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Letter of Florence Mac Carthy to the Earl of Thomond, on the ancient history of Ireland (Author: Florence MacCarthy Reagh)


Letter of Florence Mac Carthy to the Earl of Thomond, on the ancient history of Ireland


The following letter, on the ancient history of Ireland, which was written by the celebrated Florence Mac Carthy to the Earl of Thomond, about the year 1609, the ninth year of his imprisonment, has been printed from the author's autograph. The original copy of it, though stated in an Irish memorandum to be in the writing of Conor O'Kinga, is certainly in Florence's own fair handwriting, with only one or two erasures made by himself, and is preserved in the British Museum (Additional MSS. 4793, fol. 18). In the Index to the volume it is referred to as ‘The copy of a letter written by Florence Mac Carthy.’ But it is no copy (unless by copy is meant the original, which was the primary meaning of that word). Every word of it, except the Irish memorandum at the end, is in the handwriting of Florence Mac Carthy. In vol. 4821, Additional MSS., there is a transcript of this letter in a different hand, headed ‘A letter of Florence Mac Carthy written (I think) to the Earl of Thomond.’ This copy is not perfectly exact; yet it is valuable, because the original had been much folded, frayed, and mended, and thereby rendered occasion ally, but rarely, illegible. The transcript in the vol. 4821 was evidently made before this damage and restoration took place. There is another copy preserved in a volume at Lambeth, and a fourth in the MS. Library of Trinity College, Dublin; but these are of no value whatever, except as far as they enable us to read the words illegible in the original.

At the end of this letter is the following memorandum in Irish, in the handwriting of Gillapatrick O'Kinga, whose relative, Conor son of Murtough O'Kinga, had been commissioned by Florence Mac Carthy to carry it to the Earl of Thomond, then in Ireland:—

Tabhradh gach aon léighfios & éistfios no sgríbheochus an trachtadh so rannchuidiugha a nguidhi do'n tí do sgriobh an seanchus sin a dubhramur, & fos tuc leis é go h-Éirinn .i. Conchubhar mac Muircheartaigh h-i Cionga, & fós fa Dia do shaoradh Fhinghin Mé Carrthaigh ón m-braighdionas & ón ngéibhionn i na bhfuil sé a ttor Lundainn noch do chuir so amach ó thúr. Go ndiongnaidh Dia uile-chumhachtach Grása & trócaire ar a n-anmannaibh araon.
Misi Giollapadruig mac Donnchadha do ghraifne an becan sin, oidchi S. Frainsias, 1615.’’

Let every one who shall read, hear [read], or transcribe this treatise


join to pray for the person who wrote the said history, and who moreover brought it with him to Erin, i. e. Conor son of Murtough O'Kinga; and moreover, that God may redeem Finghin Mac Carthy from the imprisonment and bondage in which he is [detained] in the Tower of London, who put this out first. May God Almighty have mercy on the souls of both.
I am , son of Donogh, who wrote this little scrap on the eve of St. Francis's festival.’’

From this it would appear that this letter was transcribed and carried to Ireland by Conor O'Kinga, who seems never to have delivered it to the Earl of Thomond. How it found its way back again to England nothing remains to determine.

Florence Mac Carthy, the author of this historical letter to the Earl of Thomond, was considered by the English officials of his day ‘the dangerousest man in all Ireland.’ He was the eldest son of Sir Donogh Mac Carthy Reagh, lord or chief of Carbery, who died in 1576. Our author was then fifteen years old, according to an inquisition taken shortly after his father's death, though he himself states in a letter, dated 1624, that he was then above seventy! In other words, the jurors swear that he was born in 1561, and he himself asserts, in his old age, that he was born before 1554. The jury was clearly right, and the memory of the old man, weakened by long imprisonment, wavered. If the inquisition be correct, he was but sixty-three when he asserted he was above seventy.

That our author had some chronicles relating to Ireland, and some MS. lives of Irish saints, we learn from Carew, who says, in speaking of the ancient dignity of the Carew family in Munster (Lambeth, 635, fol. 42), ‘the castles of Donnemark, in Bantry, and of Artulloghe, in Mac Finin's country, were builded by Carewe, in anno 1215. This is extracted out of an old chronicle, written in Irish, which Florence Mac Carthy hath.’ It was evidently a copy of the old Annals of Innisfallen. Colgan says that the most illustrious Florentius Maccarthy, of the city of London, had a volume of lives of Irish saints in his possession, from which he had extracts. Well might he have called him of the city of London, for he was never permitted to return to his native country.

The author of Carbriae Notitia, who wrote in 1686, in descanting on the pedigree of the Mac Carthys, says—

It is likewise evident that Donell Earle of Clancare, dying without issue male, his daughter and heir was married to Florence mac Donough Mac Carthy Reagh (whose pedigree shall follow more at large), by virtue of which marriage Florence claimed the name and title of Mac Cartymore, which Donell, naturall son of the deceased Earle of Clancare had usurped, and by the help of Tyrone, who was then come into Munster, he was establisht in that name and dignity, and his grandson and heir, Charles, is at this day ownd and stiled Mac Cartymore.’’

Carbriae Notitia


And again—

But of all the Mac Cartyes none was ever more famous then the aforesaid Florence mac Donogh, who was a man of extraordinary stature [being like Saul higher by the head and shoulders than any of his followers] and as great policy with competent courage, and as much zeal as any body for what he falsely imagined true Relligion and the liberty of his country. He married the heiress of the Earle of Clancare, and, purely by his merrit, dispossessed her bastard brother Daniell, from the name and estate of Mac Cartymore, which he was then possessed of, and gott the same for himself in her right by the joynt suffrage of Tyrone and all the nobility and clergy, which is the more strange, for that in Ireland they allwayes regard the male so much above the female that they often prefer a bastard son before a legitimate daughter, which is upon these two reasons, first that the name and family is thereby preserved (as in the Roman adoptions), and, secondly, the country being most commonly in feuds and wars, it is necessary to have able men to protect every family, and that also is the true reason of the custom of Tanistry.
This Florence for marrying the Earle of Clancare's daughter without licence of the Queene, or for some other misdemeanours, or perhaps for reasons of state, was imprisoned for eleven years in England, and then being set at liberty, acted in Ireland as you may read at large in the Pacata Hibernia, and was at length again apprehended, and sent to the Tower, where he died.’’

When we make due allowances for the circumstances of Florence Mac Carthy having been by birth a native Irishman; of there having been such a general deficiency of style in English prose at the time he wrote; and of the absence, at the same period, of a proper philosophy of history,— his letter, whatever may be its defects, will be sufficient to demonstrate the great injustice of the representations given, in certain quarters, of the old Irish. In 1798, when it was still sufficiently the fashion in those quarters only to countenance a belief of whatever was most uncivilized with respect to the native Irish, an accomplished Englishman, Dr. Arthur Browne, Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, ventured, in his Miscellaneous Sketches, to hint that some idea of that people should be formed from their own writings, instead of merely judging of them by the interested productions of their enemies. ‘The Irish in the reign of Elizabeth,’ says he, ‘are represented as quite ignorant and barbarous. Read the letters of their chiefs to the Spaniards, in the Pacata Hibernia and judge.’

The following sketch of the life of Florence Mac Carthy, chiefly extracted from the State Papers, has been furnished me by Daniel Mac Carthy, Glas, Esq., who is engaged in writing a life of this remarkable Irish chieftain:—

I greatly rejoice to hear that the name of Florence Mac Carthy is going to be once again sounded in the ears of his countrymen. In his


generation that name was so familiar with the Governors of Ireland, the Prime Ministers, and Privy Council of England; it was so constantly on the lips of all politicians, so incessantly in their despatches, so perseveringly before the eyes of the world for fifty years, that it became a cabinet word, and its owner familiarly called Florence. I have been often surprised considering how large a portion of the State Papers of Elizabeth and James is occupied about Florence Mac Carthy, that so little is known concerning him. The writer of the Pacata Hibernia has indeed given us so much of his biography as he thought needful for the glory of Carew, but his notices range over no larger a space than sixteen months. The following very meagre sketch will, I trust, supply the information which you pay me the compliment to seek from me.

Finin, or Florence Mac Carthy, was the eldest son of Sir Donogh Mac Carthy Reagh, lord, chief, or captain of Carbry, and Jane, daughter to Morrice of Desmond, slain in his rebellion on the 11th of November, 1583. He was fifteen years of age in 1576, in which year his father, Sir Donogh, died, as appears from an inquisition held at Cork, on the 1st of June in that year, before Sir William Drury and others. In after life Florence appears not to have kept very accurate account of the years as they passed over him, for in several of his petitions he represents himself as older than he really was. Sir Donogh is styled ‘Miles’, and of Kilbrittain. This was the chief residence of Mac Carthy Reagh, and there, probably, was Florence born. Being a minor, he fell under the wardship of Sir William Drury; but this did not prevent him from assuming ‘the command of his own country and his own people.’ For this command he was pre-eminently qualified by nature and education, being, ‘like Saul, higher by the head and shoulders than any of his followers’ ( Pacat. Hib. p. 179), and being intimately acquainted with the Irish language, literature, and history. He did not, however, as you are aware, succeed to the chieftainship of Carbery; this descending, by usage of Tanistry, to Sir Donogh's next brother Sir Owen, Florence was passed over, as his cousin, Donell Pipy, had been, to await his turn of succession, which in due course would fall to him on the death of Sir Owen, his uncle, and Donell, the eldest son of Sir Cormac, the elder brother and predecessor of Florence's father, Sir Donogh. You remember the terms in which the Annals of the Four Masters speak of Sir Donogh. He had been a firm adherent of the English authorities in Munster; had served with the Lord Deputy Sidney at the siege of Ballimarter, at Glanmoyr, and in all other places where he had occasion to use any forces for her Majesty, where he brought with him more men than any two in Munster, for which services he received her Majesty's own letters of thanks. Sir Donogh appears to have added materially to his own inheritance by purchases of lands around him, and to have died very wealthy. He is sworn to have been seised at his death of no less than 20 carucates of land in the county of Cork. To these his eldest son was declared heir; but, either by the generosity of Florence, or by well-understood unwritten custom, Donell Moyle, his younger brother, received a large portion of the lands of Carbry.

Whatever education Florence received must have been acquired in early boyhood, or subsequently, after a lapse of seven years from the period of his father's death; for immediately on the demise of Sir Donogh he assumed


the command of his Munster forces, ‘assisted in almost all the journies that were done in her Majesty's service, both under Sir William Pelham, the Lord Grey, the Earl of Ormonde, Mr. John Zouche, Sir George Bourchier, and all such as governed or commanded there,’ until the unfortunate Earl of Desmond perished miserably in the cabin of Glanneginty.

From 1583 to 1588 Florence appears to have divided his time, at pleasure, between his possessions in Munster and the court of Queen Elizabeth, where he made powerful friends, and acquired a knowledge of court influences, which he knew well how to turn to account in his hour of need. Not the less, however, was a keen vigilance exercised upon his conduct during his visits to his native country; and it was soon remarked that ‘he had acquired the Spanish tongue, and greatly affected the company of Spaniards;’ that he had mortgaged portions of his patrimony to enable him to purchase the Old Head of Kinsale, a castle commanding that harbour, so suitable for the reception of an invading force of the foreign enemy.

In 1588 Florence married the daughter and heiress of the Earl of Clancarthy, or Clancare, as it was then rather incorrectly written— a marriage most romantic in all its incidents, and the fruitful source of long and grievous sorrows. The Lady Ellen Mac Carthy, the last living descendant of the main line of Mac Carthy Mor, was, by her birth and inheritance, a match the most important then in the British empire. The keen eyes of Elizabeth, the far keener of the English authorities in Munster, were upon her. Sir Warham St. Leger suggested to the Vice-President, Sir Thomas Norreys, to offer his hand to the lady, and to apply to the Queen for a grant of succession to her father's country. Sir Valentine Browne, who had had various money transactions with the Earl of Clancarthy [Clancare], and who better knew his business, offered, in plain language, to buy the lady for his son, and to buy the consent of the chief officers of the Earl. His offer was accepted; and then arose a loud and angry outcry amongst all the subordinate chieftains of Munster. The Countess, her daughter, and a deputation from those who considered the honour of their blood imperilled, waited upon Sir Thomas Norreys, and gave him plainly to understand that a disparagement so odious would not be submitted to. In the meantime, ‘in an old, broken church, in the wilds of Killarney, with a Mass, without license of the bishop, and not in such solemnity and good sort as behoved, and as order of law and her Majesty's injunctions do require,’ the young heiress was married to her cousin Florence. Great was the consternation of the Vice-President, great the wrath of the Queen, greatest of all the contempt and ridicule that fell upon the Brownes, and their hatred thenceforth for Florence.

Twelve years of banishment, a portion of them spent within the walls of the Tower of London, was Florence's punishment for this defiance of authority. In 1598 he returned to Ireland. The Earl of Clancarthy [Clancare] was dead, and Donell, his bastard son, had proclaimed himself Mac Carthy Mor. Tirone was in rebellion; James Fitz Thomas, the sougane Earl of Desmond, had reduced the Queen's authority within very small limits in Munster; a Spanish invasion was expected, and it was thought that Florence was the only man who could avert some great national


disaster. He received authority to demand arms from the Queen's stores to arm followers of his own, and bonaghts hired out of Connaught, to recover his own country.

He did recover it, and from that moment he became ‘the most dangerousest man in all Ireland, no man so fit to be the head of a faction,’ the terror of the English cabinet. Every dispatch that was sent from Munster was occupied with his proceedings, his policy, his ambition, his cunning, his treachery.

On the 24th of April, 1600, Sir Carew was sent to Cork as Lord President of Munster; and he at once decided that Florence Mac Carthy must be conciliated or crushed before he could venture to meddle with rebels actually in arms; and then there began between these two men an encounter of wits the most curious, the most ingenious, of which the annals of diplomacy have any record. It was an encounter with weapons of which Florence was a most perfect master. Sir George Carew entered upon it with great confidence, expressing the uttermost contempt for the intellect of his adversary; but Sir Robert Cecyll looked on with some misgiving from the beginning. The sougane Earl of Desmond spoiled the country within sight of the walls of Cork; Tirone and O'Donnell were mustering their forces to burst upon Munster; the Spaniards were expected daily; and English treasure, to the great grief of the Queen, was streaming from her exchequer into the insatiable gulf of the rebellious kingdom; and there was Florence Mac Carthy, with 3000 men of his own followers, occupying all the fastnesses of the land, yet serenely professing unimpeachable loyalty, profound respect for his good friend the Lord President, and regretting the necessity of his presence in the inaccessible wilds of Desmond to keep his people from rebellion; and there was the Lord President suffering discredit from the vicinity of the rebel Geraldines, yet not daring to go forth of the gates of Cork, lest the next move of Florence should extinguish the Queen's authority in Munster. Such was the contest of these two astute strategists, whilst time was passing, and rumours of coming Spaniards kept the English cabinet in constant alarm. Carew became bewildered; his dispatches to Cecyll daily contradicted each other; till, in despair, by an act of shameless treachery, he violated his own safe conduct, and made prisoner of the man whom he found it impossible to outwit.

Florence's political life was now ended; within a couple of months he crossed the Channel for the last time, and entered again within the gloomy portals of the Tower, and for thirty long years, till death released him, he ate the bitter bread of a state prisoner. It was to while away some of the hours of his wearisome captivity that the letter you are now editing was written, and I am rejoiced that you find its intrinsic merits worthy of the attention of the learned of our own day. I have never been able to consider it otherwise than as connected with his active life, and as a proof of his thorough appreciation of his country's claims to men's esteem, and of his own claims to the supreme rule of south Munster. No others of his writings of a literary nature remain; but a long series of letters, petitions, and remonstrances, extending over forty-two years, are still extant, every one written by his own hand, in characters small, regular, firm, and distinct as print; and we rise from the perusal of them no longer surprised that


through life he had been able to persuade men to doubt of facts as patent as human evidence could make them; that in the most critical moment of his career he could force even Carew to exclaim to Cecyll, ‘What to make of Florence I protest I know not! I am utterly perplexed!’ To know Sir George Carew is to know the depth of Florence's ingenuity.

At the time this letter was written, Florence had been nine years within the Tower! No petitions of his own, no solicitation of his friends at court, no change of ministers, or regard for the altered circumstances of Ireland, had availed to procure him the liberty to pass one day beyond the walls of that gloomy prison. If any man might be expected to feel some compassion for the sufferings of this state prisoner, it would be the Earl of Thomond, for he had been an honourable and open enemy, and mainly instrumental in his overthrow. Of one single touch of pity no one who knew Carew could suppose him capable. Had he been the means of throwing open for Florence the gates of his prison, it would not have cancelled—nothing ever could—the treachery by which he had placed him there, but it would have evinced some feelings of humanity. Any such act was far remote from his thoughts. Six years afterwards, when there had been a moment of hope for the prisoner, and Florence was plaintively petitioning for some freedom, for that his health was perishing, Carew sternly refused to help him with a single word! Between Florence and the Earl of Thomond there existed at least the tie of country. To that feeling this letter was a direct appeal, and, to the honour of the Earl of Thomond, it was successful. On the 9th of July, 1614, was registered this following document:—

‘Several bonds taken to his Majesty's use, of the parties underwritten, that Florence Mac Carthy shall not depart out of the realm of England, without licence from his Majesty, nor travel above one day's journey from the city of London, without licence under the hands of six of his Majesty's Privy Council:—’

  1. Florence Mac Carthy . . . £2000
  2. Earl of Thomond . . . £500
  3. Earl of Clanricard . . . £500
  4. Sir Patrick Barnewall £500
  5. Lord Delvin . . . £500
  6. Sir Randulph McDonnell £250
  7. Sir Donell O'Brien . . . £250
  8. Dermott Mac Carthy £250
  9. David Condon . . . £250
  10. . . . £5000

The Earl of Thomond not only bound himself in the sum opposite to his name above, but he entailed the same obligation upon his son, in case of his own death. The case occurred; but it was not without Florence's return to his prison, and a great struggle, that the humane foresight of the Earl was allowed to avail him. Upon such limited liberty Florence was permitted to quit the Tower; and I rejoice that with this first printed copy of his letter shall be recorded the act of his benefactor.

The letter throughout is distinct, without a blot, and exhibits only


two erasures. What minute characters the hand of such a giant could form, and with what certainty and precision it could trace, line after line, in faultless parallels, and with intervals so minute that there seems upon the page but a sharp, slender thread of white around each word, may be judged from the fact, that three pages and twenty-one lines of a sheet, foolscap size, sufficed to contain the whole of this long letter to the Earl of Thomond. The same distinct, regular handwriting, with great similarity to that of Florence, was inherited by the eldest of his surviving sons.

The capture of Florence was the signal for all the harpies of Munster, in authority and out of it, to fall upon his property; but they had yet to learn the resources of this able man, who, from the close confinement of an English prison, could during thirty years carry on a fight, single-handed, with them all. One after another was compelled to give up portions of the plundered property; but the Brownes continued to the last to keep the tightest clutch upon their spoil: through three generations they had clung with determined tenacity to the seigniory of Malahuff [Molahiff]; but even over them he triumphed at last. In 1629, an order in Council compelled the grandson of Sir Valentine Browne ‘to deliver possession of the said lands to the said Florence, with due consideration of some recompense to be given for the mean profit for the time’ past.

What was the precise period of Florence's death I have not yet been able to discover. His last petition, though undated, was evidently written in 1631; and a petition of his son, dated in the same year, speaks of his father as still under restraint. He left behind him three sons, one (his eldest) having died in the Tower. History has spared us a short but dark chapter on the early career of the eldest of these surviving sons, who was probably a source of greater sorrows to Florence than aught else that clouded his long and unfortunate life.