© Christopher Earls Brennen


By 1400 the surname Erley, Erl, Erle or Erla had already made its appearance in the Irish records. The following are some scattered traces of individuals with a surname like Earls in Ireland.

Henry de Erlegh, in 1336, acted as attorney in Ireland for John de Erlegh(V) (see above). This may or may not be the same Henry whose lands in Kilkenny were adjacent to those given by Geoffrey fitzRobert for a priory (see Robert Earley, below).

Hugh Erla and his son Willuc Erla, in 1344, gave 3 acres of land called Kylltalma to Athenry Abbey, Athenry, County Galway [20]. Mac-a-Wallyd de Bermingham built the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin in the abbey church at Athenry up to the bases of the windows. The chapel was completed by William Wallys who also built the belfry as far as the gable of the church; he died in 1344 and was buried in a stone tomb in that chapel. Reference [20] also lists other benefactors.

Walter Erl and Isabella, his wife, on Aug.26, 1353 appointed Sir Nicholas, Chaplain of St. Mary's, Dundalk, Ireland their attorney to put Walter Scryn in seisin of a messuage with appurtenances in the New Town of Dundalk [21,n.205].

Robert Erley was Prior, in 1361, of a priory of the canons regular of St. Augustine which was founded by Geoffrey FitzRobert on land adjacent to that of the de Erlegh family in Kilkenny. That land is described [19,p.53] as extending ``from the oak tree that stands in Gortenclaven on the west to the east part of my lands of Even (Castle Eve) and from the east side of the said land of Henry de Erlega (Earlstown, Newtown).'' Robert was Prior for three periods of 6, 10 and 12 years and was in office for the third time in 1361 [19,p.112]. It seems most likely that Robert was a member of the de Erlegh family but their is no evidence to prove it.

Philip Erla, son of William Erla, in 1392 endorses as ``Carta de Bermingham dicto Philipo Erla'' a deed of grant to John, son of Walter Blake, of the lands situated in the franchises of Athenry, County Galway, namely Parkebegg. This lies between the lands of Thomas Temperneys and Philip Albi on the one side and Bothrungbegg, near Gortincormuck on the other; and Clonyntornor lying between the dwelling of the friars on the one side. Witnessed by John Joy, the Provost of Athenry and others [30,p.196][22,n.9]. Athenry is about 10 miles due east of Galway town.

Peter Erla, presumably of Galway or perhaps Athenry, is listed as one of the witnesses to a deed of recognizance, dated Aug.3, 1424 between Henry Blake and William Blake, burgesses of Galway [22,n.21].

Thomas Erle of Dundalk appears in two deeds dated 1462 and 1466 [21,n.458]. In the first, dated July 13, 1462 his name appears as a one of the participants. The second dated April 30, 1466 is an agreement whereby Christopher Dowdall lets Thomas Erle a shop with a cellar.

John Erl of Dundalk appears in 1466 as a participant to an agreement between Christopher Dowdall and Patrick Countown, John Erl and others [21,n.461].

Several notable features of these scattered Irish records should be emphasized. First it seems likely that some members of the de Erlegh family (perhaps younger sons) had taken up residence at Earlstown as early as 1240(?). The presence of Henry de Erlegh and Robert Erley is an indication of this. Second it seems significant that both Hugh Erla (and his son Willuc) as well as Philip Erla are closely associated in the above references with the de Bermingham family. The de Berminghams were a very prominent family in the Norman incursions into Ireland. Robert de Bermingham accompanied Strongbow to Ireland in 1172. The de Berminghams held lands in Kildare and claimed the manor of Kells (winning it in 1346) in which the Erleys were one of the most prominent families [19]. But other members of the de Bermingham family held Athenry and Dundalk. In 1235 Peter de Bermingham accompanied Richard de Burgh on his conquest of Connaught and was created the first lord of Athenry. On the death of the second Richard de Burgh in 1248, Peter was given custody of his lands and castles. Also about this time (1235) Meiler de Bermingham, Peter's son, built a castle at Athenry. In 1249 the Normans defeated a local Irish army under Terlaugh mac Hugh [30]. In 1316 Richard de Bermingham, Lord of Athenry defeated the Irish under Felim O'Connor at the battle of Athenry and in 1395 Walter de Bermingham, Lord of Athenry was knighted by Richard I. Athenry prospered until the last half of the 16th century when it began to decline. In 1596 it was sacked and burnt by a rebel army under Hugh Roe O'Donell [30]. As exemplified by Phillip, William and Peter Erla, the Erla family was established in the vicinity of Athenry and Galway. O'Flaherty [30] mentions a Mr.Kilroy of Galway who claimed maternal descent from an Erla and the fact that individuals of the name of Erla may still be traced near Athenry but sunk in poverty.

Turning now to the Dundalk area, John de Bermingham, in 1318, was created Earl of Louth (which includes Dundalk) after he defeated Edward Bruce. He was killed by his tenants at Balbrigan in 1329. The presence in Dundalk of Walter Erl, his wife Isabella, Thomas Erle and John Erl may mean that some of the de Erlegh family joined the de Berminghams in Louth. In fact, it seems sensible to suggest that after they lost their demense in 1381 (or before) some of the Erley family entered the service of the de Bermingham family both at Dundalk and Athenry.

It should also be noted that some of the Earls families now living in Ireland may be derived from legitimate or illegitimate sons of early Norman ``earls''. The Irish name ``mac an iarla'' or ``mac an earla'' means literally ``son of the earl'' and could have been used as a suffix before the era of surnames. When surnames became neccessary this may have been anglized to Earls. Note that the Earls of Clare (see Appendix 2C) recall the time when their name in Irish was ``Mac an Iarla''.

In the native Irish legends which often include substantial historical content there are a number of references to characters with the suffix ``Mac an Iarla''.

In Standish O'Grady's ``Silva Gadelica'' (London, 1892) there is a written version of a story called An Cleasai (``The Trickster'') which has otherwise been translated as ``The Kern in the Narrow Stripes''. This contains a character, Sean Mac an Iarla, who was the historical figure ``John of Desmond'', son of Thomas of Drogheda, the eighth Earl (of Desmond?). He is accused of having procured the death of his own brother, James, the ninth Earl, who was beheaded at Rathkeale in 1487 at the age of 29. For this deed James's son Maurice, the tenth Earl, banished his uncle John. In 1516 Maurice beseiged John in the castle of Loch Gur, County Limerick; John appealed to his wife's family, who belonged to the rival Thomond alliance, and before long the latter appearred in such force that the seige was raised.

The novel entitled ``The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys'' (four volumes, London, 1827) by Lady Morgan is believed to contain real historical detail. We quote here several passages. First from volume 1, page 123: ``The military passes made through these romantic mountains (of Connemara) by the Lord Deputy Clanrickard and his rebellious kinsmen, the Clan Earla*, were long blocked up. *The Earl's sons''. The asterisk is the author's. Secondly in volume 2 : ``Rose cruel wars between the O'Flahertys and the O'Briens. Great slaughter and bloodshed also between the MacDermotts and O'Connors. The Mac-an-earlies* overrrun the country with fire and sword. *The earl's sons, the factious sons of the first Earl of Clanrickard''. Thirdly from volume 3, page 277: ``He had often taken the mighty Ben Leven for his landmark; and had listened to the tales of the Clanna Earla, as fishermen pointed out the twelve pins of Benbola''.

Note that there is a small fort in north Clare called the fort of Mac an Iarla.

Last updated 9/9/99.

Christopher E. Brennen