The O’Conors of Connacht and the O’Briens of Thomond (2)

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

Cathal Crovdearg, after the death of his competitors, seems to have been in the favoured position of an elected King of Connacht who was also approved and supported by the English Government. On several occasions he addressed himself directly to the throne instead of to the deputy.

In a mandate from Henry III appointing Archbishop Henri de Londres Justiciar in 1221, in the place of Geoffrey de Marisco, who was accused of using the revenues of the country for his own advantage, “Kathel of Connacht” is addressed first of the Irish kings; following him come “King of Kenelon [Aedh O’Neill, King of the Cinel Owen], Dunekan and Muriadac O’Bren [O’Brien], Dermot Macarthi [MacCarthy], Loueth MacDonahod [MacDonoghue], and the Norman barons.”[10]

Protections for Cathal “and for his chattels, lands, and possessions,” were issued in 1219 and 1224, and a letter written by the Justiciar to the King speaks of Cathal and his son as “the King’s faithful subjects, who have loyally assisted the Archbishop and obeyed the King’s mandates.”[11]

There is no doubt, from the frequent friendly correspondence between Cathal and his immediate successors and the English kings, that they endeavoured faithfully to carry out the terms of compact made between Henry II and Cathal’s brother Rory. Cathal made a personal submission to John at Ardbracken in Meath on that king’s second visit to Ireland in 1210, and accompanied him on his tour as far as Carrickfergus, though he refused, on the advice of his wife, to entrust his son Aedh into the King’s hands.

The exact position of the King of England toward Cathal is not very clear. In 1204 we find the then Justiciar, Meiler FitzHenry, reporting that Cathal had quit-claimed to the King two-thirds of his province, retaining the other third by right of inheritance at a yearly rent of a hundred marks; for the two-thirds he was to pay three hundred marks, the King of England, however, claiming as his own portion “the best towns and harbours; those fittest for the King’s interest and for fortifying castles.”

Cathal was to give hostages for his faithful service, and for the forwarding of the King’s interests to the best of his judgment; he was to strengthen castles, found towns, and assess rents in those parts. To these immense claims Cathal seems to have agreed, raising his tribute first to four hundred marks for the whole province, and in 1215, when the charter was actually received by him, to five thousand marks, to be paid in two portions annually. This great advance in the payments given must have been the result of the consultations between the two kings during John’s second visit to Ireland.[12]

Cathal never seems to have grudged tribute; and when in 1224 his son Aedh appealed to the English, who were holding a court at Athlone, for aid against Turlogh O’Conor, his cousin, who had been elected by the popular vote and installed as King at Carnfree instead of himself, they willingly assisted him; for “every one of them was a friend of his, for his father’s sake and his own; for he and his father before him were very liberal of stipends.”[13] These large claims made and admitted over Connacht, whether enforced or not, practically transformed the kings of that province into feudal barons. They now held their lands as grants of the English monarchs and not by the old prescription and right. The King’s gift, in 1214, of “scarlet robes, to be given to the kings of Ireland and other faithful subjects of the King” emphasized this new position; the recipients were regarded as the King’s lieges.

This bestowal of robes of office had special reference to Cathal, for it followed immediately on the protection accorded to him and his men in that year, which led up to the final confirmation of his grant. This change of position must be clearly realized, for all that followed depends upon it. By the English sovereign the Irish princes, up till now independent rulers, came to be regarded as feudatories, ruling still as kings within their own domains, but holding their lands at the will of the English monarch, paying tribute to him, and being removable at his pleasure if they proved recalcitrant or failed to pay their dues. This claim was one that could easily be used for purposes of aggression when the occasion arose.

In the case of the O’Conors the memory that they had once been independent kings seems to have quickly faded from the minds of the English monarchs, for we find Edward I, in an order to Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, in 1305, speaking of King Felim of Connacht, son of Cathal Crovdearg, as “a certain Irishman named Felim O’Conor, who called himself King of Connacht.”

In the meantime things might have gone on quietly, Cathal and his successors paying tribute and receiving protection and support in return, but for the old vague grants made to the de Burghs before John became king. William de Burgh had never been able to enforce what he conceived to be his rights in spite of the support he had given to the two Cathals in turn, but the claim was to be revived by his son, Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, in the reign of Cathal’s son Hugh (Aedh).

During Cathal’s lifetime the King’s claims proved abortive; Cathal continued to be styled “King of Connacht” and to exercise full authority. His appeal to the English King in the last year of his life for protection on behalf of his son, whom, adopting the English custom, he indicated as his successor, shows that the relationship between the two powers was friendly, and that Cathal had no intention of rupturing the new connexion. But, feeling death approaching and weighed down by the cares of a stormy life, he decided in 1224 to retire to the abbey of Grey Friars at Knockmoy, which he had himself founded in 1189. He and his favourite poet, Morrogh O’Daly, called Muredach Albanach, or “Murray the Scot,” from his connexion with Scotland, entered the monastery on the same day, and there has been preserved a curious poem supposed to have been composed by them while their hair was being tonsured.

This poet was the turbulent bard who was driven out of Ulster for killing a steward of the O’Donnells who was attempting to extract a rent from him. He was forced to take refuge in Scotland, where he wrote some beautiful religious poems, which seem singularly out of keeping with his irascible temper. He must have travelled, for a poem written from shipboard in the Levant to Cathal exclaims that it would be “the joys of heaven to find himself off the Scottish coast or breathe the breath of Ireland.” This O’Daly, called “bard of Erin and Alba,” was the first of the race of the Scottish MacVurrichs, bards of the MacDonalds of Clanranald.[14]

Cathal must have been a favourite with the poets, for many poems are addressed to him. The Irish Annals, also, break out into lamentations of unusual sincerity on the death of Cathal of the Red Hand. Among his other virtues, one that seems to have struck the writers of his day as particularly surprising was that he was content with one married wife and that after her death he remained single.[15] It may well have been an example of extraordinary virtue in his family. Turlogh had three wives and at least twenty legitimate and illegitimate children, and it is said that the Pope offered to allow King Rory O’Conor six wives if he would be satisfied with that number. Rory refused the offer, and the annalists ascribe to this the extinction of the monarchy of Ireland in his line, as a punishment for his sins.[16] No doubt Cathal’s death in the Grey Habit, his institution of tithes, and the splendid abbeys built by him in his native province partly serve to account for the warmth of the monastic chroniclers’ praises. Even so, the panegyric pronounced upon him by Torna O’Mulconry, his own and his son’s official bard, is so startling, as a symbol of the standards of virtue in the thirteenth century, that we quote a few words from it:

“Cathal Crovdearg, son of Turlogh Mór O’Conor, King of Connacht, died. He was a man calculated to strike fear and dread more than any other Irishman of his day; he was a man who burned the greatest number of homesteads, and took the greatest number of preys from both the English and Irish who opposed him; he was the most valorous and undaunted man in opposing his enemies that ever lived. It was he who blinded, killed, and subdued the greatest number of rebels and enemies. . . . He was the most gentle and peaceable of all the kings that ever reigned in Ireland.”[17]

Cathal was succeeded, in turn, by his two sons Aedh (1224–28) and Felim (1228–65), but their reigns were a long contest for the throne with their cousins, the sons of Rory, of the elder line. Cathal had endeavoured to provide against this by getting Aedh recognized as his successor before his death, and it augured well for the introduction of the hereditary form of succession that it was remarked that “no crime was committed on account of his accession, save one act of plunder and one woman violated.”[18] But though the English upheld the claims of Aedh, the eldest son, the people supported the sons of Rory and inaugurated one of them, Turlogh, on the cairn of Carnfree, with the help of Hugh O’Neill.

Three armies entered the province, from the north, east, and south, for the O’Briens, aided by the English of Munster, flung themselves into the conflict. The country was devastated, and the inhabitants died of sickness, cold, and famine. These wars led the English troops into parts of Connacht into which they had never before penetrated; and Aedh’s appeals for help “were cheerfully responded to, for these expeditions were profitable to the Foreigners, who obtained spoils without encountering danger or conflict.”[19]

The O’Flahertys were persistent and bitter enemies of Aedh, but with the help of his English allies he succeeded in subduing them, even driving them for a time out of parts of West Connacht. He patched up a transient peace with Donogh Cairbrech O’Brien, who a few months before had made a treaty “of drowning of candles”[20] with Aedh’s enemies.

In Mayo he compelled the O’Haras to submit. Aedh was now at peace, and the English Justiciar, escorted by him, had retired for the second time over the Shannon and into Athlone. But behind Aedh’s back Richard de Burgh was intriguing to get Connacht into his hands. Already in 1219 he had made large offers to Henry III for the realization of what, on the ground of King John’s loose promise to his father, he professed to claim as his right.[21]

During Cathal’s life the matter was waived, but on his death Richard again began to urge his demands with offers of increased tribute to the Crown. By a sudden and disgraceful change of government policy Aedh was summoned to Dublin to surrender the land of Connacht, “forfeited by his father and himself,” for it was to be handed over to de Burgh at a fixed rent.

Aedh did not come. He was dealing with Geoffrey de Marisco, one of the most crafty Justiciars who ever ruled in Ireland, a man whose crooked ways got him twice into disgrace and ended in his flight to France, where he died friendless and in poverty. De Marisco was bent on capturing Aedh by fair means or foul. He attempted to detain him, and would have succeeded but for the timely warning of Aedh’s faithful friend, the noble and incorruptible Earl William Marshal the Younger, second Earl of Pembroke, whose family, in an epoch of subtle craft and scheming, stands out as a line of great soldier-statesmen, stern, dignified, and faithful. As his father had befriended William de Braose when he fell into disgrace, so the son befriended Aedh; his steady opposition to the scheme of confiscation led to the enmity of the King toward his house, and to persecution from the Justiciar.[22]

But in the following year, 1228, de Marisco again invited Aedh to his house, where, by accident or design, he was killed by the stroke of an axe from the hand of a carpenter, jealous of the handsome face of Aedh. The carpenter’s wife, according to the custom of the times, had bathed the guest “with sweet balls and other things” and washed his head. The carpenter was immediately hanged by the Justiciar; but Connacht again became the scene of sanguinary quarrels for the kingship.[23]

It was in this year that Richard de Burgh, or, as he now came to be called, from the name of his father, MacWilliam Burke, replaced de Marisco as Justiciar, and was thus in a position from which he could carry out his projects. A fresh war broke out in Connacht led by the sons of Rory, whose followers, the MacDermotts of the Rock,[24] declared and pledged their word “that they would not own any king who would make them submit to the Foreigners,” [25] and MacWilliam led an army into that province to expel Aedh, son of Rory, and place Felim, the late King’s brother, on the throne. In this case the English seem to have ignored altogether their own principle of primogeniture.

With a mixed army of English and Irish, who from this time onward are constantly found fighting on both sides, MacWilliam overran the province as far west as Mayo and Galway, and succeeded in placing Felim on the throne, banishing his cousin and rival to the O’Neill country. This happened in 1230.

A steady policy on the part of Richard de Burgh might have settled the distracted province and consolidated the power of Felim, who appears to have been a man of greater force of character than his elder brother, the late King. But to settle the country was not MacWilliam’s aim. The very next year we find him unseating Felim and imprisoning him at Meelick Castle and setting up his recently expelled rival in his place. But the flood of de Burgh’s prosperity received a check. His near kinsman, Hubert de Burgh, who had been for fifteen years (1217–32) Justiciar of England, standing between the young King Henry III and the bad counsels of his French favourites, had fallen; and a band of hungry and mean-spirited Poitevins was filling England with anarchy and the Court with corruption.

The change was reflected in Ireland in the disfavour into which Richard de Burgh suddenly fell. He was ordered to release Felim and deliver up the King’s castles; and Felim, whose right to the sovereignty was strengthened by the defeat and death of his rival, Aedh, in 1233, began to carry out the order by himself, demolishing the castles that had been recently built, and setting up what promised to be a strong administration. But again de Burgh, who was partially restored to favour, gathered a great army, and assisted by Hugh de Lacy and Maurice FitzGerald (who is called “MacMaurice” or “MacMorrish” in the Annals, and who now became Justiciar), for the third time invaded Connacht and Thomond in his campaign of 1235. Felim made peace, and the five cantreds held by the English King were returned to him for a fixed tribute, which amounted to a practical partition of the province between him and de Burgh.

In 1240 Felim followed the example of his predecessors and appealed directly to the English King against the depredations of the barons and of their Irish allies. He was invited to visit London and lay his case in person before Henry; he was received with great honour by the King and “came home safely, joyfully, contentedly.”

The reception given to Felim in London undoubtedly changed his position at home for the better and put him out of reach of the designs of his enemies, and in 1245 we find him accompanying the Justiciar with a great Irish army to aid the King in his wars against Llewelyn in Wales. So effectually did he represent his case that the King sent his command to FitzGerald that he should “pluck up by the root that fruitless sycamore, de Burgh … nor suffer it to bud forth any longer.” But the Justiciar himself soon fell into disgrace. His reply to the King’s request for troops for the Welsh expedition had not been so prompt as might have been wished.

The Norman-Irish barons had put in a plea for exemption from the duty of attending the King beyond the realm, and the King had to promise that the present occasion should not be taken as a precedent. But when at last FitzGerald and Felim presented themselves side by side in battle array with a numerous army, Henry thought it prudent to “wink awhile in policie at the tarriance and slow coming of Maurice FitzGerald,” though he manifested his displeasure soon afterward by dismissing him from his post as Lord Justice. The provisions required for this miserable expedition, in which the troops suffered much from inclement weather and lack of food, were largely supplied from Ireland.

For the next twenty years affairs in Connacht went on much in the same manner. The rivals to the throne never relaxed their efforts, nor did de Burgh, whose lands were restored in 1247,[26] cease to push forward on every opportunity. More than once a delusive peace was patched up,[27] and from time to time Felim brought his case directly to the notice of the English King by ambassadors, “always obtaining from him everything he asked.”[28]

His son and successor took a prominent part in the wars of the province and kept at bay the rival princes. He seems to have been much with the English troops, for he is always styled Aedh-na-nGall, or “Hugh of the Foreigners,” from his friendly relations with them. But the province was torn with dissensions, and the constant passage of great armies from end to end, preying and burning, brought it into a condition of wretchedness such as it had never experienced before.