2018 marks the tercentenary or 300th anniversary of the death of Moycullen-born Gaelic lord, historian, scholar and antiquarian, Ruaidhrí Ó Flaitheartaigh or Roderic O’Flaherty (1629-1718). Moycullen Historical Society or Cumann Staire Ruaidhrí Uí Fhlaitheartaigh Maigh Cuilinn, celebrated throughout 2018, Roderic’s life and works in a year-long festival entitled “The Year of O’Flaherty” which included an innovative and varied range of events in honour of the esteemed writer. In this endeavour the society engaged with other local historical societies, the OPW local schools, academic institutions and many others, and offered a broad series of events to suit a range of tastes. Events this summer included a children’s art exhibition with participating Moycullen primary schools in June, a genealogy fair at Aughnanure Castle in July and Heritage Week events in August.
Of Noble Birth
Roderic O’Flaherty was born c.1629 into an aristocratic family at the twilight of the Gaelic order in Ireland. Despite coming of age amid a backdrop of immense social change, rebellion, war and confiscation, he was destined to become a highly educated and enlightened scholar, writer and historian of international renown. Born at Moycullen Castle on the shores of Lough Corrib in Co. Galway he was the son of both a Gaelic chief and a Galway tribeswoman. With “Ferocious O’Flaherty” blood coursing through his veins he survived into old age through some of the most violent periods in Irish history, on the cusp between the collapse of the ancient Gaelic world and the dawn of the Protestant ascendancy.
Roderic was one of the O’Flaherty’s of Iarchonnacht, or Connemara as it is known today, who ruled their vast territory as Gaelic warrior lords for almost four-hundred years, following their expulsion in the 13th century from their ancestral home east of Lough Corrib. Concealed within the mountains, valleys and rugged coast of Connemara they ruled supreme as Gaelic warrior lords, and built a network of small castles or tower houses along the Atlantic coastline and further east towards Lough Corrib from where they ran their prosperous little Gaelic kingdom, far out of the reach of English law. English power was confined to the Pale and Ireland was essentially in a state of disunity with no one authority recognised over the entire island. But as the sixteenth century wore on, the expansionary and colonial policies of the Tudor government found a footing in Iarchonnacht and challenged not only the O’Flaherty’s traditional lifestyle and autonomy, but their loyalty to one another.
By Roderic’s birth, the final conquest of Gaelic Ireland was witnessed at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 when the English army defeated the Irish confederates led by Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell. The result was devastating to the traditional Irish culture and way of life, as the old Gaelic system was finally shattered. But Roderic was still very much a product of Gaelic Ireland, despite its recent conquest. His mother was Elizabeth Darcy (or O’Dorchaidhe), a descendent of the Darcy’s of Galway; however, his origins through his father Hugh were deeply rooted in the Gaelic world. Hugh O’Flaherty was chief of Gnó Beg or the eastern branch of the O’Flaherty’s, ruling from his stronghold at Moycullen Castle, which guarded the best agricultural land in all of Iarchonnacht. This suited the predominantly pastoral nature of the Gaelic economy, and trade with Galway merchants was booming. However, the fortunes of the Gnó Beg were in decline towards the end of the 16th century and the greater part of profitable lands had passed from O’Flaherty hands to Galway townsmen as a result of direct Tudor influence. This was to have a profound effect on Roderic O’Flaherty as his inheritance disappeared before his eyes. Although they retained their ancient ways into the 18th century, the O’Flahertys lost their power and having been active in the Rebellion of 1641 – their lands were confiscated, their territories parcelled out and the era of O’Flaherty rule in Connemara came to an abrupt end. This was the direct effect of Roderic’s forbearers’ reluctant acceptance of the Tudor policy of “surrender and regrant” which had far-reaching implications for both Roderic and the Gaelic society into which he was born, and the root cause of it’s eventual demise.
Submission to the King
Henry VIII initiated a policy of conquest and colonisation during the 1530s, pursued by his successors, and introduced a policy of “surrender and regrant” to win back his lost kingdom. To facilitate this, he declared himself King of Ireland and decreed that all lands in Ireland were to be surrendered to the Crown, only to be returned if the owners pledged their loyalty to King and the Church of England. This was to bring about huge social, political and religious changes to Ireland, and in 1538 it was to have a direct effect on the O’Flahertys. Roderic’s great-great-grandfather, Hugh Óg O’Flaherty travelled to Galway and submitted to the King. In return for his re-granted lands, Hugh had promised to pay 100 crowns annually as tribute for his lands and to provide forty armed men for the King’s war. He was the first of the O’Flahertys to make a submission, or any kind of alliance for that matter, to the Crown. This marked the beginning of a new era of struggle and tension in Iarchonnacht, not only between the English government and the native Irish, but between the Irish who chose to submit and those who did not. Tensions flared between the O’Flahertys with the castle at Moycullen being seized by Donal and Bryan O’Flaherty of nearby Aughnanure Castle, and Hugh Óg and four of his sons being starved to death in the dungeon of Moycullen Castle.
One of these ill-fated sons was Muircheartach Mac Aodha, who had an infant son, Rory Ruadh. The young boy was quickly smuggled away to Lee’s Island on Lough Corrib and afterwards, sent to England to be “civilised” and educated as a courtier. If this was an attempt by Donal and Bryan to eliminate a weak O’Flaherty branch, it had failed, as the infant child Rory Ruadh survived and succeeded to the inheritance. He later entered into contract with Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, who “provided for his better maintenance of living, and in respect of his good and civil bringinge up in England, he should have letters pattentes of the castle and house of Moycullen, and all other his lands in Gnobegge”.
Bitter feuding erupted within the O’Flaherty septs with relations between Murrough na dtuath O’Flaherty of Aughnanure and Rory Ruadh O’Flaherty of Moycullen being especially tense. In 1584, Rory Ruadh made a complaint to the new Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrot against Murrough that over the past ten years he had driven him from his country of Gnó Beg, despoiled his castle of Moycullen, had burned his corn and houses and murdered his tenants, causing him to lose the total sum of £2,947 and 400 cows. An agreement was ultimately reached and Rory Ruadh rebuilt his castle of Moycullen.
Confiscation of Estates
Rory Ruadh’s son was Hugh of Moycullen, Roderic’s Father, who died in 1631 when Roderic was not even two years old. The estate, approximately 500 acres of farmland, was held directly of the Crown by knight service so Roderic became a ward of the Crown until he came of age. He was educated as the heir to Moycullen and had an excellent knowledge of both Latin and English, and went on to become a man of considerable learning. But following the upheavals of the 1640s and through the policy of confiscation and transplantation under Cromwell during the 1650s, Roderic lost the greater part of his ancestral estates.
Not long after his marriage to the daughter of his kinsman Col. Murrough na dTuath O’Flaherty, and the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II in 1660. Roderic appears to have returned to Moycullen and recovered a further small part of the lands of which he had been dispossessed, including an estate in An Pairc, just over three kilometres east of Spiddal, Co. Galway in the townland of Derryloughaun West. However, he lost almost everything when King William III’s government began to assert control over Galway in 1696. Yet Roderic was hardly destitute; he was still well able to support himself and his family as well as finance his love of manuscript collecting. In his writings he refers to his own misfortunes after the death of Charles I, and laments that the restoration of the monarchy in England had not the effect of redressing his wrongs: “I live a banished man within the bounds of my native soil; a spectator of others enriched by my birthright; an object of condoling to my relations and friends; and a condoler of their miseries”.
Later Life & Works
Despite his disinheritance, during his later life Roderic appears to have maintained an involvement at a distance with the world of books and learning in Dublin and Oxford. He mixed with people of wealth and standing in Dublin, and rubbed shoulders with some of the British Isles’ great academic and cultured minds including scribe and genealogist Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh, Sligo poet Seán Ó Gadhra, Irish philosopher William Molyneaux and his son Samuel, as well as Welsh lexicographer Edward Lhwyd. William Molyneaux visited his house at An Pairc in 1709 and was quite disturbed to see his old friend living in what he deemed were miserable conditions: “I went to visit old O’Flaherty, who lives very old, in a miserable condition at Park, some 3 hours west of Galway in Iarchonnacht.” Here he wrote some of his most famous works including Iar Chonnacht (1684) and Ogygia (1685), and lived until his death in 1718, aged 89 years. According to tradition he was buried within his house at An Pairc at the request of his son Michael. James Hardiman describes the house in 1846: “The house is about sixty feet in length with one little chamber off it to the west. Immediately to the south of the house is a low rock, covered with a green mossy sward, commanding an extensive view of the sea, the three islands of Aran, and a considerable extent of the northern coastline of Clare”.
Michael, after a lengthy legal battle with his father-in-law Richard Martin, Esq., eventually had a portion of the family estates restored in 1736. Michael and Richard’s daughter Anabelle had no children with whom to leave the estate so it was bequeathed to Michael’s step-son, Richard Fitzpatrick, Esq. Richard’s descendants still retained the property into the mid 19th century. Today, sadly the house lies in ruin.
For more information on “The Year of O’Flaherty” festival, visit https://moycullen.galwaycommunityheritage.org/content/promo/year-oflahertyfestival-2018 and www.facebook.com/MoycullenHistoricalSociety and www.facebook.com/aughnanurecastleopw
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