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The Case Against Cullo O’Neill

Doug McCullough

According to the venerable Supreme Court Justice James Iredell, son of Margaret McCulloch, the County Antrim line of McCullochs descend from Henry McCulloch of Killaser, and before him a man called Godfrey McCullo, son of Cullo O’Neill. This oral tradition was passed to Justice Iredell through his family. His line had been in County Antrim, Ireland since the early 17th century when Laird Alexander McCulloch left his Myerton estates in the hands of his sister Elizabeth and her husband, John McCulloch of Ardwell, then Myerton.

As the story goes, Cullo O’Neill was a member of the Clandeboy O’Neills. Cullo was the secretary of state of Robert the Bruce in Scotland and his standard bearer. When King Robert stripped his Galwegian opponents of their lands, he granted land in Wigtownshire to this Cullo O’Neill. When he died he left the estates, including Myerton, to his son Godfrey, who adopted the name mac Cullo to honor him. With all due respect to Justice Iredell, there is no evidence of these alleged facts, and plenty of evidence against it.

Who was Cullo O’Neill?

The name “Cullo O’Neill” appears to be an anglicized version of the name Cu-Uladh Ua Neill. Records of the Gaelic forename Cu-Uladh dates back as early as the 11th century and was used by multiple families. There was at least one Cu-Uladh ua Neill who was a contemporary of Edward the Bruce, King Robert’s Brother. With the backing of King Robert, Edward the Bruce briefly set himself up as High King of Ireland.

Looking at the evidence, the name “Cu-Uladh Ua Neill” was in use during the Bruce era, and Clan Ua Neill were allies of the Bruces in Ireland. There are no historical records, however, of a Cu-Uladh Ua Neill serving as secretary of state or standard bearer in King Robert’s army, or being granted lands in Galloway.

If Cu-Uladh Ua Neill fought alongside the Bruces, he would have died in the early 14th century. It is said that his son, Godfrey, took the name mac Cullo to honor his father. This would suggest the Mac Cullo name originated in the 14th century. The evidence proves otherwise. The earliest known record of the McCulloch name was used in 1285 when Thomas McCulloch was entrusted to deliver 320 cattle to close out a transaction of the estate of Sir John Balliol. This means the name McCulloch was in use in Galloway prior to 1285.

Note that the first McCulloch record involved Sir John Balliol and his wife Lady Devorguila, the parents of King John Balliol. The next records include Thomas, Michael and William McCulloch pledging fealty to King Edward I of England (ally and overlord of King John Balliol). By 1305, Thomas was appointed Sheriff of Wigtown by King Edward I. Other McCullochs were noted Balliol loyalists who were in paid service of the English. The idea that the McCulloch name originated in the 14th from an Irishmen who served Robert the Bruce is contrary to all the documentary evidence.

Another peculiarity of the oral tradition is that Ulster Gael Cu-Uladh Ua Neill or his son would break from the name O’Neill (historically the most powerful clan of Northern Ireland) to adopt a novel surname.

Further, when King Robert stripped Galwegian opponents of their lands, he was stripping the McCullochs of their lands. The English crown paid the McCullochs a stipend following these forfeitures until their lands were restored by King David II. (In “Galloway: A Land Apart” Andrew McCulloch suggests that the McCullochs were returned half their lands, but the other half were escheated to the crown).

However, the most compelling evidence is Y DNA. The McCullochs of Myreton are R1A (R-BY32010). Clan O’Neill is R1B. Y DNA analysis suggests that the McCullochs and O’Neills do not have a common male ancestor for 20,000 years before present.

In our next post, we will discuss the origins of Myertoun and James Iredell’s Godfrey.

Photo Credit: Stuart Caie