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Fíon Spáinneach

Vincent Morley

Murtaí Óg, by Gerard J Lyne, Geography Publications, 349 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-0906602737

It cannot be said that Muircheartach Óg Ó Súilleabháin (c1710-54), or “Murtaí Óg” as he was commonly known, looms large in the historiography of eighteenth century Ireland. He has not been entirely neglected, however, and has made occasional cameo appearances in the historical literature. One of the earliest accounts of his career, written by James Anthony Froude in 1872, portrayed him as “a great smuggling chief and a trusted agent of the Pretender” who operated with impunity in the remote Beara peninsula until, at length, he forced the hand of the authorities by assassinating John Puxley, “a brave and honourable revenue officer” who dared to interfere with his activities. Indeed the episode made such an impression on Froude that he used it as the basis for a novel entitled The Two Chiefs of Dunboy (1889). More recently, Louis Cullen has characterised Murtaí Óg as one of a handful of figures from Catholic gentry backgrounds who “openly adopted provocative attitudes” towards the Protestant establishment, linking his case with those of James Cotter (executed in 1720) and Arthur O’Leary (killed in 1773). Cullen’s lead has been followed by others: Kevin Whelan has referenced the same individuals in his essay on the “underground gentry” – expropriated Catholic families that were reduced to the role of middlemen on their former estates while retaining some of their former social status – and Ian McBride has cited their killings as evidence of the sectarian tensions that “bubbled under the surface calm of eighteenth-century life”.

If he is a minor footnote for modern historians, Ó Súilleabháin has established a somewhat higher profile among students of Irish literature. As early as 1824, T Crofton Croker published an English translation of a poem that is reputed to have been composed by Dónall Ó Conaill, one of Murtaí Óg’s followers, while awaiting execution. The only reference to Ó Súilleabháin in the eighteenth century volume of the New History of Ireland occurs in Brian Ó Cuív’s chapter on the Irish language, where he is mentioned in the company of Séamus Mac Murchadha, an Armagh rapparee, and Fr Nicholas Sheehy, a Tipperary priest and alleged leader of the Whiteboys, as persons whose deaths at the hands of the state “drew a response from the people” in the form of popular elegies. In 1997, Pádraig A Breatnach furnished the Irish-reading public with an account of Ó Súilleabháin’s career, along with scholarly editions of three related texts: Ó Conaill’s poem (a work that naturally focused more on the poet’s own plight as he awaited execution than on the fate of his late leader); a short but emotional elegy for Murtaí Óg that has been attributed to his nurse; and a longer and more formal elegy that is anonymous in most manuscripts but is cautiously assigned to Mícheál mac Peadair Ó Longáin (c1693-1770) in a copy penned by his son, the poet and scribe Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin. While the first two of these compositions were recovered from the oral tradition, the author of the third piece was familiar with the literary conventions of the period. Three years later, an essay by Roibeárd Ó hÚrdail entitled “An pleaintéir agus an Gael díshealbhaithe” (“the planter and the dispossessed Gael”) gave a more detailed account of the feud between Puxley and Ó Súilleabháin. Ó hÚrdail also presented the text of a lament for John Puxley that was first published by the folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin in 1937, together with alternative versions of compositions that had been edited by Breatnach.

It is not surprising that a biography of Murtaí Óg has never been attempted, given the limitations of the primary sources, and this factor may also explain his omission from the RIA’s Dictionary of Irish Biography. The present volume by Gerard J Lyne, former keeper of manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland, is the first book-length study and seeks to locate its subject in his historical context: the sub-titles on the dust jacket and cover differ from that on the title page, but all three contain the significant phrase “a life contextualised”. The author has succeeded in painting a complex and nuanced picture of Beara society in the eighteenth century that pays due attention to both socio-economic and cultural factors. While three core chapters deal successively with Murtaí Óg’s military career, relations between the Ó Súilleabháin and Puxley families, and the events surrounding the killings of John Puxley and Murtaí Óg, they are preceded by two chapters on the convoluted structure of landholding in the Beara peninsula and the economic importance of smuggling to the local economy. In three later chapters, Lyne assesses the status of the Ó Súilleabháin family in Beara society, outlines the fate of the descendants of Murtaí Óg and of John Puxley, and attempts to clarify Murtaí Óg’s relationship to the senior Ó Súilleabháin Béarra lineage. In two final chapters he discusses the elegies inspired by the killings of 1754, and presents the texts of Dónall Ó Conaill’s composition and the elegy for Puxley. Lyne has employed a wide range of sources. These include the account in Froude’s history and two early articles by Canon John O’Mahony (1892) and AJ Fetherstonhaugh (1894) that were inspired by Froude’s novel; while the former drew on oral traditions current in Beara in the late nineteenth century, the latter relied on official records that perished with the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922. In addition to the secondary works by historians and Irish scholars mentioned previously, Lyne has also made extensive use of land records held in the Registry of Deeds, Dublin, and the records of the Irish revenue commissioners held in the British National Archives. A native of Beara himself, he frequently supplements the evidence of the written sources with details gleaned from local informants. The product of his labours will be read with interest and profit by all who are interested in history of the Beara peninsula.

Nonetheless, the book has shortcomings that should be mentioned. At times the reader is presented with inconsistent accounts, which are left unresolved. This may be unavoidable in some instances. For example, Lyne has striven to reconcile the evidence of conflicting genealogies – although it is unfortunate that the figure which shows Murtaí Óg’s “probable line of descent” suggests that he and Murtagh O’Sullivan of Coulagh were brothers rather than first cousins. On the other hand, several conflicting accounts are presented in the chapter on Murtaí Óg’s military career, a chapter that contains little hard evidence. Although Lyne inclines to the view that his subject was a captain in Clare’s regiment in the French service and can be probably be identified with a “Murtough Sullivan of Clare’s Brigade” recorded by John D’Alton as having been wounded at the battle of Laffeld (1747), he has made only limited use of the extensive French military records from the period. A statement that the only soldier in the Franco-Irish regiments with the same name as Murtaí Óg was an enlisted man indicates that the contrôles de troupes, at least, were consulted. The purpose of these muster rolls was to record the details of enlisted men rather than officers, but the soldiers were arranged by company, each of which was distinguished by the name of its captain – although in most cases only the captain’s surname was recorded. Did Clare’s regiment, or any other Irish regiment in the French service, have a company commanded by a Captain Sullivan during the War of the Austrian Succession? We are not told. Again, the poem by Murtaí’s retainer, Dónall Ó Conaill, suggests that he followed his master into the army; if this is true, we would expect to find a record for a Private O’Connell from Iveragh in the contrôles de troupes. We are not told if such an entry exists. Lyne believes that Murtaí Óg continued to serve as a recruiting officer for the French service after his return to Ireland. If this is so, there should certainly be records of recruits from the Beara peninsula who enlisted in the early 1750s, but Lyne is silent on this matter. One is left with the impression that an important source of information was not fully exploited.

The foreword states that one of the aims of the book is to make “the authoritative critiques by Breatnach and Ó hÚrdail of traditional sources in Irish” accessible to readers of English. In this, Lyne is only partly successful. While he provides the text of Dónall Ó Conaill’s poem, the accompanying English translation is very loose. His decision to present the text of the elegy for John Puxley without a translation is difficult to understand given the intention expressed in his foreword. Although the author discusses the two laments for Murtaí Óg that may have been composed by his nurse and by Mícheál Ó Longáin, he provides neither the original texts nor translations of these compositions. The uneven treatment of the sources in Irish, together with the incomplete investigation of the military records, are the least satisfactory aspects of the book.

What are the implications of this work for the historiography of eighteenth-century Ireland? I suspect that it may have the paradoxical effect of further reducing its subject’s historical profile. While Froude and the writers who were influenced by him saw the animosity between Murtaí Óg Ó Súilleabháin and John Puxley as symptomatic of wider divisions between native and colonist, Catholic and Protestant, Jacobite and Whig, Lyne’s study confirms that such an interpretation is untenable – I write “confirms” because such a conclusion was already clear enough from the essay by Roibeárd Ó hÚrdail. In reality, the families of both Ó Súilleabháin and Puxley were heavily involved in the smuggling trade and had previously worked closely together. In September 1732, a gang that included Murtaí Óg’s father – also named Muircheartach Ó Súilleabháin – and Henry Puxley, elder brother of John, attacked a party of revenue officers in Berehaven to recover wool and brandy which had been seized; one person was killed on each side and several others were injured before the revenue officers retreated to the safety of Baltimore. However, differences subsequently arose among the smugglers: a gang led by the Puxley brothers attacked a party of O’Sullivans as they were returning from Sunday Mass in December 1741, killing one and wounding others. Murtaí Óg was pursuing a military career on the continent at the time of this incident, but he married a sister of the man killed in the attack after his return to Ireland in 1751. In that year also, the Irish revenue commissioners appointed John Puxley as tide surveyor of Bearhaven – a new appointment as the customs of Bearhaven had previously been managed from Baltimore. A poacher appeared to have turned gamekeeper and the resentment of his former confederates can easily be imagined. In January 1754, the new revenue officer advised the revenue commissioners of his predicament:

Necessity obliges me to give your honours the trouble hereof, and to let you know the unhappy situation I am in at Berehaven, ready to be devoured by my enemies the smugglers, who have all concerted my banishment out of that unhappy country ‑ as well Protestants as Papists. They are joined by some of the landlords of the Berehaven estate to execute their design. To which intent they keep me constantly going at assize and sessions by laying themselves out in every respect to provoke and abuse me both publicly and privately; all which malice arises from no other provocation given them more than my activity in serving the crown, and being a check to the trade formerly carried on in this country, which I have destroyed.

On March 10th, 1754, as he was riding to church accompanied by his wife and a few others, he was waylaid and fatally wounded by Murtaí Óg Ó Súilleabháin and his associates. The similarity between the circumstances of John Puxley’s death and those of Murtaí Óg’s brother-in-law are suggestive. Two months later, Murtaí Óg was himself surprised and killed by a military detachment sent from Cork; Dónall Ó Conaill and a second accomplice were taken alive and sent for trial.

It may be concluded that the feud between Puxley and Murtaí Óg had little to do with wider tensions in Irish society. Any lingering doubts on this matter should be laid to rest by an elegy for John Puxley that entered the oral tradition. This revealing composition praises the deceased revenue officer, not for his zeal in the service of the crown, but for the support he provided to the local economy by promoting the smuggling of wine and wool:

Thuaidh ná theas a cheart níor stríoc dá námhaid;
Do bhíodh an rath a’ teacht mar a mbíodh a thábhacht;
Le hiomarca bharc a thagadh fíon ón Spáinn,
Agus muilte na nglas ná scarfaidh línn go brách.

(He yielded not his right to enemies in the north or south; prosperity appeared wherever he had influence; wine used to come from Spain in many ships, and the mills for undyed wool from which we’ll never be divided.)

While the circumstances that led to the breach between the Puxley and Ó Súilleabháin families are unknown, it seems clear that the killings of 1754 were the product of a local turf war and should not be associated with other causes célèbres of the period.


Vincent Morley's The Popular Mind in Eighteenth-century Ireland was published in 2017.