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Edmund Spenser, Donnchadh ‘an tSneachta’ Mac Craith and the writing of violence
by Deirdre Nic Chárthaigh

Recent developments in the study of Renaissance Ireland, including the study of Spenser’s Irish context, have seen efforts to engage more fully with the parallel literary tradition of Gaelic Ireland.[1] These efforts, however, are the exception rather than the rule, and reference to Irish language literature is still all too rare and peripheral. The reasons for what seems to be a widespread reluctance to engage fully and seriously with Irish language material are undoubtedly complex and manifold, but must surely include the relative inaccessibility of early modern Irish language sources, many of which have not yet been fully edited or translated into English.

The literary landscape of early modern Ireland was dominated by bardic poetry, a highly polished syllabic verse that was composed by a professional caste of poets (or filidh) for members of the lay nobility. We can estimate that that roughly 300 bardic poems survive from sixteenth-century Munster.[2] Many of these poems are little-known, understudied compositions, available in print only as diplomatic editions in A Bardic Miscellany, and therefore accessible only to the handful of scholars of the Classical Irish literary register in which they were composed.[3] Similarly, many of the authors of these compositions have been consigned to near anonymity, with the exception of a few household names such as Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh whose religious poetry was edited by McKenna over a century ago,[4] and the Mac Bruaideadha brothers Tadhg and Dáire, who belonged to a well-known family of poet-historians who served the Uí Bhriain of county Clare.[5]

This paper is a small step towards a more long-term goal of repopulating Spenser’s Munster with its Irish poets, in order to facilitate a deeper understanding and awareness of the vibrant, multilingual scene of literary production and exchange that surrounded Kilcolman castle. We know little about Spenser’s interactions with the Irish poets, but he was certainly aware of them; of both their privileged position in Irish society and what he likely perceived as their enviable access to patronage. It seems that he had been exposed to at least some of their poetry, if only in translation.[6] If are to get any further in exploring the possibilities of cultural exchange and confrontation during the Munster plantation, however, we must first get to know all of the players, including those who ended up on the wrong side of history.

This paper will focus on one of Spenser’s Irish contemporaries, a certain Donnchadh ‘an tSneachta’ Mac Craith.[7] Like Spenser, Mac Craith was a poet who was active in Munster in the 1580s and who was both a cultural and a political player, with personal stakes in the success or failure of conquest. The only surviving composition that we can attribute with certainty to him is Liaigh mo thuirse tásg mo ríogh, an elegy on the three leaders of the Desmond rebellion, James Fitzmaurice FitzGerald (†1579), Sir John of Desmond (†1582), and Gerard Fitzgerald, the fifteenth earl of Desmond (†1583).

Much of what we know about Donnchadh ‘an tSneachta’ Mac Craith was collated and presented by T.F. O’Rahilly in ‘Irish Poets, Historians and Judges in English Documents, 1538-1615’.[8] Our earliest reference to Mac Craith is in a fiant dated the 7th September 1577, in which we learn of the ‘Pardon to Donogho M‘Crah, of Galbally, in Arhlo, co. Limerick, gent’.[9] The next we hear of Mac Craith is at the height of the Desmond Rebellion. In a letter from Ormond to the Privy Council, dated 5th April, 1583, we learn of the submission of ‘Donnoghoe M‘Crahe and 335 rebels’.[10] Another letter from Ormond, dated the 10th of July 1583, counts ‘Donogh Mac Cragh (a rhymer)’ among the noblemen and gentlemen who came to him at Cork to give pledges.[11] In a fiant dated 8th May, 1585, we learn of a ‘Donogh Antueaghta M‘Shane M‘Craghe’ who was pardoned, and this fiant also refers to ‘Margaret Browne, his wife’ (The Irish fiants ii, 667). Although Mac Craith was pardoned, his good favour was to last, and he was executed towards the end of the sixteenth century. The exact date of his death is unknown, but it probably took place before 25th November 1597, when the ‘possessions of Donnagh M‘Craghe, of Galbally’ were granted to one ‘George Sherlocke’ (The Irish fiants iii, 310).[12]

References to Mac Craith in surviving Irish language sources are less plentiful, but add to the overall impression we get from the English documents of Mac Craith as a well-known figure of some importance. His genealogy is given in Leabhar Mór na nGeinealach (‘The Great Book of Genealogies’), which was compiled by Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh in the middle of the seventeenth century:

Donnchadh an tShneachta mac Seaain m. Pilib m. Domhnaill m. Tomais m. Maoilmhuire Mhoir m. Tomais Mhoir m. Maoilmhuire m. Giolla Íosa m. Floinn m. Mec-Raith, 7c.[13]

And he is also referred to in Léig dod chomórtas dúinn (‘Cease from your comparisons’), a bardic poem by another contemporary poet, Eóghan Ó Dubhthaigh. This poem is a satire addressed to Maol Muire Mac Craith (Miler McGrath), the Protestant Archbishop of Cashel. Formerly a Franciscan friar, the archbishop is attacked in this poem for turning his back on the virgin Mary. In one section of the poem, Ó Dubhthaigh reproaches a list of Munster poets for writing eulogies in honour of lay noblewomen, instead of devoting their efforts to composing religious poetry to Mary, and our Mac Craith is among those mentioned:

Do-ní Donnchadh an tSneachta

imreas bearta fa chéile

go lúthgháireach don chonnaois

pro bluinbís dán[a] bréige.

[Donnchadh an tSneachta, who is completely given to trickery, composes insincere poems, gladly, for the countess pro plumbis.][14]

Only one poem attributed to Donnchadh Mac Craith has survived. This poem is preserved in the Book of the O’Conor Don, an important anthology of Bardic poetry that was written by the scribe Aodh Ó Dochartaigh for his patron Somhairle Mac Domhnaill in Ostend in 1631.[15] The manuscript is the only surviving witness for a number of poems, including our poem, which is on folio 378, where it is attributed to Mac Craith (Donnchadh an tSneachta cecinit).[16] The poem was composed in deibhidhe, the most common bardic metre, but contains many metrical and linguistic difficulties.[17] The textual difficulties seem to be due to scribal corruption, and it is likely that the original composition conformed to the metrical and linguistic requirements of deibhidhe, in the highest register of bardic verse, which is called dán díreach.

The poem is an elegy on the deaths of the three leaders of the Desmond Rebellion. All three patrons were beheaded: when James FitzMaurice Fitzgerald was killed, his own men cut off his head to prevent it from becoming a trophy for the English; Sir John of Desmond was ambushed, killed and then beheaded by crown forces, and the Earl of Desmond, was tracked down and beheaded by soldiers.[18] Although the poet laments all three Fitzgeralds, it is the final death – that of the earl of Desmond –  that he presents as his greatest loss. The death of the earl marked the fall of the house of Desmond, which caused not only political but also cultural upheaval in Munster: the Desmonds had provided indispensable patronage (and protection) to Irish men of learning since at least the fourteenth century. This poem, then, can be read as an elegy on the individuals in questions or, more generally, as a poem on the end of patronage, by a poet who would have felt this loss most keenly and in very practical terms.

The poem opens with Mac Craith describing his anguish on hearing of the death of the Earl of Desmond, who he calls his king:[19]     

Lía[i]g[h] mo thuirrsi tásg mo ríogh

minic líontur leór d’imsníomh

do lán mara trúagh do thuirrsi

cúan an croidhe cíamhair-si.

[The news of my king’s death is a graveyard for my sorrow, the harbour of this broken heart is often filled – what sorrow! – with a high tide, wretched was your suffering.][20] (quatrain 1)

The poet goes on to lament the tragic deaths of James Fitzmaurice and Sir John (quatrain 5), but returns to the death of the earl, which is presented as the final blow:

An tres beadg bás na íarla

ní he an t-otras áoinbhíadhna

rug ar ceal gach cás oile

gidh edh do fhás m’eólchoire.

[The third blow, the death of the earl, – it is a wasting illness that will last for more than a single year – although it has cancelled out every other sorrow, [still] my grief has grown.] (quatrain 7)

The poet’s own intense sorrow is emphasised throughout the poem. In the following quatrain we get a sense of the physicality of his grief:

Do ledradh mo lámh dhes

mo lámh chlí do cailleas

crann gan éndos d Dhé ar ndá(i)l

mé gan Sémos na Se[a]án.

[My right hand has been hacked off, I have lost my left hand, the state I am in, o God, [I am] a tree without foliage now that I am without James and John.] (quatrain 16)

The poet’s metaphorical mutilation mirrors the actual acts of mutilation suffered by his patrons. The violence their deaths is highlighted towards the end of the poem, where the poet speaks directly to their severed heads, beginning with that of James FitzMaurice:

Terc inmhe da n-anta ris

a cinn tShemuis mic Muiris

nach ttréigfinn ar ttocht ad chenn

ort a ceidhchinn do chaillsem.

[O head of James fitz Maurice, there is little wealth that I would not exchange for you when I came to [meet] you, had you stayed with him [i.e., on his body], o first head that I lost. ] (quatrain 24)

Then he turns to the head of Sir John, which in 1583 had been sent from Cork to Dublin, where it was apparently presented to Lord Grey de Wilton him as ‘a new years gift’ (Calendar of the State Papers, 340).

An dara cenn do chaill me

a-tá ar cúaille a ccúirt Life

cáoi daghchuimsi níor dhíol linn

do líon th’athuirrsi mh’inntinn.          

[The second head that I lost is staked on a pole in Dublin; a fitting [opportunity to] mourn would not have been enough for me; great sadness over you has filled my mind.] (quatrain 25)

He finally, then, addressed the earl’s severed head which, we are told, has been sent to London:

A chinn mo rí[ogh] ráinig soir

ó Shlíabh Lúacra go Lunndoin

do-dhéna mé a chinn mo croidhe

mo ré rinn na heólchuire.

[O head of my king that went eastwards from Sliabh Luachra to London; I will suffer the greatest sorrow … o beloved head.] [21] (quatrain 26)


It is unclear what the exact nature of the relationship between Mac Craith and his Fitzgerald patrons was. Katharine Simms has suggested that Mac Craith may have been ollamh, or chief poet, to the Earl of Desmond, but the supporting evidence is scant, and the Uí Dhálaigh seem to have been chief poets at the Desmond court.[22] We do, however, have another elegy on Sir John of Desmond that is striking in its similarity to Liaigh mo thuirse, and I have suggested elsewhere that it, too, may be the work of Donnchadh ‘an tSneachta’ – it is anonymous in all manuscript witnesses.[23] If I am correct, this would suggest a more permanent link between Mac Craith and the Desmonds, more than that, say, of a visiting poet. This poem also bears witness to the violence of the Munster wars, and the poet again speaks directly to the severed head of his patron. The poem opens with the poet addressing the head of Sir John:[24]

          Truagh sin, a chinn mo chroidhe,

lór dúinn d’adhbhar eólchuire,

mur taoi ar cuaille ós cionn Danar,

si[o]nn uaidhe fa urdhubhadh.

[It is sad, my beloved head, how you are [staked] upon a spike above foreigners; it is a cause of great sorrow for me; it has me under a cloud of grief.] (quatrain 1)


Tú ós cionn na gceann oile

a nÁth C[h]liath – cúis eólchaire –

ar barr gealchuaille, a ghrádh ban,

crádh le mearchuaine Mumhan.

[It is a cause of grief that you, o beloved of women, are [displayed] above the other [severed] heads at the top of a bright spike in Dublin; it torments the swift warriors of Munster.] (quatrain 2)


The poet goes on to compare the death of this patron to that of past Irish leaders who were also beheaded, including Brian Boróimhe (Brian Boru) and his son, Murchadh, who fell in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 (quatrains 11–13), Brian O’Neill who was beheaded in 1260 (quatrain 14), Shane O’Neill, who was beheaded in 1567 (quatrain 15) and, finally, Thomas FitzGerald, one of the Geraldines who was executed by the crown in 1468 (quatrain 16). He is therefore presenting the death of Sir John as the latest in a list of foreign aggressions that were carried out, he tells us, at the hands of Dubhghalluibh (‘Black foreigners’) Goill (‘foreigners’); Saxanchaibh (‘Saxans’) and Danaraibh (‘Danes’). By the end of the sixteenth century all of these terms had come to be used to describe the New English, from whom the Old English FitzGeralds of Desmond are being firmly distinguished here.[25]

What we have of Donnchadh’s Mac Craith’s work – a frustratingly poor copy of a single poem – is typical of the surviving material for sixteenth-century Gaelic Munster. It is likely, however, that what survives represents only a fraction of his original corpus; we have a reference to at least one other poem he composed that no longer survives, and have a second poem that is striking in its similarity to Liaigh mo thuirse tásg mo ríogh, and that might also be his work. These fragments and tantalizing references serve as a reminder that what could mistakenly be perceived as a barren cultural landscape was, in fact a scene of vibrant literary production, that was self-confident and dynamic, and that responded to and recorded contemporary events, providing an alternate view of conquest to that of the colonial writers whose work has proved so enduring. Patricia Palmer has discussed how the writing of violence – and of beheading in particular – crossed cultural boundaries in early modern Ireland: while Edmund Spenser was weaving aesthetic severed heads into narratives, Donnchadh ‘an tSneachta’ and his fellow Irish poets were addressing actual bloody severed heads in elegiac verse.[26] By bringing more Irish poems and their poets to life, we will have a much fuller picture of the literature of the Munster in which Spenser found himself in the sixteenth century, and be far better placed us to address questions of cultural encounter and congruity during the Munster plantation.

Deirdre Nic Chárthaigh
Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

[1] See, for example, Pat Palmer, Language and Conquest in Early Modern Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Richard McCabe, Spenser’s Monstrous Regiment: Elizabethan Ireland and the Poetics of Difference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Brendan Kane, The Politics and Culture of Honour in Britain and Ireland, 1541-1641 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). The Irish Research Council-funded digital project, MACMORRIS (Mapping Actors and Communities: A Model of Research in Renaissance Ireland in the Sixteenth/Seventeenth Century), aims to map the full range and richness of cultural activity, across languages and ethnic groups in Ireland, from 1541 to 1660.

[2] Most of these poems have been made available by Katharine Simms on the Bardic Poetry Database (, accessed 25 May 2022).

[3] Damian McManus and Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh (eds), A Bardic Miscellany (Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 2010).

[4] Lambert McKenna (ed.), Dánta do chum Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh (Dublin, London: Maunsel, 1919).

[5] Only a handful of the Mac Bruaideadha poems have been edited. See, for example, Róisín McLaughlin, ‘A threat of satire by Tadhg (mac Dáire) Mac Bruaideadha,’ Ériu 55 (2005), 37–57 and Emma Nic Cárthaigh, ‘Mo cheithre rann duit, a Dhonnchaidh: advice to a prince by Tadhg (mac Dáire) Mac Bruaideadha’, in Emer Purcell, Paul MacCotter, Julianne Nyhand and John Sheehan (eds), Clerics, kings and Vikings (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015), 490–517.

[6] On Spenser and the filí see Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (eds), A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), xxi–xxii.

[7] The epithet ‘an tSneachta’ (‘of the snow’) probably refers to the colour of Mac Craith’s hair. See Brian Ó Cuív, Aspects of Irish Personal Names (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986), 12–13.

[8] T. F. O’Rahilly, ‘Irish Poets, Historians, add Judges in English Documents, 1538–1615,’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 36 (1921–4), 86–120. I draw on this article in the following discussion of the surviving references to Mac Craith.

[9] The Irish fiants of the Tudor sovereigns, vol. 2: 1558–1586 (Dublin: Éamonn de Búrca, 1994), 420.

[10] Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Ireland of the Reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, Preserved in the State Paper Department of Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, Vol. 2 (London, 1867–1912), 439.

[11] Quoted in Irish poets, 103.

[12] An account of Mac Craith’s death is given by Phillip O’Suillvan Beare in Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium, first published in Lisbon in 1621, and by Thomas Stafford in Pacata Hibernia: or, A History of the Wars in Ireland During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, Especially Within the Province of Munster Under the Government of Sir George Carew, published in London in 1633. See Irish Poets, 104.

[13] Nollaig Ó Muraíle (ed.), Leabhar Mór na nGenealach = The great book of Irish genealogies. Vol. II. Oriel, Gaelic Scotland, Leinster, east Ulster, Munster, saints / compiled (1645-66) by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh (Dublin: De Búrca, 2003), 622.

[14] Cuthbert Mhág Craith, (ed.), Dán na mBráthar Mionúr Vol 1–2 (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967–80), poem 27. The edition and translation given here are Mhág Craith’s.

[15] See Pádraig Ó Macháin (ed.), The Book of the O’Conor Don: essays on an Irish manuscript (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2010).

[16] The entire manuscript can be viewed online on Irish Script On Screen (, accessed 25th May 2022).

[17] For a description of the metrical requirements of deibhí, dán díreach see Cáit Ní Dhomhnaill, Duanaireacht (Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair, 1975), 76. See also Eleanor Knott, Irish Syllabic Poetry: 1200–1600 (Cork: Cork University Press 1928 [reprint Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2011]).

[18] On the decline of the Fitzgeralds see Anthony M. McCormack, The Earldom of Desmond 1463-1583: The Decline and Crisis of a Feudal Lordship (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005).

[19] A diplomatic edition of this poem is given in A Bardic Miscellany (poem 299). I give the text as it appears in that edition. Translations are my own and are tentative, given the metrical and linguistic difficulties in this copy of the poem.

[20] Line c of this quatrain is hyper syllabic and the reading mara appears to be corrupt. Perhaps it should be amended to moire to rhyme with croidhe.

[21] The second half of this couplet is corrupt, and the translation is tentative. We might read Do-déana mé a chinn chroidhe, rem ré, rinn na heolchaire, ‘o beloved head, before the end of my days I will suffer the greatest sorrow’.

[22] See Katharine Simms, “The Geraldines and Gaelic culture” in Peter Crooks and Seán Duffy (eds), The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland: The Making of a Myth (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017), 264–77; 274. On the Ó Dálaigh family see Marc Caball, ‘Notes on an Elizabethan Kerry bardic family’, Ériu 43 (1992), 177–92.

[23] Deirdre Nic Chárthaigh, ‘Marbhna ar Sheaán Mac Séamais Mheic Ghearailt (†1582)’, Celtica 33 (2021), 277–94.

[24] The text and translation are given from Nic Chárthaigh’s edition (2021).

[25] The use of these terms in the poem is discussed in ‘The Geraldines and Gaelic culture’, 273.

[26] Patricia Palmer, ‘“An headlesse Ladie” and “a horses loade of heades”: Writing the Beheading’ in Renaissance Quarterly 60: 1 (2007), 25–57.


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Deirdre Nic Chárthaigh, "Edmund Spenser, Donnchadh ‘an tSneachta’ Mac Craith and the writing of violence," Spenser Review 52.2.4 (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed September 30th, 2023.
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