The MacCarthys and the Nine Years War in Munster. 1595-1603

The Nine Years saw the final conquest of Gaelic Ireland by the Elizabethans. John Dorney looks at how it affected one powerful family – the MacCarthys.

For the background to late 16th century Munster and the MacCarthy clans see here.

For the fortunes of the MacCarthys since the Munster Plantation see here.

The Nine Years War was a convulsion that rocked Ireland from 1595 to 1603. It left an unknown number, but certainly tens of thousands dead. It was also a vital turning point in both the history of Ireland and the MacCarthy clans. The war, which was begun by the Gaelic Lords of Ulster to prevent the intrusion of English government into their territories, rapidly spread to the rest of Ireland and very nearly extinguished the English presence there.

The war was the zenith of Gaelic power but also the final victory for the English in Ireland. For the MacCarthys it presented risks and complicated choices.

However, by the end of the conflict in 1603, all of Ireland was for the first time under the real control of the English government in Dublin. Its close marks a decisive end to the Gaelic order of autonomous, armed,  lordships based on kin groupings. Thus, it could be said, the war was the zenith of Gaelic political conquest but also marked the final victory of the English state in Ireland.

For the MacCarthy clans, lords of what is now Cork and Kerry, the war presented a complicated set of choices and risks. Back the northern rebels and there might just be a chance of removing the English, their interfering officials and rapacious settlers. Back the English and there was a better chance of coming out on the winning side but also the risk of alienating discontented followers. A wrong move at any time could see a rival MacCarthy back the other side and try to wrest the lordship from your grasp.

The two smaller MacCarthy lordships –Carbery and Muskerry, managed more or less to stay out of the conflict but the largest lordship that of MacCarthy Mór, was torn apart by the rivalry between two rival claimants to the lordship – Donal MacCathy –illegitimate son of the late MacCarthy Mór – Florence MacCarthy Reagh, tainiste of Carberry – who was elligible for the position by marriage to the lord’s daughter. The two used both the rebels and the English to further their claims – a policy that ended in partial triumph for one and disaster for the other.

 The Early years of the War 1595-98

Hugh O’Neill

The opening skirmishes of the Nine Years War took place in Ulster in February 1595 with Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, joining his Ulster allies in attacking the English fort on the Blackwater river. In May of that year he ambushed and mauled an English column at Clontibret in Monaghan.[1]

On July the 8th, Florence MacCarthy, who was, at the time lobbying in London, wrote to Robert Cecil, advertising the fact that his younger brother (Dermot Moyle) had been sent with 3-400 men to serve against the rebels with the Lord President[2]. He voiced the opinion to Cecil that Tyrone would probably accept terms of a settlement but, ‘[Hugh] O’Donnell and the rest of those fools are grown into such extreme pride and folly by reason that they have neither wit, knowledge or experience to judge or weight Her Majesty’s power that they stand upon great terms’.[3]

He added that he did not know O’Neill, but did know O’Donnell and could negotiate with him to, ‘bring him to some good conformity’. The two had met in prison in Dublin in 1588, O’Donnell having been arrested the previous year and Florence being held there en route to the Tower of London. Also, he offered to use his kinsmen in Spain to learn the intentions of the Spaniards with regard to Ireland[4].

But there was another aspirant lord of the MacCarthys. Early in 1598, Donal MacCarthy, the late MacCarthy Mor’s illegitiimate son, took in 500 bonnaght mercenaries from the rebels and proclaimed himself MacCarthy Mór, thus upping the stakes in the inheritance dispute[5].

In 1598 Donal MacCarthy was recognised by the rebels as MacCarthy Mór. Florence offered the English to ‘recover my people freinds and followers’, if they would back his claim.

Florence MacCarthy wrote to London that Donal had ‘a kind of superiority’ over the people of south Munster by virtue of being MacCarthy Mór.[6] But if he (Florence) was overlord of the area, he could command all the MacCarthy septs including Muskerry, Dowalla and Clan MacDonnell and could ‘recover’ those of his ‘people, friends and followers’ who were in rebellion. [7]

The situation throughout Ireland was transformed on the 14th of August 1598, when the Ulster confederates all but wiped out an English army under Bagenal at the battle of the Yellow Ford, making the rebels, temporarily, the strongest force in the country. It was not long before the war came to Munster.

In October 1598, Hugh O’Neill sent mercenary contingents totalling about 3,000 men to Munster under Captain Tirell. William Weever, an English official, reported that O’Neill promised to restore all the Irish lords to their lands, ‘before English government’.[8]

O’Neill’s forces on their way south, ‘burnt and spoiled the most part of the country towns and villages in the county of Limerick’ and overturned the Munster Plantation almost without a fight. Ormonde complained to the Queen that the English undertakers had ‘most shamefully forsaken’ their castles and estates and fled to the towns for safety.[9] The Annals of the Four Masters record that,

‘As the country was left in the power of the Irish on this occasion … in the course of seventeen days they left not, within the length or breadth of the country of the Geraldines … which the Saxons had well cultivated and filled with habitations and various wealth, a single son of a Saxon whom they did not either kill or expel.’[10]

Of the Irish lords, only a handful, Barry, Muskerry, MacCarthy Reagh (Donal na Pipi) and FitzEdmunde remained loyal to the English.[11] Even if the lords tried to stay out of the rebellion, their followers did not; ‘the most part of the followers of the said noblemen and gentry went to the enemy’.[12]

O’Neill’s raiders offered the Earldom of Desmond to James Fitzthomas Fitzgerald on the authority of O’Neill while Donal MacCarthy was also proclaimed MacCarthy Mór. Not everyone accepted the imposition though. O’Sullivan Mór, MacCarthy Mor’s principle úir-rí or sub-lord, refused to give him the Rod, as he was allied to Florence MacCarthy[13].

Ormonde wrote that on the attack on the rebels, the Undertakers in Munster, ‘have most shamefully forsaken their castle and estates’ and fled to the towns.

For the rival MacCarthys, there were really two wars afoot. One was the nationwide conflict between the English and the Ulster confederation led by Hugh O’Neill. A war with the sovereignty of Ireland, religious supremecy and cultural identity at stake. The other, closer to home and much more pressing, was who would be MacCarthy Mor. Donal had played his hand by siding with the rebels, so Florence now pressed home his claim with the English – appealing for support in order to resist Donal, ‘the Earl’s bastard’.

Playing both sides

The English authorities were not blind to the risks of their new strategy. Florence had been granted Desmond because, ‘the country is so far out as is already, and the lands he claimed possessed by rebels’, that Queen Elizabeth I had decided to have him, ‘assist her service…, [rather] than to make him desperate’. The grant of land and title was to be revoked if; his arrival, ‘may be dangerous to our service’, his position, ‘gives him too great a greatness hereafter’, or if his authority ‘does abridge ye superiority over other Lords’.[14] He should also be officially given the title MacCarthy Mór, ‘which the bastard Donal do now usurp., withholding thereby the country…to the end that he [Florence] might…induce the country people to forsake the rebels’.[15]

Irish ‘gallowglass’ mercenaries.

Florence MacCarthy used English funds to hire 5-600 mercenaries from Connacht[16] and met the rebels, purportedly to ‘parle’ with them on the government’s behalf. He was escorted to their camp. at Dowalla by Tirell and Pierce óg De Lacy of Limerick. ‘When I came, it passes how joyful they all were of my coming; only they misliked my mine English attire; but [they disliked] much more my piercing speeches on Her Majesty’s behalf, and against their foolish, senseless and damned action, to the undoing of themselves and all near them’.[17]

The following morning, Florence asked them to stop. backing ‘base Donal’ against him, and hand over ‘his country’ (Desmond)  which they agreed to as long as he joined them. However, Florence refused and left the camp.[18]

Florence MacCarthy told the English that ‘the people of the country’ were ‘almost altogether for me’. But this was not necessarily as a result of persuasion. According to the testimony of a local man named John Annias, Florence had been terrorising the subordinate lords into recognising him as MacCarthy Mór. Stafford quotes him as saying that Florence instructed the his sub-lords to proclaim him MacCarthy Mór and sent his troops to plunder those who did not.[19]

Hugh O’Neill comes to Munster


In January 1600, The Four Masters tell us that,  Hugh O’Neill, ‘proceeded to the south of Ireland, to confirm his friendship with his allies in the war, and to wreak his vengeance upon his enemies’.[20]

In January 1600, Hugh O’Neill, ‘proceeded to the south of Ireland, to confirm his friendship with his allies in the war, and to wreak his vengeance upon his enemies’

Most of the Irish lords submitted to O’Neill, with the exception of Barry.  whose territory O’Neill made an example of and, ‘traversed, plundered, and burned from one extremity to the other, …so that no one hoped or expected that it could be inhabited for a long time afterwards’.[21]

The Four Masters recorded that all the MacCarthys came to O’Neill’s camp., including ‘two who were at strife with each other concerning the Lordship of Desmond, namely, the son of MacCarthy Reagh, i.e. Fineen [Florence], the son of Donough, … and MacCarthy Mór, i.e. Donal, son of Donal’.[22]

O’Neill still recognised Donal as MacCarthy Mór at this stage. But Florence, who had built up his military strength over the previous year, succeeded in getting O’Neill to switch his backing to him. Donal MacCarthy, allegedly fumed that Florence was, ‘a damn counterfeited Englishman whose only study and practise was to deceive and betray all the Irishmen of Ireland’.[23] But O’Neill was a hard, practical man and simply chose the stronger, better-supported candidate.

According to Stafford in Pacata Hibernia, Florence, ‘was sworn on a mass book to be true to Tyrone and prosecute all hostility and cruel war against the English’[24]. Owen O’Sullivan testified to Carew on March 21st 1600 that he had heard Florence say at this time that, ‘he had almost as willingly die, as come under English government and persuaded all those he spoke with to be obstinate in action, telling them how long Ireland had been tyrannically governed by Englishmen’.[25]

This may be true, and Florence, who had already been imprisoned without charge in the Tower of London, may even have meant it. As events would show though, Florence was fighting primarily neither the rebels nor the English, but Donal MacCarthy and was willing to use both sides to this end.

In one sense at least, Florence was a committed rebel, and that was because he was determined to be MacCarthy Mór, complete with the traditional powers of that title,  a title that the English were determined to sweep away. Even if he had survived the Nine Years War, therefore, Florence may not have found a place for himself in English governed Munster. It is therefore possible, perhaps likely, that he favoured a rebel victory.

In justifying himself to Carew and Cecil later that year, Florence would claim that he co-operated with the rebels only to prevent the destruction of Carberry and himself at their hands[26]. Florence also alleged that he had been forced to deal with O’Neill by the captains of his soldiers, who, ‘grew into an uproar, mutinying against me and alleging me to be an infidel and a betrayer of themselves and all the rest of Ireland to Englishmen’[27] This is possible, as it fits with contemporary English reports that all the followers, even of loyal lords, had taken the rebel side.

The truth of Florence’s dealings with O’Neill soon reached the English authorities. The Bishop of Cork and the Government of Munster wrote to London  that O’Neill was on his way home, ‘having made Florence MacCarthy the governor of our province and given him the title of MacCarthy Mór’. He had also left 1,000 mercenaries with Florence under the command of Dermot O’Connor of Connacht [28]

The Lords Justice remarked ruefully, ‘we that have known him longest did never look for other fruits of this Spanish heart’[29]. The Bishop of Cork wrote, ‘Tyrone…hath deputed …Florence MacCarthy his MacCarthy Mór, the chief commander over the Irishry; and James Fitzthomas his Earl of Desmond over the English-Irish rebels’.[30]

Florence MacCarthy and military campaigns in Munster.

In March 1600, Florence MacCarthy’s lands were raided by English troops, who fought a bloody action with his forces


On the 27th  of March, Florence met Herbert Power and other English officials two miles outside Cork to explain himself. Evidently, the beleaguered Herbert Power, since the death of Warham St Leger in a skirmish with the rebels, alone as commissioner for Munster, was not impressed by Florence’s explanations, or mollified by the ambiguities of his position. All he knew was that the most powerful native lord in Munster had pledged his allegiance to the ‘arch-traitor’ Tyrone.

As a result, he sent a punitive expedition of 1200 English foot-soldiers, and 100 cavalrymen[31], into Carberry under the command of a Captain Flower, with orders to, ‘burn and spoil such as were revolted from their loyalty’[32]. On crossing the Bandon river into Florence’s country, the English met with ‘a light skirmish’ with a party of Florence’s men, and killed 12.[33]

Flower’s men marched for a week through the lands of Florence MacCarthy and his followers, leaving  a trail of devastation and death in their path; “we burned all those parts and had the killing of many of their churles and poor people, leaving not one grain of corn within ten miles of our way wherever we marched and took 500 cows which I caused to be drowned and killed’[34].  War was made brutally in late 16th century Ireland. According to Florence, ‘They [the English] did nothing but burn two castles of mine and kill as many men women and children as they found in them, and burned as many villages, houses and corn as appertained to any of my people’[35].

At this point, Flower got word that he was being tracked by Florence MacCarthy and Dermot O’Connor with1,800 men, and turned back towards Cork city. Flower left 250 men at Kinsale before marching back towards Cork, however, at a bridge over the Bandon, they fell into a carefully prepared ambush laid by Florence and Dermot O’Connor. [36]

The English party were not far from the bridge when they noticed the sun reflecting off something shiny. As they got closer they made out the helmets of the Irish, lying in ambush and the column halted in dissaray. Having been discovered, Florence’s men charged and the English foot-soldiers fled in disorder to a nearby ruined castle, leaving the horsemen to fend off the pursuing Irish.

As they approached the castle, MacCarthy’s men took a volley of musketry at close range from the English foot at the walls, which was enough to halt their rush and cause them to retire in disorder. They were pursued for over a mile by the English horse.[37]. Flower reported the Irish casualties as 137 dead including eight ‘captains’ and 37 ‘sore wounded’ of whom 16 died later. He listed one lieutenant and 9 soldiers killed on his side with 16 hurt (including himself).[38] Another English eyewitness, Cuffe, thought that around 70 English soldiers had been killed[39], while Florence wrote that English casualties were ‘over 100’.[40] Of Florence’s followers, one important chieftain, O’Connor Carberry, died in the fight.[41]

Florence MacCarthy’s engagement with the English near Bandon did not mean that he was formally joining the rebels, however. It was merely a case of self defence.


George Carew

Shortly after the skirmish, George Carew – a tough military veteran of warfare in Ireland – arrived to become President of Munster. He reported, ‘I do find that the confusion and distemper thereof hath not been greater than it now is, since the first beginning of these troubles’. There were 7,000 ‘able weaponed men’ in rebellion.

The only loyal lord was Barry, who could not maintain a force since O’Neill had spoiled his country, all the rest being either in rebellion or complicit with kinsmen who were. Florence MacCarthy was the greatest threat because of the military potential of the MacCarthy clan.[42]

Of his own 3000 troops, Carew reported that 600 were wounded or sick, and a further 700 manning garrisons. This left only 1700 for a field army, enough to send against either ‘MacThomas’ or Florence, but not against both. Carew would have attacked Fitzthomas if, ‘that idiot Florence did not hold me to attend his pleasure, whether he will turn subject or persevere traitor as he now is’.[43]

Carew judged that if Florence was a ‘traitor’, as he suspected, ‘then he is beyond recovery, but if it be no more than he pretends, which is parleying … with Tyrone to save his country from spoil and fighting against Her Majesty’s forces between Kinsale and Cork’, then he could yet be useful. ‘Florence himself is by nature a coward and as much addicted to his ease as any man living and therefore unmet to be a rebel’. It was best to, ‘permit him to be neutral which I suppose he chiefly desires; being all times ready to join the Spaniards if they come, or return to be a subject if the rebels prevail not’.[44]

George Carew, President of Munster, resolved to allow Florence MacCarthy to be neutral and to concentrate on fighting James Fitzthomas, leader of the Munster rebels.

Carew was correct in his assement. Florence in fact wrote to him the following day asking to be allowed to remain neutral, because if he went over to the English, his soldiers would abandon him and install Donal or Dermot MacOwen as MacCarthy Mór.[45]

When Carew and MacCarthy met the following month, neutrality was therefore the best that Carew could make Florence promise. ‘I have from him, Carew reported, “as much as I desire, which is to have no cause to employ any part of Her Majesty’s forces against him’, and could concentrate on Fitzthomas.‘And when that work is finished, a few days will serve to humble Florence and teach him submissive entreaties and to forget to capitulate for land or title or charge’.[46]

Carew’s hope for Florence’s neutrality rested on, ‘his extreme cowardice and the small account he makes of the Romish priests, railing at them openly in the hearing of all men’.[47] He also planned to ‘erect’ Donal MacCarthy to ‘yoke’ Florence, whom he did not expect to keep his promises, ‘cowards are faithless and so I think I will find him’[48].

But if Florence was ‘faithless’ with Carew, he was equally so with the rebels. Fitzthomas wrote to him on May 17 asking him to attack Carew’s troops from the rear when they marched to Limerick.[49] Instead of attacking Carew however, Florence made excuses and stayed put. Fitzthomas sent his supposed ally an angry letter in June, telling him that he had discovered, through informants and an intercepted letter, that there was, ‘a cessation’ between Florence and the English. ‘If this is true, it is far contrary to that I hoped and much beyond the confidence reposed by O’Neill and myself in your vowed fidelity and service to God and our action’.[50]

Carew had begun his counter offensive in Munster and, before taking to the field himself, tried several underhanded means to kill or capture Fitzthomas, conspiring with the mercenary leader Dermot O’Connor to capture him. O’Connor, who was landless, was offered estates in his native Connacht to betray his patron. He kidnapped Fitzthomas and held him in castle Lishin until he was rescued by the rebels as Carew was marching to arrest him.[51]

Carew swept through Munster in the summer of 1600, breaking up concentrations of rebel forces, taking castles and spoiling their lands. Florence MacCarthy, who was appealed to by both sides for help, did nothing more than write evasive letters to both the rebels and the Lord President.

By September 1600, the war in Munster had tilted decidedly in Carews favour[52]. It was therefore in a state of desperation that Fitzthomas wrote to Florence on the 2nd of September, appealing to Florence for help, appealing to ‘your vow to God and this action, and defence of your own right’.[53] He argued that it was futile for Florence to expect fair treatment from the English, ‘you know the ancient and general malice that… they bear to all of Irish birth, and much they rave at present, so it is very bootless for any of us to seek their favours or countenance, which were but a means to work our total subversion’.

But Florence was even less likely to openly fight Carew now that he was in the ascendancy.

His only military action at this time was to burn castle Killorglin in Kerry and waste the countryside around to prevent it being garrisoned by Charles Wilmott, who commanded the English Tralee garrison.[54]

‘A bloodhound of his own country birth’

The broader war, of the English against the allies of Hugh O’Neill, was beginning to tilt in the favour of the English. At the same time, the English switched sides in the internal dispute among the MacCarthys in order to curb the power of Florence MacCarthy.

‘I have gotten a good bloodhound of his country birth to hunt him, out of the natural malice they bear him, and make no doubt but to send to the Queen his head for a present, except he do presently submit himself’: George Carew on recruiting Donal MacCarthy to fight Florence MacCarthy

Florence, in early August, reported to Carew that ‘Donal the bastard’, who was still in rebellion, had approached Fitzthomas, appealing to be allowed some land, ‘at my hands’ in Desmond. If he did not get it, ‘he takes God as his witness that it is not his fault to go against the holy action’.[55]

Since Fitzthomas would not entertain him, Donal macCarthy tried his luck with the English. On August 30th, he submitted to Carew in order to hunt Florence, in return for which he was promised, ‘some portion of land’.[56] The following month, Carew reported that he had demanded Florence come in to submit immediately or ‘I will prosecute him as a traitor’.[57] ‘I have gotten a good bloodhound of his country birth to hunt him, out of the natural malice they bear him, and make no doubt but to send to the Queen his head for a present, except he do presently submit himself’.[58]

Recruiting Donal was clearly of great importance. He was an alternative figure of authority for the local people and even more importantly, knew the mountainous and inaccessible terrain of Desmond. Florence obviously appreciated this threat, because he immediately submitted himself to Carew at his camp in Mallow, ‘bringing some 40 horse in his company, and himself in the midst of his troop., like the great Turk among his janissaries … like Saul, higher by the head and shoulders than any of his followers’.[59]

Carew was now in a position to dictate terms. He refused to acknowledge Florence’s authority over his dependants and only accepted Florence’s pledge of loyalty as covering himself and his brother Dermot, ‘and those of the Clancarties [sic] dwelling upon the lands which Her Majesty hath granted to him’.[60]. Carew concluded ‘Although I cannot judge his heart less corrupt than before’, his surrender, ‘gives an assured hope for the present establishment of this province, for upon him the rebels did build their last refuge’.[61]

The End of the war in Munster 

The ruins of a MacCarthy castle at Ballycarbery.

It may be that Florence MacCarthy’s strategy all along was to wait for the Spaniards invasion, when he could be sure of the rebel victory and not to be killed or dispossessed beforehand. In any case, he must have realised, after his submission, that Carew did not intend to leave him in place as MacCarthy Mór after the war.

On the 5th of January, MacCarthy wrote to Philip II of Spain, via his agent in Ulster, Donagh MacCormac MacCarthy, offering, ‘his person and lands as well as his vassals and subjects to your Royal service…to receive favour and aid…seeing as there is no other that can and will assist us better against these Heretics in this holy enterprise’.[62] Florence’s signature (MacCarthy Mór) was also found on a letter to the Pope, also signed by O’Neill and Fitzthomas, asking for the renewed excommunication of Elizabeth I.[63]

Letters were also intercepted from Florence to Thomas Og Lacy (who was commanded a castle at Castlemange for Fitzthomas) telling him not to surrender to Carew, as supplies and reinforcements were on the way from Ulster. These letters were sent when Florence was still in Carew’s camp at Mallow[64].

English raiding parties into Carberry and Desmond continued to be robustly opposed by Florence’s men. When in early 1601, Richard Percy, of the garrison at Kinsale, sent 60 men into Florence’s followers the O’Mahon’s country, ‘to get prey of the same’, they were attacked and driven off by, Florence’s brother, Dermot Moyle MacCarthy.[65] Similarly when John Barry, the Sheriff of Cork, ‘made a journey into some of Florence MacCarthy’s lands, presently he was resisted and some of his men were murdered’.[66]

In January 1601, MacCarthy received a letter from O’Neill which sent, ‘our commendations unto you MacCarthy Mór’ and hoped, ‘that you will do a stout and hopeful service against the pagan beast’… ‘our army is to come into Munster and do the will of God’, ‘and since this course of Munster under God was left to yourself, let no weakness or imbecility be left in you, the time of help is near you and all the rest’.[67]

Florence wrote to O’Donnell in February, apparently asking when he could expect the Ulster forces. O’Donnell replied, “we are no less grieved, for that you see us not, than we ourselves’. ‘There was not many in Ireland more of the mind than I, to have gone to visit you, had not strangers neighboured upon my country [a reference to Henry Dowcra’s landing in Derry]’. He promised to ‘send men to you, if they may be had’.[68]

A spy of Barry’s who was present at a rebel council of war in Ulster, reported that MacCormac (Florence’s agent) said that ‘MacCarthy Mór’ advised a Spanish landing in Cork rather than Limerick, because it was easier to take and would force the local lords to take the rebel side.[69]

Florence MacCarthy seems to have been waiting for Spanish landing to commit himself to the rebel cause. He was arrested weeks before they arrived in Kinsale in September 1601.

Not long afterwards, Florence sent a ship from Kinsale to Spain to receive arms and ammunition and wrote to Cahir MacShane Glass O’Mulrian of Leinster to recruit 600 men for his service.[70] One of the last letters Florence received before his arrest was from, ‘Dermutio Cartie’, a priest of the MacCarthy clan in Spain. He warned Florence ahead of the coming Spanish invasion, ‘it will be very necessary to be on your guard and not trust yourself to the English! For if ever again they get you into their hands, never more will you escape from them’.[71] It was prescient advice.

James Fitzthomas, the miserably unsuccessful leader of the rebels in Munster, was finally arrested by Carew in June 1601, having been reduced to hiding in caves with only a handful of retainers. Carew had most probably been waiting until this time to move against Florence and summoned him to Cork. The Four Masters tell us,

 ‘Fineen, son of Donough MacCarthy (who was at this time called MacCarthy Mór), went before the President at Cork; but as soon as he had arrived in the town he was made a prisoner for the Queen; but Fineen began to declare aloud, and without reserve, that he had been taken against the word and protection. This was of no avail to him; for he and James, the son of Thomas, were sent to England in the month of August, and … it was ordered that they be shewn the Tower … from that forward to the time of their deaths, … according to the will of God and of their Sovereign’.[72]

Carew had technically violated the legal protection he had granted to Florence, but the chief secretary, Robert Cecil nevertheless congratulated him[73]. Carew also arrested Florence’s son and several of his kinsmen. Dermot Moyle, Florence’s brother, fled to Ulster, where he joined O’Neill’s forces.[74]

Cecil, who questioned Florence in London, found him, ‘a vain malicious fool’. Florence told the chief secretary that the charges against him, ‘would never be proved’. He also testified that the Spaniards were going to land in Galway, when he almost certainly knew they were headed for Cork.[75]

On the 21st of September, 55 Spanish ships were sighted off Cork, and docked the next day in Kinsale. The Spanish invasion force included several kinsmen and followers of Florence, notably Dermutio the priest, Teig MacCarthy and Cormac MacFinian MacCarthy[76]. ‘Upon their arrival’, according to another witness the Spaniards, ‘specially demanded for Florence MacCarthy’.[77]

Dermot Moyle MacCarthy returned from Ulster, Carew, wrote ‘as yet no other septs…are in rebellion but the Carties and their followers, and the chief among them is Florence’s brother’.[78] Donal “the bastard” also re-joined the rebels, who looked to be on the verge of triumph. However, the battle of Kinsale in December saw a crushing victory for the Lord Lieutenant Mountjoy over the rebels and Spaniards. Dermutio Cartie and another of Florence’s followers, ‘Don Carlos Cartie’ were captured and executed.[79]

Those who had joined the rebels resignedly submitted when Carew regained control of the province. Donal MacCarthy took his band into the mountains of Desmond, but surrendered again to the Lord President shortly afterwards, bringing with him over 5000 head of cattle as tribute[80]. Dermot Moyle MacCarthy fought a guerrilla campaign from the fastnesses of Carberry, but was killed in an obscure cattle raid by some of his own kinsmen in 1602. MacCarthy Reagh took credit, but also buried Dermot ‘in great solemnity’ with his ancestors at the Abbey of Timoley.[81] Carberry was ravaged by several English forces until the end of the war.[82] By the end of the war it was ‘quite wasted’.[83]


The Nine Years War, can be understood as a war of Irish against English, or Catholic against Protestant, but a closer look at clans like the MacCarthys reveals a much more complex picture.

The Nine Years War, can be understood as a war of Irish against English, or Catholic against Protestant, but a closer look at clans like the MacCarthys reveals a much more complex picture.

Chasing away the English planters in Munster was relatively easy for Hugh O’Neill’s forces. The difficult part was forging the highly disparate Gaelic lordships into any kind of unified political force. Florence and Donal MacCarthy, the two rivals for position of MacCarthy Mor, changed sides in the wider conflict depending on which side the other had taken – and of course which side they thought would win. The other two MacCarthy lords, MacCarthy Reagh and Muskerry, did likewise and also took the opportunity to distance themselves from control of the main banch of the dynasty.

At an individual level, for Florence MacCarthy the war led to his utter ruin. He was imprisoned for life, his closest kinsmen were killed and his territory plundered. In the aftermath of the war he would also lose all the land and authority he had gained at the start of it. The Brownes, English soldiers, Donal MacCarthy and even his own  wife were among those re-introduced into his erstwhile countries.  The final forty years of Florence’s life were spent trying to piece back together some of what he had possessed before the war.

To come; Ellen MacCarthy: a Gaelic woman’s experience of the Elizebethan Conquest of Ireland.


[1] G.A. Hayes McCoy,         Irish Battles – A Military History of Ireland, (Belfast 1990),  pp 92-93

[2] Florence to Cecil, July 8 1595, McCarthy, Letter Book, p.138

[3] Florence to Cecil, April 13 1596, McCarthy, Letter Book p. 142.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Florence to Cecil, February 12 1598, McCarthy, Letter Book p.164

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. although he complained that they had already been paid £2000.

[8] Weever to Privy Council, October 1598, McCarthy, Letter Book p.177

[9] Ormonde to Queen Elizabeth, October 1598, McCarthy, Letter Book p.177

[10] Annals of the Four Masters pp 2082-2083

[11] Norreys McCarthy, Letter Book p.167

[12] Weever to Privy Council, October 1598, McCarthy, Letter Book p.177

[13] Weever to Privy Council, October 1598, McCarthy, Letter Book p.177

[14] Cecil to Essex, April 1599, McCarthy, Letter Book p.210.

[15] Ibid.

[16] St Leger and Power to Cecil, 10 December 1599, McCarthy, Letter Book p.212

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Pacata Hibernia, Vol. I, p.286

[20] Annals of the Four Masters p.2147

[21] Ibid. p.2151

[22] Annals of the Four Master, pp2151-2155

[23] Florence to Cecil, August 1602, McCarthy, Letter Book p.361

[24] Pacata Hibernia, Vol. I p.287

[25] Ibid. p.291

[26] Florence to Carew, May 3, 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.270

[27] Florence to Cecil, May 6 1600 McCarthy, Letter Book p.274

[28] Government of Munster to Cecil, March 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.235

[29] Lord Justices to Cecil, March 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.235

[30] Bishop Cork to Cecil, April 2, 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book pp238-240 Florence gave his brother Dermot and his foster brother Finian MacDonnell to O’Neill as hostages but withheld his eldest son.

[31] Pacata Hibernia Vol. I. p.30

[32] Captain Flower,  report on ‘Journey into Rosscarberry’,  April 1, 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book pp 242-243

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Florence to Cecil, May 6, 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.277

[36] Ibid.

[37] Aylmer to Cecil, 21 April 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book pp243-244

[38] Captain Flower,  report on ‘Journey into Rosscarberry’,

[39] Cuffe to Cecil April 23 1600 McCarthy, Letter Book p.244

[40] Florence to Cecil, May 6, 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.277

[41] Pacata Hibernia  Vol. I p. 31

[42] Lord President, Thomond & Council of Munster to Privy Council, April 30, 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book pp259-260


[43] Carew to Cecil, May 2 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book pp262-264

[44] Ibid.

[45] Florence to Carew, May 3, 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.270

[46] Ibid..

[47] Ibid..

[48] Ibid.

[49] Fitzthomas to Florence, 17 May 1600, Pacata Hibernia Vol. I  pp50-51 Fitzthomas calls Florence ‘cousin’ because he was a Geraldine on his mother’s side.

[50] Fitzthomas to Florence, June 1600, Pacata Hibernia, Vol. Ipp63-65

[51] Pacata Hibernia Vol. I pp73-82, McCarthy, Letter Book pp282, 292, Annals of the Four Masters pp2171-2175, . The rebels allowed O’Connor to leave Munster with his men but he was killed on his homeward journey.

[52] Pacata Hibernia Vol. I pp.120-123, Carew to Cecil, 23 September 1600 McCarthy, Letter Book p..310

Carew to Cecil, November 2 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.315, Carew routed Fitzthomas’ forces at Aherlow and reported having, over the summer killed 1200 rebels and taken the surrenders of over 10,000

[53] Fitzthomas to Florence, September 2 1600, Pacata Hibernia pp118-123, .

[54] Pacata Hibernia  Vol. II p. 292

[55] Florence to Carew, August 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.291-292

[56] Carew to Privy Council, August 30 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.308

[57] Carew to Cecil, 17 September 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.310.

[58] Ibid.,

[59] Pacata Hibernia  Vol. IIp.138

[60] Carew to Cecil, November 2 1600, McCarthy, Letter Book p.315

[61] Ibid.

[62] MacCormac to King Philip., 5 January 1601, Pacata Hibernia, Vol. I p.299.

[63] Pacata Hibernia  Vol. I pp.319-312

[64] Pacata Hibernia, Vol. II p.135

[65] Ibid. p.166

[66] Ibid., p.169

[67] O’Neill to Florence, 27 January 1601, (Cal. S.P Ire 1601-1603, p.392) – All Irish letters are translated by Carew.

[68] O’Donnell to Florence, February 1601, Pacata Hibernia, Vol. I p.302

[69] Pacata Hibernia, Vol. II p.281

[70] Ibid. on the intelligence of Henry Dowcra from a spy named ‘’Hugh Boy’.

[71] Dermutio Cartie to Florence, McCarthy, Letter Book p.326

[72] Annals of the Four Masters, p.2263

[73] Cecil to Carew June 29 1601, McCarthy, Letter Book p.338.

[74] Carew to Cecil 13 August 1601, McCarthy, Letter Book p.338

[75] Cecil to Carew September 10 1601, McCarthy, Letter Book p.342

[76] Meade, Mayor of Cork, to Cecil, 23 September 1601, McCarthy, Letter Book p.347

[77] John Dowdal to Cecil, 32 September 1601, McCarthy, Letter Book p.347

[78] Carew to Cecil, 23 December 1601, McCarthy, Letter Book p. 347

[79] Ibid. as was Owen MacEgan, Florence’s priest and main Spanish contact. The battle of Kinsale by the English calendar took place on December 24 1601 but by the Irish and Spanish reckoning, on January 3, 1602.

[80] Pacata Hibernia Vol. III p. 169

[81] Ibid. p.173

[82] Ibid. p.149

[83] Richard Cox, Hibernia Anglicana (London 1689), p.452

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *