who is an expert in McDevitt lore and has compiled this excellent Pinterest site:


Thanks, lastly, to my mother Frances.


Niall McDevitt

About Niall McDevitt

Niall McDevitt > poet > author of b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010) and Porterloo (International Times, 2012) > urban explorer > radical pedestrian who leads Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud /Yeats walks, among others.
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22 Responses to MICHAEL McDEVITT 1926-2012

  1. A moving journey to share. Thank you. Christopher

  2. nice pics and tale, Niall. I cycled Donegal in 2011 but didn’t have time to get round Inishowen… so this feels like an intimate adjunct to my memories of some of that trip (Will go up to Inishowen someday). My family also goes back to Donegal, apparently… but further back of course; great (or great great?) grandfather and beyond (the line moves to England before WWI, I think).


    • Glad you enjoyed it Andrew. The O’Donnells are indeed very much of this part of the world and feature in some of the history I am talking about. My own glimpse of Inishowen makes me want to see more, and more of Donegal.

  3. Ultan O'Reilly says:

    Hi Niall, The wooden cross was erected by Evelyn over her baby brother.Evelyn is in Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast recovering from a broken hip.We drove up to see her today She is making a good recovery. Hope you are keeping well.

    • Hi Ultan, thanks for completing the story. Give my regards to Evelyn. It would be good to talk to her about the story of Patrick and the family in Buncrana. Regards, Niall

  4. Chuck McDevitt says:

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to dispose of my brother’s ashes in such a loving and caring manner. He would have been very proud of you.
    I was very fond of your dad and we were very close having lived together for several years in Toronto. I have very fond memories of our time together and we chatted on a regular basis up to the end. I believe I was the last member of the family to see him and enjoyed lunch and a beverage together.
    I think we both knew we were saying our goodbyes.
    Take care and god bless.
    Uncle Chuck

  5. Brendan Mc says:

    Niall…I’m sorry we could not hook up this last summer in London, but I’ve gotton to know you much better through this amazing presentation that you assembled in honor of your great father and our family history. In the very least, I will be more deliberate in sampling a pint in every pub named O’Doherty and McDaid going forward. Thanks for putting this together and one day hopefully I can share some funny stories from personal experience with your dad with you….perhaps at an appropriately named pub. ….your cousin Brendan

    • Brendan, good to hear from you. I must add a comment to the post about McDaids to say that it is the most famous of Dublin’s literary pubs, and that McDevitts won’t stop scribbling. There’s three authors in the family now with myself, Russ and Brendan having published books, not to mention Roddy’s plays. It would be good to meet there some time and hear your stories.

  6. Mark McDevitt says:

    Hi Niall,
    This is your cousin Mark McDevitt. Thanks for sharing this lovely piece in honor of your dad. I had the pleasure of sharing a pint with him in November 2012 when we met in Dublin for my own dad’s book launch. Always so dapper, and such a quintessentially Dublin “gent.” You have done him and your family proud here. Interestingly, I also learned of Patrick for the first time very recently. Like a lot of Irishmen if his generation, my dad was very reluctant to talk about it. It was my American wife who, with great skill and tact, got him to talk about. It’s good to share our history, as you have done so beautifully here. Keep up the good work! RIP Uncle Mike.

    • Mark, thanks for your kind comments and skilful description of Michael. I am now the proud owner of a few of his suits and shirts. The tragedy of Patrick is painful but he would not wish to be forgotten. He’s the uncle I never met.

  7. michaeljmcdevitt@virginmedia.com says:

    hi niall.i was very interested to read and view the great pictures you took while visiting buncrana.i,m sure your father would be proud of the good send off you gave him.i was interested to hear about the burnderries.While i was visiting derry on 2013 i read a bit about them on the famous walls.i,myself live with my wife and family in glasgow and i have 3 kids.my father was from donegal and he was from a family of 15.there was 2 sets of twins and it was in the finntown area.tough times.sadly,my father passed away in glasgow in 1959,leaving my mother to bring up 3 demanding babies.i didn,t appear until 1960.she was a loving mum and she,herself departed from us on 8th december,last year.my sister marie and brother gerry treasure her memories.i noticed you had your shoes off in a couple of pics.i guess you stepped on something!nearly forgot to say,i,m michael,my father was michael and my oldest son is michael.erin go bragh. michael mc devitt.

  8. Jon McDevitt says:

    Hi Michael, a very interesting blog. My branch of the McDevitt’s were from Fintown, Co. Donegal. Last time I was there I met up with my Dad’s old school friend who became the local Headmaster and is a historian. He introduced us to another Michael McDevitt who recalled some of the family history that he knew. What he told me echoes your point about connections to Spain, as after the O’Doherty rebellion the McDevitt’s lived in Spain for some years at the Spanish Court along with the exiled Earls. Later in the 17th Century a Ferdinand McDevitt moved back to the Finn Valley and resettled there and the McDevitt’s in that area were descended from them (I guess myself included).

  9. Karl Patrick McElhinney says:

    I enjoyed reading your piece,Michael.
    I’m a McElhinney,but my mother’s mother was a Mary McDevitt from Derry.Her father had come up to the city from Feeney,near Dungiven.He and his brother,Patrick,started the clothes-factory and shop,McDevitt and Co.We heard that the family had come,a generation or two before,from Glenties,a fair step from Buncrana,it must be said.Our great-aunt,Annette McDevitt,was a teacher of English at Thornhill College in Derry.She was proud of her ancestry.

  10. Karl Patrick McElhinney says:

    I beg your pardon,I should have said “Niall”.

  11. Michael McDevitt says:

    Beautiful, and thank you. May your daddy rest in peace.

  12. Thomas McDade says:

    Hello Niall. I enjoyed your story and pictures of our homeland. My great great grandfather was from Letterkenny. I have been researching whatever I can find about McDaibheids and this fits right in.

  13. John McDevitt says:

    I am a McDevitt of Belfast my grandfather came from Derry and Donegal I also have grandparents of Spanish decent cAlled Costello

  14. Gavin McDaid says:

    Hi Niall,

    It was great meeting you last night in The Society Club. It was great to talk about our McDaid/McDevitt heritage. I too, have recently had a pint in McDaid’s pub in Dublin. Fantastic place.

    Hope to meet again. Thanks for signing your book for me last night, I look forward to reading it.

    All the best,

    Gavin McDaid.

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