John de Courcy

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XVIII. concluded

During this period Ulster was also desolated by civil war. Hugh O'Neill was deposed, and Connor O'Loughlin obtained rule; but the former was restored after a few years.

John de Courcy appears always to have been regarded with jealousy by the English court. His downfall was at hand, A.D. 1204; and to add to its bitterness, his old enemies, the De Lacys, were chosen to be the instruments of his disgrace. It is said that he had given mortal offence to John, by speaking openly of him as a usurper and the murderer of his nephew; but even had he not been guilty of this imprudence, the state he kept, and the large tract of country which he held, was cause enough for his ruin. He had established himself at Downpatrick, and was surrounded in almost regal state by a staff of officers, including his constable, seneschal, and chamberlain; he even coined money in his own name. Complaints of his exactions were carried to the King. The De Lacys accused him of disloyalty. In 1202 the then Viceroy, Hugh de Lacy, attempted to seize him treacherously, at a friendly meeting.

He failed to accomplish this base design; but his brother, Walter, succeeded afterwards in a similar attempt, and De Courcy was kept in durance until the devastations which his followers committed in revenge obliged his enemies to release him.

In 1204 he defeated the Viceroy in a battle at Down. He was aided in this by the O'Neills, and by soldiers from Man and the Isles. It will be remembered that he could always claim assistance from the latter, in consequence of his connexion by marriage. But this did not avail him. He was summoned before the Council in Dublin, and some of his possessions were forfeited. Later in the same year (A.D. 1204) he received a safe conduct to proceed to the King. It is probable that he was confined in the Tower of London for some time; but it is now certain that he revisited Ireland in 1210, if not earlier, in the service of John, who granted him an annual pension.[3] It is supposed that he died about 1219; for in that year Henry III. ordered his widow, Affreca, to be paid her dower out of the lands which her late husband had possessed in Ireland.

Cambrensis states that De Courcy had no children; but the Barons of Kinsale claim to be descended from him; and even so late as 1821 they exercised the privilege of appearing covered before George IV.—a favour said to have been granted to De Courcy by King John, after his recall from Ireland, as a reward for his prowess. Dr. Smith states, in his History of Cork, that Miles de Courcy was a hostage for his father during the time when he was permitted to leave the Tower to fight the French champion. In a pedigree of the MacCarthys of Cooraun Lough, county Kerry, a daughter of Sir John de Courcy is mentioned. The Irish annalists, as may be supposed, were not slow to attribute his downfall to his crimes.

Another English settler died about this period, and received an equal share of reprobation; this was FitzAldelm, more commonly known as Mac William Burke (De Burgo), and the ancestor of the Burke family in Ireland. Cambrensis describes him as a man addicted to many vices. The Four Masters declare that "God and the saints took vengeance on him; for he died of a shameful disease." It could scarcely be expected that one who had treated the Irish with such unvarying cruelty, could obtain a better character, or a more pleasing obituary. Of his miserable end, without "shrive or unction," there appears to be no doubt.

Stalactite Cave, Tipperary

Stalactite Cave, Tipperary


[3] Pension.—One hundred pounds per annum. Orders concerning it are still extant on the Close Rolls of England.—Rot. Lit. Clau. 1833, 144. It is curious, and should be carefully noted, how constantly proofs are appearing that the Irish bards and chroniclers, from the earliest to the latest period, were most careful as to the truth of their facts, though they may have sometimes coloured them highly. Dr. O'Donovan has devoted some pages in a note (Four Masters, vol. iii. p. 139) to the tales in the Book of Howth which record the exploits of De Courcy. He appears satisfied that they were "invented in the fifteenth or sixteenth century." Mr. Gilbert has ascertained that they were placed on record as early as 1360, in Pembridge's Annals. As they are merely accounts of personal valour, we do not reproduce them here. He also gives an extract from Hoveden's Annals, pars port, p. 823, which further supports the Irish account. Rapin gives the narrative as history. Indeed, there appears nothing very improbable about it. The Howth family were founded by Sir Almaric St. Lawrence, who married De Courcy's sister.