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Desmond Before The Norman Invasion: a political study

By Henry Alan Jefferies

This article was originally published by the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archeaological Society, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 248; 1984; pages 12-32.

The article is web published here by permission of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Founded 1891.

 

INTRODUCTION

Politics in late pre-Norman Ireland still tend to be examined from an all-Ireland perspective with the narrative built around the careers of the aspirant high-kings.  This approach facilitates presentation but it effectively distorts historical reality by exaggerating the prominence and importance of those warriors in twelfth-century Irish politics.  The corollary of this is that a major kingdom like Desmond is denied its place in history simply because its king did not aspire to the high-kingship.l  Historiographically, Desmond before the Normans is practically virgin territory, graced only by incidental references in the better texts.

Unfortunately, when one sets about rectifying this lacuna in early Irish history one is confronted by a daunting paucity of source materials -- annalistic and literary.  For most of the four decades subsequent to Cormac Mac Carthy's death we are dependent upon annals comprising only a sentence or two; for many years we have no information at all! Nevertheless, this is a period of considerable interest and significance -- within Desmond and beyond.  While O'Connor and Mac Lochlainn battled for an ephemeral supremacy in national politics, Diarmaid Mac Carthy († 1185) worked quietly but very effectively at creating a formidable hegemony in southern Munster.  In this paper I wish to trace the emergence of that supremacy and its survival and development through one of the most turbulent periods in Irish history.2  This essay focuses upon Diarmaid Mac Carthy since the bulk of our evidence relates to him and/or his kingdom -- a fact which must surely reflect his outstanding position in pre-Norman Desmond.  Mac Carthy's career is set against the backdrop of the hectic race for the high-kingship which culminated in the council of Athlone (1166) before dissipating under the initial shock of Anglo-Norman intervention.  That same intervention unintentionally forced Henry II to involve himself in Irish affairs and thus change the course of Irish history.

Throughout those developments the politics of Desmond remained essentially dynastic and regional.  Even the coming of the Anglo-Normans changed only the context, not the substance of south Munster politics -- at least until 1177.  By adopting a strictly regional perspective one can thus achieve a more faithful understanding of the politics of late pre-Norman Desmond and, perhaps, offer some new insights into events of national significance.

 

THE NATIONAL BACKGROUND

It is now almost three quarters of a century since Goddard Orpen exposed the illusory nature of the Irish high-kings' pretensions to national sovereignty and banished them to the realms of fantasy.  But in their place he substituted 185 tuatha (tribal units) 'of which some were grouped together in comparative permanence and some were generally subordinate to the principal groups'.3  And with so many tribes roaming about he envisaged twelfth century Irish politics as a 'maze of inter-provincial and inter-tribal fighting' through which one could 'glimpse the anarchy that revelled throughout Ireland up to the coming of the Normans'.4  Indeed, as recently as 1969 a very sophisticated thesis was expounded to account for that 'neglect of political stability so characteristic of pre-Norman Ireland'.5  Only in the past decade have such 'explanations' become redundant.

In a recent study Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin6 critically re-examined the sources and found that Orpen's 185 tribes never existed; they were simply the 'children of misunderstanding'.7  Instead we find a mere half-dozen regional kingdoms of any consequence by the middle of the twelfth century, and the province-kingdom of Meath was already fading into oblivion.8  By that time an all-Ireland kingship seemed almost tangibly possible.

Setting to rest a controversy of long standing, Ó Corráin has demonstrated the existence of a sense of nationality among the Gaelic elite from a very early date.  It can be traced in propagandist works dating back to the seventh century.  'By the eleventh and twelfth centuries the poet-historians had elaborated in full the concept of a monarchy of all Ireland and had projected it into the pre-Christian past', thereby providing the political theory which answered to the activities and ambitions of the greater kings ... and not infrequently provided their inspiration'.9  Such aspirations were fully endorsed by the twelfth-century reformers who sought a strong national monarchy to bring peace to the land, and to enforce compliance with Church observances on their wayward flocks.  These reformers depended heavily on royal support to push their ecclesiastical legislation through the synods, but in return the modernizing kings exploited the reformation for reasons of prestige and temporal advantage.  The symbiotic relationship between these two groups may best be illustrated by reference to the common practice whereby a king 'legitimized' fresh conquests by donating a portion of the stolen property to a religious community.10  There is no instance known in which the Church refused such ill-gotten gifts.  However, it is the politicians who concern us here.

Though political power in twelfth-century Ireland was regional rather than national or local, a great provincial king could aspire to the high-kingship with increasing confidence.  Such ambitions were being facilitated by the on-going simplification of Ireland's political geography, and by concurrent developments in warfare and administration.11  The greater kings were increasingly able to exact military service from their lesser counter-parts, and Rory O'Connor's council of Irish kings in 1166 augured well for the creation of an all-Ireland state, though his ultimate failure was painfully predictable.

While we now know that the greater Irish kings had begun to acquire some royal ministers to share the burdensome tasks concomitant with the growth of kingship, it is evident that administrative developments were very rudimentary.  We have already seen how Muirchertach O'Brien's illness in 1114 led to the utter collapse of the Dál Cais supremacy before his death, and how Cormac Mac Carthy's demise in 1138 caused his kingdom to vanish over-night.  With such a political system -- so dependent upon the physical well-being of a handful of warrior-kings -- long-term stability was simply impossible.  And the archaic mode of regnal succession prevailing exacerbated the problem by creating havoc with continuity in kingship.

Furthermore, as the great over-kingdoms grew fewer and more monolithic, a nationwide balance of power came into play.  We find that the drive towards national unity was effectively countered by a growing tendency for the regional kings to unite against the most belligerent of their number.12  These alliances were based upon that venerable maxim that 'Thine enemy's enemy is thy friend', and it was their fortuitous character13 that made twelfth-century Irish politics so volatile.  Major shifts in the balance of power (as for example in 1118, 1133 or 1166) could have devastating consequences for those on the wrong end of the scales though occasionally they could catapult a rebel leader towards the high-kingship.14

Thus, late pre-Norman Irish politics were characterized by a series of fluid alliances and counter-alliances which made a nation-wide supremacy extremely difficult to achieve, and impossible to maintain for any length of time.  War was endemic to the regime, and bloodshed a fact of everyday life.  Only at the regional level were there kings powerful enough to enforce something akin to stability.  The Anglo-Normans had little difficulty in shattering the thin veneer of high-kingship and exposing the six true kingdoms of late pre-Norman Ireland.  We need to learn of the concerns and actions of the rulers of each of those kingdoms if we are ever to arrive at a true understanding of the politics of Gaelic Ireland during those last decades of independence.

 

INTERREGNUM AND RESURRECTION

The collapse of Desmond in 1138 was as complete as it was sudden.  The Dál Cais immediately resumed direct overlordship over the petty kingdoms of southern Munster and exacted military service from them.  The Annals15 inform us that the ruling segment of the Clann Cárthaig found itself banished to Leinster -- which probably signifies that they were restricted to Decies which lay in the king of Leinster's jurisdiction since 1137.16  The leadership of the Mac Carthys fell to Cormac's brother Donnchadh, a former king of Desmond who had taken possession of Decies circa 1135.17  Of Donnchadh's progress after his brother's death we know nothing, but the death of Conchubhar O'Brien, king of Munster, in 1142 appeared to offer Mac Carthy the opportunity to capitalize on his designation as aird rí-damhna Mumhan.18  He brought his forces of O'Brien's Bridge near Killaloe, but the anticipated internecine strife among the Dál Cais failed to materialize and Turlough O'Brien succeeded to the kingship of Munster without difficulty.  The rebels were 'turned again into Decies' where Donnchadh contracted an illness.19  He was subsequently betrayed and given over to the O'Briens.  The unfortunate man ended his days in fetters on Laugh Gur, parting from this life in 1144.20

The leadership of the Clann Cárthaig then devolved upon Cormac's son Diarmaid Mac Carthy -- a very able individual whose career was unavoidably overshadowed by that of his famous father.  We meet the young chief for the first time in 114521 when he fought with Turlough O'Connor against the Dál Cais.  Diarmaid established excellent relations with the ruling O'Connors of Connacht during his years of exile.  They were to prove invaluable in his later struggles.

Ironically, it was the Dál Cais who facilitated the re-emergence of Desmond -- albeit unwittingly.  Turlough O'Brien fought hard for the high-kingship of Ireland and did battle with virtually every other provincial king on the island.  But in eight years of fighting he succeeded only in antagonizing all of the greater kings -- a disastrous development which a more astute politician might have avoided.

In 1151 Turlough O'Brien was deposed by his own son Muirchertach who assumed the kingship in his place.  However, Turlough was quickly restored by his brother Tadhg, and by Diarmaid O'Connor Kerry.  Tadhg then turned against his brother and sought support from Connacht to take the crown of Munster to himself.  The king of Connacht may have responded by encouraging Mac Carthy to create a diversion in south Munster.  At any rate the petty kings of Desmond recognized their opportunity, took advantage of the divisions among the Dál Cais, and made Diarmaid Mac Carthy their king.22

Not surprisingly in the circumstances, Diarmaid Súgach O'Connor, the king of Ciarraighe (who helped to assassinate Cormac Mór in 1138) wisely chose to remain loyal to O'Brien.  But his kingdom was invaded by Diarmaid Mac Carthy soon after his inauguration, though whether the latter was motivated by a desire for revenge or by political exigencies we can only guess.  The men of Desmond spent a night harrying and plundering O'Connor's kingdom but were routed with heavy losses on the following day at the head of Slieve Mish.  By then Turlough O'Brien had assembled his vassals to support his Kerry ally.  The levies of the Dál Cais and Ciarraighe merged in Connello to form a very large army and the war began in earnest.22

Outnumbered as he was, Mac Carthy had no choice but to avoid direct confrontation.  He led his forces southwards across Móin Mór.23  In western Desmond O'Connor Kerry moved to extend his overlordship southward.  He brought seven ships on wheels from Asdee (near Ballylongford on the Shannon) and placed them on Lough Leane.  Mac Carthy's allies O'Moriarty and O'Falvey, fled to Féardhruim in Uí Echach.22  Meanwhile Mac Carthy himself passed through Muskerry and retreated to Kinneigh in East Carbery, with perhaps an occasional rearguard action to harass the Dál Cais in their pursuit.  And then came the masterstroke!

Diarmaid had sent messengers to the kings of Connacht and Leinster soliciting their support against O'Brien.  They succeeded.  The Dalcassian king's belligerence over the previous eight years made O'Connor and Mac Murrough overcome their mutual antagonism and make common cause against Thomond.  Each led a massive army into Desmond and they reached the Blackwater just about the time that Turlough and Diarmaid Súgach entered Cork city.

Having perpetrated 'many outrages' on the community of St. Fin Barre, the forces of Thomond and Ciarraighe set out on the following day through Móin Mór northward.  Mac Carthy and the Eóghanachta (including O'Mahonys, O'Donoghues, O'Keefes and O'Moriartys) pursued the aggressors from the rear.  Because of a dense mist O'Brien and O'Connor Kerry did not perceive the forces from Connacht and Leinster until they found themselves in their midst.  Sandwiched between three armies in a confined valley O'Brien 'was disastrously, and indeed, decisively defeated in one of the bloodiest battles of the twelfth century'.24  Of the three north Munster battalions caught up in the engagement none escaped, save one shattered battalion.25  Mac Carthy's Book estimated that the Dál Cais lost three thousand men on that fateful day -- the Four Masters put the figure at seven thousand!26  When news of the catastrophe reached the Ciarraighe garrison stationed at Inisfallen they fled back to north Kerry, abandoning their ships on the northern shore of Lough Leane.

Turlough O'Brien and O'Connor Kerry were fortunate to escape with their lives -- cloaked by the same mist that had proved their undoing.  The former managed to save his crown by buying off the Connachtmen with 200 ounces of gold and 60 jewels -- including the priceless drinking horn of Brian Boru.25  The victors consolidated their triumph by demolishing 'all the fortresses in Munster'.26  Turlough O'Connor took submissions from both O'Brien and Mac Carthy and recognized them as kings of Thomond and Desmond respectively.  The supremacy of Connacht and the emergence of Desmond had coincided once again.

 

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Flushed with the success of Móin Mór Diarmaid and his allies were anxious to assert authority over Ciarraighe at the earliest opportunity.  They re-invaded the kingdom towards the end of 1151, harried it and levelled its houses and forts.  Mac Carthy appears to have taken O'Connor Kerry's submission and carried off a number of hostages -- subsequently restored on the fulfillment of some ransom demands.22  Turlough O'Brien intervened in Ciarraighe early in 1152 to support his Kerry ally.27  But in an ensuing engagement Mac Carthy beat him soundly and consolidated his victory by devastating Ciarraighe and deposing O'Connor Kerry.  The latter was replaced by two of his half-brothers who were subject to the king of Desmond.

These successes so alarmed the Dál Cais that Turlough and Tadhg O'Brien closed ranks and waged war on Desmond.  They restored Diarmaid Súgach to the kingship of Ciarraighe and harried Connello.27  Ó Cuiléin, the king of Connello, retaliated by crossing into Ciarraighe and burning its great church at Ardfert.  But the tide was with the Dál Cais, and in an extensive campaign they destroyed much of Desmond -- including the monasteries of Cork, Emly, Lismore and Coole -- and Mac Carthy could do little to stop them.  Eventually, in the spring of 1153 the kings of Connacht and Leinster felt it necessary to intervene once more.  They banished Turlough O'Brien to Ulster and acknowledged his brother Tadhg as king of Thomond.  Mac Carthy was confirmed in his kingship of Desmond but had to abandon all designs on Ciarraighe; O'Connor had no wish to see Diarmaid Mac Carthy grow as powerful as the great Cormac.  In the event the Clann Cárthaig never did re-assert authority over north Kerry.  Diarmaid Súgach O'Connor, 'a sage without dispute', died as king of Ciarraighe and Corca Dhuibhne in 1154.28  He had been the greatest of his line.

 

THE PETTY KINGDOMS OF DESMOND

The kingdom of Desmond as re-constituted in 1151 and 1153 was, of course, no unitary 'state' as we understand that term.  At first it was very much a confederation of petty kingdoms -- each a vibrant political entity in itself -- whose rulers were subject to the overlordship of one individual.  Our source materials are so poor for twelfth century Desmond that we have only a few faint traces of the tension and stresses which the plurality of regency must have caused.

When one comes to explore the political geography of the resurrected kingdom of Desmond the diocesan boundaries as redrawn at the synod of Kells (1152) are of considerable utility.  The Rathbreasail synod had enhanced the prestige of the episcopacy but it did not noticeably improve the Church's efforts at pastoral care; its attempts to create dioceses were not well-blessed either.  At Kells the reform of the Irish church was tackled once again.  Ireland was divided into four ecclesiastical provinces, Dublin and Tuam being elevated to metropolitan status with Armagh and Cashel.  The new metropolitan province of Cashel was made coterminous with the province of Munster, and its internal divisions reflected political realities with some accuracy.  Therein lies their value for my purposes.

As my first essay illustrated, the Mac Carthys migrated from Tipperary, conquered large tracts of territory extending southwards to the Lee, and made their own of Cork city.  Subsequently they took possession of Béirre and established a branch of the family in Decies.  At the synod of Kells the Clann Cárthaig territories in north west Cork, together with the kingdoms of Fermoy and Imokilly, came to make up the new diocese of Cloyne.  The O'Keefes of Fermoy were usually ranked third in importance among the petty kings of Desmond,  though we know nothing of their affairs in the mid-twelfth century.  Imokilly however, was in a very disturbed state about that time with the kingship passing between three dynasties in little more than a decade.  Much of the instability reflected a shift in the balance of power concomitant with the rising fortunes of the Uí Mic Thíre.  In 1151 this family killed Ua Carráin, the king of Imokilly,30 and following the death of his successor in 1160 (in an internal Ua hAnmchadha feud) they captured the kingship for themselves.31  By 1172 Mac Carthy's Book would number Lochlainn Ó Mic Thíre among the important kings in Ireland.

Neighbouring Lismore diocese was severely pruned at Kells, losing all jurisdiction in present-day Co. Cork (excepting Kilworth parish) to Cloyne, and losing the Ostmen territories in the east to the new bishopric of Waterford.  Even in Decies Lismore had to face the challenge of a rival see at Ardmore.  It seems that, following the capture of Donnchadh Mac Carthy in 1143, the O'Bricks recovered the kingship of Decies.  Donnchadh's family did, however, retain possession of Lismore monastery and its hinterland, a fact which brought them into conflict with the natives of the district.32  If I am correct, it was because the Mac Carthys held St. Carthage's cathedral that the O'Bricks sponsored the elevation of St. Declan's church at Ardmore as an alternative see for a Déise diocese.33  Indeed, such was their spirit of independence that Diarmaid felt it necessary to kill Muircheartach Ó Bric, their king, in order to pacify them even though the unfortunate man had been captured a long time before.22  In the event peace did come to Decies -- but only because Mac Carthy's dependence on the goodwill of the king of Leinster made activity in the latter's sphere of influence impolitic.

Closer to home, the new diocese of Cork was almost identical with Uí Echach -- an important kingdom whose support made the 1151 rebellion possible.  The O'Mahonys monopolized the kingship here since 1121, but a short time after that the fortunes of another Eóghanacht Raithlinn people recovered markedly.  These were the O'Donoghues, who made a kingdom of their patrimony of Cenél Laoghaire before the mid-1130s34.  Through Diarmaid Mac Carthy's friendly support the O'Donoghues were destined to become the greatest dynasty in south Munster -- excepting the Mac Carthys alone.

Further south, Ross diocese embraced the remnants of Corca Laoighdhe -- including Béirre which had only recently been lost to the Mac Carthys.  Information on this kingdom is not readily available for the twelfth century and the killing of its king, Amhlaoibh O'Driscoll, at Birr in 1155 is shrouded in mystery.35  That Corca Laoighdhe survived at all, against the odds, is a tribute to the tenacity and resourcefulness of its rulers in very difficult circumstances.

The ecclesiastical geography of western Desmond was not substantially modified at the synod of Kells though the diocesan see was transferred from Ratass to the Ciarraighe church at Ardfert.  At the time of the synod the O'Moriartys still ruled Eóghanacht Locha Léin but were under severe pressure from the O'Carrolls.  North of the Laune Diarmaid Súgach O'Connor ruled over Ciarraighe and Corca Dhuibhne -- the latter territory having been conquered by his father before 1138.36  Diarmaid Súgach was a very ambitious individual and a man of some ability.  He also had the dubious distinction of being involved in the assassination of Cormac Mac Carthy.  Mac Carthy's failure to capture that kingdom in 1151-2 effectively ensured that Diarmaid never had the resources to imitate his father's role in national politics.

In neighbouring Limerick diocese an attempt was made by the king of Connello to have his church at Mungret established as a cathedral in place of St. Mary's in Limerick, in vain as it turned out.  The Uí Chuiléin dominated Connello into Anglo-Norman times, despite the opposition of the Uí Chinn Fhaoladh,37 and they proved to be among Mac Carthy's most faithful allies.  Finally, in the circumscribed little diocese of Emly, Mac Carthy also had a loyal ally in the king of Knockainy.38

Those then were the petty kingdoms of south Munster in 1151, and all but Ciarraighe and Decies came to form part of the resurrected overlordship of Desmond.  In the early years these petty kings maintained a great deal of independence39 and exercised authority largely without reference to their overlord.  Their power had grown markedly through territorial expansion and the subjection of their own subordinates.  Mac Carthy's great achievement was to curb the autonomy of his client-kings, and to wield their miscellaneous little principalities into one of the most cohesive and powerful kingdoms of pre-Norman Ireland.

 

GOVERNING DESMOND

The manner in which Diarmaid Mac Carthy governed his great overlordship makes for fascinating research, but the source-materials are exceedingly sparse.  For the first two decades of Diarmaid's reign there are major lacunae in both of the Munster annals; the Annals of Inisfallen have no surviving entries for the years 1130 to 1159, and with two solitary exceptions the Miscellaneous Irish Annals have no entries about Desmond between 1159 and 1169.  Events in south Munster appear not to have attracted the attention of outside annalists.  But even where they are available, the annals provide only a distorted and very inadequate glimpse of pre-Norman Ireland.  They merely record a few of the more dramatic events of each year -- major battles, natural disasters and the obituaries of V.I.P.s.  Death and violence are given great prominence -- the routine patterns of everyday existence are passed over in silence.  Unfortunately, we have (as yet) little literary evidence from twelfth century Desmond to redress this imbalance.  While the concept and office of kingship as depicted in the archaic law tracts have been thoroughly explored,40 it is only in recent times that attention has been given to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.41  As yet there is no work published on the routine operation of Irish provincial kingship in its most advanced form.  So part of what follows here must have something of a provisional character.

Of all his activities, Mac Carthy's encounters with Thomond and the aspirant high-kings of Ireland are the best documented in our sources.  This is hardly surprising as the early Irish king was always the dominant figure in the external relations of his kingdom, and in the twelfth century such 'relations' generally consisted of major battles and/or the assertion of overlordship.  Interestingly, the annals show that Diarmaid Mac Carthy, unlike his father Cormac, had few inhibitions about acknowledging the nominal overlordship of the 'high-kings'.  He submitted to Turlough O'Connor in 1151 and 1153, and in 1157 he gave pledges and hostages to both Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn of Ulster and Rory O'Connor of Connacht -- safe in the knowledge that the island-wide balance of power was such that neither of the aspirant high-kings could exercise an iota of authority over Desmond for fear of pushing Mac Carthy into the arms of his rival.  Not until Rory O'Connor's rise to national supremacy in 1166 did the high-kingship of Ireland acquire any substance as far as Desmond was concerned.

The threat posed by Thomond was very different however.  Desmond had been very nearly overwhelmed in 1151 and 1152/3, and Turlough O'Brien's determination to rule all of Munster again ended only with his death.  Turlough was restored to the kingship of Thomond by Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn in 1153.42  In 1154 he led an assault on Desmond but was easily repulsed.43  In 1158 however, Desmond was invaded by a very substantial force of Dál Cais.44  Amlaíb Mór O'Donoghue -- who had only intruded himself into Eóghanacht Locha Léin earlier that year -- became the hero of the hour.  He led a counterattack on Owney in Ormond where he killed O'Cahill and O'Heffernan, together with many of their followers.  Further south, he fought beside the Mac Carthys against a contingent of Dál Cais led by Turlough O'Brien's son, Muirchertach.  The forces of Thomond were beaten back, but Amláib Mór O'Donoghue and Mathghamhain Mac Carthy were among the many killed in the encounter.  Further losses were sustained by Desmond in 1161 when O'Brien attacked once again.45  The annals provide us with nothing more than a couple of obituaries,45 but it would appear that Mac Carthy dealt with the incursion rather well.  Desmond was not to suffer another such invasion until the coming of the Anglo-Normans.

One must contend therefore, in view of the evidence, that Diarmaid pursued a successful external relations policy with a blend of diplomacy and militancy which allowed him to maintain friendly relations with Connacht without compromising his freedom, while he beat back repeated Dál Cais invasions on the battlefields.  But because his strategy was essentially conservative and defensive Mac Carthy's career attracted little attention from his annal-writing contemporaries or from more recent historians.  That was surely a great mistake.  Diarmaid Mac Carthy created one of the most powerful and united kingdoms of pre-Norman Ireland, and the endurance of the Clann Cárthaig as a major political force in south Munster throughout the later middle ages was due in no small part to the work of this remarkable king.

 

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The functioning of 'government' within Desmond is very poorly documented with most of what little evidence that survives consisting of stray references in a few literary works which have to be treated with caution.  These materials do not allow for a comprehensive study, but they suffice to illustrate the degree to which southern Irish provincial kingship had progressed by the eve of the Anglo-Norman invasion.

In times of war the great regional kings exercised full control over the military resources of their overlordships, and as we have seen Diarmaid Mac Carthy was able to marshall his forces very effectively against assaults from Thomond.  However, most of Diarmaid's reign was characterized by a relative peace.  Diarmaid's exercise of authority over those petty kings was dependent on his possessing real political power.  The prestige and sanction of custom and law were no substitute for military might.  Diarmaid was fortunate enough to have inherited a very formidable power base in the heart of Desmond and by skillfully exploiting it he gradually acquired the strength to impose his will on the surrounding kingdoms of south Munster.

All of the Clann Cárthaig territory in Desmond was 'sword-land' taken from lesser dynasties and was thus entirely at the disposal of its conquerors.  The Mac Carthy kings retained a great deal (if not all) of this acquired territory as royal or demesne land46 on which they levied rents, taxes and military service.  This land was also subject to a process of colonization as male members of the Clann Cárthaig were 'planted' on it on their coming of age.  Diarmaid Mac Carthy retained a portion of the royal estate in his private possession47 and, interestingly, he set aside some land for his tánaiste (fearann tánisteachta),48 presumably with the intention of precluding a regnal succession contest on his death.  Mac Carthy also rewarded faithful branches of the Eóghanacht of Cashel by making them tenants on the demesne lands.  Thus were the O'Riordans and the Clann Cheallacháin established in Muskerry.49  Doubtless too, the O'Sullivans were originally settled in Béirre in a similar manner.  With the rapid multiplication of these royal and aristocratic kindreds through polygamic marriage and an inclusive law of legitimacy went the concomitant displacement of the indigenous nobility and landowning classes.50  These people were depressed to the level of tenant cultivators whose descendants were later squeezed out and withered away.51  This process of colonization was ruthlessly thorough and remorselessly unremitting.  It operated throughout Gaelic Ireland and came to an end only with the final overthrow of the Gaelic Order in Tudor times.

In the absence of political institutions and organizations, Mac Carthy's relations with the petty kingdoms of Desmond were given expression through the personal bonds between him and the petty kings who would have submitted to Diarmaid at his inauguration, in a ceremony with markedly feudal elements.52  Diarmaid may also have asserted his authority in the traditional Irish manner by granting a tuarastal (stipend) to each of the petty kings.53  Acceptance of that gift was, in effect, an act of submission -- an act which obliged the donee to provide a counter-gift by undertaking corresponding duties.54  In the twelfth century these duties included the rendering of tribute and taxes and the performance of military service, invariably guaranteed by the giving of pledges and hostages.  Indeed, by that time the taking of pledges and hostages may have become the central act in the formation of a contractual relationship between a great overlord and his client kings.55  The hostages taken were usually the sons of the king and chief nobles of the client kingdom.  These young men could be executed if the client king proved troublesome, but in times of peace they probably constituted part of the king's retinue,56 and a close relationship with the overlord might well ensue.  As with the practice of fosterage the personal bonds thus cultivated could have inestimable value for the governing of a great regional overlordship.57  Marriage alliances were also formed but were of limited value in a polygamous society.58  Nevertheless, Diarmaid Mac Carthy enhanced his relationship with Turlough O'Connor by marrying his granddaughter, the lady who subsequently gave birth to Diarmaid's eldest son, Cormac Liathánach.59

In early Christian Ireland the tribute was one of the perks of overlordship, and was originally rendered in return for a tuarastal.60  The early Irish kings also exercised the right to impose 'extraordinary taxation' on their subjects at will.61  In 1168 Diarmaid Mac Carthy had to impose one such tax on Desmond to get the 720 head of cattle demanded by the high-king as an éric for the killing of Muirchertach O'Brien.62  Nevertheless, by the eleventh and twelfth centuries the great regional kings had need of more regular and sustained incomes.  Thus tribute and taxes were extracted from their subjects systematically and regularly.  K.W. Nicholls has found indications of an assessment system in Connacht, based on the baile of four quarters, which may have been created by the O'Connor kings of the eleventh century.63  The baile, he suggests, may normally have been based on the holdings of separate septs or lineages.  The quarters (ceathramha) may have corresponded to the individual farmsteads and, though they varied in size with the quality of the land and its vegetation cover, their boundaries have proved remarkably stable.  The quarters formed the antecedents of the modern townland system.

In the kingdom of Desmond64 the baile corresponded to the lands of individual septs or lineages but they were not used for purposes of assessment -- though they may have served as units of administration for the purpose of tax-collection (see below).  All land was encumbered with dues and cess which might be remitted only in extraordinary instances.  In the one surviving charter of his reign,65 Diarmaid Mac Carthy confirmed to the monastery of Gill Abbey some grants of royal land which he then freed from secular impositions.  Such grants were very exceptional and every other land-holder was liable for any exaction the king might care to impose on him.  The Vision of Mac Conglinne,66 a fascinating literary work from twelfth century Cork, has the king of Munster fulfill a personal obligation by exacting a cow from every garth in the province, and an ounce (of silver?) from every householder.67  And it portrays the king of Uí Echach as exercising similar powers within his own petty kingdom.68  Literary evidence must be used with caution, but I have no doubt that the types of levy outlined in the Vision reflected a contemporary twelfth century practice.69  Obviously all such levies in pre-Norman Munster were rendered in kind, and food-renders probably constituted the economic base of royal authority in Desmond.  Parallels for this are readily found in pre-Norman Britain.70  Among the peoples there the food rents were generally delivered to the local royal centre to be consumed there, or transported to wherever the king might require it.  The same must have been true in Desmond.71

The successful demands for taxation at the scale and intensity I have indicated clearly presuppose the existence of some form of administrative system.  Such a system would have been fairly rudimentary, yet apparently it was very effective.  A model of the structure of tax-collection in Munster about this time is to be found in Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh72 and the Mac Carthy-sponsored Caithréim Cheallacháin Chaisil73 where tributes and taxes are levied through a hierarchy comprised of
a king over every territory,
a chieftain over every tuath, . . .
a maer over every baile,
and a billeted soldier in every house.
74
This model may be schematic but it seems to reflect early twelfth century realities.  The early Irish kings had long exercised the right to billet troops on all homesteads in their territories.75  According to the Vision the function of the petty king in the tax system was to enforce the payment of dues whenever necessary.76  Failure to fulfil this duty would cause the overlord to plunder the petty kingdom and carry off as many cattle as would make good the deficit.  The chieftain was to provide food, drink and other necessities for the tax-collectors at work in his tuath.  Those tax-collectors (maeir) gathered the royal exactions from the individual sept-lands or baile.  The dues thus collected might be deposited at the nearest royal centre or, in special cases, they may have been forwarded to the royal steward for the king's use.  Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing just how much revenue the kings of Desmond extracted from their tenants or from the client kingdoms.  All that is certain is that the burden of taxation grew more and more heavy during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Such sophisticated administration without any complementary institutions demanded constant supervision and maintenance by the great king in person.  This was achieved by assiduous itineration around his lordship, through the cuairt ríg.  Mac Carthy had thus to reside from time to time at any one of a number of forts and dwellings77 throughout his territory.  There was a considerable number of great forts in twelfth century Munster,78 though few of them can now be identified.  Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh refers to the celebrated royal forts of Munster (rígphuirt aireda na Muman),79 but it names only twelve of the most important forts of Thomond.80  Significantly, most of the fortifications we can identify are to be found in border areas.81  Clearly, the frontier zones were most in need of defensive structures.  But the importance of the great forts as centres of royal influence was probably as great as their value against external aggression.82  There are indications that some, at least, of those great forts were committed to the charge of a royal commander -- with, doubtless, a small garrison attached.83  At royal centres such as these, and some unfortified dwellings, Mac Carthy would have exercised his authority and availed of his tributes and taxes once or twice a year.

Wherever Diarmaid travelled he was accompanied by a large retinue made up of aristocratic companions, royal officers, councillors and various hangers-on.84  The royal retinue formed the core of the king's army and included a great many armed retainers who were fed by, and bound to, the great king.85  This great host camped in and around the royal residences each evening and feasted on vast quantities of foodstuffs and provender extracted from the king's subjects in the form of food-rents.  Fortunately, it is possible to catch a glimpse of a royal visit to one of the great forts of twelfth-century Desmond.  The Vision of Mac Conglinne contains a story involving the efforts of a king of Uí Echach to provide a night's free entertainment for a gluttonous king of Munster and the multitudes in his retinue.86  The tale is set in the petty king's fortress at Dún Coba on the borderlands of Uí Echach and Corca Laoigdhe.  The royal house (rígthige) was of sturdy construction with timber posts and rafters, walls of wattle and a roof of thatch.87  Into this building came the king of Munster and his aristocratic companions, officers and entertainers.  The chief nobles would have sat themselves down at a great table,88 while the lesser guests sat on couches, beds and bed-rails.89  Gentle maidens then served this host with wine, ale, dairy produce, meats, flour cakes and fruits.90  Entertainment was provided by musicians, bards, players and jugglers and inspiring tales recounted.  Later the king retired to a 'bed of downy quilt'91 and the great host slept off their drunken stupor.  Meanwhile the companies of footsoldiers sheltered in tents around the dún or were billeted on the local population.  We have no idea how often Diarmaid 'requested' such hospitality from his client kings but such visits were clearly a cause of some anguish (doilig) for the reluctant hosts.92

The great monasteries also played host to the kings of Desmond -- not that they had any choice in the matter either.  Diarmaid had a house in Lismore, and it was as much his chief residence as was Shandon, near Cork.93  The kings of Desmond also exercised the right to impose more conventional forms of taxation on the Church -- despite the best efforts of the twelfth century reformers to put an end to the practice.94  The clerical author of the Vision saw nothing remarkable in a king of Munster demanding a cloak (brat) from every church in the province.95  According to the Rental of Cong Abbey96 Cormac Mac Carthy granted to that monastery sixteen half-marks yearly from the abbot of Gill Abbey as well as some vestments after the inauguration of newly-appointed abbots.  Diarmaid Mac Carthy continued to impose taxation on the Church up to Anglo-Norman times.  In a special bequest he freed Gill Abbey from all liability for secular exactions in 117365 -- but that was a very exceptional gift which proves the rule.  Indeed, at one stage Diarmaid's power over the church was given physical expression through Gilla Pátraic Mac Carthy's tenure as coarb of Fin Barre with direct authority over the church's patrimony.97  The fact is that the Irish Church of the twelfth century was too rich and powerful to be exempted from its financial obligations to the 'state'.

The Vikings of Cork also made an important contribution to the resources of the kings of Desmond -- through naval service whenever the Mac Carthys required it, and through direct taxation for goods or cash.98  Unfortunately, they remain a very enigmatic people who have eluded any study to date.

Thus it is clear that the kings of twelfth century Desmond exercised very considerable powers of taxation over the inhabitants of the region.  But their extensive rights and enormous revenues99 were offset by correspondingly onerous duties and obligations.  Not only was the king obliged to lead his followers into battle against external assaults, but he was also expected to maintain peace and stability within his own kingdom.  This notion is best presented in Cogadh where the ideal king (in the form of Brian Boroimhe) 'fined and imprisoned the perpetrators of murders, trespass and robbery and war.  He hanged and killed and destroyed the robbers and thieves and plunderers of Ireland'.100  This is not simply idealistic rhetoric.  The Lismore annalist reported that 'battles and fights, raids and murders, violations of churches and holy places' were widespread following the debilitating illness of Muirchertach O'Brien in 1114.101  In the ensuing years there was interminable strife throughout Munster, and a number of great monasteries were burnt, in the absence of a great king to maintain order.102

The annals are not overburdened with information about twelfth century Desmond but they do suggest that by the 1160s Diarmaid Mac Carthy held a tight rein on his client-kings.  He appears to have imposed a measure of 'peacefulness' on all of them -- with the notable exception of the O'Donoghues of Cenél Laegaire (see next section).  The most troublesome subjects Diarmaid had to contend with were, in fact, members of his own clan!  The internal colonization of Desmond by a growing number of Mac Carthys did much to strengthen Diarmaid's control over the region.  But the multiplication of segments within the dynasty was fraught with danger -- creating as it did an increasing number of competing foci of power among the Clann Cárthaig.  This danger became particularly acute in the early 1160s when the Dalcassian threat began to recede.

In 1162 Donnchadh mac Donnchadh Mac Carthy -- a first cousin of Diarmaid -- led an abortive rebellion in Desmond.  He was soon captured but escaped almost immediately.103  The king of Desmond took no chances however.  Early in 1163 Diarmaid lured Donnchadh to Lismore with a safe-conduct guaranteed by solemn oaths sworn on the relics of St. Carthage -- and then treacherously killed him.104  Giraldus Cambrensis (alias Gerald de Barry) observed that this dishonourable practice was all too popular among the Gaels and he regarded it as 'a particularly good proof of their treachery'.105  Another branch of the Clann Cárthaig rebelled in 1164 under the leadership of Mael Seachlainn mac Domhnall Mac Carthy.  Diarmaid defeated the insurgents in battle at Grenagh near Aghadoe and then made peace with them.106  But there were further disturbances within Desmond in 1165, and King Diarmaid banished Mael Seachlainn Mac Carthy to Leinster, killed Gilla na Trínóite O'Daly (chief poet of Munster), and seems to have blinded a grandson of Domhnall Mac Carthy.  Diarmaid had Mael Seachlainn killed in the following year.107  Clearly the king of Desmond believed in dealing with rebellions against his authority with ruthless efficiency.  Peace and relative stability were essential prerequisites for the effective governing and security of a great over-kingdom like Desmond.

Christian antipathy to crime and violence, and the need wealthy churches had for protection, encouraged Irish churchmen to be enthusiastic in their support for the development and expansion of royal authority.108  In return for this support -- and a lot of clerical taxation -- Diarmaid Mac Carthy acknowledged that the defence of the Church befitted 'royal magnificence',65 and there is no reason to doubt that he bestowed his protection of the great churches of Desmond.

Like a number of his contemporaries, Diarmaid probably enacted his own legislation,109 though no evidence for it now survives.  The kings of Desmond demonstrably played a role in law-enforcement.  In 1130 Cormac Mac Carthy hanged, at the fort of Cloonbrien (near Bruree), one Gilla Comhgain who had stolen the jewels of Clonmacnoise.110  Significantly, the culprit was given over to Cormac by Conchubhar O'Brien, king of Thomond -- indicating perhaps that the provincial kings acted as supreme judges in their overlordships, and reserved to themselves the right to execute the most notorious rebels and law-breakers.111  I have found no example of Diarmaid Mac Carthy 'executing' justice during his reign but he did have a gallows in Cork112 -- and I have no doubt but that it saw service.

In conclusion, the resemblances between Diarmaid's government of Desmond, and that existing in feudal Europe are striking.  Despite the paucity of source-materials, we can see the expansion of royal authority in the fields of taxation, administration and justice.  Such development was hampered by the anarchic mode of regnal succession prevailing in Gaelic society,113 and by the absence of formal institutions to consolidate royal power and functions.  Nevertheless, on the eve of the Anglo-Norman intervention, Irish provincial kingship was moving rapidly in the direction of feudal monarchy.  It was most unfortunate that that intervention was to prevent the process from ever reaching fruition.

 

DESMOND'S O'DONOGHUES

It seems appropriate here to discuss the single most important development within Desmond during the decade before the coming of the Anglo-Normans -- the O'Donoghues' conquest and settlement of Eóghanacht Locha Léin.

Information on the invasion of Eóghanacht Locha Léin is extremely scarce -- not least because the O'Donoghues themselves were later anxious to disguise the fact that they had no ancestral claims to the kingship there.114  Nevertheless, the fact that they had completed the building of a church at Aghadoe by 1158115 would suggest that there had been some O'Donoghue infiltration into western Desmond before that time.  Eóghanacht Locha Léin was clearly in a disturbed state early in 1158.  Its O'Carroll rulers appear to have been allied with Brian son of Donnchadh O'Brien against some external force -- presumably the O'Donoghues and their allies.115  The defenders met with some success at first but then had a slight disagreement -- Brian O'Brien and Domhnall O'Carroll (grandson to the king of Loch Léin) proceeded to kill each other for some reason.115  By the summer of 1158 Amlaíb Mór O'Donoghue, king of Cenél Laoghaire, had overthrown the O'Carrolls and annexed the kingship of the Eóghanacht Locha Léin to his own.  Amlaíb Mór went on a hosting with Mac Carthy against the Dalcassian invasion later that year, but was killed at Magh Breoghain on the banks of the Suir.  His family and followers brought his body to the monastery of Aghadoe, and laid him to rest there on the right hand side of the church dedicated to the Blessed Trinity and the Virgin Mary.115

Amlaíb Mór was succeded in the kingship of Cenél Laoghaire and Eóghanacht Locha Léin by his son Aodh O'Donoghue who in 1161 was killed while fighting for the Mac Carthys against another Dalcassian invasion.116  What happened next is unclear but I suggest that Muirchertach son of Amlaíb Mór O'Donoghue succeeded to the kingship of Eóghanacht Locha Léin, while his brother Cathal became king of Uí Echach (of which Cinél Laoghaire was a part).117  Muirchertach was killed by the Uí Chinaeda (O'Kennys) in their abortive insurrection of 1163.118  Cathal O'Donoghue was banished from his kingdom in the 1160s and was subsequently 'fostered' by Diarmaid Mac Carthy's son Cormac Liathánach who gave Cathal the lands of his brother Domhnall O'Donoghue and those of Muiredach O'Moriarty119 -- a remarkable display of Mac Carthy control over the land of Desmond.  Cathal O'Donoghue died in 1170 fighting for the king of Desmond against the Anglo-Normans at Waterford.119

Meantime, under Mac Carthy's benevolent eye the O'Donoghues' occupation of Eóghanacht Locha Léin proceeded apace with the fortification of the territory and its colonization.120  Their control of the kingship there was not entirely secure as late as 1178,121 but their settlement in western Desmond was already irreversible.  As Diarmaid's most faithful vassals the O'Donoghues played a major role in strengthening royal authority throughout Desmond and in 1177, in Diarmaid's darkest hour, only their courage and loyalty saved Desmond from disaster.  The coming of the Anglo-Normans to Cork served only to draw Mac Carthy and the O'Donoghues closer than ever.

 

DESMOND AND THE SUPREMACY OF CONNACHT 1166-1171

Beyond Desmond the later 1160s were years of convulsive political change.  In 1166 the supremacy of Ulster disintegrated.122  Rory O'Connor, king of Connacht, became the undisputed high-king of Ireland, and the kingdom of Desmond was brought within the framework of an effective kingship of Ireland for the first time.  From 1166 to 1171 it is impossible to understand south Munster politics without reference to the high-kingship of Rory O'Connor.

In the autumn of 1166 the Connacht king took Mac Carthy's submission and received a number of hostages from him.123  Later that year O'Connor held a royal council at Athlone which was attended by all the regional kings in Ireland -- excepting Niall Mac Lochlainn of Ulster.  By accepting the tuarastail he granted them, the greater Irish kings acknowledged the high-king's authority over them.124  Mac Carthy for his part received seventy horses125 -- a not inconsiderable prize in those days.  Interestingly, this is the only documented instance of a king of Desmond taking a tuarastal from an overlord.

In 1167 the high-king of Ireland made a hosting into Tyrone with the greatest army ever assembled by an Irish king: it comprised no less than thirteen battalions of infantry, and seven of cavalry.126  The army was also noteworthy as being truly 'national' in composition, in that contingents were drawn from almost every part of Ireland, including Desmond and Thomond.  The expedition proved successful with the high-king establishing his authority over Cenél Eoghain which he then partitioned between Mac Lochlainn and the Uí Néill.  O'Connor was so pleased with the performance of his Munster vassals that he brought both of them into his house.  He gave the sword of Cormac Mac Carthy to Diarmaid, and the drinking horn of Brian Boru to the king of Thomond.127  O'Connor then escorted the Desmond army southward through Thomond as far as Knockaney, in deference doubtless, to Mac Carthy's wariness of a possible Dál Cais ambush.  That was the first and last occasion on which a king of Desmond performed military service for an overlord -- another illustration of the effectiveness of Rory O'Connor's high-kingship in the 1160s.

The achievement of O'Connor came to be overshadowed by the subsequent invasion of the Anglo-Normans.  But in the early years of his high-kingship the Connachtman was clearly determined to rule rather than reign merely.  He demonstrated this by his imposition of a 'national' tax on the men of Ireland, and his exaction of military service from them.  In 1168 the high-king imposed an eric on Mac Carthy for having the king of Thomond assassinated.128  This incident indicates more than O'Connor's desire to forestall warfare among his chief vassals; it is a powerful manifestation of his overlordship over Desmond.  The surviving evidence suggests that Rory O'Connor wielded a novel and significant degree of authority over the king of Desmond before the coming of the Normans.

But if O'Connor's rise to power in 1166-7 had important political implications for Desmond, the disintegration of Connacht's supremacy after the Anglo-Norman invasion was no less significant.  The high-king's response to the intervention of the Normans in Irish affairs has not been satisfactorily explored.  It will suffice here to observe that the successive waves of Anglo-Norman mercenaries introduced into Ireland by Dermot Mac Murrough in 1167, 1169 and 1170 came to pose a major challenge to O'Connor's high-kingship.  This threat was exacerbated in 1170 with the rebellion of the king of Thomond which removed all of Munster from the high-king's authority.

Diarmaid Mac Carthy's response to these developments was pragmatic, if short-sighted.  He saw the confused state of affairs as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement and in 1170 led an attack on Waterford city, perhaps with the intention of pre-empting Anglo-Norman penetration of Decies which he coveted for himself.129  The expedition failed to capture Waterford city, though heavy losses were inflicted on the garrison there.130  Early in 1171 Mac Carthy made another hosting, this time against Limerick.131  Half of the walled city was burnt to its core and its citizens massacred.  But this dramatic display of Mac Carthy power achieved no lasting result.  The Dál Cais were weakened for a time but soon recovered.  Mac Carthy's expansionist ambitions were ended when Rory O'Connor re-established his overlordship over Thomond.

When Dermot Mac Murrough died in May 1171 his kingdom disintegrated and his mercenaries found themselves trapped behind the walls of the Ostman towns they had captured.  Rory O'Connor moved against the foreigners with speed and determination.  For two months and more the high-king besieged the Anglo-Normans in Dublin with all the men and resources at his disposal.  The king of Desmond was conspicuous by his absence.  An Irish victory seemed assured, but in August the high-king was routed by a small Norman force.  That was, to my mind, one of the most decisive engagements in Irish history.  Had Strongbow and his men been defeated, Henry II would have had no cause to come to Ireland and the course of Irish history might have been very different.  However, O'Connor was unexpectedly beaten and the supremacy of Connacht was annihilated.  I believe that once Henry II learnt of the Irish king's defeat he decided to go to Ireland immediately to prevent Strongbow from setting himself up as an independent monarch.  Consequently in October 1171 the king of England set sail for Ireland to curb the ambitions of his unruly vassals there.

 

MAC CARTHY: VASSAL OR SUZERAIN?

On 17 October 1171 Henry II landed at Waterford with a great hosting to enforce his authority over the Anglo-Normans in Ireland and to impose some order on the situation.  The Anglo-French king was not long in Waterford when Diarmaid Mór Mac Carthy came into his house.132  The king of Desmond submitted quite voluntarily and Giraldus informs us that 'he was drawn forthwith into a firm alliance with Henry through the bond of homage, the oath of fealty and the giving of hostages'.133  In theory, Mac Carthy was now a vassal of the king of England.

In making his submission to Henry II Diarmaid Mac Carthy was simply adopting a strategy for survival in the wake of the overthrow of the high-kingship of Ireland.  The collapse of Connacht's supremacy left Desmond vulnerable to attack from Thomond, a threat exacerbated by the defection of the O'Mahony king of Uí Echach to the Dál Cais.  Mac Carthy sought a 'firm alliance'134 with Henry II against those whom he expected to assault his kingdom -- and that accounts for his anxiety to reach the monarch before Domhnall O'Brien and Donnchadh O'Mahony.132  Unfortunately for Diarmaid Mór however, Henry II had little immediate interest in Ireland itself and was anxious not to expend royal resources here if possible.135  He had no qualms about accepting submissions from O'Brien and O'Mahony a little later -- though he does seem to have dissuaded the allies from attacking Desmond.

In assessing the significance of the relationship thus established between the king of Desmond and the king of England it is important to see the 1171 encounter in its Irish context.  Mac Carthy and the other Irish kings who submitted to Henry II probably saw their actions in the light of similar submissions to the aspirant high-kings of Ireland.  These possessed meaning only as long as the overlord could enforce them through military coercion.  The king of England made no attempt to make effective the overlordship implicit in the submissions from the Gaelic kings.  Consequently, no royal governor saw Cork city before November 1177, and there is no record of the annual tribute promised to the king of England being paid by Mac Carthy before 1177.136  I suspect that Le Gros' raid on Mac Carthy's monastery of Lismore in 1173 was an attempt by him to collect the unpaid tribute due from Desmond.137  It is thus evident that Mac Carthy's submission to Henry II was nothing more than an empty gesture, inspired by internal Munster politics.  The submission did not impair Mac Carthy's suzerainty in Desmond.

Life in Desmond continued much as before after Henry II's withdrawal from Ireland.  The Dál Cais invaded Desmond in 1175.138  Domhnall O'Brien led a hosting into Eóghanacht Locha Léin, and from thence to Ciarraighe where ecclesiastical and secular property was destroyed.  The attack ended when the Connachtmen attacked northern Thomond, and Raymond le Gros captured Limerick city.139  These developments ensured Desmond's safety from Dalcassian assault until after the fall of Cork city in 1177.

As we have already seen, the threat of internal division among the Clann Cárthaig was never so great as when the threat of external assault seemed least.  The Dál Cais had only just left Desmond in 1175 when Diarmaid Mór was deposed by his eldest son, Cormac Liathánach.  Diarmaid was set free immediately upon surrendering hostages to the new king, and recovered his personal lands.140  When Raymond le Gros returned to Limerick in 1176 Diarmaid sent emissaries to him seeking his assistance in recovering the kingship of Desmond,141 as the 'liege man and loyal subject of the king of England' and, more realistically, promising generous gifts for Raymond and money for his troops.  Le Gros was never one to decline a chance for glory or fortune so, having consulted his men, he turned his standards towards Desmond.  This force was complemented by Mac Gilpatrick of Ossory and Domhnall Caomhánach Mac Murrough and their followers.  These contingents were active against the young king of Desmond around Ballyhay and Cooliney (now in Orrery and Kilmore).142  However, when reports reached the Anglo-Normans in April 1176 of the death of Earl Richard de Clare, Raymond decided to abandon Munster and to consolidate his meagre forces to protect the cities and castles of Leinster and the south-east.143  This, of course, involved quitting Limerick and leaving Diarmaid Mac Carthy to his own devices.

At this point Diarmaid Mór and Cormac Liathánach agreed to a truce.  But when they met Cormac treacherously seized his father and had him imprisoned.141  A number of Diarmaid's supporters -- including Mac Craith O'Sullivan -- were killed in the incident and a great deal of bitterness was aroused.144  A confederation of south Munster nobles loyal to Diarmaid Mór then formed around Cathal Odhar mac Ceallacháin Mac Carthy, Conchubhar O'Donoghue, king of Cenél Laoghaire and the O'Sullivans.  Cormac Liathánach was killed later in 1176 by them.  Diarmaid Mór was restored as king of Desmond and he rewarded Cathal Odhar with the tánaiste's lands.142  But time was running out for Mac Carthy and his kingdom.

 

CONCLUSION

Desmond before the Normans was clearly a vibrant political entity whose complexity can now be defined only tentatively and inadequately.  Further progress will demand an even more assiduous collection and interpretation of scraps of evidence from contemporary south Munster literature.  What has emerged from this study is, I think, the degree to which the kings of Desmond actually governed their kingdom through the fairly rudimentary mechanisms and structures at their disposal.  It is impossible to trace the development of this government through the reign of Diarmaid Mór Mac Carthy, though its functioning was clearly very dependent upon the personal qualities of the king.  I believe the evidence shows that, in Diarmaid, Desmond had a strong and resourceful ruler.

In retrospect one cannot fail to be impressed by the amazing energy and endurance of Diarmaid Mac Carthy in his very eventful reign.  He had to fight off numerous assaults on his kingship from within Desmond, and from without.  Yet he hammered the principalities of south Munster into a unity which would have done justice to many a feudal lordship.  And before the coming of the Anglo-Normans he made his own dynasty altogether supreme in south-western Ireland.

Yet by 1173 Diarmaid Mór may already have sensed that the coming of the Anglo-Normans had made profound change inevitable in Ireland.  In his charter of that year65 he reflected upon 'the unstable pomp of a world passing away'.  The Gaelic world was being overwhelmed by alien forces, but the politicians in Desmond remained preoccupied with local and regional concerns.  Only the capture of Cork city in 1177 helped to concentrate their attention on the threat posed to them and their way of life by the Anglo-Normans' coming to Ireland.

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

(This paper has been adapted from a B.A. dissertation (UCC 1982), written under the supervision of K.W. Nicholls.)

Footnotes

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