Fineen (Florence) MacCarthy Reagh (2)

Eleanor Hull
Fineen (Florence) MacCarthy Reagh | start of chapter

In the autumn of 1600 the last Munster rebellion was drawing to a close. James FitzThomas was reported to be “no better than a wood-kerne,” with only about four to five hundred followers left, lurking in the dense woods of Tipperary, and constantly on the move to avoid the agents of the government who were on the watch for him.

A new effort was made by the authorities in London to bring the tragedy to a close. There was in the Tower of London a child, the son of the old Earl and Countess of Desmond, who had been held as a hostage since his infancy. By English law he, and not James FitzThomas, the sougaun Earl, was the rightful heir to the title, and it was now proposed, apparently on the advice of Cecil and Raleigh, to divide the Desmond interest in Ireland by sending over this lad, James, known by the mournful title of “the Tower Earl.”

The Queen was uncertain as to the wisdom of this policy, and especially of the advisability of creating him earl before he went over to Ireland, which was pressed upon her by Cecil. Again and again she took the pen in her hand to sign the patent of his nobility, and threw it down again. Suppose that, instead of dividing the province, the two Desmonds were to unite? Finally the patent was sent over, but not mentioned to James; it might be used or not as circumstances dictated.[3]

Meanwhile, the youth in the Tower, about whom all the Court and all Munster were filled with rumours, was partially released from his long confinement and allowed to walk about London during the day, returning to lie in the Tower every night; further than that the Queen would not move.

Cecil finds the young gentleman’s disposition “tied to honest grounds, but spendful above measure,” so that it will be necessary to have a wary eye over him. He suggests that it would facilitate the setting of Munster by the ears if some portions of Fineen’s lands were assigned to this new Earl instead of those belonging of right to his own family; but Cecil does not expect that the “tender and sickly” lad, who had been reared without light or liberty, will ever like an Irish life; already, before he leaves London, he is begging to be permitted soon to return to the only life he has known within the gloomy Tower walls.

It is darkly hinted to Carew that no blame will attach to him “for any caution (how curious soever) in the managing this young puer male cinctus,” who is proud, and whose mouth may water to get back the undertaker’s lands.[4] When, on October 14, 1600, the young Desmond landed it was already felt that the need of his coming over was past.

Captain Richard Greame had fallen upon the sougaun Earl as he was marching into the forests of Atherlow, had slain his son and sixty of his men, captured his cattle, munitions, and all his baggage, and driven him and his army before them into Leix, killing them as they ran. It was a complete overthrow of the Earl and of the hopes of the Munster people, which were centred in him. He was forced to take refuge in an obscure cave “many fathoms underground,” in the mountain of Slewgrott. There, hidden under bushes, he was run to earth on May 29, 1601, by his mortal enemy, the White Knight, Edmond FitzGibbon, brother-in-law to the Earl, of whom Carew had once written that “a more faithless man never lived upon earth.”[5] He was now so fearful of losing the £400 reward offered for the Earl’s apprehension that “he could not sleep at night for dread that some other would anticipate him.”

There is an Irish saying that expresses the feelings of the South on hearing of the arrest of the sougaun Earl:

“There is no anger but abates, except the anger of Christ with ClanGibbon."[6]

Fineen MacCarthy’s opinion of the White Knight is expressed in a characteristic manner in a letter written to him in Irish which fell into the President’s hands. As translated to Carew it opened as follows:

“Damnation, I cannot but commend me heartily to you, as bad as thou art. ... I would be very glad to speak to you for your good,” etc.

The sougaun Earl, whatever the justice of his claims to the title, was, according to Carew, “a man the most generally beloved by all sorts that in my life I have known,” and the most potent of all the Geraldines; he considered that it would be dangerous to keep him prisoner in Ireland, and preparations were made to send him to London.

In the meanwhile, another event of great importance had occurred. Early in March Fineen, whose dealings with the Spaniards[7] were bringing him continually into suspicion, and whose own letters prove that he was deep in Tyrone’s confidence and aiding him in every way in his power, had yet consented to come to Carew and bring in his son as a pledge. He took the precaution to obtain from Carew a renewal of his pardon and protection, though his last protection was not expired. But the temptation of having in his hands at once the two greatest sources of danger in Munster, the two around whom not only the hopes of the South were centred, but those of the Spaniards whose landing was again daily expected, proved too much for Carew. By an act of treachery he detained Fineen prisoner, awaiting an opportunity to send both his captives into England.

Once, during the first rebellion of the Earl of Desmond, Burghley had proposed to Ormonde “to put protected persons into sure hold.” Enemy to the Desmonds as he was, Ormonde had replied:

“My Lord, I will never use treachery to any, for it will both touch her Highness’ honour and mine own credit. … Saving my duty to her Majesty, I would I were to have revenge by my sword of any man that thus persuadeth the Queen to write to me.”

Cecil and Carew had no such scruples, even as to keeping faith with a man to whom the Queen’s word had been “solemnly and advisedly given.”

The sougaun Earl was sentenced to death, but prudence prevailed, though “the fingers of the Lords were tingling to hang him”; he dragged out a long existence in the Tower, forgotten by his friends, while the great Desmond estates went to enrich needy courtiers and adventurers.

Fineen lived on till after 1637, and must have been little short of eighty when he died. He was tossed backward and forward between the Tower, the Marshalsea, and the Fleet, with intervals of freedom during which he was allowed at large in London, mixing again with men of rank about the Court. To the end he retained his power of making those who came into contact with him believe in his sincerity.

His family sorrows were great. His wife, Lady Ellen, forsook him and worked against him even before his committal, and he ascribed his taking by Carew to her evil machinations. She seems to have been as shallow and selfish as her father, and her husband refused to have her with him in the Tower, where he believed she acted as a spy upon his actions. His eldest son, brought up in the debasing surroundings of a prison, was a degenerate, but his other children remained with him.

His confinement, usually a light one, seems to have become stricter as time went on, and at the age of seventy he writes that he is kept in a little close room, without sight of the air, and contrary to the Queen’s pleasure, whereby his life is much endangered. He had the added sorrow of knowing that Donal, the scapegrace, had taken the title of MacCarthy More, and in course of time he learned that Donal had been restored by the Government to his father’s lands.

Great numbers of Fineen’s letters remain, mostly concerned with his efforts to regain his properties and the constant litigation in which these efforts involved him. Helpless in the Tower, he fought the Government and the adventurers alike in a costly but fruitless struggle to assert his rights. He was never tried, though he never relaxed his efforts to be brought to trial.

The adventurers who were enjoying his lands were strong enough to prevent this and thus to stave off the inquiry into the justice of their claims that would needs have ensued.

In happier times Fineen might have shone as the centre of a brilliant circle; it was only his great position that consigned him to a living tomb. He lived on into the reign of Charles I and witnessed the flight of the Earls, the plantation of Ulster, the execution of Raleigh, and the tyranny of Strafford.

The young “Tower Earl” soon rejoined his compatriots in the Tower. His stay in Ireland had been brief and unsuccessful. When he arrived in Cork no preparation seems to have been made for his reception; he was forced to bid himself to the Mayor’s house “else had he gone supperless to bed.” “If this lawyer mayor” (one Meagh or Meade), he remarks, “have no better insight into Littleton than in other observances of this place, he may be well called Lacklaw, for it was with much ado that we got anything for money; most of my people lay without lodging, and Captain Price had the hogs for his neighbours.”

It was intended that Castlemaine should be the young Earl’s place of residence, with a pension of £500 a year from the frugal Queen, Castlemaine being then closely besieged by Sir Charles Wilmott. It did surrender on the summons of the Earl, and this was the only service done by sending the lad to Ireland. His progress into Limerick ended in a fiasco.

In Kilmallock, where he arrived on a Saturday evening, a mighty concourse of people turned out to see him, “all the streets, doors, and windows, yea, the very gutters and tops of houses being filled with them”; they welcomed him with signs of joy, every one throwing upon him wheat and salt as a prediction of future peace and plenty. It was with difficulty that they made their way to Sir George Thornton’s house. But, the next day being Sunday, the lad, who, like all wards and hostages, had been brought up in the reformed doctrines, attended the Protestant service, the crowds all the way endeavouring to turn him from his purpose.

On his return the temper of the people had entirely changed. He was railed at and spat upon; the strangers in the town melted away, and no more notice was taken of him than of any private gentleman. His visit to Ireland proving to be a failure, he was soon afterward sent back to London.

The undertakers dreaded his presence in Ireland, fearing it portended the restoration to him of some of his father’s lands, of which they were in possession, and Cecil also was uneasy, for rumours reached him that the lad was proposing to marry the widow of Sir Thomas Norris, late President of Munster, who had been killed by the rebels in 1599. “I do profess unto you that I do never shut mine eyes but with fear at my waking to hear some ill news of him,” Cecil writes to Carew on December 15, 1606.[8]

Altogether it was decided that he was safer in the Tower, since the main object of his release was at an end, none of the chiefs in arms in the South, except Thomas Oge FitzGerald of Kerry, having submitted on his account, and the rebellion being practically over. The Queen was offering pardons to all who would come in, save the chief organizers, James FitzThomas and his brother John, with conditions to the other leaders, so that in less than two months over four thousand persons by name had been recommended by Carew to the Lord Deputy for pardons.

The young Earl himself, whose mind had evidently been weakened by his long residence in the Tower, “not well agreeing with the manners and customs of Ireland,” seems to have shown no reluctance to return, and henceforth, for the short three months during which he lingered after the sougaun Earl joined him in that gloomy abode, we have few records of him except the bills of his apothecary, of which several remain to prove the feeble state of his health. In Ireland the people had looked on the pale, weakly lad as a ‘changeling,’ and the effect of the Irish experiment is summed up by the Earl himself in a letter written to Cecil from that country:

“I find my honourable good Lord kind to me; but I am contemptible unto the country.”

So ended in degeneracy and alienation from his country the last scion of the Anglo-Norman house of Desmond.