Castle Islands & Conflicts of Connaught Pt.II
The MacWilliam Burkes
Politics at the beginning of the 14th century in Ireland began to complicate for the Anglo Norman occupiers. Their King at the time, Edward I, also known as the Hammer of the Scots, or Longshanks, was occupied with the likes of William Wallace and Robert Bruce in the Scottish war of Independence as well as a the constant land disputes of the Anglo French War which meant Ireland was, for the most part put on the back burner and received little to no funds or aid to help bring the many Gaelic rebels to heel, infact, Ireland was being used to aid the English in Scotland during that time, exporting food and men, one of the reasons for the Bruce invasion of Ireland which I’ll get to later on.
The Anglo Normans still maintained strength in battle and warfare in Ireland with superior armour, weapons and strategy, but the Gaelic chieftains began altering their methods of war. Akin to that of Brian Boru’s tactics a few centuries earlier, Guerilla war was implemented more and the Irish had great success continuing raids and surprise attacks using well thought out plans and familiar land to their advantage. Using this strategy as opposed to pitched battle which the Irish never had great success against the occupier with, the country was made near ungovernable and the Norman settlements were in constant fear of spring attacks from hoards of men appearing from nearby woods or flooding down from the mountains at any given time. This period began a shift where the native Kings and Chieftains started regaining lands and expanding on their territories. Divisions began to appear within the Anglo Norman aristocracy partially due to their lack of leadership from England. This created disputes and cracks in the alliances on the island and in turn created smaller factions, much more manageable targets for the Irish. Another cause of division was the gaelicisation of the Normans, as I’ve talked about on previous podcasts. These disturbances would lead to the West, Connaught, being unofficially free from English rule again for a time.
On the previous episode I ended with Richard de Burge, 1st Baron of Connaught, and I’ll continue their families story now with his grandson, another man named Richard de Burge. This one known as The Red Earl of Ulster and lord of Connaught. He was recorded by the Annals of Connaught after his death in 1326 as “the best of all the Galls of Ireland”.
The Red Earl was a powerful man in politics and warfare during the late 13th early 14th centuries and outranked the justiciar of Ireland in all but title. He would bring both the O’Neill of Ulster and the O’Conor of Connaught to submission and as a friend of King Edward I would fight against King Robert Bruce and his brother Edward during the Scottish war of Independence and the Bruce invasion of Ireland in 1315, though not being as successful against Scottish forces on the Island of Ireland as we’ll see. He built Monasteries and castles during his time in Ireland, most notably Ballymote Castle, a rebuilding of Sligo Castle, the beginnings of Dunluce Castle and the stronghold of Northburg Castle.
Northburg Castle & The Scottish Invasion
Northburg castle, built in 1305 at Inishowen modern county Donegal was a key location of defence in the province of Ulster for the Earl and was built accordingly. The most advanced techniques of construction and architecture at the time were used to build the structure also referred to as New Castle or Green Castle, whose ruins sits to the very east of Inishowen overlooking the mouth of water from the sea that connects to Lough Foyle. When the building stood whole, it would have been a daunting task attempting to gain entry. Two three story, seven sided towers of the gatehouse dominated the structure, looming above the entrance that was only about 6 foot in width. Any breachers in the main gate would have seen a rain of arrows, rocks and hot oil flying from both towers on entering an incline to the small courtyard. And with a lack of artillery yet in existence capable of tackling the 12 foot thick walls, it made for a hefty and effective defensive building. But that artillery came with time and in 1555 the castle was destroyed by the O’Donnells alongside Scottish forces using the “Gonna Cam” or “Crooked Gun” to bombard the fort. At the time the O’Donnells were in control of Inishowen and surrounding areas and had established themselves as a strong leading faction of the north over the previous century. The O’Dohertys who were a depended clan under the O’Donnells were permitted to occupy the castle where they essentially became lords of the peninsula, but a drift formed between the O’Donnells and O’Dohertys most likely caused by Sean O’Doherty, the head of Northburg who had, alongside many on the island at the time submitted to King Henry VIII and Sean became Ser John. Calvach O’Donnell whose sister had married into the O’Doherty family travelled to Scotland and took loan of Scottish artillery and men and took back the castle by way of destruction, leaving the once great building almost exactly in the ruinous condition it can be viewed in today with partially standing walls and crumbled towers. The castle did have some minor restorations done after the 1555 attack and was briefly garrisoned by English troops in the 17th century but was completely abandoned by the early 18th century.
Ironically the castle was constructed and used by Richard The Red Earl de Burge to defend against the O’Donnells and the threat of Scottish invasion in the early 14th century. The fort held well against the native irish but in May 1315 the Scots would arrive. Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert of Scotland arrived with 300 ships and 6000 men off the coast of Antrim in agreement with the O’Neill clan to rid the common enemy from native gaelic land. Bruce and O’Neill worked together on a basis of joint culture, common ancestry and language hoping to achieve the liberation and autonomy that their kingdoms had known in ancient times. A letter from King Robert Bruce calling all Irish Kings and Chiefs to unite with them showed a respect and camaraderie in the common suffering they too have known and clearly sought a Celtic future for all the Western Isles. A beautifully romantic notion, as the strategy of opening a second front to the war of independence by implementing the Scottish invasion of Ireland would result in a major blow to English capabilities in the war on Scotland and would distract from the movements of Robert Bruce and concentrate the English attention on Ireland. I do believe there was some sincerity to Bruce’s words to Ireland but a specifically Celtic or simply Scottish victory would have meant the two brothers King Edward Bruce of Ireland as he was to be, and King Robert Bruce of Scotland would rule the greater part of these isles, with intention of liberating Wales and who knows for England itself, maybe a United Kingdom of Gael, loyal to a Scottish monarchy, it’s result either way would almost definitely provide better existence for Irish people than the history they did endure.
Donal O’Neill, King of the O’Neill clan pleaded with the rest of the great Irish houses in one of the earliest attempts at unification against the English but was unsuccessful in doing so. Nonetheless, the Scottish and allying Irish formed a great number in Ulster and posed a massive threat, especially to the Red Earl.
Richard de Burge had to act at once to protect his lands in Ulster and the Anglo Norman rule of Ireland but this union of Celtic forces would prove to be a more worthy opponent than that he had seen before. Edward Bruce had claimed Kingship of Ireland backed by the O’Neills and had already set out on his first campaign south where he burned as far as Dundalk, 80 km north of Dublin, before any major opposing force had been mustered together. Richard The Red Earl who had been in his lands of Connaught gathered an army as soon as word had reached him and chased a path of destruction north while Edward pulled back to Ulster. The Justiciar of Ireland, Edmund Butler had also began gathering an opposing army from Munster and Leinster who, on path north to Ulster offered to join his forces with The Red Earl to assure a quick and definitive victory but Richard refused, knowing of the destruction and depletion of towns and food stores an army that size would do to his lands, but ego must have been at play here too. The Red Earl, regarded as the most powerful man on the island shouldn’t need assistance from the Justiciar to look after his own territory, so he insisted on quelling the disturbance in Ulster himself.
Edward Bruce continued to pull his men back north leading The Red Earl to a crossing over the river Bann and deep into enemy territory, refusing to meet Richard in Battle until the right time. Once the Scots and Irish had finished sacking the nearby village of Coleraine, they crossed the river and destroyed the bridge, buying themselves a massive amount of time as de Burge and his men were left with no way of pursuing, and no sure lines of supply. As both armies sat camped on either side of the Bann river, the daily arrow fire back and forth towards each other, Edward Bruce began to contact some of the Irish nobility within the Red Earls army. One man in particular presented an opportunity for the new Scottish King of Ireland. Within the ranks of Richard de Burges force was the King of Connaught under Richards Lordom, Fedlim O’Conor. Edward offered Fedlim liberation from the de Burges and supported him as King of Connaught, if he abandoned the Red Earls side. But Fedlim’s cousin Ruadhrí O’Conor who hadn’t joined de Burge in Ulster saw an opportunity for himself as his King cousin and all his men had left Connaught. Secretly Ruadhrí got messages to Edward Bruce that he would immediately make war with the Anglo Normans and English in Connaught and expel them if he had his backing to do so. Naturally Edward agreed, on the terms Ruadhrí would not interfere with the agreement he had already made to Fedlim.
Ruadhrí started a war as promised but that was about the only promise he kept. Ruadhrí lay waste to the west with an army of Connaught, Bréifne and Gallowglass men and declared himself King of Connaught. The rightful King Fedlim soon caught wind of the news, as did the rest of de Burges army, so Fedlim gathered his men, marched south west and left Richard de Burge and what remained of his army, sat on the east bank of the Bann.
Supplies now running low for The Red Earl and his significantly smaller force, he began to retreat towards the town of Connor in order to restock what food he could and most likely try to re-enforce from Edmund Butlers previously unwanted alliance. This was the time for Edward to attack. He gathered boats and ferried all of his men across the river and began to chase The Red Earl down. The war hardened Scots, well use to fighting the English at this point, and the allied Irish, marched all the way to Connor joined together as an intimidating force where they eventually met with The Red Earl, face to face. No numbers are certain but it’s positive the Scottish and Irish heavily outweighed the Anglo Normans and their Irishmen. The thinned out and hungry army led by Richard de Burge were soundly defeated at the Battle of Connor on September 1st 1315. Ulster had officially been lost for Richard and to add insult to injury, the defeated Red Earl of Ulster and Lord of Connaught had no answer for the wars initiated by Fedlim and Ruadhrí on his remaining lands, and although Richard left the battle of Connor with his life, his right hand man and strategist, William Liath de Burge had been captured and imprisoned. The annals of Connaught record “Richard Burke, Earl of Ulster was a wanderer up and down Ireland all this year, with no power or lordship.”
In the complete securing of Ulster and expulsion or demand of submission of any remaining supporters of the English crown the next year of 1316, King Edward Bruce and the Irish allies made their way to Inishowen to capture the grand defensive castle of Northburg. Unfortunately there is no writings about the capture of the castle that I can find other than it was successfully taken by Edward and kept until 1318 and the Scottish and Irish held full control of the region. I imagine what garrison had been left at Northburg were put under siege and probably soon capitulated due to starvation and a lack of numbers.
Edward Bruce strung together a great number of victories and put a major dent in the occupying forces of Ireland until 1318 at the Battle of Faughart. Edward faced an Anglo Norman army of 20,000 (probably an exaggerated figure), lead by three commanders, John de Birmingham, Roland Joyce and Edmond Butler. Bruce only hosting a few thousand men. The Irish fighting with Edward insisted that they retreat and wait for reinforcements but instead he made the poor tactical decision of holding his ground. He was utterly defeated and killed. His head was sent to King Edward II of England and his body quartered and spread around Ireland. After what was left of the Scottish had fled out of Ireland, Richard de Burge began to regain his power over the north of the island and succeeded in taking back what was most likely an abandoned Northburg castle.
For the next 7 years after the Scottish invasion had ended the Red Earl’s name doesn’t appear much in the Annals of Ireland but his climb back up the ladder of power to secure the lands which the next Earl of Ulster would hold is certain. After his death, the entirety of his responsibility was left to his grandson William who was just 14 at the time. William, known as the Brown Earl after he had been knighted by King Edward III took on the responsibility and ruled the region, but with the prowess of a man his age, labeled through history as a cruel and incompetent leader. He fought against neighbouring clans and family members through his teens until he found himself initiating a war that would determine the future and rule of the lands under his control for centuries, at the age of 20, in 1332 the beginnings of The de Burge civil war.
That year, the Brown Earl would defend an assault led by his cousin Walter de Burge who didn’t see the young William fit for his position and wished to take control of the west and north west of the island for himself. Walter was captured in defeat by William and imprisoned in Northburg castle where the neglected prisoner starved to death in the dungeon.
Within months of Walters starvation, the news had reached the homes of the all the de Burge family all over the island and for some of them, it was the last straw. Gylle de Burge, Walters sister decided that the Brown Earl’s time in power must end after the despicable treatment and crime against his own kin. In 1333 she conspired with her family by marriage, the de Mandevilles and the de Burges to have the young William de Burge captured and killed. While on route to Carrickfergus in Ulster, The Brown Earl met his faith and his short term as head of the de Burges was over. His death meant all the lands that his great grandfathers had conquered in Ireland and his grandfather had struggled to hold onto were left to his daughter Elizabeth, who was only 2 years old. The Brown Earl’s wife Maud Plantagenet, a relation of the Plantagenet royalty in England, saw the danger in her young daughter inheriting the desires of men and their armies so in a sensible reaction to her husband’s murder, they fled to England never to return.
With William, Maud and Elizabeth vanishing from the country in death and abandonment, all the titles and lands they left behind them were ripe for the taking.
Three men of the family name would compete for the complete rule of Connaught as it was at the time of Richard the 1st Baron. Edmund de Burge of Limerick, youngest surviving son of the powerful Red Earl. Edmund Albanach de Burge of north Connaught or modern county Mayo, oldest son of William Liath de Burge, who had fought Edward Bruce and was captured after defeat at Connor. Edmund was granted the nickname Albanach which means “Scottish” in Irish as he had been traded as a hostage while only a baby to Bruce to secure the release of his father in 1316. And lastly Ulick “Bod an Balcuigh” de Burge of south Connaught, modern Galway, a descendent of Richard óge de Burge who was a half brother to Richard the first Baron of Connaught. The lands in Ulster, now free from The Brown Earls rule were hastily taken back by the native Irish on word of the de Burge dispute and Connaught was set alight by the opposing family members.
The war was mostly fought in raids and skirmishes carrying on for five years between the three men, until a raid led by Albanach de Burge in 1338 created a turning point in the de Burge war. Edmund of Limerick and his men were visiting a monastery, the Ballinrobe Augustinian Friary for their weekly prayers on the evening of Sunday the 19th of April, 1338. The warm setting spring sun shining through the tall windows of the monastery with the remnants of winter still apparent in the wind blowing through the cracks of the building. The silence of prayer cleared the crisped air for a rumble of chatter and footsteps outside to be heard by Edmond and his men. Bursting through the arched door, Albanach and a raiding party began cutting down every man in sight, except for Edmund of Limerick. Several men were killed and Edmund was taken captive by Albanach and imprisoned at Lough Mask castle. Two days later Edmund was brought to a stronghold on Earls Island within Lough Mask where he was left for dead. For some time he must have wondered if starvation would be his faith just as Walter had died a few years earlier which began the whole conflict, but Albanach had other ideas for Edmund. After some time, Albanach took a frail and tired man in Edmund from the cell of the stronghold and walked him to the coast of the island. He fastened a rope around his neck with the opposite end tied around a heavy stone and pushed both man and rock into Lough Mask.
The conflict settled after Edmunds drowning and no side had gained much of an advantage in terms of land during the five year civil war, instead they had brought the destruction of their own houses and a massive blow to the Anglo Norman rule of the region. With no victor or decided leader of the family name or kingdom of Connaught, each branch declared their land Independent and officially created titles for the ruler of each region. The sons of the deceased Edmund de Burge of Limerick ruled as ClanWilliam in Castleconnell. The Galway MacWilliam Uachtar, more commonly known as Clanricarde was ruled by Ulick de Burge and in modern day Mayo, MacWilliam Íochtar (lower) was ruled by Edmund Albanach de Burge.
The title MacWilliam being of Gaelic nature meaning, son of William, indicates that by that point the de Burges were forming into the Hiberno Norman race and we begin to see the name Burke appear from that point throughout history as they dispose of the Normanised de Burge title. The north had been regained by the O’Neill and O’Donnell clans and Connaught had been broken apart by internal Anglo Irish war which granted opportunity for the O’Conor family to take back control of their rightful lands. Still Kings of the region though under the thumb of the de Burges, Turlough Ó’Conchobhair had taken the Kingship of Connaught in 1324 and after the de Burge war had ended, 14 years after his assumption of government he was finally in a position to enforce his kingly power over the entire region of Connaught. He had Albanach de Burge banished for his crimes of war and destruction of the kingdom. The power once again swayed in favour of the Irish.
Albanach de Burge didn’t accept defeat after his exile however. On his leave he gathered a great fleet of ships and took residence on the islands off the coast of Connaught. Within this territory the sea faring clans ruled as minor kings and chieftains and Albanach would become very familiar with the O’Malley clan. The O’Malley’s had been minor kings of Umhall, known today as Clew Bay and a good number of islands surrounding the area since before the Vikings, in the mid 8th century. In fact the O’Malley’s can be traced back to the death of a man named Brian Orbson in 388AD, a High King’s eldest son who died during the battle of Dam Chluain, proving to be one of the ancient families on the Island.
Edmund Albanach Burke would marry the future Chieftain of Umhall’s daughter, Sadhbh Ní Máillie though there is very little written of her or her father, Diarmuid mac Eoin Ó’Máillie who became Chief sometime between 1338 and 1362.
After conducting sea raids and plunder on the western coast, Albanach MacWilliam Burke was driven to Ulster by O’Conor in 1339 where he would mostly keep to himself. Biding his time and keeping a close eye on how the constant tit for tat battling and skirmishing played out in Connaught until an opportunity presented itself. In 1342 a great dispute erupted between King Turlough O’Conor and the Mac Diarmada clan of Magh Luirg, which gave Albanach the excuse and the allies he would need to overthrow the King of Connaught. The MacWilliam Burkes would side with the Mac Diarmadas along with a number of leading houses of Connaught to end King Turloughs rule and they placed instead, their own chosen King. Albanach had taken a leading role in the conflict and as a result became the most influential and strongest of the three de Burge factions and most powerful man in the west. Cementing a future for MacWilliam and its descendants who would carry on the title including his son and second MacWilliam, Thomas MacWilliam Burke, who was born of Burke and O’Malley blood. The beginning of a powerful line of men and women and not the only time we’ll see Burke and O’Malley at a turning point for the title of MacWilliam. The name and dynasty built by Albanach, his ancestors and his son would come under threat after centuries of control over Connaught when Theobald Burke, the son of Richard an Iarainn Burke and Gráinne O’Malley were forced to confront the last conquest of Connaught during the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th Century.
The 1500’s in Ireland and Britain was a century soaked in more messy politics, religious revolutions and war. Connaught, almost 200 years after the creation of the MacWilliam title, was still the home to the Burke clan, although septs of the family and indeed many of the Anglo Norman families beyond the east of the Island held a different idea of identity and culture to that of their ancestors. A large amount of the foreign descendants by this point had dropped their lions, fleur de lis’ and their foreign language and became fully integrated into Gaelic society. A country that was for the most part free and self governing outside of the Pale. The Pale being the lands of Dublin, Meath, West Meath, Louth, Offaly, Laois and Kildare in modern geography that remained loyal to the British Monarchy. Dublin being the centre of British rule on the Island. The 16th Century saw 7 different Kings and Queens of Britain including Lady Jane Grey who was overthrown after 9 days and then executed in 1554 at the age of 16, but two Monarchs who are still widely talked of to this day reigned in this time period, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Henry, A king known for his glutinous tendencies, execution of his second wife Anne Boleyn, his claim as King of Ireland as opposed to the lordship English Kings and Queens held before, and of course the reformation. The latter having more impact on Ireland at that time above the others. His creation of the Church of England and push of protestantism throughout Ireland would lead to revolt and rebellion. The country of Ireland known for its devout catholicism for a millennia before the Tudor ruling King Henry VIII would not easily accept a new faith simply because they were instructed to do so. A religious conflict that still simmers on the Island to this day, nearly 500 years later. Lords and Chieftains of Ireland who were once loyal to the crown and the Pope were forced to choose a side. Those who chose to remain Catholic fought for their right to practice their beliefs and became susceptible to death under The Treasons Act of 1534. Those who followed Henry would take The Oath of Supremacy which allowed the British Monarchy supreme governance over the church. I can’t help but see some irony here as the English had been trying their best to repress Irish tradition, beliefs and law since the early 14th century, beliefs and laws that saw multiple wives permittable if sustainable, trial marriages over the course of one year and divorce was common practice, these laws were still used though outlawed by the English and disapproved by the Catholic church. Some of the grounds on which a divorce could be claimed were as basic as a woman not keeping a good home, or a man becoming too fat! A position I’m sure Henry VIII would have liked to be in.
King Henry saw to try and settle the stirring of violence in Ireland by peaceful means instead of sending ship loads of men to force the peace, as Henry’s extravagant lifestyle had left the Crown in deep arrears and men and ships cost money. After announcing himself King of Ireland, a title that would remain until 1800, he asked all kings and chieftains submit to him as their King, hand their lands over and obey English laws, then they would regain all their lands and receive English titles to rule them. This was called the surrender and regrant system. Hoards of Irish nobles accepted the peace offering for reasons of greed, safety, loyalty and bought time but, in the west of Ireland in the province of Connaught, one of two provinces retaining the most freedom from English law and influence along side Ulster, the clan MacWilliam of Mayo who had now become completely Gaelicised, stayed loyal to Irish tradition and culture, remaining mostly untouched by these new laws. The O’Malleys, another clan who refused to acknowledge an English Monarch or any other ruler over them in fact, shared the Burke mindset and continued their way of life as it always had been using Brehon law, Irish language and maintaining their Gaelic culture.
O’Malleys of Clew Bay
Gráinne Ní Mháille, often anglicized to Grace, was born in 1530 to the O’Malley clan leader Dubhdara O’Malley. A seafaring family residing in the western region known as Umhall. Gráinne was brought up alongside her brother Dónal to learn the way of the seas, the dangerous passages of the west coast and the depths and shallows of the lakes and rivers, but Gráinne excelled over her brother and it was clear from an early age that she would not prescribe to the path of your average Irish woman of the time. A 16 year old Gráinne would be arranged in marriage to the Tániste, meaning second in command, of the O’Flaherty clan, Dónal an Chogaidh O’Flaherty or, Donal of the Battles in the year 1546, the year before the death of King Henry VIII. Initially she would see to her duties in her new home of Bunowen Castle to the far west on the Atlantic coast in the beautiful country of Iar-Chonnacht (West Connaught), birthing three children to Donal while he, being true to his nickname constantly fought with the neighbouring Joyce clan over whos land was whos. After giving birth to two sons and a daughter, Gráinne had grown tired of her domestic role in the household and was naturally drawn back to what she knew best. She took it upon herself to begin her new career as leader of a fleet of ships from the deep coast of Bunowen. She would become renowned after gaining the respect and command of a large fleet consisting of O’Flaherty men, plundering and raiding the coastal towns and attacking trade ships near Galway who’s people feared the brave O’Flahertys. So much so that above the west gate into Galway city, the locals had carved “From the ferocious O’Flaherty’s, Good lord deliver us”. After several years of proving her worth she had gained an equal entitlement as a clan leader if not more so than her Husband Dónal, and she was now seen as a high ranking member of the O’Flaherty clan. Which meant joining in the O’Flaherty struggle and keeping their lands from invading forces and fighting their many enemies, on this occasion the Joyce clan in the long contended land dispute for Castlekirk Island.
Lough Corrib & Hen’s Castle
Lough Corribs north coast runs right along the modern border of Mayo and Galway and sees its most north western point in Mayo run from Maam pier, east past Cornamona to the village of Cong were it dives south towards Galway City. The area has been of major importance through the history of Connaught as you might remember from the previous podcast. Cong, a village on it’s coast was home to High King Ruadhrí O’Conchobhar at the time of his death, the place of celebration for William de Burge and Cathal Crobhdearg O’Conor after their victory over Cathal Carragh. The “conga” of land as it is known in Irish “conga” meaning neck, in between its north coast and the nearby south coast of Lough Mask, a funnel which Richard de Burge 1st Baron of Connaught caught Magnus O’Conor’s men off guard and killed them, and Lough Mask where Albanach de Burge drowned his kin in an attempt to gain complete power over Connaught. A centre point of conflict throughout history and that wouldn’t change during Gráinne lifetime. Similar to Lough Cé the lake is home to a number of Islands but on a much grander scale as the second largest lake in Ireland covering 176 Km squared, it hosts somewhere around 1327 Islands both big and small in total.
Another lough earning its name from ancient settlers, the Tuatha Dé Danann. This the name of a god of sea Manannán Mac Lir also known as Oirbsen. A name that carries weight from the west coast of Ireland to Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man, an island said to have been named after Manannán, the god who ferried dead souls to the afterlife. Lough Oirbsen as it was once known became corrupted over time to Lough Corrib. Coming from Maam pier just south of the heart of Joyce Country and east of Connemara, entering the western wing of the lough from Bealnabrack river it takes around twenty minutes by a small 4 man boat before you begin to see the emerging silhouette of Hens Castle on Castlekirk Island as I did on a cold January morning so dense with fog the wash of white reflecting off the calm glass like water blurred your eyes so as you had to look at the boat not to lose balance and refocus. The sudden gusts of wind rolling off the top of the nearby mountains and skimming the surface of the lough seemingly appearing out of nowhere sending deep ripples across the water. I could now understand how this inland sea could quickly be riled from it’s most calming state to terrible storm, as so many of the stories here tell of such instances where it would swallow men and ships in the blink of an eye. That and the navigation through the deepest points of 167 foot to the deceptively hard to spot shallow points of only a couple inches makes it a tricky mission if not versed in the mariner skill. On the Island that is no more than 100 meters long and 40 meters wide is the intimidating fortification of Hen’s Castle. One of if not the oldest mortared castles in Ireland. The two story building with towers at three corners and the entrance at the fourth corner which faces the small pier and leads to steps up to an arched doorway and opens up to the first floor, was built by the sons of King Ruadhrí O’Conchobhar and was aided by William de Burge during a time of peace between them at the very beginnings of the 13th Century. Fedhlim O’Conor, great grandson of Ruadhrí, who was defeated by Richard de Burge, 1st Baron of Connaught saw the destruction of the castle here in 1233 as it was built by his enemy O’Conor kin and the de Burges.
The lake which belonged to the Danes of Limerick before the Norman invasion and to the Tuatha De Danann long before that, would continue to change hands several times throughout the centuries. In 1061 the O’Conor’s would be banished from Lough Corrib and the O’Flahertys seized control. But in 1225 the O’Conor’s gained back the region by political means and between that year of 1225 and 1233 the castle was constructed. In 1256 de Burge entered the fray and took the lough, its castles and all of its resources for quite a time. It was under this, Walter de Burge who seized the entire region that Hen’s Castle was more than likely rebuilt after Fedhlims destruction as he’s documented as greatly fortifying the castles in the region to increase the power of the foreigners of Connaught.
It’s difficult to say for definite who resided in the castle between the 13th century and the 16th but we do know that the Joyce clan who came from Wales and set themselves up north of the lough during the 1200’s had a long rivalry with the O’Flaherty’s as it was their land they had settled on.
Castlekirk island became a focus of this feud in the late 1550’s while it was home to Gráinne O’Malley and her husband Dónal O’Flaherty. Dónal was well use to fighting back raiding parties within the wooded areas surrounding the upper lake and had defended the castle a number of times assumably, as it was known as Cocks Castle to the Joyce by way of his ferocious defence. But one raiding party of Joyce men stumbled upon Dónal an Chogaidh and his clan members on a hunting excursion in the nearby wood and took them by surprise. A melee ensued and Dónal alongside a good number of his men were killed. The Joyce men celebrated as if a single swing of a sword had finally earned them the lake and it’s prized fortification. There’s two possible ways the Joyce men reached Castlekirk island from here. It is possible at the time that there was a land bridge, either naturally occurring or man made, connecting the east of the island to a peninsula around 120 meters away as the water levels in the lake have risen since the 1700’s. This comes from the word of the locals and is told in Caesar Otway’s Tour of Connaught from 1839, apart from the local foclor though it doesn’t seem to have any other reference or bearing in historical fact so we can assume the men simply travelled by boat to assume possession of their new castle. But word had travelled fast to the fierce Gráinne O’Malley and upon the Joyce’ landing outside the castle unaware they’d meet much opposition on entering, her and her garrison gave great battle to the attackers, not allowing them an inch to advance on her dead husband’s children’s birth right. The Joyce men, unable to make progress on their attack and unprepared for siege fled from Gráinne and her men, with such respect for the woman warrior, they renamed the castle, Hen’s Castle.
Gráinne remained here for a time after the death of Dónal but such a strongly built castle in a well chosen place wouldn’t long remain uncontested.
Some years after the Joyce’ attempt on Hens Castle, Gráinne would suffer siege by an English force from Galway. Completely outmanned but determined to hold the fort, she had the lead from the roof stripped and melted down. Her men then proceeded to throw the boiling liquid lead from the castle walls on top the besiegers and they fled to the coast of the lough. Gráinne seized the window of time to send a small boat from the island at night to light a beacon on the hill of Doon as a call to arms to nearby clans. This struck fear in the English and they headed straight back to Galway.
The Last of the MacWilliam
Some time after the death of Dónal, Gráinne moved back to her homeland of Umhall and continued her ways at sea from Clare Island. The O’Flaherty men her husband had commanded now gladly followed her and left their homeland for Gráinne’s, a most unusual case in that age. She would once again be set to marry another leader of the region but this a more powerful and influential prospect, Richard an Iarainn (in Iron) Bourke. An Iarainn meaning in Iron as he oversaw iron mines on his land, but a more fun explanation some believe is that he constantly wore a set of outdated armour from an ancestor of his. Richard was a high chieftain of the MacWilliam clan and eligible for Chief MacWilliam as his father was, if voted into the position under Brehon law. Interestingly his place in the hierarchy had been set by Gráinne’s previous husband.
Dónal O’Flaherty had killed a man named Walter Fada Burke, or Walter the tall in 1549, as a favour to his Sister who was Walter Fada’s stepmother. This enabled her natural born son Richard, now husband of Gráinne, the eligibility of MacWilliam. A typically odd and complex situation of the era. Richard was a man well versed in battle and politics and held a lot of good coastal land, and if elected MacWilliam he would oversee most of the west as the most powerful man in Connaught. A great catch for Gráinne Umhall to continue her career at sea and climb the ladder of power in Ireland.
Meanwhile in London, Elizabeth I had embarked on what would be her long successful reign as Queen of England but before her success would come an unstable period with very little security in her position. Under the laws of Catholicism, she had no claim on the throne as she was the child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Seen by some as an illegitimate marriage as Henry had divorced his first wife without permission from the church. Elizabeth knew well she needed to continue in her father’s footsteps and enforce the reformation and monarchical supremacy over the church throughout the lands in her control, or potentially lose that control or worse yet, be overthrown by the Catholic Queen Mary of Scots who had a legitimate claim.
As Henry had done before her, she requested the head of each house of Ireland to acknowledge her as Queen and to take up the faith that cemented her seat, but the Mayo clan of MacWilliam refused once more and continued to ignore the request until 1576.
The wild west of Ireland had become a concern for Elizabeth and it’s during the 1570’s the English start to make it a priority to bring its people to heel. The Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney who had served in Ireland for some years at this point and would later introduce structure to the region by braking apart the ancient kingdoms of Thomond and Connaught, creating Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon and had taken note of all the clans and leaders, enemies and allies of the counties while accepting most of their submissions under the surrender and regrant system. We begin to see the true beginnings of the English Government using its intelligence system to subdue their foes in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth had been using the divide and conquer strategy, pitching Irish clans against each other and bringing the weeknd parties in to submit and acknowledge her as their Queen, and with more information the tactics could only grow stronger. Henry Sidney entered Connaught in 1576 where he summoned Shane MacOliverus Bourke, the Chief MacWilliam at the time into Galway to demand his submission. Usually the MacWilliams would ignore such a request as they had done in the past and back their refusal up with their numbers in men, but Sidney knew of their stubborn history so he devised a new plan. Henry Sidney had gained the allegiance of the O’Donnell clan and their Gallowglass mercenaries who were dependants under MacWilliam before requesting to meet him, men who made up a great bulk of the MacWilliams forces. This was a serious blow to the army MacWilliam depended on to back his words, and Shane had no option but to head for Galway and meet with Sidney. Much to the upset of Richard an Iarainn, the táinste MacWilliam and his wife Gráinne O’Malley, Shane MacOliverus Burke returned to Mayo as Sir Shane Burke, a servant to the Queen under English law accepting the terms to pay 250 Pounds a year in rent and the activity of 200 soldiers every two months to the crown. The main issue upon his return being the electoral system under Brehon law no longer being in affect now that the chief, Sir Shane, had agreed to the implementation of English law in his territory, meaning Richard’s title as Tániste was meaningless and Sir Shane MacWilliam’s brother would now succeed him.
Gráinne wouldn’t stand for this. With her respected reputation as a warrior and political force now unquestionably obvious on the island and succeeding that of her husbands at this point, it was Gráinne now with Richard at her side who feared the English lords were getting the better of her family. They marched to Galway to speak with Sir Henry Sidney. But when they arrived Gráinne didn’t storm into a room, red with rage shouting about occupiers of her land and country or even rights of their native laws, Gráinne as most leaders up to this point in the history of Ireland had no concept or at least no realistic grasp of a united country, she wished simply for the safety of her family, lands and her inheritance. Gráinne was smarter than to show herself as overly emotional as a substitute for authority to her enemy. Whether she knew it or not, I’m leaning towards her knowing it, her presence demanded that authority on its own. She met with Sir Henry Sidney and decided to side with him rather than oppose him, offering her naval power and army of 200 men and 3 galleys hoping to secure their position over the brother of Shane MacWilliam as a prefered alley in the future.
Although Sidney agreed to her assistance her plan of sweetening him up didn’t work and it would take several years before the matter of Chief MacWilliam would be resolved.
In 1580, Sir Shane MacWilliam MacOliverus Burke died and without taking a breath, Gráinne and Richard in Iarainn arrived to challenge Sir Shane’s brother and title with an overwhelming force of over 2200 men with support from the other chiefs of Mayo. The English took notice of these numbers and were quick to negotiate as they were heavily occupied with the counter reformation movement south of Connaught named the Second Desmond Rebellion and couldn’t afford to begin splitting forces. Richard and Gráinne had achieved their right under Brehon law to the MacWilliamship through the negotiations and although Richard Burke would promise to maintain English law, he would be inaugurated in the Irish tradition of MacWilliam at an ancient site near Kilmaine and refuse an English title to oversee his territory. Meanwhile the previous MacWilliams brother had to settle for the position of Sheriff of Mayo.
The son of Gráinne and Richard, Tibbot ne Long, or Theobald of the ships, named so as he had been born to Gráinne while at sea, wouldn’t be as lucky in keeping the west Irish and his title as Gaelic chief. Fitting to the position, the first MacWilliam, Albanach de Burge and his wife Sadhbh Ní Máillie who gave birth to the second MacWilliam Thomas Burke would share the same bloodlines of the final MacWilliam, son of Richard Burke and Gráinne Ní Mháille. Tibbot would continue to side with the Irish, maintaining the MacWilliam lands as Gaelic until a majorly defining war in Irish History began in 1593. The Nine Years War. Tibbet had agreed to raise an army and take part in the rebellion alongside the O’Donnells of Ulster, under Hugh Roe O’Donnell but his gathering of men caught the attention of the English occupiers and Tibbot was arrested and jailed in Athlone. Hugh O’Donnell needed every man he could get his hands on for a last stand and chance at freeing his lands and allies lands, he couldn’t do without the men of Mayo and without their leader there was little to no chance of securing it’s forces. O’Donnell in an attempt to recruit the western army inaugurated Tibbots cousin himself as the new MacWilliam Chief but by this time, Tibbot had already been freed from prison.
Tibbots mother Gráinne, as influential as ever had travelled to London to negotiated his surrender and regrant with Queen Elizabeth in person and secured his release in 1594. Tibbot returned and quickly regained support in Mayo and his position as leader but O’Donnells attempt at placing a new Chief in his territory left a bitter taste in his mouth and he refused to join Hugh Roe O’Donnell or his ally Hugh O’Neill in the war. In the winter of 1601 Tibbot ne Long sailed his army south, towards the infamous Siege and soon to be Battle of Kinsale, a last stand and major battle of the war where Catholic Spanish allies of the Irish attempting to liberate the land and enforce a Catholic dominancy on the island where besieged, forcing a battle to ensue once the Irish reinforcements arrived. But instead of engaging, Tibbot sat on the sidelines and did not take part in the battle, leaving both sides guessing who he backed. As the harsh Irish winter brought cold winds and rain and the Irish coming from Ulster cut off the English supply lines, effectively laying siege to the besiegers, the Englishmen began to fall with sickness. The Irish were instructed by the Spanish to attack and break the siege they had endured for 77 days but even with the English armies dwindling numbers, the Irish were decisively beaten down and forced to flee from the waves of English cavalry and their lack of organisation. The Spanish troops surrendered and sailed home. Approximately 7000 died over the course of the events, mostly from disease. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by King James I, who knighted Tibbot ne Long in 1604. With Sir Theobald Burke now a servant to the Crown seeing the end of the MacWilliam title and the Flight of the Earls three years later, an event that saw Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell along side a number of Clan members of Ulster flee the country after the defeat of the Nine Years War, it had officially taken the English over 400 years to bring Ireland under control. And although the MacWilliamship ended here after more than 250 years of rule in Connaught, Tibbot ne Longs family would continue, marrying Maeve O’Conor of the Sligo O’Conors and having 8 children to carry on the name and legacy. Tibbot would become an MP in the Irish Parliament and spend the rest of his life fighting for Catholic rights until his death in 1629.
Thankfully the rebellions didn’t stop there and wouldn’t stop until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 which became the Republic we know today. Though Ireland is still today not completely free of British rule nearly 850 years since the first English Monarch stepped foot in Éire, it is only a matter of time before a peaceful unification process begins for the first time in the small Islands deep and fascinating history.