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The Question Of A Bloodline Chief

James F. Cavanaugh - Clann Chief Herald



The notion of Bloodline Chief strums a sour chord indeed these days, what with people claiming to be “THE KAVANAGH”, “THE MACMURROUGH-KAVANAGH”, the “PRINCE OF LEINSTER” and whatever. It is getting to be a song worn ragged and full of flat notes, I’m here to tell you. It has been politic to avoid this issue in the past, but perhaps it is time to venture an explanation as to why the Clann does not take these claims seriously.


In the beginning

Some 900 years ago a king named Dermot MacMurrough begat a son named Donal Cavanagh, who was the first to bear our name.  Donal Mor (senior) begat a son named Donal Og (junior), and they kept on begatting down through the centuries trying to produce good Cavanaghs and Kavanaghs faster than the Normans, and later the English, could kill them off.


Dermot to Art Mor

Now, Ol’ King Dermot MacMurrough had a big problem. Back in 1166 the High King of Ireland Rory O’Connor helped the Prince of Brefne, Tiernan O’Rourke, run Dermot out of Leinster, in fact, out of Ireland. O’Rourke was mad because Dermot MacMurrough had been entangled with his wife, Dervrogilla. Actually, they had been entangled on and off for some 25 years, so you would think O’Rourke would have been used to it by then. But the lad had no sense of humor, and for sure he wasn’t mad because of cold winter nights because he had 6 wives for himself already. But that’s another story for another time.

Dermot was not one to give in easily, so he wandered around Wales checking out the jails, drinking houses and broken down castles until he hired enough good-for-nothings to form a Leinster Liberation Army. These vagabonds included one threadbare disgraced Norman earl, but most of the leaders were illegitimate offspring of a Welsh princess named Nesta. So Dermot hauled this tiny motley army back to Ireland and promptly got his kingdom back, but he didn’t live happily ever after, as these stories are supposed to end. In fact he didn’t live very long at all. It seems that he died under mysterious and suspicious conditions as soon as he had regained his kingdom. The Norman earl, a rather limp spear historians grossly misnamed “Strongbow”, which was actually his father’s sobriquet, tried to take over at that point, and then the troubles began…. and continued for the next 800 years.

Dermot’s brother, Murrough, became king when Dermot died, but the Norman’s did him in rather quickly. Then Donal Mor Cavanagh became king, so three years later Strongbow hired a couple of assassins who struck down Donal from behind during the Battle of Naas in 1175.  Strongbow died the next year appropriately from blood poisoning from a toe hangnail, but Norman greed didn’t die with him. Donal Og Cavanagh, son of Donal Mor, then became king and the Leinster monarchy stayed in the Cavanagh family for the next five hundred years. Donal Og’s son and grandson seemed to survive alright, but in 1182 the next king, Murrough Cavanagh and his brother Art, accepted an English invitation to dinner and found that they were the main course, when the English seized them on arrival and cut their heads off. Murrough’s son, Murtagh Kavanagh, was in his turn also murdered by the English, and so it went until 1355 when Art Mor became king.


Art Mor and Art Og

Art Mor knew that he should never have had to deal with the English, except for a High King with low courage. Right after King Dermot MacMurrough died, the High King, Rory O’Connor, had an army reported to be 30,000 strong, and at the instigation of Archbishop Laurence O’Toole, who was Dermot’s brother-in-law, O’Connor was to send the little band of Welsh-Normans, cooped up inside the walls of Dublin, back to Wales.  There was only a couple of hundred of them. When the Normans became desperate from starvation, they decided to meet their Great Maker in true Norman style, that is, die fighting in battle. So they donned their tin-can suits, jumped on their horses, and charged out the gate. Well, our good High King Rory O’Connor will not be remembered as one of history’s great generals. In fact, O’Connor was taking a bath in the river when the puny Welsh-Norman force came knocking and 150 to 1 and abandoned the battle entirely.  The picture of the Irish High King, Rory O’Connor, naked as a babe, running through the reeds protecting his bare bottom with his shield, is not one of Ireland’s proudest moments. Unfortunately, no artist was present to capture this scene for posterity.

Well Art Mor wasn’t very proud of it either. In the beginning, right after Dermot died, the Cavanagh Kings tried to get along with the foreigners, but it was a one sided attempt, so during the 1200s they steadfastly resisted all encroachments by the Normans. In 1370 Art Mor began to drive them out of most of Leinster. The Pale, the area where English Law prevailed, started shrinking, as the Kavanagh Irish reclaimed their rightful lands. When Art Mor died in 1377, his son Art Og continued with even greater success. Leinster became the only Irish Province to return to Irish hands. The Pale shrank to a small area around Dublin, and Leinster was again an Irish kingdom, with Art Og as the undisputed King of Leinster.

With English holdings threatened, King Richard II of England mounted an enormous army, and brought it to Ireland with the express purpose of establishing total English control of Ireland. Art took one look at the huge army and decided it was best to fade into the woods for a while. When Richard returned to England, Art was back doing what he did best, driving the English out of Leinster, so in 1399 Richard returned with another huge army. His oath was to capture and annihilate Art Og Cavanagh whatever the cost may be. Well, what Art did to Richard and his army has become the stuff that legends are made from, and history made Art Og one of Ireland’s greatest heroes.

There is a famous lithograph in Gilbert’s Facsimiles of National Manuscripts depicting Art Og, charging out to meet Richard’s forces, in which Art Og looks like one of the Little People with a water bucket on his head, wrapped in a couple of his grandma’s shawls, charging out of a Faery Mound on a tiny horse that could run under the bellies of the great chargers on which the English were mounted. One has to suspect this is English propaganda considering Art Og’s horse was described as a magnificent charger costing him more than 400 cows, and the Kavanaghs were noted for being very big people. The Irish campaign cost Richard II more casualties than Art Og had people in his whole army, and not only cost Richard his crown, but also his head. But that’s another story.

In typical English manner of the time, when they couldn’t get their way by chivalry and honest battle, the English resorted to deceit and treachery. During the Christmas festivities in 1416, a sweet little old lady gave Art Og and his brehon, O’Doran, a glass of wine in celebration.  They were dead the next morning, January 1st, 1417. This is the point at which our plot begins to thicken, as they say.


Royal Line to Donal Reagh

Primogeniture is the English system whereby titles and lands pass from father to the first born or oldest living son, but it was not the Irish way of doing things.  The Irish method, called tánistry, placed title to the land with the clan, not with individuals. Chiefs and kings were elected from the best-suited male of the rigdama, or the royal line. Irish law was still the law of Leinster, but the kingship, having remained with the Cavanaghs for 10 generations by this time, had essentially become dynastic, so Donogh, as oldest son, became King of Leinster in 1417. But Donogh Kavanagh still had to be elected from the rigdama. Even though Irish royal succession was evolving towards a primogeniture hybrid, Brehon law with tánistry was still the controlling Irish law.

Art’s will divided his kingdom into two parts. Donogh Kavanagh, the oldest living son, as Lord of Garyhill, received all the lands west of the Blackstairs Mountain, the area known as Idrone, and what is now County Carlow and part of County Kilkenny. The next son, Gerald Cavanagh, as Lord of Ferns, received all the lands east of the Blackstairs, the area of County Wexford today.

The English were elated when Art Og was poisoned, but Donogh turned out to be just as dedicated to freeing his kingdom from foreign domination as his father, so the English grabbed him and hauled him off to the Tower of London. The English never made an attempt to understand the Irish, which caused them to make many mistakes, such as assuming that eliminating the king would stop the resistance. Gerald of Ferns was immediately elected king and he was as hard nosed as his brother, didn’t drink poisoned wine, and was harder to grab.

It is important to emphasize at this point, that the kingship moved away from the senior line to Gerald. Even when Donogh was eventually released nine years later, Gerald remained King of Leinster and, with the exception of Murrough Ballach of Garyhill, Gerald’s descendants continued as the royal line. This too is another story and one that has not been fully researched.

The sons of Gerald of Ferns were Donal Reagh, Lord of Enniscorthy; Dermot Lamhdearg, Lord of St. Mullins; and Art, Lord of Leverock. Donal Reagh became King of Leinster when Gerald died in 1431, and the kingship remained with his Enniscorthy/ Clonmullen descendants for the next six generations, until Donal Spannaigh Cavanagh of Clonmullen died in 1631. Donal Spannaigh was generally accepted by Irish and English as the last Irish King of Leinster.

The second son of Gerald of Ferns, Dermot Lamhdearg held some rather rough lands in the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains. From him descended the minor family septs of St. Mullins, Pulmonty, Coolnaleen, Ballyleigh, and four generations later, Borris. There is an old saying that “from prince to peasant takes 5 generations,” and the Borris Sept had reached five generations since they were part of rigdama.


Treachery, Chicanery & Deceit

The descendants of Donal Reagh turned out to be just as uncompromising as their forefathers and cousins on the other side of the mountains, so the friction with the English only increased through the generations. Finally, Henry VIII tried to take a different approach. After some four centuries, the English had failed to conquer Ireland, and their position in the 16th century was even less secure than when the Normans first landed. Henry decided that the best way was to give the Irish the protection of English Law, which had always been denied them, and he was making some headway when he died in 1547. With the English crown in turmoil with Edward VI, Jane Grey and Bloody Mary causing chaos for eleven years, the Irish problem was ignored. Finally, Elizabeth I became queen. Her ultimate solution to the “Irish Problem” was genocide, exterminate the Irish and replace them with good English and Scot planters.

It is often said that victors write the history, and there is no better case in point than the historian’s treatment of this period. Elizabeth, the Protestant victor, became “Good Queen Bess,” while her Catholic half-sister Mary, who preceded her, became known as “Bloody Mary”, but Mary was an amateur when we look at the bloody trail of Elizabeth. In the beginning, Elizabeth agreed with her father, Henry VIII, that the best way to control the Irish was to give them the protection of English Law. Part of the plan was a Surrender and Regrant policy, where the Irish could surrender their lands to the English crown, and the crown would then grant it back to the Irish owner with their title subsequently protected by English Law. All title to the land, however, remained with the crown, the grantee held the land “at the pleasure of the crown,” and such “pleasure” was at the whim of the crown. Not a very secure title, and not at all attractive to the K/Cavs of Hy Kinsella: Carlow, Wexford and Kilkenny.

So Elizabeth’s henchman, St. Leger, came up with a plan. The head of the very junior Borris Sept was Cahir McArt of Ballyann, and St. Leger offered hum a great deal. If Cahir McArt would surrender all his family lands, the crown would grant them back to him, award him a life peerage as Baron of Ballyann, and give him a seat in the House of Lords. Further, they would consider him as head of the family, and he could surrender ALL of the Ballyann and Borris family lands, even those owned by other relatives, and be re-granted title to all of it. So, Cahir McArt went to Dublin, renounced all claims he may have to any Irish titles, surrendered all of his family’s and neighbor’s lands, and agreed to send his children to school in England and bring them up as Protestants. St. Leger then “recognized” Cahir McArt as “Captain of his Country” and tried to claim that all K/Cavanagh lands were now surrendered to the crown. Cahir McArt had to keep pressing the crown to grant him the promised Baron of Ballyann, until finally, in 1554, it happened. It is important to note that, because Cahir McArt was not of the rigdama (the royal line), he was not given a hereditary peerage, only a title for the duration of his life. It is ironic, (or perhaps planned) that a few weeks later Cahir McArt was dead. Even with the chicanery involved, peerage rules still had to be considered, plus granting a life peerage to an Irishman would face major obstacles anyway.

Now this is important, so let’s make it real clear here.  Cahir McArt was the head of a junior line of Art Boy’s Pulmonty Sept, which was a junior line of Dermot Lamhhdearg’s St. Mullins Sept, which was a junior line of Gerald of Ferns’ Enniscorthy Sept, which was the junior line from Art Og Cavanagh, King of Leinster poisoned in 1417. He had no right to neither surrender any lands nor represent himself in any way as the leader of the clan.


Chief Herald Of Ireland and The MacMurrough Kavanagh

A few years ago, the Chief Herald of Ireland was trying to revitalize interest in the Clann histories and set about creating a council of chiefs, with a goal to recognizing the present day bloodline descendants of the last recognized Chief of each Clan. So far there are around 20 (of which two are not even Irish clans) of the hundreds of clans that have a recognized bloodline descendant of their last known chief. In response, William MacMurrough-Kavanagh, made a claim to be the MacMurrough-Kavanagh Chief of the Name, claiming descent through an even more junior line descended from a junior son of Cahir McArt of Ballyann! But, of course, Cahir McArt was NEVER chief of our Clann anyway, and is so far removed from direct bloodline descent from the last recognized Chief of the Kavanaghs, that such a claim is ludicrous.  Even more outrageous is the claim that this individual considers himself styled as the “Prince of Leinster.” Isn’t a prince supposed to descend from the last king?


Donal Spannaigh – Last Recognized King

There is no question that the last recognized Irish King of Leinster and Chief of the Clann was Donal Spannaigh Cavanagh of Clonmullen, who died in 1631, thus only a direct bloodline descendant from him would have a legitimate claim to Chief of the Name (or Prince of Leinster). It is important to note that Ballyann/Borris does not descend from this line and is removed by several generations from a common ancestor.  In the records of Elizabeth (Vol. CCV page 2 Ireland Elizabeth 1599) is the following reference to the Kavanaghs:

“Dr. Weston, Lord Chancellor was of the opinion that unless Her Majesty would remove them (the Kavanaghs) from Ireland and give them land somewhere else she would never have her kingdom quiet.  This Donnell made claim to Enniscorthy which Sir Henry Wallop possessed, and his rebellious rogues took him for their King of Leinster…”

But there is room for argument here too, because, perhaps, even a direct bloodline descendant from the Garyhill line could have a legitimate claim, as this was the senior line of the family. Consider this passage from the 1654 Civil Survey of County Catherlagh (Carlow) in discussing the Kavanaghs of Carlow:

“The sept of the Kavenaghs was Kings of Leinster, since which time their fall was such that the chief of that name and his posteritie made their principal abode at the town of Garrchoile or Coarsewood (Garyhill)… The Chief of which (Garyhill) sept since they fell from being kings of Leinster have been successively intitled by the name or creation of MacMurrhoe na Garrchoyle until of late ages….” 

Thus the title of “MacMurrough” was a designation for the chief of the Garyhill sept, which was the dominant and controlling sept of Idrone (County Carlow). The “MacMurrough” title was not used by the Enniscorthy-Ferns Cavanaghs. The Ballyann-Borris line does not descend from the Garyhill line, being even further removed from the Enniscorthy sept. So how did Ballyann/Borris come up with the hyphenated MacMurrough-Kavanagh name?

Thomas Kavanagh of Borris was a rather opportunistic lad and married Lady Elizabeth Butler, daughter of the Earl of Ormonde. Through Elizabeth, Thomas came into the Ballyraggett estate (the fascinating castle is still there, now used to store fertilizer). Elizabeth died after producing 9 daughters. Thomas then married Harriet de Poeur Trench the daughter of the Earl of Clancarty, a desirable marriage at that time as Thomas then had land and money and the lady had an English title. One of their children was the famous Arthur Kavanagh, whose middle Christian name was MacMurrough.  Arthur was born without arms and legs, but succeeded in living a full and successful domestic and political life. Arthur then gave all of his sons a middle Christian name of MacMurrough. His daughters were simply named Kavanagh, the family name, with typical feminine Christian first and middle names. With the true Chief of the Kavanagh Clann transported, sold or transplanted… but definitely out of the picture… Arthur’s son applied to the College of Arms and took upon himself the title of Chief of the Name MacMurrough-Kavanagh. He was not making any claim to Chief of Clann Kavanagh, only to his line name.

The present claimant of Chief of the Name, and of the clann, and of Leinster and of…. Well anyway, this claimant descends from Cahir McArt, but not from Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, and thus has no claim to even the MacMurrough-Kavanagh affectation.

But whatever, there is no question at all that a junior line, of a junior line, of a junior line, of a junior line, etc……would have absolutely NO LEGITIMATE CLAIM TO THE TITLE “CHIEF OF THE NAME KAVANAGH.” As shown, there is no such thing as a “MacMurrough Kavanagh line”, instead it is actually the Borris Sept, making this a moot point anyway.

So, do you see why we avoid this topic? If we recognize the current Mac-Murrough-Kavanagh as Chief of his Name, it could be no more than chief of his very junior Borris family, and considering that we have a dozen or more other family Septs, nearly all of them senior to the Borris Sept of the so-called MacMurrough-Kavanaghs, we would have to recognize the legitimate claimant to Chief of the Name of each of these septs.  We would have Chief of the Name of Garyhill Kavanaghs, Clonmullin Cavanaghs, Ballyloughan Kavanaghs, Pulmonty Kavanaghs, Coolnaleen Kavanaghs, Leverock Kavanaghs, Ballyloo Kavanaghs, and on and on.

And there is no way our clann could recognize the present self-styled Prince of Leinster as having a claim to Chief of the Name of any Sept.

A little postscript to this is the use of the Kavanagh Arms by the MacMurrough Kavanaghs. Actually these were the arms of Donogh McArt Kavanagh, imprisoned by the English in 1417. Neither the Borris line nor any other line descended from Cahir McArt has any claim to these arms, as they don’t even descend from Donogh. Curiously, the arms over the door of Borris House show the lion passant with THREE crescents, not two.

In closing, it is important to stress that Clann Chaomhánach has no problem accepting that anyone may be a direct bloodline descendant of any sept. But, when all is said and done, we are all equal members of a great royal family where no one has any more rights, privileges or honors than another. The same wonderful Caomhánach blood flows in each of us, and as for myself, I am really glad it does. In the final analysis we are all Rigdama today.