Roots: The McCarthy Clan
By Liam Moriarty, Contributor
April / May 2006
The McCarthy clan traces its ancestry through an illustrious line of individuals and events reaching far back into ancient Celtic history and myth. The McCarthys claim descendants from the Eoghanachta, the rulers of the fifth province of Ireland, or Munster. The Eoghanachta were a people believed to have descended from Heber, the son of the mythical King Milesius of Spain. It is the 46th progeny (around 192 A.D.) of Heber, Eoghan MOr or Mug Nuadat, who is the oldest known ancestor of the McCarthys. Eoghan MOr was 4th-generation great-grandfather of the first King of Munster, Conall Core, who established the royal seat of Munster at Cashel. After the death of King Core, the Eoghanacht divided in six different ways; one sept became Eoghanacht Chaisil of King Donnchad II, whose kingdom upon his death was fought over by a number of important Irish figures, not the least of whom was Brian Boru’s great-grandfather Muiredach Mac Carthach. It was Muiredach Mac Carthach who first adopted the surname MacCarthaigh (MacCarthy/McCarthy), meaning son of Carthach.
In 1118 the Treaty of Glanmire divided the Kingdom of Munster in two giving each half to two families, the northern half of Thomond to the O’Briens and the southern half of Desmond to the Eoghanacht Chaisil of the MacCarthys. In 1127 Cormac MacCarthy took back the kingship of Munster and built what is now known as Cormac’s chapel on the “Rock of Cashel.”
Another famous Cormac MacCarthy, Cormac Láidir Lord of Muskerry, built Blarney Castle, famed for its Blarney Stone, around 1446. The MacCarthys hold that the Blarney Stone is a piece of the “Stone of Destiny” used in the inauguration ceremonies of the Scottish kings. Legend has it that Robert the Bruce sent the stone to Ireland to be used by his brother Edward in securing his status as High King of Ireland.
How the custom of kissing the Blarney Stone came about is unknown. However, the word blarney entered the English language during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Dermot McCarthy, then ruler of the castle, was ordered to surrender his fortress as proof of his allegiance to the queen. Dermot’s excuses were so eloquent and plausible that the official demanding the castle became a joke at court. When Dermot’s “fair words and soft speech” were repeated to the Queen she said, “Odds bodkins, more Blarney talk.”
A second legendary castle of the MacCarthys is Castle Kanturk in County Cork, built by MacDonagh MacCarthy in the early 160Os. Supposedly MacDonagh drove his laborers so hard that many of them worked themselves to death and their blood got mixed in with the castle’s mortar. A prophecy foretold that the castle was cursed and would never be finished. Today the prophecy holds true as the shell of the unfinished castle remains.
Florence (Fineen) MacCarthy Reagh, Lord of Carbery in Munster and ally of Queen Elizabeth, drew the Queen’s disfavor by marrying his cousin Lady Ellen, uniting two branches of the Clan MacCarthy and thereby becoming a threat to the Queen’s control of Munster. Florence was brought up on false charges of treason for consorting with the Spanish and was thrown into the Tower of London for the better part of the next 37 years. He wrote an impressive history of Ireland, which was published some 200 years after his death.
The MacCarthys eventually forfeited their titles to Munster for their part in the Jacobite Wars. Many of the clan then chose to emigrate to Europe and America, bringing with them valuable skills. The MacCarthys served with distinction in a number of world armies and wars. In the American Revolution alone there are 331 McCarthys listed as serving, including Benjamin McCarthy of Pennsylvania, Captain Richard McCarthy of Virginia, and Eugene McCarthy, a lieutenant of the French Irish Brigade. One Ann McCarthy was a cousin of first President George Washington. In 1917 Colonel Daniel E. McCarthy was the first American soldier to set foot in World War I France.
The McCarthys’ distinctions are not just in military endeavors. Dennis Florence MacCarthy was a celebrated Irish poet and biographer as well as a respected translator of Irish ballads. Mary McCarthy was the famed 20th-century author of the novel The Group, as well as a literary critic for Partisan Review. Cormac McCarthy is an acclaimed author of novels set in the American West.
Eugene McCarthy, the charismatic Minnesota senator who died in December of last year at 89, famously challenged President Johnson’s Vietnam War policy. His run for the presidency was unsuccessful, but he was a statesman, a scholar and a great Irish-American. Other McCarthys in politics include Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D, NY), and the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy, who led the Committee for UnAmerican Activities, and fervently sought out Communists on American soil.
John McCarthy who received the Turing Award for computer science in 1971 and coined the term “Artificial Intelligence,” proudly represents the McCarthys in the scientific world. The McCarthy banner is held high in athletics by people like Tommy McCarthy, baseball Hall of Fame outfielder; Mick McCarthy, former player and manager of the Republic of Ireland soccer team; and Joe McCarthy, baseball Hall of Fame manager. In entertainment the McCarthys are not to be outdone, with talented actors like Andrew McCarthy and Jenna McCarthy, and amazing artists like Danny McCarthy, founder of the Triskel Arts Center. To say nothing of Charlie McCarthy, Edger Bergen’s irrepressible puppet!
The McCarthy clan stands as a monument of Irish hardship, talent, and achievement. If history is any guide, the McCarthys will continue to flourish as a truly noble family. ♦