Edward Bruce was knocking the Anglo-Norman armies to pieces in the north in the mid 1310’s, but a battle in the west of the island may well have had the decisive impact on his aims to become the undisputed King of Ireland.
Felim O’ Conchobair had left the Anglo-Norman cause on Edward’s urging in 1315, in order to put down a rebellion by his kinsman Ruaidri, also operating on Edward’s suggestion. The Kingdom of Connaught, one of the great Irish Kingdoms still standing, was up for grabs.
The war wasn’t going too well for Fedlim as 1316 opened, with Ruaidri defeating the sitting King numerous times, generally putting himself in a prime position to become the new King of the province. Edward Bruce must have been watching with glee, confident that, while nominal allies of the English fought amongst themselves, he would be able to command the loyalty of whoever won the conflict.
Felim was desperate and turned back to the Anglo-Norman forces for help. In this, his hope was support from Rickard de Birmingham, the Lord of Athenry.
Grandson of the man who had founded the town in County Galway, Rickard was, perhaps, the most prominent Norman in the area, holding substantial estates in the north of Connaught as well as around Athenry. He also built Athenry’s walls in his reign as Lord, along with several watchtowers and extended Athenry castle (much of which still stands).
Rickard is also somewhat interesting in his parentage. His father, Peter, was undoubtedly Norman/English but the sources repeatedly refer to Rickard in Irish terms, as “Rickard Mac Fheorais”, that is, “Rickard, son of Peter”. It is possible that his mother was native Irish, thus making Rickard one of the most prominent of the Anglo-Irish of this time. The inter marriage of the Normans and Irish was not new (after all, Strongbow had married into Ireland), but it had yet to really become the dominant mark of the “foreign” presence in Ireland. The Annals, at least, considered Rickard to be half-Irish.
Rickard, whether he was just helping a man that the English hoped to still call an ally, hoped to preserve and strengthen his own position, or saw through the diplomatic game that Edward Bruce was playing, gave Felim the support that he craved, and a combined Anglo/Irish force met Ruaidri at the Battle of Mullach Fidicci, in north Galway, in January 1316. Ruaidri was defeated and killed, while Rickard was also wounded (how seriously is not known).
Whether it was a decision made afterward or was always part of his plans, Felim turned his back on his allies for the second time after this battle, and commenced raiding and burning English holdings and estates. His position in Connaught had been solidified by his crushing victory over Ruaidri, so maybe he was simply making a gambit for complete control of the province. Maybe it was even more than that, and Felim may well have had an eye on the High Kingship of Ireland itself. Perhaps also, Edward Bruce might have played a part in the decision that Felim made. Edward was certainly in the ascendant at that stage, and Felim may have wanted to be on the winning side.
The Annals simply list a succession of settlements, forts and castles that Felim burned in this time, along with prominent nobles that he killed. Numerous smaller Irish Kingdoms, such as Thomand, Ui-Maine, Breifne, and Midhe, flocked to his banner when he called, seeking a major engagement with which to cast out the English presence in Connaught. The sources suggest that Felim was a very brutal, but successful, rampage, and that he was looking like a very good bet for the rest of Ireland. The fact that royals from Thomand, the other big Irish Kingdom, went to join him is also very notable.
Rickard, perhaps still nursing his wounds, could do little in the initial stages of this betrayal. His English allies in the rest of the country were occupied with the fight against Edward Bruce (or Irish Kingdoms in Munster) and support from England was as unreliable as ever. Famine had also broken out in the country the previous year, as it had throughout Europe, which simply made things worse.
Crucial help did turn up though, in the form of William de Burgh, nephew of the first Earl of Ulster, former deputy justiciar of Ireland. This de Burgh, nicknamed “Liath” (grey), was a fairly prominent soldier of the time, having fought numerous campaigns under the second Earl of Ulster. He had been captured at Connor the previous year, but his release had been arranged by Richard de Burgh, the “Red Earl”.
William marched into Connaught having assembled an army from Anglo-Normans and Irish chieftains who remained loyal to alliances with the “foreigners”. Felim, alarmed, turned away from a planned despoiling of Roscommon and assembled his allies, creating an army of substantial size, perhaps as many as eight thousand or more.
They marched on Athenry and a battle was fought before its walls, dubbed the Second Battle of Athenry after an earlier clash between Normans and Irish fought there in 1249 when Athenry was little more than a military outpost. The varied forces of Felim contained men from five different Irish Kingdoms, and numerous other chieftains.
The resulting battle was a decisive victory for the Anglo-Irish side. The exact details of the fight are not recorded, other than the slaughter of Irish nobility that took place. Felim was killed, along with the Kings of Ui-Maine and Luigne. Further, a host of heirs and successors to Irish royal houses fell, not to mention a huge number of nobility. It cannot be emphasised enough: every account of the battle places special focus on the huge amount of Irish royal/noble blood that was spilled there that day.
The result was a total disaster for those Irish who hoped to resist English rule in Ireland, as their own Kingdoms were thrown into chaos and crises in the aftermath of Athenry, allowing the English to re-assert greater control over Connaught and beyond.
And it was worse for Edward Bruce. Aside from some things turning against him in his own theatre of operations, the result of Athenry essentially destroyed his hopes of becoming King of Ireland. The main Irish Kings who could possibly have supported him were wiped out, and those that remained, such as Thomand, were not exactly enthusiastic about his claim. His list of Irish allies, established or potential, was running thin.
On the English side, Athenry must have been an enormous victory, not just for its tangible results – the securing of the English position in Connaught and the weakening of the Irish generally – but for the morale boost it must have provided. Their traditional advantages over the Irish – better armour, better cavalry, better missile troops – surely all came to bear on what must have been a fractured, loose association of Irish troops. More then that, they still had leaders to look up to and bring them to victory, with Rickard soon to be mentioned by the Annals in glowing terms again. The tide, after a litany of defeats and setbacks in the previous year, was turning for the English in Ireland.
Like so many before him, Felim underestimated the Anglo-Normans, and placed too much faith in his own troops. Again and again, when it came to the crucial point, Irish soldiers, even re-enforced with gallowglass as Felim was, could not defeat the Anglo-Normans in open battle. His decision to seek an engagement, rather than continue his military campaigns around the province, was a foolhardy one that not only cost him his life, but the lives of many of his allies and their sons.
The continuation of that thread, the Bruce Wars in Ireland, is what I will discuss next.
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