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Battle of Down


The continuing power of the Normans is seen when under 1248 the Annals record that the Lord Justice of Ireland led an army to Tyrone to oppose O'Neill. Clan Owen held a council and agreed that as the English of Ireland had at this time the ascendancy over the Irish it would be advisable to give them hostages and make peace with them. On this occasion the English came as far as Coleraine, where they built a bridge across the Bann, erected the castle of Drumtarcy and a dwelling at Drom. This castle must have been erected to protect the bridge, and was almost certainly on the far side of the river, as a few years later there was a parish of Drumtarcy which apparently lay between Camus and Dunboe.

The peace so made was not a lasting one, and the Owen clans were soon to make a great effort to break the Norman yoke in the Battle of Druim-dearg at Downpatrick. Led by Brian O'Neill, Clan Owen went down in an honourable defeat in which the O'Cathains played a noteworthy part. For centuries the Irish had disdained the use of armour, and went into battle with their finest tunics, beautifully embroidered and dyed golden with saffron. The Normans, on the other hand, were heavily armoured, and this battle in particular made it apparent that courage, even of the highest quality, was not enough. Brian O'Neill was killed, and with him no less than fifteen of the O'Cathain chiefs. This shows the magnitude of the O'Cathain effort, and its dauntless quality.

Lament of the O'Cathain Loss

We are fortunate to have two poems lamenting the Ulster losses in this battle, one by MacNamee, the bard of the O'Neills, and one by Fearghal Og Mac-na-Bhaird, whose particular interest was in the O'Cathains. MacNamee laments the loss of Magnus O'Cathain as being the most grievous after that of O'Neill himself.

"Bitter to my heart (to see) the grey Galls
Triumphing over the slaughtered Maghnus;
That the head of O'Cathain, attracting no notice,
Should be seen on the bridge of Dun.

At night did Maghnus of Macha remain
Between wounded bodies;
If Brian had not been in the slaughter
There would be no loss like O'Cathain.

Maghnus himself, Eachmarcach too,
Muircheartach, Dounchadh, Domhnall,
And Niall O'Cathain all falling with wounds:
Alas, it was not one loss only.

A misfortune to our children and our wives
Was the slaying of Maghnus O'Cathain:
That scion of Inbhear-Abhaigh never neglected
A son or a daughter of Eoghan's race."

The poems are translated in the Misccllany of the Celtic Society, 1849.

Inbhear-Abhaigh was probably the ancient name for the mouth of the River Roe. The six members of the O'Cathain family mentioned are probably heads of septs; they appear also in Mac-an-Bhaird~s poem. A Hugh O'Cathain is also mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters as having fallen.

In some ways Mac-an-Bhaird's lament is of slighter quality; but it strikes a more personal and pathetic note. It would appear that Magnus O'Cathain was, according to Irish custom, fostered and educated by Mac-an-Bhaird's father; the poet was his playmate and some years younger than he. Eachmarcach was Magnus' brother, and was similarly fostered in the Mac-an Bhaird home. The bonds of fosterbrothers were often very close, and it was so in this case. Some verses may be quoted:

"Though to me each man is a grief,
(For) O'Cathain the yellow-haired I most grieve;
He is the wound of the artery of my head,
This is the blood I cannot bear.

I gave him great love, ah, woe is me;
To him from the period of my fifth year;
Woe that I have not gone with my beloved;
Early I loved O'Cathain.

My love for O'Cathain of Cluaine
Was not the love of a woman for a man of one hour;
'Twas a love from the time of childhood hither
To my foster brother, to my tutor.

We used to give the chieftainship in our sports
To him, when high-spirited youths,
We and the king on a mound which he disgraced not,
Going thrice around it.

Until he would take me on his back
I used to continue to shed tears after him;
At all times I was the rider;
Our horse was (always) Eachmarcach."

The value of these poems lies not only in their quality, but in the fact that they are contemporary documents, and as such throw some light on the history and situation of the O'Cathains. How contemporary they are is shown by a verse from Mac-an-Bhaird's poem:

"As in the slaughter was not recognised
The fair-skinned body of O'Cathain,
And as he has not come alive to his home
They may have carried him away from the field."

The headless body of O'Cahan remained apparently on the field of battle until the next day, unrecognised among the slain. Macan-Bhaird must have written the poem before the body of Magnus had been identified, as he speculates that the fairies may have carried him off.

"In fairy mound west or east
Who knows but he may still be living."

Mac-an-Bhaird's poem refers to O'Cahan of Clooney, which is near Derry. Evidently the O'Cahans at this time had a hold on North Derry as far away as Clooney. There is one verse that may throw some light on the earliest O'Cahan connections:

"The son of O'Cathain of the Craebh,
Son of Raghnall, King of Formaeil;
A tranquil meeting after him will be difficult;
The poetic art shall be an orphan."

O'Cahan is here O'Cahan of the Creeve, and is called King of Formaeil. O'Kelly takes this Formaeil to be that in the parish of Dunboe, where he also places the Glen of the Clan Binny of the Glen. But O'Donovan's suggestion that the Formaeil mentioned here is the Formaeil of Glenullin looks better, as does his identification of the Glen with Glenconkeyne-if indeed the Glen of Clan Binny be not Glenullin itself. O'Cahans certainly replaced Clan Binny in the glens and mountains in the approaches to the Roe valley.


The Battle of Down, as it has come to be known, uniting as it did the forces of Ulster and Connaught, has been described as the most formidable native effort that the English in Ulster had to meet in the thirteenth century, and in this the O'Cahans played an outstanding part. The impression made by this battle is shown bv the fact that not only Brian O'Neill, but also Manus O'Cahan and other chiefs who fell there are called "Catha an Duin" (i.e., in the Battle of Down) in the pedigree of their descendants in all the Irish genealogical books. The Battle of Down also marks an epoch Irish warfare, and in Ulster history. Norman superiority in equipment remained unchallenged, until it was met by the heavily-armed Scottish gallowglasses who had just made their first appearance in Ulster. From this period also Norman power becomes an increasingly dominant factor in north-east Ulster.

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