Ua Conchobair, Cathal Mór Crobderg (d. 1224), overking of Connacht, belonged to the Síl Muiredaig dynasty. His father Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair (qv) (d. 1156) was high-king of Ireland; his mother, and the mother of his brothers Domnall and Áed, was Derbforgaill, daughter of the powerful Cinél nÉogain overking Domnall MacLoughlin (qv). He had (owing to his father's several marriages and liaisons) at least a dozen half-brothers including Conchobar Ua Conchobair (qv), appointed king of Mide by his father and assassinated in 1144, Brian Luigne (d. 1181), Muirchertach (d. 1210) and Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (qv), overking of Connacht and high-king of Ireland. It seems likely that Cathal was born c.1150/51 (six years or more after the death of his eldest half-brother), and it is possible that his mother, whose death is recorded at 1151, died at his birth or from complications arising thereafter. His left hand was disfigured by a red birth-mark (the subject of early modern folk stories), which gave him his sobriquet Crobderg (Red-hand). He is said to have been fostered by the Uí Diarmata, local rulers in Co. Galway. This, presumably, explains the appearance among the Ua Conchobair dynasts from the 1180s of Conchobar ua nDiarmata, who was either a half-brother or a foster-brother of Cathal and his siblings. Cathal married Mór, daughter of Domnall Ua Briain (qv), king of Thomond, and had three sons – Conchobar (d. 1190), Áed (d. 1228), and Fedlimid (qv) (d. 1265) – and a daughter, Sadb (d. 1266). Tigernán Ua Conchobair, who slew a kinsman in 1238 (Misc. Ir. ann.), may have been another of his sons.
Cathal is celebrated in modern folk tradition, in the Romantic poetry of Young Ireland (he is the central character of the poem by James Clarence Mangan (qv), ‘A vision of Connacht in the thirteenth century’), and in popular histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the last ‘great’ king of Connacht, who steadfastly defended the integrity of his province against the English. In reality, Cathal owed much to English support and held his kingship in fealty to the English crown; he was, however, a shrewd political survivor whose main achievement was to keep his dynasty in power and to preserve a considerable degree of de facto independence as a client-king of the Plantagenets.
Cathal Crobderg first came to prominence in 1185, during the conflict known to historians as the ‘war of the rígdamnae’. With the support of Conchobar ua nDiarmata, he rebelled against his nephew, Conchobar Máenmaige Ua Conchobair (qv), who had been left the sovereignty of Connacht when his father Ruaidrí went into religious retirement. When Conchobar Máenmaige, who apparently rejected the treaty of Windsor and went to war with the English, was attacked by his father in an effort to regain power, Cathal joined in the fray to further his own ambitions, but achieved little success. His opportunity came four years later, when Conchobar ua nDiarmata instigated the assassination of Conchobar Máenmaige. Although the latter's son, Cathal Carrach Ua Conchobair (qv), gained revenge by killing Conchobar ua nDiarmata, Cathal Crobderg secured his claims to the provincial kingship.
Intermittent hostilities continued for several years between the two Cathals. In 1190 Cathal Crobderg agreed to a truce negotiated by his kinsman, Tommaltach Ua Conchobair (qv), archbishop of Armagh. After that peace conference, Cathal's son Conchobar, along with several of his retainers, was drowned in a storm on Lough Ree. In 1195 Cathal Crobderg invaded Munster and attacked several English castles, but achieved no lasting result. In his absence, his overlordship was discarded by Mac Diarmata of Magh Luirg, and soon afterwards by his grand-nephew, Cathal Carrach. By 1199 he had managed to establish an uneasy peace with the latter, to whom he granted lands in southern Connacht. The following year, however, he attacked Cathal Carrach – seemingly an unprovoked action which reopened internal conflict within Síl Muiredaig and, more to the point, led to increased Anglo-Norman (or English) involvement in the affairs of Connacht. In 1200 Cathal Crobderg was defeated and driven out of Connacht by his grand-nephew, whose supporters included William de Burgh (qv) (qv) – the latter in pursuit of a speculative grant of Connacht previously made to him by John (qv), lord of Ireland. Cathal then sought assistance to regain his kingship. His initial attempt, supported by Áed O'Neill (qv) (d. 1230) and the Irish of the north, was defeated at Eas Dara (Ballysadare, Co. Sligo), and another venture, backed by John de Courcy (qv), the English lord of Ulster, was repulsed at An Forbhar near Kilmacduagh. He was obliged to undertake a third invasion (1202), with the support of William de Burgh, and this time defeated and slew Cathal Carrach near Corr Sliaib (the Curlew pass).
Cathal Crobderg now marked his return to power with a formal inauguration to the kingship of Connacht at the traditional site of Carnfree, near Tulsk. As king, he was closely involved in ecclesiastical affairs; he secured the right from the papacy to veto episcopal elections in the province of Connacht and had his brother-in-law, the reformer Felix Ua Ruanada (qv), appointed to the archbishopric of Tuam. He promoted the religious orders, founding and endowing several monasteries, notably the Cistercian house of Knockmoy (Co. Galway) and the abbey of Ballintober (Co. Mayo). However, dependence on Anglo-Norman support – on his own part and on that of his grand-nephew – had resulted in substantial numbers of English settlers within Connacht, and the powerful de Burgh was determined that his grant of Connacht from the English crown should be realised. Cathal acknowledged King John of England as his feudal lord and in 1210, when the latter visited Ireland, tendered formal submission and gave hostages. In 1215 he received from John a formal grant of Connacht to hold under the English crown. This feudal tenure of his kingdom did not, indeed, make Cathal any less determined to maintain his dynastic rights. When in 1220 his realm was threatened by invasion from the English lord of Meath, Walter de Lacy (qv), he stood firm and defeated the latter. In 1224 he wrote two letters to King Henry III (preserved in the British national archives at Kew). The first is a protest against the activities of de Lacy, the second a request for a confirmation of the grant of his kingdom as held from King John. In both letters, he styles himself ‘Kathaldus Rex Conacie’ (king of Connacht). But it seems that Cathal's aim in 1224 was to get his son Áed accepted as his heir by the English crown, and by the papacy. Helen Perros has brought out the extent to which his kingship aspirations were based as much on Anglo-Norman as on Irish foundations (e.g. his attitude to Áed's heirship, his use of Anglo-Norman military men, his acquisition of part of his lands from John as a ‘barony’ with jurisdictional features). Cathal died on 28 May that year, and was buried at Knockmoy. He was succeeded in the kingship by his son, Áed.