Carlow, County

From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

CARLOW, an inland county of the province of LEINSTER, bounded on the east by the counties of Wicklow and Wexford, on the north by those of Kildare and Wicklow, on the west by the Queen's county and Kilkenny, and on the south by that of Wexford. It extends from 52° 26' to 52° 54' (N. Lat.), and from 6° 30' to 7° 12' (W. Lon.); and comprises an area, according to the Ordnance survey, of 219,863 acres, of which 196,833 are cultivated land, and 23,030 mountain and bog. The population, in 1821, was 78,952, and in 1831, 81,988. This district, so far as can be collected from Ptolemy, was the habitation of the Brigantes and Cauci; or, according to Whitaker, of the Coriundi. Afterwards it formed the northern part of the principality of Hy Kinselagh, and was distinguished by the name of Hy Cabanagh and Hy Drone: in later times it was called Catherlough. It is noticed in the earliest period of Irish history as the scene of contention between Conmal, son of Heber, and grandson of Milesius, and a descendant of Heremon, the latter of whom was defeated at Leighlin.

When Con of the Hundred Battles, who reigned about the middle of the second century, divided the island into two jurisdictions, Dinrigh or Dewa Slaney, between Carlow and Leighlin, and Naas in Kildare, were made the sites of the royal palaces of the kingdom of Leinster. No traces of ruins, however, now exist to confirm the truth of this traditionary record, with respect to the former of those places. The synod of the clergy held about the year 630, to decide on the proper time for the celebration of Easter, met at St. Gobhan's abbey, in Old Leighlin; and about the same time the bishoprick, which takes its name from that place, was founded. That the county shared with the other parts of the island in the devastations committed by the Danes, during the ninth and tenth centuries, appears from the fact that the rich abbey of Achadfinglas was plundered by them in 864.

The year 908 was distinguished by a decisive battle between the people of Leinster and those of Munster, the latter headed by Cormac Mac Cuillenan, better known as the writer of the Psalter of Cashel than by his political or military acts: the scene of this battle was at Moyalbe, supposed by O'Halloran and Lanigan to be somewhere in the vicinity of Ballymoon, in this county; the Munster men were defeated, and Cormac, with many of his nobles and officers, and six thousand of his best soldiers, slain. In the same century, the monastery of St. Mullins was plundered by the Danes, and Leighlin was three times taken by the people of Ossory.

After the arrival of the English, it appears that some of the petty chieftains of the district refused to join in the alliance formed by Dermot Mac Murrough, their king, with the Welsh invaders. For, when Strongbow, after having dispersed the numerous army with which Roderic, King of Ireland, had invested Dublin, marched southward to relieve Fitz-Stephen, then blocked up in Carrig castle, near Wexford, he was assailed during his passage through Hy Drone by O'Ryan, the lord of the country, with such impetuosity that victory remained doubtful, until the death of the Irish leader turned the scale in favour of the invaders. It was in this battle that Strongbow is said to have hewn his son, a youth about fifteen years of age, in two, for deserting his post during the engagement. The importance attached by the conquerors to the possession of the territory thus acquired is evident from the fact that, within a few years after, the castles of Carlow, Leighlin, and Tullow, were erected by Hugh de Lacy, then lord-deputy.

After the death of William, Earl-Marshal, to whom nearly the whole of Leinster belonged in right of his wife Isabel, daughter of Strongbow by Eva, princess of Leinster and heiress of Dermot Mac Murrough, this vast estate was divided among his five daughters; and the palatinate of Carlow, which had been previously made one of the twelve counties into which King John divided all those parts of Ireland that acknowledged his government devolved by marriage on Hugh le Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, who thus became earl-marshal and lord of Carlow, in right of his wife Maud, eldest daughter of the deceased. For many subsequent years the English kept possession of these border districts by a very frail tenure. At the close of the thirteenth century, Old Leighlin was burnt in an incursion of the people of the neighbouring territory of Slieumargy, which was then considered to be part of the county; and, at the commencement of the next century, it appears that the owners of this princely estate, the palatinate of Carlow, having also large possessions in England, paid but little attention to its interests.

Residing in another country, and finding their income from this quarter diminishing, in consequence of the mismanagement of their deputies and the disturbed state of the country, they had recourse to a remedy, which, however effectual at first, ultimately proved destructive to their interests in this quarter. They retained one of the Kavanaghs, the descendants of Mac Murrough, and, though illegitimate, the inheritor of his hereditary rights, as a kind of military agent, to supply by the sword the deficiencies of the law. Kavanagh, thus placed in a situation peculiarly tempting to a turbulent and ambitious character, soon broke the connection, and seized upon a great portion of Carlow and Wexford, as belonging to him of right: he further assumed the regal title of Mac Murrough, and strengthened his newly acquired power by an alliance with the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles of the neighbouring mountainous district of Wicklow.

In 1316, Sir Edmund Butler, lord-justice, defeated Mac Murrough near Ballylethan; and the same year was marked by the incursion of Edward Bruce into the southern counties. But though the invader passed through Castledermot and Tullow, in his progress southward, he made no impression on this county; and, that it still continued subject in a great degree to the sway of the Kavanaghs may be inferred from the circumstance that, in 1323, Donnell Mac Arthur Mac Murrough, "a slip of the royal family," as Campion calls him, raised forces and displayed his banner within two miles of the city of Dublin. He paid dearly, however, for his temerity, being defeated by a party of the garrison. O'Nolan, dynast of Forth barony, and twenty-five of his followers were killed; and Mac Murrough's life was spared only on payment of £200, a large sum in those days; after remaining six years immured in Dublin castle, he at length contrived to effect his escape through the connivance of his keeper.

After this the Irish enjoyed the ascendancy for some time; they plundered the English and burnt their churches. One outrage was marked with features of peculiar atrocity. The church of Freineston, or Friarstown, was attacked during the time of divine service, the building fired, and the priest and congregation, while attempting to escape, driven back into the flames. The spiritual as well as temporal power was called into action to inflict punishment for this horrid act. It was visited by a sentence of excommunication from the pope; and the burghers of Wexford, aided by others of the English, having attacked the perpetrators when preparing to advance upon the English settlement there, routed them with considerable loss both in the field and in crossing the Slaney.

The depredations of the Irish borderers at this period called for the most decisive measures, as a preliminary for which it was deemed expedient to summon the most distinguished nobles and prelates to a council in England. But such was the reduced state of the county, from the long continuance of deeds of outrage, that the return to the writ of summons states that, " by reason of poverty, from the frequent robberies and depredations of the Irish enemies, there was no layman able to attend the king in the English council. " It appears further that a temporary protection from the predatory assaults of the borders could only be procured by the degrading payment of a tribute called the Black Rent. In 1332, the castle of Clonmore was taken by the English, yet, notwithstanding the advantage thus gained, Sir John D'Arcy, the lord-justice, could devise no more effective means for repressing the spirit of insubordination than by calling in the assistance of Maurice Fitzgerald, afterwards Earl of Desmond, whose services were purchased by a promise of remuneration from the treasury, and whose compliance changed the aspect of affairs.

Advancing against the Mac Murroughs and O'Nolans, he ravaged their district, compelled their submission, and exacted hostages for its continuance. But the most disastrous effects were produced by this connection; the lord-justice, unable to fulfil his pecuniary engagements, was forced to connive at the extortion of coyn and livery, now first practised by the English; a grievance the more intolerable, as it was limited neither in place nor time. Every lord of a castle, or warden of the marches, made war at his pleasure, until the desolation became universal and threatened to be perpetual.

Still, however, the Irish, though worsted on most occasions, were in arms. In 1339, the Earl of Kildare pursued the O'Dempseys across the Barrow; and the greatest booty ever seized in the country was carried from Idrone, by the Bishop of Hereford, then lord-justice. In 1346, the county of Carlow, with all its appurtenances, was granted in capite to Thomas de Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk and Marshal of England. The next year, Donald Mac Murrough, styled Prince of Leinster, was murdered by his own followers: some years after, the castles of Kilbelle, Galbarstown, and Rathlyn were taken and dismantled by the O'Nolans, the Mac Murroughs, and the O'Birnes. In 1361, Lionel, the king's son, arrived in Ireland as lord-lieutenant. The importance attached by him to the possession of this district is shown by his causing the king's exchequer to be removed to Carlow town, and by his expending the large sum of £500 on the repairs of its fortifications. But the neglect of the English Government and the intestine feuds of the natives had been suffered to ferment too long to admit of an effectual remedy by the exertions of any single governor.

To such a height had the power of the Irish chieftains increased that, within a very few years, the boundary of the pale was transferred from Carlow to the immediate vicinity of Dublin. The system of ravage and desolation continued. The annals of the time state that the priory of Old Leighlin, being situated in a depopulated and wasted country, obtained a grant of public money to enable it to give refuge and succour to the king's subjects; and that the bishop of the diocese was plundered of all his goods, in 1376, by the insurgents; also that, in 1389, he obtained a grant of Galroestown, near the O'Tooles' country, as a residence in lieu of his own, which had been rendered uninhabitable.

When Richard II. first visited Ireland, in 1394, the place selected by him to receive the homage and oaths of fidelity of the Irish was in an open field at Ballygorey, near Carlow, when Malachias and Arthur Mac Murrough, Gerald O'Birne, Donald O'Nolan, and others, swore fealty before the earl-marshal on bended knees, and without girdle, skein, or cap. Pensions on this occasion were granted to several of them, especially to Art Mac Murrough, chief of the Kavanaghs, whose grant was continued to his family till the time of Henry VIII. Yet hardly had the king quitted the country, when the Irish again asserted the independence they had so long struggled to maintain; and Richard, determined to effect the complete subjugation of the country, returned thither in 1399. He marched from Waterford to Dublin through the districts of the Mac Murroughs, Kavanaghs, O'Tooles, and O'Byrnes; but, in consequence of the severe pressure on his men from want of provisions, he performed no action worthy of notice beyond that of felling considerable quantities of timber, and clearing the highways through his line of march.

The state of affairs in England compelled his speedy departure. In 1420, in order to make up a subsidy of 1000 marks voted to the king, the county of Carlow was assessed at four marks, one shilling and fourpence; while that of Louth, nearly of the same area, was charged with twenty-five marks, twelve shillings and fivepence; a convincing proof of the low ebb to which the former had been reduced by its internal distractions. In 1494, the brother of the Earl of Kildare, then strongly suspected of treasonable intentions, seized on Carlow castle, but was compelled by the lord-deputy to surrender it, after sustaining a siege of ten days. Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, better known by the name of "the Silken Knight," who broke out into rebellion against Henry VIII. in 1534, was in possession of six of the chief castles of the kingdom, of which Carlow was one.

Three years afterwards, the act of Absentees was passed, in consequence of which the Duke of Norfolk was deprived of this county, which he inherited from Thomas de Brotherton, and a great part of it was afterwards bestowed upon the Ormonde family. In the same year, the lord-deputy defeated the Kavanaghs, and compelled their chief to submit and give hostages. The act for the suppression of religious houses, in 1537, caused the dissolution of three only in this county, being the preceptory of Killarge, the Carmelite monastery of Leighlin-Bridge, and the Augustinian friary of Tullow.

In the same reign a fierce contest for their territorial possessions took place between two branches of the Kavanagh family, in which, after a pitched battle, wherein upwards of one hundred were killed on each side, Cahir Mac Art, of Polmonty, prevailed over Gerald Mac Cahir, of Garryhill, and secured possession of the disputed property.

During the succeeding reign of Edward VI., this family was perpetually harassed by Sir William Brabazon, lord-deputy, who ravaged the country, and ultimately compelled the chieftain of it to make a formal submission, renounce the name of Mac Murrough, and surrender his jurisdiction and territory. A change of fortune attended it in the ensuing reign. Charles Mac Art Kavanagh was created Baron of Balian, and after his death, his brother Dermot had the same title; but these honours were insufficient to secure their attachment to the Government; for, in 1555, they invaded the county of Dublin, but were ultimately driven by a sortie of the armed citizens into Powerscourt castle, where, on the appearance of a regular military force, they surrendered at discretion, and were taken to Dublin, where seventy-five of them were hanged and the rest pardoned. During this and the preceding period, the barony of Idrone was considered to be a distinct jurisdiction from the county of Carlow.

By an inquisition taken in the reign of Richard II. it appears, that Sir John Carew, who came into the country in the train of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, was in possession of it, and that it devolved, at his death, on Sir Leonard Carew, upon whose decease the Kavanaghs seized on it and held it by force of arms. Sir Peter Carew revived and established the family claim to it before the privy council of Ireland, in 1567; and the next year he was employed by the lord-deputy to put down Sir Edmund Butler, who had joined the great Earl of Desmond in his rebellion, and succeeded not only in taking Sir Edmund's castle of Cloughgrenan, but in routing a large body of the earl's friends in Kilkenny, and in compelling the Kavanaghs, who had taken up arms in the same cause, to throw themselves upon the queen's mercy, and give hostages. Still, the restless spirit of the natives of this district seems to have been indomitable; for, in 1571, they " began again," as Hooker quaintly expresses it, "to play their pageants." A quarrel having taken place between one of the Kavanaghs and a proprietor of the name of Browne, recourse was had to arms, and Browne was killed; but the strife was not thus terminated. The Wexford people joined the weaker party, and the quarrel was still carried on for some time in petty but sanguinary conflicts, in which the superior generalship of the leader of the Kavanaghs finally prevailed. The strife, however, led to no remarkable changes.

During the attempts made by the court of Spain to excite insurrections in Ireland, in the latter part of Elizabeth's reign, the county was harassed by a new disturber. Rory Oge O'More, a chieftain of the Queen's county, attacked and burnt part of the town of Leighlin-Bridge: he did not, however, remain unmolested. Sir George Carew, a relative of Sir Peter, attacked him unexpectedly by night and routed his party; but the fugitives having discovered the great inferiority of numbers that pursued them, rallied and drove the English back to Leighlin castle, which they very nearly succeeded in taking. O'More afterwards made an attack on the town of Carlow, but with as little success; he was finally taken and executed as a rebel. The same spirit of turbulence continued to the close of Elizabeth's reign. Donell Kavanagh, usually called Spaniagh or the Spaniard, made himself peculiarly formidable by his prowess and activity.

In 1590, having procured the aid of the mountain tribes of Wicklow, he plundered the whole country from the border of Wexford to the gates of Dublin. At length Lord Mountjoy undertook the subjugation of the district, which he effected after ravaging Donell Spaniagh's country, whence he carried off an immense booty of cattle, and secured his conquest by placing garrisons in the strong posts of Wicklow and Tullow. So effectually did he succeed, that the leaders of those districts served under his standard in his subsequent operations for tranquillising Munster, in effecting which he made Carlow his head-quarters, "as being, as things stood, the place best to give directions to all parts and to secure the most dangerous." It was not until the ninth year of his reign that James I. found sufficient leisure to put in practice his pacific project for the settlement, or plantation, as it was called, of Carlow, Wexford, and Wicklow counties. In that year a king's letter was issued on the subject, but it does not appear to have been followed up, with respect to the first of these counties, by further measures.

On the breaking out of the civil war in 1641, the people of Carlow and Wexford, together with those of the Wicklow mountains, took up arms against the Government; and not content with overrunning these counties, they marched into Waterford, where they were defeated by Sir William St. Leger, president of Munster. The next year, the Earl of Ormonde having entered the county with a large force, the Irish, who were in possession of the town of Carlow, and had blocked up the English garrison in the castle, broke up the siege and retreated with some loss; and the garrison, consisting of 500 men, was thus saved from destruction. When the confederate Catholics afterwards resolved to levy a force of 31,700 men, this county was assessed at 2400, of which 40 cavalry and 400 infantry were to serve in the general army, and the remainder to act in the county. The county was not exempt from its share in the sufferings of 1798: the amount of money claimed by the loyalists within it, in compensation for their loss of property during the disturbances, was £24,854. 14. 7.

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