Fineen (Florence) MacCarthy Reagh

Eleanor Hull
Fineen (Florence) MacCarthy Reagh

At the time of the Munster rebellion three courses were open to an Irishman of position. He might renounce his comrades and fellow-countrymen, declare openly for the Queen, and aid the English army to repress rebellion in his part of the country. Such a course seemed to open a path of safety and self-preservation, and it was definitely adopted by several of the Munster gentlemen, such as Sir Cormac MacCarthy, Lord of Muskerry, and Sir Donogh MacCarthy Reagh, Lord of Carbery, whom Sir Henry Sidney called “especial and rare men,” though a closer study of their character and motives will hardly endorse his verdict.

Or he might become an open rebel and throw off his allegiance.

Or, again, he might adopt the position of a neutral, and try to pursue his way undisturbed amid the warring forces around him—a difficult course in a country where intermarriage had linked the families closely together, and where the non-combatant was looked on with equal suspicion by both parties.

The history of Fineen, or Florence, MacCarthy[1] illustrates the career of a young chief who deliberately chose and faithfully endeavoured to carry through the rôle of a neutral.

While abstaining from any betrayal of the cause of his countrymen, or from active participation with the Queen’s forces, he yet professed, apparently with sincerity, loyalty and devotion to the Queen. His father, Sir Donogh, had proved his fidelity to the Crown during the course of a long life, and his services had been gratefully acknowledged by the authorities. Fineen, in the troubles of his later life, could always appeal to the allegiance of his father as a pledge of his own sincerity when his more dubious ways brought upon him the suspicion of the Government.

Fineen had been brought up among English associations. At the age of twelve his father had sent him to serve in the English army, where he made many friends among the young officers, who continued to believe in his fidelity long after the authorities had begun to doubt it. His boyhood had been happily spent in open-air pursuits, breasting the waves that beat up to the walls of Kilbrittain Castle, or hawking in the mountains and woods of Carbery.

His people were wealthy and lived luxuriously. One branch of the MacCarthys, represented by the Earl of Clancarty, was said to be worth £150,000 to £200,000 in King James II’s reign.

Long before any Geraldine had begun to carve out estates for his family the Clan Carty held all the province in subjection, “the continual memory whereof they yet use to nourish among them,” as Sir Thomas Norris remarked in 1588. They felt all the old jealousy of their supplanters, the FitzGeralds, so that it is not altogether surprising that two of the principal lords are found fighting against Desmond, the Ingens rebellibus exemplar, out of whose forfeited estates they looked to recover their lost status, and who was, moreover, only a usurper in his own family. The massive castles of Blarney and Kilbrittain, the headquarters, of the two chiefs, were only two out of the twenty-six strongholds built by this family in Co. Cork.

When in 1575 Sidney made his progress through the South he had been “very honourably attended by them and their ladies,” and found them both good subjects, especially Sir Cormac, “who truly was a special man.”

Fineen, brought up amid these courtly surroundings and taught to look upon the Queen as his lawful sovereign, had more chances than most Irish youths to grow up “in civility,” and though, when Viceroys were not by, he and his relations relapsed into the habits of the country, taking meat and drink by force from the freeholders of Carbery, besides special tributes in money exacted from his poor tenants, Fineen did not intend to sacrifice the special advantages gained from his position and training. He determined from his early youth to steer his way in the perplexities of the time between the rival claims of the English Government and the Irish gentry, to try to preserve his name and inheritance by an open profession of loyalty to the Crown, while keeping his hands unstained from participation in acts of hostility against his neighbours.

In ordinary times Fineen might have succeeded in his aim. He might have kept close within the fastnesses of Carbery, and there lived the life of a powerful lord whose princely revenue would have enabled him to keep up large bodies of kerne and galloglas, always ready at his call. The MacCarthy family could put into the field 4400 foot and over 600 horse. But when Sir Donogh died in the third year of the Desmond rebellion, and his brother succeeded him by the law of tanistry, all Munster was aflame, and every man of position was called upon to take part for or against the insurgents.

Fineen, as a minor, fell under the guardianship of Sir William Drury, President of Munster; but, unlike most wards, he was allowed to remain in his own country to assist in the pursuit of the unfortunate Desmond, instead of being sent to Dublin or London to be educated under the eye of the Government. From the outset of the rebellion he had served with the royal forces. At its close, at the age of twenty, he repaired to Court, was presented by Burghley to the Queen, and received, besides a gift of a thousand marks, an annuity of two hundred marks.

Taller by a head and shoulders than most men, winning in address, and the heir to great estates, Fineen made friends everywhere, from Cecil to old Lord de Courcy of Kinsale, who added to the young heir’s personal possessions a gift of land including the Old Head of Kinsale, which Fineen had long coveted.

The reckless follies of the head of his house, the Earl of Clancar, had given the young man the opportunity of enlarging his position by the purchase by mortgage of several of the principal fortresses in the Earl’s country, especially of Castle Lough, one of the three great mansions “the owner of which might always look to be MacCarthy More.”

Before he was come to man’s estate, Fineen was already taking steps to attain that coveted position, the end and aim of all his ambitions. The time came when his spendthrift and worthless uncle had little left to sell except his daughter Ellen, now, through the death in France of her dissolute and mean-spirited brother, become by English law heir to her father’s estates. In 1587 it was rumoured that the scapegrace Earl intended “to prefer his daughter in marriage.”

All sorts of claimants appeared. Sir Wareham St Leger suggested to Sir Thomas Norris that it would be a good match for him. But Sir Valentine Brown, who had been buying up his lands, had the old man, as well as his castle of Molahiff, in his grip. He also had a son; and it was noised abroad that, for money, the Earl was ready to sell his only daughter to this son of an adventurer.

While all this was public talk Munster was startled by the quite unexpected announcement that Fineen MacCarthy had outwitted them all, and had, with the connivance of Ellen’s mother, the Countess of Clancar, secretly married his cousin in “an old broken church.”

St Leger verily believed that, if it were duly examined, he was married with a Mass, being “very fervant in the old religion.” All Munster was in a ferment at the news; even the native chiefs saw the danger of this alliance between the heirs of the MacCarthy Reagh and the MacCarthy More. It led to combinations between Sir Owen O’Sullevan and Donal na Pipy, the wild baseborn son of old Clancar and “the only man in these two countries that leadeth a loose disloyal life.”

Even greater was the excitement in government circles. Fineen’s recent acquisition of the Old Head of Kinsale, his fluent command of the Spanish tongue, and his mother’s relationship to James FitzMaurice, “the Arch-traitor,” were called to mind, and it is no wonder that they thought it “greatly to be regarded to what end the same may grow.”

By way of precaution Norris apprehended all the chief actors in the drama, even the Countess, who was “the wife, sister, and daughter of an Earl, ever of very modest and good demeanour, though matched with one most disorderly and dissolute,” awaiting the Queen’s pleasure for further instructions.

The only undisturbed member of the group was Fineen, the author of all the turmoil. His wonderful address and power of making out a case for himself so impressed Norris that we find him writing to Burghley that, having become better acquainted with Fineen, he found that the lad had erred “in simplicity, not knowing her Highness’s pleasure.” His “good demeanour and carriage of himself” had completely won over Norris. Nevertheless, the lovers were divided, Ellen being retained in Cork “at large” and Fineen being sent for to London and imprisoned in the Tower, “the cause best known to your honours,” as a bill sent by the Constable for his maintenance to the Treasury after eight months’ internment puts it.

A few weeks later Lady Ellen stole out of Cork in disguise, and for two years her whereabouts were unknown. When, at the end of two years all but twenty days, Fineen was set free on Ormonde’s surety, and allowed to go about in London, his wife joined him, until their first son was born, when its mother took the babe back to Ireland, where he was carried about like a young prince, with a small body of horsemen in attendance.

It did not console Fineen to hear that Donal na Pipy, who became known as the “Munster Robin Hood,” was preying his country, as well as making himself the terror of all planters, spoiling and killing them wherever he could, and taking meat and drink where he could get it. He threatened “all men who wore hose after the English fashion.” Nor was it easy to sit still in London and know that his properties were passing into other hands, and that he was contracting heavy debts.

Burghley would have let him go home, but the undertakers who were making a harvest in his absence were up in arms, and petitions poured in to pray for his retention in London. But in 1593 a change came about in Fineen’s condition. The Queen had always believed in him, and now he was much with her, trying to induce her to agree that he was the only man who could deal with Donal.

In later days Fineen “could call to mind none but benefits received from the Queen.” There were even doubts in high quarters as to the legality of his seizure “against the Queen’s word and bond.” Cecil feared that the clapping up of the man without trial might prove scandalous.

Fineen, in a letter written thirty years later said that his confinement had been contrary to the pleasure of the Queen, “who knew me well and whom I served long.” He landed in Ireland early in November, carrying orders from Elizabeth to Viscount Barry, ordering him to pay over to Fineen a fine due to herself, and putting him into possession of one-third of his lands. She was steady in her support of his rights against officials and undertakers alike. “The poor English gentlemen,” Brown, Sir Edward Denny, and Herbert, were more than annoyed that difficulties were put in the way of their pouncing down upon the estates of the man of whom, once he was safe in the Tower, they hoped to hear no more.

Old Clancar had ended his discreditable career, and Herbert thought it a good opportunity to add another 6000 acres to those he had already possessed himself of. It was no pleasure to have Fineen back, determined to fight tooth and nail for every inch of his lands. A great part of his life from this time forward was absorbed in litigation, while at the same time he was persistent in his attempts to be recognized as the MacCarthy More.

All around him were persons eagerly awaiting his fall, that they might make their own profit out of his disgrace, and only his extreme wariness and knowledge of the men with whom he had to deal kept him for so long a time out of their clutches. He had with him the support of all who, like himself, were fighting the undertakers; but he kept clear of rebellion and was officially recognized in Munster as engaged in recovering the country of Desmond for the Queen and dispersing the mercenaries of O’Neill who were assisting Desmond in that province, while keeping his own sept out of action and chasing the “Munster Robin Hood,” his own chief enemy, out of his ill-gotten gains.

But the action of the undertakers was gradually driving the chiefs who had stood by the Queen during the earlier Desmond rebellions to the side of the Queen’s enemies. The rapacity of these men seemed limitless. Fineen refused to meet the Commissioners again, withdrew from Cork, and shut himself up in Kerry, gathering round him all Donal’s adversaries and hiring what Barry called “cabbage soldiers” from Connacht. His action gave rise to fresh suspicions, especially when it was noised about that he had had a secret meeting with the sougaun Earl, and that they had passed a night together in the forest, sleeping in one bed, a sure token of amity.

The actual object of the meeting was to get the Earl to swoop down on Barry, who had made his harvest out of Fineen’s lands; but there is little doubt that he had begun to play a double game, and Fineen’s enemies made the most in Dublin and London of this friendly meeting with the rebel Desmond, and did not spare to assert that they were acting in concert.

When summoned to meet Carew, Fineen was prolific in excuses. He had begun to feel that it was unsafe to venture into the presence of Carew without an absolute and unconditional pardon for all possible offences and a safe conduct to go and return. What to make of him the President knew not. He confesses himself “fairly perplexed.” He remembers him “a wise and civil gentleman generally beloved, and particularly esteemed by divers of extraordinary place and credit.” If Fineen prove false “then he will conclude that there is no faith in Israel.”

The Queen, Fineen heard, still laughed at the folly of any who cast suspicion on him, and would rather have a piece of service from him than from others whom she valued not; but in Munster the youth hung over Carew’s head “like a dark cloud.”

When other means failed Carew had a short way with rebels. He hired a ruffian to poison Fineen and when that was unsuccessful, he determined to get him into his power by any means, even by perjuring himself and falsifying the solemn oath of pardon and protection which he had recently made to him.[2]