Those interested in the history of medieval Gaelic Ireland will be aware of the remarkable resilience of the main ruling Gaelic Irish families. At the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s the ruling royal Gaelic families were McMurrough in Leinster, O'Brien and McCarthy in Munster, O'Connor in Connacht and the O'Neills and McLoughlins in Ulster. By the end of the period of the Gaelic chieftains after the Battle of Kinsale fought in 1601/02 the McMurrough (Kavanaghs), McCarthys, O'Briens, O'Connors and O'Neills were still the dominant families in their home regions. By 1603 however, the McLoughlins, although they still were a recognised noble family and had a chieftain and two castles, had been reduced to a very minor territory stretching along the eastern shore of the Inishowen peninsula from White Castle to Red Castle (their two fortifications). How did this remarkable decline come about?
Basically it was due to an unfavourable location and very bad luck indeed. Before the Anglo-Norman invasion the McLoughlins were based in fertile western Tyrone, with estates in the good lands of Inishowen lying along the shores of Loughs Swilly and Foyle. The McLoughlins also had strong authority over the many families based in the region such as the O'Carolans and McGettigans of Clann Diarmada, the Ó Duibhdhíormas and O'Mulfalls of eastern and western Inishowen and the McGarveys, O'Lappins, O'Donnellys, O'Petans and O'Lavertys of the further fertile lands stretching towards Raphoe and Lifford. Very importantly the McLoughlin kings also had control of the famous monastery at Derry which was a great centre of Irish civilisation in the twelfth-century with famous reforming clerics and major building programmes.
As a result it is no surprise that the family produced two highly successful kings during the twelfth century. The first Donal McLoughlin, who died in the year 1121 was a great warrior. He successfully avoided the attempts made by Muirchertach O'Brien, the king of Munster and great-grandson of Brian Boru, to become effective king of all Ireland. In 1103 McLoughlin even succeeded in humiliating O'Brien by capturing his camp, campaign tent and standard during a surprise attack near Armagh while O'Brien was off campaigning elsewhere.
Donal's grandson Muirchertach McLoughlin was actually high-king of Ireland (with opposition) for the years 1156 to 1166. I had thought that Muirchertach McLoughlin was an evil and needlessly violent high-king but I have revised my opinion of him into a great and highly energetic warrior. Something happened in the year 1166 however and Muirchertach was abandoned by most of his people. He was then killed by forces from Oriel and Breifne who had marched into Tyrone to bring McLoughlin to justice for the crime of having blinded McDunlevy the king of the Ulaid. I think however that Rory O'Connor the king of Connacht and soon to be all powerful high-king of the entire island engineered this revolt against McLoughlin in early 1166 and Muirchertach's violent actions (that were really out of character) were a desperate attempt on his part to save his high-kingship.
Rory O'Connor soon attempted to weaken the Cenél nEógain kingdom by dividing Tyrone in two between the McLoughlin and O'Neill families. The McLoughlins were to have Inishowen and Derry and any other Cenél nEógain lands north of the Sperrin Mountains. The O'Neills were to have Tullaghoge and Armagh and all the Cenél nEógain land to the east. O'Connor's great power was not to last. He proved incapable of dealing with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland and lost the high-kingship of Ireland to King Henry II of England and the Anegevin empire, although he did manage to keep the invaders out of Connacht and the town of Limerick during his lifetime.
The leadership of the Cenél nEógain at this time was taken by an able McLoughlin king called Melaghlin, who was a son of Muirchertach the deceased high-king. In 1176 Melaghlin led the army of Tyrone and their allies to Slane in Meath where his soldiers stormed the castle built by the Anglo-Norman invader Richard Fleming. Fleming and over one hundred of his knights and followers were killed. Indeed the Annals of the Four Masters state 'not one individual escaped with his life from the castle'. Three further Anglo-Norman castles in the region 'were left desolate in Meath on the following day, through fear of the Cenél nEógain'. Melaghlin's army met disaster at the hands of the Anglo-Normans in 1177/78 when the famous John de Courcey inflicted a major defeat on the army of Tyrone at Downpatrick in east Ulster. The Cenél nEógain had put their faith in the holy relics of the north of Ireland when seven major treasures were carried before the northern army. The holy relics were no match for de Courcey's archers however and the Tyrone men were put to flight 'without even striking a blow'. [The Irish were cut down by the Anglo-Norman archers before they even reached the Anglo-Norman battle line]. Melaghlin McLoughlin lost the O'Carolan, O'Laverty, O'Donnelly, O'Hamill and McCartan chieftains in this battle as well as all the 'young keepers' of the relics who 'were killed'. McLoughlin was soon after challenged by Hugh 'an Macaemh Toinleasc' O'Neill for the kingship of Tyrone but managed to kill O'Neill soon afterwards in a battle near Armagh although Melaghlin's own son Ardgal McLoughlin also fell in the fighting. King Melaghlin McLoughlin of Tyrone was 'slain by the foreigners' in 1185 AD.
It was after Melaghlin McLoughlin's death that the unfortunate geographical location of the McLoughlin power-base ultimately led to their decline. Derry and the fertile lowlands around Inishowen while they may have been the jewel in the crown of Tyrone in pre-Anglo-Norman times became an exposed target afterwards. John de Courcey once firmly established east of the Bann in the earldom of Ulster launched a number of destructive raids on the Derry region in the years after 1177. In 1182 the Anglo-Normans of Ulster defeated the Cenél nEógain in a pitched battle at Dunbo and in another fought near Armagh in 1188 where Donal son of Hugh McLoughlin the king of Tyrone was killed.
The series of defeats of the McLoughlin kings by the Anglo-Normans led to turmoil in Tyrone. In 1186 Rory O'Laverty 'was elected by some of the Cenél nEogain' as king of Tyrone, although he was killed soon after in 1187 while raiding in Donegal. This turmoil also led to the rise to major prominence of the O'Neills of eastern Tyrone. The O'Neills were much better placed than the McLoughlins in that they could easily retreat into the forested mountain fastnesses of the Sperrin Mountains to avoid invading Anglo-Norman armies. The family also produced one of the greatest native kings of the era, another Hugh O'Neill, who seems to have invented Irish guerilla warfare against the up-till-then all conquering Anglo-Norman invaders. When an Anglo-Norman army invaded eastern Tyrone O'Neill and his soldiers simply disappeared into the mountains and forests, to emerge and harass the invaders when they had marched far into Tyrone and set up camps that were easy to isolate and attack. As a result O'Neill's power began to grow and spread north of the Sperrins. It seems clear that during this period the important O'Gormley and O'Cahan families began to back the O'Neill family in the struggle with the McLoughlins for supremacy in Tyrone. Indeed in 1196 Muirchertach McLoughlin, the king of Tyrone and another son of the late high-king was assassinated at a meeting of the council of the Cenél nEógain in Armagh by Blosky O'Cahan, a follower of the O'Cahan chieftain and Hugh O'Neill.
Some of the McLoughlins appear to have fled to the Anglo-Normans following this assassination to escape the power of Hugh O'Neill. In 1197 the son of Argal McLoughlin was killed in Clann Diarmada while accompanying one of John de Courcey's raids on Derry. In 1197-98 de Courcey spent extended periods in Derry and may have been seizing up the suitability of the great monastery as the site for an Anglo-Norman town. Hugh O'Neill was by now the dominant power in the region and he saw off the threat from de Courcey who was eventually destroyed by King John of England. By the time of John's campaign in Ireland in 1210 Hugh O'Neill was so powerful that he was able to tell the English king to get lost and to stop asking for hostages from Tyrone. Hugh O'Neill continued to rule as king of Tyrone until his death in the year 1230. In recording this the Annals of the Four Masters made a very complimentary comment that O'Neill died a natural death 'although it was never supposed that he would die in any other way than to fall by the foreigners'.
To lessen O'Neill's power King John granted Derry and the surrounding coastal lands to some Scottish earls who were allied to him. This only served to make Hugh O'Neill even more secure as these lands belonged to his McLoughlin rivals. In 1221 Hugh O'Neill drove out the Scots when he destroyed the castle they had built at Coleraine. With the death of Hugh O'Neill in 1230 the McLoughlins made what was to prove to be their last attempt to secure the kingship of Tyrone and to be fair they gave it a very good go. The family was now led by Donal McLoughlin and he appears to have had the support of the Anglo-Normans of the earldom of Ulster. By 1232 McLoughlin was recognised as king of Tyrone and he began to raid northern Tír Chonaill. In 1234 McLoughlin succeeded in killing Hugh O'Neill's son Donal and in 1239 he defeated a force of O'Neills, O'Gormleys and McMahons at a battle fought at Carnteel near Aughnacloy in Co. Tyrone.
Disaster struck in the year 1241. Readers of my blog and family history are by now familiar with the Battle of Caimeirge, fought near Maghera in Co. Derry this year. What seems to have happened is that McLoughlin made a major effort to finally defeat the O'Neills, now led by Hugh O'Neill's nephew Brian. All went well and the McLoughlins cornered the O'Neills at Maghera. However, possibly unknown to Donal McLoughlin Brian O'Neill had sought assistance from Melaghlin O'Donnell the king of Tír Chonaill who turned up at Caimeirge with the army of Tír Chonaill. This left the McLoughlins and their army hopelessly outnumbered. If the O'Donnells attacked from cover after first letting the McLoughlins and O'Neills fight it out for a while this would explain the catastrophic end result whereby 'Donal McLoughlin, Lord of Cenél nEógain, and ten of his derbhfine (close family), together with all the chieftains of the Cenél nEógain' were slain.
This massive defeat must have killed most of the McLoughlin nobles of fighting age and it was left to their womenfolk to salvage something for the family. This they ably did by marrying Donal McLoughlin's daughter Cecilia to Brian O'Neill. The marriage alliance preserved the power of the McLoughlin family in the Inishowen peninsula at least but their time as contenders for the kingship of Tyrone was over. In 1260 the chieftain Dermot McLoughlin was killed along with Brian O'Neill by the Anglo-Normans at the Battle of Downpatrick. The building of a major Anglo-Norman castle at Newcastle in Inishowen in the year 1305 by the Red Earl of Ulster may have weakened the hold of the McLoughlins over Inishowen but in the 1320s Michael McLoughlin was bishop of Derry and the earldom of Ulster collapsed in 1333 with the murder of the Brown Earl and Newcastle subsequently fell into Irish hands. In the year 1375 the Annals of the Four Masters record the death of John McLoughlin 'Chief of his own tribe' and I believe that up to this time the McLoughlins were still lords of Inishowen. However, from 1380 to the early 1420s there was a powerful Lord of Tír Chonaill, Turlough an Fhiona 'of the wine' O'Donnell. The Annals of the Four Masters record that in 1380 he won 'a great victory' over his O'Donnell rivals, and the O'Doherty and McSweeney families and I believe that during his long reign Turlough an Fhiona forced the O'Dohertys to exchange their Glenswilly homeland for new and greater estates in Inishowen. The McLoughlins were not totally dispossessed and were left in possession of the small area of Lough Foyle coastline that I have previously mentioned.
I hope readers have enjoyed this blog. It is a bit long but it is something that was puzzling me for a long time but now I believe that I have managed to sort the order of events out! This may be my last blog for a while as I now have to think up a new series of interesting topics.
As promised my blog this week is a Christmas themed one about the Norwegian king Magnús Barelegs who spent Christmas 1102 in Munster at the court of the high-king of Ireland Muirchertach O'Brien.
Magnús berfœttr (Magnús Barefoot or Barelegs) was a famous king of Norway around the year 1100 AD. Known for leading aggressive expeditions into the Scottish islands and the Irish Sea he got his nickname because of his fondness for the Irish and Irish culture. As the saga of the Kings of Norway 'Heimskringla' put it: 'when King Magnús returned from his expedition to the west he and many of his men for the most part had the manners and wore the clothes which were customary in the British Islands [Ireland and the Hebrides are intended here]. They went barelegged in the street and had short kirtles and outer garments. Then people called him Magnús Barefoot or Barelegs'.
Magnús was by all accounts an imposing figure. Said to be very tall, he wore a red garment over his coat of mail 'with a lion sewed on front and back with yellow silk'. His shield was also painted red 'on which a lion was embossed in gold', and his sword that had a hilt 'carved of walrus-tooth' and a haft 'wound with gold' had the name 'Legbiter'. As king, Magnús' philosophy was that the Norwegians should wish for a monarch 'for glorious deeds ... not for a long life'. He was well liked by his men 'and in his days there was good peace within the land'. The ordinary people however, considered him 'stern' and believed that they had 'much labour and expense from his expeditions abroad'.
It is indeed for his western expeditions that Magnús Barelegs is best known. He conquered the jarldom of Orkney and the islands of the Hebrides, the monastery of Iona and the Isle of Man. In the year 1098 Magnús led his fleet to the island of Anglesey in north Wales where he killed the Anglo-Norman baron Hugh earl of Shrewsbury in a battle on the beach. According to the Heimskringla Magnús saw the Anglo-Norman earl 'clad in mail from head to foot' riding his horse through the surf. The Norwegian king asked one of his men to join him in firing arrows at the mail clad knight. One arrow struck the earl's visor 'and was deflected to the side'. The other unbelievably went through the viewing slot in the earl's helmet and 'hit the earl's eye and penetrated his head; and that shot was attributed to the king'. On the way home Magnús signed a treaty with the king of Scotland whereby 'King Magnús was to have possession of all the islands west of Scotland separated from the mainland by water so that a ship with fixed rudder could pass between them'. Magnús famously then put one over on the Scots by standing on one of his ships with his hand on the rudder as his men dragged the boat over the short neck of land that joined the Mull of Kintyre to the rest of Scotland!
At this time in Ireland, Muirchertach O'Brien, the great-grandson of Brian Boru was high-king of the island. Muirchertach was a very successful high-king but he could not conquer the north of Ireland from Donal McLoughlin the capable king of Aileach. On his first expedition to the west Magnús of Norway established contact with King Muirchertach and they arranged a marriage alliance, with Magnús' young son Sigurd marrying Muirchertach's young daughter Bjathmynja, who were then put ruling over the Orkneys. When Magnús returned to the Irish Sea in 1102 he 'harried' widely in Ireland and seized 'Dublin and the Shire of Dublin'. Muirchertach O'Brien however, was a wily ruler and he established a good relationship with Magnús of Norway. As a result an invitation to spend Christmas as the court of the high-king at Kincora in Munster was extended to and accepted by the Norwegian king. Heimskringla states that 'King Magnús dwelt in [Munster] with King Myrjartak, putting his men to the defence of the land he had won'. There must have been great Christmas festivities that year at the court of the high-king.
Although the Norwegians regarded the Irish as 'treacherous', Magnús and Muirchertach had a good relationship. According to the Icelandic sagas Muirchertach 'kept all the promises he made to King Magnús'. When the 1103 campaigning season began Muirchertach led a large army north in an attempt to conquer Tyrone. King Magnús 'outfitted his ships' in order to assist his friend the Irish high-king, and sailed north having 'stationed his men in Dublin to guard it'. The northern expedition did not go well for O'Brien however. After an inconclusive stand-off at Armagh, Muirchertach led part of his army further north to raid east of Lough Neagh. Donal McLoughlin took this opportunity to attack the Munster camp on 5 August 1103. In a famous victory McLoughlin defeated the Leinster princes and some men from Munster and Dublin who had been left to guard O'Brien's camp. McLoughlin even captured the high-kings 'royal tent' and standard.
After this disaster that had befallen the high-king's camp, Magnús Barelegs decided to return to Norway. However, he needed provisions for his fleet. As a result he asked his friend Muirchertach to provide the necessary supplies. Honourable in his dealings right to the end, Muirchertach O'Brien sent a supply train of horses to the Norwegian king. Although the dust cloud thrown up by the pack-horses initially frightened the Norwegians, it was O'Brien's men who arrived 'with a great amount of provisions'.
There then occurred something that neither king had foreseen. The Ulaid, the inhabitants of the lands east of Lough Neagh and the River Bann, although allies of Muirchertach O'Brien had a deep hatred of the Vikings. As a result they laid a carefully prepared ambush for Magnús and his men as they made their way back to their ships with their supplies. As the Norwegians crossed over a path through some bogs and a forest, Ulaid warriors 'rushed out upon them from every corner of the woods'. Although King Magnús made every effort to rally his men, some fled and the King was left surrounded by the Ulstermen. Magnús was first wounded by an Irish spear that passed 'through both his thighs above the knee'. He was later killed by an Ulster warrior who gave him a blow of an axe to the neck.
This therefore was the unlucky fate of one of the last Norwegians kings to play an active role in the Irish Sea area. The adventures of Magnús Barelegs in the west are not often remembered today, but he did have a substantial impact on events in Scotland, Wales and Ireland during the five years that he had an interest in the Irish Sea region. It is a pity that there are not substantial accounts of the Christmas festivities when he was at the court of the high-king in December 1102. My next blog will be about the McLoughlin family mentioned here as the adversaries of the O'Brien high-king.
Finally I would like to wish a happy Christmas and new year to my friend the lovely and hard-working Sinéad.