Cathal O'Connor

DIED A. D. 1223.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

On the death of the last of Ireland's monarchs, there was for some time a violent and bloody contention for the provincial throne. Connor Moienmoy was elected, but immediately after met with his death by the hand of one of his brothers, who in his turn was slain by the son of Moienmoy; and the province was again plunged into contention, until at last the vigour and interest of Cathal O'Connor, a son of Roderick, succeeded in fixing him upon the throne.

Cathal was a prince of active and warlike temper, and had already acquired renown by his personal prowess, and by the many homicides which had gained him the title of the bloody hand. He soon increased his popularity by the demonstration of military ardour, and by his loud declarations and active preparations against the English settlers. He spoke with confidence of their expulsion, and promised the speedy restoration of the monarchy. These threats were rendered not chimerical, by the dissensions of the Irish barons and the weakness of the government; and many other native chiefs, impressed by the vigour of Cathal's preparations, consented to act in concert with him. With this view, long standing animosities were laid aside, and treaties of amity and co-operation were entered upon to support a leader who spoke the language of patriotism, and came forward in the common cause. Among these the princes of Desmond and Thomond were the most prominent; their mutual enmity, embittered by the constant encroachments of neighbourhood, was adjourned, and they agreed to join in the support of Cathal.

The first fruit of this new combination was that affecting and tragic battle at Knockniag, near Tuam, in which the renowned knight Armoric de St Lawrence, with two hundred foot and thirty horse, were surrounded by Cathal's army and slaughtered, at the cost to the victor of a thousand men.[1]

Little creditable as this event was to the arms, the generosity, or even common humanity of the Irish prince, it had the effect of exciting the ardour and the emulation of his allies. O'Brien, the prince of Thomond, raised a considerable force, and soon met the English on the field of Thurles, where he gained a slight victory. Such advantages were not of a decisive character; won by surprises, and by the advantage of overwhelming numbers, they had no weight in the scale of general results; they gave impulse to these excitable but inconstant and unsteady warriors; and while they had the effect of leading them on to aggravated misfortunes, they caused to the English infinite inconvenience, which eventually were compensated by increased acquisitions. The only result of O'Brien's victory was an increase of vigour, caution, and determination on the part of the enemy, who extended their depredations into the territory of Desmond, and multiplied their forts to an extent that struck general alarm into the Irish of that district. The Irish annalists are supported by the abbot of Peterborough in the affirmation, that the English practised great cruelties on the family of O'Brien when, not long after his death, they penetrated into Thomond.[2]

Cathal was soon apprized of their progress, and of these unusual atrocities with which it was accompanied. He entered Munster at the head of a numerous force. The English retired at his approach: they had no force adequate to the encounter. Cathal followed up the advantage thus gained by destroying their forts, "to the surprise," says Leland, "and admiration of his countrymen, who expected nothing less than the utter extirpation of their enemies, from a young warrior in all the pride of fortune and popular favour."[3] Cathal's judgment was however far inferior to his courage and activity, and his means of continued opposition lower still. Having executed this incomplete achievement, he retired to his province and left the contested territories to the more deliberate arms and steadier valour of the English. They were not however in this instance allowed to profit by his negligence, as Macarthy of Desmond interrupted their attempts to reinstate themselves in the same territories; this brave chief leading his army to meet them on their return, gave them a decided overthrow in the field, and followed up his success with a prudence, activity, and skill, which compelled them to evacuate the county of Limerick. The result of this bold and decisive step was to secure this territory for some years longer, until the city of Limerick was granted in custody to William de Burgo, who quickly gained possession of it, and thus effected a settlement which threatened all Munster.

In this juncture, Cathal was rendered inactive by the increasing distractions of his own province. He had no prudence to enable him to satisfy the exaggerated expectations to which his fiery courage had given rise. The admiration occasioned by his first active steps had subsided into disappointment; and as the loud applause of popular excitement died away, the longer-breathed murmurs of enmity, jealousy, disappointed ambition and revenge, like sure and steady bloodhounds, began to be heard louder and louder in his own province, and around his court. A vigorous and daring rival collected and concentrated these elements of faction. But Carragh O'Connor found a surer and shorter way to supplant his rival than in the intrigues of a court, or in reliance on the fickle and divided hostility of the natives. He addressed himself secretly to De Burgo, Cathal had pursued, with some success, a course which necessarily led to a dangerous hostility with De Burgo. The claims of this powerful baron in Connaught were such as Cathal could not be presumed to acquiesce in: but Carragh promised to invest the baron with all the lands to which he laid claim by the grant of John, and thus engaged his powerful aid against Cathal.

Under the guidance of De Burgo, the enterprise was conducted with a celerity which outran all intelligence of their movements; and Cathal, surprised in his court, was obliged to consult his personal safety by flight. Carragh was thus, without a blow, put into possession of the throne of Connaught. The exiled prince took refuge with O'Niall of Tyrone. The surrounding chiefs were filled with surprise and indignation, at the success of an outrage equally atrocious in its object, and dangerous in its means. A powerful confederacy was formed to redress a wrong which thus called with equal force upon their prudence and humanity. But now by experience aware of the inutility of coping in the field with an English baron of the power of De Burgo, they adopted the expedient which, though in the first instance dangerous, was in theirs an essential part of prudence, and entered into treaty with De Courcy and De Lacy, whom they easily prevailed on to join their league. The two armies, led by De Burgo on one side, and on the other by De Courcy and De Lacy, soon met; the English force on either side gave obstinacy to the combat, and it was after a struggle of some duration, and contested with great valour and much loss on either side, that at length the troops of De Burgo and his ally obtained a decided victory. Thus was Cathal seemingly as far as ever from redress, and Carragh's usurpation confirmed to all appearance by success.

O'Niall of Tyrone was reduced to a condition equally deplorable with that of Cathal. His English allies were yet smarting from their recent defeat, and now involved in troubles of their own; but he had still a considerable faction in Connaught, and he did not desert himself. De Burgo had now raised himself to great power, and had completely broken down all opposition from the Munster chiefs. He assumed the tone of independent royalty, and showed a vigour, promptitude, and boldness in all his measures, which made him more peculiarly accessible to any appeal which either flattered his pride or excited his ambition and cupidity of acquisition. To him Cathal now secretly applied. With much address he detached him from his rival's interest, by the most specious promises and representations, and so effectually won upon his pride and generosity, that he persuaded him to declare in his favour against the prince he had so recently set up in opposition to him. Carragh was little prepared for this formidable emergency: a battle was fought which was quickly decided against him, and he fell overpowered by numbers; and Cathal was restored by the conqueror, whom he repaid with the ingratitude which his fickle caprice and avidity of possession richly deserved. Nor was De Burgo at the moment in a condition to enforce the fulfilment of his promises. The faction of Cathal had been strong, and his enemies were now under his command: De Burgo was quickly compelled to retreat with precipitation, to avoid an unequal contest. He would have returned with a fresh army, but other troubles awaited him. The English governor, Fitz-Henry, had raised a strong force, and was on his way to Munster for the purpose of chastising his arrogant assumption of independence; and the Irish chiefs of Munster, glad of the occasion to suppress a formidable enemy, whom they feared and hated, and willing also to conciliate the English government, offered their services to Fitz-Henry, and were accepted. Among these chiefs Cathal also came. He saw the opportunity to put down a powerful and relentless enemy, who would be content with nothing short of his ruin. De Burgo was soon besieged in Limerick, and compelled to submit. The Irish chiefs, long harassed by factions and by the growing pressure of the barons, were happy to seize the favourable moment to secure their own power and possessions on the best foundation. Cathal consented to surrender to king John two-thirds of Connaught, and pay one hundred annual marks for the remainder, which he was to hold as a vassal of the crown.[4]

This secure arrangement placed Cathal, with other chiefs who had availed themselves of the same opportunity, under the protection of the crown, and we do not hear much of him further. On the Irish expedition of John in 1210, he appears among the chiefs who on that occasion presented themselves to offer homage, or renew their engagements to the king; and some time after, we find him receiving, on application, the protection of the crown against John de Burgo, who was encroaching upon his lands.

This latter occasion presents perhaps the fairest general view that can be collected from events, of the true position of affairs in this island, at the latter end of king John's reign.

The English barons, possessed of great wealth, far from control, and engaged in the pursuits of territorial acquisition; having also a contempt for the native chiefs, and living at a time when the principles of right were little understood, and forcible usurpation sanctioned by the highest examples of recent history and all the habits of the age; armed too with power, which soon learns to trample upon all considerations, they did not with much care resist the constant temptation to encroachment, where there was no effective resistance. Anxious for one object, the extension of their possessions, they easily found excuses to extend their just bounds, and crowds of the natives were thus stripped of their possessions. This evil was more prevalent in Connaught, where the power of the De Burgo family was greatest, and where there was least counterbalance in any native power. The greatest control upon these aggressions appears to have existed where both the English settlers and the native chiefs were the most numerous, and the distribution of power and property more equal; a constant succession of small intrigues and contentions led to less decided and permanent results. The inferior native chiefs also, were less compelled to offer to the English arms and policy a front of resistance such as to bring on their eventual ruin as the only means of quieting their opposition; and consequently, where kings and powerful provincial rulers or proprietors were stripped of their vast possessions in the struggle of conquest and resistance, most of the minor proprietors had the means of consulting their safety by a submission which was preserved by no scruple beyond the presence of immediate danger; or by a crafty alliance with those who might otherwise have been formidable foes. But to the greater chiefs such courses of safety were not permitted. The opinion of their provinces was to be respected. O'Niall of Tyrone was deposed by his subjects, because he suffered a defeat; and Cathal, defeated in the same battle, was perhaps only exempted, by the misfortunes which had already reduced him to the condition of a suppliant and a fugitive. When, however, he was, by the course of events compelled to cede two-thirds of his territory, and pay a rent for the remainder, as the voluntary price of protection, it not only exhibits the formidable nature of the dangers by which he was menaced; but may be regarded as a virtual deposition. He was undoubtedly prostrated by the force of events, which could only be arrested in their course by submission, and from the pressure of which he was left no protection, but an appeal to the king of England. This appeal, it was the policy of the English government for every reason to receive with encouraging favour, and although there hung between the Irish complaint and the throne a cloud of misrepresentation and ignorance of the state of the country, yet until some time after when other causes began to interfere, such complaints were sure to elicit the required interposition. There had at this period fully set in a long struggle between the barons and the crown, which although occasionally interrupted by the vigour of some reigns, never ceased until it terminated in the restriction of both these powers, and the development of a third; and it was as much the interest of the English king to repress the licentious turbulence and spirit of usurpation of the barons, as it was on such occasions the obvious demand of justice. It is also apparent, that there was an anxious jealousy excited at this period, by the vast accumulation of power, possession, and consequence acquired by some of the greater settlers--and the tone of independence which was the occasional consequence. On no occasion were these results more apparent, than upon the complaint of Cathal O'Connor, under the fierce encroachments of John de Burgo. The O'Connors who had been in the first struggle the most dangerous opponents, had also been by far the most ready to preserve the conditions of their own engagements, and although undoubted instances of the contrary occur, yet in that age of loose conventions, their family presents the most honourable examples of the steady preservation of faith and an observance of sacred engagements which claimed trust and protection from the English crown, and manifests in this race a spirit enlightened beyond their period. The reader will perhaps revert to the seemingly perfidious conduct of this very Cathal, when reinstated by De Burgo; and unquestionably, if referred to the morality of an enlightened age, such must be its description. But we do not so refer it; the faith of treaties and the solemn acts between kings and states was fully understood--it was an indispensable principle of the very existence of nations. But in that age of robbery and spoliation, the rights of individuals were on a different footing; Cathal looked on De Burgo as a plunderer who had inflicted on him the deepest injury; and considered it not unjust or dishonourable to circumvent him into an act of reparation, for which no gratitude was due. It would be tampering with the most important principles, not to admit the violation of even such engagements to be quite unjustifiable on any principle; but the crime was of the age, the virtue, of the individual. The faith of Cathal was, it is true, rendered doubtful by the force of constraining circumstances: he had little choice of resources. His powers of offence or defence were annihilated. Oppressed by De Burgo, he appealed to the throne. Against this appeal his oppressor advanced misrepresentations of his motives; but the case was too palpable, and the insidious representations of his enemies were disregarded. King John directed his lord justice and other faithful subjects in Ireland to support O'Connor against his enemies; and further ordered that no allegations against him should be received, so long as he continued true in his allegiance to the crown.[5]

Under this powerful protection the remainder of Cathal's life presents no further incident for the biographer : he seems to have been allowed to continue in peaceful possession of his remaining rights till 1223, when he died.


[1] See page 232, where the particulars are given.

[2] Leland.

[3] Ib. i, c. 5.

[4] Archives, Turr. Lond., quoted by Leland.

[5] Rymer.