MacCarthy, Sir Cormac mac Dermond (Mac Carthaigh, Cormac Óg mac Diarmada) (1552–1616), Gaelic lord, was eldest son of Sir Dermond mac Teig (Diarmaid mac Taidhg) MacCarthy, lord of Muskerry, and his wife Ellen, daughter of Maurice fitz John Fitzgerald of Kerrycurrihy. After his father's death (1570/71), his uncle Sir Cormac MacCarthy (qv) (d. 1583) succeeded to the lordship, as it was customary for the succession to pass from brother to brother within each generation. In his will Sir Cormac mac Teig stipulated that the lands of Muskerry should pass to his brother Callaghan (Ceallachán), then to Cormac mac Dermond, and then to Cormac's brother Teig, all of whom were granted a life interest only, with remainder to his own son Charles and his lawful heirs for ever. This was unacceptable to Cormac mac Dermond: firstly, because he wished to succeed his uncle directly; and secondly because he hoped to pass Muskerry to his heirs forever. Thus, following Sir Cormac mac Teig's death (July 1583), Cormac mac Dermond challenged his uncle for the lordship of Muskerry. With Muskerry on the brink of civil war, royal forces under the command of Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, intervened and compelled both sides to accept the arbitration of the government on the dispute. At this time, royal forces were close to quelling a rebellion that had raged within Munster for four years, and although the MacCarthys of Muskerry were broadly loyalist, Ormond was not prepared to tolerate any threat to the stability he had bloodily imposed on the province.
Perhaps recognising that Cormac was the strongest claimant and therefore worth appeasing, the government supported his claim. Signalling its intent, the government knighted him in December 1583 or January 1584 before ruling that he was the rightful lord of Muskerry in September 1584. Callaghan agreed to resign, being compensated with some land and two castles. Thereafter, Cormac mac Dermond's main ambition was to establish himself as absolute owner of as much of the lordship of Muskerry as possible and to pass this to his eldest son as his private property. This entailed overriding the claims of many of the subordinate septs in Muskerry to their lands and forcing them to become tenants to him under English law. Normally, crown officials opposed increasing the power of the Gaelic lords, but Cormac's suit was enthusiastically promoted by the English settlers in Munster and by the provincial administrators. An inaccessible and relatively infertile area, Muskerry was not a promising terrain for English colonists, leading the authorities to conclude that it was best to uphold a friendly Irish lord there. Cormac encouraged this by stressing his appreciation of English rule and culture. He formed close contacts with the anglicised townsmen of Cork city, sent his eldest son to Oxford University, and appears to have conformed to protestantism. In 1585–6 he sat in the Irish house of lords as Baron Blarney.
His overt loyalism paid off in 1589 when he obtained a grant of Muskerry for himself and his heirs, overthrowing the provisions of Sir Cormac mac Teig's will in the process. This grant aroused opposition within Muskerry, particularly as under the brehon laws a Gaelic lord only held his territory as a life trust, with ultimate ownership being vested in the corporate clan. Chief among his internal rivals was his nephew Charles MacCarthy, Sir Cormac mac Teig's designated heir, who contested his claim to the lordship and brought a case before the privy council in autumn 1589. Charles was a formidable enemy because he had a strong legal case and influential supporters at court, most notably Sir Walter Ralegh (qv). This legal dispute dragged on throughout the 1590s, with Charles refusing Cormac's offers of some land within Muskerry if he would drop his claims. Charles claimed that much of Cormac's holdings had been wrongfully seized from the crown, and in November 1595 this argument was upheld by a royal inquisition. However, Cormac had this ruling overturned in the Irish court of chancery in 1596.
In 1597 his property was described as being the greatest estate in the province, entitling him to annual rents of some £800 as well as the right to demand provisions for his household from his tenants whom he is said to have treated in a heavy-handed fashion. As lord of Muskerry he continued his clan's centuries-long eastward expansion, besieging Castle-Inch in 1588 and again in 1593, for which the court of star chamber fined and imprisoned him for 15 days in 1594. However, he succeeded wresting Castle-Inch from the Barretts and also the territory of Carrignavar from the Roches.
The increasingly successful rebellion led by Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, from 1594 onward destabilised Munster politics. By 1598 much of the province was in rebellion. Despite repeated overtures from Tyrone, Cormac remained loyal to the government and campaigned with government forces against the rebels. However, it was noted that he brought very few of his men with him on these campaigns and that he ignored rebel activities in his own lordship. He was in constant contact with Tyrone and the Spanish, who were preparing to intervene in Ireland in support of the rebels, assuring them disingenuously that he would join them when the time was right. Ultimately, an English victory was more in his interests, but his main concern was to make sure he was on the winning side.
As a result, he continually found pretexts – while always protesting his devotion to Queen Elizabeth I – to avoid acceding to repeated government demands to admit a royal garrison to his main residence at Blarney castle. It is said that the queen became so infuriated upon reading yet another of his self-justificatory missives that she exclaimed ‘Blarney, Blarney, I will hear no more of this Blarney!’ (Samuel and Hamlyn, 72). This incident is reputed to be the origin of the modern sense of the word blarney, which is to engage in fulsome but empty flattery. The royal officials were not alone in their exasperation at Cormac's facility for dissimulation: in his famous satire of various Gaelic families composed c.1600, Muintir fhiodhnacha na mionn, the poet Aonghus Ó Dálaigh (qv) noted bitterly that on his visit to Blarney castle ‘Flattery (bladmaha) I got for food’ (O'Donavon, 64). It is probable that at some point in the 18th century folk memories of Cormac's ‘blarney’ mingled with legends surrounding the blarney stone kept in Blarney castle to create the belief that kissing the stone conferred ‘the gift of the gab’.
In February 1600 Tyrone entered Muskerry with a large army, prompting Cormac to flee to Cork city. In his absence most of his followers and relatives pledged loyalty to Tyrone. After Tyrone withdrew, Cormac returned to Muskerry in May 1600 and reestablished his authority there. The lord president of Munster, George Carew (qv), regarded him as a very unreliable ally. Due to its proximity to Cork, Muskerry was of great strategic importance: under rebel control, it would severely hinder the government's ability to campaign further afield in Munster. However, following Charles MacCarthy's death in 1600, there was no viable alternative for the English in Muskerry.
In October 1601 Cormac and his men came to Kinsale to join the English troops besieging the Spanish forces there. Immediately after arriving, they were directed to storm the Spanish trenches – a task they carried out with little enthusiasm. Following the decisive defeat of Tyrone's relieving army outside Kinsale in December 1601 and the subsequent withdrawal of the Spanish from the town, evidence of Cormac's communications with both Tyrone and the Spanish came to light. At first Carew did not act on this information, and Cormac served alongside the lord president in his successful siege of Dunboy castle in summer 1602. Then, in August, Carew received intelligence from a partisan source that, in return for pledging to support Spain, Cormac had received gold from a Spanish ship that had landed in Munster in June. Although he may have availed himself of this largesse, that does not necessarily mean he intended rebelling. However, it was widely and wrongly believed in summer 1602 that another Spanish invasion force was about to land in Munster, prompting an unsettled Carew to arrest him on 18 August.
Carew demanded that he hand over to the government his three main castles at Blarney, Kilkrea, and Macroom. He refused and instead had Macroom handed over to the rebels. Then on 29 September he escaped from his prison in Cork city before meeting and forming an alliance with Sir Donal O'Sullivan Beare (qv), leader of the rebels in Munster. However, by then the English had captured Cormac's castles, had established a garrison of 500 foot and 100 horse in Muskerry, and had his wife and children in their custody. Moreover, it was increasingly apparent that there would be no further help from Spain. By 9 October he had opened negotiations with Carew, to whom he submitted on 21 October. Soon afterwards, a rebel force under Richard Tyrrell (qv), which had gone to Muskerry to assist Cormac, was ambushed and severely mauled by royal forces. Wrongly believing that Cormac had betrayed him, Tyrrell proceeded to kill a number of his followers before withdrawing from Muskerry. As a result, Cormac and his men took part enthusiastically in the government campaigns in west Cork and Kerry that crushed the remnants of the rebellion in Munster during winter 1602–3.
Meanwhile, in London, Ralegh briefly prevailed on the queen not to pardon him and to confiscate his territory instead. However, her advisers quickly dissuaded her from this course of action by stressing the need to stabilise Munster. The queen then resolved on partitioning Muskerry between Cormac and the deceased Charles MacCarthy's younger brother Teig (Tadhg). However, Ralegh's spectacular fall from favour following the death of the queen in March 1603 immeasurably strengthened Cormac's hand. It was agreed in 1604 that Teig and Sir Cormac mac Teig's other heirs would receive 18 ploughlands in Muskerry, but that Cormac would retain the bulk of the lordship.
Finally secure, he emerged from the war as the leading Irish landowner in the province and added to his holdings by purchasing property confiscated from the O'Mahonys for rebellion. Nominally a member of the Church of Ireland, he acted as patron to the catholic clergy in his territory and facilitated the re-establishment of the Franciscan friary at Kilkrea in 1604. Reports that the friars were engaged in treasonous communications with Spain led the government to expel them from Kilcrea in 1614. Recognising the importance of securing Cormac's cooperation, the crown granted him the property of the friary on condition that he would not permit the friars to return. Ever cautious, he kept his word while preserving the friary, presumably in the hope that the government would in time relax its persecution of catholicism. He died at Blarney on 23 February 1616 and was buried at Kilcrea.
He had married by 1585 Mary, daughter of Theobold Butler, Baron Cahir, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Charles (Cormac Óg) who openly reverted to catholicism, sought to modernise his estates by encouraging the settlement of English tenants upon them and was created Viscount Muskerry in 1628. Charles' son, Donough (qv), the 2nd viscount, somewhat reluctantly supported the 1641 rising and became one of the leading figures within the catholic confederacy of Ireland. Later he was created earl of Clancarty for his services to the royalist cause.