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Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
Vol. 41, 1911
CAHERMURPHY CASTLE AND ITS EARTHWORKS, WITH
CERTAIN FORTS NEAR MILLTOWN-MALBAY,
COUNTY CLARE


BY THOMAS JOHNSON WESTROPP, M.A.

Corcavaskin


MacGormans
Cahermurphy Castle
Cahermurphy Stone Fort
Forts near Miltown Malbay Rinbaun
Caherrush Castle
Leagard South
Dough
Fortified Headlands Freagh
Mutton Island

Summary of Fortified Headlands in Clare

Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
Vol. 41, 1911
119

CAHERMURPHY CASTLE AND ITS EARTHWORKS, WITH
CERTAIN FORTS NEAR MILLTOWN-MALBAY,
COUNTY CLARE


BY THOMAS JOHNSON WESTROPP, M.A.

[Submitted 23 January 1911]



The unusual interest and abundance of the stone forts in the uplands of north-western Clare, of the lisses in the angle near the Shannon, and of the cliff forts might lead students to suppose that the hilly tracts between these rich districts contained another Burren or Moyarta. There is, however, no analogy, and save for one earthwork at Cahermurphy, so unusual as to call for careful description, one might be tempted to pass by the whole “hinterland” of south-western Clare, and leave its commonplace forts unnoted. It is, however, helpful to students to know that there is little to be seen despite the large number of its forts, nearly 240 being recorded,1 and that what remains, besides the Cahermurphy earthwork, is hardly of sufficient interest to call them out of their way to explore. I accordingly give, besides the chief subject of this paper, a few typical forts: a stone ring wall, a liss or two, a house-ring, and two fortified headlands—sufficient to show the character of the remains of Ibrickan and its border.

The district lay nearly outside the ken of early Irish writers—the all-accomplished Caeilte did not bring St. Patrick out of his way to visit or hear tales of the Corcavaskin. One legend alone in the Dind Shenchas2 is partly located on its frontier. This tells how Alestar, a contemporary of Queen Tailti, for a supposed slight on that lady, was compelled by her father, Eochu Garb, son of Dua, King of Erin, to make her a fort in Sengann’s heritage. The “third of Erin’s rath-builders” chose as its site a slope of Mount Callan (Sliab Colain) called Sliabh Leitrech, but, though the place was long called after him “Cluain Alestair,” the name and site are now lost. However, we see that the remote mythology of the region begins with the tribes of Sengann, and this is borne out by Ptolemy’s Atlas, giving the Ganganoi3 as dwelling at the mouth of the Senos, or Shannon, before the second century. The legend of an occupation of the present county Clare by the Ui Catbar and Ui Corra is very dim; still more so is that of the settlement of the Martini, who



  1. The number, so far as I have recorded the forts, is—Kilfarboy, 42; Kilmurry, 73; Kilmacduan, 49; Kilmihil, 41; Killard, 34 forts ; but the last only in late times got assigned to the barony of Ibrickan.

  2. Ed. Whitley Stokes, Revue Celtique, 1894, vol. xv, p. 317.

3. Gann, Genann, and Sengann.

118 ROYAL SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIES OF IRELAND

fought a battle on the hills against Aengus Olmuchaidh, a prehistoric High King, somewhere in Corcavaskin (scholars confidently say at Moveen, near Kilkee1), but it is equally “probable” that its site was located in these hills) about “Anno Mundi 3790,” on “Sliabh Cailge.”2

The first historic tribe, at any rate, was the Corcabhaiscinn, or Corcavaskin. The tribe asserted a descent from Cairbre Bhascoin, son of Conaire the Great, the famous mythical High King, 122nd monarch of Erin, who is said to have been slain about a.d. 165.

The doubtless mainly historic foundation-story of St. Senan’s life gives us a picture of the Corcavaskin in the early sixth century.3 The lesser gentry owned farms, sometimes many miles apart, shifting their cattle from one to the other as occasion arose; the more important chiefs —dwelt in strong “castles” or duns (ring-forts), and when a raid was organized against a neighbouring state, all the youths of the district were called on to serve. The alleged blessing of St. Patrick also implies that the tribe was strong in ships.4 Their history is very fragmentary, only beginning in the Annals of the eighth century; this is the more remarkable that they evidently were of great power a century and a half later. An unnamed Abbot of Ui Cormaic (roughly speaking, the modern barony of Islands5) has left us a strong appeal, made to Feidlimid, king of Cashel, who died in a.d. 845. He prays the Eoghanacht monarch to protect the kindred tribes of Hi Cormaic and Tradraighe from the ravages of the Corca Bhaiscinn, who were not of the blood of Eoghan (Mog Nuadhat), and were pressing on them.6 It is evident that the Dalcassian kings reigning at Bruree collapsed before the first swoop of the Norse, when Limerick was founded or occupied. The hardier line of the Dal gCais, round Killaloe,1 set their backs against the impenetrable forest-clad mountains, and fought doggedly for generation after generation on water



  1. Because this is the chief high ground in Western Corcavaskin; no other reason is given.

  2. Annals oj the Four Masters. See also Onomaslicon Goedelicum, p. 606. O’Donovan conjectures Sliabh Callan.

  3. The places, apart from the islands, named in Corcavaskin are Moylough, Termon, Dun mechair, Kilcredaun, and Ross in the Irros, with Dubhloch, or Doolough, in Kilmacduan in the northern part.

  4. Vita S. Senani, Colgan, Acta SS. Hib., March viii. See also Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore (ed. Whitley Stokes).

  5. Less Clondegad parish. The river past the latter church seems to have been the bounds of Ui Cormaic and Corca Bhaiscinn.

  6. “Because of their strength they vouchsafe no justice to the Eoghanacts.” Poem is given by E. O’Curry, Manners and Customs of the Irish, vol. iii, p. 262. See also note by Dr. George U. MacNamara, Journal xxxvii, p. 407.

7 Aedh, “King of Cashel,” 571, is called of “Cragliath ” in the poem of St. Brenan of Birrha (see Journal North Munster Arch. Soc. i., p. 237). St. Molua and St. Flannan (the latter son of King Toirdhealbhagh) in the seventh century lived at Killaloe; Lachtna (father of Lorcan), contemporary with Felimi, King of Cashel, about 840, is also of Crag Liath, and his descendants, Lorcan, Kennedy, the later Lachtna, Brian Boru, and his descendants, kept up the family connexion till the second quarter of the twelfth century.

CAHERMURPHY CASTLE AND ITS EARTHWORKS 119

and land from Corc’s battle on Lough Derg, about A.D. 815, to the “crowning mercy” of Sulchoid, under kings Mahon and Brian, in A.D. 968. The Dal gCais thus broken or fighting for existence left the Corcavaskin unchecked, and the unfortunate folk of the open plains along the Fergus estuary had the Corcavaskin ships and forces threatening them from the west, and the Norse on their flank eastward. These wrongs, however, were avenged; the Corcavaskin, like hundreds of other races in Ireland, reaped the fruit of their selfish and short-sighted policy.1 Raid after raid of the foreigners, notably in a.d. 834 and 862, broke up and wasted the tribe. Whether the sons of Fergus mac Roigh and Medb, in Corcomroe, aided them we do not hear, but the Corcavaskin ceased to be a power in Thomond. They lost their prince Domhnall2 at Clontarf, in 1014, and suffered a fratricidal quarrel in their ruling house in a.d. 1049. Aedh O’Conor, the king of Connacht, wasted them along with their old victims the Tradraighe, in a.d. 1054. A similar Connacht raid slew their chief 104 years later. By this time a branch of the Dal gCais, the Mac Mahons, got powerful and became chiefs over the southern part of the Corcavaskin territory in the early twelfth century. Indications of the increase of the ruling tribe is marked by the settlement of the Mac Mahons in the south, of the O’Briens, at Tromra, in the early thirteenth century, and perhaps of the Fermacaigh at Dunmore.

The northern part of Corcavaskin, however, was to pass to strangers and to bear their tribal name for centuries after they, too, had ceased to rule, and the only local relic of the Corcavaskin kingship is now the name of a rural deanery.

The Mac Gormans, bound by ties of deep gratitude, were in reality a Dalcassian garrison, being personally attached to the O’Brien chiefs, even in the most precarious period of their fortunes.

I have found no satisfactory contemporary record, so give the story much as it was told by the tribal historian in later days3 with a few sidelights from other sources. They were a Leinster tribe who proudly claimed descent from the semi-mythical High King, Cathaoir Mor, and named themselves, after his son Daire Barrach, Ui Bairrche, Ui Bairchi, Ui Bricin, Síl Daire Bharraigh, and Mac Gormain.4 They were settled on the borders of the Queen’s County and Carlow, near the town of



  1. They were ravaged (like the Tradraighe) early in the century, about 834, by a fleet (see Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, Preface, xl, from the fragment in the Book of Leinster and text, p. 9).

  2. Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, p. 209.

  3. Maolin og Mac Bruidin, 1563-1604 (Annals Four Masters), having succeeded his brother as historian in the former year. See also Trans. lberno Celtic Soc., 1820, vol. i, p. 175. Teige and Dermod Mac Brody witness Mahon MacGorman’s grant in 1694.

4 Wild legends were told of their eponymus, Gorman; he was said to have been a King of Africa. Father Shearman (Journal xiii, p. 522) supposes that this arose from the Welsh epithet “Maur” (Mauretanian). It is equally probable from the Irish belief that the Africans were blue (gorm); see Three Fragments of Annals (Irish Arch. Soc.), p. 161, where the captive Moors in Ireland are “na Fir Gorma.” Gorman himself lived about 590, and helped the Pagan Saxons against the Britons of Wales.

120 ROYAL SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIES OF IRELAND

Carlow, and in Sliabh Mhairgi. Late in the twelfth century broke the storm of Norman invasion on the Leinster tribes, and the Uí Bairrche could make no head against Walter de Ridelesford and his “steel- frocked knights.” The tribe under their chief, Murchad,1 son of Donchad Mac Gormain, met and consulted; seeing no hope of retaining their lands and freedom, they decided to divide and seek refuge with clans as yet unsubdued. Part fled to Ulster; part under the chief sought refuge with Donaldmore O’Brien, king of Munster, a successful opponent of the Normans. They reached Daire Seanleath iu Uaithne (Owney), in eastern county Limerick, and were kindly received by the fierce old monarch. The Normans were clutching at Corcovaskin, and he determined to strengthen its weak and probably underpopulated northern part, so he planted the Ui Bricin from Callan down to Kilmihil and Dunbeg,2 and the place for the most part bears their name as Ibrickan. It seems very probable that the chief Murchad may have given his name to Cathair Murchadha, and dug the great earthwork at Cahermurphy Castle, a bad imitation of an early Norman entrenchment.

With the later rulers of south Corcavaskin we are not concerned in this paper. They descended and took their name from Mathgamhan (or Mahon), son of Murtaghmore, grandson of Téige, the son of Brian Boru, and near the close of the fifteenth century divided the territory, under the rule of two different branches of the Mac Mahon chiefs, into East and West Corcovaskin.

The Mac Gormains probably held the present parishes of Kilfarboy, Kilmurry Ibrickan, or “De colle bovum,”3and Kilmihil. The Ui Cormaic lay behind them in Kilmaley and Clondegad, but probably the wild forests and marshlands, the ill-reputed unhealthy “Brentir,” or foulland, and the uplands, from Callan (with its endless “boulies,” to which the cattle were driven up for the summer months) past the high ridge at Lough Naminna. Evidently the great bogs further southward interposed


  1. The extremely inaccurate notes on the pedigree registered by the Chevalier O’Gorman make the Chief, Coueva, a supposed father of the historic Cueva a century later. I have to thank Mr. George Dames Burtchaell for notes from this pedigree. Father Shearman’s account in Loca Patriciana does not tally with the Clare legends, but it is also self-contradictory in part. He says that Eachtighern, chief of Hy Bairrche (whose father, Scanlan, died in 1124), had to fly before de Redensforde and de Lacy of Carlow to Doire Senliath in Owney. Murchadh, Eachtigern’s son,became O’Brien’s steward, and settled in Ibriccan (Journal, vol. iii, Ser. iv, xiii consec., p. 524), but no ancient authority is cited.

2 The Chevalier O’Gorman in the notes on his pedigree in Ulster's office, vol. x, I p. 43, records these as Clahanes, Monemore Castle (fort), and Caher morrughu de Cahermor; Dromine-Gorman, or Drimellagh(y), Tullycrine, &c. Clahane is possibly Cloughaunutinny in Kilmurry Ibrickan (Claghaneviletinny in the Earl of Thomond’s grant to John Stackpoole in 1713), or the Cloghann more and beg in Kilmacduan. Tullycreen is in Kilmurry mac mahon.

3 The older name is preserved in “Oxmount,” the slightly rising ground to the north-east of the church, near the railway. For a view and description of the church, see Journal of the Limerick Field Club, vol. iii, p. 6; for Kilmacduan Church, see ibid., p. 9, and for Kilfarboy Church, see same Journal, vol. ii, p. 248, and for Kilmihil, ibid., p. 267.

CAHERMURPHY CASTLE AND ITS EARTHWOKKS 121

a long neutral zone, rarely inhabited, between the groups of the two tribes. Save for nominal inefficient grants in the district, the Norman government did not interfere with the Leinster refugees.

Murchad was succeeded by his son Cuebha, from whom (if the MacBruidins be correct) the descent ran in an unbroken line, through Conor, Donald, and Cuebha, in the thirteenth century; “David,” John, Cuebha (who died at Cuinche, or Quin, in 14121) in the fourteenth century, and Melachlin and Donn to Melachlin Dubh MacGorman, the chief, in 1498, from whom all the landowners of the later family were derived. He is said by some to have been “sheriff of Clare in 1489,” but (as I have shown before in these pages)2 the shrievalty of Clare, as a county, only began in 1579. Melachlin died in 1522. The few external records agree with this pedigree. Turning to the fullest history from the Norman to the Tudor invasions, the “Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh,” we find Cuebha MacGormain, living in 1277, the chief friend of its hero King Torlough Mór O’Brien, “his close door of protection while he slept, and his shield on the battle-field”; the friendship survived their deaths, for their sons, Prince Dermot O’Brien and the younger Cuebha, were equally attached. Cuebha and the three sons of Donchadh O’Dowden were the inner bodyguard of the prince in the fierce battle of Corcomroe Abbey, in August, 1317. From 1500 onward the line is less easy to trace in its numerous branches. Whether Donald MacGormain, who died in 1484,3 is the “Donn” of the Mac Bruidin pedigree is uncertain. Domhnall, grandson of Melachlin Dubh, is said to have built the castle of “Castle Morrogh,” or Cahermurphy; but it seems far older than his time. He was attainted in 1600, and died soon after of a broken heart, aged sixty-seven. Domhnal had been given by his grandfather as a hostage to the Lord Deputy “in 1544,” says Father Shearman; but Melachlin had died twenty-two years earlier. He also states that Melachlin Dubh, who died 1522, left two sons, who died 1571 and 1577.4 We learn that the race had “nourished poets and fed the poor for 400 years.” Donald kept a “house of hospitality,” being “the richest man in Ireland in live stock;” while Melachlin, son of Thomas, a son of Melachlin Dubh, was also “a supporter of the indigent,” and keeper of another “house of hospitality” down to his death in 1571. Four years after him died Donald, son of Dermot, son of Melachlin Dubh, “famed for his trustworthiness, dexterity, and hospitality.” In numerous cases appears similar good report of the race and their absence from the crimes and petty wars (so numerous during that miserable century) in Thomond, bears out this character. In 1577, Thomas oge, son of Thomas, the son of Melaghlin Dubh, and chief of the race, died: his relative Seonin (“little John”)


1 He submitted to King Richard II in 1394.

2 Journal, vol. xxi, p. 6S. Clement Laragh, “sheriff of Thomond,” in 1376, was probably a titular appointment to make a pretence that Thomond was an English county.

122 ROYAL SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIES OF IRELAND

was installed in his stead. In 1580, Donough, son of a younger Melachlin, also died. Also (May 1st) Melachlin of Dromellihy and Cahermurphy; his son and heir was Dermot Mac Gormain, then of full age. Daniel Mac Gorman died October 10, 1594, in possession of the said lands, leaving three sons—Conor, Melaghlin, and Caher. In short, the family flourished through the Tudor period, the only shadow of weakness being the surrender of Mahon’s rights (through his wife Judith) by “Mahon, son of Dubh Mac Gorman of Cathair Murcha(dha) ”1 to the Earl of Thomond. Mac Gorman held a third of Dunmór Castle, then inhabited by Donough, son of Dermot Mac Fermacaigh.2 The Earl was at that time consolidating his power by using his influence with the Government to press the independent chiefs into surrender of their rights, and then using his increased power to obtain more influence with the English. In matters of religion he was equally unscrupulous, carrying weight with the State Church by liberality, and with the persecuted monks by protection, which cost him little, and put valuable church plate in his hands.3 He was not a safe partner in a covenant, as proved true in his annexations in Ibrickan.

The history of the Mac Gormans is the history of Cahermurphy, and must be followed down the next century as such. The above-named Melachlin was known as “laidir” and “fortis.” He had a son (or grandson4) called “an fhiona”and “Donus Vinifer, de Cahir Murrughu,” who survived till 1626. He conveyed Dromellihy in 1618 to Daniel O’Brien (created Viscount of Clare in his extreme old age); in his time Murtagh Cam Mac Mahon devised Sheeaun, Knockbrack, and Lack to Scanlan Mac Gorman. From Donn is traced the main line through Mahon, Melachlin, Thomas, and Mahon, to the chevalier Thomas O’Gorman; not (as some have done, confusing the chevalier with another Thomas Mac Gorman of London) through the collateral line—Dionisius (sou of Donn) Melachlin of Tullycreen, Dionisius, James, and Thomas of Tullycreen, living in London, 1780. This collateral line is traced down to Purcell O’Gorman, and his son Nicholas Smith O’Gorman, of Kilrush, High Sheriff of Clare, 1878, and Richard O’Gorman of New York.6 The name was changed from Mac Gorman to O’Gorman by the chevalier. He had, when young, gone to France, where he lived in a brilliant circle of


  1. Inquisition, Jan. 1627, Public Record Office of Ireland.

  2. Hardiman’s Irish Deeds, Trans. R.I.A., xv, p. 83. The Four Masters in 1599 name the castle “Dún Mór mhic an Fearmacaigh,” which suggests the Ui Fearmacaigh tribes of O’Dea and O’Quin in lnchiquin, or Cinel Fermaic and the Brentir Fermacaigh.

  3. See Father Mooney’s report on the Franciscan Convent of Ennis, temp. Elizabeth, but written about 1617.

4 The registered pedigree gives him as grandson of Malachlin “Fortis,” and son of “Donaldus mór.”

6 Journal, xiii consec., pp. 486—525. Nicholas was seventh in descent from Domhnall, 1600; but, like so many statements about this family, Father Shearman’s is evidently wrong. The present “O’Gorman” is Col. Nicholas Purcell O’Gorman, son of Nicholas Smith O’Gorman of Bellvue, Clare and Surrey.
CAHERMURPHY CASTLE AND ITS EARTHWORKS


123

society, and kept up a magnificent, establishment. He fled from the Revolution in 1793, a ruined and childless man, dying in 1810 on his ancestral estate at Dromellihy. He is stated to have been buried at Kilmacduach Cathedral, but probably the family burial-place of. Kilmacduan is meant. Father Shearman contradicts his own account in the pedigree by giving the place of burial as at Kilfenora. The chevalier had two brothers, John and Colman, and a sister, Margaret.

Of the family during the seventeenth century I may briefly note that Thomas Mac Gorman, who, in November, 1623, settled Dromdigus on his son, Thomas, of Tullycreen, died 1630, his son having married at that time.1 Teige Mac Gorman died 6 May, 1624, holding Tullycreen, his son Donald being then aged twenty-two.2 Scanlan, son of Mahone, owned (as we shall see) the Castle of Cahermurphy, and parts of Ardgowney, Barnanard (high pass), Kilcahermurphy, Cloggagh, and Knockeanville (the last name suggesting the lonely, wind-bent old thorn- bushes so frequent on the hills)—all forgotten parts of Cahermurphy townland. He had settled his property on his son, Thomas, in October, 1623; the latter died on December 20th, 1635, leaving a son, Daniel Mac Gorman, aged fifteen. It is probably this Thomas who is reported by Dr. Rider, Bishop of Killaloe, in the 1622 Visitation, for keeping the parish priest of Kilmurry (Teige O’Roughan) in his own house.

Daniel and Mahone Mac Gorman, of Cahirmurplhy4 took an active part with O’Flaherty in the siege of Tromra Castle in April, 1642, and one of Scanlan Mac Gorman’s sons, Daniel, the priest of Kilmurray Ibrickan, played a part in the epilogue of that sad event by expelling the bodies of the Wards of Tromra from the church of Kilmurry.5 This was probably remembered to the disadvantage of the family when the Cromwellians prevailed. In 1655, the “Book of Distribution”6 records Daniel Mac Gorman and his sons Daniel, Conor, Thomas, Teigue, Manchan, and Scanlan as owners of Cahermurphy. Thomas Mac Gorman held Binvoran and Drumdigus in Kilmurry, and Murtagh Mac Gorman held Tullycreen. These lands were granted to Sir Henry Ingoldesby and the Trustees for the ’49 officers. The chief land, Cahermorrohow, alias Carmore, as it there appears, was held in 1641 by Sir Daniel O’Brien, the two Daniel Mac Gormans, Conor, Thomas, Teigue, Manchan, and Scanlan, of that family. After the war these lands apparently were given to Daniel O’Brien, Viscount Clare, who, in the 1675 Survey, holds Cahirmorohoo,

1 Inquisition, April, 1630, P. R. 0. I.



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