Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Story behind the Song of Mary Cruys

by Arthur Russell


The adage of “truth being stranger than fiction” can so often be applied to true stories that come down to us from history. Such a story is one from the early 15th century, which was re-echoed two centuries later on the Cruys (Cruise) and Plunkett family estates in the baronies of Morgallion and Kells in County Meath, Ireland.


The Gates to Cruicetown (formerly Cruystown Castle)

Sir Christopher Cruys married late in life, so late in fact that it came as a total surprise when he announced his desire to marry. The news of the marriage came as a nasty shock to Sir Christopher’s nephews in nearby Robertstown and Brittas Castles who fully expected to be the inheritors of the Cruys estates (now called Cruicetown), Moydorragh and Rathmore after Sir Christopher’s death.

Months after the marriage, the nephews’ concern turned to bitter disappointment when the new Lady Cruys announced she was expecting her first baby; for this was not just another baby, but the prospective heir to what the nephews had long understood would be rightfully theirs in due time. They conspired to murder both Sir Christopher as well as his pregnant wife as they made their way down the long avenue that led to their Castle Cruys home. 

Lady Cruys was wounded during the first minutes of the attack, but not fatally. After telling his wife to run to the shelter of the castle, Sir Christopher fought gallantly with his assailants, but was fatally injured with multiple sword thrusts. The wounded Lady Cruys managed to reach Castle Cruys, though she had to leave her cloak behind her as the gates slammed shut against her would be assassins*.

Bloody and shaken, the expectant mother had made arrangements for the burial of her murdered husband as well as give consideration to how she was going to preserve not just her own life, but that of her unborn child.

During the burial ceremony which was hastily held by candle light in the nearby Church which contained the Cruys family vault, Lady Cruys caused the story to be put about that she had succumbed to her wounds and had asked to be buried in the church near the other family castle at Rathmore, about fifteen miles from Castle Cruys. The reason given was that the family feud which had just caused her husband’s murder would not allow his wife to be buried with him in the family crypt in Cruicetown church. 

Before her departure, she had all the castle’s silver plate put into a large crate and sunk in a small lake near where the attack had taken place. She gathered all the estate deeds and put them into a coffin in which she herself lay as she left for Rathmore with a group of trusted servants. The ruse worked. The two murderers allowed the funeral cortege to pass, believing that Lady Cruys was indeed dead inside the coffin.


Cruicetown Church where Sir Chistopher was buried
When the cortege reached Rathmore, Lady Cruys had all that castle’s silver plate placed in the coffin in which she had arrived and had it buried in the family vault in Rathmore church. As far as those in attendance at that funeral knew, they were burying Lady Cruys.

She collected all Rathmore’s legal documents as well as whatever jewels she could carry and made her way to Dublin to board ship for England, from where she planned to mount her fight to regain possession of her murdered husband’s estates.

She soon discovered that the ways of the law grind slow, and fighting for justice in Ireland from the other side of the Irish Sea at that time was not easy. She quickly ran out of money and was forced to work for what was needed to keep herself and her daughter Mary Anne, who was born soon after she arrived in London.

Years passed. As Mary Anne grew, her mother told her of her lost inheritance in Ireland. She formulated a song in which she listed all the Irish place names related to that inheritance and taught the song to her daughter to keep her reminded of Ireland and the lost lands.

Sometime during the early 1430’s, Sir Thomas Plunkett, son of Lord Killeen in south Meath, while attending Court of Inns in London, was crossing a bridge on the River Thames when he heard a young girl singing in Irish and realized she could be the long lost heiress of Cruys, Moydorragh and Rathmore Castles. He spoke with the girl and asked to be brought to meet her mother. After he heard their story, he promised to help the two women win back what they had lost. In return for his considerable legal help he asked for the hand of young Mary Anne in marriage.

It would be nice to relate that there was a large degree of romance on the rather elderly suitor’s mind. He had himself recently buried his first wife after a childless marriage and saw in Mary Anne the possibility of both perpetrating his family name as well as increasing his estates.

The marriage deal was duly agreed; Mary Anne Cruys became a prospective Lady Killeen. Sir Thomas was successful in pleading the case he had taken on and won back the Cruys family estates from the robber nephews of Sir Christopher Cruys. 

The marriage was duly marked when the couple returned to Ireland to reclaim what was theirs, including the two caches of silver plate, one buried in Rathmore churchyard, the other sunk in Cruicetown Lake. The first visit of the newly marrieds to Ireland was marked with a stone cross erected at Killeen which stands to this day proclaiming the names of Thomas Plunkett and his wife Mary Anne Cruys. Sir Thomas was subsequently appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. He died in 1471 and was buried in Rathmore.

*Note - There is an interesting variation to the story of Lady Cruys’s escape from her attackers which tell that she fled and hid in the sedges of the lake near where she and Sir Thomas were attacked. A heron was disturbed by the pursuers as they searched for her, from which they concluded that nobody could be hiding nearby. This caused the heron to be thenceforth added to the Cruise family’s coat of arms.

History repeats itself – well almost … 

Two centuries later, in the course of Oliver Cromwell’s “settlement” of Ireland, the Plunkett family of Meath fell victim to the Lord Protector’s wrath. Sir Robert Plunkett, a direct descendant of Sir Thomas and Lady Mary Anne; was killed with all his sons by Cromwell’s soldiers when they failed to convince the implacable General of their good intentions. This happened close to Rathmore. Cromwell was in no mood to forgive or forget the fact that some of the Plunketts were Catholics and had sided with the Irish Confederation who were minded to support King Charles I during the Civil War.


Rathmore Church near Athboy, Co Meath.


One member of the family, Sir Robert’s one and only daughter; escaped Cromwell’s wrath. Lady Catherine (Kate) Plunkett managed to travel to Northern England where she hoped to live anonymously until better days for Catholic rebels might eventually dawn.

Yes - its that song again!

By curious chance, several years after these events in Ireland, Kate was overheard singing the same Irish song in Northern England as Sir Thomas had heard Mary Anne Cruys singing two centuries before on the banks of the Thames. The song had obviously been handed down the generations as a family tradition.

The listener on this occasion was a soldier who had served in Ireland and was familiar with the Irish language as well as the story of the disappeared heiress to the Plunkett estates in Meath. History does not record the soldier’s name, but he thought he had a good chance of becoming landed gentry if Lady Kate, who was pretty and having agreed to become his wife could succeed to reclaim the Plunkett family estates that had been confiscated. Nor was this an unrealistic hope at the time, for under the Restoration and accession of Charles II to the throne, many of the former regime’s settlements were being overturned by Royal decree. 

Alas, any hopes of this happening in the case of Lady Kate failed and with it her marriage to her soldier adventurer. He increasingly found her manners and Irish mode of speaking wanting and disagreeable to him until he finally deserted her. Poor Kate made her way back to Ireland where we can only hope she found some semblance of peace and serenity after her earlier tumultuous life.

THE SONG OF MARY CRUYS (Translated from the original Irish)


Ah! blessed Mary! hear me sighing,
On this cold stone mean labour plying;
Yet Rathmore's heiress might I name me,
And broad lands rich and many claim me.

Gilstown, Rathbeg, names known from childhood;
Fair Johnstown, hard by bog and wild wood;
Re-taaffe (Blackwater near it floweth),
And Harton, where the white wheat groweth.

Thee, Ballycred, too, mem'ry prizes;
Old Oristown to mind arises;
Caultown, near bogs, black turf providing;
Rathconny, in its "Baron" priding.

The Twelve Poles, Armabregia, follow;
Kilmainham, of the woody hollow;
Cruisetown, with lake by sunbeams greeted;
Moydorragh hay, mid fair roads seated.

Still could I speak of townlands many;
Three score along the banks of Nanny;
Twelve by the Boyne, if it were pleasure
To dwell on lost and plundered treasure.

The story of Mary Cruys and her descendant Kate is a small part of a rich legacy which comes down to us as oral folk history and which are now being recorded and preserved by organisations such as the Meath Archaeological and History Society (MAHS) and the Navan & District Historical Society (N&DHS).

Note – The townland of Cruicetown, which derives its name from the Cruise or Cruice family; is situated on the border of the baronies of Morgallion and Lower Kells in Co Meath. It was granted to Sir Maurice Cruys (died 1216), by Sir Hugh deLacy in 1172 as part of the conquest of the Liberty of Meath in the aftermath of the Norman Invasion of Ireland in 1169.

The old church of Cruicetown, which is believed to have been a gift from the local chieftain after the conversion of the local people to Christianity post 432 AD; is situated beside a motte and bailey which was subsequently built by Sir Maurice. While the church is dedicated to St. James, it was unusual for Celtic churches to use biblical saint names. It is therefore thought that the church may have been re-dedicated by the conquering Anglo-Normans and all records of a previous Irish patron saint erased from local memory and record.
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Arthur Russell is author of Morgallion, a story set in early 13th century during the Bruce Invasion of Ireland. Cruicetown is located in the barony which bears the name Morgallion.

More information about Morgallion can be found on website Morgallion.com

9 comments:

  1. Truth really IS stranger than fiction! :) Fascinating story. Is there a tune that we know?

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  2. Unfortunately, I have never heard of any accompanying tune or melody which has survived the passage of time since the late 17th century.

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  3. A wonderful article! I believe many tunes in folk heritage were passed down, often given different verses. I used to sing a lot of them. Shakespeare mentions some songs we still sing today. I used to sing Barbary Allen and the Three Ravens, and they were very old. I believe a lot of this stuff was written down in the 16th century, often carols and hymns.

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    1. I will keep searching for the tune - wish me luck

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  4. Arthur, you have just given me a wonderful idea for a historical romance! Many, many thanks!

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  5. I, too, with family name of Cruce, come from Ireland and it's rich traditions! I definitely will visit someday.

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  6. I wish to be able to come and visit my family ancestral lands!

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