THE SYNANS OF WALES
I. Where… Before Ireland?
The Synan name has been associated with Ireland for very good reason. The Synan’s were castle builders in the South of Ireland, between Cork City and Limerick City. The Synan family was known to have built at least 5 castles surrounding the town of Doneraile, in the north of County Cork, just beneath the southern slopes of the Ballyhoura mountains.
So, Synan family members around the world identify themselves as having an Irish heritage. But, there are limitations to that definition.
II. Synans in the Norman Invasion
It is quite well understood by the historians of Ireland that the Synan family would not have been original settlers in Ireland, descended from the Gaelic tribes. Instead, the Synans were clearly part of the Norman Invasion of Ireland during the years 1169–1170.
Probably the most telling piece of evidence about this is that the name Synan is not tied to any ancient Irish names. (My mother’s family name, Malone, is clearly defined from the Gaelic Maloein.) There are many names that are today classified as “Irish” that came to Ireland at the same time as the Synans. (Among these are the family names of some of my close friends, Mike Burke and John Walsh.) These names came to Ireland with the Norman invasion.
The castles that these Synans built in the South of Ireland (five of them have been documented) were, most likely of the basic architecture which has been described as a “Norman Keep”. This castle design refers to the design of the tall rectangular stone buildings, most of which were built in the 13th and 14th century. Ireland has over a thousand remains of such “Norman Keeps”. The one Synan castle that is still standing, Castle Pook, is a typical “Norman keep”. An inspection of the remains of Castle Pook show it to be of large rectanglar construction, with a number of classic “Norman Keep” features that would have protected the Normans from their neighbors. This includes a higher floor “shelf” where hot oil could be poured on intruders.
The Normans had to be protected from their neighbors, because they were the invaders, who took the land, claimed it as their own, and therefore had to be careful in defending themselves from native uprisings. A large number of these “Norman keeps” were built throughout Ireland by the invaders.
The five castles that the Synans were known to have built in the 13th and 14th centuries were spread over an area which is approximately 50,000 acres. (The research that the Castle historians have done in Ireland has precisely pinpointed many of the early Castle sites.) In a history book describing the invasion by the Normans, it was noted that the reward to a Knight or Nobleman who participated in the invasion was 50,000 acres.
So, what we can conclude from this kind of evidence is as follows:
• Synans built “Norman” castles in a period following 1169 (the last was built in about 1390), as was typical of the invaders…so the Synan’s were part of the invading force
• The Synans built these castles on approximately 50,000 acres, which corresponds with the reward of a Knight or Nobleman who participated in the Norman invasion of 1169—1170…so the Synan’s were Knights or Noblemen
III. The Origins of the Synans Before the Norman Invasion (1169 – 1170)
The story of the Norman invasion is well documented, and was generated by a deposed Irish chieftain who, to get revenge, went to Wales and to England and organized the invasion. He received a sanction from the King of England and was given support to gather troops and invade Ireland. This story is somewhat complex but here is the simple version. Darmid MacMurdaagh was deposed and defeated by his rivals, and his territory taken. (His territory was south of Dublin). He fled to Wales and went on to England. He then sought and received permission from the then reigning king of England (Henry II) to invade Ireland in the name of the English crown. (There was also a curious side plot relating to the support of the pope in Rome and the need to reinforce “good practices” with the misbehaving Irish Christians.)
In addition to this sanction, and probably because of this, he was able to interest the Earl of Pembroke(Pembroke is in South Wales) in helping to lead the invasion. The Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow, was a warrior of great reputation. He was persuaded because Darmid promised Strongbow that he would eventually become the king of all Ireland. Strongbow was to organize an invading army and, if successful in Ireland, he would marry Darmid’s daughter and succeed Darmid as the king of all Ireland.
So Strongbow went about the Welsh countryside (Pembroke is in South Wales) and recruited Knights with the promise of land in Ireland. The recruits were some native Welshman, some of the Normans, who a century before (1066) had invaded and conquered the Angles and Saxons in England. Also, it is documented that there were warriors who were recruited from Flanders (currently western Belgium)
Based on this recruiting process, we would conclude that the Synans were either Normans (which simply might say from Normandy, but is far more complex than that), native Welsh (from Wales) or recruits from Flanders.
IV. The Synan Name in History Before the Norman Invasion
The name Synan in any form has not been found anyplace but in Ireland. It is not found in Normandy (France), and it is not found in Flanders (Belgium).
That is not so profound a statement. In the times before 1169, very little was written in a way that it would have been preserved. Almost all of the people were not literate. So there is very little written record of anyone or anything much before the Norman invasion. (Actually, not much was written down until hundreds of years after that. In searching for our Synan family ancestry, we found baptismal records in a church in Limerick. We traced the baptismal records back until there were no more records. That was about 1800. When we asked we were told that before that nothing was written down.)
There is a very prominent name found in the history of Wales before 1169. This name may be the origin of Synan. This name is Cynan.
How could Cynan be the precursor of the name Synan? Again, it is important to note that nothing was written down at that time, and most people were illiterate. So names would have been only represented verbally. It is possible that the pronunciation of these two names was close enough that when the name was finally written down in Ireland, it was written Synan, rather than Cynan.
V. The Cynans in Wales
In 1081 Gruffydd ab Cynan won the throne in Gwynedd from a rival. Gwynedd is the north of Wales, approximately one third of the land mass of Wales. He was however subsequently imprisoned by the Normans (from the East – England). By 1094 he was back and built a strong legacy. He was remembered as, at one time, the king of all Wales. And his great great grandson Llewellyn the Great, is renowned as someone who almost a century later was successful in uniting all the tribes of Wales.
It is most interesting that a nearly contemporary biography of Gruffydd ab Cynan exists. It was written after his death, perhaps to promote his son or grandson in their leadership. But the documentation of his life goes like this:
• He was born in Dublin in 1055
• He was the son of a Welsh Prince, Cynan ap Iago, who was at claimant to the kingship of Gwynedd. His mother Ragnhild was the daughter of Olaf of Dublin (a member of the Hiberno-Norse dynasty) who was a nobleman. At the time, Dublin was occupied by the Norsemen who had invaded it sometime before. On his grandmother’s side Gruffydd ab Cynan was a direct descendent of Brian Boru who was the high King of all Ireland in the 10th century.
Since his life was so well documented, it is clear that this particular Cynan was not one of the Irish invaders. Also, as the contemporary biography documented, none of his children were likely to have been with the Irish invasion. Their lives are all accounted for and biography, and none of their lives take them to Ireland.
There is also much earlier references to that name Cynan in Wales. Cynan Meiriadog is a legendary fifth century holy man who led Welsh migrants to Brittany. And Cynan Dindaethwy was king of Gwynedd at one time. He lived 740 – 816.
VII. The Cynan Connection in Wales – Hypothesis
It is possible that the Synan who was part of the Irish invasion in 1169 (1170) was an indirect descendent of Gruffydd ab Cynan who is mentioned above. A possible generational lineage could be as follows: Gruffydd ab Cynan had a brother, born about 1060. Gruffydd ab Cynan’s brother’s son was then born around 1090. Gruffydd ab Cynan’s Brothers’s grandson was born around 1120 and he was the one who participated in the invasion of Ireland in an age of about 40, when he was a Knight and Nobleman.
So how much of a stretch is this hypothesis?
Well the Synan’s were either Welsh or Flemish or Norman. There is no related name that has been found in Flanders or Normandy. There is a related name that was found in Wales.
The Synans who invaded Ireland were Knights or Nobleman. They would not have been awarded 50,000 acres unless that was true. Since the Cynans in Wales were nobleman, knights, and kings, it is very possible that one of these Cynan Knights was recruited by Strongbow, the Earl of Pembroke, and participated as a leading force in the invasion of Ireland at 1169 — 1170.
The next dimension of this hypothesis is personal. The writer had an opportunity to work closely with a Welshman some years ago in Canada. The man from Wales offered that he thought Synan was a Welsh name, because of the basic construct of the name.
So, Synan is “Irish”, and became so as part of the invading force. Before that came the Welsh Cynan, and before that Norse Irish, and Welsh together, with a lineage back to the great Irish king Brian Boru.
VIII. More Irish than the Irish
Those invaders of 1169 have not been defined as Irish heroes. Most of them were from foreign soil (with our family having an interesting recycle from the Cynan origins in Ireland).
But there is an interesting characterization of these invaders by many historians. The characterization was that these invaders became “more Irish than the Irish”. One dimension of this was that they freely intermarried with the native Irish. So that, within a few generations, these families were all part native Gaelic Irish. But to quote refers mostly to their attitude about relationships with England. In many future decades and centuries these “invader families” became some of the staunchest opponents to British rule.