Exodus and Exile: The Seven Septs of Laois in County Kerry.

When Francis Cosby and his fellow ‘planters’ arrived in Ireland and began their occupation of land in the district that now comprises the counties of Laois and Offaly, they were opposed by the clans who had traditionally occupied the land and supported the abbeys and monasteries. These latter provided employment for the peasantry, cultivating the land and ensuring that, barring the occasional famine caused by crop failure, the general population was provided with sufficient food to sustain them. Alongside that physical sustenance, the priests offered spiritual guidance ensuring widespread support for the clan leaders.

In Laois, then called Leix, there were seven such clans, or septs. The most important of these was the O’Moore clan, led at the time by Rory O’Moore. The name is preserved today in the naming of residential areas in the county and in the chief sporting institution of Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association which oversees the sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football. In Laois the main stadium is O’Moore Park whilst, in the reporting of inter-county competitions, Laois is invariably referred to as “the O’Moore County”.

O’Moore Park, Portlaoise. Image from Laosi GAA official website.

The other six clans were: Kelly, Dowling, Lawlor, Doran, Deevy and McEvoy. There are a variety of different spellings for these but I am using that used on the front of Michael Christopher Keane’s book. Of them, Lawlor, or Lalor, is another that is preserved as an important part of Laois history and heritage, thanks to the activities of James Fintan Lalor, his brother Peter and their father in the nineteenth century.

Mullaghmast Long Stone. Image from discoverireland.ie

More than a quarter century of conflict between the planters and the septs came to a head with a notorious event on a hill at Mullaghmast near the border between Laois and Kildare. Sometime in the spring of 1577 or ‘8 the sept leaders and their immediate followers, numbering three or four hundred according to most sources, including a Captian Thomas Clarke of the Crown forces in a written report addressed to the Queen, were summoned to the hill in order to complete treaty negotiations. Instead they were ambushed and massacred by Crown forces.

Rory O’Moore escaped but was pursued by Francis Cosby and a small army of fighting men, following a direct instruction from Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy at the time. Rory was killed in the subsequent engagement.

Shortly after, the English brutally put down a rebellion in Munster. In the years that followed, a deliberate policy of destroying crops led to the deaths of tens of thousands from famine and disease, reducing the population by a third over a period of seven years.

Onto the scene, now, enter two men of disputed origin, Patrick Crosbie and his son Pierce. Not to be confused with Francis Cosby and his descendants, this family claimed descent from English gentry in the district of Great Crosbie in Lancashire. Most sources, however, suggest they were in fact from the MacCrossan family, hereditory bards to the O’Moores.

They were granted land at Ballyfin in the north of County Laois in return for informing on the activities of the septs. Later they acquired land at Tarbert in County Kerry. It seems they offered to assist with the removal of the septs from Laois, suggesting to the Lord Deputy that the septs be allowed to lease the Crosbies’ Tarbert acres.

Tarbert, County Kerry. Image from discoverireland.ie

This story, and a comprehensive account of the Crosbies’ and their activities, is told in a meticulously researched book, From Laois to Kerry by Michael Christopher Keane. I purchased the book as part of my research into the period for my proposed book about Francis Cosbie and his wife and children.

The book is a readable combination of genealogy and history, that everyone with an interest in Irish history, County Kerry or County Laois ought to have on his or her book shelf. Not only does it provide a fascinating insight into the political machinations of the time, it is backed by a comprehensive bibliography from which I have been able to compile a list of other materials I need to consult.

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