|Clare County Library||
The Battle of Dysert O’Dea and the Gaelic Resurgence in Thomond by Katharine Simms
Clare County Library is grateful to Katharine Simms for permission to reproduce this article which was first published in Dal gCais Vol 5 (1979) pp 59-66. Dr. Simms has expanded some of the original footnotes to include recent research.
Source: G.A. Hayes-McCoy, Irish Battles.
On 10 May, 1318 a battle took place at Dysert O’Dea between Muircheartach O’Brien, King of Thomond, with his vassal-chiefs O’Dea, O’Connor and O’Hehir on one side, and the Anglo-Norman lord Richard de Clare and his army on the other. De Clare was defeated and killed, and as a result of this battle the Anglo-Norman colonists were driven out of Thomond, never to return. This was one of the few resounding Irish victories gained during the three-year period of the Bruce Wars in Ireland (1315-18), a time when it was hoped all native Irish rulers would unite under the leadership of Prince Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert of Scotland, to drive the English out of the country altogether, and establish a unified and independent kingdom of Ireland under Bruce.
This is a simplistic summary of what happened at Dysert O’Dea, and while the facts are just as stated above, they are wildly misleading. Without further background information, it would be natural to assume that Muircheartach O’Brien was a nationalist leader, and that his victory was a part of the Bruce campaign against the English. Yet the O’Brien family’s own chronicler, in the Caithreim Thoirdhealbhaigh tells us that in the year prior to this battle Muircheartach had attended the Anglo-Irish parliament at Dublin to remind the members of his loyal service to Edward II of England, and to accuse de Clare of having dealings with the supporters of Bruce.1 The politics of that time were complex, and before passing a hasty judgement for or against O’Brien, it might be as well to consider the whole question of nationalism, and how far the concept of nationalism had developed in early fourteenth-century Ireland. Moreover the sudden collapse of Norman power in Thomond after a single battle can only be understood in the context of the whole colonization process as experienced by Ireland in the previous hundred and fifty years.
As regards the rest of Europe, it is now generally accepted that nationalism as we know it today could not even begin to emerge until the turn of the fourteenth century, soon after the consolidation of the first national kingdoms, under Louis IX in France, for instance, and Edward I in England.2 Earlier the twelfth-century Angevin Henry II had ruled not only England, but half France and a large part of Wales, before adding Ireland to his dominions, and this was by no means the only case where political boundaries did not even approximate to linguistic and cultural frontiers. Until comparatively modern times the Holy Roman Empire continued to demand a single allegiance from Germans, Slavs and Italians. Already in the fourteenth century, however, the Hundred Years War between England and France brought a sharpened sense of national identity to the two countries directly involved, and prior to this the same process had taken place in Scotland, as a result of their War of Independence (1296-1328) under William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Indeed a remarkable message sent by the Scottish barons to Pope John XXII in 1320, “The Declaration of Arbroath,” has been claimed as the earliest formal statement of nationalist principles:
“So long as there shall but one hundred of us remain alive,
However, as Irish historians are well aware, this was not the earliest of such statements. Already in 1317 Pope John had received an even more strongly worded “Remonstrance of the Irish princes” sent under the name of Domhnall O’Neill, King of Tir Eoghain and principal Irish ally of the Bruce brothers. Obviously both documents are products of the same movement. Like the “Declaration of Arbroath,” the “Remonstrance” pledges the Irish people to a life-long struggle to regain their native liberty, but its indictment of the Anglo-Irish colonists has a more savage tone:
“Such is their arrogance and excessive lust to lord it over us, and so great is our due and natural desire to throw off the unbearable yoke of their slavery and to recover our inheritance wickedly seized upon by them, that as there has not been hitherto, there cannot now be, or ever henceforward be established, sincere goodwill between them and us in this life.”4
Far from being a parrot-like repetition of a political ideology originating in Scotland, most of the “Remonstrance” is devoted to a detailed discussion of specifically Irish grievances, and the same sentiments are found in two related texts also of Irish provenance, a letter from Domhnall O’Neill to Finghin MacCarthy, and the prose narrative Cath Fhochairte Brighite.5
It was natural that Ireland should be among the first countries during the Middle Ages to give evidence of conscious national feelings, because although politically it has always been among the most sub-divided and loosely organized regions of Europe, its privileged learned classes of historians and poets had long enjoyed a cultural unity, a common language and literature. From the early eleventh century at least, such learned men had fostered and encouraged the idea of one united Ireland, ruled by a high-king with real power,6 and their early twelfth-century history of Brian Boroimhe, “The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill”, had dealt with the struggle against the Vikings in terms close to explicit nationalism. When the Normans landed they were immediately identifiable in the role of foreign tyrants which had earlier been created for the Vikings, and we have the word of Giraldus Cambrensis that prophecies of Irish saints, once applied to the Danish tyranny, were taken as referring to the Normans within twenty years of their first arrival.7 Once this equation had been made, speeches put in the mouths of Brian and the Dal gCais in the ‘Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh’ could be read as urging the moral duty of resistance to the new foreigners:
“they all answered, both old and young, that they preferred meeting death and destruction and annihilation and violence in defending the freedom of their patrimony, and of their race, rather than submit to the tyranny and oppression of the pirates, or abandon their country and their lands to them.”8
As a matter of fact, we have positive evidence that the story of Brian Boroimhe was seen as a source of inspiration, not only by the generality of Irishmen, but by his descendant, Muircheartach O’Brien, King of Thomond, in particular. In a strange poem which may date from the early thirteenth century, ‘Aonar dhuit, a Bhriain Bhanbha’, Brian Boroimhe was addressed directly, and his many victories over the foreign invaders recalled. Then the poem ended – “From the time Brian was slain, foreigners did not inhabit Ireland until the present day, with the arrival of the Earl [Strongbow]. From the day the Earl came, a fleet of foreigners comes every year, until, alas, they have taken the country of Ireland in general. When will Brian’s like come [again] north or south, east or west, a man to save the Irish from anguish, as he alone saved [them].”9 Then in the fourteenth century, a poem was addressed to Muircheartach O’Brien by the eminent bard, Maolmhuire Bacach MagCraith, Abair frim, a Eire ogh, in which he hails the King as a reincarnation of Brian, fighting a second “War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill” to abolish his people’s slavery.10
Clearly then, Muircheartach O’Brien found it easy to identify with this branch of the native nationalist tradition, centering as it did around the story of his own ancestor. He was eager to reject the overlordship of the foreigners, and to expel them from his lands and patrimony, that is, from Thomond itself. It was very much more difficult for him to accept whole-heartedly the other major source of inspiration for medieval nationalism, the dream of restoring the high-kingship of Tara. Since the publication of Professor Binchy’s important article “The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara” in 1958, it has come to be recognized that the original high-kingship signified not power over the whole island of Ireland, but power over the northern and southern Ui Neill, that is, over the provinces of Ulster and Meath.11 However, by the eleventh and twelfth centuries people had forgotten this, and the medieval poets spoke of Tara as the seat of a nation-wide kingship held successively by 197 kings from the invasion of the sons of Milesius down to the coming of the Normans, a time-span of 3,300 years and more, as the “Remonstrance of the Irish princes” asserted in 1317. Besides historical poems, there were versified prophecies in circulation, some ascribed to different Irish saints. These foretold the coming of a future king, a kind of messiah usually called Aodh Eanghach, who would deliver his people from oppression, rebuild the walls of Tara and rule all Ireland from this capital. Some versions seemed to suggest he would bring back paganism and the druids. The promised king would be recognised not only by constant victories over all enemies, but by the superabundant harvests and fair weather that would bless his reign.12
Now the official list of the high-kings of Ireland, as decided by the scholarly poets of the Middle Irish period, consisted almost entirely of Ui Neill rulers, and ended with the death of Maoilsheachlainn II in 1022, allowing one to conclude that Brian Boroimhe had been a usurper, and the O’Briens and O’Conors who reigned thereafter merely “high-kings with opposition”, a standpoint that was vigorously maintained centuries later during the “Contention of the Bards.”13 Consequently when people thought of new high-kings returning to Tara, they looked first to O’Neill or O’Melaghlin, to O’Donnell or even O’Connor, all descendants of Conn of the Hundred Battles, but they did not automatically think of a Munster prince. MacCarthy and O’Brien were associated not with Tara but with Cashel, and it was only in O’Brien-sponsored documents like the Book of Rights that Cashel figured as the seat of the high-kingship of Ireland.14 It is true that in the poem Abair Frim, a Eire ogh mentioned above, Muircheartach O’Brien is urged by his bard to ascend the hill of Tara and reign over Ireland, but as a preliminary to achieving this power he must lay waste and destroy the whole of Leath Chuinn, using his armies to harry the Irish of Connacht and Ulster into submission, and making raids on the chief places of Leinster and Meath also. Clearly all the other Irish are expected to oppose his claim to the high-kingship.
The O’Briens and the Anglo-Norman Conquest
All this talk of poets and king-lists may seem very airy-fairy, but there was a political reality behind it. In 1258 Brian O’Neill, King of Tir Eoghain, Aodh O’Conor, the son of the King of Connacht, and Tadhg O’Brien, the son of the King of Thomond, met at Caol-Uisce on the Erne to discuss an alliance of their forces against the English. According to the annals it was agreed there that Brian O’Neill should be High-King of Ireland, and Aodh O’Conor gave him hostages.15 However, the O’Brien family saga, the Caithreim Thoirdhealbhaigh, states that Tadhg O’Brien refused to submit to O’Neill, and was very indignant at the proposal, since he considered that the High-Kingship should have been offered to himself.16 It is noticeable that even the account given in the annals does not claim that O’Neill received any hostages from Thomond. As it turned out, Tadhg O’Brien died prematurely in 1259, while Brian O’Neill, the so-called High King of Ireland, was defeated and killed in battle against the English near Downpatrick in 1260. The meeting at Caol-Uisce had achieved nothing, but it served to show that as things stood, union among the Gaelic Irish could only be achieved if O’Brien submitted to O’Neill, or O’Neill submitted to O’Brien. This was unlikely to happen voluntarily, and neither leader was strong enough to force the other to obey. It was against this background that a generation later, in 1315, Domhnall O’Neill, who had succeeded his father Brian as King of Tir Eoghain, decided to pass his hereditary claim to the High-Kingship of Ireland to Prince Edward Bruce, in the hope that the prestige and the large army of this outsider might induce the other Irish chiefs to accept his leadership, as they would never have accepted O’Neill himself. It was a bold and imaginative idea, and during the three years that Bruce was in Ireland, his supporters hammered home the message that the success of this new attempt to overthrow the English colony depended utterly on the co-operation of all the Irish chiefs, north and south. Writing to Finghin MacCarthy in Desmond, O’Neill warned:
“The accursed English …promote their own interests by disseminating quarrels amongst us, so that we, being weakened by wounding one another, may easily yield ourselves a prey to them … We owe to ourselves the miseries with which we are afflicted … it is necessary for us to be at harmony at home, and to prosecute the war with our united forces, if we would regain our liberty”.17
Identical sentiments were attributed to the head of Clann Bhriain Ruaidh, the Bruce party among the O’Briens.18
However Edward Bruce’s coming to Ireland was very much the result of a two-way alliance between the Scots and the Ulster Irish. O’Neill does not seem to have consulted the Irish of the other provinces before he issued his invitation, and the reaction of the other Irish leaders to Bruce varied according to their previous attitude to O’Neill himself, as the Cath Fhochairte Brighite expressed it:
“sorrowful to relate, there were many who did not muster, because they were dissatisfied with the alliance formed by O’Neill, for they held their own power, dignity and course of policy in too high estimation, and they moreover wished each chieftain to retain the chief power over his own district, and hold it free of tribute and taxation.”19
In other words, those who disagreed with O’Neill wanted freedom, but not unity, sovereignty for their own area rather than sovereignty for Ireland itself.
Speaking of the Irish chiefs’ desire to be free from tribute and taxation brings us on to consider the nature of the power wielded by the Anglo-Normans over the Irish in the early fourteenth century. This varied greatly from one part of the country to another. Fundamentally Ireland had been conquered in two stages. In the first couple of generations after the invasion, until about 1230 A.D., the low-lying arable land to the east and south had been possessed, divided up among feudal tenants and then settled. Elsewhere in Europe at this period the pressure of an expanding population had led not only to forest clearances and drainage schemes, but to the German colonization of land east of the river Elbe, and the migration of European settlers to the Holy Land in the wake of the Crusaders. The same pressures were felt in thirteenth-century England, with the result, as Professor Otway-Ruthven has demonstrated, that the initial invasion of Ireland by Cambro-Norman conquistadors was followed by “a substantial immigration of a genuinely peasant population of English, or sometimes Welsh, origin,” occupying as much as a half or even two-thirds of the agricultural holdings on some manors.20 In these heavily colonised districts, such as Louth, Meath, Dublin, Kildare, south Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny, Cork and Limerick, the Gaelic resurgence of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries caused the population considerable hardship, but never succeeded in reversing the original conquest. The many Irish inhabitants were not organized into communities under their own chieftains but lived as individuals, subject after 1331 to the Courts of Common Law, or more frequently to the hybrid “law of the Marches” enforced by their Anglo-Norman lords.21
However, the expansion of the colony in Ireland had not
halted after 1230. The descendants of the first conquerors, de Burghs,
FitzGeralds, de Lacys and Butlers, pressed westwards over the Shannon
and the Bann until by about 1300 they effected a military conquest of
the entire island, including even the kingdom of Tir Conaill in the extreme
north-west.22 Their victories led to the erection of castles
to retain control, and to sub-infeudation, the parceling out of landed
estates among the barons and knights who followed them, but for some reason
which is not entirely clear, this later thirteenth- century expansion
was not followed up by a mass influx of peasant settlers, though traders
came to some of the towns established, as Sligo, Galway and Athenry. Not
only did the barons west of the Shannon apparently rely heavily on Irish
tenants for the cultivation of the manors, but large tracts of territory
were left in the hands of the Irish kings and chiefs, to rule as they
pleased, provided they rendered service and tribute to the Norman overlords.23
In this situation, where the native Irish formed the overwhelming majority
of the population, and their own chiefs were still available to lead them,
where control was in the hands of a sparsely scattered military elite,
whose power rested on the narrow base of a string of garrisoned castles,
maintaining their life-line to the sea-ports, and the more heavily-colonised
east coast, it is easy to see how fragile the conquest was.
Turning from these generalizations about Ireland as a whole to look more closely at the O’Brien kingdom of Thomond, we find the same twofold pattern of conquest. The pre-Norman Thomond had extended over the modern counties of Clare, Limerick and Tipperary: in the first wave of conquest the Butlers, de Burghs, FitzGeralds and other vassals of the Crown planted Limerick and much of Tipperary,24 and these lands were never to be recovered by the O’Briens in the centuries that followed. Some attempt was also made in this early period to plant the cantred of Tradry, the southern coast of Clare between Bunratty and Limerick city; but the settlements here, and further speculative grants of land to the north, never seem to have prospered. There was no natural barrier like the river Shannon to protect the colonists from the O’Briens and their vassal-chiefs, and an attempt to develop Tradry in the mid-thirteenth century by building castles and establishing a fair and market at Bunratty and Clarecastle was shortly followed by the first major O’Brien rebellion, when many Anglo-Normans of Munster were plundered and slain by Conchobhar an Siudaine and his son, Tadhg of Caol-Uisce. As we have seen, Tadhg O’Brien, whose ambitious schemes extended to an all-Ireland alliance against the colonists, died in 1259, but his family continued the struggle. On the death of Conchobhar na Siudaine in 1268, a younger son, Brian Ruadh succeeded to the chieftainship. In 1270 he plundered the English settlers and captured and burnt Clare Castle.25 It became clear to the Dublin government that no profits could be made from this part of the colony until the O’Briens were brought under control.
Like other Irish kings in the thirteenth century, the O’Briens’ official status was that of tenants-at-will, paying an annual rent for the lands remaining under their control, owing military service and obedience to royal directives.26 Such paper authority, however, was useless to the government unless it could be enforced. The most effective check on the Irish kings was exercised not by the King’s Council in Dublin, but by the great Anglo-Norman lords, as de Burgh the earl of Ulster and lord of Connacht, or the FitzGerald lords of Sligo and Desmond. Such men took hostages from the neighbouring Irish, mounted plundering raids and exacted fines at the first sign of rebellion, even appointed and deposed chieftains as best suited their own policies. However, there was no single lord in charge of the colony in Thomond, where a number of separate manors were held directly from the Crown, until in the 1270s the government took a conscious decision that a powerful magnate must be artificially created, so to speak, to reside in the area and make himself master of the O’Briens. The man chosen was Thomas de Clare (whose surname incidentally, derived from a place-name in Suffolk, and was unrelated to the manor of Clare, or Clar atha da charadh, in Thomond). He had the advantage of influential family connections in both Ireland and England, being a younger brother of the Earl of Gloucester, and ultimately descended from Strongbow, Lord of Leinster. Through marriage with a FitzGerald heiress, de Clare already held estates in East Cork, and in 1276 he was granted the whole land of Thomond as a hereditary fief. He became the immediate overlord of the O’Briens, and the Irish hostages were put into his hands.27
Of course, at the time it was made, this extensive grant was largely theoretical. Thomas de Clare might consider himself entitled to rule Thomond, but he must first conquer it. A feud within the O’Brien family gave him the opportunity of securing a foot-hold in the territory, but from the very beginning his designs were hampered by another feud, which “filled Ireland with civil war and commotions” in the words of the annalist.28 This was the savage power-struggle which raged for several generations between the heads of the de Burgh and FitzGerald clans. By his marriage to Juliana FitzGerald, Thomas de Clare had allied himself with the Geraldine side, and he was to make use of Geraldine military backing to establish himself in Thomond. The de Burghs were particularly opposed to the idea of Thomond falling under Geraldine influence because of its strategic importance. It straddled the land-route between their lordship of Connacht and their estates in east Limerick, and since their first arrival in Ireland the de Burghs had always taken care to cultivate the friendship of the O’Brien kings, through intermarriage and military alliance.29 From the moment de Clare appeared on the scene it was inevitable that competition must arise between the Anglo-Norman lords as to who should have the greater influence over the O’Briens. When the O’Brien family split apart then, it was natural that while one side appealed to the de Burghs and the Connacht Irish, the other sought the patronage of de Clare and the Geraldines. Both knew that these supporters were already armed and prepared for a fight, and that they would not appeal in vain.
The cause of the O’Brien family’s own feud can be traced by a glance at their family tree. Tadhg of Caol-Uisce was probably his father’s eldest son, and was certainly regarded as heir to the kingship until his premature death in 1259. When the old king, Conchobhar na Siudaine, was killed in 1268, Tadhg’s sons were apparently still too young to oppose the succession of their uncle, Brian Ruadh, but nine years later Toirdhealbhach son of Tadhg Caol-Uisce rose with the support of the O’Deas and MacNamaras, and expelled Brian Ruadh from all the modern County Clare, leaving him only the cantred of Uí Bloid in western Tipperary.30 The deposed king appealed to Thomas de Clare, his new landlord, and together they entered and took possession of Thomond, de Clare building a castle at Bunratty, and Brian Ruadh ruling the interior of the county as de Clare’s vassal. However, young Toirdhealbhach Mor was backed not only by the powerful MacNamara clans within Thomond, but by the de Burghs and their Irish allies from Connacht, so the fight went on. At the first defeat suffered by de Clare, he turned on his Irish-confederate, Brian Ruadh, and hanged him, presumably as a result of some accusation of treachery, but amazingly Brian’s son, Donnchadh, was persuaded to overlook his father’s murder and to replace him as de Clare’s vassal-king. Eventually, however, de Clare realised that he would never get the better of Toirdhealbhach Mor and his powerful allies, and in 1284 it was agreed that Toirdhealbhach might reign as sole king of Thomond, as long as he paid de Clare an annual rent or tribute of £121 11s. This arrangement lasted until Toirdhealbhach’s death in 1306, when civil war broke out again between the two O’Brien clans, each claiming succession to the kingship. In 1311 Richard, the son and heir of Thomas de Clare, first divided Thomond between the two factions, and then, when the head of Clann Toirdhealbhaigh was murdered, gave the whole country to Diarmait Cleireach O’Brien, the grandson of Brian Ruadh. Naturally this only provoked further war, in which the de Burghs supported Muircheartach son of Toirdhealbhach Mor, and de Clare supported the descendants of Brian Ruadh. The two Anglo-Norman families came into direct conflict with each other over this, and Sir William Liath de Burgh was imprisoned by de Clare in Bunratty Castle for a time.31
It is this long feud from 1277 onwards that is chronicled in the O’Brien saga, Caithreim Thoirdhealbhaigh, “The Battle-career of Toirdhealbhach.” This Caithreim is often referred to as a narrative about the Gaelic resurgence against domination, but in fact most of the battles it celebrates were fought among the Irish themselves, with savage cruelty, on its own evidence. For example, it gives this description of an attack by the MacNamaras on the O’Gradys:
“Now therefore they stormed the Dunalachs’ strong boolies, and on that clan did grievous killing that played havoc with them: women and boys and (whole) families included; whereby that murderous far-secluded area became a mere heap of carnage thickly stacked. There in abundance they had young men lying on their faces, women in lamentation, kine that bellowed deafeningly; and by this red raid Clancullen effectually relieved Kineldunal of all care in respect to their cattle and young people.”32
Besides the saga itself, we have another witness to the conditions of those times in an Irish text of the fourteenth century listing contemporary miracles attributed to St. Senan of Scattery Island. This text complains of the great burden the land had to bear in feeding and lodging the mercenary soldiers hired by the O’Brien chiefs to fight their wars.33
Muircheartach O’Brien and Richard de Clare
The civil war in Thomond was still in full swing when Edward Bruce and his army of Scots landed at Larne 26 May 1315, and the reaction of the O’Brien leaders to this event was shaped by the pressures of their own local politics. The invitation to Bruce had come from the Ulster Irish, under Domhnall O’Neill, and O’Neill’s chief enemy was Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster and lord of Connacht, a man too powerful for Domhnall to tackle by himself without the help of the Scots. It is perhaps worth pointing out that not only did de Burgh exact heavy tribute and services from the King of Tir Eoghain, but he supported the O’Neills of Clann Aodha Buidhe as rival candidates for the kingship, just as de Clare supported Clann Bhriain Ruaidh against Muircheartach O’Brien.34 In the first year of their campaign O’Neill and Bruce were triumphantly successful. Together they overran the earldom of Ulster and defeated Richard de Burgh at the battle of Connor, where they captured his formidable cousin, Sir William Liath de Burgh, who had so often assisted Muircheartach O’Brien against de Clare. Subsequently other Irish chiefs who felt themselves oppressed by the de Burgh family seized the opportunity to rebel, and the annals say that in 1315 “Richard Burke, Earl of Ulster, was a wanderer up and down Ireland all this year, with no power or lordship.”35 The following year in Connacht Feidhlim O’Conor took up arms to prevent the return of Sir William Liath de Burgh, and from Munster Donnchadh, the grandson of Brian Ruadh O’Brien, went northwards to meet Edward Bruce, inviting him to bring the Scots army to Thomond to assist their cause there.
Because of his long reliance on the support of the de Burgh family, and his deadly feud with the descendants of Brian Ruadh, Muircheartach O’Brien could not afford to see either the Connacht or the Munster rebellion succeed, and this must explain his subsequent actions, which deprive him of all title to be considered as a nationalist leader. In 1316 he allied with Sir William Liath and the other Anglo-Irish to defeat Feidhlim O’Conor at the battle of Athenry,36 thus helping to reduce the Irish of Connacht once more under the rule of the de Burghs, this time permanently, as history was to prove. Then in March 1317 he joined the Butlers, the de Burghs and even Richard de Clare in an army which mustered at Cashel to block Robert and Edward Bruce on their march south, and to prevent them from linking up with the forces of the descendants of Brian Ruadh O’Brien. When the frustrated Scots had once more retreated to Ulster, Muircheartach O’Brien, with the support of Edmund Butler, attended the parliament summoned by the new King’s Lieutenant, Roger Mortimer. O’Brien suspected that Richard de Clare was about to petition for a royal pardon for the Clann Bhriain Ruaidh, and he was anxious to forestall this by a counter-charge of treason against de Clare himself, for his involvement with these Irish supporters of Bruce. This was only one of a number of similar accusations of treason or collaboration by leading Anglo-Irish magnates which were laid before Mortimer and his council at this time,37 but Muircheartach is the only Irish chief recorded as giving evidence. The Caithreim claims that he was well-qualified for his task, being able to debate with the foreigners fluently in several languages, and having a tall, commanding presence. In point of fact, his mission to Dublin failed, but his charge of treason against de Clare was an intelligent attempt to win by legal means the independence he eventually achieved on the battle-field at Dysert O’Dea. If de Clare had been attainted, and his lands forfeited to the Crown, the status of the O’Briens would have reverted to the pre-1277 position.
While the King of Thomond was thus absent in Dublin, his younger brother Diarmait O’Brien gathered their followers together and effectively ended the long feud by a massacre of Clann Bhriain Ruaidh at the battle of Corcumroe Abbey. The only leader of note to escape was Brian Ban O’Brien, and it was to be some years before he was in a position to cause further trouble. Muircheartach returned to find his position as ruler no longer challenged. Only his relations with the overlord, Richard de Clare, remained to be settled. The movement which asked all Irish chieftains to sink their differences and unite behind Edward Bruce had demanded too high a price from Muircheartach O’Brien, since it meant he must acknowledge O’Neill as true heir to the kingship of Ireland, with the right to hand on that kingship to Bruce, and more seriously, the success of Bruce and his allies would have meant that Muircheartach must yield the land of Thomond to his rival kinsmen, and perhaps lose his life, when they got the upper hand. National unity, then, had few attractions for him. However, in the cause of local independence from the control of foreign overlords, Muircheartach O’Brien seems to have been as ready to fight as his ancestor Brian Boroimhe. The bone of contention was the tanaiste, Mathghamhain “macDomhnaill Chonnachtaigh” O’Brien,38 who held a large part of the territory of Thomond directly from de Clare, without reference to Muircheartach, and who was known to favour the descendants of Brian Ruadh. Muircheartach and his followers forcibly expelled this man early in 1318, and de Clare was determined not to tolerate this move, no doubt seeing the presence of Mathghamhain O’Brien as the last check left on the absolute authority of King Muircheartach. The Caithreim Thoirdhealbhaigh gives a very interesting account of the negotiations which followed, during which Muircheartach appealed to the Butlers and de Burghs to put pressure on Richard de Clare; but when peaceful means failed, the Irish gradually determined to reject de Clare’s authority outright. The significance of their revolt is suggested by the fact that de Clare was able to win the co-operation of the de Burghs in this last struggle against O’Brien. The issue at stake was no longer a family feud, but the maintenance of Norman lordship in Thomond against the Gaelic resurgence.
De Clare’s method of waging war was not to seek pitched battles, but to harry the country, burning and destroying the territory of O’Brien’s followers to force their submission. It was a traditional technique of Irish warfare,39 though also practised by the Scots under Edward Bruce, and notoriously in the devastating chevauchees of the Black Prince in France during the Hundred Years War. Interestingly, it was the Irishman, Muircheartach O’Brien, who tried initially to bring about a direct confrontation between the two armies, by luring Richard de Clare to follow a small raiding-party into an ambush where Muircheartach had placed the bulk of his men in hiding. However de Clare was too wary to fall into this trap, and O’Brien in turn fell back on the policy of harrying and plundering his opponents.
Thus it was that O’Brien and the main host of Thomond were in the Slieve Aughty mountains, driving away the cattle of the exiled tanaiste, Mathghamhain O’Brien, when news was brought to the king, from spies of his own placed in de Clare’s army, that Richard de Clare was advancing in strength against Conchobhar O’Dea, one of Muircheartach’s most faithful vassal-chiefs. O’Dea himself, caught without the protection of O’Brien’s army, was seriously alarmed and sent a messenger to the Anglo-Normans, offering to submit and pay tribute, but de Clare refused to make any terms with one whose past record proved him an inveterate rebel. Then O’Dea gathered his cattle and people together and decided to make a desperate last stand in their defence. He had already sent appeals of reinforcements to his neighbours, Feidhlim O’Connor of Corcumroe and Lochlainn O’Hehir, and he calculated that together the three chiefs might gather enough soldiers to hold out against de Clare’s army at least until they were granted more favourable peace terms. The immediate problem, therefore, was how to delay the Norman attack until these reinforcements should have arrived. His plan was to keep his main forces out of sight near the ford of a river which flowed between Dysert O’Dea and the Norman camp at Ruan, to the east. This river was presumably Ballycullinan stream, once deeper and broader than at present. A small troop of men were to remain out in the open, to block the ford and prevent the Norman host from crossing until the other two chiefs had arrived with their armies, and the Irish side were strong enough to face a pitched battle.
These plans and negotiations, it seems, occupied the evening of 9th May 1318, when the Norman army was pitching camp. When the attack came on the morning of the 10th, nothing seemed to work out quite as anticipated. Instead of marching straight on Dysert, Richard de Clare, in a very Irish manner, divided his men into three smaller raiding-parties and sent them in different directions to plunder the territory. He apparently considered his force so overwhelming that even a third part could deal with O’Dea’s soldiers whereever they met them. The baron himself was in charge of the section that saw O’Dea’s advance-guard ostensibly in the act of herding the last of the cattle to safety in the direction of the “fighting-ford.” The Normans pursued this small group of Irishmen so fast, they caught up with them before the ford was reached, and killed many. This in itself was enough to endanger O’Dea’s original plan, but at the same time the Irish realised their opportunity, because they saw that Richard de Clare was present in person, accompanied by only a third of his total army. Instead of holding the ford, O’Dea’s men deliberately retreated back over it, followed by de Clare. Then their main force rose up from the place of ambush and charged into the fray, one part going to kill the baron and the group who had crossed the river with him, and the others to block the ford and prevent the rest of de Clare’s army coming to the rescue.
De Clare himself was killed right at the outset, and to that extent the unexpected change in the original plan of campaign had been very successful. But it meant that O’Dea had brought all his men out into open conflict with the enemy before their numbers had been strengthened by the troops of the other two chieftains. Not only did the soldiers in de Clare’s section succeed in forcing a passage over the ford, but they were being continuously reinforced by detachments from the other two-thirds of the Norman army, who hearing what was going on, abandoned the cattle they had been plundering and marched towards the battlefield. Outnumbered the O’Dea’s were forced to take refuge in a wood nearby, where they were surrounded by de Clare’s men and remained trapped until Feidhlim O’Connor’s troops arrived to their rescue. O’Connor hacked a passage through the Norman forces and brought the O’Dea’s out to join him in a tight phalanx in the open, hemmed in and still outnumbered by de Clare’s followers. Professor Hayes-McCoy has suggested that such a defensive stand as the Irish made must have taken place on rising ground, a little ridge or hill, and he pin-pointed a rise of this kind overlooking the southern shores of Ballycullinan Lough, on a small side-road leading westwards to the church site at Dysert O’Dea.40 The Anglo-Normans’ advantage in numbers made it look for awhile as if they would turn defeat into victory, and even the arrival of O’Hehir and his troops was not enough to turn the tide in favour of the Irish. It was only the totally unexpected appearance of Muircheartach O’Brien and the main army of Thomond that saved the day. He had been advancing towards the area on the basis of information as to de Clare’s movements, but it was not until he and his men had crossed the river Fergus, from the direction of Spancilhill, that they realised a battle was already in progress, when they saw the burning houses, and met fugitives from the fight. Then according to the Caithreim, they dropped all superfluous equipment and hurried on to the battle, some even abandoning horses and armour, it is claimed, in the belief that they would get there faster on foot. Since O’Dea and O’Connor had sent no direct message for help to O’Brien, they thought at first that the new arrivals were coming to reinforce the Anglo-Normans, a fear that was quickly changed to relief as they realised that victory was now certain.41
The saga tells us that after the battle the Irish followed their enemies to Bunratty, to find the castle already in flames by order of de Clare’s wife, as she and her household hurriedly abandoned the site, never to return, but in fact the records of the Anglo-Irish exchequer mention five knights, twelve horsemen and 78 foot soldiers, who garrisoned Bunratty Castle for 38 days after de Clare’s death.42 It was not until 1332 that the castle was captured and destroyed by the Irish of Thomond themselves.43 This inaccuracy in the Caithreim’s version demonstrates that the saga cannot be fully relied upon in every detail, yet for a blow-by-blow account of the battle of Dysert O’Dea, the saga itself is our only source. All that can be gleaned from other annals is that a battle took place, in which Richard de Clare was killed.44 From internal evidence the Caithreim seems to have been originally composed in compliment, not to Muircheartach O’Brien, but to his younger brother Diarmait, who reigned (with interruptions) c. 1343-64.45 At best then, the saga was compiled a generation after the battle, not by one of the participants, but by a member of the learned classes, and we cannot expect it to have greater accuracy than a modern journalist’s description of a battle in the Second World War, based on an interview with a retired general. One of the more doubtful points in the narrative is the statement that after the death of Richard de Clare, the fight was continued under the leadership of de Clare’s son, until he too was killed. Thomas, the only recorded son of Richard de Clare, was a child at the time of the battle. He inherited his father’s lands and his claims to Thomond but died three years later in 1321, leaving only two aunts to divide his inheritance, actual and theoretical, between them.46 It was this extinction of de Clare’s family, quite as much as the actual victory at Dysert O’Dea, which secured O’Brien against a return of the Normans.
Professor Hayes-McCoy has drawn attention to the battle as evidence of how far the Irish had progressed in military effectiveness since the first invasion of the Normans. There are several passages in the Caithreim which describe the chieftains arming themselves for battle,47 and these show that the nobleman, who fought on horseback, now wore armour consisting of a padded cloth cotun or “aketon” reaching from the neck to the knees, which served as an underlay for a coat of chain mail (luireach) and a coilear, a “pisane” or collar of mail giving double protection to the throat and chest, while the head was guarded with a helmet. Weapons included a sword, a throwing-dart and a long spear. The ordinary foot-soldiers, however, probably fought without armour or helmet, using a sword, throwing-darts, or a short-handled axe. Scottish gallowglass were already in service with the Irish chiefs of Ulster and Connacht, but had not yet penetrated as far as Munster. Their place as heavy-armoured foot-soldiers may have been taken by the Anglo-Norman mercenaries, the Comyns and Condons, hired by Muircheartach O’Brien for some of his campaigns.48 The saga itself makes no attempt to estimate the numbers involved on either side at Dysert O’Dea, and while we can look for comparative figures, published and unpublished,49 from the Irish exchequer accounts for the wages of soldiers in the fourteenth century serving under English commanders and Irish chiefs allied to them in various campaigns, the comparison is not complete. De Clare was not a royal justiciar but a baron involved in a private war, and his resources must have been limited. On the other hand, payments recorded in exchequer accounts for this or that campaign seem to ignore the unpaid musters of local inhabitants, who may have taken up arms for a day or two in defence of their homes, thus possibly making the numbers on the battle-field larger than official records reveal. A guess in these circumstances must expect to err, over-estimating or under-estimating by as much as fifty per cent, but at least we should avoid typical medieval exaggeration in terms of thousands and tens of thousands. With these reservations, de Clare’s army may have numbered between 600 and 800 men, O’Dea, O’Connor and O’Hehir may have mustered about 200 each, and Muircheartach O’Brien may have brought another 400 to the scene. The fact that it was the Irishmen who were prepared to stand for a pitched battle, and de Clare who avoided mass confrontation and concentrated on harrying and plundering, may indicate that the rank and file of Clare’s army were Irish kerns, wearing as little armour as their opponents. This impression that there was little difference in the appearance and equipment of the two armies is reinforced when the Caithreim tells us that O’Connor and O’Dea thought the approaching troops of Muircheartach O’Brien and the men of Thomond were part of the Anglo-Norman army.
On 14 October 1318, Edward Bruce himself was defeated and killed at the battle of Faughart, near Dundalk. With him died all hope of a united and independent Kingdom of Ireland. Having helped to frustrate Bruce’s plans and to quell the rising of the Connacht Irish at Athenry, Muircheartach O’Brien was the only chieftain to come out of the three-year period of the Bruce wars with victory and a greater degree of independence. His motives had been strictly local and selfish, but they were hardly more selfish than the motives which led Domhnall O’Neill to invite Bruce to Ireland in the first place, or those which prompted the Clann Bhriain Ruaidh to join the Scottish cause subsequently. As for the Battle of Dysert O’Dea itself, the detailed account given in the Caithreim only serves to demonstrate that the real hero of that day was not Muircheartach O’Brien, but Conchobhar O’Dea.