Bretts of the 1600s, as recorded in Sligo Histories.

Bretts of the 1600s, as recorded in Sligo Histories.

Early Bretts of Co. Sligo, Ireland

Bretts of the 1600s, as recorded in Sligo Histories.


The name Brett is of Norman origin, and means ‘of Brittany’. The family arrived in Ireland shortly after the Anglo-Norman invasion and dispersed through the country in feudal times. There is no evidence for the story that Richard Britto, the third knight involved with the slaying of Thomas Becket, fled to Dublin and started the family dynasty. The Bretts arrived in Sligo about 1610 with their relatives the Taaffes. Dr. Mary O’Dowd [1]  notes that the Taaffes became the largest of the new landlords in Co. Sligo by 1633-5, and that they brought with them fellow Palesmen from County Louth, namely the Brett, Dowdall and Nugent families. The enclosed history of the Taaffe family gives details on this family. There is a rather speculative genealogy also available.

MacDonagh [2] “History of Ballymote and Emlaghfad” gives the following account:

“Sir William Taaffe, also, brought many of his less fortunate cousins who became the founders of the many families of the name which, formerly, were to be found throughout the county. Of these, the most famous was Christopher Taaffe of Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, who became the ancestor of the Taaffes of Ballyneglough and Rathnary (now Kingsfort). Sir William’s first wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Brett, of Tullough in Fingall, and through this alliance the Bretts first came to reside in County Sligo.

“Jasper Brett, the founder of the family, lived at Rathdooney, and afterwards built the fortified dwelling, now a ruin, at Deroon. He was High Sheriff during the years 1627-28, and again in the year 1635.”  [The term High Sheriff is explained in the Oxford Companion to Irish History, in part, as follows. The title is English, derived from Shire Reeve, the king’s principal administrative and judicial representative in each shire. In Ireland, the sheriff’s principal responsibility was to collect the king’s revenues for the Exchequer in Dublin. These included the profits of justice, the annual fee that the sheriff paid for the honour, rents from royal moanors and subsidies. In his judicial capacity, the sheriff presided over the county court, kept watch over the king’s interests by hgolding his tourn court in every cantred twice a year, summoned juries, levied fines and delivered prisoners. The sheriff was frequently obliged to defend the county in time of war, and, when necessary, to enforce writs by calling on the aid of the posse. The appointment appears to have been made annually.]

Sligo derives its name from the river Sligeach (“Slig.” a shell), and was formed into a county, A.D. 1565, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, by the lord deputy Sir Henry Sydney. The High Sheriff held the highest position in the County, and Jasper Brett was High Sheriff in 1627 , 1628 and 1635. According to Mary O’Dowd, this reflected a change in power from the native Gaelic lords to the new Old English arrivals.


The Old English, fiercely Catholic, took part in the wide-spread rebellions of 1641, and generally sided against the Puritans during the Cromwellian wars, although Cromwell was never in Co. Sligo. This choice of opponent led to much of the land of Co. Sligo being taken from the rebellious landowners and given to Cromwellian soldiers. [Oddly enough, this did not much affect the lands of Corran and Leyny, since the Taaffes were regranted the former, and the O’Haras, by this time protestant, kept the latter.]

Similarly, the Bretts generally supported the side of James II in the battles with William and Mary.

It is surprising that some of the Bretts continued in the county after these tumultuous years. This probably happened because Theobald Taaffe, first Earl of Carlingford was a favorite in the Court of Charles II, and Charles made him Earl of Carlingford and re-granted him his Irish lands, and the Bretts and others seem to have managed these lands until they were sold in the 1750s.

There is a record of a survey of Sligo Town by a Mr. Brett in 1662 and 1663, for the following is recorded in Wood-Martin, Vol. 1: On entering and examining the town it is found to be divided by the river into two parts, one on the right or northern bank, and the other and larger part, on the left bank, each portion containing good streets. It is well to bear in mind that the nomenclature of the streets is comparatively modern. When Henry Vaughan and Mr. Brett, in 1662 and 1663, made a ” survey ” of the town of Sligo, in virtue of a commission under the Great Seal, the streets had no distinctive names: the district of the town lying to the north of the river being called the Fort-hill Quarter, and that lying to the south, the Castle Quarter, and sometimes the New Fort Quarter.


During the same period, John Brett of Sligo is recorded by O’Hart[3] as an M.P. in the Irish Parliament of Charles II., and an Assessor for the province of Connaught. O’Hart further states that five Bretts fought for James II., and one was Deputy Lieutenant of Co. Carlow.

Oddly enough, there are no Bretts mentioned in the rather extensive list of home-owners paying the Hearth Money tax in 1665[4].

During the times of James II John Brett was appointed to collect taxes on behalf of James II., as recounted in Wood-Martin, Vol. 2:”At a somewhat later date James issued a Commission for applotting £20,000 per month on personal estate and the benefit of trade and traffic; to collect this tax he appointed the following persons of local influence in the County of Sligo to assess for three months : The High Sheriff, pro tem.; Col. Oliver O’Gara; Henry Crofton; David Bond; Charles O’Hara ; John Crofton ; James French ; John Brett ; the Sovereign of Sligo, pro tem.
Their applotment was £1186 2s., with all powers and instructions for collecting.”

The main Brett residence was presumably at Deroon, which has the following statement in McDonagh’s History of Ballymote and Emlaghfad:

‘Deroon (Doire Uan i.e., the wood of the lambs). In this townland is the remains of the fortified house of the Brett family while on its hills are several remarkable “Tumuli” or mounds marking the burial places of some great, ancient warriors. What appears to be the entrance to one of them has been recently exposed by the breaking up of the land in tillage. Those of them which have been excavated in the neighbourhood, have been found to contain Urns, evidences of cremation, and bones, which point to their being used up to early Christian times.’



There are three Bretts of Co. Sligo mentioned in Deeds of the time, as recounted by Wood-Martin. These are John Brett in 1679 and 1680 as a witness on lands leased from Lord Carlingford by William Harloe, Francis Brett as witness on a lease of Bricklow Castle from the Earl of Carlingford to Francis Taaffe in 1687, and To. Brett as a witness on a lease to Margaret Costello in 1680.



1. Mary O’Dowd, “Early Modern Sligo 1568-1688, Power Politics and Land”, 1991, Belfast 
2. J. C. MacDonagh, “History of Ballymote and Emlaghfad”
3. John O’Hart, “The Irish and Anglo-Irish Gentry when Cromwell came to Ireland”, Dublin
4. The Hearth Money Roll for Co. Sligo, 1665. Analecta Hibernica, Vol. 24, 1968, pp. 17-89.
5. William Gregory Wood-Martin, History of Sligo County and Town; 3 vol. 1889, Dublin, reprinted about 1990.