Kingdom of Desmond

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Kingdom of Desmond

The Mac Cárthaigh as leaders of the Eóganacht Chaisil provided the kings of Desmond.
Ireland 1450.png
A map featuring a much reduced Desmond in 1450, marked as MacCarthy Mór.
Capital Killarney, Lough Leane and Cahersiveen
Common languages Middle Irish, Early Modern Irish, Latin
Catholic Christianity
Gaelic tradition
Government Tanistry
King / Prince  
Tadhg Mac Cárthaigh
Domhnall Mac Cárthaigh
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Sword of Nuada.png Kingdom of Munster
Kingdom of Carbery MacCarthy.png
Earldom of Desmond FitzGerald arms.svg
Kingdom of Ireland Arms of Ireland (Historical).svg
Today part ofFlag of Ireland.svg  Ireland

The Kingdom of Desmond (Irish : Deasmhumhain, meaning "South Munster ") was a historic kingdom in southwestern Ireland. It was founded in 1118 by king Tadhg Mac Cárthaigh, when the Treaty of Glanmire formally divided the Kingdom of Munster into Desmond and Thomond (Tuadh-Mhumhain, "North Munster"). It comprised all of what is now County Cork and most of County Kerry. Desmond was ruled by the Mac Cárthaigh (MacCarthy) dynasty. Other clans within the kingdom included the O'Sullivans and O'Donovans. Following the Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12th century, the eastern half of Desmond was conquered by the Anglo-Normans and became the Earldom of Desmond, ruled by the FitzGeralds and Fitzmaurices. The king of Desmond, Diarmaid Mac Cárthaigh, submitted to Henry II of England, but the western half of Desmond lived on as a semi-independent Gaelic kingdom. It was often at war with the Anglo-Normans. Fínghin Mac Carthaigh's victory over the Anglo-Normans at the Battle of Callann (1261) helped preserve Desmond's independence. The kings of Desmond founded sites such as Blarney Castle, Ballycarbery Castle, Muckross Abbey and Kilcrea Friary. Following the Nine Years' War of the 1590s, Desmond became part of the Kingdom of Ireland.

Irish language Gaelic language spoken in Ireland and by Irish people

Irish is a Goidelic language of the Celtic languages family, itself a branch of the Indo-European language family. Irish originated in Ireland and was historically spoken by Irish people throughout Ireland. Irish is spoken as a first language in substantial areas of counties Galway, Kerry, Cork and Donegal, smaller areas of Waterford, Mayo and Meath, and a few other locations, and as a second language by a larger group of habitual but non-traditional speakers across the country.

Munster province in Ireland

Munster is one of the provinces of Ireland, in the south west of Ireland. In early Ireland, the Kingdom of Munster was one of the kingdoms of Gaelic Ireland ruled by a "king of over-kings". Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the ancient kingdoms were shired into counties for administrative and judicial purposes. In later centuries, local government legislation has seen further sub-division of the historic counties.

Kingdom of Munster kingdom in South Gaelic Ireland

The Kingdom of Munster was a kingdom of Gaelic Ireland which existed in the south-west of the island from at least the 1st century BC until 1118. According to traditional Irish history found in the Annals of the Four Masters, the kingdom originated as the territory of the Clanna Dedad, an Érainn tribe of Irish Gaels. Some of the early kings were prominent in the Red Branch Cycle such as Cú Roí and Conaire Mór. For a few centuries they were competitors for the High Kingship or Ireland, but ultimately lost out to the Connachta, descendants of Conn Cétchathach. The kingdom had different borders and internal divisions at different times during its history.


MacCarthy Mórs: Kings of Desmond

From its inception in 1118 through 1596, the Kingdom of Desmond was ruled by the family of the MacCarthy Mór, (i.e., the "Great MacCarthy"). For centuries the MacCarthy Mórs reigned as Kings of Desmond, and maintained significant demesne lands (manors) throughout the kingdom. Principal seats were at Pallis Castle (near present-day Killarney), Castle Lough (on Killarney's Lough Leane), and Ballycarbery Castle (near Cahersiveen on the Ring of Kerry). [1]

Killarney Town in Munster, Ireland

Killarney is a town in County Kerry, southwestern Ireland. The town is on the northeastern shore of Lough Leane, part of Killarney National Park, and is home to St Mary's Cathedral, Ross Castle, Muckross House and Abbey, the Lakes of Killarney, MacGillycuddy's Reeks, Purple Mountain, Mangerton Mountain, Paps Mountain, the Gap of Dunloe and Torc Waterfall. Its natural heritage, history and location on the Ring of Kerry make Killarney a popular tourist destination.

Lough Leane lake in County Kerry, Ireland

Lough Leane is the largest of the three lakes of Killarney. The River Laune flows from the lake into the Dingle Bay to the northwest.

Ballycarbery Castle Castle in County Kerry, Ireland

Ballycarbery Castle is a castle 3 kilometres (2 mi) from Cahersiveen, County Kerry, Ireland. The castle is high on a grass hill facing the sea and is a short distance from Cahergall Fort and Leacanabuile Fort.

After the death of King Donal IX MacCarthy Mór in 1596, and following the effective end of the Gaelic Order after the Battle of Kinsale (1602), the former Kingdom of Desmond was partitioned between County Cork and County Kerry (in 1606).

County Cork County in the Republic of Ireland

County Cork is a county in Ireland. It is the largest and southernmost county of Ireland, situated in the province of Munster and named after the city of Cork, Ireland's second-largest city. The Cork County Council is the local authority for the county. Its largest market towns are Mallow, Macroom, Midleton, and Skibbereen. In 2016, the county's population was 542,868, making it the third-most populous county in Ireland. Notable Corkonians include Michael Collins, Jack Lynch, and Sonia O'Sullivan.

County Kerry County in the Republic of Ireland

County Kerry is a county in Ireland. It is located in the South-West Region and forms part of the province of Munster. It is named after the Ciarraige who lived in part of the present county. The population of the county was 147,707 at the 2016 census.

Subsequent to the end of the MacCarthy Mór sovereignty in Desmond, descendants entitled to the highest Gaelic designation of "Chief of the Name" of the MacCarthy Mór family, are also properly styled as Princes of Desmond. A secondary title of the MacCarthy Mór would derive from the lordship designation of his sept.

The Chief of the Name, or in older English usage Captain of his Nation, is the recognised head of a family or clan. The term has sometimes been used as a title in Ireland and Scotland.

Principalities and other septs

Generational offshoots (cadet family lines) of the Royal House of Desmond received their own territories and titles – known as appanages of the royal house. Those MacCarthy Mór cadet branches which did not evolve to the MacCarthy Mór chief-of-the-name status, became chiefs-of-the-name of their own princely septs, i.e. MacCarthy Reagh of Carbery, MacCarthy of Muskerry, and MacDonough MacCarthy of Duhallow.

Carbery (barony) barony of Ireland

Carbery, or the Barony of Carbery, was once the largest barony in Ireland, and essentially a small, semi-independent kingdom on the southwestern coast of Munster, in what is now County Cork, from its founding in the 1230s by Donal Gott MacCarthy to its gradual decline in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His descendants, the MacCarthy Reagh dynasty, were its ruling family. The kingdom officially ended in 1606 when Donal of the Pipes, 17th Prince of Carbery chose to surrender his territories to the Crown of England; but his descendants maintained their position in Carbery until the Cromwellian confiscations, following their participation in the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

Duhallow Town in Munster, Ireland

Duhallow is a barony located in the north-western part of County Cork, Ireland.

Because of their location, it was the MacCarthys of Muskerry and Carbery who ended up fighting the majority of the battles against the Normans – mainly the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond – while defending and expanding the Gaelic realms. By the mid-sixteenth century, the main line of the MacCarthys Mor had largely withdrawn to Kerry, so any modern claims that they are still entitled to the nominal overlordship of Carbery and Muskerry might be rejected by any extant descendants of these branches.

Normans European ethnic group emerging in the 10th and 11th century in France

The Normans are an ethnic group that arose in Normandy, a northern region of France, from contact between Viking settlers and indigenous Franks and Gallo-Romans. The settlements in France followed a series of raids on the French coast from Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, and they gained political legitimacy when the Viking leader Rollo agreed to swear fealty to King Charles III of West Francia. The distinct cultural and ethnic identity of the Normans emerged initially in the first half of the 10th century, and it continued to evolve over the succeeding centuries.

Earl of Desmond

The title of Earl of Desmond has been held historically by lords in Ireland, first as a title outside of the peerage system and later as part of the Peerage of Ireland.


Map adapted from: W.F. Butler; Pedigree and Succession of the House of MacCarthy Mor, With a Map; Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland; Vol. 51, May 1920; p.33. DesmondSepts.png
Map adapted from: W.F. Butler; Pedigree and Succession of the House of MacCarthy Mór, With a Map; Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland; Vol. 51, May 1920; p.33.

One of three principalities within the original Kingdom of Desmond, Carbery, under the MacCarthy Reagh dynasty founded by Donal Gott MacCarthy in the mid-13th century, achieved independence from the overlordship of the MacCarthy Mórs of Desmond. Thus, the MacCarthy territories were actually over a fourth again greater outside of Desmond proper, due to the independent and considerable principality of Carbery, directly to the south/southeast of Desmond.

Principal seats of the Lords/Princes of Carbery were at Kilbrittain Castle (near Kinsale in County Cork), as well as Timoleague Castle (west of Kinsale). Possession of the latter was frequently in dispute with the Norman family of Barry, who were also prominent in West Cork. Some of the more notable sub-lordships under the MacCarthy Reagh dynasty of Carbery included castles at Ballydehob, Benduff, Downeen, Kilcoe, and Kilgobbin, to name but a few.


Blarney Castle Blarney Castle.JPG
Blarney Castle

The MacCarthys of Muskerry, on the other hand, derived more recently from the MacCarthys Mór, and so were (and still are) considered a sept of the main dynasty. This principality of the Kingdom of Desmond began in the 14th century as an appanage of King Cormac Mór MacCarthy Mór (d. 1359) for his second son, Dermod. At various times, because of their adeptness at playing the political game with England, the Lords/Princes of Muskerry also bore various British titles, such as Earl of Clancarty, Viscount Mountcashel, and Baron (Lord) of Blarney.

From its rebuilding in the late 15th century by Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, Blarney Castle, near to Cork city, was the principal seat of the MacCarthys of Muskerry. It was from alleged dialogue between Cormac Teige MacCarthy, the Lord of Blarney, and Queen Elizabeth I of England, that the term "blarney" was coined to mean "empty flattery" or "beguiling talk." It is also from Blarney Castle that the legend of "kissing the Blarney Stone" derives.

Among the numerous sub-infeudations/sub-lordships within the overlordship of the Princes of Muskerry, some of the major ones were: Ballea, Carrignamuck, Carrignavar, Castlecormac, Cloghroe, Cloghphillip, and Downyne.


The third of the princely lines that began as appanages of the MacCarthy Mór dynasty was that of the MacCarthys of Duhallow (Irish : Dúiche Ealla), known as the MacDonough MacCarthys. The Duhallow sept began in the 13th century as an appanage from the then-King of Desmond, Cormac Fionn MacCarthy Mór (r. 1244–1248), to his son Diarmuid (Dermond). It was the Gaelic lordship(s) of Duhallow (and Coshmaing) that occupied the northern frontier of the MacCarthys of Desmond in their sometime struggles with the Norman family of the FitzGeralds, the Earls of Desmond. The principal seat of the Lords of Duhallow was at Kanturk. The family of the MacDonough MacCarthy Lords/Princes of Duhallow became extinct in the 18th century.

As in the other princely appanages of Carbery and Muskerry, Duhallow held overlordship of a number of septs of both comital (ard tiarna) rank – Clanawly, Clonmeen, and Dromagh – as well as baronial (tiarna) rank – e.g., Cappagh, Dromiscane, Kanturk, Kilbolane, Knocktemple, and Lohort, among others.

Other septs


The sept (clan) of Sliocht Eoghan of Coshmaing ("beside the River Maine") was established in the 14th century by King Cormac Mór MacCarthy Mór (d. 1359) for his third son, Eoghan, as an appanage of the royal house of Desmond. According to Butler, "Of the MacCarthy septs in the Barony of Magunihy, by far the most (88 to 105 ploughlands) was the Sliocht Eoghain Mhoir of Cois Mainge…. The lands of this sept stretched along the whole northern frontier of Magunihy from a point near Castlemaine to the border of Cork." [2]

The head of Sliocht Eoghan of Coshmaing was styled as Lord (Ard Tiarna) of Coshmaing (English: Cosmaigne). The principal seat of the Coshmaing lordship was at Molahiffe, with other castles (sub-lordships) at Fieries and Clonmeallane. [3]

Non-MacCarthy septs

Both inside and outside the territories of the Kingdom of Desmond in southwestern Ireland, there were many families other than the various septs of the MacCarthys. Most prominent of the Norman families in the area were the FitzGeralds (Earls of Desmond), FitzMaurices, Barrys, Barretts, and Roches.

The chief non-MacCarthy Gaelic princes under the MacCarthy Mórs in Desmond were the O'Sullivans. After them were the O'Donoghues, and these two were the only septs who took part in the performance of the MacCarthy inauguration ceremonies – i.e., the bestowal of the White Wand. Also prominent were the O'Callaghans, O'Keeffes, McAuliffes, O'Sheas, [O'Fearris, /O'Fearguis] and others.

Within Carbery, aside from the MacCarthy Reaghs, the most prominent Gaelic families were the princely sept of the O'Donovans, the O'Mahonys, O'Driscolls, O'Dalys, and O'Crowleys. Within Muskerry, prominent non-MacCarthy Gaelic families included the MacSweeneys, O'Learys, O'Spaelains, O'Healys, and O'Riordans.

See also


  1. O'Laughlin, Michael C. Families of County Kerry, Ireland; Irish Genealogical Foundation; 1994; p. 21; ISBN   978-0-940134-36-2
  2. Butler, W. F.; Two Kerry Baronies in the Sixteenth Century; Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society; Part 1, Vol. XXXXiii, No. 137; January–June 1928; pp. 3–4.
  3. MacCarthy, Samuel Trant; The MacCarthys of Munster; Chapter XV, p. 266; Dundalk Press; Dundalk, Ireland; 1921

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