The Superb Roger O’Farrel –- Part One

“What sort of looking man is O’Farrel?”

“A fine figure with the carriage of a king.”  She looked me over with a critical eye. “Taller than you, but not so heavily built. Broader of shoulder, but not so deep of chest. A cold, strong handsome face, smooth shaven. Hair as black as yours in spite of his age, and fine grey eyes, like the steel of swords. You have grey eyes, too, but your skin is dark and his is very white.

“Still,” she continued, “were you shaved and clad properly, you would not cut a bad figure, even beside Captain O’Farrel …”

Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”

Among Robert Howard’s female warriors is the rapier-packing she-pirate Helen Tavrel in “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom.” Her foster father, Roger O’Farrel, whom she mentions again and again – and again – throughout the story, never appears. But Helen clearly regards him as the greatest fellow to appear since God divided the light from the darkness.

The O’Farrel, or Farrell, O’Farrell  (O Fearghail in Gaelic) clan has quite a reputed descent. It goes back to Conmhac, son of Fergus mac Rogh and Queen Maeve of Connacht. A descendant of Conmhac, Fearghal (which means “Man of Valour”), King of Conmaicne, fought beside Brian Boru at Clontarf and was killed in the battle. That being so, he doubtless knew Brian, Dunlang O’Hartigan (“Spears of Clontarf”) and the ferocious Turlogh Dubh O’Brien. The O’Farrels (REH’s preferred spelling) take their name from him. They became lords of Annaly, the modern County Longford and parts around, and are mentioned quite prominently in the “Annals of the Four Masters.” They battled the English in the thirteenth century, and fought for Edward Bruce in his Irish campaign of 1316, four of their chieftains dying. They lost that one, but in 1323, when an English host under Lord Bermingham assailed them (feel free to boo and hiss) they rebuffed the English with considerable killing, led by Donal O’Farrel (feel free to cheer). More peacefully – maybe – between the mid-fourteenth century and the late sixteenth, seven O’Farrels were bishops. But when Sir Henry Sidney became Lord Deputy of Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth I, the Annaly O’Farrels clashed with him repeatedly.

(This fell within the lifetime of Solomon Kane, by my reckoning, though he was only a lad when Sidney first held that office, and a young man of twenty-one when Sidney’s second term began. By my reckoning, also, Solomon actually visited Ireland then, in 1575. He stayed until the harvest season of 1576. He met the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, the child Meve MacDonnal — who appears as a ghost in “The Cairn on the Headland” — and slew the Earl of Essex in Dublin Castle. Whether he encountered any O’Farrels during that crowded and active visit, I have no idea.)

The O’Farrels finally lost their position as lords of Annaly in 1618, dispossessed for all time by command of King James I, who as Kipling said, “ … wrote that witches should be burnt; he wrote that monarchs were divine, and left a son who — proved they weren’t!”  The Four Masters record under this date that “They (the O’Farrels) were deprived of their estates without any compensation whatsoever, or any means of subsistence assigned them.”

The Roger O’Farrel with whom this post is concerned was, I believe, born four years later, in 1622. His blood was that of the Annaly princes, but he came too late for it to give him any advantages. He possessed nothing at birth, in fact, but pride and courage and the O’Farrel arms, a golden lion rampant with a red tongue and claws, on a green field. The motto was Prodesse Non Nocere (“To do good, not to do evil”) which Roger was to observe by a somewhat flexible standard.

His boyhood tutor in music, the sword, and languages, a gentleman from Auvergne named Lasaye, had remained loyal to the O’Farrels after they were stripped of lands and wealth. Like the O’Farrels, he was Catholic. He grew old and died in the threadbare O’Farrel following. Roger remembered him with affection always, though his many vicissitudes caused him to be affectionate towards few living souls. Helen Tavrel was to become one of the exceptions. Lasaye’s gifts to Roger were deadly skill with a rapier, some accomplishment in music, a knowledge of Latin, and fluency in French and Spanish.

We’re told in “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom” that O’Farrel, as Helen says to Stephen Harmer, had “attended a medical university in his youth.” This was not likely to have been Trinity College, Dublin. Medical training there was not up to much in the 1630s. The post of “medicus” did exist, and had since 1618, but the college fellows who held it were usually junior and did not even have medical degrees!  Lasaye was a graduate of the University of Padua, famous for research in medicine and astronomy; the great anatomist Vesalius had held a chair there. Lasaye may have conducted the youthful Roger to Padua, and helped him study there, which would make Roger, like Sabatini’s Peter Blood, that anomalous person, a pirate with medical training. Those worthwhile studies came to an end, though, still incomplete, partly due to lack of funds and partly when events in Ireland called Roger home.

He was nineteen, in 1641, when Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford, who had been Lord Deputy of Ireland for seven years, was impeached by parliament, tried and beheaded. It’s unlikely that many tears were shed for him in Ireland. In late summer of the same year, revolt against the English erupted. Strafford’s iron hand was still and cold, and his Irish Army had been disbanded by a parliament which mistrusted it. “Control of the Irish government passed to Puritan lords justices”. (Britannica, 1991)  In Poul Anderson’s A Midsummer Tempest, Prince Rupert describes them as “A gang who sent Lord Strafford to the block on hardly a pretext.”

The general rising in Ulster left thousands of Protestant colonists departed in terror, or dead. There was bitter and excessive slaughter. The Eleven Years’ War, or the Irish Confederate Wars (in Gaelic Cogadh nah Aon Bhliana Deag) followed, and as the name implies, they lasted until 1652. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, no troops were available to put down the Irish rebellion, and the Catholic majority ruled the country as Confederate Ireland for seven years. The Confederate regime allied itself with the English royalists against the forces of Parliament. Roger O’Farrel and his father fought together in the bloody strife for two years – 1641-43 — until Roger’s sire was killed by an axe-blow.

Roger had no fondness for English rule, but he preferred the Royalists to the Parliamentarians or the Presbyterian Scots. Late in 1643 he joined forces with a seasoned smuggler and pirate named Riordan. Mainly working out of Wexford and Waterford, they left with such cargoes as hides and butter, and came back with tobacco, muskets and powder, along with luxury goods of high value and low weight. Riordan kept his ship as well found and seaworthy as he was sloven in his own person, and when it could not be avoided he engaged in battles with English vessels – generally running fights which ended in his giving them the slip. O’Farrel learned much of shifty seamanship from this rascally mentor – not half the gentleman Lasaye had been, but with as much useful instruction to give.

Riordan’s was a merchant vessel, however, and in the summer of 1645 O’Farrel took confederate letters of marque. With backers more wealthy than he, in command of a swift frigate, the Eithne, he embarked as a privateer. Although in his early twenties, he was daring, adroit and resourceful. The English parliament’s navy would soon curse O’Farrel, his henchmen Tavrel and Myagh, and the fast-sailing, swift-striking Eithne, with a Biblical fervor.

These other men sprang from a tradition of piracy and privateering. A brotherhood of sea-robbers had come into being around the Munster coasts at the beginning of the 17th century – strangely enough, due to the new King James I’s desire for peace and lawfulness. On mounting the throne in 1603, he made peace with Spain and banned the sort of predation Elizabeth’s sea-hawks had practiced so joyfully. He ordered the pirates of England’s southern coasts and West Country be suppressed with a heavy hand, and his measures proved effective enough for many pirates (and former privateers) to make for shores where royal control was weaker.

The English crown was carrying out a plantation program in Munster as well as Ulster. English rascals, some from Devon and Cornwall, shifted there with their families, and soon made arrangements with local Irish rascals. They smuggled pirate loot ashore in places like Cork and Waterford, which was good for business in those towns, and in exchange for co-operation they bought local goods at three times the normal prices, which was good for business anywhere. They continued with vigour their old custom of raiding Spanish ships, the traditional enemy, no matter what King James desired. They did not spare French or Dutch vessels either.

Success and prosperity made their numbers increase swiftly, and year by year their organization improved as well. Sir Arthur Chichester wrote from Ireland to Lord Salisbury with the lugubrious complaint that the Munster Brotherhood of pirates “are grown to [such] a height of strength and pride that [official attempts to suppress them] will hardly prevail without the assistance of some of His Majesty’s good ships.”  The trouble was that His Majesty, parsimonious as well as peace-loving, had cut naval funding to the point where he just did not have enough “good ships”. He couldn’t do a thing.

The Dutch could, though. They were surfeited with Munster pirates looting Dutch ships. Good sailors, they had never been slouches at fighting, either. They approached King James with their plans, gained his approval, and with the diplomatic niceties observed, in 1614 the government of the Low Countries turned loose its own sea-dogs. The Holland fleet under Moy Lambert attacked Crookhaven (perfect name) and destroyed a pirate fleet led by Captain Patrick Myagh. Myagh and two of his sons died in the fighting. A third son survived, though seriously wounded. The Munster Brotherhood had used ports and bases as far afield as Newfoundland and North Africa, but naval law and order mopped up their remnants in those places too.

Not every trace of them was gone by the 1640s. A nephew of Patrick Myagh’s, Muiredach Myagh, worthy of his uncle, sailed with Roger O’Farrel. So did Brychan Tavrel, who carried the blood of the Munster Brotherhood. His family was an offshoot of the Taverels of Cornwall, kin to the Taferals of Devon who had been close friends of Solomon Kane’s. They, like others of their kind, had moved to Munster in the first decade of the century, and since the disaster of 1614, some had gone back to Cornwall again, settling anew in their traditional home of Fowey. Helen Tavrel was to come of their lineage.

For four years – 1645 to 1649 – O’Farrel and the Eithne gave such trouble to the Roundhead cause in western waters that they were thought devilish.  In 1646 O’Farrel, then twenty-four years old, won and married Labhrain O’Meara, the daughter of a Wexford merchant with whom he often had dealings.  Their love appears to have been ardent, though not much is known about her, except that she bore him a daughter whom they named Finola, on May Eve in 1647.

Then, in January 1649, King Charles I’s head fell.

By spring, the parliamentary navy was recovering from its setbacks on the water and even from the chronic lack of money that afflicted it. Three new Roundhead “generals-at-sea” had been appointed, and the navy’s financial credit had been restored to an extent by improved methods of collecting customs dues. The sale of church lands had raised a good deal of cash too. The Council of State in London, no less, wrote to Colonel Wiloughby that “There is no affair before us of greater concern than expediting our fleet to sea, for want whereof the shipping of this nation is daily taken by those pirates and rebels which abound in this and the Irish Sea.”  For the Irish privateers, it looked as though foul weather lay ahead.

Roger O’Farrel smelled the coming storm. He considered the best way to ride it out and emerge in triumph. There was a royalist naval squadron at Kinsale, and a good many privateers like himself based at Waterford and Wexford. He considered it needful to unite the Irish frigates — such as his own Eithne — with Prince Rupert of the Rhine’s privateer fleet, and strike hard against the parliamentary warships in Irish waters. Rupert, no fool, recognized the urgency himself, and listened with favor to O’Farrel when Roger approached him to plead the virtues of such a strategy. James Butler, Marquis of Ormond, counselled Rupert to take the royalist fleet against Dublin, which he believed was poorly defended and would fall. Ormond delayed through March and April, none of the ships at Kinsale leaving port except to take prizes, with the result that two of them, the Thomas and Guinea, were captured.

The Marquis of Antrim may have been more at fault than Ormond. Antrim haggled with Prince Rupert at this crucial time, to be made vice-admiral of the fleet in return for providing the sailors Rupert needed so sorely, to man the royalist ships at Kinsale. Because of the delay, the Roundhead generals-at-sea arrived in time to blockade the Kinsale harbor. They could not overcome its defences, but neither could the king’s ships get out, to further his cause. The precious moment had been lost.

With the English Civil War finished, the Roundheads had men and resources to spare for Ireland. Cromwell himself led an army there. In mid-August he landed in Dublin, and in September came the siege and infamous massacre of Drogheda. Then, in October, Cromwell besieged Wexford, another fortified port town on the east coast, so that supplies could be brought from England unhindered. When Cromwell took the town, another red massacre took place, his fanatical butchers killing about two thousand Irish troops and about one and a half thousand civilians, and burning much of Wexford. Roger O’Farrel’s wife and infant daughter were among those who perished, while he was trying to fight his way into the harbor in Eithne – a hopeless task. The Roundheads set his house afire. When Labhrain emerged with Finola in her arms, they drove her back into her blazing home with pikes. Labhrain laid the child on the ground and begged them to pity her. They hurled Finola after her mother.

Some of the survivors told O’Farrel the story afterwards. Like Alfred Noyes’ highwayman, “ … he heard it, and slowly blanched to hear … ” But Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was proceeding as it had begun, and there was scant time for anybody’s grieving. O’Farrel knew that supply remained a problem for Cromwell’s army. The seas around Ireland were stormy, unpredictable and perilous. O’Farrel knew those waters and the weather. Many a troop transport was not large, and came from England badly crowded. O’Farrel in the Eithne, using every trick from fire-boats to false beacons, destroyed as many of them as he could, and smiled without pity to see the parliamentary troopers drowning.

His motive was not solely revenge. He knew that every soldier who drowned, or was sworded to death, was a soldier who would take no part in conquering Ireland. Each parliamentary ship sunk was an expense the Roundhead parliament could ill afford. As Helen Tavrel said years later, “Roger O’Farrel knows the worth of the rapier. ‘Twould do your heart good to see it sing in his hand, and how that he spits those who oppose him.”

He spitted many a Roundhead in the years after Drogheda and Wexford. His ship Eithne was destroyed on the black stormy night he engaged three parliamentary frigates who were hunting him. One he sank with cannon fire and incendiaries, one he drove onto rocks, and a third he grappled and boarded while Eithne was sinking herself. He captured the enemy vessel, slaying all aboard, and took her for his own since Eithne now lay at the bottom of the sea. The frigate had been called the Gideon; Roger renamed her the Tisiphone, after the snake-haired Fury whose particular function was to avenge the crime of murder. O’Farrel fought, and fought again, from Cork to the Giant’s Causeway, in a manner that made his name fit to be added to the list of heroes in REH’s “Black Harp in the Hills.”

Brian Boruma, Shane O’Neill,
Art McMurrough and Edward Bruce,
Thomas Fitzgerald — ringing steel
Shakes the hills and the trumpets peal,
Skulls crunch under the iron heel!
Death is the only truce!

Clontarf, Benburg, and Yellow Ford —
The Gael with red death rides alone!
Lam derg abu! And the riders reel
To Hugh O’Donnell’s girding steel
And the lances of Tyrone!

He continued fighting until 1653, when the conquest of Ireland was complete and all hope of repulsing the English was gone.  His henchman and friend Brychan Tavrel had died in a sea-fight off Galway.  Muiredach Myagh lost his right hand in Donegal in 1652 – the same year that Helen Tavrel was born in Cornwall.

She would set eyes on Roger O’Farrel for the first time when she was two years old.

Art by Howard Pyle, J.C. Leyendecker, Geoff Hunt

Read Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five