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
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 chiefs
at the time and the Leinster clans were not disposed to
acknowledge the supremacy of Diarmuids 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
There is an explanatory entry in Geoffrey Keatings
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 ONolans 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 Charlies 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