Donough O’Carroll: King of Oriel

Donough O’Carroll – Soldier, Statesman and Church Reformer was from a long line of nobility tracing his ancestry back directly to Adam. He was born about 1100 A.D. and died in 1168 A.D. His father was Cu Caisil O’Carroll, King of Farney, a district in modern South Monaghan and the adjoining lands of Louth. Cu Caisil O’Carroll died in 1123 A.D. and his eldest son Donal O’Carroll succeeded to Kingship. Donal O’Carroll died in a battle against the men of Meath and Bregha who were led by Diarmuid O’Maelsechlainn. This happened in 1125 A.D. and it was then that Donough O’Carroll succeeded to the Kingship of Farney. The Kingdom of Oriel was not a hereditary kingdom. Various princely families who ruled within its geographical borders, borders which varied over the centuries, became monarchs based on family prestige and political strength. When Donough O’Carroll became King of Farney in 1125 A.D. he sought ways of extending his influence to become King of Oriel so that he would have opportunity to implement his particular vision of political and church reforms. Peace and stability could only be brought about by having a small number of powerful kingdoms on the island of Ireland, each respecting each other’s territorial integrity and the overall authority of the High King and also existing in harmony with each other. Ambitious monarchs who cared little for the rights of others were the main reasons why there were so many ongoing local wars in Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe at this time in history. Donough O’Carroll’s main aim was to create within Oriel, political stability and to foster stability in other adjoining kingdoms and to support the authority of the High King. His main interest was in Church affairs and education and it was only by having stability that ecclesiastical and educational matters could prosper.

Unfortunately, few monarchs shared O’Carroll’s vision and the historical record shows that he was constantly involved in territorial disputes with his over-ambitious neighbours. He was invaded and he was even betrayed by allies, but still his vision remained and it was only near the end of his life that this vision started to become a reality due to his friendship with the High King Roderick O’Connor.

In 1125, Donough O’Carroll was crowned King of Oriel by Toirdelbach O’Connor, King of Connaught. Toirdelbach O’Connor was also a claimant to the high kingship of Ireland, as was Manus O’Lochlainn of the Cenel Eoghan who responded to the coronation by invading Oriel. Donough O’Carroll made peace with Manus O’Lochlainn and in the interest of peace and unity, supported the O’Lochlainn dynasty until he could no longer do so. His first joint venture with O’Lochlainn was to subdue the Ui Echach. When this was accomplished the returning army strayed into Firbreagh where pillaging occurred. This episode reinforced in Donough O’Carroll’s mind the need for strong leadership and discipline. In 1133 A.D. Donough O’Carroll sent his army south towards Fingall to engage the Danes. The two armies met at the River Boyne and it appears that the result was indecisive.

In 1138 A.D. Donough O’Carroll formed an alliance with Toirdelbach O’Connor and Tiernan O’Rourke and marched to engage the Danes and the men of Meath, led by O’Maelsechlainn. The two armies faced each other for a week before each departing for home simultaneously without any engagement having taken place. This extraordinary episode is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, a book which records the history of the period. In 1145 A.D. Donal O’Doirmleadhaidh of the Cenel Eoghan was defeated by the Cenel Connaill. He attempted to retrieve the situation, but Donough O’Carroll had him finally banished. However, in 1147 Donough O’Carroll formed a new alliance with the Cenel Eoghan and Manus O’Lochlainn and invaded the Kingdom of Uladh. The two armies sighted each other at Lough Brickland, but the men of Uladh fled and were only overtaken and defeated at Dundrum in the modern county of Down. O’Carroll was clearly trying to have some influence on the behaviour of his northern neighbours, particularly the Cenel Eoghan and also to promote the influence of O’Lochlainn who had become the de facto High King. In 1148 O’Carroll signed a Peace Treaty involving the Kingdom of Oriel, the High King O’Lochlainn and the Cenel Eoghan and the Kingdom of Uladh and the following year the High King chose O’Carroll of Oriel to accompany him on his visits to the various other kingdoms. In 1150 A.D. the High King divided Meath between O’Carroll and his ally O’Connor and O’Rourke. This brought stability to a previously unsettled area and now all of Oriels borders were secure. However, O’Lochlainn was to prove unworthy of High Kingship, treachery and cruelty dominating his personality. His personal ambition overshadowed any national vision and in 1152 O’Lochlainn and the Cenel Eoghan invaded the Kingdom of Oriel and temporarily succeeded in ousting O’Carroll from his Kingdom. In 1155 A.D. O’Carroll’s ally Tiernan O’Rourke tricked him into a meeting at Kells in Meath. O’Rourke had O’Carroll overpowered and imprisoned in an island on Lough Sileann from where he was rescued after six weeks. Despite these betrayals, Donough O’Carroll was prepared to forgive and look to the future in the national interest. In 1157 he invited O’Lochlainn as well as O’Rourke as his guests to the consecration of Mellifont Abbey, which he founded in 1142 and which was now completed. In 1159 A.D. a combined army from Connaught and Munster invaded Oriel for the purpose of plunder and despoliation. O’Lochlainn and the Cenel Eoghan now came to O’Carroll’s aid and the invading army was stopped at Ardee. The reason why O’Lochlainn and the Cenel Eoghan came to the assistance of O’Carroll was probably more to do with preserving the balance of power than with actual friendship. In 1165 A.D. an event occurred which was to have national importance. O’Lochlainn invaded Uladh and took Eochaid Dunleavy as a prisoner. Eochaid Dunleavy was the brother of Ann Dunleavy who was the wife of Donough O’Carroll and Queen of Oriel. When Dunleavy obtained his release he went immediately to O’Carroll to request him to intercede with the High King O’Lochlainn so that his authority would be restored to him. At O’Carroll’s request, Dunleavy was restored to his position. As was the custom of the time, Dunleavy gave O’Lochlainn many guarantees of his future good behaviour, including his own daughter as a hostage and the territory of the Mourne Mountains. The High King immediately granted the Mournes to O’Carroll who incorporated it into the Kingdom of Oriel.

O’Carroll was a party to this agreement. But in 1166 A.D. O’Lochlainn, in an act of supreme treachery, invaded Uladh and captured Dunleavy and with barbarous cruelty had him blinded.

O’Lochlainn lost whatever support or respect he may ever have had and Roderick O’Connor claimed the High Kingship and was crowned. The new High King went to Drogheda and then into Oriel to meet his friend O’Carroll. That same year at the request of the Cenel Eoghan and with the support of the lawful High King, O’Carroll attacked O’Lochlainn, who died in battle.

Probably the highlight to O’Carroll of Oriels career occurred in 1167 A.D. when a general assembly was held in Athboy under the authority of the High King Roderick O’Connor. Its purpose was to define territories and respect boundaries as well as promoting church affairs. At last it appeared that boundary disputes could be a thing of the past and that life could be lived free from the constant threat of invasion and despoliation. However, in 1168 A.D. Donough O’Carroll was killed by a person called O’Duibhne of the Cenel Eoghan with his own battle-axe. The Annals of Ulster describe O’Duibhne as a serving gillie. The Annals of the Four Masters, the historical record of the day describes Donough O’Carroll as ‘Flood of splendour and magnificence’. The Book of Mac Carthaigh, another historical record of the period states the following “Donough, son of Cu Caisil O’Carroll, High King of Oriel, who obtained the Kingship of Meath as far as Clochan Na hImrine, and the Kingship of Ulaidh, and to whom was offered many times the Kingship of Cenel Eoghan, Chief Ornament of the North of Ireland and even of all Ireland, for appearance, wisdom, bravery, friendship, brotherliness, vigour, kinship, power, for bestowing treasure, food, bounty, and reward to laymen and clergy, for overwhelming all evil and exalting all goodness, for protecting bells, crosiers, and the monasteries of Cannons and Monks, and like unto Solomon for peacefulness in his own native territory and towards every territory around, died after repentance, having bequeathed much gold, silver and stock, and having partaken in the Body of Christ”. His son Murrough succeeded him as King of Oriel. Murrough had responsibility for governing the part of Meath that had been incorporated into the Kingdom of Oriel and this responsibility had been given to him by his father. The transfer of power was therefore smooth and without contention. This was indeed unusual in the medieval period where many claimants could declare war on each other.

O’Carroll’s main interest appeared to be church affairs and particularly church reforms. He was acutely aware of developments on the Continent and wanted to regulate the position of the Irish Church within the overall Christian Church. He also founded religious houses and personally endowed them. In Ireland monasteries played a very important role in national as well as church life. The Abbot was a powerful figure and usually more influential than the Bishop. Monasteries provided many other roles besides religious guidance. These roles included the giving of alms and of hospitality, but Abbots were often powerful political figures as well. O’Carroll was not a doctrinal reformer and his exact theological position on issues is a subject of debate. Doctrinal reform had not yet started in the Christian church and reformation was in the distant future. O’Carroll therefore confined his reforming interest to administrative issues and to the reform of church structures and government. The desire for this aspect of church reform predictably enough came from people who were familiar with continental practices. These included the Bishops of Danish settlements, such as Limerick and Waterford. Gilbert was Bishop of Limerick and Malchus was Bishop of Waterford. They both succeeded in influencing Cellach who was Abbot of Armagh. When Ua Baigill, Bishop of Armagh died, Cellach then became Bishop. He then became Archbishop and Primate and started to organise Diocese. He was therefore in a position to emphasise his position as Primate, rather than his position as Abbot. Gilbert was appointed Papal Legate.

In 1110 A.D. the synod of Rathbreasil set out a plan for diocesan organisation, and defined boundaries. Naturally, there was much opposition to these proposals. Cellach was succeeded by Malachy O’Morgair who was a friend of Donough O’Carroll. Malachy, often referred to as Saint Malachy, was also a friend of Bernard of Clairvaux, the great French churchman. The synod of Rathbreasil organised a diocese of Clogher, which was small, but fell within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Oriel. In 1135 A.D. Christian O’Morgair, the brother of Malachy, was appointed Bishop. Donough O’Carroll now enlarged the diocese to coincide with his Kingdom and moved the Bishops seat to Louth, forming a new Diocese of Oriel, and Louth became an Episcopal City. Christian was succeeded by Edan O’Kelly who completed the cathedral in Louth and installed a Chapter of Augustinian Canons. Malachy consecrated the cathedral and dedicated it to St. Peter and Paul in 1148 A.D.

The 14th Century antiphony of Armagh contains a prayer written on 1st January 1170 A.D. and is worth quoting.

January 1170. A prayer for Donnchadh Ua Cerbhaill, king of Origialla, by whom were made the book of Cnoc na nApstal at Louth and the chief books of the order of the year, and the chief books of the mass. It is this illustrious king who founded the entire monastery both [as to] stone and wood, and gave territory and land to it for the prosperity of his soul in honour of Paul and Peter. By him the church throughout the land of Origialla was reformed and a regular bishopric was made and the church was placed under the jurisdiction of the bishop. In his time tithes were received and marriage was assented to, and churches were founded and temples and bell-houses were made and monasteries of monks and canons and nuns were re-edified, and nemheds [sacred precincts] were made. These are especially the works which he performed for the prosperity [of his soul] and reign in the land of Origialla, namely, the monastery of monks on the banks of the Boyne [as to] stone and wood, implements and books, and territory and land in which there are one hundred monks and three hundred conventuals and the monastery of canons of Termann Feichin and the church of Lepadh Feichin and the church of…..

A synod was held at Kells in 1152. This synod was a follow up to the Synod of Rathbreasil held in 1101. Since then much had changed on the political landscape, particularly in Oriel. Diocesan boundaries and political boundaries more or less corresponded at the end of the synod of Rathbreasil but because of the expansion of the Kingdom of Oriel, these boundaries no longer corresponded and much of Oriel found itself situated in the Diocese of Armagh.

Donough O’Carroll wished to expand the small Dioceses of Clogher to correspond to the new borders of Oriel. In this he had the support of Malachy who in 1135 A.D. appointed his brother Christian O’Morgan as Bishop of Oriel, a new Diocese which incorporated Clogher. It was O’Carroll’s wish that the newly acquired territories of South Louth and even that portion of Meath within Oriel could also be incorporated into the new Dioceses. This was much opposed by the new Archbishop of Armagh Gilla Meic Liac who was from a Cenel Eoghan family and probably was unhappy about the loss of North Louth to Clogher and the formation of the new Diocese of Oriel. This led to a physical confrontation between O’Carroll and Gilla Meic Liac leading to the intervention of the High King O’Lochlainn. This gave opportunity to O’Lochlainn to invade Oriel and this he did in 1152 A.D. and temporarily succeeded in ousting O’Carroll from his position.

Neither O’Carroll nor his Bishop Edan O’Kelly attended the synod and the boundaries remained virtually unchanged. The Kingdom of Oriel south of mid Louth remained in the diocese of Meath. The dioceses of Clogher extended as far as Clogherhead only.

As well as founding the great Cistercian Monastery of Mellifont Donagh O’Carroll also founded the first Augustinian house of the Arrouaisian observance in Ireland at Louth in 1142 A.D. and in 1148 A.D. he founded the Augustinian Abbey at Knock and at Newry.
A Monastery and a convent was also founded by O’Carroll at Termonfeckin in 1148 A.D. These religious houses were also personally endowed by O’Carroll from his private fortune as well as Mellifont Abbey to which he gave 60 ozs of gold at its consecration.

Donough O’Carroll also encouraged education within the Kingdom and persuaded two members of the O’Gorman family of Bangor to settle in Oriel. The O’Gormans were a distinguished family of educationalists and one member of the family, Mael Chaoimgin became Abbot of Termonfeckin and later in charge of the school in Louth. Mael Muire O’Gorman became Abbot of Knock. The famous illuminated manuscript, the Martyrology of Gorman, was composed at Knock in 1167 A.D. This book was a revision of the Calendar of Saints and it included both Irish and foreign saints. During its composition there was sustained contact with Winchester in England as they possessed a rare Latin martyrology.