15 October 2011

Battle of Dysert O’Dea: a family affair

Upon the death of the King of Thomond, Conor Ó Briain, slain in Suidane Woods in the Burren in the year 1268, his eldest son Tiege predeceased his father and the northern kingdom of Munster found itself with a problem as to who would sit on the late king’s throne. Tiege’s son, Turlough, was too young so the crown was placed upon the head of Tiege’s younger brother Brian Ruadh.  
     For nine years Brian Ruadh Ó Briain’s kingdom was at peace, but when Turlough was old enough he voiced his objection and declared that the crown belonged to him, and many of the Ó Briain Clan backed his claim, forgetting the pledge of allegiance they had given at Magh Adhair at the inauguration of Brian Ruadh. This situation pitted one half of the Ó Briain Clan against the other half and civil war broke out in Thomond. [These factions shall be called Clan Turlough and Clan Brian for this article.]
     Dál gCais chiefs that supported Turlough were Macnamara, O’Connor of Corcomroe, O’Dea, O’Hehir, and O’Kelly from Connacht. To maintain his throne Brian sought assistance from the Anglo-Norman knight Thomas de Clare.
     Seeing an opportunity to better engrain himself in Thomond, de Clare was more than willing to support Brian who had promised de Clare the lands between Quin and Limerick for settlement. Thomond was considered by the English as a sovereign kingdom and kept their distance from the land not that they hadn’t tried to obtain control since English king John had given the area to John de Muscregos in 1177,  he died in 1275 and Bunratty was given to Thomas de Clare. The Ó Briain Clan kept the English influence out of the kingdom until King Henry VIII in 1543.
     For a while Clan Brian ravage the settlements and in 1270, King Brian captured and burned Clare Castle, which was never rebuilt. Six years later Clan Turlough attacked Clonroad Castle and expelled Brian Ruadh in 1276. Taking advantage of the clan feud, King John granted all of Thomond to de Clare.
     Brian and his de Clare ally recaptured Clonroad and expelled Turlough in 1276. Turlough sought refuge in Galway and elicited support from Anglo-Norman cousin William de Burgh; with de Burgh’s assistance and that of O’Dea and Macnamara defeated Brian and his de Clare faction in 1277.
      This did not sit well with de Clare for he lost several English knights in the fray. Ousted again from Clonroad, King Brian Ruadh sought refuge at Bunratty Castle. Men of de Clare grabbed the king of Thomond bound him in ropes and tied the ends to two war horses then drove them in opposite directions. The throne of Thomond was now vacant and Turlough ascended without opposition for a time.
      Normally this action would demand revenge by the descendants of King Brian Ruadh, but his sons continued the relationship with de Clare and his retina. The conflict between the factions of Turlough and Brian’s sons continued and the inner clan feud was not over.
     A second battle took place between the two Ó Briain factions in some woods in County Clare with the same results as the first.
     Picking up the torch of his assassinated father and late king of Thomond, Donough MacBrian contended the feud with his cousin.  Support for Turlough continued from de Burgh, and de Clare reconciled himself to Donogh. In 1280 de Clare attempted to colonize in Thomond, with Donogh ruling east Thomond and Turlough the west. This plan did not satisfy Turlough to rule half a kingdom. Donogh attended a part on the Island Magrath which sits in the Fergus River near Clare Castle in 1284, where Donogh drowned.
Five years passed and the Ó Briain cousins met on a river bank in 1284 to discuss the situation which ended with Donogh MacBrian Ó Briain being slain.
     A third encounter between the two occurred in 1287, with Turlough’s forces killing Thomas de Clare. In triumph rode Turlough’s army throughout Thomond down to Cashel in celebration under a leopard banner and carrying gold shields. Returning by way of Lough Derg, Turlough turned west and on the road met a fairy lady who congratulated him for not continuing on in the wars in Ireland contending for the throne over all the provinces of the Emerald Isle. Turlough received de Clare who reconciled himself but he soon died in 1287, leaving two sons, Richard and Gilbert, in their minority, thus the Anglo-Norman presence became a non factor in the affairs of Thomond.
     For the next twenty years there was peace and Turlough passed away in 1306 and was succeeded by his son Donogh. The feud erupted once more between Clan Turlough and Clan Brian’s descendants. Donogh reigned from 1306-1311, was killed fleeing from a battle at Bunratty by one of Clan Brian at Corcomroe.
Finally in 1311, a descendant of Clan Brian, Dermot Ó Briain, was crowned at Magh Adhair with the backing of de Clare. The act de Burgh objected to and placed Murrough, brother of the late King Donogh, in control. To counter this move, de Clare and allies expelled Murrough. Suddenly King Dermot died in 1313, and was replaced by his cousin Donogh Ó Briain. Still Murrough and his ally de Burgh, continued to oppose Clan Brian.
     Ireland’s political arena became more complicated in 1315 with the invasion of Edward Bruce accompanied by his brother Robert, King of Scots. Both factions of the Ó Briain Clan elected to support Edward Bruce and oppose the English establishment. With Clan Brian in support of Edward Bruce, they were now enemies of de Clare, and without his support King Donogh fled to Connacht and later joined the forces of Bruce. This open the way for Murrough to regain the throne of Thomond.
     The former King Donogh persuaded the Bruce brothers to invade Munster and remove the English and his usurping cousin Murrough Ó Briain. In the mean time, Murrough joined de Clare, de Burgh, and other Anglo-Normans at Cashel to meet the invading army. Having reached Castleconnell, the Bruce army retreated towards Dublin, leaving King Donogh and his forces behind. Murrough travelled to Dublin to attend a parliament, at which time his brother Dermot decided to destroy Clan Brian in which he nearly succeeded in 1317 at the battle of Corcomroe where Donogh and almost all of Clan Brian were slain. Donogh’s son, Brian Bane escaped and sought refuge in Tipparary. Upon Murrough’s return to Thomond almost all of Clare rallied around him except de Clare and his protégé Mahon Ó Briain and the Ó Briains of Clan Brian. Once again the proposal to divide Thomond was presented by de Clare, and Murrough would have no part of it nor accept any authority from de Clare. Only conflict would settle the problem.
     In May 1318, Richard de Clare led an expedition into the west of Thomond against Conor O’Dea and his clan headquartered at Dyset O’Dea. O’Dea appealed to neighboring clans of O’Connor and O’Hehir to assist him. Supported by Irish troops of the sons of Mahon Ó Briain and Brian Bane Ó Briain [descendants of King Brian Ruadh Ó Briain], along with his own Normans, Richard de Clare camped at Ruan, which is north of Quin and north of Ennis. These troops were comprised of bowmen and spearmen on foot, light horsemen, and some knights, a force of about a thousand men. Although de Clare knew that there was a hostile force under Conor O'Dea somewhere in front of him, he was confident enough of his ability to deal with it that he divided his men. They marched in three companies, spread out north and south so that they might plunder the country. One body commanded by de Clare’s son, moved to the right towards Tully to cut off any support troops, another to the left towards Magowna. Richard de Clare himself advanced in the center with the main force towards Dysert on 10 May 1318, where O'Dea's chief castle was, bent on its destruction.
     O’Dea was at a disadvantage for he had a smaller force, he decided on the ancient mode of Irish battle strategy of ambush.

      Near Lough Ballycullinan, north-east of Dysert, de Clare's advance came on a party of Conor O'Dea's men-the Irish account describes it as “a well ordered detachment of horse and foot” -driving a herd of cattle across a stream. The Anglo-Normans pressed on by Dromcavan, hoping to seize such promising spoil. At first the Irish seemed full of fight. They faced round and began skirmishing, assailing the Anglo-Normans with the usual showers of darts, sling-stones and hand-stones. Soon, however, they began to retire slowly, hurrying off their cattle behind them. In this way pursuers and pursued reached a place where a second stream was fordable, probably in marshy land near the present-day Macken bridge. Here the Irish made a more stubborn stand.

      Richard de Clare’s main column raced across the ford to capture the small band of men. The Normans won the ford and crossed over. The Irish fell back. The head of the Norman column reached the wood and out streamed the ambushers, splitting at once into two parties. One party reinforced the skirmishers and attacked de Clare in front; the other rushed towards the ford and fell upon the tail of the column, which was still crossing and was badly placed to defend itself.
      From out of the woods came Conor O’Dea and his troops to cut off the retreat of de Clare and his men. Conor O’Dea encountered de Clare himself and with his battle-axe felled the Anglo-Norman knight. O’Dea clansmen then hacked to pieces de Clare’s body while de Clare’s main force looked helplessly on from the opposite bank of the stream.  Enraged the Anglo-Normans fought their way across the stream and surrounded the O’Dea’s.
     The O'Dea’s counted on the assistance of two other forces, one under O'Connor of Corcomroe and Lochlann O'Hehir, who were close by. Conor O'Dea hoped to delay de Clare sufficiently to give time for these to come up to help him. He also hoped to lead de Clare into an ambush. The skirmishers were only a small part of his strength. His main body was concealed on the margin of a wood a little further back, somewhere south of the lake.
      Suddenly, Feilim O’Connor’s and Lochlann O’Hehir’s clansmen charged down the hill of Scamhall, west of Dysert, and cut a path through the Anglo-Normans and joined O’Dea and his men in the fray. Young Thomas de Clare and his troops arrived next to the site and he and Feilim O’Connor sought each other out on the battlefield and matched steel, O’Connor was the victor. Father and son had now been removed from the scene. The united O’Dea forces formed in the strongest position they could find and the battle became a melee. The Irish were engulfed in a surging, hacking mass as the Anglo-Normans redoubled their efforts to overrun them, now that the fight could be waged away from the shelter of the trees. “Both parties;” says the Irish chronicler, “the Gall (Anglo-Normans) and the Gael (Irish), mowed down and mishandled each other, so that of either set many gentlemen and fine warriors were destroyed.”  
     How long this continued is unknown. The struggle was severe, the casualties heavy. O'Dea and his allies were out-numbered, and as their ranks thinned they must have drawn closer together, gathering into a hard knot of combat on the little ridge or hill, or wherever it was that they made their stand. They were driven “to form themselves into a fast, impenetrable phalanx that their enemies should not break through them.” Individual fighters stood out from the mass, and here the new armor of the Irish must have served them well. The Anglo-Normans, still fighting with the utmost ferocity, were pounded between the O'Brien’s and the O'Dea’s and completely overthrown; “so dour the hand-to-hand work was, that neither noble nor commander of them left the ground, but the far greater part fell where they stood.
     Not until late in the day did Murrough Ó Briain unexpectedly arrive at the battle and routed de Clare’s remaining troops which fled to Bunratty with O’Dea’s men pursuing them. The Norman presence in Thomond and attempt for power came to an abrupt end. The widow of Richard de Clare set fire to Bunratty Castle and fled to England with son Thomas, a minor, in tow. Bunratty  and Quin castles were destroyed and Murrough Ó Briain ruled Thomond without opposition until his death in 1343.
     As for Clan Brian, they were banished to the east across the Shannon River where they took over the lands of Ara and Owney, owing allegiance to no one, becoming a law unto themselves: they became known as Mac-I-Brien Ara, and later returned to the surname of Ó Briain.

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