Sir Henry Sidney (2)

Eleanor Hull
Sir Henry Sidney | start of chapter

The Mayo branch of the great family of the Burkes Sidney on his journey to Galway found more amenable. Though at first MacWilliam Burke sent word that he would not come, he relented when he found that seven chief men of his galloglas, the Scottish Clandonnells, had submitted themselves, and he came “very willingly.”

The Deputy “found MacWilliam very sensible, though wanting the English tongue yet understanding the Latin. He desired to suppress Irish extortion and to expulse the Scots,” and he agreed to hold his lands directly of the Queen.

Sidney conferred on him the honour of knighthood, “whereof he seemed very joyous,” and gave him “some other little trifles, as tokens between him and me.”[15]

Sidney found him a great man, owning territory three times as large as Clanricarde, his lands lying along the coast, wherein were many goodly havens. So long as he lived he remained loyal and seems to have endeavoured to keep the country quiet, but the untamable wildness of his family, followed by the ruthless régime of Bingham in Connacht ten years later, made peace impossible.

Of the Gaelic Connacht chiefs, O’Conor excused himself by letters, but for O’Conor Sligo, O’Rorke, and O’Donnell, Sidney looked in vain. But a year later they had all submitted, with copious promises of being “good subjects” and paying rents. As a rule the rents were, as O’Conor said of his own tributes from O’Conor Sligo, “never taken without violence” and indefinitely delayed.

Among the local chieftains who came in and submitted to Sidney during his visit to Galway was Owen O’Mayle, or O’Malley, Lord of Borishoole, Co. Mayo, the father of the celebrated Grania O’Malley, who became famous in song as Grania Mhaol (pronounced Wael). The exploits of this Connacht chieftainess, who defied Elizabeth and her Government from her sea-fortress, so impressed her time and nation that her name became a synonym for Ireland itself, and there are popular national songs addressed to the country under this title. She was wife to the “Iron” Richard Burke, who was brought in by her to make his submission. Sidney’s account of the scene reflects the general curiosity aroused by the personality of this remarkable woman. His report goes:

“There came to me a most famous feminine sea-captain, called Grany O’Mallye, and offered her service unto me wheresoever I would command her with three galleys and two hundred fighting men, either in Ireland or Scotland; she brought with her her husband, for she was by sea as by land more than Mrs Mate with him. … This was a notorious woman in all the coast of Ireland. This woman did Sir Philip Sidney see and speak withall; he can more at large inform you of her.”[16]

This interview between Sidney’s famous son, the most accomplished poet-soldier of his day, with the powerful and independent chieftainess of the Connacht seaboard must have been of singular interest. We could wish that the record of it had remained.

Grania ruled her husband and her district with equal vigour, commanding her fleet and army from her almost impregnable castle at Carrick-a-Uile, near Newport in Co. Mayo. Her ships scoured the wild seas of the West and made sudden descents on English armies and fleets, committing depredations far and near. Sir Richard Bingham considered her as “the nurse of all the rebellions in the province for forty years.”

Grania had many narrow escapes. In 1577–78 she was a prisoner in Desmond’s hands, until Sir William Drury had her brought to Dublin and set her free. Her first husband was an O’Flaherty, cousin of Sir Morrogh O’Flaherty of the Axes (na dtuagh), recognized by Queen Elizabeth as the head of his clan; but on his death she was united to Richard Burke.

She was seized by Sir Richard Bingham in 1586 for plundering Aran Island. He bound her and threatened to hang her, but let her off on receiving a pledge from her wild son-in-law, popularly known as “the Devil’s Hook” or “the Fiend of the Sickle” (Deamhan an chórrain). On his rising in rebellion she fled into Ulster to O’Neill and O’Donnell, till Sir John Perrot sent her the Queen’s pardon, on which she returned to Connacht; but her fleet was dispersed, and she fell into great poverty and had to appeal to Burghley for the restoration of one-fifth of her husband’s lands. Tradition says that she was buried on Clare Island.

The disturbed condition of the district had been aggravated by the harsh and irritating dealings of Sir Edward Fitton, who was appointed first Governor of Connacht in 1569, soon after Sidney’s visit to the province. He was a man better fitted for his later post of Treasurer than as a general called upon to cope with a country in rebellion. He was replaced in January 1576–77 by Colonel Nicholas Malbie, who was given the charge of the castles of Roscommon and Athlone and all Clanricarde’s houses, and who later, in March 1579, was appointed President. Under his administration the province quieted down. He brought with him a band of soldiers which included two hundred of the Scottish Clandonnells of Leinster, who formed the Queen’s body of galloglas, and some kerne in her Majesty’s service.

At the same moment two thousand Scots were on their way over to fight with the Earl’s sons and were “doing as much harm and mischief as they could.” The Scottish tartan must frequently have been seen on both sides in these Irish wars. Otherwise the wars in Connacht were carried on almost entirely by Irish troops on both sides.

There was never any difficulty in raising bodies of kerne for the Queen’s armies, and, except for the great expeditions such as that of Essex against O’Neill, when English troops were sent over, nearly all the field campaigns were carried on with kerne raised in the locality.

The English soldiers were almost exclusively used for garrisons in the towns and castles. For Bingham’s ruthless campaign in Connacht kerne came swarming in from Munster to enrol under the English flag, so that he had no need of any outside help in subduing the unruly Burkes and Joys; he boasted that his wars had not cost a penny to the Queen. He reports that he had to turn away “many companies of kerne who came to me out of Munster and other places to serve here; they came up so fast that I think I must be forced to turn upon them and drive them out of the province.”

The old provincial jealousies were not yet extinct, and any occasion served to revive them. It was in 1584, when the stirrings of the Burkes of Mayo and the descents of the Scots from the out-islands had between them left Connacht in a ferment, that Perrot sent Sir Richard Bingham to ‘quiet’ the country, giving him the title of President of Connacht. His intention was to make the people English as quickly as possible, for which purpose he introduced a ‘plot’ to make them directly dependent on the State. His next step was to deprive them of the right of using the old ‘Macs’ and ‘O’s’ before their names, applying the prohibition particularly to MacWilliam Burke, who was as proud of his title as any MacLean or MacLeod in the Scottish highlands.

It is plain that these old Norman de Burgos were now looked upon and probably looked upon themselves as “original Irish” and they flew to arms to assert their right. They refused to appear at sessions and shut themselves up in their castle in Lough Mask, where Bingham besieged them by boat.

“He so hunted them from bush to bush and hill to hill that in a short time no news was to be heard where any of them were.”

Young Richard Burke, called by the English “the Pall of Ireland,” the most dangerous and active of the family, he executed under martial law, and he razed their castles to the ground.

Again and again cautions came from the Lord Deputy that he was to stay his hand and not drive the province into war. No caution or command could check the movements of this capable but callous officer, who harried his foes from place to place, giving them no time for food or rest, till at last they all came in, being “so pined away for want of food and so ghasted with fear that they looked rather like ghosts than men.”

William Burke, called “the Blind Abbot,” submitted himself very humbly, offering one of his sons in pledge, and so did Richard Burke, “the Devil’s Hook.”[17] But they soon broke out again on the same point of honour. “They said they would have a MacWilliam or they would go to Spain for one; and that they would admit no sheriff nor answer at any assize.”[18] But when it came to the election of a new MacWilliam self-government did not appear so easy. Of the eight competitors for the title, O’Donnell, who was called in to decide, put four in irons and required hostages for the rest. He caused to be elected a favourite of his own, Theobald of the Ships (Tibbot na long), a strong man and “hated by the English.” They filled the province with reports of Spanish landings, English defeats, the Queen dying, and the Scots in arms.

When Bingham was first recalled in 1587 the general dread of the landing of the Spaniards was at its height. The year of his return (1588) was the date of the Armada, and he ordered that all Spaniards landing on the coast should be hanged in Galway, an order which he boasted got rid of a thousand men. But when the Spaniards actually landed at Kinsale, Theobald of the Ships was found supporting Mountjoy against them, and he received knighthood for his services. In the reign of James I, he took over his lands on English tenure, and Charles I created him Viscount Bourke of Mayo in 1626–7.

Bingham’s great feat was his destruction of the Scottish army which had come over to fight for O’Donnell. They had with them Sir Arthur O’Neill and Hugh Maguire, and Bingham heard that they were marching through O’Rorke’s country into Tirawley. Bingham, who had now been joined by a considerable body of English troops, “dealt with his guide to bring him the nearest way he could to them.” The guide, one MacCostello, found out a priest who had that day escaped from imprisonment among the Scots and who undertook to lead the army if he might have with him a couple of horsemen of the O’Hara’s, otherwise he durst not. An hour or two after midnight Sir Richard arose, and in the moonlight marched directly toward the enemy, led by the priest and keeping to the lower flanks of the mountain, all moving in great silence, till they came within sight of the Scots. These were taken completely by surprise, and he set on them and slew them, save eighty who swam across the Moyne into Tirawley and escaped.

All Bingham’s undoubted military skill and all his cruelties could not quiet the distracted province. He was disliked not only by the Irish, but by many of his own countrymen. Lord Deputy Perrot says of him that “he is arrogant and hated and shall have £500 given him by the country where he governeth towards his passage into England, so that they may be rid of him. … Let him go, in the name of God, to Flanders.” [19]

The Queen, wearying of the reports of his severities and of the disorders which he seemed unable to quell, recalled him in 1596. The usual fate of the men who undertook office and lost their credit in Ireland befell him, and he was committed to the Fleet Prison on his arrival in London; but the news of the difficulties and defeats suffered by the Queen’s generals in Ulster coming in at the same time, Elizabeth thought that Bingham’s action might have been justifiable and released him. On O’Neill’s outbreak in 1598 he was sent back as Marshal of Ireland.

There exists a curious document, dating from the third year (1586) of Bingham’s sojourn in Connacht, in which the Burkes give their own account of the causes of their rising. They make no complaint of cruelty, but they say that Bingham had been restraining the lords and great men from the extortions and ‘cuttings’ on their tenants to which they had been accustomed, and though this was for the benefit of the tenants the gentry disliked it, saying that “this new governor would shortly make their churls their masters,” while they would “become beggars for want of their cuttings and spendings.” They were angered, too, by a proposal that they should join the English armies in Flanders, which “seemed so strange that we knew not in the world what to do.”

It was not the execution of the bad Burkes, they protested, which had caused their rebellion, “for we did know that they were very bad members of the commonwealth and great practisers of this rebellion and all other mischiefs, maintainers of thieves and evil-disposed persons, and have most justly deserved death.” The real cause of the rebellion, they admit, was the taking away of the MacWilliamship and the division of lands and inheritances; “this and none other, whatever hath been pretended or reported to the contrary.”[20]