MacCarthy Reagh, Florence (Finian, Finghín)
Following the final suppression of the Desmond rebellion (1583), Finian travelled to London, where he was generously treated by the queen, receiving £1,000 and an annual pension of £100. He spent the next five years dividing his time between the court and Munster. He was also present for the opening of the 1585 Irish parliament in Dublin. During this period Finian adopted all the airs of a typical English courtier, taking up fencing and anglicising his name to Florence. Years later his kinsmen would mock his English attire and a rival would call him a counterfeit Irishman. Yet he nurtured considerable ambitions of becoming an independent and powerful Gaelic overlord. He also remained avowedly catholic: after he came of age he refused to sue forth his livery – thus placing his entire estate in jeopardy – because it would have entailed taking the oath of supremacy. Even more significantly he displayed a fascination with Spanish culture: he was able to speak Spanish by 1588, and had many relatives in the Spanish army and at the court in Madrid. His chameleon-like demeanour caused most of his contemporaries to mistrust him.
Florence stood second in succession to the title of MacCarthy Reagh behind his uncle Sir Owen and his cousin Donal ‘na Pipi’. Florence and Sir Owen were in alliance against Donal, who claimed the territory of MacCarthy Reagh by virtue of a patent granted to his father some years before. In 1583–4 the clan MacCarthy Reagh forced Donal to promise that he would not divert the succession from Florence, on bonds of £10,000. Florence also had his eyes on the greater prize of the title of MacCarthy Mór, and in July 1588 it emerged that he had married the heiress of the earl of Clancare (qv), the current MacCarthy Mór. The authorities reacted with consternation as arrangements had been made for the heiress, Ellen, to be married to the son of Sir Valentine Browne (qv), a prominent south Kerry planter. The prospect of the territories of the MacCarthys Reagh and Mór being ruled by one man – a man noted for his sympathies with Spain – deeply unsettled the government. Florence and his wife were apprehended shortly after; he was kept a prisoner in Cork for six months and then briefly in Dublin before being committed to the Tower of London on 10 February 1589. Clancare had almost certainly connived at the marriage but found it politic to disassociate himself from it. He promised to persuade his daughter to divorce Florence, she still being under the age of consent. To forestall this, Florence arranged for Eileen to be rescued from her confinement in Cork on 18 February. On 23 March he was questioned before the English privy council. Most of the charges against him related to his past association with Sir William Stanley (qv), who had famously masterminded the betrayal of an English garrison to the Spanish in the Low Countries in 1586. By 1590 the government accepted the reality of his marriage and Eileen was permitted to come out of hiding and visit her husband in London. On 19 January 1591 he was released from the Tower on condition that he remain in London.
In his absence his property in Munster fell prey to the depredations of local predators, Irish and (mostly) English. Although Florence had his supporters at court, there were many powerful figures in Munster who stood to suffer if Florence ever returned. He was forced to lease and mortgage his lands and to borrow heavily from creditors in London in order to maintain himself and his family. He also ran up ruinous legal fees in prosecuting suits against those who had encroached on his land, against the Brownes over Clancare's lands in south Kerry, and against David Barry (qv), with whom he had a long-running vendetta. After his release from the Tower in 1591 he was permitted to travel to Dublin on many occasions but never to return to Munster, and his movements were always restricted. In 1596 Clancare died, sparking a free-for-all over his land. Ordinarily Florence's claims would never have been countenanced, but the growing fears caused by the restlessness of the northern Gaelic chieftains meant that the government lent him a sympathetic ear. Indeed the more matters deteriorated for the crown in Ireland, the higher his stock rose at court. To complicate matters further, in 1598 Clancare's illegitimate son Donal proclaimed himself MacCarthy Mór and supported Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, in his rebellion. Florence asserted plausibly that only he could pacify Munster. He continued to enjoy support there, and his brother-in-law, the O'Sullivan Mór, refused to inaugurate Donal as MacCarthy Mór, thus robbing him of his claims to legitimacy. On 16 March 1598 the English privy council ruled that Florence and not the Brownes should inherit Clancare's lands. Florence, so eager previously to return to Munster, now stalled as he sought to extract more concessions from the English, and only returned finally in the autumn of 1599. For the first time in twelve years he was at liberty. The English were under no illusions about his trustworthiness but reasoned that at the very worst his return would split the MacCarthy Mórs.
He faced formidable difficulties in recovering his lands, being utterly destitute, and the government only gave him a barrel of gunpowder. He did manage to hire 500 Connacht mercenaries, and his nephew O'Connor Kerry commanded another powerful force of Connacht mercenaries in Munster. With their aid, and with the people of MacCarthy Mór weary of the chaotic rule of Donal, he appears to have been able to defeat him, and on 1 January Florence was inaugurated as MacCarthy Mór. The English regarded this act as treasonable but he had done nothing overtly disloyal. He closed all the approaches into his country and tried to maintain a position of neutrality, keeping in close contact with both the rebels and the government. However in February Tyrone marched into the province in overwhelming force and summoned all the lords of Munster to him. In early March Florence met Tyrone at his camp. It appears that Tyrone was minded to restore Donal; he had installed him as MacCarthy Mór two years previously and was well aware that Florence had been sent back by the English to cause him trouble. However, Florence was well established and had the backing of the MacCarthy Mórs and the O'Sullivan Mórs. Moreover his considerable Spanish connections would have heavily influenced Tyrone, who had pinned his hopes on foreign intervention. Hence, Donal was banished and Florence acknowledged Tyrone as his lord, who reinstalled him as MacCarthy Mór.
As soon as Tyrone was gone, he was pleading to the English that he had submitted to Tyrone only out of expediency and protested his loyalty. Unconvinced, the Munster administration sent a contingent under Capt. Flower to waste his lands in Carberry in April. Stung, Florence assembled his forces and ambushed Flower's forces as they returned to Cork city. This proved to be the only time in his career that he fought royal troops in battle. The carefully planned nature of the ambush and the pattern of the battle that followed (the English had to retreat for several miles before eventually driving the Irish off with heavy losses) show him to be a skilled commander.
By the autumn the new lord president of Munster, Sir George Carew (qv), had regained the military initiative there, and on 29 October Florence came to meet him. After a tense meeting he promised to remain neutral and to deliver up his eldest son as a pledge. Carew reluctantly accepted as he did not have the resources to fight both the rebels under the súgán earl of Desmond, James fitz Thomas Fitzgerald (qv), and Florence. Florence continued this diplomatic juggling for the next eight months, asserting to both the English and the rebels that he was really on their side. This behaviour led many to brand him a coward and a selfish schemer. He was no physical coward, having proved himself in battle; however, his long years of imprisonment had marked him and he was in mortal fear of being caged again. This partly explains his timorous demeanour in his meetings with Carew. It must also be realised that he was more aware than most of his compatriots of the power of the English monarchy. He had decided that he would not commit to rebellion unless the Spanish landed. During this time he was in contact with the Spanish and encouraged them to land in Munster, as they eventually did.
By the middle of 1601 Carew was desperate to be rid of Florence and even contemplated poisoning him. They met on many occasions but on every occasion Florence ensured that he was granted protection. Eventually in June, employing only the slenderest of technicalities, Carew treacherously broke his word and arrested him. He was sent to Dublin and then once more to the Tower of London. He spent the last forty years of his life in and out of the Tower but always under confinement, although he was never tried. He continued to lobby unsuccessfully for restoration to his lands. During his years in the Tower he dedicated himself to antiquarian pursuits; his ‘A treatise on the antiquity and history of Ireland’ (in the Carew papers) ranks him as a scholar of note. He was encouraged in this by his nemesis Carew who developed a keen interest in Irish history and who questioned Florence during his captivity on the history and genealogies of the MacCarthys of Munster. He probably died in 1640.
Eileen bore him four sons. Tadhg, the eldest, died as a boy in the Tower. He was succeeded by his second son, Donal. Despite the romantic circumstances of their marriage, by 1600 Florence and Eileen bore little love for each other. Throughout the wars she had held Castle Lough in Desmond with her own supporters and adopted an increasingly independent stance. She informed on her husband to Carew, for which she received a pension from the government.