Florence MacCarthy Reagh

MacCarthy Reagh, Fineen (Florence), Tanist of Carbery, MacCarthy Mor, the eldest son of Sir Donough MacCarthy Reagh, was born about 1563. [He was descended from the elder branch of the MacCarthys, one of the oldest Irish families, lords of Desmond before the Anglo-Norman invasion. From the younger branch were descended the Lords of Muskerry.] Though brought up in the wild life of an Irish chieftain on his father's estates in Carbery, County of Cork, his education was not neglected. In after life his letters proved him a perfect master of English; he had a competent knowledge of Latin and Spanish; while a treatise on the antiquity and history of the mythic ages of Ireland displayed knowledge both of modern and ancient Irish, and intimate acquaintance with the traditionary history of his country. He must have acquired experience both in the Brehon and English law.

From the outbreak of the Desmond war he served with the royal forces; and at its close, at the age of twenty, he repaired to the English court, where he was warmly received by the Queen "who most graciously and bountifully rewarded him, presenting him at once with a gift of a thousand marks, and settling on him an annuity of two hundred marks." In 1588 he quietly left London, returned to Munster, and espoused his young cousin, daughter of the Earl of Clancar. This was a high offence in the eyes of Elizabeth, and a source of mortification to the Irish Council. The Earl had delivered up his estates to the Crown, and received them back on English tenure. They would revert to his daughter; and it was the desire of the Government that she should be married to some English undertaker or nobleman in whom they could have confidence. This marriage to the Tanist of Carbery would ultimately lead to the union of large estates in the possession of an Irish prince — a catastrophe that it was the main policy of Elizabeth and her advisers to prevent. Accordingly his arrest, and that of his wife and all who had any share in the alliance, was immediately ordered.

Sir Thomas Norreys even thought it might be well if he was "cut off by lawe." A correspondent advised the Government that the main offender was at "Corcke, where he remaynethe with the resorte of his frends and the Earle's daughter, with small restraynte, he rather reioyceth with banquettinge, then that he seemethe sorie for his contempte." He was immediately conveyed to Dublin, and on 10th February 1589 was committed to the Tower of London. At the end of nearly two years, on 19th January 1591, he was liberated, on the Earl of Ormond giving bail that he would not depart farther than three miles from London, or repair to the court, without leave. His wife had, meanwhile, eluded the vigilance of her custodians in Cork, and joined him in London. Early in November 1593 he was permitted to return to Ireland, having persuaded the Queen that his presence would tend to allay discontent, and bring some of his relatives over to the government side. The reversion of a fine of £500, due by Lord Barry, was bestowed upon him. To escape the payment of this sum, Lord Barry brought a series of charges against Florence, impugning his loyalty and good faith towards Elizabeth. An interminable correspondence and endless enquiries ensued, and Florence visited London more than once. Meanwhile O'Neill and O'Donnell broke out into open war, the old Earl of Clancar died, and Florence became the most important chief in Munster. In the "hope of Florence, his loyal tie and service, being best hable to recover those lands out of the rebells hands," all his vast estates were confirmed to him, and in April 1599 he was declared free from any charge, and at liberty to betake himself home, "to recover Desmond for the Queen out of the hands of Donal [MacCarthy], to rid the province of O'Neill's mercenaries, and to withdraw every member of his own numerous and powerful sept from the action into which their usurping chieftain had forced them."

It is all but impossible to arrive at the truth as to his subsequent conduct and his motives. There is no doubt that he entered into communication with O'Neill and O'Donnell, and that the title of MacCarthy Mor was conferred upon him by the former. He explained away these undeniable facts by the necessities of his position, the wisdom of temporizing, and the certain destruction that awaited him if he showed an open resistance to the Irish party. The conclusion suggested by the perusal of his Life and Letters is that he was anxious to be on friendly terms with both parties, so that whatever way the course of events turned, he might be safe. It appears that latterly his wife acted as a spy upon his proceedings, and was in constant communication with the Government. On his side it may be pleaded that the mere restraining of the armed forces at his disposal, about 2,600 men, from joining the confederates, was in itself no small benefit to the Government. His arrest being decided upon, he was enticed to Cork in June 1601, under the solemn promise of a safe-conduct, was seized, and almost immediately sent prisoner to London. When the war was over, and O'Neill and O'Donnell had fled to Spain, there appeared no valid grounds for detaining him. But he was still the most powerful chief in the country, and was "infinitely beloved in Ireland;" so that state reasons, as well as the influence of the undertakers battening on his estates, induced the Government to detain him until his death, about 1640, aged some 77 years. He wrote to Cecil in 1602, offering to serve against his compatriots and to employ bards to break down the spirit of the Irish people, if Government would but grant him liberty.

His forty years of detention were not all spent in the Tower; he was often consigned to the Fleet and other prisons; occasionally he was let out on recognizances; at times he was permitted to have his children with him, and again he was kept in the most rigid confinement. His time was much spent in conducting law-suits relative to such portions of his estates as were left to him, in writing petitions for release, and in compiling his ancient annals of Ireland. Little is said of the personal appearance of this remarkable man, beyond his u being of extraordinary stature, and as great policy; he had competent courage, and as much zeal as any one for what he imagined to be true religion and the liberty of his country." His last lineal representative, Charles MacCarthy Mor, an officer in the Guards, died without issue in 1770, when his estates on the shores of the Lakes of Killarney passed to the Herbert family, by whom they are now held.


57. Burke, Sir Bernard: Vicissitudes of Families. 2 vols. London, 1869.

222. MacCarthy Mor, Memoirs: Daniel MacCarthy. London, 1867.