by Ken MacDermotRoe

How many MacDermots Roe descendants are there around the world? At first glance, the MacDermot Roe family appears pretty small. However, a closer examination provides a surprising answer.

In 2006, Yahoo People Search showed 11,280 listings for McDermotts in the United States. A search of the same database for MacDermots Roe in a variety of spellings showed just 15. Thus, less than 1% of McDermott listings were MacDermots Roe. To put it another way, there were about 1,000 McDermotts in the United States for each MacDermot Roe.

The Yahoo People Search is certainly not as accurate as a census. It overstates the number of McDermott and MacDermot Roe households as they would have been defined in earlier times. First, many single individuals who would not have been listed as separate households in 17th to 19th century records appear in Yahoo as separate listings. In addition, the Yahoo People Search has many duplicate entries. Nonetheless, the Yahoo search is a good indication of the tiny proportion of surnamed MacDermots Roe among all McDermotts today.

Are there really so few McDermotts Roe? In order to answer this question, one needs to go back to the earliest records to trace the relative size of the McDermotts and MacDermots Roe over a long period.

An early record which gives us an indication of the relationship between the number of McDermotts and MacDermots Roe is the 1617 Grant from King James I to Bryan MacDermot of the Rock in which appear the names of 44 McDermotts and the lands assigned to each. Out of the 44 McDermotts appearing on the grant, 22 were McDermotts Roe. Additionally, Conor MacDermot Roe of Camagh received a separate grant from the King in 1607.

We can state with confidence that the grants of 1617 and 1607 include most McDermotts of the time. Penders Census, taken in 1659 more than a generation later, shows only 61 McDermotts in Moylurg. It is astonishing that the MacDermots Roe constitute slightly more than one-half of all McDermotts in the early 17th century.

One cannot help be wonder why so many McDermotts still kept their distinct Roe identity in the early 17th century. It should be remembered that three and a half centuries had elapsed since the sept's ancestor Dermot Roe, grandson of the King of Moylurg, was blinded by the King of Connaught. So, for about ten successive generations, about one half of the McDermott clan continued to identify with Dermot Roe by passing on the appellation Roe to their children.

The 1617 Grant represents the high water mark as to the percentage of McDermotts who can be identified as MacDermots Roe in historical records. As the population of Ireland grew dramatically from a little less than one million in the 17th century to its peak of about 8 million in the mid-19th century, the population of McDermotts, also, leaped. However, the proportion of McDermotts who could be identified as MacDermots Roe declined steadily.

The best headcount of MacDermots Roe in the 18th century is the Elphin Census of 1749. This Census covered families living in the Diocese of Elphin which includes most of County Roscommon.

A sample of 6 parishes in the Elphin Census shows 11 MacDermot Roe households out of 60 McDermott households or 18%. Elphin does not include Kilronan Parish where there was a concentration of MacDermots Roe. However, even if this data were available, the percentage of McDermotts Roe would almost certainly have declined substantially from 1617.

The trend towards a reduced percentage of MacDermots Roe does not mean that they were moving away. Indeed, there was little mobility at this time. It simple means that MacDermot Roe descendants were not insisting that the appellation distinguishing the family was included on civil records. They, of course, were aware of their ancestry but the failure to note it on the records poses difficulties for many modern descendants.

In the century following the Elphin Census, the proportion of McDermott households recorded on civil records as MacDermots Roe continued to decline. Griffiths Valuation (1848-1864) for County Roscommon shows 25 MacDermot Roe households out of about 500 McDermott households and for County Sligo shows 12 MacDermot Roe households out of about 120 McDermott households. The 37 MacDermot Roe families represent just 6 % of the McDermotts in the two counties.

Why did use of the Roe decline so greatly from the early 17th century to modern times? There are several explanations.

A very important reason for the decline in the use of the appellation was that the Roe was and continues to be alphabetically confusing. Under English colonial rule, written recordkeeping assumed much greater importance. In order to avoid confusion, it was best to tell the authorities, particularly civil authorities, that one's surname was simply McDermott.

An example of this confusion is in the recordkeeping of the British Army with respect to Patrick MacDermot Roe, a young officer. In 1797, he was initially listed as M'Dermott Roe with no first name. A few years later, Patrick appears under "R" with Roe being deemed his surname and M'Dermott his middle name. On one occasion, he was listed under the spelling "Rowe". Patrick's case shows how the historian must check "Roe" and "Rowe", as well as, "R" and "M" when researching a MacDermot Roe.

A second reason for the decline of the Roe after the early 17th century may have had to do with the English abolition of the Irish law of tanistry. Under tanistry any MacDermot Roe whose great-grandfather had been chief was eligible to be elected chief. Since the MacDermot Roe chieftaincy moved from branch to branch during the 15th and 16th centuries, a majority of MacDermots Roe may have been within this eligibility zone. Thus, the continuation of the use of the Roe in your branch of the family would be a sign of your eligibility to become chief.

About 1600, the English colonial regime abolished Irish tanistry as part of its effort to anglicize Ireland's legal system. Succession as chief under the English regime became governed by primogeniture passed down from father to eldest son like an English title. Since all other branches of the family were excluded from succession, these branches may not have been as strongly motivated to maintain their sept identity.

However, the most important reason for the decline of the use of the appellation in the 19th and 20th centuries was probably family mobility. As households left Moylurg for other parts of Ireland and for foreign countries, the Roe was dropped in all but a few cases.

Even when MacDermots Roe settled not far from Moylurg, the Roe faded. There was a strong branch of the MacDermots Roe in the Castleplunket area of central Roscommon in the mid-18th century. By the time of Griffiths, not a single McDermott in the area is shown with the appellation.

When MacDermots Roe went to Dublin to seek their fortune, they, not only, dropped the Roe, but also, sometimes the Mac as well. The successful merchant family, the Dermott's of Usher's Quay, Dublin, believed to be MacDermot Roe descendants, journeyed from Roscommon to Louth and on to Dublin in the 1600's. A search of the Dublin business directory for 1850 shows many McDermotts but not a single MacDermot Roe.

The Roe was rarely continued as an appellation in North America. Sometimes, it might be used as a middle name but rarely in its proper place. In one instance, the McDermott was dropped in favor of the Roe, but generally the Roe was dropped. Not only was the appellation alphabetically confusing, but the locals would not have understood its significance.

As an indication of how steeply the name declined in America, one can look at the Civil War soldier and sailor records. Almost 1,000 McDermotts served in either the Union or the Confederacy military. Not one shows up on a roster as MacDermot Roe/McDermottroe. Certainly, many McDermotts Roe served including Colonel James McDermott Roe of Ohio whose service records were preserved by his descendants.

Despite the rarity of the surname in modern records, it is clear based on the early records that there are a very large number of McDermott Roe descendants living today. If one assumes that there are about 3,000 McDermott of Moylurg households in the world today, it would be reasonable to assume that at least 1,000 of them descend from MacDermots Roe. If one includes households where there is a McDermott mother, grandmother or great-grandmother, the total increases by multiples.

Thus, while the MacDermot Roe family may appear to be small, it is actually quite large. As McDermott descendants research their genealogies, many will discover that they, in fact, descend from the MacDermots Roe and share in the family's proud tradition. They are certainly welcome! 

Copyright Biatach 2014

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