Submitted to the Clan O'More Society by: Michael More
DUNAMASE AND THE O’MORES OF LEIX
Dunamase, long before the castle, which now crowns its summit, was a royal seat, and one of the most important places in the Kingdom of Leinster. It owes its name to a great warrior named Masg, one of the sons of Sedna Siothbach, 44th king of Ireland of the line of Mileadh. This Masg who is the reputed ancestor of the people of Leinster, established himself in Dunamase and fortified the rock. From his time onward it continued to be the chief seat of the territory now known as Laoighis (Leix). At what remote period Masg lived it is now impossible to say: all we know is that in pre-Christian times Dunamase was known to the outside world. Ptolemy, a Greek geographer, who lived about the year 70 A.D., has noted it in his map of Ireland under the name of Dunmas. This map, as many think, was copied from a much older one, so we are at liberty to assume that Dunamase was considered one of the important places of Ireland in very ancient days.
The many changes which Dunamase has undergone, in the course of time, have removed all traces of its ancient history, and very little remains to show that in pagan times it was an important seat. At the foot of the Rock, in a haggard attached to the farm of Mr. L. O’Lalor, a descendant of the great family, whose exploits is the subject of this paper, there was unearthed some years ago a pagan sepulchral chamber containing human remains. There was also discovered in the same spot a cinerary urn, one of the most beautiful in design ever found in Ireland. it is now in the National Museum, Dublin. On one occasion there was found in the vacinity an amber necklace, now also in the National Museum. So far these are the only remains of antiquity discovered, but, according to popular belief, much more would be discovered if the place were excavated.
The kings or chiefs of Laois (Leix) or Dunamase enjoyed many privileges in the Court of the King of Leinster. They:
a) had a right to a sirloin of every beast killed for the table of the King.
b) were the kings chief councilors and treasures.
c) had the honour of distributing his bounty to bands, musicians and other professionals.
There were seven knights of the Royal House of Laoighis, and they collected tribute for him. On his part, the King of Laoighis had to provide and furnish 150 soldiers for the King’s army. To the Kings of Laoighis was allotted the great privilege of leading the armies of Leinster. They were first in the berrna baoghail (gap of danger). Dunamase continued to be the royal seat of the Kings of Laoighis, the descendants of Lughaidh Laoiseach of the O’More line, down to the coming of the Normans.
THE NORMAN INVASION
In 1152, we learn that Diarmuid Mac Morrough, Diarmuid na Ngall, brought Devorgille, wife of O’Rourke of Breifne, to his castle of Dunamase. (This information is still preserved in the traditions of the locality). Diarmuid had to fly the country on account of his many crimes, for all Ireland was leagued against him. He sought the help of Henry II of England to reinstate him to his kingdom. This led to the Norman Invasion. when Diramuid died, he left his kingdom of Leinster to Strongbow, who had married his daughter, Eva. They had one daughter Isabel who married William Marshall. They had five sons and five daughters. Marshall was murdered by his fellow-Normans envious of his vast possessions.
His sons died and his daughters married English Earls among whom the land was divided, with Eva as the youngest daughter, getting Dunamase. They lived on the Rock, which they erected into a manor, a feudal court, where their tenants came to render aid and service. Their daughter Maud, married Robert Mortimer, Lord of Wigmore. Thus, Dunamase passed from the hands of the O’Mores into those of an English Earl. Some of you may be interested to learn that from this marriage sprang the imperial house of Austria and the royal families of England, France, Prussia, Denmark, Holland, and Sardinia. Mortimer fortified Dunamase, but as he preferred to live in England, he employed the Chief of the O’Mores to look after his possessions in Ireland.
There are many references in the State papers of this period to Dunamase, but as they relate to Anglonorman succession only, they have not great interest in us.
In the war between the Geraldines and the Red Earl of Ulster, great havoc was wrought throughout the country. In the reprisals which followed, Maurice Fitzgerald, son of the more famous Maurice, took John de Cogan and Theobald Butler from the sanctuary of Castledermot Church and imprisoned them in the dungeons of Dunamase. From this it would appear that Dunamase was then in the hands of the Geraldines in 1264.
THE IRISH REVIVAL
Dunamase must have played no small part in the Bruce Invasion, for Sir Roger Mortimer, its then lord and master, acted as Deputy for the English King. In the large army, which he gathered to oppose the Bruce, there must have been many nobles of the O’More family. As a result of the Bruce invasion, many Irish families, among them the O’Mores and the O’Connors, threw off their allegiance to the English Crown and harassed the Pale.
In 1325, Laoiseach O’More, who acted for the absent Mortimer as his captain of war in Laoighis, seized the castle of Dunamase and recovered for his family all the lands held by his ancestors, viz., all that extent of country lying between the Barrow and the Nore, and extending westwards towards the Slieve Bloom mountains, and portions of the present Counties of Kildare and Kilkenny.
Laoiseach was a powerful and wealthy prince, and he was a man held in much esteem by his own people. At 1342 he was killed by one of his own retainers. O’Mores were attacked from all sides by the indignant Normans, but despite a protracted and exhausting war, they maintained their independence for the next two centuries. After Laoiseach’s death, Mortiner recovered procession of Dunamase. He fortified it strongly and made it his chief residence. The more firmly to secure it, he build other castles in the vacinity to replace those destroyed by Laoiseach. From now on, Dunamase was for many years the seat of the English civil and military jurisdiction.
Though Dunamase had passed from their hands for the time being, the O’Mores were not inactive. They harassed the Pale on all occasions, so much so that in 1358, according to the annuals of Ulster, a large force marched from Dublin to invade and lay waste Laoighis. It was defeated by the then chief, and many English fell on the field of battle. In conjunction with Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, the O’Mores ravaged and laid waste the town and county of Carlow. In 1404, Gillapatrick O’More, Lord of Laoighis, defeated the English at Ath Dubh-now Blackford-a few miles from Stradbally, and took great spoil in horses, clothing and arms. In 1421, they defeated the Earl of Ormond at Old Abbyleix. On this occasion, the defeated enemy sought sanctuary in the Cistercian monastery. To avenge this defeat, the Lord Lieutenant invaded Laoighis, and defeated the O’Mores at Red Bog of Athy, and laid waste their territory. The O’Mores had to sue for peace.
About 1444, the O’Mores adopted the English system of primogeniture. The system of tanistry had its faults, the chief being that it led in those turbulent times to quarrels over the right of succession. Malachy O’More appears to have been the chief ruler of Laoighis in those days. His tomb may still be seen in the old Cistercian monastery of Abbyleix, which was build and endowed by his family.
In 1480, Gerald More, Earl of Kildare, invaded Laoighis to punish the O’Mores for their depredations on the Pale. In 1513, the Great Earl was wounded by one of the O’Mores and died as a result of his would in Ley Castle. In the following year, Gerald Og, Earl of Kildare, defeated the O’Mores in their own territory. To avenge this defeat, the O’Mores slew the son of the Earl and many others some time after.
At the beginning of the reign of Queen Mary, they attacked the English colonists planted by Bellingham, and put man, woman and child to the sword; they razed the castles of the Pale and burned everything right to the gates of Dublin. This was too much for the English. They made a more determined attempt to quell the unruly O’Mores. In 1556, orders were issued for the plantation and settlement of Laoighis as an English colony. The country was divided between the English and the Irish. The O’Mores were allotted the country beyond the bog, viz., the western portion of the county. They were to hold this territory from the Fort of Protector of the Port of Laoighis, afterwards called Maryborough. Each chief was held responsible for the conduct of his followers, and he had to supply a list of his retainers to the English Authorities. All were subject to English Law: their children were to learn to speak English. The colonists had to build a church in each town to provide a garrison for Fort Protector.
These colonists, greedy for the lands to which they had no right and, I am sorry to say, with the connivance of the government, practiced the greatest treachery on the O’Mores. Conal Og O’More, Chief of his name, who had been promised a patent, was betrayed into the hands of the English by his father-in-law, Viscount Montgarret and executed as a rebel without trial. Donal O’More, Lord of Slievemargy, was treacherously slain. The O’Mores, driven to rebellion by the savage treatment they ensured at the hands of the colonists, were subdued by the Lord Deputy Sussex. Their lands were forfeited and declared shire-land, and called Queen’s County. Sussex was empowered to grant estates to whom he wished. Though subdued, they were not beaten. In 1557 they over-ran the territory form which they had been driven and burned everything except the Forts of Port Laoighis and Dainan. The same year, they again attacked but failed to take the Fort of Laoighis. The Lord Deputy complained at that period that the O’Mores and O’Connors cost the crown 100,000 pounds, a large sum of money in those days.
We now come to the greatest act of treachery recorded - when Sir Francis Cosby invited the Chiefs of Leix to a conference at Mullaghmast. They unwisely accepted. As they arrived, they were set upon and butchered in cold blood. One hundred and eighty members of the O’More family alone fell in this awful holocaust. Other noble families such as the O’Connors and the O’Carrolls suffered too. According to the local tradition, one man alone escaped - Henry O’Lalor, of the O’Lalor’s Castle - now Pigott’s Castle in the Dysart Hills. He arrived late. Suspecting treachery, he drew his sword and being set up he fought his way to safety. This man is still known in folk lore as Con of the Race Conn an Reata, and it is said that the Conroys of Leix are descended from him. I have heard very old people pronounce the name Conroy as Conrahy. Conreithe or Conraithe is then the proper form of the name for Leix, and this is borne out by Fr. Woulf, who gives this form for Leix and Offaly.
You are all familiar with the story of Mullaghmast, but some of you may not have heard the story of O’Lalor’s castle, so closely connected with that of Mullaghmast. During the absence of O’Lalor, viz., Con of the Race, the English surprised his castle and put its inhabitants to the sword. They hanged O’Lalor’s young wife from the postern gate, and from her long flowing hair they hanged her innocent child.
Those were dreadful days for the man of Leix. From now on they were mercilessly hunted down by bloody tyrants such as Cosby, whose chief delight was to hand men, women and children by the dozens from an elm tree in front of his front door in Stradbally. Driven to the hills and fastnesses of the country, they attacked their oppressors as opportunity offered, and laid waste their lands. In all during that period, the O’Mores rose in rebellion at least eighteen times. It may be remarked here that some of the O’More family adopted the new religion, and followed English ways. They did this in order to conserve their parsimonious. Among one of the first to conform was Rory Ceach O’More, chief of his name, who not only held his lands from the English crown, but renounced his claim and title to the castle and the lordship of Dunamase. The Protestant O’Mores never held in popular esteem the same place as the Catholic O’Mores who sacrificed so much for faith and fatherland. They are still spoken of as the King’s O’Mores.
During the wars of O’Neill and O’Donnell, which ended so disastrously for Ireland at the Battle of Kinsale, we find the O’Mores again active. Owney Mac Rory O’More, a foster-son of Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne, took the field, and in a short time had won back his ancestral estates, among which, we may conclude, was the fortress of Dunamase. He restored the laws and customs of his people. He was an ally of the northern chiefs. In 1596, Owney demanded a free passage through Stradbally from the Cosbys. They refused. A battle took place at the bridge, and Alexander Cosby, the son of Sir Francis, and his son as well and many of his retainers were killed. In 1599, he laid siege to Maryborough, and cut off the town so completely that the garrison was on the point of starvation. Essex, who had been sent from England with a large force to quell the Ulster chiefs, hastened to its relief. Owney encountered the Earl at the confines of his territory at Ath Dubh, or Blackford, but withdrew on account of the superior numbers of the enemy. Essex relieved the garrison at Maryborough. On his way there, he must have passed the castle crag of Dunamase, but he made no attempt to take it. Having relieved the garrison, he continued southwards towards Kilkenny by way of Cosby Duff, Kilcolmanbane, Ballybroken and Pase. Pass, as its name implies, is a natural description of the ground. It was then thickly forested by oak woods with an undergrowth of Hazel. Here, Owney stationed 500 men and forty horse, and prepared to ambush the oncoming enemy. Though Essex had taken precautions to safeguard his forces, they were taken by surprise and thrown into confusion. From the great number of enemy slain and the vast number of plumed helmets left on the field of battle, it is since known as Bearna na gCleti, or the Pass of the Plumes.
Owney was a thorn in the side of the English who determined to entrap him. The Governor of Maryborough persuaded a man who had access to the Irish camp to induce Owney to enter the fort by a secret door which he would open for them. Some of Owney’s men were butchered, for the secret door led to a trap. Fortunately, Owney was not among them. Some time later, re repaid the English for this act of treachery. He surprised a foraging party from the fort and cut it to pieces.
Owney had the honor of shaking the whole English institution in Ireland to its foundations. When it became known that he had captured the Earl of Ormond, the greatest consternation prevailed. There are various accounts of the incident, but we shall be content with that of the Four Masters, who state that at a conference in Ballyregget between Owney and the Earl, the argument rose to such a pitch that one of Owney’s men placed his hand on the Earl’s bridle, whereupon swords were drawn, and the Irish took the Earl prisoner. Owney would release his prisoner only on the condition that the English should withdraw from Leix. The English naturally refused these conditions and the Earl remained a prisoner. As his health bad much deteriorated during his captivity, and his life was more important than his death for Owney’s plans, he released him on condition that he should pay a ransom of 3,000 pounds.
Mountjoy, who was then Lord Deputy, determined to subdue the O’Mores by famine. He entered Leix, and the seythes and harrows, he destroyed the ripe and unripe crops. Leix was then, according to an English chronicler, well filled and thickly populated. Owney protested indignantly to the Earl of Ormond against this barbarous act of Mountjoy and threatened: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it will go hard, but I will better the instruction.” Owney attacked Mountjoy again and again. In one of these encounters, he fell mortally wounded.
“After the fall of Owney,” says the Annuals of the Four Masters, “Leix was seized by the English; and they proceeded to repair their mansions of lime and stone, and settle in the old seats of the race of Copal Cearnach, to whom Leix was the hereditary principality, for there was no heir worthy of it like Owney to defend it against them.”
After the death of Owney, many of the O’Mores migrated to Kerry and Connaught, and settled on estates provided for them by Patrick Cosby, who of course, fell in for most of the lands in Leix. There is mention of a Ballte of Aughnahilla at this time, but I can find no account of it except in the historical notes of Leix published in the “Leinster Express,” and in a manuscript at present in the possession of the Cosby Family, Stradbally Hall. According to this journal, a pitched battle took place there, as the result of a challenge issued to Owney O’More by Cosby. Seventeen of the chief leaders of the O’Mores fell in that battle; the rest agreed at the conference in Cullenagh to acknowledge Cosby as their overlord and settle on his estates in Kerry. The battle is supposed to have taken place in 1601. Owney died in 1600, and was succeeded by Owney Mac Shane. Perhaps it was this Owney who is referred to. The conference between the O’Mores and Cosby did take place at Muillean Ui Leatlobair, or Lawlor’s Mills. This Cosby was commissioned by the English government, who gave him every assistance to remove the O’Mores from Leix. About this time, Chichester wrote that what was left of the O’Mores “should be transported to England and put to some occupation where they might forget their fierceness and their pride.” In 1610, the governor and sheriff of Leix seized the castles, and property of those who remained, and issued an order to hand every man, woman and child of the name found in their ancient principality.
THE REBELLION OF 1641
The prime mover in the rebellion of 1641 was Roger or Rory O’More, a descendant of the princely house of Dunamase. He came from that branch of the family which had settled in Ballina, in the County of Kildare, now represented by O’More-O’Farrels. He was a brave and courteous gentleman, esteemed by all. Though educated in Spain, he spoke Irish and English with equal fluency and was a noted orator. He was connected by birth and marriage, not only with the chieftains of Leix but with the great houses of Ormond and Kildare. He one object in life was to raise his downtrodden countrymen from the degradation and serfdom into which they had sunk. He, in conjunction with some others, drew up a list of graces or concessions to be granted to his fellow Catholics on payment of a certain fixed sum of money. When those graces, though paid for, were not granted, he organized the Rebellion of 1641. The plans for the rebellion, unfortunately, were betrayed, and Rory escaped with difficulty. However, the rebellion broke out, chiefly in the North under Sir Phelin O’Neill, but it soon spread throughout the whole country. Rory succeeded in inducing the Catholic Anglo-Irish nobility to join forces with their fellow countrymen. The Confederation of Kilkenny, a Parliament representative of all Catholic interests in Ireland, was formed, and it ruled practically the whole country for the next six years.
I do not intend to give you an account of the Confederate Wars; I shall refer to them only in so far as they relate to this immediate district and to Dunamase. In 1642, the town and Fort of Maryborough and the Fortress of Dunamase were taken by the Confederate forces, but were retaken a short time afterwards by the Loyalists under Ormond, who held them for a year or two. When Ormond was forced to retreat, Dunamase fell into the hands of General Preston. In 1646, the famous Owen Roe O’Neill, who commanded the Old Irish, made Dunamase his headquarters. Owing to dissensions in the Confederate ranks, John Baptist Rinnucini, Archbishop of Fermo, the Paper Legate, left Kilkenny, and sought the protection of his friend, Owen Ruadh. He took up residence in Kilkenny Castle, not far from Dunamase, where he issued a Bull of Excommunication against all those who had signed a treaty of peace with Ormond and the loyalists forces.
In 1650, Dunamase fell into the hands of Cromwell’s general Hewson, and he blew it up. The hill from which they bombarded the old fortress is still known as Hewson’s hill.
Rory O’More, the noblest scion of the noble race, fought in defense of his country, till the last fortress, Insboffin, and island of the coast of Galway, fell. He escaped to the mainland and died, an outlaw with a price on his head, on the shores of Lough Foyle, in 1656.