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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
Athenry, County Galway, the surviving medieval North Gate.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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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