Art McMurrough

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


The close of the century which witnessed the events I have been mentioning; brought about another "royal visit" to Ireland. The weak, vain, and pomp-loving Richard the Second visited this country twice in the course of his ill-fated career—for the first time 1394; I would not deem either worth more than a passing word (for both of them were barren of results), were it not that they interweave with the story of the chivalrous Art M'Murrogh "Kavanagh," Prince of Leinster, whose heroic figure stands out in glorious prominence on this page of Irish history.

If the M'Murroghs of Leinster in 1170 contributed to our national annals one character of evil fame, they were destined to give, two centuries later on, another, illustrious in all that ennobles or adorns the patriot, the soldier, or the statesman. Eva M'Murrogh, daughter of Diarmid the Traitor, who married Strongbow the Freebooter, claimed to be only child of her father born in lawful wedlock. That there were sons of her father then living, was not questioned; but she, or her husband on her behalf, setting up a claim of inheritance to Diarmid's possessions, impugned their legitimacy. However this may have been, the sept proceeded according to law and usage under the Irish constitution, to elect from the reigning family a successor to Diarmid, and they raised to the chieftaincy his son Donal. Thenceforth the name of M'Murrogh is heard of in Irish history only in connection with the bravest and boldest efforts of patriotism. Whenever a blow was to be struck for Ireland, the M'Murroghs were the readiest in the field—the "first in front and last in rear." They became a formidable barrier to the English encroachments, and in importance were not second to any native power in Ireland. In 1350 the sept was ruled by Art, or Arthur the First, father of our hero. "To carry on a war against him," we are told, "the whole English interest was assessed with a special tax. Louth contributed twenty pounds, Meath and Waterford two shillings, on every carucate (one hundred and forty acres) of tilled land; Kilkenny the same sum, with the addition of 6d. in the pound on chattels. This Art captured the strong castles of Kilbelle, Galbarstown, Rathville; and although his career was not one of invariable success, he bequeathed to his son, also called Art, in 1375, an inheritance extending over a large portion—perhaps one-half—of the territory ruled by his ancestors before the invasion."

From the same historian [1] I take the subjoined sketch of the early career of that son, Art the Second. "Art M'Murrogh, or Art Kavanagh, as he is commonly called, was born in the year 1357, and from the age of sixteen and upward was distinguished by his hospitality, knowledge, and feats of arms. Like the great Brian, he was a younger son, but the fortune of war removed one by one those who would otherwise have preceded him in the captaincy of his clan and connections. About the year 1375—while he was still under age—he was elected successor to his father, according to the annalists, who record his death in 1417, 'after being forty-two years in the government of Leinster.' Fortunately he attained command at a period favorable to his genius and enterprise. His own and the adjoining tribes were aroused by tidings of success from other provinces, and the partial victories of their immediate predecessors, to entertain bolder schemes, and they only waited for a chief of distinguished ability to concentrate their efforts. This chief they found, where they naturally looked for him, among the old ruling family of the province. Nor were the English settlers ignorant of his promise. In the parliament held at Castledermot in 1377 they granted to him the customary annual tribute paid to his house. . . . . Art M'Murrogh the younger not only extended the bounds of his inheritance and imposed tribute on the English settlers in adjoining districts during the first years of his rule, but having married a noble lady of the 'Pale,' Elizabeth, heiress to the barony of Norragh, in Kildare, which included Naas and its neighborhood, he claimed her inheritance in full, though forfeited under 'the statute of Kilkenny,' according to English notions. So necessary did it seem to the deputy and council of the day to conciliate their formidable neighbor, that they addressed a special representation to King Richard, setting forth the facts of the case, and adding that M'Murrogh threatened, until this lady's estates were restored and the arrears of tribute due to him fully discharged, he should never cease from war, 'but would join with the Earl of Desmond against the Earl of Ormond, and afterward return with a great force out of Munster to ravage the Country.' ... By this time the banner of Art M'Murrogh floated over all the castles and raths on the slope of the Ridge of Leinster, or the steps of the Blackstair hills; while the forests along the Barrow and the Upper Slaney, as well as in the plain of Carlow and in the southwestern angle of Wicklow (now the barony of Shillelagh), served still better his purposes of defensive warfare.

"So entirely was the range of country thus vaguely defined under native sway that John Griffin, the English bishop of Leighlin and chancellor of the exchequer, obtained a grant in 1389 of the town of Gulroestown, in the county of Dublin, 'near the marches of O'Toole, seeing he could not live within his own see for the rebels.' In 1390, Peter Creagh, Bishop of Limerick, on his way to attend an Anglo-Irish parliament, was taken prisoner in that region, and in consequence the usual fine was remitted in his favor. In 1392, James, the third earl of Ormond, gave M'Murrogh a severe check at Tiscoffin, near Shankill, where six hundred of his, clansmen were left dead among the hills.

"This defeat, however, was thrown into the shade by the capture of New Ross, on the very eve of Richard's arrival at Waterford. In a previous chapter we have described the fortifications erected round this important seaport toward the end of the thirteenth century. Since that period its progress had been steadily onward. In the reign of Edward the Third the controversy which had long subsisted between the merchants of New Ross and those of Waterford, concerning the trade monopolies claimed by the latter, had been decided in favor of Ross. At this period it could muster in its own defense 363 cross-bowmen, 1,200 long bowmen, 1,200 pikemen, and 104 horsemen—a force which would seem to place it second to Dublin in point of military strength. The capture of so important a place by M'Murrogh was a cheering omen to his followers. He razed the walls and towers, and carried off gold, silver, and hostages."

From the first sentence in the concluding passage of the foregoing extract it will be gathered, that it was at this juncture the vainglorious. Richard made his first visit to Ireland. He had just recently been a candidate for the imperial throne of the Germanic empire, and had been rejected in a manner most wounding to his pride. So he formed the project of visiting Ireland with a display of pomp, power, and royal splendor, such as had not been seen in Europe for a longtime, and would, he was firmly persuaded, enable him to accomplish the complete subjugation of the Irish kingdom after the manner of that Roman general who came and saw and conquered. Early in October he landed at Waterford with a force of 30,000 bowmen and 4,000 men-at-arms; a force in those days deemed ample to overrun and conquer the strongest kingdom, and far exceeding many that sufficed to. change the fate of empires previously and subsequently in Europe. This vast army was transported across the channel in a fleet of some three hundred ships or galleys. Great pains were taken to provide the expedition with all the appliances and features of impressive pageantry; and in the king's train, as usual, came the chief nobles of England—his uncle, the duke of Gloster, the young earl of March (heir apparent), and of earls and lords a goodly attendance, besides several prelates, abbots, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries. But with this vast expedition King Richard accomplished in Ireland just as much as that king in the ballad, who "marched up the hill, and then marched down again." He rehearsed King Henry and King John on Irish soil. The Irish princes were invited to visit their "friend" the mighty and puissant king of England. They did visit him, and were subjected, as of old, to the "dazzling" process. They were patronizingly fondled; made to understand that their magnanimous suzerain was a most powerful, and most grand, and most gorgeous potentate, own brother of the Sun and Moon. They accepted his flattering attentions; but they did not altogether so clearly understand or accept a proposition he made them as to surrendering their lands and chieftaincies to him, and receiving, instead, royal pensions and English titles from his most gracious hand. Many of the Irish princes yielded, from one motive or another, to this insidious proposition. But foremost among those who could not be persuaded to see the excellence of this arrangement was the young prince of Leinster, whose fame had already filled the land, and whose victories had made the English king feel ill at ease. Art would not come to "court" to reason over the matter with the bland and puissant king. He was obdurate. He resisted all "dazzling." He mocked at the royal pageants, and snapped his fingers at the brother of the Sun and Moon.

All this was keenly mortifying to the vainglorious Richard. There was nothing for it but to send a royal commissioner to treat with Art. He accordingly dispatched the earl marshal (Mowbray) to meet and treat with the prince of Leinster. On the plain of Balligory, near Carlow, the conference took place, Art being accompanied by his uncle Malachi. The earl marshal soon found that he had in Art a statesman as well as a soldier to treat with. Art proudly refused to treat with an inferior. If he was to treat at all, it should be with the king himself! Mowbray had to bend to this humiliating rebuff and try to palaver the stern M'Murrogh. In vain! Art's final answer was, that "so far from yielding his own lands, his wife's patrimony in Kildare should instantly be restored to him; or—" Of course this broke up the conference. The earl marshal returned with the unwelcome news to the king, who flew into rage! What! He, the great, the courtly, the puissant, and gorgeous King Richard of England, thus haughtily treated by a mere Irish prince! By the toenails of William the Conqueror, this astounding conduct should meet a dreadful chastisement! He would wipe out this haughty prince! The defiant M'Murrogh should be made to feel the might of England's royal arm! So, putting himself at the head of his grand army, King Richard set out wrathfully to annihilate Art.

But the Legenian chief soon taught him a bitter lesson. Art's superior military genius, the valor of his troops, and the patriotism of the population, soon caused the vastness of the invading English host to be a weakness, not a strength. Richard found his march tedious and tardy. It was impossible to make in that strange and hostile country commissariat arrangements for such an enormous army. Impenetrable forests and impassable bogs were varied only by mountain defiles defended with true Spartan heroism by the fearless M'Murrogh clansmen. Then the weather broke into severity awful to endure. Fodder for the horses, food for the men, now became the sole objects of each day's labor on the part of King Richard's grand army; "but," says the historian, "M'Murrogh swept off everything of the nature of food—took advantage of his knowledge of the country to burst upon the enemy by night, to entrap them into ambuscades, to separate the cavalry from the foot, and by many other stratagems to thin their ranks and harass the stragglers." In fine, King Richard's splendid army, stuck fast in the Wicklow mountains, was a wreck: while the vengeful and victorious Lagenians hovered around, daily growing more daring in their disastrous assaults. Richard found there was nothing for it but to supplicate Art, and obtain peace at any price. A deputation of "the English and Irish of Leinster" was dispatched to him by the king, making humble apologies and inviting him to a conference with his majesty in Dublin, where, if he would thus honor the king, he should be the royal guest, and learn how highly his valor and wisdom were esteemed by the English sovereign. Art acceded, and permitted Richard to make his way in peace northward to Dublin, crestfallen and defeated, with the relics of his grand army and the tattered rags of the gilt silk banners, the crimson canopies and other regal "properties" that were to have "dazzled" the sept of M'Murrogh.

Art, a few months afterward followed, according to invitation; but he had not been long in Dublin—where Richard had by great exertions once more established a royal court with all its splendors—when he found himself in the hands of treacherous and faithless foes. He was seized and imprisoned on a charge of "conspiring" against the king. Nevertheless, Richard found that he dared not carry out the base plot of which this was meant to be the beginning. He had already got a taste of what he might expect if he relied on fighting to conquer Ireland; and, on reflection, he seems to have decided that the overreaching arts of diplomacy, and the seductions of court life were pleasanter modes of extending his nominal sway than conducting campaigns like that in which he had already lost a splendid army and tarnished the tinsel of his vain prestige. So Art was eventually set at liberty, but three of his neighboring fellow-chieftains were retained as "hostages" for him; and it is even said that before he was released some form or promise of submission was extorted from him by the treacherous "hosts" who had so basely violated the sanctity of hospitality to which he had frankly trusted.

Not long after, an attempt was made to entrap and murder him in one of the Norman border castles, the owner of which had invited him to a friendly feast. As M'Murrogh was sitting down to the banquet, it happened that the quick eye of his bard detected in the courtyard outside certain movements of troops that told him at once what was afoot. He knew that if he or his master openly and suddenly manifested their discovery of the danger, they were lost; their perfidious hosts would slay them at the board. Striking his harp to an old Irish air, the minstrel commenced to sing to the music; but the words in the Gaelic tongue soon caught the ear of M'Murrogh. They warned him to be calm, circumspect, yet ready and resolute, for that he was in the toils of the foe. The prince divined all in an instant. He maintained a calm demeanor until, seizing a favorable pretext for reaching the yard, he sprang to horse, dashed through his foes, and, sword in hand, hewed his way to freedom. This second instance of perfidy completely persuaded M'Murrogh that he was dealing with faithless foes, whom no bond of honor could bind, and with whom no truce was safe; so, unfurling once more the Lagenian standard, he declared war à la mort against the English settlement.

It was no light struggle he thus inaugurated. Alone, unaided, he challenged and fought for twenty years the full power of England; in many a dearly-bought victory proving himself truly worthy of his reputation as a master of military science. The ablest generals of England were one by one sent to cope with him; but Art outmatched them in strategy and outstripped them in valor. In the second year's campaign the strongly-fortified frontier town and castle of Carlow fell before him; and in the next year (July 20, 1398) was fought the memorable battle of Kenlis. "Here," says a historian, "fell the heir presumptive to the English crown, whose premature removal was one of the causes which contributed to the revolution in England a year or two later."[2] We can well credit the next succeeding observation of the historian just quoted, that "the tidings of this event filled the Pale with consternation, and thoroughly aroused the vindictive temper of Richard. He at once dispatched to Dublin his half-brother, the Earl of Kent, to whom he made a gift of Carlow castle and town, to be held (if taken) by knight's service. He then, as much perhaps to give occupation to the minds of his people as to prosecute his old project of subduing Ireland, began to make preparations for his second expedition thither."


[1] M'Gee.

[2] M'Gee.