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Ireland History-
The 1316 Battle Of Athenry

There are a handful of events which were crucial  turning points in Medieval Ireland. History records that a battle fought at Athenry in County Galway was one such event.

On the 10th August 1316 a force of Anglo-Normans, led by Rickard De Bermingham, Lord of Athenry, inflicted a crushing defeat on an alliance of Irish clans led by Felim O’Connor, Gaelic king of Connaught, at the town walls of the Norman town.

Athenry in County Galway, Ireland, was the scene of two crucial medieval battles which took place in the shadow of these very town walls.

The Second Battle of Athenry in 1316 changed the power balance in medieval Ireland. History would never be the same with an alliance of Gaelic chiefs being defeated in the shadow of these well-preserved town walls.

Outcomes First

The battle became known as the ‘The Second Battle Of Athenry’, the first battle being of lesser significance when Athenry was a military outpost in in 1249.

The assistance of the prolific soldier William ‘liath’(grey) De Burgo was pivotal in securing victory for the vulnerable Anglo-Norman enclave from the onslaught of the Gaelic Irish, who hoped to drive the colonists out of Ireland. History’s course would be changed with the defeat of the Irish on that fateful day, and the resulting chaos among local dynasties finally marked the end of Gaelic power in the province of Connaught.

Victory paved the way for Anglo-Norman supremacy in what was traditionally a difficult region to control. It also had far-reaching effects for the Anglo-Norman colony as a whole, at a time when things were looking bleak from an English perspective.

Athenry Castle in County Galway, Ireland, held out through two crucial medieval 'Battles of Athenry'.

Athenry Castle in County Galway played an important part in Ireland's history holding out in two crucial 'Battles of Athenry', the second of which in 1316 changed the power balance in medieval Ireland in favour of the Anglo-Norman invaders.

The Incomplete Anglo-Norman Conquest

Only about half of Ireland was under Anglo-Norman control at the time. The remainder of the country was a patchwork of Gaelic Kingdoms and although Richard De Burgo, Earl of Ulster was the Lord of Connaught in name, the reality on the ground was quite different.

The land west of the Shannon had proven extremely difficult to subdue, and the Anglo-Normans had to settle for an uneasy co-existence with the locals, forming fickle alliances with Gaelic leaders.

The Edward Bruce Campaign

The battle took place during the invasion of Edward Bruce from Scotland, and the outcome at Athenry greatly contributed to the failure of his campaign in Ireland. History is replete with examples of the need for a long-term strategy, if one is to invade another country.

Crucial to this strategy is the support of local leaders. England and Scotland were engaged in a bloody conflict as the Scots fought for their independence under the leadership of ‘Robert the Bruce’, King of Scotland. Bruce’s spectacular Victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn resulted in a stalemate.

For years the English colony in Ireland had provided vital supplies and fighting men for the  war in Scotland. Bruce saw that an invasion of Ireland could seriously undermine the English ability to wage war on the Scots. It would also export the carnage to Ireland from a war-torn Scotland. 

He was invited to come to Ireland by Ulster chieftain Domhnal O’Neil, who along with others offered the Irish High-kingship to Robert’s brother Edward, in exchange for expelling the English.

The Scots and the Irish shared a common Gaelic language and similar culture as well as ties through kinship. Although the Bruces were of Norman descent they identified themselves as Scottish and  promoted the idea of a United Scots/Irish Gaelic Kingdom.
The idea appealed to many of the Irish who were weary of English subjugation. Success in Ireland would also allow the Scots to attack England through Wales, but Bruce would have to count on the backing of local leaders, not all of whom were impressed by his audacious claim to the High kingship.

The North gate of the medieval town of Athenry in County Galway, Ireland

Athenry, County Galway, the surviving medieval North Gate.

The Scots Invade

He arrived in Ulster with an army of 6,000 and they got off to a flying start with a series of defeats over the English. At the battle of Conor they captured William De Burgo and shipped him to Scotland in chains.

De Burgo had fought the Scots with help from Felim O’Connor, but when things swung in the Bruce’s favour, the Connaught king, essentially concerned with his own interests, abandonned the cause and returned home.

The O’Conors Of Connaught

Before the battle Edward Bruce had offered Felim possession of Connaught if he supported him. At around the same time Felim’s rival kinsman Ruaidhri met with the Scots and offered to oust the English from Connaught.

He was well received and was told not to invade Felim’s territory. He agreed, but he had his own ideas. When he went home to Connaught he attacked Felim and was looking like becoming the dominant O’Connor in the region, and if the Anglo-Norman Rickard De Bermingham had not came to Felim’s aid, he would have succeeded.

Together they defeated and killed Ruaidhri. De Bermingham, who was gambling on securing Felim’s allegiance, was wounded for his trouble. Shortly after Felim commenced hostilities attacking Anglo-Norman settlements and killing many of their Noblemen.

Richard De Burgo’s Deal With The Scots

Things were looking dire from an Anglo-Norman perspective, as the Scots controlled Ulster, raiding and pillaging around the Pale, with Felim O’Connor’s rampage around  Connaught adding to their woes. The participation of William Burke would be vital to checking the progress of the Bruce army.

William, unlike his cousin Richard, had grown up in Connaught and forged many deep connections with both Anglo-Normans and the local chiefs. If anyone could gather a powerful alliance to defeat Felim O’Connor and impede the Scots, it was William.  What happened next was pivotal.

Richard De Burgo made a deal with the Scots. In exchange for the release of his cousin he would send a ship of food supplies to Scotland. The ship had been meant to re-supply the starving Anglo-Norman garrison at the besieged Carirckfergus Castle.

William would be released on condition that his one year-old son would take his place as a hostage, and if he would promise not to confront the Scots in Ireland. History is full of exciting twists and turns and what William did next would cause profound damage to Edward Bruce’s Irish ambition, without breaking his word. 

Enter William ’liath’    

He gathered an alliance of Anglo-Normans and their loyal Irish supporters and they marched on Connaught. Felim O’Connor was getting ready to sack Roscommon when the arrival of De Burgo in the area prompted him to change tack.

Felim gathered an army of 8,000, which included many prominent Irish chiefs and they set off to attack Athenry. There they were met by William’s hosting, which had come to the aid of the vulnerable Rickard de Bermingham.

A Momentous Victory

Felim made the fatal mistake of engaging the superior military might of the Anglo-Normans in an open battle, and despite his ranks being bolstered by the presence of powerful Gallowglass mercenaries, they were utterly routed, with numerous Irish kings and their sons slain.

The result was chaos among the Gaels in the west of Ireland. History was written on that fateful day with victory at Athenry providing the Anglo-Normans with a much-needed morale boost, effectively destroying O’Connor power in Connaught and establishing the De Burgos as the dominant force for years to come.

The End Of Edward Bruce

The following year Bruce was killed at the battle of Fuaghart by an army led by Rickard’s kinsman John De Bermingham, effectively ending the campaign. Despite their initial success in Ulster, the Scots failed in Ireland. History changed its course when, due to a drop in temperature, famine started in Ireland and the Scots were forced to raid the food stores of the weary peasantry.

They had lost valuable local support and by the time they returned home, most Irish were glad to see the back of them.
The damage caused in Ireland by the Scots did however weaken the English Colony and created favourable conditions for a resurgence of Gaelic resistance in other parts of the country.

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