Florence MacCarthy

Florence MacCarthy

Finian MacDonagh MacCarthaigh (1560 - 1640), known to the English as Florence MacCarthy, was an Irish chieftain of the late 16th century and the last credible claimant of the MacCarthy Mór title before its suppression by English authority. MacCarthy's involvement in the Nine Years War (1595-1603) led to his arrest by the crown government, and he spent the last 40 years of his life in custody in London. His lands were distributed among his relatives and English colonists.

Early life

MacCarthy was born in 1560 at Kilbrittain Castle near Kinsale in the province of Munster in Ireland, the son of Donagh, the chief of the MacCarthy Reagh clan.

The significance of MacCarthy's career lies in his command of territories in west Munster, at a time when the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland was underway. Southwest Munster was the area most open to Spanish intervention, which had been mooted from the late 1570s to aid Catholic rebellions in Ireland. The overlord of this area was the MacCarthy Mór chieftain, whose lands were located in modern west Cork and Kerry. There were two main subordinate branches of the MacCarthy clan, the MacCarthys of Muskerry and the MacCarthys Reagh of Carberry, of which Florence's father was the chieftain. It was into a complex interplay between the crown government and these opposing branches that Florence found himself pitched.

The MacCarthy Reagh branch established itself as loyal to the crown during the Desmond Rebellions (1569-73 and 1579-83), in order to assert their independence from their overlords, the Earl of Desmond and the MacCarthy Mor, both of whom had gone into rebellion. Florence's father, Donagh MacCarthy Reagh, served the crown faithfully and reported that he had mobilised his men to drive the rebel Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond out of his territory during the Second Desmond Rebellion. When his father died in 1581, Florence, by then in his late teens or early twenties, led around 300 men in the English service with the assistance of an English captain, William Stanley, and his lieutenant, Jacques de Franceschi, under the overall command of the Earl of Ormonde. They drove Desmond’s remaining followers out of MacCarthy territory, ‘into his own waste country’, where the rebel earls' troops could find no provisions and deserted. Florence also claimed credit for the killing of Gorey MacSweeney and Morrice Roe, two of Desmond’s gallowglass captains.

Upon his father's death in 1581, MacCarthy inherited substantial property but was not the chief's "tánaiste" or tanist (second in command and usually successor to the clan chieftain), and therefore did not assume his father's title, which went to Florence's uncle, Owen. The position of tanist went to Florence's cousin, Donal na Pipi (Donal of the Pipes). But in 1583 Florence did go to court, where he was received by the queen, who granted him 1000 marks and an annuity of 100 marks. In 1585 he served as a member of the Irish Parliament at Dublin.

The Tower

Upon his marriage to Ellen, the daughter and sole heir of the MacCarthy Mór (also Earl of Clancar), Florence fell foul of the crown government in Munster on account of the prospective unification of the two main branches of the Clan Carthy. To add to government suspicion, there was also a rumour of communications by him with Spain. In particular, he was accused of contact with William Stanley and Jacques de Francesci, who had defected with a regiment of Irish soldiers from the English to the Spanish side in the Eighty Years' War in Flanders.

As a result of these suspicions, Florence MacCarthy was arrested in 1588 as a precaution against his assumption of the title of MacCarthy Mór, which would have given him command over huge estates and thousands of followers. The English authorities considered this too dangerous a prospect in a country they were trying to pacify and disarm.

Six months later, he was moved to Dublin, and then to London, where he arrived in February 1589 to be committed to the Tower. His wife escaped from Cork a few days later, probably on his instructions. He was examined by the privy council in March and denied all complicity in the continental intrigues of the English Catholic, Sir William Stanley. He was sent back to the Tower, but fifteen months later his wife appeared at court and Sir Thomas Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, volunteered to stand surety for him in the sum of £1000. Since no charges were proved against him, MacCarthy was set at liberty in January 1591 on condition that he not leave England nor travel more than three miles outside London without permission. The Queen's principal secretary, Lord Burghley, backed him, and he obtained protection against his creditors and permission to recover an old fine of £500 due to the Crown from Lord Barry, a neighbour and rival of his in Munster, whom he blamed for his arrest; Barry was later to accuse him of disloyalty as this suit was prosecuted. MacCarthy subsequently obtained permission to return to Ireland.

uccession disputes

MacCarthy returned to Ireland (though he was still technically a prisoner) in November 1593, following his wife and child. In the next year, his uncle Owen (the MacCarthy Reagh tanist) died and was succeeded by his nephew, Donal na Pípí. The latter bound himself in the sum of £10,000 not to divert the MacCarthy Reagh succession from MacCarthy, who was in turn his tanist. Florence appeared before the council at Dublin in June 1594 to reply to the accusations of Lord Barry, a local rival of MacCarthy's with whom he had a land dispute, which again implicated him pro-Spanish intrigues with William Stanley. Florence then returned to England by licence and remained there until the spring of 1596 in a vain attempt to prosecute Barry.

In 1596, Donal MacCarthy, MacCarthy Mór and Earl of Clancarthy, died without male issue and the matter of the MacCarthy succession became highly complicated. Clancar's estate should by law have reverted to the crown, but Florence had a mortgage on the lands and also had right by his wife. Another Donal, the Earl's illegitimate son (not to be confused with Donal na Pipi), also asserted a claim, not to the English Earldom, but to the Gaelic title of MacCarthy Mor. Florence MacCarthy would in future correspondence, refer to Donal as "Donal the bastard".

It was most unlikely that the English authorities would acknowledge Florence as MacCarthy Mór or grant him the equivalent English title – Earl of Clancarthy as they wanted to break up the MacCarthy lands; so the real dispute in law came down to the recovery of lands by Florence from an English mortgagee (William Brown), who had possessed them on account of a debt owed to him by the earl. In June 1598, MacCarthy travelled to England to pursue the matter.

However, the situation was transformed by the arrival in Munster of the Ulster forces of Hugh O'Neill, who was leading a nation-wide rebellion – the Nine Years War – against English government in Ireland. In the autumn, Donal MacCarthy (the late Earl's illegitimate son) was reported to have acknowledged the authority of the rebel O'Neill and assumed the title of MacCarthy Mór; but the O'Sullivan Mór withheld the rod of inauguration (which symbolically approved the accession of a chieftain) in favour of Florence MacCarthy. In a desperate situation, when it seemed that all the native lords in Munster were going into rebellion, the crown granted Florence MacCarthy a free pardon, on terms that he immediately withdraw his followers from rebellion in return for qualified acknowledgment of his title against Donal MacCarthy; but he prevaricated and only returned to Munster after Sir Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex – whose favour he had been relying upon – threw up his command as lord lieutenant in Ireland in late 1599 and returned to England under a cloud. Florence MacCarthy had managed to negotiate English support for his claims to land and title, but he also maintained contact with the rebels to the same end. This has made some commentators claim that his real sympathy lay with the rebels, especially as he was described n his youth as being "very zealou in the old religion [Catholicism] ". However it is more likely that MacCarthy was using both sides as a lever to further his own aims.

War in Munster

During the Nine Years War in Munster, MacCarthy failed to engage with the English military campaign and secretly negotiated with the rebels under Hugh O’Neill and the Spanish. O'Neill's strategy was to back those local Irish lords who had a grievance against English authority and were in command of sufficient land and followers to contribute to his war effort.

In 1599, MacCarthy visited Fitzthomas, the rebel "Súgan" Earl of Desmond, in Carbery, where he claimed to have spoken in the queen's favour; it is more likely that Florence promised his support for the rebels on condition that O'Neill acknowledge him as MacCarthy Mor. In the following days, Fitzthomas, followed reluctantly by Donal MacCarthy, laid waste to Lord Barry's territory of Ibawne, on the ground that Barry had refused to join the rebellion. From his base at Kinsale, Florence closed all the approaches into his own country.

In 1600 O'Neill's army arrived in Munster and pitched camp between the rivers Lee and Bandon, whereupon MacCarthy came in to the camp for interview and was installed there as MacCarthy Mór at the expense of his rival, Donal MacCarthy. To the English it now appeared that Florence had sided conclusively with O'Neill, and military action was taken against him. In fact, Florence may simply have been playing both sides in order to become the MacCarthy Mor. In April an English expedition led by Captain Flower raided his lands in Carbery and fought a bloody skirmish with MacCarthy's levies, which left over 200 men dead between the two sides.

In the same month Sir George Carew was appointed governor of Munster, with sufficient men and resources to pacify the province. Carew summoned MacCarthy to Cork for an explanation of his conduct; at first, MacCarthy refused to come in without guarantees for his life and liberty, and when he did come in he refused to give his son as hostage. Carew urged him to support the English campaign, but MacCarthy promised no more than his neutrality, arguing that he was loyal, but that if he were to side openly with the English his own followers would desert him (a common plea of Gaelic leaders).

In fact, at this time MacCarthy, in an intercepted letter to Hugh Roe O'Donnell, had sought to assure the northern rebels of his commitment to their cause. He was also the main contact in the south of Ireland for the Spanish, who planned a landing in Munster, which MacCarthy most likely expected would settle the war for good. On the 5th of January 1600, he wrote to Phillip II of Spain, via his agent in Ulster, Donagh MacCormac MacCarthy, offering,

‘his person and lands as well as his vassals and subjects to your Royal service…to receive favour and aid…seeing as there is no other that can and will assist us better against these Heretics in this holy enterprise’

In the months that followed, Carew broke the rebellion in Munster, retaking rebel castles, arresting Fitzthomas, the Súgan Earl, and persuading Donal MacCarthy to change sides. Carew viewed this as highly significant, because Donal MacCarthy was not only a credible rival for MacCarthy support, but also knew the remote and mountainous terrain in which Florence was based. Having pacified the province, Carew had no intention of leaving Florence installed as MacCarthy Mór, judging that his supremacy would make any future English presence in the area impossible. To this end, he arrested Florence, having called him to his camp for talks, 14 days before the expiry of the safe conduct "on discretion" (ie. without charge) - an action which, although unlawful, was approved by the Queen's secretary, Robert Cecil, for reasons of state.

The Irish "Annals of the Four Masters" tell us,

‘"Fineen [Florence] , son of Donough Mac Carthy (who was at this time called Mac Carthy Mór), went before the President at Cork; but as soon as he had arrived in the town he was made a prisoner for the Queen; but Fineen began to declare aloud, and without reserve, that he had been taken against the word and protection. This was of no avail to him; for he [was] sent to England in the month of August, and Fitzthomas [the rebel Earl of Desmond] ... shewn the Tower as their house of eating and sleeping from that forward to the time of their deaths, or end of their lives, according to the will of God and of their Sovereign".

MacCarthy was sent to England in August 1601 and committed to the Tower. Carew also arrested Florence’s son, as well as his kinsmen, Dermot MacOwen and Taig MacCormac, and his follower, O’Mahon. Only a month later, the Spanish landed at Kinsale and enquired immediately for MacCarthy, their main local contact. His absence was no doubt a serious disadvantage in organising local support. Most of the MacCarthys, including both Donal MacCarthy and Donal na Pipi, did go over to the Spanish side, but surrendered after the English victory over the Irish and Spanish at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.

In custody at London

MacCarthy vainly petitioned for release from prison with a promise to serve against O'Neill. After the English victory at the battle of Kinsale, his brother, Diarmuid Maol ("Bald Dermot"), who commanded Florence's followers in his absence, was killed in a skirmish with a rival branch of the MacCarthy clan; many of his kinsmen were also killed in various encounters with English or rival Irish forces. In 1604 he was transferred to the Marshalsea for his health, but sent back to the Tower, with the privilege of access to his books.

In 1606, Donal na Pípí surrendered his claim to the MacCarthy lordship and received a grant of the territory of Carbery. Then Sir Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, and Lord Barry tried to wrest from MacCarthy the territory inherited from his father, but he successfully resisted by means of the law. However, much of his former lands were re-distributed. He went to the Marshalsea again in 1608, was released in 1614 on bonds of £5000 not to leave London, and in 1617 was recommitted to the Tower on the information of his servant, Teige O'Hurley, alleging his involvement with William Stanley and several exiled Irish Catholic priests and nobles, including Hugh Maguire. MacCarthy was due for release in 1619 but was sent back to the Gatehouse in 1624, to "a little narrow close room without sight of the air", owing to the death of two of his sureties, the Earl of Thomond and Sir Patrick Barnewall. He was freed in 1626 on fresh sureties and won his protracted suit for the barony of Molahiffe in 1630 (although the lands were still in the possession of the English mortgagees in 1637).

MacCarthy lived the remainder of his life in London, where he wrote a history of Ireland, based on Old Irish texts. He wrote that, "although they [the Irish] are thought by many fitter to be rooted out than suffered to enjoy their lands, they are not so rebellious or dangerous as they are termed by such as covet it". He died in 1640.


MacCarthy had a troubled relationship with his wife, who grew jealous of his inheritance and who informed on him to the English authorities. She also seems to have disapproved of his political choices, reportedly saying that she, "would not go begging in Ulster or Spain". In 1607 he reported that he had, "sent away that wicked woman that was my wife…whom I saw not nor could abide in almost a year before my commitment [imprisonment] ". Nevertheless, he did have four children by her who are known of: Teige (died as a boy in the Tower), Donal (who converted to Protestantism and married the daughter of the MacDonnell Earl of Antrim), Charles and Florence.

In time, the title of MacCarthy Mór was subdued and the personal lands of Florence MacCarthy were distributed to English settlers, among them Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. The MacCarthy lords, including Donal na Pipi of Carberry, Donal MacCarthy (son of the earl) and Dermot MacCarthy of Muskerry were granted title to their lands, but had to surrender up to a third of their inheritance to the crown. Donagh MacCarthy, the son of Dermot MacCarthy, later created Viscount of Muskerry, would later be one of the leaders of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and Confederate Ireland in the 1640s.

A rough portrait of MacCarthy was taken to France in 1776 by a collateral kinsman, Justin MacCarthy (1744-1811) of Springhouse, Bansha, County Tipperary, who was a direct descendant of Dónal na Pípí and was going into exile because of the harsh treatment in Ireland of Catholics under the Penal Laws. The portrait was kept in the mansion at 3, Rue Mage in the city of Toulouse where he resided as Count MacCarthy-Reagh of Toulouse. The Count was noted for his rich library which in importance was second only to the King's in Paris.

An anonymous writer in 1686 wrote of Florence MacCarthy, drawing on a contemporary description in "Pacata Hibernia", ‘"Of all the MacCarthys, none was ever more famous than…Florence, 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 anybody for what he falsely imagined to be the true religion, and the liberty of his country". However, his rival Donal "the bastard" MacCarthy described him as "a damned counterfeit Englishman whose study and practice was to deceive and betray all the Irishmen in Ireland".

ee also

*Tudor re-conquest of Ireland
*Nine Years War (Ireland)


*Richard Bagwell, "Ireland under the Tudors" 3 vols. (London, 1885-1890).
*John O'Donovan (ed.) "Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters" (1851).
*"Calendar of State Papers: Carew MSS." 6 vols (London, 1867-1873).
*"Calendar of State Papers: Ireland" (London)
*Colm Lennon "Sixteenth Century Ireland – The Incomplete Conquest" (Dublin, 1995) ISBN 0-312-12462-7.
*Nicholas P. Canny "Making Ireland British, 1580-1650" (Oxford University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-19-820091-9.
*Steven G. Ellis "Tudor Ireland" (London, 1985). ISBN 0-582-49341-2.
*Hiram Morgan "Tyrone's War" (1995).
*Cyril Falls "Elizabeth's Irish Wars" (1950; reprint London, 1996). ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
*"Dictionary of National Biography" 22 vols. (London, 1921-1922): of questionable accuracy in parts, but very useful.
*Richard Cox, "Hibernia Anglicana," London, 1689.
*Daniel McCarthy, "The Life and Letter book of Florence McCarthy Reagh, Tanist of Carberry," Dublin 1867.
*John O’Donovan, (translator), "The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters [Annála Ríoghachta Éireann] ," Vol. 6, ed. John O'Donovan (Dublin, 1848-51) at http://celt.ucc.ie/index.html
*Stafford, Thomas, "Pacata Hibernia" 3 Vols. (1633), London 1810, also published in Dublin 1896 (Standish O'Drady ed.)

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