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Desmond: The Early Years, & The Career of Cormac Mac Carthy

By Henry Alan Jefferies

This article was originally published by the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archeaological Society, Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 247; 1983; pages 81-99.

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



The years since 1970 have witnessed a most profound revolution in almost every field of Irish historiography, and the progress achieved in early Irish history has been more spectacular than most.  Studies of institutions and other specialist topics continued to figure prominently in the writings on the period, but a major breakthrough was arrived at with the publication of three excellent general histories of early Ireland.1  Nevertheless, a great deal remains to be done and, given the dispersed nature of political power in medieval Ireland, a comprehensive series of local studies could now be considered indispensable for a more faithful understanding of early Ireland's politics.

In a short collection of essays I have attempted a study of just one regional kingship -- the Mac Carthy kingdom of Cork.  This first essay presents a brief survey of those petty kingdoms of south Munster which, under pressure from the excessive exactions of their overlord, threw off their allegiance to the Dál Cais and made Tadhg Mac Carthy their king.  And having offered a new interpretation of the events leading up to the emergence of Desmond, this paper traces the careers of Tadhg (1118-1123) and Cormac Mac Carthy (1123-1138) -- the first two kings of that nascent state.

Let me observe first of all that, like all political discourses on Gaelic Ireland, this study has drawn heavily on the surviving annalistic compilations, a fact which has always to be borne in mind.  For not only are the Irish annals extremely terse by nature, but they are also highly selective, consisting primarily of obituaries of notables and references to interregnal conflicts.  They shed little light upon the internal affairs of kingdoms or upon events which were not especially spectacular.  I have attempted to overcome this imbalance somewhat by exploiting all of the relevant contemporary literature.  But all too often these sources merely complement, and do not augment, that which we already know.  Consequently, in accordance with the composition of the surviving evidence, Desmond's external relations figure prominently in this paper, though I would suggest that the less well-documented 'internal colonization' of central Desmond by the Mac Carthys was to prove more significant in the long-term.  Such limitations notwithstanding, these pages bear forceful witness to the increasing power, confidence and ambition of the ruling Mac Carthy dynasty, as they took advantage of the political instability of early twelfth century Ireland to make their surname virtually synonymous with south-west Munster.

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The kingdoms of south Munster
The kingdoms of south Munster.



For the background to the emergence of Desmond one must look to the career of Muirchertach O'Brien, king of Munster, 1086-1118.2  In many ways this Dalcassian was a great man who could style himself Rex Hiberniae with greater justification than anyone before him.  Muirchertach was a modernizer, and a leading ecclesiastical reformer.  His proudest moment may well have been at the historic synod of 1101 when he bestowed the ancient Rock of Cashel upon the Irish Church.  As Ireland entered the twelfth century it must have seemed that her destiny lay inextricably in O'Brien hands.  But the supremacy Muirchertach had achieved was one of personal sovereignty which depended on his own great abilities and not on any new form of organization or institutions.  When he became ill in 1114 his high-kingship perished and the country was thrown into grave disorder.3  Internal dissensions among the Dál Cais, centring on the power-struggle between Muirchertach and his ever-troublesome brother Diarmaid, served only to exacerbate the situation.4

Still subject to O'Brien rule in south Munster at this time were the various dynasties of the Eóghanachta, the leaders of whom had once dominated all of Munster till late in the tenth century, after which the Dál Cais relegated them to the political wilderness.  The cryptic nature of our chief sources, the annals, and their non-historical intent, create great difficulty for anyone trying to discern the political geography of south Munster on the eve of independence.  But using the diocesan boundaries as laid down at Rathbreasail (1111) I shall here present a brief sketch of the more important kingships which were about to form the most dynamic political entity to emerge in the twelfth century.5

Because the twelfth century reformation depended very much upon secular support it was inevitable that the delineation of dioceses should reflect political interests, and Muirchertach O'Brien's hand is clearly evident in the carve-up of Cashel's metropolitan province.  Killaloe diocese was created around the Dál Cais homelands in Clare and north Tipperary, while Limerick diocese coincided with O'Brien dominated territory south of the Shannon.  Their more recent acquisitions in south Tipperary formed the bulk of Cashel archdiocese.  Ossory diocese was coterminous with Mac Gilpatrick's kingdom to the east.6

To the south, within Lismore's diocese were the Ostman port of Waterford with its cantred, the neighbouring kingdom of Decies and the kingdom of Imokilly.  The O'Bricks had been the dominant family in Decies throughout the eleventh century, but increasingly they came to face stiff competition from the O'Phelans -- a fact not without significance as we shall see.  By contrast, the Ua hAnmchadha family remained altogether supreme in nearby Imokilly and Olethan (Uí Liatháin), two cantreds which they wielded into a strong, united kingdom.

The original diocese of Cork was naturally centred upon the monastery of St Fin Barre, beside which was a small Ostman port whose rulers enjoyed possession of Kerrycurrihy.  West of the Ostman cantred was the kingdom of the Eóghanacht Raithlinn (Uí Echach).  Having lost out to Uí Matúdáin here in the later eleventh century, the O'Donaghues seem to have recovered the kingship by c. 1100, only to give way to Mael Sechnaill O'Callaghan in little more than a decade or two.7  And bounded in by these Eóghanacht, and suffering from their expansionism, was Corca Laoigde -- a kingdom which was to be dominated by the O'Driscolls throughout the twelfth century.8  Meanwhile, north of the Lee lay the kingdom of Muskerry Mittine which, sometime after 1096, fell to the O'Flynns -- a branch of the Eóghanacht Locha Léin recently excluded from the kingship there.  The local Ó Donnagáin dynasty persisted in their opposition to the usurpers, at least until 1115 when they killed the reigning O'Flynn king of Muskerry.  Thereafter, both dynasties were united in obscurity.

West of the diocesan boundary was west Munster (Iar-Mumha), where the Eóghanacht Locha Léin were pre-eminent.  Having overthrown the Uí Cathail, the O'Flynns enjoyed the kingship here for the third quarter of the eleventh century.  The rí-damhna, O'Carroll, killed their last king in 1077 and thereby earned the animosity of Turlough O'Brien for killing one of his vassal-kings.  So Turlough gave the kingship to another dynasty, the O'Moriartys, who were to hold it tenaciously for several decades to come.  Meanwhile the O'Carrolls persisted no less doggedly in segmentary opposition.

The Eóghanacht Locha Léin had very strained relations with the rulers of neighbouring Ciarraige -- a strong kingdom encompassing the rich lands of north Kerry.  The O'Connors (Uí Chonchobhair) monopolized the kingship here after 10339 and maintained excellent relations with the Dál Cais throughout the eleventh century and for most of the next.  With their powerful fleet, strategically located at the mouth of the Shannon, the Ciarraige were clearly fated to play a decisive role in subsequent developments.

The little kingdom of Corca Dhuibhne also possessed a strong naval force, giving it greater power and status than the inhospitable terrain of the Dingle peninsula might suggest.  However, the incessant and bitter rivalry between the kingdoms two chief dynasties effectively ensured that Corca Dhuibhne and its O'Shea kings would rarely rise to more than local prominence.10

Emly diocese encompassed the Ó Ciarmhaic (O'Kirby) kingship of the Eóghanacht Áine at Knockaney, and the O'Keefe kingship of the Eóghanacht Glennamhnach at Fermoy.  The affairs of both dynasties are hidden from our sources, but the twelfth century was to see the O'Keefes emerge as one of the most important clans in all of Munster.

I shall conclude this survey with a brief look at the Eóghanacht of Cashel -- a people who had once monopolized the throne of Munster.  Since the days of Ceallachán († 954), their fortunes had gone into grave and seemingly endless decline.  Not only did they lose the kingship of Munster to Brian Boru, but by the 1070s Brian's descendants had wrested possession of Cashel itself from them.  The dispossessed remnant of the Eóghanacht of Cashel migrated westwards and by the reign of Muiredach son of Cárthach, they may have occupied some location in the Emly -- Duhallow district.  Certainly the early expansion of the Mac Carthys suggests a north-west Cork provenance.11  Muiredach's death in 1092 was swiftly followed by the murder of his brother and successor at the hands of Ceallachán O'Callaghan.  In view of this killing, and his designation as 'O'Callaghan of Cashel' at a time when that district had long been lost to the Eóghanacht, I would suggest that Ceallachán usurped the kingship of the Eóghanacht of Cashel and retained it until his death.  It is my contention that his death in 1115 was a Mac Carthy action which opened the way for the rise to power of Tadhg son of Muiredach Mac Carthy.



Implicit in the sketch above is the high degree of fragmentation of power in south Munster in pre-Norman times.  But the awesome strength of the Dál Cais allowed Muirchertach O'Brien to exact a personal bond of allegiance from each of the petty kings, and unite them under his overlordship.  Yet Muirchertach had strained the loyalty of even his most faithful vassals by the intolerable exactions he imposed on them to finance his inter-provincial wars.  The collapse of the Dál Cais supremacy after 1114 presented the disaffected kings with the opportunity to redress their grievances and, perhaps, acquire a leader more sensitive to their susceptibilities.

However, it is clear that the initial inroads into O'Brien rule in Munster were not part of a concerted campaign.  The south of the province was racked by petty wars and other disturbances; 1115 saw the king of Muskerry killed while fighting off some rebels, and the death of Ó Ciarmhaic of Knockaney was no less unpleasant.  In Ely the O'Fogartys were torn by internal struggles, while the annals report the slaying of two further south Munster leaders 'along with many others' in that troubled year.  I have already argued that the killing of 'Ceallachán of Cashel' in 111512 was probably a Mac Carthy action to revenge the murder of Donnchadh Mac Cárthaigh.  If, as I believe, O'Callaghan was succeeded by Tadhg Mac Carthy, the latter would have been ideally situated to take advantage of the turmoil about him.  The Clann Cárthaig may well have possessed more prestige than power, but as king of the Eóghanacht of Cashel Tadhg could pose as the symbolic leader of a movement which would win independence for Desmond.

First of all Mac Carthy had to build up his position within his own kingdom, and to judge by a near contemporary propaganda tract,13 he received his strongest support from the O'Sullivans and the O'Riordans.  But Tadhg's ambitions soon extended to neighbouring kingdoms where he solicited, and apparently received, support from other kings opposed to continued Dál Cais rule.  Just how difficult his task could be may best be indicated by reference to the O'Keefes.  Here again I am dependent upon the Caithréim which seems to indicate that the Eóghanacht of Glanworth were none too enthusiastic about submitting to a Mac Carthy at first and were won over only by an offer of alternating succession rights to the kingship of Desmond.14  Other kings were less demanding, but O'Keefe power was indispensable if the forthcoming rebellion were to succeed.

The burning of the monasteries of Killaloe, Cork, Emly and Lismore in 1116 makes it clear that the turmoil continued on into that year.  The Dál Cais still fought among themselves until late in 1116 when Diarmaid O'Brien took advantage of a Connacht attack to replace his brother as king of Munster.  But on Diarmaid's death in 1118, Muirchertach's protegé Brian mac Murchadh O'Brien, assumed the kingship and Diarmaid's sons took refuge with the Mac Carthys in Cork.  By now Tadhg was in effective control of south Munster, and when Brian O'Brien attempted to re-assert Dál Cais authority over the region in mid-1118, he was met at Glanmire by the men of Desmond and defeated in battle, Brian himself fell by the hand of Turlough mac Diarmaid O'Brian.15

Enraged at this development, Muirchertach forsook the cloister to which he had retired, He regained his kingship and gathered together a large task force to terminate Desmond's fledgling independence.  Among his supposed allies were Turlough O'Connor, king of Connacht, Murchadh Ó Mael Seachlainn, king of Meath, and Aedh O'Rourke, king of Conmhaicne.  Fortunately for Desmond however, O'Connor had decided that it was in his best interests to keep Munster divided and so at Glanmire, he made an 'enduring treaty' with Tadhg, and his brother Cormac.15  Tadhg was formally recognized as the first king of Desmond, and Diarmaid O'Brien's sons were given charge of Thomond.  A new age had dawned in Munster's history.



The Treaty of Glanmire was one of the most significant settlements in pre-Norman Ireland, In national terms it transformed the balance of power in Connacht's favour, and rendered impossible the realization of O'Brien aspirations to high-kingship, But within Desmond, the ramifications of the treaty were less clear.

As outlined above, the Desmond confederation was united primarily by a shared antipathy to Dál Cais rule (now ended), and not by the dictates of Turlough O'Connor.  Their alleged ancestral affinity was no guarantee of their continued allegiance to the Mac Carthys.  Indeed, it is evident that Desmond's petty kings retained a high degree of autonomy16 and such freedom would clearly impose considerable limitations upon the authority of their overlord.  However, Mac Carthy rule was chiefly threatened by weaknesses inherent in the Gaelic order itself.  For without formal structures, political affiliations tended to be very much a matter of personal relationships and thus, (especially in view of the operation of segmentary opposition in regnal succession) prone to become unreliable, if not volatile.

To counter this, Tadhg could intervene in succession disputes to ensure a favourable result -- as he may well have done in Decies and Uí Echach.17  But such interventions of themselves were not sufficient to achieve stability.  That required the adoption of a combination of two policies designed to build up the power and authority of the overlord.  The first of these involved an aggressive external relations policy which would unite the petty kings with their leader, while the second consisted of a policy of 'internal colonization' which, in time, would make the overlord strong enough to impose his will upon his vassals.  It was thus that the Mac Carthys came to dominate south Munster by themselves.

Viewed from Dál Cais perspectives, the Glanmire treaty was an unmitigated disaster.  Toppled from the dizzy heights of high-kingship, they were now confined to the northern half of Munster.  An attempt to restore their fortunes a little in 1119 ended in a bloody defeat by the Ciarraige fleet, followed by military intervention by Turlough O'Connor, as guarantor of the Glanmire agreement.

While the Connacht king was pre-occupied with Thomond, Tadhg Mac Carthy fulfilled some expansionist designs of his own.  Early in 1120 he led an expedition against the important kingdom of Ossory, and met with spectacular success, at first.  Seemingly Mac Gilpatrick submitted without a struggle, and acknowledged Mac Carthy as his overlord.18  But Ossory was not destined to augment Mac Carthy's resources; the O'Briens intervened decisively.  Catching Tadhg and his new vassals off guard, they captured the Ossorian hostages and subsequently turned them over to O'Connor.  Now it was the turn of Desmond to experience the high-king's displeasure at the transgression of their treaty.

In 1121 Turlough O'Connor launched an extensive and savage attack on Desmond, destroying nearly 70 churches in his campaign.19  Passing unopposed through Thomond, the Connachtmen devastated Ciarraige, and then made their way eastwards to O'Keefe's territory which suffered likewise.  Meanwhile, a second battalion ravaged Cashel and plundered Ardfinnan but it was intercepted with significant losses as it headed southward towards Lismore.  The Connachtmen responded by plundering St Carthage's monastery at Lismore, and robbing it of a great many cattle.  Happily the high-king later compensated the monks for their discomfiture.  O'Connor established a grand encampment for his troops at Birr for the duration of winter, and by early 1122 he had forced Tadhg Mac Carthy to submit.  That done, he replaced Turlough O'Brien with Tadhg O'Brien as king of Thomond.  Thereafter, with Munster settled to his satisfaction, the high-king went on to reduce Meath and Leinster.

Perhaps Tadhg subsequently repudiated his submission and refused to give military support to his overlord, for in 1123 Turlough O'Connor invaded Desmond again.  The Connacht forces got as far as Muskerry where they received the hostages of Desmond -- a clear indication of another submission.20  It was the last such submission Tadhg was to make because he was afflicted by a grave malady from which he died early the following year.  Before 1123 had ended, Tadhg was deposed and the chief sub-kings in Desmond made his brother, Cormac, king of Desmond.21



Cormac Mór Mac Carthy is unquestionably one of the most fascinating individuals of pre-Norman Ireland, and the greatest Mac Carthy king of all time.  Though our sources are diverse and patchy, they reveal Cormac to have been an inspiring political leader and an outstanding patron of the twelfth century reformation.  In 1127 he became the first Eóghanacht king of Munster after one and a half centuries, and subsequently he was to attain the ephemeral distinction of being Ireland's most powerful king.  Paradoxically, the extent of Cormac's successes made his downfall almost inevitable; by 1138 the great king lay dead, and his kingdom ceased to exist.

Having been his brother's most trusted lieutenant, Cormac was Tadhg's most obvious successor.  But Cormac was possessed of great abilities in his own right, and was remarkably progressive -- even by the standards of his day.

Sometime between 1128 and 1131 Mac Carthy commissioned an enduring piece of literature entitled Caithréim Cheallachán Chaisil.13  Ostensibly this work is simply a biography of Ceallachán, the great tenth century ancestor of the Mac Carthys -- and it was accepted as such into the early years of this century.  But in reality, C.C.C. is a sophisticated propaganda tract on behalf of its patron.  Not only is Cormac glorified through the alleged career of his ancestor, but the story is laden with paradigms of the ideal relationship between an Eóghanacht king of Munster and his vassals.  C.C.C. may well have had Cogadh Gael re Gallaibh for its model, but that hardly takes away from the achievement of Mac Carthy or his imaginative scribe.

And C.C.C. does more than just testify to Mac Carthy's progressiveness by its mere existence; it also contains the outlines of a very interesting inauguration ceremony.  In brief, we see the subordinate kings come to Ceallachán 'and put their hands in his hand, and placed the royal diadem round his head'.22  Not only is such a ceremony completely anachronistic for the tenth century, but it must have been quite advanced in Cormac's own time.  It is clearly an Irish inauguration ceremony steeped in feudal ritual, and we can rest assured that it was performed for Cormac in 1123.  The author of the Caithréim intended to boost Mac Carthy's standing through his ancestor, and he would not have wished to cast doubt upon the legality of Mac Carthy's kingship by describing a coronation ceremony for Ceallachán which differed substantially from that of his twelfth century patron.  At any rate, the use of a royal diadem is very significant and may indicate some remarkable progress in the concept of kingship in Munster as the ecclesiastical reform movement swept the island.23  However the Munster rite deviates from the standard feudal norm in at least one important respect; the candidate of their choice is crowned by the various sub-kings signifying their bestowal of authority on their elected leader.  In feudal practice, coronation was the sole prerogative of the Church, and possessed vague sacerdotal connotations.  The Munster ceremony was expressly designed to emphasize the overlord's dependence on his supposed vassals.

Cormac's progressive instincts, which are so obvious at his inauguration, are also evident in his career.  His strategic use of fleets in 1132-3 was a significant element in the overthrow of Connacht's supremacy.  Cormac, the fleet commander, is mirrored by Ceallachán in C.C.C. as 'king of Munster of the swift ships'.24  The line 'king of Munster of the great forts'24 suggests further evidence of Mac Carthy's foresight and modernizing tendencies, by making use of proto-castles.  The vetus castellarium the Anglo-Normans found at Shandon was almost certainly one of his great forts.25  With great perception Cormac realized that the future lay with the towns, and thus he established his capital at Shandon -- right besides the Viking town of Cork.  This move from the introverted inland sites like Cashel and Glanworth, to the outward looking ports, reflects the growing links between Gaelic Ireland and feudal Europe.  The Ostman traders were important mediators between powerful Anglo-European ideas and movements and indigenous Irish developments.  Had Cormac's reign been longer, and less troubled, there is no knowing what he might have achieved.

Finally I wish to look at Cormac as a faithful son of the Irish Church.  Mac Carthy's commitment to Christ is unquestionable; all our sources bear witness to his deep faith and his charity.26  Through their mutual friend, Malachy of Armagh, St Bernard could record that Cormac lived his life virtually like a monk 'busy, and ready to serve -- in attire a king, but in mind a disciple of Malachy'.27  Indeed the Irish king loved and always reverenced the Ulster cleric and seems to have imbibed much of the spirit of the current reformation from him.  Mac Carthy was a munificent benefactor of the Church and built a number of ecclesiastical establishments in south Munster, including a monastery at Uí Bhraccáin (Ibracense) in south Tipperary for his saintly friend.  Undoubtedly though, that magnificent Hiberno-Romanesque church on the Rock of Cashel was Mac Carthy's crowning glory.  To this day Cormac's Chapel remains the most tangible and splendid legacy its patron has left us.  Through it, Cormac Mac Carthy is justly the best-remembered of all of Munster's kings -- save Brian Boru alone.

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Cormac's Chapel, Rock of Cashel
Cormac's Chapel, Rock of Cashel.



Anxious to reassert his overlordship over Desmond, Turlough O'Connor responded swiftly to Cormac's accession to power.  In Spring 1124 he brought the Connacht fleet down the Shannon to Foynes where the Munster fleet was caught off-guard and captured.  Connello was preyed upon with determination, and this may explain why the kingdoms in Kerry defected to the high-king at this point.28  O'Connor then captured Limerick city and established it as his base against Desmond.  Decies, in particular, appears to have suffered grievously at the hands of the predatory Connachtmen.29  It was in response to these vicious assaults that Mac Carthy involved himself in a grand conspiracy against the unwanted high-king.

In May, Turlough O'Connor was forced to do battle with the combined forces of Meath and Conmhaicne.30  In the meantime, Cormac took the opportunity to banish O'Moriarty, king of Loch Léin, O'Connor, king of Ciarraige, and O'Shea, king of Corca Dhuibhne, for their disloyalty.31  That done, he joined the armies of Leinster, Meath and Conmhaicne as they prepared to invade Connacht.  But O'Connor had already assembled a huge army at the fortified river-crossing at Athlone.  With Cormac apparently at the head of the revolt,32 the Connacht king executed the hostages of Desmond -- including Cormac's son, Mael Sechlainn.31  By this stage it was obvious that a Shannon crossing could only be effected with enormous loss of life, and so the alliance broke up.  Cormac himself 'returned home mournfully because of his son's death' -- a death which would inspire the king of Desmond in later years as he engineered the high-king's downfall.

With the immediate threat to his position ended, O'Connor quickly set about restoring his high-kingship.  Before the year had closed he made a hosting against Meath, followed by another against Ossory early in 1125.33  In a diversionary move, O'Connor sent a fleet under the exiled Muirchertach O'Moriarty to prey upon Corca Dhuibhne a little later.34

It was at this point that Turlough O'Brien (whom O'Connor had replaced with his brother Tadhg in 1122) turned against the Connachtmen and recaptured the city of Limerick after fierce fighting.  This action inspired the king of Meath also to throw off his allegiance to the high-king.35  Clearly, no high-king could continue to tolerate having his authority so persistently repudiated.  Henceforth, the king of Connacht would not rest content with further empty promises.  Instead, he would insist on a favourable political climate existing within a kingdom to underpin any submissions its rulers might make.  It was in line with such a policy that O'Connor smashed Meath into four quarters (one of which he gave to O'Rourke for services rendered) and replaced its king with three reliable petty kings.  Such actions clearly had ominous ramifications for other 'rebel' Leaders -- including Cormac.

Nonetheless, Mac Carthy made an important extension to his authority in 1125 by taking possession of Limerick city.34  This move deprived the Dál Cais of their capital and indeed, if one is to judge by C.C.C., the acquisition of the city is arguably synonymous with taking the kingship of Munster.36  It was also a direct challenge to O'Connor's coveted high-kingship.  The extent of Cormac's confidence may best be illustrated by reference to his actions in the following overlord.  In 1126 Turlough O'Connor intervened in the regnal succession dispute following the death of Énna Mac Murrough of Leinster, and Cormac challenged him to battle.  On this occasion however, the Desmond king over-reached himself.  He probably expected support from the Uí Chennsalaig; instead his encampment in Ossory was taken by surprise by the Connachtmen.  The ensuing engagement was nothing less than a rout in which Cormac was decisively, indeed disastrously, beaten.37

O'Connor consolidated his victory by setting up a great encampment in Ormond, from which he attacked Desmond at will,38 Mac Carthy being powerless to resist.  In fact, only the Connacht king's determination to settle Ossory first saved the southern king from immediate defeat.  Thus when Mac Gilpatrick submitted late in 1126 the outlook for Mac Carthy became decidedly dismal.  By sending O'Moriarty with a fleet into Lough Leane later that year, the high-king was effectively signalling that the end was nigh.39  The kings of Desmond saw the writing on the wall and deposed Cormac themselves,40 giving the kingship to his brother Donnchadh.41  The former king retired to Lismore monastery and took the tonsure there.42  Considering the depth of Cormac's commitment to the Church, his reception of Holy Orders clearly indicates that he was settling down to permanent retirement from political life.

On St Brigid's Day 1127 the king of Connacht, accompanied by Conchubhar and Turlough O'Brien, went on a hosting to Cork, he himself on land and his fleet going round by sea.43  There was a brief struggle in which the Ostman town of Cork and its church were burnt, but peace was soon agreed.44  Donnchadh Mac Carthy, Donnchadh son of Cú Mara O'Mahony, Aonghus O'Donaghue, O'Keefe, O'Brick and O'Connor Kerry came into the high-king's tent and made submissions to him, side by side.45  Turlough O'Connor re-divided Munster between Donnchadh Mac Carthy and Conchubhar O'Brien and took 15 hostages from each king.43  Thereafter, the entire assembly parted in peace, and the 'Munster Question' seemed finally to have been solved.



One can only speculate as to what Cormac Mac Carthy thought of those hectic happenings.  To judge by the 'Life of Malachy' he appears to have settled down to monastic life with enthusiasm.  Indeed, at Lismore Mac Carthy 'was given a poor house for his dwelling; Malachy was his master; bread with salt and water his food'.46  But his ecclesiastical career was soon brought to an abrupt end.  In an incredible move, Conchubhar and Turlough O'Brien went to Lismore monastery in 1127, brought Cormac back to lay life47 and gave him the kingship of Munster.40  Though the source materials are sketchy and difficult to interpret, it is clear that, in order to truly comprehend the nature and course of this bizarre Mac Carthy/O'Brien alliance, one must attempt to uncover its ráison d'être, and the terms under which the O'Briens came to accept Mac Carthy as overlord.

St Bernard had no doubts whatsoever on the subject.  Conchubhar O'Brien, he tells us, was filled with wrath at what had been done to Cormac.  And, pitying the desolation of Desmond and the former king's downfall, 'he set down to the poor man's cell and urged him to return'.48  Yet, we are told, Mac Carthy accepted the offer only after persuasion from Malachy and from Malchus, bishop of Lismore.  It is certainly plausible that Cormac had reservations on returning to political life especially at the hands of the Dál Cais.  But anyone even vaguely familiar with Munster history will fail to be convinced by the motives ascribed to Conchubhar.  Not much cynicism is required to suspect that more mundane, political considerations inspired O'Brien's charity.

Obviously it needed some considerable incentive to make the O'Briens submit to a member of the hated Eóghanacht.  I believe that what happened was that the king of Connacht had made good his kingdom's ancient claims to what is now Co. Clare -- possibly as early as 1124,49 and that the O'Briens sought to oust their unwelcome neighbours with Eóghanacht assistance.  Consequently, it comes as no surprise to find Conchubhar O'Brien playing such a conspicuous role in the subsequent war against Connacht.  Mac Carthy for his part would have found the kingship of Munster highly desirable, and it takes little imagination to detect echoes of Cormac's sentiments in Ceallachán's exclamation: 'my benediction upon the Dál Cais as a reward, because they have come to my help'.50

The terms of the Mac Carthy/O'Brien agreement are, unfortunately nowhere recorded, though elements of it may be discernible from the Caithréim in conjunction with the Annals.  For instance, Professor Ó Corráin suggests that Ceallachán' s release of Uí Chonaill Gabhra to the Dál Cais may represent Cormac's concession of Connello to the O'Briens -- a move which could be seen as an assertion of Mac Carthy overlordship over the Dál Cais.51  C.C.C.'s author takes great care not to trespass upon O'Brien sensitivities and, indeed, lays great stress upon the supposed kinship of Munster' s two great dynasties.  One gains a strong impression from the propaganda tract that Cormac and Conchubhar agreed to alternate the kingship of Munster between their respective families.  In this respect, Cennéitig mac Lorcáin's being titled tánaise Muman is much less significant than the references to the mythical arrangement of Fiachú and Cormac Cas to the effect that the kingship of Munster would always be alternated between their respective descendants -- the Eóghanachta and Dál Cais.52  In view of the political situation at this time, and in the light of certain passages in C.C.C., I feel it possible to posit with some confidence that equal alternate rights to the kingship of Munster was the central ingredient in the formation of the Munster alliance.  Yet, being realistic, one must observe that such alternation of kingship (though not unknown) would have been extremely difficult to operate in twelfth century Ireland, and was not a recipe for stability.  In fact the strength of the alliance lay not in some Utopian promise, but rather in the pressure applied by Connacht.  When this force was removed in 1133 it was inevitable that the Munster confederation would disintegrate.



Once the negotiations had ended, the allies had next to restore Cormac's authority over Desmond.  In this they seem to have been greatly helped by the former king's popularity, and the chaos which had followed his deposition.53  The annals tend to confirm St Bernard's statement that 'the marauders were driven out with ease, and (Cormac) ...  was led back to his own, with great rejoicing of his people'.46  Donnchadh Mac Carthy was deposed and banished to Connacht with two thousand of his followers -- including Tadhg Mac Carthy's sons Donnchadh and Domnall, Finguine O'Keefe, king of Fermoy, and Muirchertach O'Moriarty, whose kingship of Loch Léin was finally captured by Aodh O'Carroll.54  Thus Cormac Mac Carthy became, with Dalcassian assistance, the first Eóghanacht king of Munster after one and a half centuries.  The question was now, how long could it last?

As it happened, Cormac gained invaluable time to consolidate his position when the Leinstermen -- recognizing the significance of the recent developments in Munster -- took the opportunity to assert their independence of Connacht.  Their revolt so absorbed O'Connor's attention and resources, that his first move against the Munster coalition was restricted to sending a small fleet under the exiled O'Moriarty to the Shannon estuary.  At Scattery Island these raiders wrecked a number of O'Connor Kerry's ships, but fared poorly against the fleet of O'Connor of Corcomroe.40  Not until after he had installed one of the Uí Dúnlainge as king of Leinster, was Turlough free to devote his energies to Munster.  Then he placed a massive fleet of 190 ships upon Lough Derg and devastated the adjoining territory from Tipperary to Ciarraige.  Though the Munster fleet was badly mauled in battle, it managed to keep the Connachtmen in check before the year had ended.55

Renewed difficulties in Leinster in 1128 diverted Turlough O'Connor's attention from Desmond once more, yet the south Munster rebels -- led by Donnchadh Mac Carthy, O'Moriarty, O'Keefe and Gerr na Cuinneoc O'Brick of Decies -- did not remain inactive.  They brought a fleet from Connacht to Ciarraige only to have O'Connor Kerry spurn their overtures.  Indeed, the Kerry king tried to capture the rebels but they escaped into Eóghanacht Locha Léin.  There in his former kingdom, O'Moriarty made efforts to attract some support -- as did Donnchadh Mac Carthy in Uí Eachach -- but without success.  It was not long before all the dissidents had been banished to Connacht again, and Cormac's position secured once more.56

In the meantime the king of Connacht had made little headway against the Uí Chennselaig in south Leinster and he decided, in view of that dismal display by Donnchadh and his friends, to sue for a temporary peace with Munster.  Accordingly, Ceallach, archbishop of Armagh, arranged a year's truce which survived uneasily until 1131.  The annals are resoundingly silent for the intervening period in Munster -- the calm they portray being disturbed only in 1130 when a Connacht fleet raided Valentia and Great Island in Desmond.57  We do know that Mac Carthy/O'Brien relations blossomed as never before, and that the Caithréim was probably written during these years58 but in truth, were we dependent solely upon the Annals we would certainly have remained ignorant of some of the most decisive developments in Desmond at this time.

For instance, the annals report nothing directly related to the conquest of Muskerry Mittine, though it is surely significant that its last recorded king died in 1115, and that when the king of Connacht came to exact submissions from Tadhg Mac Carthy in 1122, he went specifically to the Paps Mountains and the borders of Muskerry Mittine.59  Moreover, when one examines C.C.C. the circumstantial evidence for an early Mac Carthy take-over of that kingdom becomes very impressive.  In his study, Professor Ó Corráin has remarked upon the punctilious care of the Caithréim's author to include eponymous ancestors of all of Desmond's chief dynasties in his narrative.  Yet despite its central position in the heart of Desmond and its considerable size, Muskerry alone among all the southern kingdoms is without an eponymous ancestor in the text.  There also exists a most striking resemblance between Ceallachán's mother in the Caithréim, and Mess Buachalla of the Múscraige origin legend.60  This suggests a deliberate attempt by C.C.C.'s author to associate Cormac's ancestor with Conaire Mór, the legendary ancestor of the Múscraige.  Such a ploy would have had the clearly desirable goal of reconciling the people of Muskerry with their intrusive Mac Carthy king.61  Finally, and less speculatively, we possess a charter referring to Cormac's 'patrimony of Béarra' in the mid 1130s -- indicating by implication Cormac's possession of Muskerry as the vital 'missing link' between his territories around Shandon, Mahoonagh, Co. Limerick and Béarra.  Therefore, in view of the evidence I propose that Muskerry came under Mac Carthy control before 1131, and most probably as early as 1122 -- a date which, incidentally, would go far to explain the alienation of the Kerry dynasties from Cormac so evident subsequently.  As they correctly surmised, Mac Carthy's ambitions were not satiated by Muskerry alone.  But it was Corca Laoigde which suffered next.

In the early twelfth century Corca Laoigde encompassed all of that area in the Church of Ireland diocese of Ross,8 but there is evidence to show that by the 1130s Cormac had wrested Béarra from the O'Driscolls.  Our primary source for this information is the old Rental of Cong copied by Tadhg O'Duffy (Ó Dubhthaigh), a former monk of that house.62  It contains a reference to grants by one Cormac Mac Carthy of a parcel of land in his patrimony of Birra (Béarra), and a bell-rope from each ship leaving Dunboy harbour, and another from each ship leaving Cork city.  In view of the Mac Carthy possession of Cork, and the unusual generosity to a Connacht monastery, I see no reason to question E. Bolster's dating these gifts to late in the reign of Cormac Mac Carthy.  Since the king of Desmond's resources were entirely consumed by the struggle with Connacht during the years 1131-33, and against Thomond after 1134, I feel confident that it was during the truce years of 1128-31 that Béarra fell into Mac Carthy hands.

Therefore, even if originally the Mac Carthys had been chosen as capable yet relatively weak candidates for the kingship of Desmond, by 1131 Cormac had secured for his family an extremely formidable power-base in the heart of the region.  By so doing, he ensured to his descendants a pre-eminent and decisive role in south Munster politics for over four subsequent centuries.  But Mac Carthy was not content to rest there; the years 1128-31 also appear to have witnessed his assertion of overlordship over Ossory.63  By 1131 Cormac, with this strong and seemingly united kingdom of Munster and Ossory, was well-placed to face any challenge which Connacht might pose.



Early in 1131 the king of Connacht reopened the conflict with Munster.  He had Donnchadh Mac Carthy take a fleet from Connacht to ravage the south coast -- Rosscarbery in particular being badly hit64 -- while he himself brought an army southwards to plunder Connello.65  Connello was, of course, Dál Cais territory so Conchubhar O'Brien responded with swift and indeed, unexpected vigour.  He brought a large army to Leinster where Mac Murrough submitted to him with alacrity.66  There was no love lost between the Uí Chennselaig and the aspirant high-king.

With Leinster settled to his satisfaction, the Dalcassian king next proceeded into Meath, attacked the crannóg on Lough Sewdy and repulsed a counter-attack by some Connacht cavalry.67  He re-established the exiled Ó Mael Sechlainn as king of Meath and later, according to the Annals of Tigernach, the southerners made an alliance with Ulster.  The northerners invaded Connacht that summer but were forced to concede a year's truce.  O'Connor also successfully held his own against the combined armies of Thomond and Desmond as they moved against Connacht-dominated Clare.68  Connacht may have been on the defensive, but it was in no apparent danger as yet.

O'Connor resumed the offensive early in 1132, raiding Munster by land and sea.69  Yet the defection of O'Rourke, king of Conmhaicne, to the Munster alliance a little later that year was a more significant indicator of the subsequent course of events.  O'Rourke supported the forces of Thomond and Meath when they attacked Athlone, but the castle held out against them.  However, Conchubhar O'Brien was able to force a Shannon crossing elsewhere, and with his allies he raided deep into Connacht, plundering Maenmoy and Kilmeen (near Loughrea).69  At the same time, Cormac Mac Carthy had brought the Munster fleet to Galway and demolished the castle there after a bloody struggle.70  On the following day he led his men to a resounding victory at An Cloidhe, against O'Flaherty, king of West Connacht.71  That done, Mac Carthy left Galway and brought his fleet up the Shannon to join O'Brien for a second attack on Athlone, yet somehow the castle still held out.  O'Rourke was active raiding north Connacht all the while.  Though the year 1131 drew to an inconclusive end, the ultimate outcome of the war was no longer in doubt.  Turlough O'Connor's authority was now confined to that area west of the Shannon, and even there he was no longer secure.  Against Mac Carthy's alliance of Munster, Leinster and Meath, Connacht's position was clearly untenable.  And with the memory of his murdered son to spur him on, Cormac's resolve to attain total victory over Connacht had only been stiffened by the prospect of success.

Cormac and Conchubhar resumed the offensive early in 1133, leading a great army into the heartlands of Connacht.  Between them they devastated the greater part of the province and destroyed the important forts of Dunmore and Dún Modhairn (Doon).72  Simultaneously, O Mael Sechlainn, king of Meath and O'Rourke of Conmhaicne finally captured Athlone and demolished its castle.  Yet for all their successes the allies failed to force O'Connor to a decisive engagement, and they ended their campaign without securing hostages.73

However, with victory now perceptibly within his grasp Mac Carthy was determined not to be deprived of his due reward.  Once again he assembled the armies of Munster and of Leinster, of Meath and of Conmhaicne, while naval forces were gathered from among the Vikings of Cork, Dublin, Wexford and Waterford, not to mention the kingdoms of Uí Echach and Corca Laoigde for a final, conclusive engagement with Connacht.  But as it happened, Turlough O'Connor made the only possible interpretation of the situation, and decided to yield.  He had Muireadhach O'Duffy (Ó Dubhthaigh), archbishop of Connacht, sue for peace with Munster.  And so, in mid-1133, the Treaty of Abhall Ceithearnaigh finally brought a most bitter war to an end.72  For Mac Carthy this treaty was an outstanding achievement, for within six years of quitting the cloister he had become the most powerful king in Ireland.  This indeed was his finest hour.



This treaty of 1133 marked the collapse of Connacht's brief supremacy and as such is one of the most important settlements of late pre-Norman Ireland.  And yet the terms of the agreement have not come down to us.  So again one is forced to interpret a few disparate sources in order to discern some of its more salient elements.  Despite these limitations, one can confidently suggest that O'Connor was 'persuaded' to confine his ambitions to Connacht in the future, and made swear upon innumerable relics that he would not seek the high-kingship again.  In the event though, internal struggles in the western province proved to be the surest guarantee of O'Connor's continued quiescence.  It is also pretty certain that the Connacht king was made to relinquish possession of Thomond.  And furthermore, it seems to me that some arrangement was made between Cormac and the Desmond rebels, whereby they resumed their allegiance to him in return for reinstatement in their former possessions.  Such an accommodation would appeal to the dissidents now that their Connacht patron had been beaten, while through his generosity Mac Carthy ensured that the rebels became amenable to his authority and would no longer be used against him by external powers.  All in all therefore, the political terms (as far as they can be identified) were very much in Munster's favour.74

But the settlement also contained at least one further noteworthy clause.  Apparently, the O'Connor monastery of Cong had been pillaged by the forces of Desmond in the recent war, and the archbishop of Connacht demanded satisfactory compensation.  Thus we find Cormac making the grants to Cong abbey already cited, and more impressively we learn that he built the monastery of St John, Apostle and Evangelist, in Cork for the Connacht prelate.  Colloquially this establishment came to be known as Gill Abbey in honour of its first abbot, an excellent reforming cleric named Gilla Aedha Ua Muighin.75  Today, only the name remains.

Not surprisingly, Lismore monastery also benefitted greatly from Cormac's patronage, receiving a great many beasts, and much gold and silver for an ambitious building campaign involving nine churches.76  But Cormac's Chapel on the Rock of Cashel was the king's most enduring masterpiece.  To build it he was assisted by Christian Mac Carthy, a close relative from St James' monastery in Regensburg, to which the Cashel church was affiliated.  The building was revolutionary by Irish standards with its distinctive blend of native and Romanesque architecture, and may even have had Canterbury Cathedral for its direct model.77  It was consecrated with great pomp and ceremony early in 1134 when Cormac, 'the high-king of the great southern-half (Leath Mogh), the chief defender of Ireland against the children of Conn Cét Cathach', was at the zenith of his career.78  Even today this church is acknowledged as probably the most splendid monument left to us by any Gaelic king.  It was surely unfortunate that Cormac's Chapel was to become its patron's memorial so soon after it had been built.

That the peace was well received in Munster we need not doubt.  Clearly Cormac and Conchubhar had won a victory which would hardly have been conceivable back in 1127.  But even the lesser kings and humbler folk would have shared a general relief at the prospect of peace.  The war with Connacht had been fought with a ferocity and on a scale which was exceptional by contemporary Irish standards.  The burden imposed on the population at large should not be underestimated.  It seems to me that the author of that recension of the Vision of Mac Conglinne in the Leabhar Breac, likened Mac Carthy's desire for unprecedentedly large wartime exactions to the 'demon of gluttony' which possessed his fictional king of Munster, 'to the ruin of the men of Munster during three half years' and which he felt would have ruined all of Ireland had it continued for yet another season.79  To me the author seems to have held Cormac in very great esteem, but was exceedingly glad that the war was over.

However, the treaty was far from being an unqualified blessing, for by it O'Brien had gained all that he had desired in 1127 -- save the kingship of Munster, and Conchubhar was not a patient man.  By his victory Cormac had indeed consolidated his power and prestige in Desmond but paradoxically, by destroying Connacht's supremacy he had effectively eliminated the one force which bound his inter-provincial confederation together.  Even as his church at Cashel was being blessed, there were forces at work which would ultimately lead to Cormac's downfall.



Diarmaid Mac Murrough, king of Leinster, was a very able and ambitious individual who was anxious to abandon the alliance now that Connacht had been beaten.  In the spring of 1134 he cast off Munster's overlordship and asserted his independence.  The Tigernach annalist ascribed this move to the maledictions of the clergy of Connacht, though in truth, our knowledge of Mac Murrough suggests that he needed little encouragement from any source.  Within a short time he attacked Ossory but was defeated and forced to retire.  Not to be deterred, he enlisted the support of Dublin's Ostmen and invaded his neighbours once again.  On this occasion the Ossorians were assisted by the Ostmen of Waterford and Conchubhar O'Brien, but were routed and slaughtered nonetheless.  With that defeat Ossory came firmly and irrevocably under Mac Murrough overlordship.80

I have already mentioned that the Mac Carthy/O'Brien coalition had been gravely undermined by Cormac's recent successes against Connacht.  Apparently the absence of Eóghanacht support for Conchubhar against Leinster precipitated a rupture between Munster's two great dynasties.  The Dál Cais made an encampment against Desmond but Mac Carthy caught them off guard, raided their camp and devastated it.81

Cormac Mór resumed the war in 1135 with a hosting into Thomond in which Cú Mara Mór mac Con Mara (a quo Mac Namara) was killed.  However, the Dál Cais retaliated with a vicious counter-attack on Mac Carthy's army at Cluain-caein-Modimóg, Co. Tipperary and inflicted a grievous slaughter upon the men of Desmond.  In view of those spectacular losses,82 with no correspondingly significant deaths on the Dalcassian side, one can only assume that the O'Briens carried that day.  Indeed, Desmond does not seem to have recovered from that debacle for quite some time.  1136 saw the Dál Cais make further inroads against the kingdom.  Turlough O'Brien and his kinsmen plundered Killeedy in the petty kingdom of Connello, and exacted submissions from its newly-installed king.  Cormac's attention seems to have been absorbed by affairs in Decies in that year.  We learn that he had its king, Mael Sechlainn O'Brick, killed, and seemingly he established his own brother Donnchadh in control of that kingdom.83  However, I would disregard claims that Cormac took the kingship of Ossory in 1136 also.  It says little for the claim to find the annalist referring to the 'kingship of Munster and Ossory' as if it were still a single unit, at a time when Thomond was clearly beyond Mac Carthy's authority.  More importantly, one searches in vain for evidence of conflict with Leinster, which controlled Ossory since 1134.  But whatever about Cormac's success or otherwise in the east, his foes were certainly in the ascendant in north Kerry.  The cathedral monastery of Ratass was burnt, and much ill besides wrought in Ciarraige by Turlough O'Brien and his men.84

The situation deteriorated even further in 1137 when Waterford was besieged by Diarmaid Mac Murrough and Conchubhar O'Brien, backed up by 200 ships from Dublin and Wexford.  One source suggests that Cormac and his vassal-kings met the besiegers at Waterford and forced them to retire.85  However, I give more credence to reports in the Annals of Clomacnoise and A.F.M. that Cormac's foes carried off the hostages of Donnchadh Mac Carthy of Decies and the Ostmen of Waterford.  We learn that Conchubhar O'Brien ('king of Thomond and Ormond') gave those hostages to Mac Murrough -- signifying his concession of Decies and Waterford to the Leinster king -- perhaps in return for continued support against Mac Carthy.  But Cormac was far from finished, and before the year was through he launched an expedition against Limerick city and Ceinnéidigh O'Brien.86  Desmond was indeed under pressure by the end of 1137 but the indications are that while Cormac was at the helm there was little danger of the kingdom's collapse.  Few could have foreseen what was subsequently to happen.

In 1138 Cormac Mór Mac Carthy was treacherously killed by Diarmaid O'Connor Kerry and by Ó Tailcín, at the instigation of Turlough O'Brien, while in his own house at Mahoonagh, Co. Limerick.87  The kingship of Desmond perished with its king and the Dál Cais took to themselves the possession and government of Munster.  The leading Mac Carthys were banished to Leinster, and Desmond as a political entity ceased to exist.88



Thus perished the kingdom of Desmond after a mere twenty years of independent existence.  And yet, even within that very short period of time it had left an indelible imprint on the course of Irish history.

By its very existence Desmond had forced the Dál Cais into a position of tertiary importance in the context of Irish national politics, and thus opened the way for the emergence of Connacht's supremacy.  However, Desmond's and Connacht's simultaneous exploitation of the demise of Muirchertach O'Brien owed more to coincidence than collusion.  Their interests just happened to coincide in 1118.  The Mac Carthys were a very ambitious family and bitterly opposed all of O'Connor's attempts to assert overlordship over them.  With the power thrust upon him by the O'Briens, Cormac sought -- successfully -- to destroy the Connacht king's authority beyond the Shannon.

But Cormac's victory was to have important long-term and unforeseen consequences.  For the Munster alliance had knocked Connacht out of contention for the high-kingship of Ireland for over two decades, and the office remained dormant for most of that time.  Thus when Turlough's son, Rory O'Connor became high-king in 1166 he had but two years to consolidate his kingship over the island before the actions of Diarmaid Mac Murrough rendered the high-kingship obsolete.  Had Connacht's supremacy not been so decisively ended in 1133, it is conceivable that the course of Irish history could have taken a radically different turning.

And even in Desmond itself Mac Carthy's triumph was not an unqualified blessing.  Once the alliance had achieved all that Conchubhar O'Brien had desired of it in 1127, the Dál Cais turned against their erstwhile ally and had him assassinated.  The kingship of Desmond displayed a fatal dependence upon the Mac Carthys and it perished with its noble king.  Thus Cormac Mac Carthy, for all his great abilities and achievements, left this world a political failure.  It was surely a sorry end to a very promising career.



(For writing this paper my training under Professor Ó Corráin and Mr K.W. Nicholls of U.C.C. has proved invaluable.  To K.W. Nicholls I owe a special debt of gratitude for all his generous advice and encouragement.  I am also indebted to Ms Rose Cleary, Dept. of Archaeology, U.C.C., for assistance in preparing the map.)


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