The O’Conors of Connacht and the O’Briens of Thomond (3)

Eleanor Hull
The O’Conors of Connacht and the O’Briens of Thomond | start of chapter

It was while things were in this condition that a determined effort was put forth to bring matters to a climax. An old Irish proverb says, “From the North comes help,” and on more than one critical occasion it has been to Ulster that the warring factions have looked for a deliverer. The resolution of the Ulster kings to hold themselves aloof from the provincial wars of their neighbours had rarely been broken since the North had ceased to give its princes to the throne of Tara.

But at this moment a prince of more than usual force named Bryan O’Neill ruled in Tyrowen and Tyrconnel, whose septs he appears to have united under his sway. Probably he would still have held himself apart behind the protecting mountains that formed the frontiers of his territory but that the Justiciar, MacMaurice FitzGerald, harried him into action. Again and again the latter invaded Cinel Conaill on various excuses, and O’Neill felt that the castle of Caol-uisce, or “Narrow-Water,” which had been built in 1212 by John de Gray, the then Justiciar of Ireland, in the gangway between Tyrconnel and Fermanagh to guard the main western pass of entry into his province, was a perpetual threat to his independence.[29] Since then it had been strengthened or re-erected by MacMaurice (1252), and he had forced Felim to build another castle not far off, at Sligo, out of stone and lime taken from a hospice that had been presented not long before by him to Bishop Claras MacMailin in honour of the Holy Trinity.[30]

Thus threatened, Bryan O’Neill put forth all his strength to resist the invaders of his territory. On more than one occasion the English armies were forced to turn back, having obtained no pledges or hostages from O’Neill. In 1253 he made war on them on his own account; he demolished castles, burned ‘street-towns’[31] and desolated the levels of Co. Down.

In 1257 the castle of Caol-uisce was razed to the ground and its garrison slain, and the English of Sligo routed. The exploits of Bryan made all eyes turn to him as a possible saviour of the country, and a great meeting summoned to Caol-uisce in 1258 included not only Bryan O’Neill and Hugh, or Aedh, Felim’s son, but also a representative of the O’Briens of the South. The Ulster and Connachtmen elected O’Neill sovereign of the Gael of Erin, and placed their hostages in his hands, Hugh at the same time receiving hostages from the O’Reilleys and other subject clans.

In 1260 the combination was complete, and Hugh hosted with the men of Connacht into the North, joining Bryan and his people in Tyrowen, and together they marched to Downpatrick. But their hopes were shattered by a terrible defeat. Bryan himself fell, and with him a long list of chieftains, both of Ulster and Connacht, fifteen being of the people of the O’Kanes (Muinter Cathain).

The battle of Down put a definite end to the possibility of a combination strong enough to check the advance of the foreigner, and, until the confederation under another O’Neill, the great Tyrone, more than three centuries later, no similar united effort was organized by the Irish. Each provincial prince fought his own wars and made his own alliances, but there was no attempt to place themselves under a central ruler as King of Ireland.

The special position of “Bryan of the battle of Down” was recognized by the English. His seal was afterward found near Beverley, in Yorkshire, with the inscription round a mounted warrior brandishing a long sword, Sigillum Brien, Regis de Kinel Eoghan. According to a poem written by his bard MacNamee, his head was carried to London and buried “under a white flagstone” in some church there, while his body was laid in Armagh.

MacWilliam Burke followed up the victory by fresh hostings into Connacht, and MacMaurice into Munster. They seem to have made an annual peace with their foes, Hugh O’Conor on one occasion even “sleeping cheerfully and contentedly in the same bed with MacWilliam Burke,” but these were only momentary halts in the path of attempted conquest. MacWilliam’s attention was distracted from Connacht for a time by his wars with the FitzGeralds of Munster, and meanwhile the strength of Felim and his son increased; in a conference at Athlone in 1264 they came so strongly attended that they secured their own terms, the English feeling it prudent to conclude a treaty with them. Felim died in the following year, having held his own with remarkable courage against the invaders. His tomb, bearing a dignified recumbent figure in white stone representing the King, still remains in the abbey of the Friars Preachers in Roscommon.

About 1261, soon after the battle of Down, Felim had written to Henry III “returning infinite thanks to his Majesty for the various honours conferred on him, but chiefly for the King’s orders to the Justiciar to cause restitution to be made to him for the losses which Gaultier [Walter] de Burgh had caused” of a portion of the lands in the cantreds of the King and elsewhere in the province, amounting in all to nine thousand marks. The Justiciar having died before the King’s letter reached him, Felim states that Walter still continues to burn churches and slay nuns and ecclesiastics. The letter concludes:

“For no promise made to him by the Irish had Felim receded, nor would he recede, from the King’s service. He places himself, his people, and all he has under the protection of the King, and of the Lord Edward; and confides to the Lord Edward from then until the arrival of the latter in Ireland all his property and all his rights, if any he has, in Connacht.”[32]

There is something pathetic in the phrase “if any [property and rights] he has in Connacht,” but between the various claimants among whom from time to time Felim heard of his lands being distributed, he may well have wondered where his own rights came in. The allusion to Lord Edward, the King’s eldest son, afterward Edward I, refers to the proposal long entertained by Henry to make Prince Edward resident Lord of Ireland, and to transfer to him the practical government of the country. This proposal may have arisen out of the suggestion made on the King’s accession by the then Justiciar, Geoffrey de Marisco, that the late Queen Isabella, widow of John, or her second son Richard should reside in Ireland, an admirable piece of advice which would have tended to check the insolent truculence of the barons and to give a much-needed central authority which the distant English kings could not wield.

Henry’s later project to send over his eldest son, would have given the future king an intimate acquaintance with the affairs of Ireland, and it would undoubtedly have tended to consolidate that loyal sentiment of which the native kings were giving ample proof as opportunity arose. Unfortunately the plan broke down. In July 1255 the immediate departure of the Prince is spoken of; in August he is commanded to cross over from Gascony and proceed to Ireland for the winter as speedily as he can. But it does not appear that the Prince ever actually went over, and on his departure for the Holy Land vicegerents were appointed to act for him in relation to Ireland. Thus a plan fraught with favourable possibilities was allowed to drop, and the very rare visits of the English kings ill compensated for the actual residence of a prince of the royal blood in this part of the King’s dominions.[33]

Hugh, or Aedh, O’Conor succeeded his father, and during the years 1270–72 he made a most determined and successful stand against the English, defeating them in the field, demolishing their castles, and driving his victorious arms as far east as Meath. In 1271 his bitterest foe, Walter de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, suddenly died in Galway; and in 1274 the nine years of Hugh’s vigorous reign were closed by his death, after he had cleared his province from the invaders. But his loss meant the revival of the old dissensions for the kingship, and in the same year three of his grandsons were successively kings of Connacht, each being slain by his rival cousins within a few weeks of his succession.

Between 1274, when Hugh died, and 1315, when Edward Bruce landed in Ireland, there were thirteen kings of Connacht, of whom nine were slain, usually by their own brothers or cousins, and two were deposed. When Edward Bruce landed the throne was occupied by a foster-son of the powerful chief of the MacDermotts, who gathered round him a strong following, and called upon William Liath de Burgh to support him.

The MacDermotts were violently opposed to any English connexion, and the young prince called on his adherents to swear “that for the future we will not stain our swords with the blood of Irishmen, or flourish them with parricidal hands, but will draw them against the Saxon assassins, the enemies of our country and of the human race.” Matters were in this condition when the news of the landing of Bruce on the coasts of Ulster in 1315 gave events a new direction.

We must now turn our attention to contemporary affairs in the South of Ireland. The country of Thomond during the latter years of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries was disturbed to an unusual extent by the wars between the O’Briens and de Clares, commonly known as the Wars of Thomond. It would seem that from the time of Donal, the prince who submitted to Henry II, the family had abandoned to a certain extent their claims to the sovereignty, though they continued to be inaugurated at Magh Adhair for some time longer. Donogh Cairbrech, Donal’s son and successor (1194–1242) was the first O’Brien to adopt the name as that of his family “after having dropped the royal style and title that were ever customary to his ancestors.”[34] Similar changes were going on all over Ireland, for many of the family names date from this period.

In 1210, when King John landed, Donogh swore fealty, and the castle of Carrigogonnell was delivered over to him. He abandoned the ancient palace of Killaloe, the seat of the sovereignty since the time of Kennedy, father of Brian Boromhe, and built a new castle at Clonroad (Cluain-ramh-fhoda), near Ennis, which henceforth became the chief dwelling of the family. But it was one thing to swear allegiance to a distant sovereign and quite another to have the territories that had belonged to the sept of the Dalcais for many centuries trampled down and annexed by the subjects of that prince.

The yearly encroachments of the “foreign adventurers, who, through excess of rapacity that grew and settled in them, were committing oppression and injustice, violence and constant pillage, on the old natives and stripping them of their estates and blood everywhere they could,” aroused the Irish to the necessity of combining to elect a supreme king of Ireland, who should hold them together in a united effort to drive back the foreigner.

To the conference of Caol-uisce Conor O’Brien, the reigning prince, had sent his son Teige to represent him. But it would seem that both Teige and Bryan O’Neill expected to be the chosen candidate for the sovereignty, and when Teige sent a present of a hundred steeds to O’Neill, as from the lord to his vassal, O’Neill returned them with the addition of two hundred more, each decked out with a golden bridle. Furious at the return of his gift, Teige ordered an armed trooper to mount on every steed, and in this warlike guise the whole body swung back and drew up before O’Neill “in order to secure his submission by fair means or by force.” But O’Neill, “seeing O’Brien’s pride and haughty mind,” drew away in anger, and the conference broke up, both the chief representatives returning home in wrath. Thus a much-needed combination between the North and the South ended in the old way, tribal pride weighing more with the leaders than even the desire to rid the country of the enemy.

O’Neill, forsaken by his chief supporter, marched to the battle of Down and fell there with the men of Ulster and Connacht around him, while Teige returned to his own province to fight single-handed against an enemy “whom he hated and abhorred more than any animal or creature under heaven; nor would he suffer one of the English progeny to inhabit so much as a nutshell of a pauper’s hut throughout the country under his sway.” So says the panegyrist of his house, Rory McGrath, writing a couple of hundred years after him. He inflicted a severe defeat on the English at Limerick, but he died before he was of age.

Conor O’Brien, after his son’s death, “was filled with despondency and a loathing and contempt for the world.” He retired into private life, and his subjects revolted from his rule and refused to pay their royal dues. But in 1267, summoning his resolution, he gathered together his forces for a raid northward against Conor O’Lochlan, leaving the country behind him “in red flashes of blazing fire and wreathed in crimson-tinted smoke,” only to fall in a wood in Clare named Siudan, from which he is called Conor na Siudaine.

On Conor’s death the whole province was rent between opposing claimants for the title of King of Thomond. His son Brian Roe O’Brien was unanimously elected at Magh Adhair, but the MacNamaras and O’Deas disputed his claim, and he was forced to fly across the Shannon, while the opposing party put up Turlogh, his nephew, son of Teige, in his stead. It was at this moment of family feud that Brian Roe took the resolution to follow Dermot MacMorrogh’s example and to appeal to the English for help. He sent his son Donogh to Thomas, son of the Earl of Clare, in Cork offering to him and his heirs in return for his aid, all the land between Limerick and Athsollas. The offer must have been as agreeable as it was unexpected.

Shortly before, de Clare had received permission from Henry III to make what acquisitions he could among the Irish, but he could scarcely have reckoned on the good fortune which, without effort on his own part, threw so fine a demesne into his grasp by gift. He readily consented, and in 1277 the de Clares and O’Briens, joined by the Geraldines and Butlers, with large bodies both of Irish and English, met at Limerick and marched from thence to Clonroad, hoping to find Turlogh there. But he was gone south to receive the fealty of the MacMahons, and was collecting an army which was to include the O’Kellys, O’Maddens, and O’Madigans from Connacht, and the MacNamaras, O’Deas, O’Quins, and MacMahons, supported by the de Burghs, who were never loath to have a fight with their hereditary foes the Geraldines. Thus the whole South was quickly astir with English and Irish fighting equally on both sides, as they were to fight for many centuries afterward.

De Clare had found time, during the short pause, to erect at Bunratty a castle of lime and stone and to banish the old inhabitants and settle his expectant soldiers, both English and Irish, on his new lands; but the return of the Cullenans (Clann Culien), the former inhabitants, made their lives a burden. The great armies met at Moygressan, where Turlogh inflicted on Brian Roe’s party a complete defeat, the remnant flying in rout to Bunratty. Many of the leaders were killed, among them the brother of de Clare’s wife, Patrick FitzMaurice. In her anger at his loss she persuaded her husband to a frightful revenge upon their hapless ally. Brian was seized and “bound to stern steeds” to be torn to pieces, according to one account: but the Triumphs of Turlogh say that he was hanged.[35] In any case it was an act of inexcusable treachery, for the two allies had sworn a solemn oath together, and had formed ‘gossipred’ or sponsorship for their children, exchanging mutual vows “by the relics, bells, and croziers of Munster.” According to the old Irish custom, they had even mingled their blood in the same vessel in token of unity.[36]

The anger of the Dalcais was so great that de Clare had to build a double ditch round his castle for defence; subsequently the de Clares and Geraldines were driven into the Slievebloom Mountains, where they were forced by famine to capitulate and acknowledge the O’Briens as sovereigns of Thomond.