On This Day – 27 May 1224 Death of Cathal O’Connor, King of Connacht



We hear a lot about the Red Hand of Ulster these days, but the province of Connacht had a Red Hand of its own. He was Cathal Crobhdearg O’Connor who ruled the region for almost thirty-five years at a time when a wet weekend of political domination was the lot of most Irish kings.


Cathal O’Connor was a born survivor who avoided the sudden and painful death he inflicted on many others by always knowing in which direction the wind was blowing. He succeeded his brother Rory, the last High King of Ireland, as ruler of Connacht in 1189. He and Rory were two of the twenty-five sons of Turlough O’Connor, a previous King of Connacht who survived five of his six wives. Irish royalty, unlike its insipid English counterparts, doesn’t do things by halves you see. We have to assume that Turlough probably had a few daughters as well but only one has been chalked up to his credit by the annalists.


Cathal came to power in the west at a time when the country was being overrun by the Norman invader, introduced into Ireland by Pope Adrian IV, the only English Pontiff, and his agent King Henry II. By the time Cathal assumed the throne of Connacht the Normans were well ensconced in neighbouring Leinster and were making inroads into his bailiwick too. He could have chosen the military route but generally adopted a conciliatory line instead. His first reign lasted ten years before he was usurped by the head of a rival O’Connor family, Cathal Carrach, his own nephew – I hope you’re still listening down the back. ‘Carrach’, by the way, translates as ‘scabby’ so we can assume that this Cathal – the usurper, not our boy – was not much to look at. Given his disposition it is also unlikely that anyone called him ‘Carrach’ to his pockmarked face.


Our Cathal O’Connor got the throne back from the other Cathal O’Connor in 1202 when he defeated and killed his blotchy relative in a battle near Boyle, Co. Roscommon. He kept the throne until his death in 1224, no mean achievement with the Normans eyeing the land west of the Shannon and sizing it up for castle building. Cathal wasn’t too picky about who he made alliances with as long as the deals done kept him in power. Sometimes he was hugger mugger with Thomond, sometimes with Tyrone, now and again he even hitched up with the Normans and on at least one occasion appealed to Dublin to restore his sovereignty.


His constant switches of allegiance resulted eventually in his recognition of the King of England as Lord of Ireland. He wrote a letter to Henry III in which he pointed out that he had offered ‘faithful and devoted service’ to his father, King John ‘of happy memory’. It is an egregious example of brown nosing the monarch as nobody in their right minds would ever describe the callous and useless King John as being ‘of happy memory’ – you would have needed a bad case of amnesia for that.


The Annals of Connacht are equally obsequious when it comes to outlining the merits of Cathal Crobhdearg. The annalists write of him as …


The king who carried out most plunderings and burnings against [those] who opposed him; the king who was the fiercest and harshest towards his enemies that ever lived; the king who most blinded, killed and mutilated rebellious and disaffected subjects;


But all the gory stuff was OK because he was also ..


The king who was most chaste of all the Kings of Ireland.


James Clarence Mangan both immortalized and romanticized Cathal Crobhdearg in his poem ‘A Vision of Connacht in the Thirteenth Century’ in which he writes of ‘Cathal Mór of the wine red hand’. The poem is about the passage from the Gaelic world to that of Anglo-Norman domination, with Cathal O’Connor as the main transitional figure.


Cathal Crobhdearg O’Connor, monarch and political meteorologist died seven hundred and ninety two years ago, on this day.

Knockmoy founded by king of connacht - ancestry.com-400x250.jpg





On This Day – 20 May 1762 – Birth of Sir Eyre Coote




The expression ‘as bald as a coot’ is well-known in this part of the world. In the USA however the unfortunate bird, related to the moorhen, is familiar as the basis of an entirely different simile. In America you can be ‘as crazy as a coot’. The assumption has always been that the ‘coot’ in question is the common ‘mud hen’, often mistaken for a duck.


But what if the insane ‘coot’ to which the phrase refers is not the inoffensive animal but an eccentric Irish military type with a final ‘e’ to distinguish him from the water-loving bird? And the word ‘eccentric’ is not used idly. Because Sir Eyre Coote, born in Ireland in 1762, was adjudged to be merely ‘eccentric’ rather than completely ga-ga by a military board in 1816. More about that later.


He had the misfortune to be the nephew of, and share a name with, one of the greatest generals in the British Army, who, in the 18th century, ensured that England, rather than France, became a tea drinking nation when he pushed the French out of India. His nephew, also called Eyre Coote, joined the Army at the age of fourteen and quickly rose through the ranks, helped no doubt, to some extent by his name. Eyre Coote Junior first distinguished himself in the American War of Independence which began with a dispute over tea and ended with the United States of America abandoning that beverage for coffee. More significantly perhaps it also ended in the defeat of the British Army and the capture of Coote at the pivotal Battle of Yorktown when he was still only nineteen years of age.


Moving rapidly from opposition to the American colonists to the more traditional antagonism with the French, Coote became involved in a military operation designed to flood that part of the Netherlands occupied in 1798 by France. Flooding northern Holland proved to be relatively simple, getting away afterwards was a bit more difficult. A contrary wind meant that the ships intended to evacuate his force could not land and after losing more than a hundred of his men Coote was forced to surrender.


Shortly after that he inherited Uncle Eyre’s property and took a seat in the Irish House of Commons. That was pulled from under him by the Act of Union in 1800 and he went on to become Governor of Jamaica. Although he left that post in 1808 claiming the climate didn’t agree with him and affected his brain he must have had some fun while he was resident in the West Indies because the former US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell claims direct descent from him.


But it is for his unorthodox activities in the year of the Battle of Waterloo that Coote is most commonly remembered. He’d already given evidence of what might diplomatically be called ‘erratic decision making’ but he topped everything when, in November 1815 he wandered into the Mathematical School of Christ’s Hospital for Boys in London and offered some of the young inmates money – if they allowed him to flog them. A few volunteered. They were far more receptive when he suggested they might want to flog him. Three of the boys duly obliged and were paid three shillings. Discovered by a school nurse Coote was charged with indecent behaviour. He escaped jail by donating £1000 to the hospital, a somewhat disproportionate version of the use of the poor box for traffic offences in modern times. But despite avoiding a criminal charge he later found himself facing a Military Tribunal composed of three Generals.


There he was ruled not to be insane but to be merely ‘eccentric’. However, his conduct was adjudged to have been unworthy of an officer and he was dismissed from the Army. He had also been made a member of the Order of the Bath and he was stripped of that status as well. Clearly the membership of that august order had no time for flagellation.


Eyre Coote, soldier, politician, ancestor of General Colin Powell and keen flagellant was born two hundred and fifty four years ago, on this day.



Christ’s Hospital for Boys


On this day – 6 May, 1882 The Phoenix Park Murders



Had it not been for a tight and uncomfortable new pair of boots late 19th century Irish history might have been very different. The boots belonged to Superintendent John Mallon, head of detectives at Dublin Castle. He was on his way to meet an informer near the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park on the afternoon of 6 May 1882. It was warm, and his feet were sore. When he was met near the eastern entrance to the park by one of his officers who told him not to walk through the Park as he had spotted some well-known Fenians in the area, Mallon succumbed to the offending footwear, and the warning, and headed home instead of going to meet his informant.


Had he strolled on into the Park, however uncomfortably, his presence might have prevented one of the most vicious and notorious murders in Irish history. A short while after Mallon did his about-turn the new chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, a nephew by marriage of prime minister William Gladstone, decided, on his first day in Dublin, to walk from his office in Dublin Castle, to his new lodgings in Phoenix park – today it’s the U.S. Embassy. While en route he was passed by the carriage of his under secretary, the Galwayman Thomas H.Burke, effectively the head of the Irish civil service.Burke was a figure not greatly beloved in his own country at a time of repressive measures during the so-called Land War which had bedeviled the country for the three years.


When Burke recognized the lone walker as the new Chief Secretary he stopped his carriage and offered Cavendish a lift. The Chief Secretary declined and Burke sealed both their fates by offering to walk with him instead. As the two men approached the Viceregal Lodge they were accosted by a group of four men who produced surgical knives and proceeded to attack Burke. When Cavendish intervened to defend his Under Secretary he, in turn, was attacked and murdered. Burke’s killers had no idea of the identity or the importance of the man who had tried to defend their intended target.


The intervention of the new Chief Secretary and his brutal murder undoubtedly elevated the status of the crime and increased the intensity of the subsequent investigation. Later that night notes were posted through the letterboxes of the main Dublin newspapers claiming that the assassinations were the work of a shadowy new organisation, the Irish National Invincibles. This was a small, ruthless covert group that emerged from the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood but which maintained no specific ties with that organization.


The timing of the atrocity could not have been worse. It came a couple of days after an agreement between the British government and the Irish party leadership to end the Land War and almost sabotaged the secret diplomacy that promised to terminate that rancorous conflict.


It took almost a year to apprehend and punish the killers of Cavendish and Burke. Six men were hanged for the crime, including two of the main ringleaders, Joe Brady and Daniel Curley. One of the other masterminds behind the assassination escaped with his life by informing on his colleagues. James Carey was one of a number of informers produced by the Crown in the case against his fellow Invincibles, but his evidence was crucial. Superintendent Mallon had essentially hoodwinked Carey into confessing and turning states evidence. While Brady, Curley and their associates were either hanged or jailed for lengthy terms Carey was freed and given a new identity.


Carey’s freedom, however, was short-lived. He was smuggled out of Ireland destined for South Africa a few weeks after the six Invincible hangings. Recognised on board the ship taking him and his family to their new lives he was shot dead by one Patrick O’Donnell when they reached dry land. O’Donnell, was, in turn, hanged for his own crime.


The Phoenix Park murders took place 131 years ago on this day.