‘Dan of the Feathers’

The ruins of Ballycarbery Castle, where Donal MacCarthy grew up.

A look at the legend and reality of Donal ‘of the feathers’ MacCarthy, 
by Chevalier William F.K. Marmion, M.A.

After 400 years this man still lives on the streets of Killarney and surrounds.  Who was this fellow, who became the stuff of legends, and whose life has been mixed between myth and reality?

Even now you’ll hear that he liked his ladies, and will still show up at closing time in one of the Killarney pubs; that he was the last king of Desmond; that he also can be seen walking on the lakes on misty nights with his dog Kiegan; that he built Muckross Abbey, and that’s why there’s a ‘Dan the Feathers Walk’; and that he had a whole industry going making ‘feather’ beds from the helmets of English soldiers.

Dan of the Feathers is a figure of local folklore in Kerry, rumoured still to show up in Killarney pubs

In his lifetime the only real nickname he had was ‘The Robin Hood of Munster’. ‘Dan the Feathers’ came to him later, from his victory at a May 1599 battle against a vastly superior English force. That was ‘The Fight at the Gap of the Feathers’ (also translated from Irish as the ‘Pass of the Plumes’) and took place in County Laois. His real name was Donal MacCarthy, and he was an illegitimate son of the last reigning king of Desmond, also a Donal, who died in 1596.

Donal MacCarthy was the last, though illegitimate, son of the last undisputed MacCarthy Mor Chieftain

Donal/Dan was born about 1550-55, the oldest and favourite of the illegitimate children fathered by MacCarthy Mor. ‘Dan’ was raised near or in the MacCarthy Mor Ballycarbery Castle, in the wilds of Iveragh barony. Donal (‘the base son’ as he has been called in history) was totally familiar with the hidden places and bogs of Iveragh; he always avoided capture and would ‘disappear’ after his raids.

He made a profession of attacking English ‘undertakers’, burning them out, sending them packing, and giving the lands back to the Irish – and in particular his kinsmen. earning the title of ‘Robin Hood of Munster’.

He made a profession of attacking English ‘undertakers’, burning them out, sending them packing, and giving the lands back to the Irish – and in particular his kinsmen. Thus how he earned the title of ‘Robin Hood of Munster’. He was active in this role from 1583. The English government knew how he was well-loved by his countrymen and an outstanding leader; and that he had the best right under Irish law to be MacCarthy Mor. They wanted him captured and hung.

Without a legitimate male son and knowing that his lands under English law couldn’t be left to illegitimates, Donal MacCarthy Mor married his only remaining legal child, Ellen, to a MacCarthy prince of the offshoot house of Carbery. This was Florence MacCarthy, whose family had been loyalists during the Desmond Rebellion and were known to Elizabeth I.

Donal IX MacCarthy Mor knew that the Irish title of MacCarthy Mor couldn’t descend in the female line but he hoped that the English government would approve the marriage and his lands would pass to Ellen.  But the English strongly disapproved of the ‘secret’ marriage between Florence and Ellen, and they were both soon locked up in Cork gaol and then Florence sent on to the Tower of London by December of 1588.

But by the 1596 death of MacCarthy Mor, O Neill had ‘proclaimed’ as O Neill and thrown off his English title of Earl of Tyrone. Florence was back in Carbery holding together his people but professing loyalty to the English while pressing for the inheritances of his wife.  ‘Dan the Feathers’ was still in the bogs, and waited.

In the Nine Years War, he competed with Florence MacCarthy to be recognised by Hugh O’Neill as MacCarthy Mor.

He didn’t need to wait long and in early 1598 pronounced himself as MACCARTHY MOR, with clan support excepting Florence! O Neill ‘recognised’ Donal as MacCarthy Mor! Now Donal stopped being the hunted and went on the hunt. In 1599 he won great victories. From the MacCarthy Mor stronghold of Castle Lough, his loyalty to O Neill never wavered. But he didn’t count on the duplicity of Florence MacCarthy.

Things looked bleak for the English, and they promised Florence the lands of his dead father-in-law, in right of his wife, if he would cleanse Munster of Donal! This Florence promised to do. When O Neill came to Munster in March of 1600, Florence (and Donal) and others went to meet him. And out of pressure, O Neill agreed that Florence should be MacCarthy Mor, thus ‘deposing’ Donal contrary to Brehon law.

Florence continued to profess loyalty to both the English and O Neill.  He never fought for O Neill or the Irish cause. In 1601 the English finally shipped him to London for another ‘vacation’. That one was to last 40 years and he lost all. Our man Donal was recognised immediately (again) as MacCarthy Mor. Continuing to fight for the ‘cause’, he was at Kinsale and the final defeat. In the bogs again, he awaited another coming of the Spanish. They didn’t come.

O Neill finally gave up, and the Irish in rebellion began to ‘come in’ and receive pardons. Finally Donal did too. The English respected him for his honour and bravery, and because he didn’t talk with forked tongue. Florence was described by Donal as ‘a counterfeit Englishman’.

Despite his outlaw past, Donal managed to convince the English to grant him some of the MacCarthy lands after the war.

 Donal was able to convince the English to give him the inheritance/appanage specified to him by his father to include Castle Lough where he lived quietly for the rest of his days. Still MacCarthy Mor to all, he was a generous host to his many visitors. He was even ‘legitimised’ by the Pope.

When did ‘Dan of the Feathers’ start walking on the lakes of Killarney, or showing up in the bars? That is best left to you, the readers. In any case, Donal earned a place in history.

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