The Kavanagh name and the story of Red Charlie

Every schoolboy has heard or read of the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Ireland in 1170 and how Diarmuid MacMurragh, King of Leinster and Lord of the soil in this locality had brought the Normans into Ireland. It was after this invasion that the MacMurraghs attained a double barrelled name, the MacMurragh-Kavanagh.

Origin of Kavanagh. It originated from the townland of Kilcavan near Carnew in County Wicklow. When Diarmuid MacMurragh died in 1171 he left no male descendant and his castles and lands and, as far as he could, his authority over Leinster, he bequeathed to his daughter Eva and her husband Strongbow. A female ruler was unknown among the Irish chief’s at the time and the Leinster clans were not disposed to acknowledge the supremacy of Diarmuid’s daughter and still less that of her husband, a foreign noble who had made war upon them and robbed many of them of their possessions.

Following a meeting of the chiefs it was decided to set up as King of Leinster an illegitimate son of the late king. This prince was named Domhnall the Handsome. Attracted by those qualities of mind and body, his illegitimacy was forgotten and he was raised by the native chiefs, one of whom fostered him to the position of King of Leinster.

The use of the adjective ‘Kavanagh’ after Donals name began on his return from Kilcavan where he spent the time of his fosterage.

Kilcavan was a monastic settlement run by the followers of Saint Caomhan and was a recognised scat of learning. It was from this association that Donal was given the epithet ‘Kavanagh’ and from which the surname arises. Over the years the clan whose progenitor was Donal became known as MacMurragh Kavanagh. It was with the renouncement of the Gaelic Cheltainship title - MacMurragh on November 4, 1550 by Cahir MacArt Kavanagh, the use of MacMurragh began to fade from the everyday use in the province.

In time most of the descendants of Donal were referred to as Kavanagh or in the Irish language as Na Caomhanaig. The use of the prefix O Mac or Ní is incorrect with the name Caomhanaig.

There is an explanatory entry in Geoffrey Keating’s ‘Foras Feasa ar Eireann’ states that ‘Na Caomhanaigh’, son of Diarmuid na nGall. The epithet adhered to Donal himself having been reared in Cill Chomhain (Kilcavan) in the lower part of Leinster. Donal was among those who submitted to Henry II, but in 1175 he was killed in battle by the the O’Nolans of Clonegal. When the chieftains made their submission in the reign of Henry III, MacMurragh agreed to renounce his chieftaincy and his name, and to be content with the name Kavanagh to accept a grant of land from the King and to adopt English customs and English laws. They never said for how long.

It is of immense interest to read of the exploits of some of the lesser known members of the Kavanagh clan and how they carried on being a thorn in the side of the ruling forces for years after.

One such member was Cahir Ruadh Caomhanach, or in English, Red Charlie Kavanagh. Red Charley was in the line of Garryhill Kavanaghs and became a legend in his own lifetime. Red Charlie was from Ballaghmore in County Carlow and made his name in the late 1500s. He was the son of Donal of Kilmoglise and Garryhill and great-great grandson of of Murrough Ballagh Caomhanagh, founder of the Garryhill and Ballyloughan Septs of the clan.

Red Charlie has been described as an Irish Robin Hood. His good and brave deeds have become part of the legends told by the dwellers on the Blackstairs. His den is known on the mountain where he was forced to hide from the English settlers and their strongholds. His favourite past time was to attack these settlements when he knew they were weakly defended and on his hideout he would allot a certain part of his takings to those who had helped him. Red Charley was no fool and by doing this he was always sure of help when pressed by the soldiers.

His daring sweeps into the very heart of the English owned territory in all sorts of disguises reminds us of the stories of the doings of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ during the French Revolution. Amid all his daring and bravery he had one failing, his fondness for the ladies. It is thought that it was his fondness for one beauty in particular was his wrongdoing and led him to his death.

While Red Charlie’s heart was beating for her, her heart was not beating for Red Charley but for her childhood sweetheart. He lived a hard wild life and he could not understand surrender or betrayal. Red Charley, along with Brian MacCahir Caomhanach, Fiach MacHugh O Byrne and others were in revolt against the English in 1572. After some fierce fighting and long sojourns in hiding and on the mountains what was left of the leaders submitted to the King except one, Cahir Ruadh, Red Charley.

He chose the life of a raparee, or in modern terms, a freedom fighter. He made his home in the wilds of the Blackstairs on the Wexford side, away from his home in Carlow. His Den was just below the Scollagh Gap, an extremely inaccessible place in those days. Before this his home was at Ballaghmore in Fortha, Co. Carlow. His son apparently submitted to the crown and was given tenure of lands which were finally confiscated in 1641 from his grandson Owen MacDomhnall Kavanagh for his part in the 1611 Rebellion.

These lands were never again restored to a Kavanagh.

So, as we look at the Blackstairs, sometimes covered in snow, sometimes in mist or fog spare a thought for the men like Red Charley who spent many a bitter night as a result of fighting against the odds for the land we love. Men who would only be too glad to sing a song for Carlow or even give their lives for her.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist
December 2004