The O’Conors of Connacht and the O’Briens of Thomond

Eleanor Hull
The O’Conors of Connacht and the O’Briens of Thomond

Cathal Crovdearg was younger brother of Rory, and son of Turlogh Mór O’Conor, the powerful prince whose successful wars against Ulster and Munster had prepared the way for the supremacy of his son.

Turlogh built the first three stone castles of Irish Ireland and the first stone bridges over the Shannon and the Suck. He will ever be remembered as the founder of the cathedral of Tuam with its splendid chancel-arch and the unique cross, thirty feet high, which stands beside it.

At Clonmacnois, where he is buried, the great belfry was built under his auspices. But more interesting still is the cross of Cong—a magnificent specimen of Irish filigree metal work, inlaid with precious stones. In its centre a polished crystal contained a relic of the wood of the true Cross sent to the King from Rome in 1125, and round it runs the inscription, “A prayer for Turlogh O’Conor, King of Ireland, for whom this shrine was made.”

The Cross of Cong (A.D. 1123)

The Cross of Cong (a.d. 1123)

He was justly proud of the exquisite workmanship and purpose of this cross, ordering it to be carried in procession throughout Ireland and honoured with the greatest devotion. His reign and that of his sons formed the climax of Connacht’s pre-eminence. He erected a mint at Clonmacnois for the coinage of silver money, and the arts of peace as well as of war flourished under his rule.

The artists who designed and the men who ordered such delicate works of art as the cross of Cong, the Ardagh chalice, or the shrine of St Manchan, all produced by this school, must have been possessed of taste and culture. There had been, from early times in Ireland, families or castes of metal-workers, devoted to their craft, and these may still have existed; but it may have been a daughter of Rory O’Conor who designed the lovely adornments of the chalice of Ardagh, “the silver chalice with a burnishing of gold upon it,” which we still admire to-day. She died in 1247 at Clonmacnois.

In 1129 a great misfortune occurred. A Dane entered the church of Clonmacnois and stole from the high altar the precious vessels with which it was adorned. These included three gifts bestowed upon the church by King Turlogh: a silver cup with a gold cross over it, a drinking-horn with gold, and a silver chalice, besides a model of Solomon’s Temple among other valuables. The thief was taken and executed a year later, and the treasures were restored.[1]

The story of Cathal of the Red Hand is a romantic one. Tradition says that he was the illegitimate son of Turlogh, whose wife pursued him with such hatred that his mother was obliged to flee with him into Leinster. She also, with a magical charm, turned his hand wine-red. When he grew up he took service with a farmer, always keeping his right hand covered. He was one day reaping rye in a field when a herald passed by, proclaiming that the King of Connacht was dead, and that the people would elect no other successor save Cathal, if he could be found. He would be known, it was said, by his right hand, which was red like wine. For some minutes Cathal Crovdearg stood on the ridge in silent thought. Then, pulling off his glove, he exhibited his hand to the herald, who, recognizing him by his likeness to his father, fell at his feet. Flinging away his sickle on the ridge, the youth exclaimed, “Farewell, sickle; now for the sword.” “Cathal’s farewell to the rye” is a proverb meaning a farewell never to return.[2]

According to more historical sources Cathal was the son of Turlogh’s second wife, Dervorgil, daughter of O’Lochlan of Ulster, later monarch of Ireland, and thus stepbrother to Rory, Turlogh’s successor. Cathal’s life was spent in struggles with the members of his own family to maintain himself on the throne. Rory, on his retirement to the monastery of Cong in 1183, had resigned the sovereignty to his son Conor Moinmoy, thus carrying out the English principle of primogeniture. But on his “return from his pilgrimage” in 1185 his son refused to resign the throne, and a general war broke out between the different members of the family, no less than five of whom aspired to the kingship. These were, besides Rory himself, his two sons Conor Moinmoy and Conor O’Dermot; Cathal Carragh, son of Conor Moinmoy; and Cathal Crovdearg, Rory’s brother.

The inherent weakness of the Irish rule of succession, by which a group of relatives could all claim the kingship, could not be better illustrated. The murder of Conor Moinmoy by his own people in 1189 and the death of Rory in 1198 removed two of the competitors and left the two Cathals face to face to fight out their contest for the throne. A fierce and prolonged struggle ensued, in which the local chiefs, especially Crovdearg’s mortal foes the O’Flahertys of West Connacht, took part. It seemed as though the contest would terminate in favour of Cathal Carragh, who was supported by two of the O’Briens and the fierce and ruthless Norman baron William de Burgh, whose combined armies pillaged the province, stripping the priests in the churches, carrying off the women, and plundering the country without pity.[3]

Crovdearg, on his side, appealed for help to the O’Neills of Ulster and to John de Courcy. The O’Neills refused to be drawn into the warfare, and Hugh de Lacy the Younger took their place, only to share in a severe defeat at Kilmacduagh, and to escape ignominiously with his allies across Lough Ree back into his own district of Meath. This was in 1202. Finding Cathal and de Courcy both in his power, de Lacy, who was aiming at the downfall of de Courcy, took advantage of his opportunity, arrested both the fugitives, and sent John de Courcy to Dublin, where he was forced to give pledges for obedience to the Government, of which he had hitherto been practically independent.

On his release Cathal Crovdearg seems to have thrown himself into the hands of his old enemies, William de Burgh and the O’Briens, who marched with him into Connacht, devastating as they went. Cathal Carragh himself was accidentally killed while watching a fight between his own army and that of his former supporter, de Burgh. But a fearful vengeance fell on de Burgh and his people for their destruction of the province. A rumour was circulated that he had been killed, and one night every man in the province who had any of de Burgh’s soldiery quartered in his household rose and murdered his guests, nine hundred in all, so that he returned with a remnant only into Munster. To chastise de Burgh, Meiler FitzHenry, who had become Justiciar of Ireland in 1200, came into Munster with Walter de Lacy; they marched to Limerick and banished de Burgh, handing over the custody of Limerick to William de Braose.

William de Burgh was called over to England to answer for complaints made against him by FitzHenry, but he eventually returned to Munster with his castles of Askeaton and Kilfeakle restored to him, though the King retained Connacht in his own hands. William’s stormy career came to an end in 1205 or 1206. He had established himself in Munster and is said to have married a daughter of Donal O’Brien to strengthen his connexion there; and he had vigorously exerted himself to make good a vague grant in Connacht made to him by Prince John, first by his war-alliance with Cathal Carragh and, when he died and the cause of Cathal Crovdearg was taken up by the English Government, by going over to the winning side. His actual possessions seem to have been limited to the castle of Meelick, which he had built in Co. Galway, using for the core of his structure the largest church in the place. He made an attempt also to fortify the monastery of Boyle (Ath-da-Larag) and to use it for a barracks, but was interrupted in the course of this work. In later days it frequently became a centre of war and one of the stormiest districts in the whole province. No sense of having desecrated sacred sites seems to have troubled de Burgh in carrying out these schemes. William was the founder of the family of the de Burghs or Burkes, future Earls of Ulster, and of the Burkes of Munster and Connacht, the latter province being regranted to his son Richard in 1222–23.

We must now return to the later history of Cathal Crovdearg and his immediate successors. It was probably at the synod held at Athlone in 1202 under the presidency of the Cardinal John, and soon after the death of his rival, Cathal Carragh, that the claims of Cathal to Connacht were formally ratified. Either then or earlier he had received the regular inauguration of his people, which was still carried out with all the old solemn ceremonial up to the reign of his grandson, Felim, whose chief chronicler, O’Mulconry, has left an interesting account of the ritual at which, in 1315, he acted as the principal official. Twelve bishops and twelve of the greater chieftains must always be present at the ceremony, with representatives of the minor septs. It took place at the huge cairn called Carnfree (Carn Fraoich) on the plains of Rathcrogan, in Co. Roscommon.[4]

Only a prince chosen by the suffrages of his people was eligible for this popular election. The Irish steadfastly held to the old habit of selection between candidates who, being born within the limits prescribed by Irish law, were all equally eligible for election to the sovereignty. They knew nothing up to Rory’s time of the English system of primogeniture.

In the long disputes with the turbulent Hugh de Lacy the Younger, Cathal ranged himself on the side of the English King against their common enemy, as he held de Lacy to be. But Prince John’s grant to Hugh de Lacy of six cantreds of Connacht on the borders nearest Meath was destined to prove a thorn in the side of Cathal. With his elder brother Walter, Hugh had inherited the rich grant of Meath made to their father, but, not satisfied with this, he aspired also to the rule of Eastern Ulster as well as to the lands in Connacht. In Ulster he spared no effort to dispossess John de Courcy by war and treachery.[5] That brave knight had fallen out of favour, it is said because he took no care to conceal his horror of King John’s dastardly murder of his young nephew, Arthur, in Brittany.

The King, therefore, was ready to further de Lacy’s schemes to bring him to ruin. The brothers de Lacy pursued him into Ulster and two years later, in 1203, they defeated him at the battle of Down, taking him prisoner either in that or the following year.

It is said that Hugh’s soldiers were so afraid of the great warrior that they dared not attack him in his armour; therefore they fell on him on the Good Friday following the battle, when, unarmed and barefooted, he was making his devotions at the church of St Patrick in Down. With the help of some of his own men, who had been bribed by de Lacy, he was captured after a fight in which he defended himself with a cross-pole until it broke in his hand having killed thirteen of those who attacked him. But when the traitors appeared before de Lacy to claim their reward he had them hanged and their goods plundered. Hugh, however, had achieved his will. On May 2, 1205, he went over to England and in the same month he received a grant of all the lands held by de Courcy in Ulster, with the title of Earl of Ulster, the first Anglo-Norman dignity of which there is a record extant.

The later career of de Courcy is something of a mystery. The common story of his imprisonment in the Tower of London, and of his release in order to fight the French champion, may or may not be true. The Annals of Loch Cé (1204) speak of his having been released after being ‘crossed’ for the Crusades, but it is unlikely that he ever went to Palestine. The Chronicle of Man says that he sought help from his wife’s relations in the Isle of Man, and that he returned with a large army and a hundred ships, which sailed up Strangford Lough, but they were surprised by Walter de Lacy and put entirely to rout.

John de Courcy must have lived for some years longer, for there are licences extant permitting him to come to his friends in England in 1207. When King John came to Ireland in 1210 to drive out de Lacy, whose tyrannies had made his rule insufferable, de Courcy appears to have accompanied him and to have had the satisfaction of seeing his old enemy fleeing before him to Carrickfergus.[6] Thence de Lacy went to France, where he and his brother took refuge in a monastery at St Taurins in Normandy, working as lay brethren until their identity was eventually discovered by the Abbot. They were partially restored to favour through his intercession,[7] only to work still more havoc in Ireland in later life.

On Hugh de Lacy’s death in 1243 the lands of Ulster definitely reverted to the Crown, and were only regranted in 1264, twenty-one years later, to Walter de Burgh, having in the meantime been given as part of his appanage to Prince Edward, afterward Edward I, on his marriage with Eleanor of Castile.

It is evident that Cathal Crovdearg had sufficient grounds for believing that the turbulent de Lacy had by the year 1223 become as much the King’s enemy as his own. Cathal’s letters are of extreme interest as indicating the terms on which he stood as the ally of Henry III in Ireland. He complains that “Hugh de Lacy, enemy of the King, of the King’s father, and of Cathal, whom King John by Cathal’s advice expelled from Ireland, has without consulting the King, come to that country to disturb it. Against Hugh’s coming, Cathal remains, as the Archbishop of Dublin [i.e., Henri, the then Justiciar] knows, firm in his fidelity to the King. But the closer Cathal adheres to the King’s service the more he is harassed by those who pretend fealty to the King, but, as the Justiciar knows, shamefully fail against the enemy, so that, between Hugh de Lacy on the one hand and those who feign to be faithful on the other, Cathal is placed in extreme difficulty. Wherefore, unless it is better that the peace of Ireland should be subverted by this disturber and by default of some of the King’s subjects, Cathal prays the King to send a force thither to restrain Hugh’s insolence.”[8]

It seems likely from the tone of this letter that it was written just after the retirement of the allied troops from Ulster, and that Cathal had cause to suspect the sincerity of some of the combatants His second letter was probably written in 1224. It is addressed to his “very dear Lord, Henry King of England, Lord of Ireland, etc., to whom Cathal O’Conor, King of Connacht, sends greeting.”

O’Conor believes that Henry has heard, through the faithful counsellors of himself and his father, King John, that he had never failed in his fidelity; nor will he ever swerve therefrom. He possesses a charter of the land of Connacht from King John to himself and to his heirs and to his son and heir, Aedh; and for the latter he now solicits a similar charter from Henry. This would render his son and people more zealous for the King’s interest, and he urges his request, that the lands of Ubriun, Conmacni, and Calad, in Connacht, held by his enemy, William de Lacy, brother of King Henry’s enemy, should be given to his own son, who is ready to do homage for them; O’Conor prays an answer by the bearers of the present letter, in whom confidence may be placed.[9]