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.