Art O’Leary - Wild Geese Hussar

“Having served the Empress Maria Theresa as a Captain of Hungarian Hussars, he returned home to Ireland to be outlawed and treacherously shot by order of the British Government, his sole ‘crime’ being that he refused to part with a favourite horse for the sum of five pounds.”

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Art O’Leary (in Gaelic: Airt Ó Laoghairer), a Catholic of the old landed gentry of Ireland, was a career officer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and an illustrious member of those vast legions of Irish ‘Wild Geese’ who left home to make their careers in the armies of the Catholic Powers in Europe throughout the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s and 1800s.

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Art O’Leary was born in 1746. He was the son of Cornelius O Laoire, and grandson of Keadagh O Laoire who leased the townland of ‘Teergay’ in Uibh Laoghaire. These lands had been held for many generations by this branch of the O Laoire (O’Leary) family.

Very few details are known about Art’s early life, but he was educated on the Continent of Europe, and his family lived the comfortable life of gentleman-farmers in Ireland … despite the difficulties of doing so, since they were Catholics living during Ireland’s ‘Penal Times’.   His father, Cornelius, must have been reasonably wealthy, since in addition to paying to educate his son on the Continent, he would also have had to purchase an officer’s commission in the army of Austria-Hungary for his son Art, as well as pay for the cost of travel to Austria.  His father acted as the Land Agent for the Minhear family of Carrigaphooka.

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Austro-Hungarian Empire’s position within Europe

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National regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

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Contemporary Hungarian Hussars in full-dress uniform

After the death of his grandfather, Keadagh O Laoire (O’Leary), in 1723, ‘Teergay’ was sold to a Dr. Edward Barry.  Cornelius O Laoire (O’Leary), at some time prior to 1769 took a lease on ‘Rathleigh House’ … a fine Georgian farm house … where he lived with his family, including his son Art.   The lease of ‘Rathleigh House’ was probably part of his father’s business dealings with the Minhear landlords.

In 1767, Captain Art O Laoghaire of Rathleigh (which is in Macroom, County Cork) was home in Ireland, on leave from the Hungarian Hussars, when he first laid eyes on his future wife, Eibhlín O’Connell. She fell in love with Art as he rode past her in the Macroom Town Square … on a dark white steed, the peerless, whose forehead bore a snow-white star.

Eibhlín was twenty-three years old; she had been married to ‘old O'Connor of Firies’ when she was only fifteen, and widowed within six months of that marriage. Eibhlín was the 5th of the 8 daughters of Daniel Mor O’Connell, who also had 5 sons and another 9 children who died young. She was thus an Aunt of Daniel O’Connell ‘the Liberator’, who was born in 1775.

As marriage to Art O Laoire (O’Leary) was against the express wishes of the O’Connell family, Art and Eibhlin eloped … marrying on the 19th of December 1767.

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Macroom Town Square

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The O’Connell family had made a ‘virtue’, and a good living, out of smuggling … consequently they did not want any official light cast on their activities, and to them, Art O Laoghaire (O’Leary) spelled ‘trouble’.   He was apparently a brash young man, proud of his lineage, and his status as a Hussar officer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He certainly considered himself a gentleman, and had doubts about the similar credentials of those Protestant Irish who persecuted him.

Eibhlín and Art settled down to life at ‘Rathleigh’ where they lived with Art’s father, Cornelius.   Eibhlín and Art had five children, three of whom died in infancy.

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It would seem that Art returned to Austria for further periods of service with the Hungarian Hussars between 1767 and his death in 1773. He was home on leave to conceive a second son Fiach, and apparently Eibhlín was again pregnant at the time of his murder.

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Art had a long-running dispute with Abraham Morris of Hanover Hall, who was High Sheriff of Cork ("dirty treacherous Morris", "Morris ghránna an fhill").   Because of the Penal Laws, all Irish Catholics had to endure severe restrictions on education, employment, trade, ownership of property, and the practise of their religion.  Lack of opportunity in Ireland resulted in many thousands of Irish men and women leaving for Europe and America; indeed, this was why Art had sought military service in Europe in the first place.  Morris vigorously attempted to enforce these Penal Laws, while Art made regular attempts to overcome them, resulting in extremely bitter and personal enmity between them.

Eibhlín’s brother, Colonel Daniel O’Connell (of the famous Irish Brigade of France) foresaw this trouble, writing to one of her other brothers, Maurice ‘Hunting Cap’ O’Connell, and declared, "I foresaw that his violence and ungovernable temper would infallibly lead him into misfortune."

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Top left: Historical Regalia of a High Sheriff

Top Right & bottom left: Irish Brigade of France 1690-1792, Semper et ubique Fidelis

The Irish Brigade of France was formed in May 1690 and wore red coats throughout the 1700s to signify they were – from the Jacobite perspective –  the army-in-exile of the only legitimate Kings of Britain (the Stuarts). The Irish Brigade served as part of the French Army until 1792; during these long years of glory, more than 500,000 Irishmen died in the service of France.

In 1771 there was a dramatic encounter between Art O Laoghaire (O’Leary) and Abraham Morris which took place at Hanover Hall on the13th of July.  The first notice of this incident was placed in the Cork Evening Post on the 19th of August by Art, stating that he had been charged with different crimes, and that he was prepared to stand trial at the next Assizes court in Cork.  On the 7th of October charges were issued against Art O Laoghaire (O’Leary) by Morris, for the incident of the 13th of July.

Morris’s fellow magistrates (all Protestants) of the Muskerry Constitutional Society placed an advertisement three days later, which agreed with Morris, their colleague, and they judged Art in his absence.

Art was outlawed, and a price of twenty guineas put on his head.  On the 19th of October, Art replied through the same newspaper, and defended himself vigorously against the charges, and declared that judgement should be suspended until he had had a fair trial.

The final charges against Art resulted from an incident where a prosecution was initiated under Ireland’s anti-Catholic ‘Penal Laws’ … which took place in 1773.  The circumstances of this matter revolved around the fact that when Art returned to Ireland, he brought back with him a fine brown horse, his Austrian cavalry charger, on which he rode around in full view of everybody.

Local history has it that Art rode his horse to victory in a race on Dunisky racecourse, beating Morris’ horse … thus provoking a demand for the sale of the winning horse for only £5, by the thwarted loser.  Another version is that Art, on his magnificent Austrian charger, won the fox’s brush at a fox-hunting meet of the Muskerry Hounds, with the same end result … a demand for the sale of his horse for £5.

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’Reading between the lines’, it is clear that Art O Laoghaire (O’Leary) was a bit of ‘show-off’.  At these times when Catholics were forced to keep a low profile in order to survive, he was to be seen regularly in public, wearing a red military tunic, and a silver pommelled sword, and prancing around on a beautiful horse to the envy of the local Protestant squirearchy.

It is also probable that Morris was typical of his kind of landlord at that time.  Of low breeding, descended from a Cromwellian soldier, and elevated by circumstances to a position for which he was obviously not fit.

Whatever the exact circumstances, there is no doubt that Morris demanded Art sell him his magnificent Hungarian Hussar’s horse for only £5.

* The Penal Laws included, amongst many other humiliating clauses aimed at Catholics, a requirement that a Catholic may not own a horse valued at more than £5, and that any Protestant could demand its sale for the paltry sum of only £5.

Art refused the forced-sale, and struck Morris with a horse whip.  Art also challenged Morris to a duel, which Morris declined.

Morris then clearly used his position as a local magistrate and High Sheriff, to further his act of revenge against Art, his Catholic enemy.  Morris had no difficulty in persuading his fellow Protestant magistrates to support him in this vendetta … and once proclaimed as an outlaw, Art could then be shot-on-sight quite legally.

On ‘May Day’ in 1773 , Art came to know that Morris had travelled on business to the town of Millstreet, and so he too then set off for Millstreet, to be able to intercept Morris on his return journey.  It is also claimed that Art refreshed himself at the Inn in Carrignanimma, and regaled his audience with tales of what he was going to do to Morris.  One of this audience slipped quietly away, and rode into Millstreet to warn Morris.   Morris then collected a posse of soldiers from Millstreet, who went with him to Carriganimma, and set up the ambush for Art.

It is said that Art, being a professional soldier, judged that he was out of range of Mills’ ambushing force, and was in fact tormenting them.

Art was sadly wrong.  Nonetheless, measurements on the ground have shown he appears to have been killed by a musket shot at a range of about 240 yards (far past any accurate shooting range for a 1700s British army musket), so his judgement should have been correct … and this one shot should have been just a rather unlucky fluke hit.

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However, according to Joe O’Leary of Carriganimma, it is widely believed in the local area, that the first shot fired actually hit Art in the neck … and that the fatal neck-shot was in fact fired at a much closer range, which occurred when Art and his horse first appeared in the view of the soldiers immediately opposite them on the other side of the river, and close to the footbridge.

Art was mortally wounded, but he stayed in the saddle for another hundred yards, and then fell from the horse at the point where a monument to him has since been erected. He was then left by the British soldiers to bleed to death at this spot.

On the 17th of May 1773, a Coroner’s Inquest produced a verdict that Abraham Morris and the party of British soldiers were guilty of the wilful and wanton murder of Art Ó Laoghaire (O’Leary).

Art’s brother, Cornelius decided to revenge his dead brother.   He rode into Cork City on the 7th of July, and up to Mr. Boyce’s house in Hammonds Lane, where Morris was lodging.  He saw Morris at a window, and fired three shots at him … wounding him.   The shots were not fatal, but Morris only survived for two more years, dying in September 1775.   His early death was believed to have been as a direct result of this wounding.

Cornelius, meanwhile, had taken passage to France, and from there on to America … where he had a distinguished career.

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The local Protestant magistrates were enraged by this attack on one of their colleagues.  A proclamation was issued on the 26th of July against Cornelius, and large sums of money were offered as a reward for bringing him to justice. But there were no acceptances … ‘the bird had flown.’

At a meeting of the Muskerry Constitutional Society held in Macroom on the 2nd of August, further support for Morris was forthcoming, and further rewards were offered for the capture of Art’s brother, Cornelius … but again to no avail.

On the 4th of September, Morris submitted himself to trial by his own colleagues, the local Protestant magistrates.

Art’s relatives were not represented.

The unit of soldiers involved in the ambush had conveniently been sent to the British East India Colonies.   Trooper Green, who fired the fatal shot, was later decorated for gallantry.

The Cork Evening Post of the 6th of September reported, "Last Saturday September 4th at Cork Abraham Morris was tried for the killing of Arthur O'Leary where he was honourably acquitted".

This ‘extra-judicial killing’ (that is to say, ‘officially sanctioned murder’) of Art Ó Laoghaire (O’Leary), a Catholic gentleman, was not unique in Ireland in those days … records show that James Cotter was similarly dealt with in 1720; as was Morty og O Sullivan in 1754.  A similar bloody campaign against recruiting officers for the Irish Brigade of France included the execution of Denis Dunne, Thomas Herlihy, Denis McCarthy, Dillon MacNamara, and the two Sheehy brothers … plus three minor Catholic gentlemen … all in the period 1749-1766, plus the similar driving out of Ireland of the Hennessys in 1765, and the Springhouse McCarthys in 1776.

It is interesting to note that the Muskerry Constitutional Society was set up in July 1771, and consisted of about 50 Protestant gentlemen, all magistrates and/ or large landowners in County Cork.   It’s first action was the indictment and outlawing of Art O Laoire (O’Leary) in August 1771, on very dubious legal grounds.  His father, Cornelius, was also a landlord like themselves, albeit a Catholic.  His son, Art, had publicly advertised that he was prepared to appear before the next Assizes court to have the matters settled by law.   The rather arbitrary outlawing of Art … presumably based on the possibility that one of their members had been humiliated by Art … meant that one of their fellow magistrates, the complainant in fact, was thereby enabled to take the law into his own hands, which he did in May 1773.

Following his murder, Art Ó Laoghaire was initially buried by his wife Eibhlín in the old Cemetery of Cill na Martra (Tuath na Dromann), near to Dundareirke Castle.

However, his family wished him to be buried in Kilcrea Friary … but burial in Catholic monastic grounds was forbidden at that time under the ‘Penal Laws’.

Art’s body was moved temporarily to an un-consecrated field adjacent to the Friary. When it became legally possible, his final interment in the sacred grounds of Kilcrea Friary eventually took place.

As would befit a well-regarded soldier, aristocrat and husband and father, the epitaph on his tomb reads:-

Lo Arthur Leary
Generous Handsome Brave
slain in His Bloom
Lies in this Humble Grave
Died May 4th 1773 Aged 26 years

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Kilcrea Friary
The friary was founded in 1465 by Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, Lord of Muskerry who is buried within the church. It is a fine example of an Irish Franciscan monastery and mostly survives in good condition. Kilcrea was attacked by the English on several occasions following the suppression of the monasteries during the 16c. In 1650 it was occupied by Parliamentary forces, although its connection with the Franciscans would continue until the 19c.

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Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, Lord of Muskerry
(heraldry image courtesy of Araltas the Internet Heraldry Store -

Several sources indicate the Lords of Muskerry bore the arms illustrated above.  The ‘crest’ above the helmet is a little different than the usual McCarthy crest, in that the arm is "armed cuffed argent" rather than "in mail" ... and the motto is "forti et fideli nihil diffiicile" (with strength and faith nothing is difficult), whereas the usual McCarthy motto is: "fortis ferox et celer" (Strong, courageous and swift).  Also, the Lords of Muskerry used two angels as supporters, as shown.

It may be impossible to confirm these arms were borne by Cormac Laidir, but they were certainly used by his successors; Cormac Mor and his son Dermot, as well as Donagh McCarthy - Baron of Muskerry

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Kilcrea Friary is near Ovens, a little way west of Cork city. Founded in 1465 for the Observant Franciscans by Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, Lord of Muskerry. It is set in beautiful farmland and is the burial place of Airt Ó Laoghaire (Art O’Leary)

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The Descendants of Art O Laoire (O’Leary)

Eibhlin Dubh had two children at the time of Art’s death, and was pregnant with a third.  The third child does not seem to have survived, and there is no documented knowledge of Art’s son Fiach and his subsequent history.

Art O Laoire’s first son, Cornelius was born the 25th of August 1768, and was sent to Paris for his education.   Cornelius became a Captain in the French Army, and served with the famous Gardes Francais.  He married, first to Rebecca Gentleman, and secondly to Mary Purcell in 1814.  He trained as a Barrister, and lived in Cork City from 1814 to 1817, then later at ‘Dromore House’ in Duhallow.  Cornelius died on the 20th of August 1846.

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Dromore House

It was claimed by the noted diarist, O Neill Daunt, that Cornelius was brought up as a Protestant, while his brother Fiach was raised as a Catholic. (This was a not uncommon practice in Ireland in those days, and was done in order to retain land in the family.)

"That man's son was the father of two fine boys, he brought up one of them a Protestant and the other a Catholic.  The poor children early showed the belligerent spirit of religious hostility.  They were always squabbling.  The Catholic brother would say "we'll get Emancipation in spite of you"  "No, you rascal, " the Protestant brother would answer, "We'll keep our foot upon your necks".

It is recorded that Art’s son Cornelius presided at a meeting of Catholics held in the South Parish Chapel in 1814, so may he have reverted to Catholicism by that date.

Cornelius and Mary produced three sons, Cornelius Ferdinand Purcell O’Leary (Cornelius the younger) born on the 6th of October 1815, Goodwin Richard Purcell O’Leary born on the 19th of March 1817, and Arthur (date of birth unknown).

It is a curious fact that when Cornelius wrote a short account of his life in a family bible at Manch House, he failed to mention his first wife Rebecca, or his third son Arthur.   The account was written in Paris in October 1827.  So there must remain some element of doubt as to the authenticity of these two members of the family … although it is possible that Arthur was born after this date.

Mary died in January 1830.

Art’s grandson, C.F.P. O’Leary was baptised, confirmed and brought up as a Protestant.   He was sent to Paris in 1825 to be educated.   He returned to Ireland, and was called to the Bar where he took the special oath proscribed for Catholics.   In 1843, this younger Cornelius assisted Daniel O’Connell in his campaign for reform, and attended one of the Monster Meetings.  The only record we have of this Cornelius practising as a Barrister was in a case of Sullivan verus Healey, in Bantry in 1845.  In the course of this case he described himself as "a good Catholic".  He died, still only 31 and unmarried, in 1846 at Dromore.

The second son, G.R.P. O’Leary was also sent to Paris for education at the age of 5. Goodwin must have been a precocious child, because he matriculated for University entry to Trinity College Dublin at 13 years … and graduated at 16!  He then spent many years attending universities in different parts of Europe, acquiring several languages, and a clutch of degrees in medicine.  In 1857 he was appointed Professor of Materia Medica at Queens College, Cork.  He married Helena Sugrue in 1849, but they had no children.  He died in 1876 in the home of his brother-in-law at Chatsworth, and his body was brought back to Kilcrea Abbey, where he was buried in the same tomb as his grandfather, Art Ó Laoghaire.   He was a member of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society, and apparently required the members to address him and his wife as "The O Leary and Madame O'Leary", a title to which he had no good claim.

He did, however, have another claim to fame.  When Prussia and Austria united to attack Denmark, he wrote to the King of Denmark offering to bring to his service 100 Irishmen, mounted and accoutred at their own expense.  This offer was not taken up, but O’Leary was awarded the Order of Danneborg, the only other possessor in the British Isles being England’s Prince of Wales.

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Order of Danneborg

Art’s sons and grand-sons seem to have steered a course in their religious affiliations, to suit the changing circumstances of those times, without very much worry, and probably to their pecuniary benefit.

There are no known living direct descendants of Art Ó Laoghaire, today.  There is, however, a lineal descendant through the distaff side … a Mr. Kenneth Barnes, who lives in Cork City, and who is a lecturer at the Crawford Institute.

The Lament for Art O'Leary

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O’Leary’s wife, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, Ó Laoghaire's "Dark Eileen", composed the famous Lament for Art O'Leary, a 390-line lament mourning Ó Laoghaire's death and calling for revenge.   The Caoineadh was composed by Eibhlín Dubh ex tempore and became part of the Irish oral tradition (it was not written down until many years later).  It has been described as "the most remarkable set of keening verses to have survived."

The extracts (below) of ‘Lament for Art O’Leary’ appear to have been uttered by Eibhlín over her husband’s body in Carriginima. …

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
by the market-house gable
my eye gave a look
my heart shone out
I fled with you far
from friends and home.

And never was sorry:
you had parlours painted
rooms decked out
the oven reddened
and loaves made up
roasts on spits
and cattle slaughtered;
I slept in duck-down
till noontime came
or later if I liked.

My steadfast friend!
it comes to my mind
that fine Spring day
how well your hat looked
with the drawn gold band,
the sword silver-hilted
your fine brave hand
and menacing prance,
and the fearful tremble
of treacherous enemies.
You were set to ride
your slim white-faced steed
and Saxons saluted
down to the ground,
not from good will
but by dint of fear
- though you died at their hands,
my soul's beloved....

My steadfast friend!
And when they come home,
our little pet Conchúr
and baby Fear Ó Laoghaire,
they will ask at once
where I left their father.
I will tell them in woe
he is left in Cill na Martar,
and they'll call for their father
and get no answer....

My steadfast friend!
I didn't credit your death
till your horse came home
and her reins on the ground,
your heart's blood on her back
to the polished saddle
where you sat - where you stood....
I gave a leap to the door,
a second leap to the gate
and a third on your horse.

I clapped my hands quickly
and started mad running
as hard as I could,
to find you there dead
by a low furze-bush
with no Pope or bishop
or clergy or priest
to read a psalm over you
but a spent old woman
who spread her cloak corner
where your blood streamed from you,
and I didn't stop to clean it
but drank it from my palms.

My steadfast love!
Arise, stand up
and come with myself
and I'll have cattle slaughtered
and call fine company
and hurry up the music
and make you up a bed
with bright sheets upon it
and fine speckled quilts
to bring you out in a sweat
where the cold has caught you.


Tradition has it that Art’s sister found Eibhlín in bed when she arrived from Cork City for the wake in the Ó Laoghaire home. Her rebuke to Eibhlín led to a sharp verbal contest.

Art's sister:

My friend and my treasure!
Many fine-made women
from Cork of the sails
to Droichead na Tóime
would bring you great herds
and a yellow gold handful,
and not sleep in their room
on the night of your wake.

Eibhlín Dhubh:

My friend and my lamb!
Don't you believe them
nor the scandal you heard
nor the jealous man's gossip
that it's sleeping I went.
It was no heavy slumber
but your babies so troubled
and all of them needing
to be settled in peace.

People of my heart,
what woman in Ireland
from setting of sun
could stretch out beside him
and bear him three sucklings
and not run wild
losing Art Ó Laoghaire
who lies here vanquished
since yesterday morning?...

Long loss, bitter grief
I was not by your side
when the bullet was fired
so my right side could take it
or the edge of my shift
till I freed you to the hills,
my fine-handed horseman!

Art's sister:

My sharp bitter loss
I was not at your back
when the powder was fired
so my fine waist could take it
or the edge of my dress,
till I let you go free,
My grey-eyed rider,
ablest for them all.


These lines, with their public adulation of Art, were probably uttered by Eibhlín after her husband's body had been prepared for burial.

Eibhlín Dhubh:

My friend and my treasure trove!
An ugly outfit for a warrior:
a coffin and a cap
on that great-hearted horseman
who fished in the rivers
and drank in the halls
with white-breasted women.
My thousand confusions
I have lost the use of you.
Ruin and bad cess to you,
ugly traitor Morris,
who took the man of my house
and father of my young ones
- a pair walking the house
and the third in my womb,
and I doubt that I'll bear it.

My friend and beloved!
When you left through the gate
you came in again quickly,
you kissed both your children,
kissed the tips of my fingers.
You said: " Eibhlín, stand up
and finish with your work
lively and swiftly:
I am leaving our home
and may never return."
I made nothing of his talk
for he spoke often so.

My friend and my share!
0 bright-sworded rider
rise up now,
put on your immaculate
fine suit of clothes,
put on your black beaver
and pull on your gloves.
There above is your whip
and your mare is outside.
Take the narrow road Eastward
where the bushes bend before you
and the stream will narrow for you
and men and women will bow
if they have their proper manners
- as I doubt they have at present....

My love, and my beloved!
Not my people who have died
- not my three dead children
nor big Dónall Ó Conaill
nor Conall drowned on the sea
nor the girl of twenty-six
who went across the ocean
alliancing with kings
- not all these do I summon
but Art, reaped from his feet last night
on the inch of Carriginima.
The brown mare's rider
deserted here beside me,
no living being near him
but the little black mill-women
- and to top my thousand troubles
their eyes not even streaming.

My friend and my calf!
O Art Ó Laoghaire
son of Conchúr son of Céadach
son of Laoiseach Ó Laoghaire:
West from the Gaortha
and East from the Caolchnoc
where the berries grow,
yellow nuts on the branches
and masses of apples
in their proper season
- need anyone wonder
if Uibh Laoghaire were alight
and Béal Atha an Ghaorthaígh
and Gúgán the holy
or the fine-handed rider
who used tire out the hunt
as they panted from Greanach
and the slim hounds gave up?
Alluring-eyed rider,
o what ailed you last night?
For I thought myself
when I bought your uniform
the world couldn't kill you!


Art's sister makes her own formal contribution here to the keen. Her reference to Art's women-friends brings a spirited reply from Eibhlín.

Art's sister:

My love and my darling!
My love, my bright dove!
Though I couldn't be with you
nor bring you my people
that's no cause for reproach,
for hard pressed were they all
in shuttered rooms
and narrow coffins
in a sleep with no waking.

Were it not for the smallpox
and the black death
and the spotted fever
those rough horse-riders
would be rattling their reins
and making a tumult
on the way to your funeral,
Art of the bright breast....

My friend and my calf!
A vision in dream
was vouchsafed me last night
in Cork, a late hour,
in bed by myself:
our white mansion had fallen,
the Gaortha had withered,
our slim hounds were silent
and no sweet birds,
when you were found spent
out in midst of the mountain
with no priest or cleric
but an ancient old woman
to spread the edge of her cloak,
and you stitched to the earth,
Art Ó Laoghaire,
and streams of your blood
on the breast of your shirt.

My love and my darling!
It is well they became you
your stocking, five-ply,
riding -boots to the knee,
cornered Caroline hat
and a lively whip
on a spirited gelding,
many modest mild maidens
admiring behind you.

Eibhlín Dhubh:

My steadfast love!
When you walked through the servile
strong-built towns,
the merchants' wives
would salute to the ground
knowing well in their hearts
a fine bed-mate you were
a great front-rider
and father of children.

Jesus Christ well knows
there's no cap upon my skull
nor shift next to my body
nor shoe upon my foot-sole
nor furniture in my house
nor reins on the brown mare
but I'll spend it on the law;
that I'll go across the ocean
to argue with the King,
and if he won't pay attention
that I'll come back again
to the black-blooded savage
that took my treasure.


Due to some legal obstruction, the body of Art Ó Laoghaire was not buried in the ancestral graveyard, and temporary burial arrangements had to be made. It was possibly some months later that the body was transferred to the monastery of Kilcrea, County Cork. Eibhlín appears to have uttered the following passage of her lament on the occasion of the second burial.

Eibhlín Dhubh:

My love and my beloved!
Your corn-stacks are standing,
your yellow cows milking.
Your grief upon my heart
all Munster couldn't cure,
nor the smiths of Oiledn na bhFionn.

Till Art Ó Laoghaire comes
my grief will not disperse
but cram my heart's core,
shut firmly in
like a trunk locked up
when the key is lost.

Women there weeping,
stay there where you are,
till Art Mac Conchúir summons drink
with some extra for the poor
- ere he enter that school
not for study or for music
but to bear clay and stones.

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A Few Details of Britain’s Anti-Catholic ‘Penal Laws’ in Ireland

Among the discriminations faced by Catholics, and – for a few years – Presbyterians, under the Penal Laws in Ireland were:

  • Exclusion of Catholics from most public offices (since 1607), Presbyterians were also barred from public office from 1707.
  • Ban on intermarriage with Protestants.
  • Presbyterian marriages were not legally recognised by the state.
  • Catholics barred from holding firearms or serving in the armed forces.
  • Barred from membership of either the Parliament of Ireland or the Parliament of Great Britain from 1652; rescinded 1662-1691; renewed 1691-1829.
  • Disenfranchising Act 1728 - prohibiting all Roman Catholics from voting.
  • Exclusion from the legal professions and the judiciary.
  • Education Act 1695 - ban on foreign education.
  • Ban on Catholics entering Trinity College Dublin.
  • On a death by a Catholic, his legatee could benefit by conversion to the Protestant ‘Church of Ireland’ (the ‘Church of England’ in Ireland).
  • Popery Act- Catholic inheritances of land were to be equally subdivided between all an owner's sons with the exception that if the eldest son and heir converted to Protestantism that he would become the one and only tenant of estate and portions for other children not to exceed one third of the estate.
  • Ban on converting from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism on pain of Praemunire: forfeiting all property estates and legacy to the monarch of the time and remaining in prison at monarch’s pleasure. In addition, forfeiting the monarch’s protection in law. No injury however atrocious could have any action brought against it or any reparation for such.
  • Ban on Catholics buying land under a lease of more than 31 years.
  • Ban on custody of orphans being granted to Catholics on pain of ₤500 that was to be donated to the Blue Coat hospital in Dublin.
  • Ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land.
  • Prohibition on Catholics owning a horse valued at over ₤5 (in order to keep horses suitable for military activity out of the Catholic majority's hands).
  • Roman Catholic lay-priests had to register to preach under the Registration Act 1704, but seminary priests and Bishops were forbidden until 1778. The last priest to be executed was Nicolas Sheehy in 1766
  • When allowed, new Catholic churches were to be built from wood, not stone, and away from main roads.
  • 'No person of the popish religion (Catholic) shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning within this realm' upon pain of ₤20 fine and 3 months in prison for every such offence.
  • Any and all rewards not paid by the crown for alerting authorities of offences to be levied upon the Catholic populace within parish and county.

The Penal Laws ‘in Action’

Nicholas Sheehy was an 18th century Irish Roman Catholic priest who was executed on a charge of ‘accessory to murder’.   He was born in Ireland in 1728 at Fetard, near Clonmel and grew up near Newcastle, on the Tipperary County and Waterford County borders.  His father was Francis, son of John of Drumcollogher.

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The old walled-township of Fetard

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Nicholas Sheehy was educated in France and became the parish priest for Clogheen in south County Tipperary.

Father Sheehy was a prominent opponent of Britain’s ‘Penal Laws’, which persecuted Catholics in Ireland.

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During these years, famine caused much suffering and death in Ireland. It is estimated that over 400,000 perished from malnutrition. The Irish Famine of 1740–1741 was of a similar magnitude to the better-known Great Famine of 1845-1852.

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Unlike the famine of the 1845-1852, which was caused in part by a fungal infection in the potato crop, the famine of 1740-41 was due to extremely cold and then rainy weather in successive years, resulting in a series of poor harvests.

Hunger compounded a range of fatal diseases. The death rate in 1740-41 was similar to that of the famine a century later, namely that about ten percent of the population died. The year 1741, when the famine was at its worst and mortality was greatest, was known in folk memory as the 'year of the slaughter' (or 'bliain an áir' in Gaelic).

As there wasn't a massive wave of overseas emigration in 1740-41, this earlier catastrophic famine has largely been overlooked.

Adding to the social unrest at this time was a rumour that the Catholic French would invade Ireland. Part of this concern stemmed from the emigration of many thousands of Irish soldiers - known as the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’- who had left for France after the Treaty of Limerick.   The concern at that time was these Irish exiles would lobby the French monarch to support the Catholics in Ireland.   This led to new persecutions of Irish Catholics and their priests.

Father Sheehy spoke out against the ‘Penal Laws’, the eviction of poor tenants by landlords, the elimination of common land by enclosure, and tithe taxes. These tithe taxes were for the support of the Protestant church. Father Sheehy believed they were unjust since they were levied against the poorest residents (Catholics) to benefit the wealthiest (Protestants, including Protestant clergy). Furthermore, Father Sheehy was opposed to the English occupation of Irish lands.

Father Sheehy's beliefs led him into conflict with local Protestant leaders around the Clonmel district.  In time, he was accused of conspiracy against the State (for involvement in a ‘Whiteboys’ riot that destroyed a wall preventing access to common land near the town of Clogheen).   After a fair trial all the accused – including Father Sheehy – were acquitted.

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illustration from The Pictorial History of England

The Whiteboys were a secret agrarian organization in 1700s Ireland which used violent tactics to defend tenant farmer land rights for subsistence. Their name derives from the white smocks the members wore in their nightly raids, but the ‘Whiteboys’ were as usually referred to at the time as ‘Levellers’ by the authorities, and by themselves as "Queen Sive Oultagh's children", "fairies", or as followers of "Johanna Meskill" or "Sheila Meskill", all symbolic figures supposed to lead the movement. They sought to address rack-rents, tithe collection, excessive priests' dues, evictions and other oppressive acts. As a result they targeted landlords and tithe collectors. Over time, ‘Whiteboyism’ became a general term for rural violence connected to secret societies. Because of this generalization, the historical record for the ‘Whiteboys’ as a specific organisation is unclear. There were three major outbreaks of ‘Whiteboyism’: 1761–64; 1770–76; and 1784–86.

Following his acquittal, Father Sheehy was then accused of involvement in the disappearance or murder of an informer. A reward of ₤50 was offered by the government for allegations that led to a court conviction in this case.

Father Sheehy went into hiding at this time.

In 1764, the government issued a Proclamation and offered ₤300 reward for the capture of Father Sheehy.   When he read the Proclamation, Sheehy wrote from one of his hiding places to Thomas Waite (Under-Secretary for Ireland) and offered to surrender, but only if he would be tried in Dublin.  The offer was accepted and the trial took place on 10 February 1766, when he was acquitted of High Treason.

Immediately after his acquittal, Father Sheehy was then charged with Murder.

On 12 March 1766, Father Sheehy was tried at Clonmel for the murder of John Bridge.


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West Gate, Clonmel

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The Main Guard, Clonmel

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St. Mary’s Church interior, Clonmel

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Many of the same witnesses who had previously testified against Father Sheehy also testified at this trial, in addition to some highly questionable testimony by a Mrs. Mary Brady (‘Moll Dunlea’) – described at the time as an “abandoned character”. The prosecution’s evidence was widely considered as being fabricated by local landlords and the Protestant Rector of the ‘Church of Ireland’ in Clogheen

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former ‘Church of Ireland’ (Anglican) at Clogheen
(now a Community Centre)

Evidence was also presented in defence of Father Sheehy, that he was “a respectable man and a man of property” by a Mr. Keating. Mr. Keating also testified that Father Sheehy was actually in Keating’s house at the time of the alleged murder.

Mr. Keating's testimony was then dismissed in court by a Protestant clergyman (a Reverend Hewitson), who declared Keating was an unreliable witness.

Mr. Keating was then arrested and sent to Kilkenny Gaol (‘Kilkenny jail’) based on Reverend Hewitson's allegations – which was done prevent Keating giving any further evidence in defence of Father Sheey.

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Kilkenny Courthouse formerly known as ‘Grace’s Castle’ was originally a town house of the wealthy Grace family who leased the building to the Crown in 1566.
The building was used as a Gaol (‘jail’) from 1566 and was transformed into a courthouse around the end of the 18th century.

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Kilkenny Castle

Father Sheehy was duly convicted and sentenced to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’.

Father Sheehy asserted his innocence of all the charges against him. He said in his final speech, after being sentenced to death, that he was being executed for a crime which had never even been committed; the murder victim (John Bridge) was known to have been present in Cork after the date of the ‘crime’ - and it is thought that he emigrated to Newfoundland.

Father Sheehy's attorney (a Protestant), on hearing the sentence of death, turned to the jury (Protestants) and said, “If there is any justice in heaven, you will die roaring.”

On 15 March 1766, Father Sheehy was hanged, drawn and quartered* at Clonmel. (Not a nice way to go !!!)

Others accused of involvement in this ‘crime’ were also convicted for the ‘murder’ of John Bridge, and executed on 3 May 1766, including Edmond Sheehy, a cousin to the priest. Another cousin, Edmund Buck, was hanged in 1775, having appeared as a witness for the defence at Father Sheehy’s trial.

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* under English law, convicted ‘traitors’ were fastened to a wooden panel, and drawn by a galloping horse to the place of execution, where they were hanged (almost to the point of death), had their sex-organs cut off, the intestines and organs pulled-out of their body and then burnt in front of the victim, finally their head was cut off and the body quartered (chopped into four pieces). Their remains were often displayed in prominent places across the country

Father Sheehy was executed on a scaffold in Clonmel opposite St. Peters and Paul's Catholic Church, where a plaque was later placed to commemorate his death.   His severed head was stuck on a spike over Clonmel Gaol (‘Clonmel jail’) as a warning to the Irish Catholics against agrarian violence.  His head remained above the porch at Clonmel Gaol for about twenty years.

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His sister Catherine regularly visited the gaol (‘jail’) and was eventually given the head.   She took it home in a bag under her arm and had it buried with the rest of his body beside the ruins of the old church of Shanrahan.

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Shanrahan Churchyard and Ruins, Clogheen

God Bless England !