O'Brien, Murrough (c.1616–1673), 6th Baron and 1st earl of Inchiquin , politician and soldier, was eldest of four sons and three daughters of Dermot O'Brien and Ellen O'Brien (née fitz Edmund FitzGerald of Cloyne). The son of fervent catholics, he was educated according to a court of wards decree after his father's early death, and thereafter conformed to the established church. He married (1 October 1635) Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William St Leger (qv), president of Munster. It appears that he acquired some military experience on the Continent in the late 1630s, which he subsequently put to good use in his campaigns in Munster against the catholic confederates. In September 1642 he evinced leadership and courage at the battle of Liscarroll, where the defeat of the confederates stopped an immediate Irish advance into Munster, though Inchiquin lacked the money, victuals, and munitions to follow up the victory.
His catholic background – his father-in-law had commented that ‘all his kinsmen, friends, and servants are for the most part papists’ – was a cause or a pretext for the suspicions of his rivals (the Boyles, notably) that he was unnecessarily cordial to his catholic relations. But such suspicion was confounded by his words and deeds. In the summer of 1644 he and his officers withdrew their support from royalist policy in Ireland, in particular the 1643 cessation of hostilities with the confederates, and announced their intention of resuming hostilities against the Irish with the aid of the English parliament. A common explanation for Inchiquin's ‘defection’ to parliament is that it was due to personal pique at not being appointed president of Munster by Charles I, in succession to St Leger (the parliament now appointed him to that office). This is a facile interpretation of a complex situation. What was at issue here was the realpolitik attitude of the Munster protestants. The tenor of their various statements, including Inchiquin's, could be summarised as follows: the Irish are the king's worst enemies; any royalist pact with them is unacceptable to the Munster protestants; king and parliament must come to terms to prosecute the war against the Irish; meanwhile, it was vital that the Munster army should avail itself of parliamentary help to fight the king's enemies. The real fear of Inchiquin and his colleagues was that a continuation of the English civil war might well mean an Irish victory and the destruction of their own ascendancy in Munster. Meanwhile, they occupied a middle political ground between king and parliament, and there was nothing like an ideological espousal of the tenets of parliamentarianism. Inchiquin remained in contact with the lord-lieutenant, the marquess of Ormond (qv) and the royalists, spoke respectfully of the king, and was displeased when the covenant began to be taken widely in Munster, particularly by most of his officers. He was never at ease with his new parliamentary masters and they, in turn, never quite trusted him, encouraging his rival Roger Boyle (qv).
The irony of Inchiquin's situation was that his name and race, which made his activities additionally odious in Irish eyes, at the same time made him suspect to the English and furnished a powerful weapon to his political rivals, who accused him of collusion. Inchiquin was fully aware of the contempt in which he, as a perceived renegade, was held by the Irish, and his bitter anti-catholic rant was intensified by this. Only for parliamentary assistance ‘our religion had been extinguished’ by these ‘papists and robbers’; the Irish would not be satisfied until they ‘have all our churches in their hands’; soon there would be ‘no living in Ireland for any but papists’; he had been informed that ‘there is no hope for me, in particular, to have any benefit or content amongst them, except I become one of them in all ways’.
An early indication to parliament of Inchiquin's resolve to pursue the war ruthlessly against the rebels was his harsh expulsion of the ‘Irish and catholic’ inhabitants from Cork in July 1644, a seventeenth-century form of ethnic cleansing. The pretext was the discovery of a confederate plot to take over the city, but the severity of Inchiquin's proceedings against largely innocent citizens, including the seizure of their property, earned him widespread condemnation by contemporaries (‘inhumanity’, said the king; ‘a light of your intentions . . . to extirpate our nation and religion’, protested the confederate supreme council) and by the folk memory.
Inchiquin never received sufficient aid and supplies from the parliament to enable him to take effective military control in Munster. On the other hand, the confederates missed their opportunity in 1644–6 to make any substantial advance in the province. It was in 1647 (while his political relations with the parliament were sharply deteriorating) that Inchiquin had his military annus mirabilis when his terrorist achievements earned him lasting notoriety in Irish tradition. Having subdued Counties Waterford and Limerick in the earlier part of the year, his strategy in the autumn was to reduce Tipperary and then join with parliamentary forces in Leinster to threaten Kilkenny, the seat of the confederate government. The lurid highlight of the Tipperary campaign was the sack of Cashel (September 1647). The storming of the Rock and the assault on the cathedral were accompanied by considerable plunder and bloodshed. Nationalist tradition has it that at one point Inchiquin donned the archbishop's mitre and boasted that in addition to being president of Munster he was now the archbishop of Cashel as well. Whatever about this alleged flamboyant gesture, the Cashel episode dogged Inchiquin's subsequent career and became a byword for his desecration of the sacred edifice raised by his ancestors. For catholic contemporaries and posterity, it was the renegade atrocity par excellence.
The culmination of Inchiquin's military victories was the battle of Knocknanuss in north Cork (November 1647). Displaying personal bravery and good generalship, Inchiquin routed a large confederate force, which included a Scottish ‘redshank’ contingent (led by the renowned Alexander MacDonnell (qv)), most of whom were wiped out. Knocknanuss, which was the last large-scale military engagement in Munster history, broke ‘the very heart of the Confederate affairs’, in the words of a contemporary observer (George Leyburn, Memoirs).
Meanwhile, Inchiquin had had to contend with attempts by his rivals to undermine his authority, and his relations with the parliament became more and more strained. The breaking-point came in the spring of 1648 when it became clear to all moderate parliamentarians that the Independents were prepared to govern without the king. At the same time, a royalist reaction was gaining ground, and this seemed an opportune time for Inchiquin, never an anti-royalist, to change sides again and defect from the parliament.
This step was accompanied by Inchiquin's acceptance of Ormond's peace policy with the Irish, and was followed in May 1648 by his signing a controversial truce with the Ormondist confederates. Rinuccini (qv), the papal nuncio to the confederation, excommunicated supporters of the truce, and the bitter divisions between nuncioists and Ormondists greatly contributed to the destruction of the confederation. The truce also led to the decline of Inchiquin's authority and influence with his officers and with the Munster protestants generally. In many towns throughout the province in the autumn of 1649, garrisons revolted and declared for parliament. The English in Cork ‘could not endure the thoughts of joining with the Irish against their countrymen’. The Munster defection at a critical point meant that Oliver Cromwell (qv) was now assured of ample provisions and excellent harbours. Cromwell's final victory meant that Inchiquin became a royalist exile on the Continent in December 1650.
If a politically consistent thread be sought in Inchiquin's political oscillations from 1644 to 1648, it may be found in terms of his loyalty to Charles I, but other factors at work included expediency, disappointed ambition, exasperation at intrigues by rivals, anger at official distrust, and dependency on those who promised him military supplies. His reputation as an enemy of Irish catholicism was an obstacle to the pursuit of a military career in France. The intense hostility to him by the Irish at the French court helped to frustrate his ambition of securing the unified command of Irish regiments in the French service. However, in 1654 the French appointed him governor of Catalonia (which had revolted against Spain fourteen years before), where he spent much of his time during the following four or five years.
In the summer of 1657 the astonishing news broke of his return to his ancestral catholic faith. Whatever his motivations, there seems to be no doubt about the sincerity of his conversion, which brought him no material gain and much family controversy as he struggled to have his children converted also. During his imprisonment at the hands of Algerian corsairs in 1660, he admitted that ‘no punishment is severe enough for such a persecutor of the church as I have been’, a sentiment with which the majority of his fellow countrymen would have fervently concurred.
Under the restoration settlement, Inchiquin was one of those privileged subjects of Charles II who recovered their estates by royal favour. The bulk of his property was in Co. Clare, where he was involved in the usual post-restoration land disputes with his neighbours. He served for a time as high steward in the London household of Queen Henrietta Maria, and in 1662–3 he was involved in a controversial diplomatic/military mission in Portugal. He signed, and possibly helped to draft, the 1666 remonstrance to Charles II from the ‘Roman Catholic nobility and gentry of Ireland’, to the effect that catholicism was perfectly consistent with loyalty to the crown. In general, he stayed very much in the background, understandably perhaps, in these post-restoration years, his activities being mainly centred on land and on the acquisition of commercial interests. Rostellan Castle in Cork harbour would seem to have been his normal place of residence, despite his Clare connections.
Inchiquin died on 9 September 1673, predeceasing his wife by eleven years; they had three daughters and three sons. Two sons, Charles and John, predeceased him; the eldest, William, succeeded him as earl. His will, which included a number of pious bequests, directed that he be interred in St Mary's cathedral, Limerick, final resting place of numerous O'Briens, and that a fitting monument be erected in his memory. No such memorial can be clearly identified today, but there does exist a tradition that his body was dug up soon after burial and thrown into the Shannon by the irate catholics of Limerick, who apparently had neither forgotten nor forgiven the campaigns of terror thirty years before. Inchiquin was long excoriated in the Munster native tradition as the archetype of national and religious apostasy, particularly exemplified in the crowning infamy of the sack of Cashel. His incendiary campaigns won him the sobriquet ‘Murchadh na dTóiteán’ (Murrough of the Burnings). The very name ‘Murchadh’ came to signify terror, punishment, or suffering. His ill-fame was enshrined in such phrases as chonaic sé Murchadh (of one who saw something frightening) or thug sí Murchadh dó (‘she gave him a beating’). Long after a fading folk memory ceased to recall Inchiquin, there still survived in English speech such curious sayings as ‘you'll get Murchadh’ or ‘he suffered Murchadh’.