Art Mac Murrogh Kavanagh (1377-1417)

Patrick Weston Joyce

275. The man that gave most trouble during the reign of Richard II (from 1377 to 1399) was Art Mac Murrogh Kavanagh, king of Leinster, born in 1357. In early youth, even in his sixteenth year, he began his active career as defender of the province; and at eighteen (in 1375) he was elected king of Leinster.

Some time after his election, he married the daughter of Maurice Fitzgerald fourth earl of Kildare; whereupon the English authorities seized the lady's vast estates, inasmuch as she had violated the statute of Kilkenny by marrying a mere Irishman. In addition to this, his black rent—eighty marks a year—was for some reason stopped, soon after the accession of Richard II. Exasperated by these proceedings, he devastated and burned many districts in the counties of Wexford, Kilkenny, Carlow, and Kildare; till the Dublin council were at last forced to pay him his black rent.

276. Meantime Ireland had been going from bad to worse; and at last the king resolved to come hither himself with an overwhelming force, hoping thereby to overawe the whole country into submission and quietness. He made great preparations for this expedition; and on the 2nd of October 1394, attended by many of the English nobles, he landed at Waterford with an army of 34,000 men, the largest force ever yet brought to the shores of Ireland.

277. As soon as Mac Murrogh heard of this, far from showing any signs of fear, he swept down on New Ross, then a flourishing English settlement strongly walled, burned the town, and brought away a vast quantity of booty. And when the king and his army marched north from Waterford to Dublin, he harassed them on the way after his usual fashion, attacking them from the woods and bogs and catting off great numbers.

278. The Irish chiefs however saw that submission was inevitable. At a place called Ballygorry near Carlow, Mowbray earl of Nottingham received the submission of a number of the southern chiefs in 1395, and amongst them Mac Murrogh, the most dreaded of all. The king himself received the northern chiefs at Drogheda. Altogether about 75 chiefs submitted to the king and to Mowbray.

They were afterwards invited to Dublin, where they were feasted sumptuously for several days by the king, who knighted the four provincial kings, O'Neill of Ulster, O'Connor of Connaught, Mac Murrogh of Leinster, and O'Brien of Thomond.

279. In a letter to the duke of York, the English Regent king Richard describes the Irish people as of three classes:—Irish savages or enemies; Irish rebels (colonists in rebellion); and English subjects; and he says the rebels were driven to revolt by ill usage.

280. But this magnificent and expensive expedition produced no useful result whatever. As for the submission and reconciliation of the Irish chiefs, it was all pure sham. They did not look upon king Richard as their lawful sovereign; and as the promises they had made had been extorted by force, they did not consider themselves bound to keep them.

281. After a stay of nine months the king was obliged to return to England in 1395, leaving as his deputy his cousin young Roger Mortimer earl of March, who, as Richard had no children, was heir to the throne of England. Scarcely had he left sight of land when the chiefs one and all renounced their allegiance, and the fighting went on again; till at last, in a battle fought at Kells in Kilkenny in 1397, against the Leinster clans, amongst them a large contingent of Mac Murrogh's kern, the English suffered a great overthrow, and Mortimer was slain.

282. And now the king, greatly enraged, resolved on a second expedition to Ireland, in order as he said, to avenge the death of his cousin, and especially to chastise Mac Murrogh. Another army was got together quite as numerous as the former. In the middle of May 1399 the king landed with his army at Waterford, and after a short time he marched to Kilkenny on his way to Dublin. But instead of continuing on the open level country, he turned to the right towards the Wicklow highlands to attack Mac Murrogh: and here his troubles began.

Making their way slowly and toilsomely through the hills, they at length descried the Leinster army under Mac Murrogh, about 3,000 in number, high up on a mountain side, coolly looking down on them, with dense woods between. The king having forced 2,500 of the peasantry, whose houses he had burned, to cut a way for his army through the woods, pushed on, determined to overwhelm the little body of mountaineers. But he was soon beset with difficulties of all kinds, bogs, fallen trees, hidden gullies, and quagmires in which the soldiers sank up to their middle. At the same time the Irish continually attacked him and killed great numbers of his men. They could get little or no provisions, and hundreds perished of hunger and fatigue.

283. In this dire strait the army made their way across hill, moor, and valley, men and horses starving, and perishing with rain and storm; till at the end of eleven days of toil and suffering, they came in sight of the sea, somewhere on the south part of the Wicklow coast. Here they found three ships laden with provisions, which saved the army from destruction. Next day they resumed march, moving now along the coast towards Dublin; while Mac Murrogh's flying parties hung on their rear and harassed their retreat, never giving them an hour's rest.

284. But now Mac Murrogh sent word that he wished to come to terms; and the young earl of Gloucester was despatched by the king to confer with him.

When they had come to the place of conference, Mac Murrogh was seen descending a mountain-side between two woods, accompanied by a multitude of followers. He rode, without saddle, a noble horse that had cost him four hundred cows, and he galloped down the face of the hill as swiftly as a stag. He brandished a long spear, which, when he had arrived near the meeting place, he flung from him with great dexterity. Then his followers fell back, and he met the earl alone near a small brook; and those that saw him remarked that he was tall of stature, well knit, strong and active, with a fierce and stern countenance.

285. But the parley ended in nothing, for Gloucester could not agree to Mac Murrogh's demands. On the king's arrival in Dublin he made arrangements to have Mac Murrogh hunted down. But before they could be carried out he was recalled to England by alarming news; and when he had arrived he was made prisoner in 1399, and a new king, Henry IV., was placed on the throne.

286. After the king's departure, Mac Murrogh's raids became so intolerable that the government agreed to compensate him for his wife's lands. Two years later—in 1401—he made a terrible raid into Wexford, in which numbers of the settlers were slain. But this was avenged soon after by the English of Dublin, who in 1402 marched south along the coast, led by the mayor, John Drake, and defeated the O'Byrnes near Bray, killing 500 of them. For this and other services, the king granted to the city of Dublin the privilege of having a gilt sword carried before the mayor.

287. After a short period of quietness Mac Murrogh renewed the war in 1405, plundered and burned Carlow and Castledermot, two English settlements, and again overran the county Wexford. But now came a turn of ill fortune. The deputy Sir Stephen Scroope utterly defeated him in 1407 near Callan in Kilkenny, and immediately afterwards surprised O'Carroll lord of Ely, and killed O'Carroll himself and 800 of his followers. Altogether 3,000 of the Irish fell in these two conflicts—the greatest reverse ever sustained by Mac Murrogh.

288. This defeat kept him quiet for a time. But in 1413 he inflicted a severe defeat on the men of Wexford. Three years after this—in 1416—the English of Wexford combined, with the determination to avenge all the injuries he had inflicted on them. But he met them on their own plains, defeated them with a loss of 320 in killed and prisoners, and so thoroughly frightened them that they were glad to escape further consequences by making peace and giving hostages for future good behaviour.

289. This was the old hero's last exploit. He died in New Ross a week after the Christmas of 1417, in the sixtieth year of his age, after a reign of forty-two years over Leinster. O'Doran his chief brehon, who had been spending the Christmas with him, died on the same day, and there are good grounds for suspecting that both were poisoned by a woman who had been instigated by some of Mac Murrogh's enemies.

He was the most heroic, persevering, and indomitable defender of his country, from Brian Boru to Hugh O'Neill; and he maintained his independence for nearly half a century just beside the Pale, in spite of every effort to reduce him to submission.