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Dan The Feathers

by Chevalier William F. K. Marmion

He has been called "Dan the Feathers" for a long time, and that label has stuck right to the present. And he is still remembered around the Lakes of Killarney, where he spent a good part of his life. Who was this fellow who became the stuff of legends, and whose life has been mixed between myth and reality, fact and fancy?

The Myth



It has indeed been said that we Irish are not short on history. We have much of it, and some is known to be a bit exaggerated! Be that as it may, it can surely be said that we have been justly accused of taking a bit of truth only to "refine" it in order to make it more useful - and pleasing to the ears of our listeners. One example of that tendency is in regard to a man referred to in some histories as "Dan the Feathers", a MacCarthy who indeed did live for a period of his life at Castle Lough in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

In and around Killarney today, one can find the following either by consulting the literature found locally, talking to "guides", or just talking to Killarney people:

• "Dan the Feathers" was a notorious womaniser, and though dead for about 400 years still shows up at the various Killarney pubs with one or more of his girlfriends (normally just before closing time);
• Dan also likes to take a walk on the lakes, particularly on misty nights. It's part of his regimen to stay in shape in case he has to go to war again; his dog Keigan Geir is always with him;
• He was really the last king of Desmond, Donal IX, who died in 1596;
• He built Muckross Abbey, Kerry's number one tourist attraction; thus the walk called today "Dan the Feathers Walk" leading to the abbey;
• Dan was above all an accomplished warrior and was known as "The Robin Hood of Munster" to the English officials;
• And, finally, he kept a harem of women busy making beds from the "plumes" or feathers he had captured from the English - beds which were then supplied to his followers.

The Reality

Well, the appellation "Dan the Feathers" is certainly appropriate for our man. But it wasn't used in his lifetime, but was "added" to him afterwards by an enterprising Killarney tourist board member, perhaps even by the early 18th century! It was obviously taken from the documented facts that indeed our man was partial to collecting the feathers from the helmets of English opponents, which "plumes" were often very bright and mixed in colour! Also, in May 1599 "Dan the Feathers" was one of the leaders who crushingly defeated the Earl of Essex at the "The Fight at the Gap of the Feathers" near Stradbally in County Laois, or as it is sometimes referred to as the battle at the "Pass of the Plumes". So, that's where "feathers" comes from in reality.

Now, this writer cannot disagree that our man shows up in bars in Killarney or takes walks on the lakes. Many people have verified those "facts" and of course I believe them!! As to keeping a harem of women busy making beds, well, I remain unconvinced until I receive a bed in the post as a gift!

Anyway, who was this "Dan the Feathers" in actuality? We can say upfront that he was indeed one of the heroes of the Nine Years War lead by Hugh O Neill, and one who has to this day not received his proper due in Irish history. There has never been a full-length biography of him, and that is perhaps long overdue - and it is hoped that this short piece might even stimulate that work by someone.

His name was Donal MacCarthy, and he was a son, an illegitimate son, of the last reigning king of Desmond, also a Donal, who indeed died in 1596.

Our Donal ("Dan") was born about 1550-55 before his father married a sister of the Earl of Desmond (died in rebellion in 1583). He was one of several illegitimate children fathered by MacCarthy Mór, and was the oldest and favourite, as indeed is well documented. "Dan" obviously didn't live with his father at the Pallas Castle but most probably was raised near or in the MacCarthy Mór Ballycarbery Castle, in the wilds of Iveragh barony, where the O Connells were hereditary wardens. It is obvious later that Donal ("the base son" as he has been called in history) was totally familiar with the hidden places and bogs of Iveragh, because he always avoided capture and would "disappear" after his raids. Regarding those "raids", when the Earl of Desmond was killed in 1583 his vast lands were confiscated and planted with English "undertakers" including the Brownes and the Herberts.

Our man Donal made a profession out of attacking these English (for some of the lands were claimed by his father the MacCarthy M?ɬ?r), burning them out, and sending them packing whenever he could, giving the lands back to the native MacCarthys or others! Thus how he earned the title of "Robin Hood of Munster" which the English administration often applied to him. Donal/Dan was active in this role from 1585 or so until the death of his father in 1596, and in particular had driven the Browne family to near-madness as no matter what they did, with or without support from the Lord President of Munster, they couldn't stop "Robin Hood".

By will of his father (not that it would have been recognised by the English feudal system), Donal IX had left a fairly substantial number of ploughlands to his "base son" Donal, out in Iveragh. Plus, he left him Castle Lough and some lands surrounding on the Lakes of Killarney, symbols of indeed being MacCarthy Mor. The king Donal knew of course that the English would never accept an illegitimate son as inheriting anything, so his leaving lands to Donal/Dan was obviously for the future, for possible better days for the native Irish who were at the time being increasingly subjected to English control and administration in Munster.

It should of course be said that Donal/Dan was perfectly capable of inheriting the lands and title of MacCarthy Mór under the Irish Brehon Law, as bastardy did not disqualify inheritances!! And as the last king died without a living male legitimate child (as well as having no cousins, uncles, brothers, etc.) Donal/Dan indeed had the best claim under Irish law of "tanistry" to be MacCarthy Mór! And the English knew that very well and it was covered extensively in letters back to the Queen even before the death of Donal IX in 1596.

Enter Florence MacCarthy of Carbery

Now, worried about his succession after the death of his only legitimate male child, and knowing that his lands under English law couldn't be left to his illegitimate son Donal, MacCarthy Mór came up with the idea of marrying his only remaining legal child, Lady Ellen, to a MacCarthy prince of the subordinate (but major) house of Carbery. This man was Florence MacCarthy, who had been raised partially in England, and was known to Elizabeth I, and who himself would someday be Lord of Carbery. Donal IX MacCarthy Mór knew that the Irish title of MacCarthy Mór couldn't descend in the female line, but he hoped that the Queen would approve the marriage and in that way the lands he held under English law would descend to his daughter. And, fingers crossed, someday even the title of MacCarthy Mór would be recognised in Florence (however contrary to Irish law).

In truth the last reigning MacCarthy Mór had few options. Of course, he still had given symbols to his son Donal/Dan, and perhaps hoped that if things didn't go right with the 1588 marriage of his daughter then his "base son" would step forth and make claims, all depending on favourable circumstances for the Irish of course. Things were not favourable in 1588, and indeed Elizabeth I and the English government strongly disapproved of the "secret" marriage between Florence and the Lady Ellen, and they were both soon locked up in Cork gaol and then Florence sent on his "first vacation" to the Tower in London by December of 1588. And he stayed under either close or moderate imprisonment in London until finally being allowed to return to Ireland in November 1593 - but for other reasons than the marriage!

Where was Donal during these years? Still rampaging against all and sundry "undertakers" and letters from the local English government in Munster point out how he indeed is well-loved by his countrymen, is an outstanding leader, does have the best right to be MacCarthy Mór when his father dies, and is receiving support and loyalty from subordinate clans already (e.g. that he married the daughter of O Sullivan Bere, who had been jilted by Florence to marry Lady Ellen), and that he needs to be captured and hung.

The Death of MacCarthy Mór and the Rising

Things had already changed prior to the 1596 death of MacCarthy Mór, for O Neill had "proclaimed" as O Neill and thrown off his English title of Earl of Tyrone. Florence was back in Carbery holding together his people but professing loyalty to the English, and hurrying over to England again to press for the inheritances of his wife Ellen! Donal/Dan, showing an educated different side of himself, conferred with the English Lord President who recommended that the "base son" receive that which his father had left to him, as a way of guaranteeing that Donal/Dan would "behave". Indeed the grant was given in 1598, though as a "gift" of the English rather than by right of any recognised will. "Dan the Feathers" retired to the bogs, and waited. He didn't have to wait long.

With O Neill's victories, Donal/Dan came out in 1598 and pronounced himself as MACCARTHY MOR, and indeed succeeded in gaining the support of the clan members, excepting Florence! And even O Neill "recognised" Donal as MacCarthy Mór! With that, Donal stopped being the hunted and went on the hunt and it was largely through his efforts that the planted English ran from Munster, virtually all of them! Donal in 1599 won great victories at the Castle of Molahiffe in Kerry (manned by Browne's men) and then at the battle which was to give our "Robin Hood" his other nickname, "The Fight at the Gap of the Feathers". Ensconced in the MacCarthy Mór stronghold of Castle Lough, Donal/Dan was at the height of power and his loyalty to O Neill never wavered. But he didn't count on the duplicity of Florence MacCarthy.

Florence was back in England when O Neill started his brilliant run of victories, and Donal his "base" brother-in-law was turning the English out of Munster, allied to the Sugan Earl of Desmond. Things looked bleak for the English, and they decided to turn to Florence, promising him (finally) the lands of his dead father-in-law, in right of his wife, and holding out the English title as a possibility if Florence would go back to Ireland and cleanse Munster of Donal! This Florence promised to do, and his "double-dealing", well-documented in history, starts in earnest from this point. His brother-in-law was O Sullivan Mór, who traditionally gave the white wand of approval to each new MacCarthy Mor. Well, related to Florence, O Sullivan had denied it to Donal! But when O Neill came to Munster in March of 1600, Florence (and Donal) and the nobility of Munster went to meet him. And out of pressure and expediency, O Neill agreed that Florence should be MacCarthy Mór, thus "deposing" Donal contrary to Brehon law, who of course argued but remained loyal to O Neill in any case.

Not so Florence, who continued to say he was loyal to the English while saying the same to O Neill, who had also made him "Governor of Munster". He never fought for O Neill, never kept his promises to the Irish cause. By 1601 both sides were extremely suspicious of him and, finally in June he was taken prisoner by Sir George Carew, the English Lord President of Munster and shipped to London for his "second vacation". That one was to last 40 years, yes 40 years, and Florence lost all, including his wife (who had actually spied against him), and he never saw Ireland again. He was never legally MacCarthy Mor. On that, Donal the "base son" was recognised immediately (again) as MacCarthy Mór, by most of the clan and by O Neill. He continued to fight for the "cause" and was at Kinsale and the final defeat. He then took his followers back to the wilds of Iveragh and awaited the second promised coming of the Spanish. They didn't come. O Neill finally gave up, and even before, during 1602, with Munster crushed, the Irish in rebellion began to "come in" and receive pardons. Finally Donal did too, but alone, not with a hundred bodyguards and "safe-conducts" as Florence had required. That too earned him much respect from the English, for his honour and bravery, and for the fact that he didn't talk with forked tongue, as did Florence, who was described by Donal as "a counterfeit Englishman".

Last Days and Beginning of the Myth

Donal retired to Castle Lough. He even had been "legitimised" by the Pope, and indeed the English reconfirmed his rights to the inheritance/appanage specified by his father. He was on good terms with his sister Lady Ellen. It is said that Donal/"Dan the Feathers" indeed was a generous and kindly host to the many visitors he had over the years. Some still regarded him as MacCarthy Mór, though of course given the loss of the whole Irish system of support that title was now without any power. Donal had children who legally inherited and we see a grandson Colonel Daniel in 1663 attempting to recover some lands confiscated by Cromwell. And there are references to Donal's "chiefly branch" extending into the 20th century, with the last male-line representative going to the States in the mid-19th century.

When did "Dan of the Feathers" start walking on the Lakes of Killarney, or showing up in the bars? Well, that at the end of the day has to be left to you, the readers, to decide. In any case, Donal the "base son" (or "bastard" as Florence always called him) has earned a place in history. And the reality of his life was that he was a patriot, and a hero - and the later myths are the romantic testimony of what happens to real heroes as the centuries pass!