Ireland’s Wars: The Sieges of Dun Beal Gallimhe

Time for a somewhat shorter entry then my last few, before I get on with the task of discussing the arrival, in force, of English soldiers on Irish soil.

The years following Brian Boru’s death saw his united realm – if it could truly be called so – fall back into its near ceaseless pattern of inter-Kingdom war and rivalry with the High Kingship reverting to being a ceremonial title in most respects. The changes in the outside world, especially the Norman conquest of England, went little noticed by most of the Irish Kingdoms who were more focused on the endless power plays between themselves, our own “game of thrones”.

In 1124, one person who was determined to put himself and his land in a better position was Toirdhealbhach (Turlough) Ua Conchobhair, the King of Connacht, and the High King to boot (with opposition). That title is a bit confusing to say the least. Generally speaking, a historical figure is considered High King of Ireland if he made a claim to the title and was then able to defend it in battle. Toirdhealbhach was certainly a man used to bloodshed, having seized his provincial crown from his older brother with the help of his blood relations in the still powerful Dal Cais to the south. His assumption of the Connacht throne had ended a long period of infighting and basic civil war, but he still had many external enemies to deal with throughout his long reign.

Perhaps inspired by the naval strength and success that Brian Boru had been able to achieve during his lifetime, the waterborne raid was becoming more and more common throughout Ireland in this time, as the various Kings and factions attacked each other up rivers or via the coastline. These raids, as noted by sources like The Annals of Inisfallen, were getting bigger and bigger as the 12th century dawned, and were being responsible for greater slaughters. The raids were made not just to attack rival naval strengths, but to carry off plunder, slaves and cattle from opposing lands.

Toirdhealbhach wanted to increase the hitting power of his navy, while maintaining and building his own defensive posture. To that end, he commissioned the building of a great fort at the mouth of what is known today as the River Corrib, which connects Lake Corrib to the sea. It was known then as the River Gaillimh, “stony river” and the fort took the name Dun Beal Gallimhe. And while there is evidence of some migratory Viking presence in the general area, it is this fort that is the origin of the modern day city of Galway.

The construction of the fort allowed a significant defensive obstacle to any raider or invader seeking to penetrate deep into the Kingdom through Lake Corrib, and provided a base from which the navies of Connacht could attack its neighbours. More than that, its positioning was also a serious deterrent to land based attack. Marshes and other treacherous ground covered the north and south, while the river itself protected the fort from the west.

The fort, built in 1124, was run by the Ui Flaithbheartaigh (O’ Flaherty’s), some of Toirdhealbhach’s vassals, who were based out of Maigh Seola, lands to the east of the lake. The very year it was built, Toirdhealbhach engaged in a series of large naval attacks of his neighbours, according to The Annals Of Ulster, a demonstration of his power in that area perhaps. He followed this up with a number of devastating attacks into Munster, to the extent that he was free to split the Kingdom into several pieces as he saw fit, justifying his claim on the High King title.

This dominance was not to last. To the south, Conchobhair (Conor) O’ Brian, ruler of the new Kingdom of Thomond (which included Clare, parts of eastern Tipperary and northern Limerick) became a serious threat to Connacht. He had, prior to his 1132 attack into Connacht, already made several aggressive moves into Leinster. In 1132 he led what is described as a normal raid into Connacht, carrying off a degree of plunder and cattle but this attack seems to have either become a full scale assault or was just a precursor to a more substantial invasion. That year, Conchobhair laid siege to and destroyed the Gallimhe fort.

How he achieved this is not recorded. Perhaps it was a sudden naval assault, an attack from the eastern side, or a combination of both. Either way, his troops were able to capture, loot, and then demolish the fort.

He was not done, and soon after this he defeated the armies of Connacht in battle, enacting “a slaughter” of them. Judging from those listed dead in the battle, Toirdhealbhach had called upon many of his vassals in a bid to defeat the invader, but failed. Conchobhair was able to plunder the area at his leisure.

It must have been a terrible defeat for Connacht, but the importance of the Dun was clear, as Toirdhealbhach had it rebuilt sometime afterwards.

Fast forward 17 years to 1149. Toirdhealbhach was still King in Connacht, but Thomond had a new ruler: Toirdhealbhach O Bríen, brother of Conchobhar (to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to him as “O’ Brien”).

While the natural rivalry between these two bordering nations continued, both of them had plenty else to occupy them. Toirdhealbhach clashed repeatedly with his northern neighbours while O’ Brien kept trying to extend his influence into Leinster like his ancestor Brian Boru, while also keeping some of his southern vassals under control. Both men had also to deal with internal unrest and rebellion. Such was the level of distractions, they had agreed in 1144 to recognise and respect their own spheres of influence.

This peace was not to last. The following year O’ Brien appears to have tried to march his army north in order to get at the Kingdom of Breifne (between Connacht and Ulster). Toirdhealbhach intercepted him in the Sliabh Bloom mountains and turned him back after a fight at Feara Ceall. O’ Brian had to return home, the affair a burning humiliation. Open warfare erupted between Thomond and Connacht. The same year O’ Brien led an army into the province, killing a number of Toirdhealbhach’s most import vassals around Gallimhe, including the head of the O’ Flaithbheartaigh family. If he made an attempt on the Dun at this point, it is not recorded.

Four years passed (a time of incessant warfare in Ireland if The Four Masters are to be believed) before Thomond made another substantial move north. Connacht, apparently, spent much of those four years fighting and raiding elsewhere.

O’ Brien launched a devastating pincer assault into his foes land. His forces carried out a devastating raid and plunder of Maigh Seola, carrying off a notable amount of cattle, while he also attacked Dun Beal Gallimhe. The sources indicate that this attack may have been both land and sea based, with a local O’ Brien vassal – Ua Lochlann, a lord of north Clare – possibly pressing from Galway Bay. Ua Lochlann is recorded as drowning during this fight, so his particular efforts may not have been successful. Regardless, O’ Brien was, like his brother before him, able to take the fort and destroy it for a second time in two decades.

Two years, the war came to a definitive end with the Battle of Moinmor, Tipperary, where a substantial portion of the Thomond army, along with their Vassals, was wiped out by Toirdhealbhach, giving him domination over the south. The scale of this victory, a complete smashing of Dalcassian power by all accounts, may indicate that while Thomond was able to repeatedly penetrate Connacht at times, they could not stand up to their massed military might. Toirdhealbhach had many enemies and many fronts, but when his forces were combined and directed at a single target, he could be near unstoppable. Dun Bean Gallimhe was again rebuilt, and a small settlement of people would eventually spring up around it, turning this military fortification into a town of its own right.

There were plenty of wars in Ireland at the time, and I have chosen to talk about this little sequence of clashes out of sheer personal interest if nothing else. Some might wonder why Dun Bean Gallimhe was so important, seeing as how it was destroyed twice within 25 years of it’s founding. But, it is probably its very existence that prompted such attacks. Thomond could not ignore the fort in any of their attacks northwards, and what is not recorded is any failed attempts to take it, which may have been many. In this way, the importance, and threat, of the Dun is clear.

How sieges were conducted in these times is not well known. They would likely not have been drawn out affairs, and would have been characterised by assaults on the walls and burning fire then waiting for the garrison to starve. Such sieges, if they can even really be classified as such, were done in order to destroy the target, not capture it. Assaults from the seaward side could also have been a factor, as the naval raid continued to be a useful tool.

The Irish Kingdoms continued their endless series of feuds and wars amongst themselves as the annals make clear. But it would not be a long stretch of years before new “foreigners” for such sources to vilify and despise arrived on the island: the Normans.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Sieges of Dun Beal Gallimhe

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The War In Galway | Never Felt Better

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