“English rebels, Irish enemies’ by Adrian Martyn

Adrian Martyn was born in Galway in 1975.

He is author of some thirty articles on local and family genealogy.

The Tribes of Galway: Volume One 1124-1642 is due out in 2013.

“English rebels, Irish enemies’

 By Adrian Martin

It was the policy of King Edward I to use Ireland’s resources not for its own benefit but for his military campaigns. In his conquest of Wales in 1282, and from 1295 onwards in his occupation of Scotland, “he recklessly exploited the colony, regardless of consequence”.

In 1296, nearly three thousand Irishmen travelled to fight in Scotland at a cost of £7, 500 to the Irish exchequer. Two major expeditions of 1301 and 1303 exceeded £6,000 and £8,000 each. These royal commands denuded Ireland not only of valuable resources but also of men and material that would have been better spent consolidating colonial gains.

The Gaelic-Irish had been enjoying a resurgence, politically, territorially and culturally, since the 1250’s. Finighin Mac Carthaigh had been victorious at the battle of Callan in 1261, which re-established the territory of Deasmuma as an independent kingdom. At a stroke, much of west Munster was lost to the colony. Much of what is now Ulster and parts of north and east Connaght remained entirely Gaelic, and had never been settled in the first place.

Elsewhere on the island, lands gained over generations seemed to be regained by the Gaelic-Irish almost overnight. In Leinster, the WicklowMountains had remained a refugee for clans such as Ó Boirne (Byrne), Ó Tuathal (O’Toole), and the titular kings of Leinster, Mac Murchada Caomhánach (Mac Murrough Kavanagh). The clans would descend from the mountains and push back the boundaries set by the Gall. Art Mac Murchada Caomhánach, who was made King of Leinster in 1375, had a forty-two year reign, during which he received a yearly ‘black rent’ from the towns of New Ross, Waterford and Dublin, received the estates of his Anglo-Irish bride, and treated in person with King Richard II. In 1399, Art was the indirect cause of Richard losing his throne.

An especial disaster for the colony was the extinction of the great lordships. Massive estates held by a single powerful magnate became extinct in the male line. Thus the properties of dynasties such as Marshall of Leinster, de Clare of Thomond and de Lacy of Meath, were all ultimately inherited piecemeal among children, grandchildren and cousins.

The inheritors mainly lived in England, and as absentee landlords, were unable or unwilling to move to Ireland and task themselves with re-establishing the productivity of their estates. All too often, the properties were then grabbed by whoever had the strongest sword-arm.

The result was a series of deep fractures of English power in Ireland, any one of which were troubling on their own. Together, they spelled disaster. During the 14th century, the colony was to contract dramatically, till only towns and their immediate hinterlands were reckoned as reasonably secure.

The town of Athy in Leinster derives its name from a ford over the river Barrow. During the 1200’s it became a prosperous market town, its population been mainly Anglo-Irish. From 1270 occur references to a number of men who derived their surname, de Athy, from the town. One John of Athy was alive in 1270 [8] but dead by Michaelmas 1281. An apparent relative, Peter of Athy, recorded between 1275-81, is described as a merchant. John had children Richard, Nicholas and William de Athy, the latter described as “sergeant to the K[ing]” in 1278. In the 1290’s, William fitz Thomas de Athy was Seneschal of Kilkenny.

Others of the name included Robert, Peter, Richard, and John de Athy. The latter man is first recorded in 1284 when he was recompensed “for wheat and oats taken from him by James de Audleye, former Justiciar, for the maintenance of the Justiciar” to the value of £13 and ten shillings.

Within twenty years he was a knight, frequently in charge of garrisons of important castles scattered around Ireland. For the years 1310-12 he was constable of Limerick castle. No record of any marriages or children exists, though one William de Athy is described as his valeteus (personal servant or squire) in 1320.

Sir John’s military skills would soon be put to the test. After his victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314, King Robert the Bruce of Scotland conceived of opening a second front to over-extend the enemy. By exhausting the English of men and resources in both Ireland and Britain, he aimed to force an end to the war in Scotland.

A secondary goal was to extend Scottish rule across the North Channel, by making the leader of the expedition, his brother Edward, king of Ireland. Not for the first or last time in her history, Ireland was to become the political playground of a foreign power.

In May 1315, Prince Edward Bruce of Scotland invaded Ireland with a fleet that landed on the coast of Ulster, carrying an army of over six thousand. Bruce was joined by twelve Gaelic kings and chiefs such as Ó Neill (O’Neill), Ó Cathain (Keane) and Ó Anluain (Hanlon), attracted by the propaganda of a revival of the High-Kingship and the aggrandizement of their own personal power. In time his ranks would be further swelled by disaffected Anglo-Irish families such as de Lacy and Bisset (now rendered MacKeon).

An Irish army marched north and fought against Bruce at Connor in early September. The battle was a spectacular victory for Bruce; his opponents, Justiciar Edmund le Butler and Earl Richard Ruadh de Burgh barely escaped, with the latter’s cousin and deputy in Connacht, Sir William Liath de Burgh, captured. He was brought back to Scotland for ransom on “ships filled with booty.”

Those same ships would return with more reinforcements which would besiege nearby CarrickfergusCastle, where Sir John was constable, surrounded by thousands of hostile Scots and Irish. The town was burned around the castle. Sir John and the garrison were left with no way of retreating except by sea, and daily awaited relief to appear on the southern horizon from Dublin. However, the Irish Sea was been terrorised by the Scots pirate, Thomas Dun. None came.

Bruce spent the rest of 1315 destroying the towns of Dundalk, Kells, Trim, defeating every army sent to oppose him, inciting violence wherever he went. Gael and Gall alike were massacred unless they submitted to him. At Ardee, he burned a church “full of men and women” from both communities. Even those who submitted had their supplies consumed by his forces, leading to desperate conditions in a land already suffering from the effects of one of the worst famines of the Middle Ages.

As a direct result of the invasion, warfare broke out in Connacht between rivals for the kingship, Fedlimid and Ruaidrí Ó Conchobair. Ruaidrí defeated Fedlimid, and “the whole province shook.” Almost every significant Anglo-Irish settlement west of the Shannon was attacked and destroyed by Ruaidrí. Only the towns of Athenry, Claregalway and Galway were unscathed, as yet.

When Earl Richard finally arrived in Loughrea,

“his Gall friends came to him from every hand, hoping that he would support and succour them, and his Gael friends came into his house likewise, chief among them were Feidlim O Conchobair, king of Connacht, and Muirchertach O Briain, king of Thomond, Maelruanaid Mac Diarmata, king of the muinter Mailruanaid and Gillibert O Cellaig, king of the Ui Maine, who had all been expelled from the country.”

As Marshall of West Connacht, Nicholas Dubh de Linch numbered among the military leadership of the crippled colony. So too would be former Sheriff, Richard Blake and his sons Walter, John, Nicholas and Valentine. The families of Joyce and Skerrett, both steeped in military traditions, would also have donned armour and mustered out.

Gaelic families then allied with or subject to the de Burgh’s – Ui Mhaille, Ui Shaughnasaigh, Ui Flaithbertaigh – would have formed part of these units. The joint forces spent the entire autumn and winter fighting a defensive, and all too often, losing war against Ruaidrí Ó Conchobair.

The entire barony of Loughrea, de Burgh’s personal manor, “was plundered and burned by Tadc O Cellaigh.” Much of the land for miles around Dunmore was wasted, with the latter town and Aughrim both burned. De Burgh himself seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown, with the Annals of Connacht calling him “a wanderer up and down Ireland all this year, with no power or lordship.” Thus it was left to his main vassals, de Bermingham, de Cogan and de Exeter, and deputies such as de Linch and Blake, to lead the besieged colony as best they could.

But after defeating Ruaidrí at Templetogher in January 1316, Fedlimid turned against his allies and made an all-out attempt to exterminate the Connacht colony. As the direct descendant of one of the last High King’s, he received support from most of the provinces as he gathered his forces to destroy what was left of his opposition.

Several men did meet the challenge and were able to lead the colony. They included knights such as Stephen de Exeter, Miles de Cogan, William de Prendergast, John de Staunton, and other notables such as Robin Lawless and Gerald Gaynard. But all save Gaynard were killed in battle at Ballyahan near Strade, further burdening remaining lieutenants such as de Linch and his comrades.

Back in Carrickfergus, Sir John and the garrison still held out, though supplies were already dangerously low. At terrible risk, they “suddenly attacked the Scots by night, and drove them from their camp, and brought away their tents and many other things.” It was only a brief respite. The Scots returned, the siege continued.

A summer of almost continuous rain destroyed the harvest. The Irish annals provide grim evidence of the combined effects of the war and famine on the population. “Many afflictions in all parts of Ireland: very many deaths, famine and many strange diseases, murders, and intolerable storms as well.” In the winter there was “snow the like of which had not been seen for many a long year.”

People resorted to horrific means to survive; “some are said to have taken the bodies of the dead from the graves, to have cooked the bodies in skulls, and to have eaten them; women also devoured their infants.”

By one army or another entire territories were

“beggared and bare from that time on, for therein was no shelter or protection in church sanctuary or lay refuge, but its cattle and corn were snatched from its alters and given to gallowglasses for the wages due to them.”

At Easter, Sir Thomas de Mandeville set out from Drogheda to relive Carrickfergus. He successfully gave battle to the Scots-Irish on Maundy Thursday, but a second encounter on Easter Sunday, 10th April, resulted in Sir Thomas’s death at the castle gate. Sir John de Athy was once more alone in leadership.

After some weeks he opened negotiations with Bruce. An annalist of the time wrote that

“On St. John’s Day (24th June 1316), Bruce came to Carrickfergus, he demands their surrender, as had been agreed upon between them, they asked for life and limb, and that he should send in only thirty, whom they would receive, but when these had entered they put them in chains.”

Yet the Carrickfergus garrison was now so lacking in provisions that when eight of the prisoners died, the garrison are said to have ate them.

On 7th July 1316, salvation seemed at hand with “eight ships laden at Drogheda with necessaries to be sent to those who where besieged in Carrickfergus”. Unbelievably, they “were stopped by the Earl of Ulster, for the deliverance of William de Burgh, who was a prisoner with the Scots.”

Matters only worsened for Sir John and his men when later the same month, “Robert Bruce landed in Ireland to aid his brother.”

De Burgh’s ransoming of his cousin did however have a positive effect. When Sir William Liath was set free, he made straight for Connacht – probably landing at Galway – where he assembled an army to defend the colony. Given the alarming military situation it is probable that Sir William Liath recruited every able man he could find. It is thus likely that the families of de Linch, Blake, Browne, Joyce, and Skerrett were all present at the desperate encounter that followed.

King Fedlimid had being busy “slaughtering unnumbered people … [he] plundered the countryside from the castle of Corran [Ballymote] to the Robe [Ballinrobe], both church and lay property.” At Meelick “he burned and broke down the castle”. Afterwards, he conferred with two Ui Briain contenders for the kingship of Thomond, choosing to recognise Donnchad mac Domnall as king. “He then turned back to Roscommon, intending to raze it.”


“On hearing that William Burke had come into Connacht from Scotland”, Fedlimid “called upon his subjects to assemble an army to expel him; and the army was assembled from all the regions between Assaroe [in CountySligo] and Aughty [Galway/Clare border].”

Fedlimid was accompanied by the kings of Thomond, Midhe, Bréifne, Ui Maine, Ui Fiachrach, Ui Diarmata, Luigne, Tethba, dozens of notable lineages “and many more of the kings’s and chieftains’s sons of Ireland”. They “assembled to him. And they all marched to Athenry”.

Lord Athenry was Richard de Bermingham, who had been wounded in January at Templetogher, fighting on Fedlimid’s behalf. He had only in 1310 obtained a murage charter to enclose a site of over one hundred acres, within which he had greatly expanded his town of Athenry. Now it looked as though the town would be strangled at birth.

Sir William Liath and his army joined de Bermingham in time to meet King Fedlimid’s horde, “and joined battle with them in front of the town” on Tuesday, 10thAugust 1316.

In what was one of the bloodiest battles of medieval Ireland, the royal army was signally defeated. The colonists appear to have suffered light casualties with only one, Gerard Gaynard, listed as been killed.

The Gaels, on the other hands, suffered a slaughter that the scribe of the Annals of Loch Cé struggled to describe. “Many of the men of all Ireland about that great field; many a king’s son, whom I name not … was killed in that great rout; my heart rues the fight.” The Annals of Ulster likewise maintained that “there was not slain in this time in Ireland the amount that was slain there of sons of kings and of chiefs and of many other persons in addition.” The Annals of Loch Cé lists the dead in

The Regestum of the Dominicans of Athenry record “three thousand of the Irish were killed”. In Kilkenny, friar John Clyn stated that “According to a common report a sum total of five … thousands in all [were killed], the number decapitated was one thousand five hundred.” The heads of Fedlimid and Gilbert were mounted over the town’s main gate. Two heads piked over the town gate remains the image of the coat of arms of Athenry to this day.

Meanwhile, the soldiers in Carrickfergus castle were reduced to eating leather. Sir John eventually travelled under safe conduct to Coleraine where he negotiated surrender with Bruce. Sometime around the 12th September, “Carrickfergus … surrendered to the Scots, life and limb being granted to whose who were in it.” Sir John led the garrison south to Dublin.

There would be little time for rest. Sir John was appointed by the government as Admiral of the Irish Sea and sent him off to do battle with the Scots pirate fleet led by Thomas Dun. An Irish Exchequer payment of early 1317 reads

“The Keeping Of The Sea In The War Against The Scots: Richard de Celario, king’s clerk, appointed to pay necessary expenses for the maintenance of John de Athy, knight, and the men at arms and sailors in his company staying by order of the king for the safer keeping of the Irish Sea, to suppress the malice and rebellion of the Scottish enemies, for these expenses, by writ of privy seal and indenture of receipt: £13 10s.”

Finally, on 2nd July, after months at sea

“Sir John de Athy met at sea Thomas Don, a famous pirate, who he took prisoner; there were slain of those who were with him, about forty, but he brought his head and the heads of the rest to Dublin.”

It was an important victory, for Thomas Dun had made maritime supply of areas under English control a virtual impossibility. Nevertheless, it was not until 14 October 1318 that Bruce was defeated at Faughart in CountyLouth. The victor was a cousin of Lord Athenry, Sir John de Bermingham, who was created Earl of Louth for ending the war.

The Gaelic scribe of Annala Loch Cé wrote that Bruce

“was the common ruin of the Gaels and Galls of Ireland…never was a better deed done for the Irish than this…For in this Bruce’s time, for three years and a half, falsehood and famine and homicide filled the country, and undoubtedly men ate each other in Ireland.”

The price of victory of was high. In Connacht, entire settlements were ruined and abandoned. Refugees crowded into secure towns such as Athenry and Galway.

Others, continuing a trend established for decades, quit Ireland as a place accursed and emigrated elsewhere in the King’s dominions. Emigration would continue the rest of the century as the colony collapsed. The loss of people and property meant a fall in revenue, with enforced austerity leaving the lordship of Ireland to fund and defend itself with fewer resources.

Among the casualties were Earl Richard Ruadh de Burgh. A broken man, his fortunes never fully recovered. He died in 1326, aged sixty-seven, and was succeeded as 5th Lord of Connacht and 3rd Earl of Ulster by his underage grandson, fourteen-year old William Donn (‘brown-haired’) de Burgh.

By then, Sir John de Athy had reached the pinnacle of his career. On 7th March 1325, Sir Robert de Morlee deputed him as his “chere bacheler”, to serve, and in his name execute, the duties of the Marshalry of Ireland. Sir John de Athy was officially Ireland’s greatest knight.

De Athy remained Constable of Carrickfergus till at least Easter 1326; by August of that year he was Constable of Trim Castle. There, he was paid a wage of one shilling per day. His responsibilities included guarding “two hostages of Meyler McGohegan” until returning to Carrickfergus sometime after September. Payments to him as Constable of Carrickfergus continued till June 1328.

After this, he was Keeper or Constable of Roscommon Castle from 28 March 1331 to 28 September 1335. This was his first recorded tour of duty beyond the Shannon, perhaps connected to the de Burgh civil war then occurring in Connacht.

In 1334 he was recalled to duty as Admiral of Ireland, been described as “John de Athy, captain and admiral of the king’s fleet of all ships in all ports and other places in Ireland going in the king’s service to Scotland” at the time of King Edward III’s Scottish expedition. It was such a failure that Edward III gave up on Scotland and went off to France start the Hundred Year’s War.

Sir John was “for his expenses in connection with the arresting of ships in various ports there in 1334-35” given “as a gift: £2.” Sometime after 29 September 1341 he was awarded forty pounds and fourteen shillings “in part payment of fee” while constable of Roscommon on four occasions between 1332 and 1335.

Such gifts and payments were seem to have been sorely needed by Sir John, whose personal finances resembled that of the colony itself. In a revealing document, it was stated that he was in 1339 present at the court of Mayor Henry Darcy of London and William de Carleton, clerk. Sir John “acknowledged his debt of £10 to Henry de Birchesle, to be repaid by All Saints then upcoming”. However, by 1344, de Carleton noted “he has not observed these terms. Therefore, they pray that the Chancellor will write to the Sheriff of Gloucester to compel the enforcement of payment.”

Short of travelling to Ireland, it is unlikely that they received the monies, and in any case, de Athy seems to have been unable to provide even for himself anymore. In a list of “The King’s Gifts and Grants” given between 29 September 1341 and 5 May 1343, it is recorded that “John de Athy, now grown old, deprived of his sight and impoverished, granted to him by the deputy justiciar and council in aid of his maintenance: £5.”

A final reference to him, dated between May 1343 and September 1344, reads “John de Athy, enfeebled by old age, as a gift for his good service: £5.” The old knight died somewhere on the wild Irish frontier, as distressed in person as the colony he had served.

As the resources of the colony faded, the links with England became greatly diminished, especially west of the Shannon. Left to fend for themselves, entire Anglo-Irish families became assimilated into Gaelic society. They adopted the language, laws and customs of the Gael, so that de Exeter became Mac Jordan, de Staunton became Mac Evilly, and de Burgh became Burke.

It is during these latter years that the family of Athy first becomes associated with Galway. One William son of Richard de Athy – Sir John’s valetus of 1320? – was described as of Athenry in 1342. A later William de Athy, treasurer of Connacht in 1388, was by then apparently residing in Galway town, while a John Athy was listed in an exchequer deed of April 1404 as a merchant.

Earl William Donn came into possession of his estates in 1328 but almost immediately was at loggerheads with his cousin, Walter de Burgh, son of Sir William Liath. During William Donn’s minority, Walter and his family had administered Connacht, and had become overly familiar in his power.

Open warfare between the cousins broke out in 1330 and lasted till November of the following year, when Earl William captured Walter and two of his brothers. They were imprisoned in NorthburghCastle on Inis Eoghain, where Walter was allowed to starve to death.

Now finally secure in his lordship, Earl William concentrated on extending his estates over as yet unconquered areas of the north of Ireland. 6 June 1333 found him and his companions, Sir Richard de Mandeville and Sir John de Logan, at Carrickfergus. Without warning, de Manderville and de Logan unsheathed their swords and with their followers murdered Earl William. The conspiracy had been organised by de Mandeville’s wife, Gyles, sister of the late Walter de Burgh.

The Earl’s death was a catastrophe for the Anglo-Irish colony. Within six months all Ulster west of the Bann was lost. In Connacht, the Earl’s surviving uncle, Sir Edmond de Burgh of Limerick, attempted to hold Connacht for his family and the crown, but faced stern opposition from his own kindred, the descendants of Sir William Liath and the Clann Richard Burke, who had been overseers of the Earl’s estates for generations.

Already highly assimilated into Gaelic culture, the two became known as the Mac William Bourkes and the Clanricard Burkes, and seized the de Burgh estates in Connacht for themselves. These three factions fought for supremacy in a war that saw “The entire of the West of Connaught … desolated”.

The war only ended in 1338 when “The son of the Earl of Ulster, i.e. Edmond, was taken prisoner by Edmond Burke, who fastened a stone to his neck and drowned him in Lough Mask. The destruction of the English of Connaught, and of his own, resulted from this deed.”

As late as 1347, a John Prout was appointed coroner for the cantred of Muintir Murchada, demonstrating that the countryside about Headford still adhered to Anglo-Irish laws. But the breakdown in law and order, coupled with the Black Death of 1349 and 1361, shrank the colony to the immediate areas of Athenry and Galway.

Earl William Donn’s only surviving child was an infant daughter, Elizabeth. King Henry III married her to his son, Prince Lionel, in the hope that he would someday be able to regain her estates. But the hard fact was that virtually all Ireland west of the Shannon was lost to the colony. For the next two hundred years, Connacht would remain largely outside the realm of the Anglo-Irish government.

This change of management had profound consequence for the merchants of Galway. Only by reaching accommodations with successive Clanricards were they able to continue to live by English law and custom, most of the time. The first Clanricard – succesive chiefs took this title – Sir Ulick Burke, died in 1353 and was succeeded by his son, Richard Óg, who was in turn succeeded in 1387 by Ulick an Fhiona Burke. As long as each received his ‘due’ as lord, the town and its people would remain unmolested.

The island was divided into dozens of kingdoms and lordships in a constant state of violent competition with one another. The Anglo-Irish of the Pale were left on the defensive with a siege mentality and few resources, while the Gaelic-Irish regressed as a result of their own resurgence from kings to warlords.

The tragedy of 14th-century Ireland was that neither side could completely overcome the other. In any contest, one side must win else both shall lose. Thus, stalemate ensued.

No one authority was recognised over the entire island. All of Ireland’s communities remained fractured from one another. Galway and its merchant families were on their own.

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