The Life and Times of Art O Laoghaire.


By Peter O'Leary

1. The events of May 4th.1773.

Art O Laoire was 26, a Captain in the Hungarian Hussars, a Regiment of Empress Marie Therese's Army of Austro-Hungary.  On that day in May he was seen in Carriganimma, crossing the footbridge over the River Foherish, and proceeding on horseback along the ridge on the West Bank.  He was riding over a small green inch in the townland of Carrigonirtane when a single shot rang out, killing Art instantly.  He was thrown to the ground and his horse ran off, returning eventually to Art's house in Rathleigh near Macroom.

Shortly before this, a contingent of soldiers, led by a local Magistrate, Abraham Morris from Hanover Hall, also near Macroom, had lined up along a ditch bordering the pound on the East side of the River.  Morris gave the order to fire, and the first shot, which killed Art, came from the musket of a soldier called Green.

That the killing was Official Execution, or maybe Legalised Murder, is supported by three facts.

a. Art had previously been declared an Outlaw under the provisions of the Penal Laws.
b. The soldier Green was decorated for his "Gallantry".
c. Morris himself elected to stand trial by his peers, the local Magistracy, and was found innocent of any crime by those Gentlemen.

In more recent years a small monument has been erected on the spot, which reads
"ar an lathair seo a maraiodh Art O Laoghaire ar an 4u Bealtaine 1773 ar dheis De go raibh se"

(On this spot, Art O Laoire was killed,  4th.May 1773. RIP)

2. The facts leading up to this incident.

Art 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 family.  After Keadaghs death, in 1723, Teergay was sold to Dr.Edward Barry.  Cornelius at some time prior to 1769 had taken the lease of Rathleigh House, a fine Georgian Farm House, where he lived with his family, including his son Art.

Art was born in 1746.  We know nothing about his early life, but he was presumably well educated, and the family lived a comfortable life of Gentleman Farmers, despite the difficulties of doing so, since they were Catholics living during the Penal Times.His father must have been reasonably well off, since he would have had to purchase the commission in the Army for Art, as well as the cost of the journey to Austria.  Cornelius acted as Land Agent for the Minhear family of Carrigaphooka, and the lease of Rathleigh House probably formed part of his deal with these Landlords.

These circumstances were uncommon, but not totally unknown.  Many such households are described in Daniel Corkerys "Hidden Ireland". One other was that of the O'Connells of Derrynane in the depths of Co.Kerry.  It was one of those O'Connells, Eibhlin Dubh, who Art married. They had a romantic meeting in Macroom Town Square, fell in love, and eloped because of the hostility of the O'Connells, but were eventually married.

Colonel Daniel O'Connell writing to his brother, Maurice "Hunting Cap" O'Connell from France in 1773 says " I still foresaw that his violence and ungovernable temper would infallibly lead him into misfortune."

The O'Connells had made a virtue, and a good living, out of the smuggling trade.  They did not want any official light cast on their activities, and to them, Art spelled
Trouble.  He was apparently a brash young man, proud of his lineage, and his status as on Officer.  He certainly considered himself a Gentleman, and had doubts about the similar credentials of those who persecuted him.

When Art met Eibhlin in 1767 she was aged 23 and had been a widow since she was 15.  She had been previously married to "old O'Connor of Firies", but he had died after six months of marriage.  Eibhlin 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.

Art and Eibhlin were married 19th.December 1767 and continued to live with his Father at Rathleigh House.  It would seem that Art returned to Austria for further periods of service between 1767 and his death in 1773.  Although we do not know his precise movements, he was home to conceive a second son Fiach in about 1700,  and apparently Eibhlin was again pregnant at the time of his death. 

There was a history of bad blood between Art and Morris, who was High Sheriff of County Cork in 1771.  In that year we have a dramatic account of an encounter between the two men which took place at Hanover Hall on 13th.July.  This first notice was placed in the Cork Evening Post on 19th.August by Art stating that he had been charged with different crimes, and was prepared to stand trial at the next Assizes in Cork.  This was followed on 7th.October by a claim against Art by Morris, outlining his charges against Art for the incident of the 13th.July.  Morris's fellow Magistrates in the Muskerry Constitutional Society in an advertisement 3 days later appear to have agreed with their colleague and judged Art in his absence. He was Outlawed, and a price of 20 guineas put on his head.  On 19th.October Art replied through the same Newspaper and defended himself vigorously from the charge, and suggests that judgement should be suspended until he has had a fair trial.

The later event which we have no written evidence for, was a claim against Art under the Penal Laws, which took place in 1773.  The circumstances revolve around  the fact that Art brought back with him from Austria, his fine brown steed, on which he rode around in full view of  the general public.  Morris demanded that Art sell him the horse for £5.  The Penal Laws, amongst many other humiliating clauses aimed at Catholics, stated that a Catholic may not own a horse of value more than £5, and any Protestant could demand its sale at this price.  Art refused the sale, and struck Morris with his horse whip.  He also challenged Morris to a duel, which was declined.

Morris clearly was using his position as Magistrate, and at one point High Sheriff, to further his act of revenge against his enemy.  He had no difficulty in persuading his fellow Magistrates to support him in his vendetta, and once proclaimed as an outlaw, Art could then be shot at sight quite legally.

It is believed that on that May day in 1773 , Art knew that Morris was on business in Millstreet, set off himself to intercept his enemy on his return, and may well have decided to kill Morris.  It is also said that Art refreshed himself in the Inn in Carrignanimma, bought drinks freely, and regaled his audience with tales of what he was going to do to Morris.  Also that one of this audience slipped quietly away, rode towards Millstreet to warn Morris. Morris returned to Millstreet and collected the posse of soldiers who went with him to Carriganimma and set up the ambush.  These are not proven facts but fit in well with what actually happened that day.

It is said that Art, a professional soldier, judged that he was out of range of the firing squad, and was in fact tormenting them.  If that is so, he was sadly wrong.  Measurement on the ground shows that he was killed by a musket shot at about 240 yards, so his judgement should have been correct. Perhaps the one shot was a rather unlucky fluke.

There is an interesting theory which throws some light on this unlucky fluke.  According to Joe O'Leary of Carriganimma it is widely believed in that area that the first shot which hit Art in the neck, was in fact fired at much closer range, when he and his horse appeared in the view of the soldiers immediately opposite them on the other side of the river, and close to the footbridge.  This would be as he came around Joe's farm.  The theory is that Art was mortally wounded but stayed in the saddle for another hundred yards, then fell from the horse at the point where the monument is now.  He was then left by the soldiers to bleed to death at this spot.  This is much more convincing, and means that the fatal musket shot was fired at a range of more like 100 yards.  Still a difficult shot, but more possible.


3.  The many Myths associated with the events.

These then are the bald facts.  Way beyond these facts has arisen a wealth of Mythology about the details of the events.  It is not proposed to go into these in any detail, but they are of great interest, and reveal the way that such Mythology is built up.  There is a possibility that much of the Mythology is built up based on real fact, albeit somewhat glossed over the years of story telling.

Thus we learn that Art rode his horse to victory in a race on Dunisky Racecourse, beating Morris' horse, and thus provoking the demand for a sale at £5 by the thwarted loser.  Another version is that Art, on his horse, took the brush at a meet of the Muskerry Hounds, with the same result.

It can clearly be read, between the lines, that Art was a 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 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 he was obviously not fit for.

4.  The burial of Art.

Curiously, Art's body received three burials.  Initially he was buried by Eibhlin in the Old Cemetery of Kilnamartra (Tuath na Dromann), ie. near to Dundareirke Castle.  It was however the family wish that he be buried in Kilcrea Friary, although there is no evidence of this being in any sense the traditional family grave.  At that time, burial in monastic ground was forbidden,  so his body was removed to a temporary home in the field adjacent to the Friary.  Then finally, when the Penal Laws had become non-effective, his final interment in Kilcrea Friary took place.

The stone over his tomb states "Lo Arthur Leary, Generous, Handsome, Brave, Slain in his bloom, Lies in this humble grave. Died May 4th.1773.  Aged 26 years."

This part of the memorial can be seen to this day.

In 1949 John T.Collins reported seeing a further addition to this inscription, which was said to have been added by his grandson, GRP O'Leary.

"Having served the Empress Marie Therese as Captain of Hungarian Hussars, he returned home 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."  Mr.Collins adds "It is more than likely that the part indicting the British Government was not inserted until the penal laws had become a dim memory."

He also noted that the tomb at that time indicated that Art's son, Cornelius, and his grandson, GRP O'Leary, were also interred herein.

5.Subsequent Events.

Morris may have had his revenge, but that was not the end of the story.

A Coroners Inquest held on May 17th. produced a verdict that Abraham Morris and the party of soldiers were guilty of the wilful and wanton Murder of Arthur O Laoire.
Art's brother Cornelius decided to revenge his dead brother.

He rode into Cork City on the 7th.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, believed to have been as a direct result of the wounding.

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

The Magistrates were enraged by this attack.  A Proclamation was issued on 26th.July  against the Perpetrator, and large sums 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 2nd.August, further support for Morris was shown, and further rewards offered for the capture of Cornelius, but without avail.

On the 4th.September Morris submitted himself to trial by the local Magistrates.  The O'Leary relatives were not represented, and the party of soldiers involved had conveniently been sent to the East India Colonies.  The Cork Evening Post of 6th.September reported "Last Saturday September 4th. at Cork Abraham Morris was tried for the killing of Arthur O'Leary where he was honourably acquitted".

6.  The Caoineadh. Eibhlin Dubh ni Chonnail.
The story of Art O Laoire would probably have been forgotten long ago, but for the Caoineadh which was composed over his body at the Wake, by Eibhlin Dubh.  Keening the dead, was an old tradition, and the Keen itself followed a well established pattern.  This was an oral tradition, but in many cases, as happened here,  the Keen became retold by Seanachies and others over the subsequent years.  Whether it was improved on as time passed, we have no means of knowing, but the version which was finally put to print and became part of our culture, is regarded as a master piece of its genre,  has been translated many times, and  is largely responsible for the continuation of the legend of Art O Laoire.

7.  What was it all about?

It is necessary, at this point, to consider the wider aspects of the Judicial Murder of Art O Laoire in 1773.

Was this, as it is often depicted, merely the petty revenge of a rather mean, pompous and self important member of the Protestant Ascendancy, over a member of the Catholic landowning class who showed a bit more spirit than most?

This view probably does not take full account of the situation of the time.  This aspect is thoroughly dealt with by Professor Cullen of TCD in his article in Cork History and Society entitled "The Blackwater Catholics and County Cork Society and Politics in the 18th. century".  Anyone who really wants to understand this, and other similar incidents should read Professor Cullens article in full.  I will only refer to a few points from that article which are most relevant.

These include.

a. The similarity between the Judicial Murders of James Cotter (1720), Morty og        O Sullivan (1754), and Art O Laoire (1773).   

b. A similar bloody campaign against recruiting officers for the Irish Brigade including the execution of Denis Dunne, Thomas Herlihy, and Denis McCarthy, Dillon MacNamara and the two Sheehy brothers plus three minor Catholic gentlemen, all in the period 1749-1766

c. The similar but less bloody driving out of the country of the Hennessys (1765) and the Springhouse McCarthys (1776).

d. A similar campaign against the Nagle families which resulted in all conforming to the Protestant religion.

e. The fact that all these took place in Co.Cork and South Co.Tipperary.

f. There was at this time a move throughout most of the Country towards a more reasonable treatment of Catholics, which eventually led to the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1793.
These, apart from a realisation that Catholics might be human beings also, was part of a Political movement headed by Burke, moving towards Emancipation, and gradually obtaining widespread support amongst the Protestant Ascendancy.

g.  As usual in similar situations, this trend was strongly opposed by a gradually reducing but strong Political wing which was Conservative, Backward looking, Papist hating, Protestant supporting, and Land owning motivated.  This was led in Parliament by Lord Shannon, and strongly supported in his home territory of Co.Cork.

Cullen is suggesting that Art's death was merely one of a number of events towards the later part of the 18th. c. which were Political, regressive, and the last kick, as it were of the Protestant landowning, anti-Papist rump, which had it's centre in Co.Cork, and which was acting against the trend in the Country as a whole.

This is typical of the backlash in the final phases of an insupportable tyranny, and could be likened to similar situations in the North of Ireland in recent years

It is interesting to note that the Muskerry Constitutional Society was set up in July 1771, and consisted of about 50 Gentlemen, all Magistrates and/or Landowners in Co.Cork. It's first action was the indictment and outlawing of Art O Laoire in August 1771 on very dubious legal grounds.  Cornelius was a Landlord like themselves, albeit a Catholic.  His son Art had publicly advertised that he was prepared to appear before the next Assizes to have the matters settled by Law. The rather arbitrary Outlawing, presumably based on the possibility that one of their Members had been humiliated by Art, meant that one of their Members, the Complainant in fact, was enabled to take the Law into his own hands, which he did in May1773.

8.  The genealogy of Art O Laoire

A look at the Descent of Art O Laoire shows that he was a direct descendant of Conchobhar O Laoire of Mannen, who was Chieftain of Uibh Laoghaire up to 1572.  The direct lineal descendant in 1773 was Denis O Laoire of Coomlagane near Millstreet, who was known in Millstreet as "O Leary."   Art was  5th. cousin to Denis.  This Denis was an even more substantial Land owner than Cornelius, and was a Magistrate.  Ironically he appears on the list of Members of the Muskerry Constitutional Society at it's formation in 1771, as does Tim O Laoire of Glasheen in Uibh Laoghaire.

There is no substance in the belief that he was of the Ballymurphy O Laoire family. This family came from Kileen in Co.Kerry where they were tenants of Lord Kenmare.  One Cornelius O Laoire of Ballymurphy, d.1743, was also buried in Kilcrea.  Cornelius father of Art was still alive in 1769.  Just because he was buried in the same cemetery does not make him a relative.   

9.  The family descended from Art.

The chart "Descendants of Art O Laoire" brings us down to the present time.  Eibhlin Dubh had two children at the time of Art's death, and was pregnant.  This third child does not seem to have survived, and we have no knowledge of Fiach and his subsequent history.

Their first son Cornelius was born August 25th. 1768, and sent to Paris for education 1789-91. He became a Captain in the Gardes Francais.  Married 1. Rebecca Gentleman.  2.Mary Purcell 1814.  3. Hanna Purcell 1831 at Gretna Green.  He trained as a Barrister.  Lived in Cork City  from 1814 to 1817, then at Dromore House, Duhallow.  Died August 20th. 1846.

It was claimed by O Neill Daunt that Cornelius was brought up as a Protestant, and Fiach as a Catholic, and this was a not uncommon method of retaining 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".

Cornelius presided at a meeting of Roman Catholics held in the South Parish Chapel in 1814, so may have reverted to Catholicism by that date.

Cornelius and Mary produced three sons, Cornelius Ferdinand Purcell born October 6th.1815, Goodwin Richard Purcell born March 19th.1817, and Arthur.(date 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.  There must remain some 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.
CFP 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 he assisted Daniel O Connell in his campaign for Reform, and attended one of the Monster Meetings.
The only record we have of him practising as a Barrister was in a case of Sullivan v. 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, GRP O Leary was also sent to Paris for education at the age of 5. He must have been a precocious child, because he matriculated for TCD at 13 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, and they had no children. He died in 1876 at 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 O Laoire.

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 UK being the Prince of Wales.

The three of them seem to have steered a course in their religious affiliations, to suit circumstances at the time, without very much worry, and probably to their pecuniary benefit.
There are no known living O'Leary descendants of Art O Laoire.  There is however a lineal descendant through the distaff side, Mr.Kenneth Barnes, who lives in Cork City and is a lecturer at the Crawford Institute.




Paper prepared and read to the Third O Leary Gathering in Inchigeelagh by Peter O Leary, 13th.September 1998.