Cahal O'Conor of the Red Hand: King of Connaught

Patrick Weston Joyce

Roderick O'Connor the last native king of Ireland retired from the throne towards the end of the twelfth century, to end his days in the monastery of Cong.[1] After his time there was no longer a king over the whole country. But for hundreds of years afterwards, kings continued to reign over the five provinces.[2] Roderick had been king of Connaught before he became king of all Ireland; and after his retirement there were several claimants for the Connaught throne who contended with one another, so that the province was for a long time disturbed with wars and battles.

Roderick had a young brother named Cahal,[3] who was called Cahal of the Red Hand from a great blood-red mark on his right hand. He would naturally have a claim to the Connaught throne when old enough; and as he was a noble young fellow even when a boy, and showed great ability, the queen of Connaught, jealous of him, feared that when he grew up he would give trouble to her own sons, and she sought him out determined to kill him: so that Cahal and his mother had to flee from one hiding place to another.

Finding at last that he could no longer remain in the province with safety, he and his mother crossed the Shannon into Leinster where no one knew him, and there for several years they remained, while he made a poor living for both by working in the fields as a common labourer. And as the fame of the brave young Cahal with the red mark on his hand had gone abroad, he always wore a loose mitten on his right hand for fear of discovery; for he well knew that the queen had spies everywhere searching for him.

At this time the people had no newspapers: but there were news-carriers [4] who made it their business to travel continually about the country, picking up information wherever they could, and relating all that occurred whenever they came to a village or to any group of people who desired to hear the news. They generally received some small payment and perhaps food; and in this manner they made their living.

One day while Cahal was employed with several others reaping in a field of rye, they saw one of these men approaching; and they stopped their work for a few moments to hear what he had to say. After relating several unimportant matters he came at last to the principal news:—that the king of Connaught was dead, and that the leading people of the province, having met in counsel to choose a king, declared that they would have no one but young Cahal of the Red Hand. "And now" continued the newsman "I and many others have been searching for him for several weeks. He is easily known, for his right hand is blood-red from the wrist out: but up to this we have been unsuccessful. We fear indeed that he is living in poverty in some remote place where he will never be found: or it may be that he is dead."

When Cahal heard this his heart gave a great bound, and he stood musing for a few moments. Then flinging his sickle on the ridge he exclaimed:— "Farewell reaping-hook: now for the sword!" And pulling off the mitten, he showed his red hand and made himself known. The newsman, instantly recognising him, threw himself prostrate before him to acknowledge him as his king. And ever since that time "Cahal's farewell to the rye" has been a proverb in Connaught, to denote a farewell for ever. He returned immediately with his mother to Connaught where he was joyfully received, and was proclaimed king in 1190.

At this time the Anglo-Norman barons who had come over at the time of Henry II.'s Invasion nearly twenty years before, had settled down in various parts of Ireland: and they were constantly encroaching on the lands of the Irish and erecting strong castles everywhere; while the Irish chiefs resisted as far as they were able, so that there was much disturbance all over the country. Cahal was a brave and active king and took a leading part in fighting against the barons.

After he had reigned over Connaught in peace for eight or nine years, trouble came again. There was at this time, settled in Limerick, a powerful Anglo-Norman baron, William de Burgo (or Burke) to whom a large part of Connaught had been granted by King Henry II. This man stirred up another of the O'Conors to lay claim to the throne in opposition to Cahal, promising to help him: and now Connaught was again all ablaze with civil war. Cahal was defeated in battle and fled to Ulster to Hugh O'Neill prince of Tyrone, who took up his cause. Marching south with his own and O'Neill's men he attacked his rival, but was defeated, and again fled north. He soon made a second attempt, aided this time by Sir John de Courcy (for whom see below): but he and De Courcy were caught in an ambush in Galway by the rival king, who routed their army. In this fight De Courcy very nearly lost his life, being felled senseless from his horse by a stone. Recovering in good time however, he and Cahal escaped from the battlefield and fled northwards.

Cahal of the Red Hand, in no way cowed by these terrible reverses, again took the field after some time, aided now by De Burgo who had changed sides. A battle was fought near Roscommon in which the rival king was slain; and Cahal once more took possession of the throne. From this period forward he ruled without a native rival; though a few years later he was forced to surrender a large part of his kingdom to King John, in order that he might secure possession of the remainder.

But he was as vigilant as ever in repelling all attempts of the barons to encroach on his diminished territory. Thus when in 1220 the De Lacys of Meath, a most powerful Anglo-Norman family, went to Athleague on the Shannon at the head of Lough Ree, where there was a ford, and began to build a castle at the eastern or Leinster side, in order that they might have a garrison in it always ready to use the ford and attack Connaught, Cahal promptly crossed the river into Longford, and so frightened them that they were glad to conclude a truce with him. And he broke down the castle which they had almost finished.

Cahal of the Red Hand was an upright and powerful king and governed with firmness and justice. The Irish Annals tell us that he relieved the poor as long as he lived, and that he destroyed more robbers and rebels and evil-doers of every kind than any other king of his time. In early life he had founded the abbey of Knockmoy [5] into which he retired in the last year of his life: and in this retreat he died in 1224.


[1] Cong in Mayo, between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask; the remains of an abbey are there still.

[2] The five ancient provinces were Leinster, Munster, Connaught, Ulster, Meath. In later times Meath fell out as a province.

[3] For whom, and for the legends about him, see O'Donovan's Four Masters, A.D. 1224.

[4] Irish bollscaire [pron. boll'scara] a news-carrier.

[5] Knockmoy in Galway, six miles from Tuam: the ruins of the abbey still remain.