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From Cashel To Carbery

Gleanings from Mac Carthy History
Patrick O'Sullivan

The original booklet was published by The MacCarthy Clan Society, Kanturk, Co. Cork & printed by Kanturk Printers Ltd.
Publishing/printing 1992.
The booklet is web published here by permission of The MacCarthy Clan Society, Kanturk, Co. Cork.

The surname Mac Carthy derives from Carthagh, King of Eoghanacht Cashel, who, according to the Annalists, was burned alive in 1045 AD.  The Eoghanacht, which also included O'Sullivan and O'Donoghue, was that family which descended from Eoghan Mór, son of Oiliol Olum, third century King of Munster.  Carthagh's father was Saerbhrethagh, or, in its anglicised form, Justin.  Saerbhrethagh's father was Donogh, and his grandfather Callaghan was King of Munster about the year 950.  Here in the very genesis of Clan Carthy, we have four names which, a millennium later, are synonymous with that family.  We think of Justin Mac Carthy, M.P., prominent member of the Irish Parliamentary Party a century ago, and of Eugene McCarthy, poet, Congressman and Senator, unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Democratic Party nomination in 1968.  Donogh is a name of special significance in Duhallow, while Cormac (or Charles) is almost equal in antiquity with those mentioned, being the name of Carthagh's grandson, king of Desmond, who died in 1138.

Callaghan, previously mentioned, was the first Eoghanacht King of Munster in three centuries, his base being 'Cashel of the Kings'.  This honour the clan failed to retain due to the opposition of the O'Briens of Dál gCais in North Munster.  The latter, however, had loftier ambitions and in their long drawn-out struggle for the High Kingship with the Uí Neill, Turlough O'Connor intervened.  This in effect weakened the Dalcassians, providing an opportune moment for Eoghanacht advance.  Nevertheless, the Connacht king sought not a strong, but a divided Munster.  The outcome was the partition of that province between the O'Briens in Thomond and the Eoghanacht in Desmond (South Munster).  This division of 1118, according to Butler, marks the true beginning of the Kingdom of Desmond and of Mac Carthy power in Munster.  This political power was subsequently exercised to varying degrees over the next five centuries.  Cormac Mac Carthy was King of Munster for a short period before being deposed in 1127, thereafter reigning as King of Desmond.  A controversial figure, he is best remembered for that outstanding example of Hiberno-Romanesque, Cormac's Chapel, consecrated in 1134.  Four years later he was murdered in his own home in Caiseal.  His son Dermod, later King of Desmond, appears to have had his castle in Lismore and was exposed to another, more powerful enemy.

There is little doubt that the Anglo-Norman incursion of 1169, instigated by a Gaelic king highly regarded by his own people, introduced a period of total political confusion.  Within the Mac Carthy polity, sept contended with sept for a diminishing kingdom.  Their troubles were compounded by external pressure groups - on the one hand, O'Briens seeking the eclipse of the Eoghanacht, on the other, the relentless advance of land-hungry Norman barons.  Dermod, son of Cormac, was the first Gaelic ruler to swear fealty to Henry II when the latter arrived in Waterford - hoping for recognition and protection from that king's ruthless vassals.  Henry obviously made one bargain with Dermod and another with Fitzstephen and de Cogan, to whom he granted the 'Kingdom of Cork'.  We read of Normans allied with O'Briens as Munster is re-partitioned.  In 1185 Dermod was killed by Theobald Walter, ancestor of the house of Ormonde.  This gentleman was granted North Tipperary by Prince John, who bestowed the southern half of the county, original heartland of the O'Sullivans and Mac Carthys, to Philip de Wigornia.  Mac Carthy displacement in Tipperary caused similar discomfort to O'Donovans and O'Collins, to O'Mahonys and O'Driscolls.  Dermod was succeeded by Donnell Mór na Curra, who had his moment of success when he drove the invaders out of Limerick city (1196).  He was succeeded by his brother 1 Finghin, who, so the Annalists tell us, was killed by his own people in 1209, after a three-year reign.  He was followed by three brothers, Dermod Cluasach, Cormac Fionn and Donell Gott, that latter the ancestor of the Mac Carthy Reagh and other Carbery septs of the clan.  By now, East Cork, virtually all of Limerick and North Kerry lay in the control of the Norman Geraldines, while the descendants of Dermod Mac Carthy, King of Desmond 1151 - '85 (Clan Dermod), were in possession of the baronies of Glanerought and Magunihy in Kerry and Duhallow, Muskerry and Carbery in Cork.  Their chief vassals were the O'Sullivans, who held the greater part of the Iveragh and Bere peninsulas.

1.  Here it is worth mentioning that the laws of succession in the Gaelic system differed greatly from the Norman practice of primogeniture which operated in non-Gaelic Ireland.

REVIVAL.  The great victory in 1261, at Callann, near Kenmare, by Finghin Mac Carthy, son of Donnell Gott, is generally regarded as the event which rolled back the Norman tide in Munster.  Subsequently, his brother Cormac defeated Mac William Burke at Tooreen Cormaic but was killed in so doing.  Nevertheless, these decisive actions allowed their cousin Donnell Roe (son of Cormac Fionn) to reign unhindered as King of Desmond for forty years.

The Irish rivival continued during the fifty-six year rule of Donnell's grandson, Cormac Mór.  The foreigner was ousted from all parts of Mac Carthy territory and native rule was once more operative 'from the walls of Cork to Valentia'.  Meanwhile the sons of Donnell Gott had established themselves as independent rulers of Carbery, under the name Mac Carthy Reagh (Reagh: Riabhach:swarthy), having concluded an agreement circa 1280 that they would rule Desmond south of the River Lee.

In time the Geraldines were revitalised and the Irish acknowledged their overlordship.  The usual feudal dues obliged the Irish to give aid in time of war and additional annual dues amounting to £214 were paid out of Desmond and 67 beeves out of Carbery.  Thereafter a long period of reasonable stability ensued.  From the death of Donnell Roe (1302), direct succession from father to son continued unbroken for two centuries.  After the reign of his great-great-grandson, Tadhg na Mainistreach, the designation of 'Mac Carthy Mór' was used in preference to 'King of Desmond'.  This emphasised their pre-eminence over all other branches of the Mac Carthys and distinguished them in particular from Mac Carthy Reagh in Carbery.

Togher Castle
Togher Castle

CARBERY.  Mac Carthy Reagh was overlord of the of the O'Driscolls, O'Mahonys and O'Donovans as well as a number of Mac Carthy septs.  The latter had castles at Kilcoe, Cloghane, Castlederry, Ballinroher, Dunmanway, Togher, Ballineen etc. 2  Blessed Thaddeus Mac Carthy (1456-1492) is said to be one of the Mac Carthy Reagh.  He is still venerated at Ivrea (Italy) where he died.  Another Tadhg Mac Carthy, of the Enniskeane branch (Sliocht Diarmada), was Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, 1726-1747.  Finghin Mac Carthy Reagh (who died 1505) married a daughter of Thomas, Earl of Desmond.  The Book of Mac Carthy Riabhach' (or 'The Book of Lismore') was compiled for them.  Their son Donnell married a daughter of the most powerful Geraldine of all, Gearóid Mór, the Great Earl of Kildare.  Another Finghin (Florence) of Carbery, grandson of the last-mentioned Donall, was probably the best-known of all his clan.  He also contributed to the sources of the nation's history by carefully preserving some old Irish manuscripts which came to be known as 'Mac Carthaigh's Book'.  However it was in the political field that he left his greatest mark.  He married secretly at Muckross, Eleanor, daughter and legitimate heiress of Donnell Mac Carthy Mór, Earl of Clancarthy, and alliance which alarmed the English government, as it bound together several native and Old English families.  He spent forty years in London, half of them in the tower, and was buried at Saint Martin's-in-the-Field, near Trafalgar Square, nowadays renowned for its Musical Academy.  Even while confined to the city of London, 'this cunning hypocrital Traytor' was a constant thorn in the side of the English.  His brother, Dermot Maol, fought with Hugh O'Neill at Kinsale and shortly after his lands were confiscated.  He is buried in Timoleague Abbey.

2.  One of these septs takes its name from the river which runs through Skibbereen: Clan Taidhg Aighleann.

Blarney Castle
Blarney Castle

MUSKERRY.  Scholars cannot agree on the precise origins of the Duhallow and Muskerry Mac Carthys.  O Murchadha says that the Muskerry sept are the descendants of Dermod, son of Cormac Mór, King of Desmond, who died in 1359 3.  Both baronies were always regarded as being within the Mac Carthy Mór's domain, though part of Muskerry was held for a time by Richard de Cogan.  Today, Muskerry is divided East and West.  The ruling family built friaries and had castles throughout their tuatha: Kilcrea, Blarney, Cloghphilip, Ballea (Carrigaline), Carrigadrohid, Castlemore, Dooneen (Millstreat) and Dripsey.  Two of their properties became latter-day centres of Catholic education, at Carraig na bhFear and Drishane.  The last-named branch must surely be famous for the longevity of its taoisigh.  Drishane Castle was built in 1450 by Dermot, brother of Cormac Láidir, Lord of Muskerry.  Dermot's great-grandson Donogh was born in 1517 and died in 1639.  What social change that man must have witnessed!  Donogh's granson, another Donogh, of Dooneen, had the misfortune of losing Drishane after the wars of the 1640s.  He lived from 1619 to 1725.  His son, Donogh Og lived to be 96 years, dying in 1763.  Drishane later became the convent of The Congregation of the Holy Child.

The Lordship of Muskerry passed, after some intermissions, from Cormad Láidir (d. 1494) to his great-grandson Diarmuid Mac Taidhg.  After the latter's death in 1570, two of his brothers became taoisigh, a third brother being given the castle of Dooneen.  The last of these taoisigh, Callaghan Mac Taidhg, was ousted by his nephew, Diarmuid's son, Cormac of Blarney, with whome his cousin and namesake of Carraig na bhFear carried on a bitter feud.  The first-named won out and after 'surrendering', was regranted an English title to his lands.  He refused to join O'Neill's rebellion, was on the English side at Kinsale, but was then accused of having 'treasonable traffic with the Spaniards' and was imprisoned.  Later released, he joined O'Sullivan Bere in rebellion, submitted and was pardoned.  His son, Cormac Og, was created Viscount Muskerry and Lord Blarney, to be succeeded by Donogh, one of the leaders of the Catholic Confederacy 1642 - '52.  He lost all in 1650, surrendered at Ross Castle in 1652 and went to France, where he was created Earl of Clancarthy by Charles II in 1658, before being restored to his lands in 1661.  One of his sons, Justin, Lord Mountcashel, was famous amongst the 'Wild Geese', while his Jacobite grandson, Donogh, was indicted after the Boyne, imprisoned in the Tower, and pardoned but exiled.  The huge acres of Lord Muskerry's estate were confiscated and auctioned in 1702 in London.  The Mac Carthaigh 'Spáinneach' of Carraig na bhFear, later owners of Cloghroe and Knockavilla as well, were descended from the previously-mentioned cousin of Cormac Mac Diarmada.  This branch conformed to the Established Church, changed the name to Mac Cartie and, as such, held their lands until 1924, when they were sold to the Sacred Heart Missionaries.

3.  They are often referred to as Mac Diarmada / Mac Dermot.

Kanturk Castle
Kanturk Castle

DUHALLOW.  The general consensus amongst genealogists seems to be that the Duhallow Mac Carthys were descended from Diarmuid (Ruadh), son of Cormac Fionn Mac Carthy Mór 4.  Diarmuid's grandson was Donnchadh na Sgoile, whose grandson in turn was Donogh Mac Carthy.  This gentleman had a son, Donogh Og, who died 1501.  The latter was married twice, firstly to a daughter of the White Knight, by whome he had a son, Cormac; secondly, to a daughter of the Mac Carthy Mór, by whom he had another son, Eoghan (Owen).  It would seem that the additional distinctive surname traditionally applied to the Duhallow Mac Carthys derives from this gentleman also, i.e. the Mac Donogh Mac Carthys, whose chief residence was at Kanturk.  At any rate, between these two branches of Clan Carthy in Duhallow, there existed, according to the now accepted norm, an embittered family rivalry for the greater part of the sixteenth century, during which period three family murders took place.  Much of the internal tensions which were present in this century was generated by the Tudor policy, 'Surrender and Regrant', by which the English monarchs hoped to achieve a degree of legal uniformity, based on the feudal principle of primogeniture.  The struggle between the embattled factions in Duhallow had everything to do with ultimat control of clan territory.

The Lords of Duhallow, under the acknowledged suzerainty of the Mac Carthy Mór, were themselves overlords of three other clans: the Mac Auliffes, the o'Callaghans and the O'Keeffe's, who paid certain dues.  Similar dues, which however did not amount to very much, had to be paid to the Mór out of Duhallow.  The paramount lord had, for example, demesne lands in the Boherbue area.  He was also entitled to four annual sorrens (days of entertainment for himself and his retinue), which in Duhallow was compounded into an annual tax of £20-13-4, evenly assessed on the four clans.  He had as well the 'giving of the rod' at each chieftain's inauguration and, in time of war, the 'finding' of twenty-seven gallowglasses.

The struggle for the Lordship of Duhallow ended in favour of the junior branch of Donogh Og's family.  In 1614, Dermod Mac Owen, descendant of Eoghan Mac Donogh Mac Carthy, surrendered his Gaelic title and one year later was regranted a title in English law, by which succession to the honour was confined to his immediate family, thus discriminating against all other Mac Carthys in Duhallow.  Possession was short-lived, Dermod's successors becoming embroiled in the disastrous troubles of 1641-1652.  When Cromwell's work was done, the Mac Carthy estates were in the hands of Philip Percival, heir of Sir Philip Percival, to whom they had been heavily mortgaged.  These debts were unredeemed and the Percivals were allowed to foreclose.

Dermod Mac Owen, who claimed that his rival Cormac Mac Donogh of Curragh was descended from the elder but illegitimate offspring of their common ancestor, was one of four Gaelic chieftains who petitioned the Pope to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth I, was also an ally of Florence Mac Carthy and was consequently considered a traitor by the English establishment.  In 1598 he pressed his claim to the title of Mac Carthy Mór, which had become vacant, much to everbody's surprise and apparently on very weak grounds.  The only basis for such a claim would seem to have rested on Cronnelly's assertion that the Duhallow sept derived from the eldest son of Cormac Fionn.  In any case, O'Sullivan Mór refused to confer the white rod and Florence Mac Carthy became the Mór.  To our knowledge neither of the Duhallow Mac Carthys fought at Kinsale.  Dermod Mac Owen was imprisoned by the English before the battle and held for the duration of the Spanish interlude.  Cormac Mac Donogh, his cousin, was kidnapped by O'Neill and was killed in action in the Clare-Galway region.

Duhallow's most enduring link with the clan Mac Carthy remains that empty, roofless, achitectural gem, Kanturk Castle, on the banks of the River Brogeen on the road to Banteer.  It would appear that its construction was never completed.  Tradition tells us that it was begun in the reign of Elizabeth and its progress halted by Court order, on foot of alarmist reports from neighbouring English settlers.  Most serious historians nowadays consider that its commencement was after Elizabeth's time and that money troubles were the cause of its unfinished state.  The Duhallow MacCarthys had earlier castles at Kanturk, Curragh (Kanturk), Castlecor, Lohort and Dromsicane (Cullen).

4.  Cronnelly makes this Diarmuid the eldest son of Cormac Fionn.

MacCarthy Arms

DIMINUENDO.  In 1552, the Mac Carthy Mór (Donnell an Druimin) submitted to the Crown and obtained a grant under English law.  His son, another Donnell, renounced his Gaelic title in favour of 'Earl of Clancarthy'.  He died in 1596 and his only surviving legitimate child, Ellen, married Florence Mac Carthy, Tanist to Mac carthy Reagh.  In the three-cornered contest for the primacy which followed Clancarthy's death, he was the victor and to him went more than half the demesne lands, the castles of pallis and Castlelough and, for a while, the title of Mór.  His estates passed to his descendants but were confiscated in 1652.  However, his grandson, Florence II, a commissioned officer in the British Army, conformed to the Protestantism and married Agnes Herbert.  When their only son Charles died in 1770, his estates reverted to his mother's people.  In this way, Butler notes, it happens that the Muckross estate is one of the very few which has passed undisturbed from one generation to the next for close on a thousand years.

When Egan O'Rahilly, last of the great classical Gaelic poets, lamented the passing of the Mac Carthys, 'those princes under whom were my ancestors before the death of Christ', he was really mourning the demise of the Gaelic nation which those chieftains represented.  However, political upheavals, thankfully, do not usually result in genocide.  It is, therefore, a matter of considerable pride to us that the hardy line of continuity has been maintained in one of Ireland's oldest Gaelic families.



Map (Gleanings from Irish History) showing Mac Carthy territories in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Sixteenth century MacCarthy territories.


Butler, W.F.T., Gleanings from Irish History (1925).
O Murchadha, Diarmuid, Family Names of County Cork.
Mac Carthy Mór, S.T., The Mac Carthys of Munster (1922).
Mac Carthy, Daniel, The Life and Letters of Florence Mac Carthy Mór (1867).

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