We’re going to skip back a short while to discuss another clash between native Irish forces and the Anglo-Normans in the time of Bruce campaign. A small scale battle that took place in the middle of County Clare in 1318, shortly before the final defeat of Edward Bruce, went a long way towards determining the spread of English influence and domination in the region.
Thomand was a unique enough political body, having been far more successful in resisting the spread of Anglo-Norman colonists then other Irish Kingdoms. The successors of Brian Boru were still famed warriors and sailors, and successfully blunted the English advance into Munster enough that they retained their autonomy. In fact, the chronicles often seem less concerned with Thomand clashes with the Anglo-Normans they they do with the Munster Kingdom fighting its Irish neighbours, the constant cycle of raid and counter-raid continuing. The Anglo-Normans had taken the city of Limerick of course, which remained a point within the borders of Thomand free of its control, even if the city acted semi-autonomously from Norman control as well, as it would for much of the following centuries. Distance was the key, from the stronger Norman positions. Limerick was safe enough due to its impressive walls and imposing castle, built upon the instruction of King John, a castle that still stands today. The lands immediately around Limerick were also under Norman control, which included another castle at Bunratty, to the north.
The Anglo-Normans had clashed on and off with Thomand for much of their time in Ireland, with periods of uneasy truce and “live-and-let-live” sentiment in-between. The English lacked the military strength and manpower to topple Thomand, while Thomand was unwilling to risk too much in an open confrontations with “the foreigners”. Anglo-Norman attempts to unsettle Thomand usually came in the form of supporting one claimant to the throne over another, in one of Thomand’s constant internal conflict.
Thomand’s borders stretched all around its core of east-Limerick/West Tipperary, into Cork to the couth and Clare to the north. But the O’Brien clan that ruled Thomand too often found itself split between rival factions, each trying to claim the throne for itself. The Irish method for selecting heirs, based usually on clashes arising from a sovereign’s death, was easily countered by the more stable Norman method of primogeniture (first born males’ inheriting). More than anything else, such clashes enabled the Anglo-Normans to seed themselves in Limerick and around.
The most prominent Norman in the area in the time being discussed was Richard de Clare, who could claim ancestry with Strongbow. Richard’s father Thomas had been the first to really expand Norman power in the area, and Richard had aspirations of doing the same. He did so by backing one faction of the O’Brien family split above another, hoping to either put a friendly face on the Thomand throne, or weaken the Kingdom enough that it would be vulnerable.
The split in Thomand was between two men: Donough O’Brien and Murtough O’ Brien (in the sources, you will find numerous repetitions of the same name, not to mention similar soundings ones such as the one time faction of “Brian O’Brien”, so I will attempt to make this account and analysis as simple as possible. If that means leaving some aspects and people relating to background out, so be it).
De Clare had backed the faction under Donough, but after some initial success, Murtough had been able to press the advantage, defeating his rivals in a decisive battle in the Burren, North Clare. Murtough provoked a response from De Clare, raiding his cattle stocks, and the Anglo-Norman Lord soon assembled what force he could and set off to the north.
De Clare and his men were from the frontier of Norman expansion, so they must have been tough and experienced, with good knowledge of the local terrain and political situation. Footmen, spearmen, some archers and light cavalry would have been the make-up of his force, backed up by Irish troops from the Donough faction, which had not yet given up the struggle against Murtough.
De Clare headed past Ennis, entering the country of the O’Dea’s, one of the lesser Thomand families, led by Conor O’Dea (at this point, I will acknowledge my switching from the use of Irish names to the anglicised form. This is done simply out of a desire for clarity and ease. I suppose I could call Conor O’Dea “Conchobhair O’Deaghaidh”, but I don’t consider it to matter too much at this point.)
They had their own army, and were supporters of Murtough. De Clare was confident of victory, to the point that he split his forces into three groups, the left and right spreading out to pillage and raze, with the added benefit of guarding the flanks of the main force in the centre, where de Clare and his son were located. Richard knew that O’Dea was a threat and headed towards the families stronghold at Dysert O’Dea, from which the coming battle would take its name.
As they approached, they came upon a small group of the O’Dea force herding cattle across a stream: fighting soon broke out with the Irish engaging in a “ficht fleand”, a fighting retreat, utilising missile weapons such as bows and slings, withdrawing all the time. De Clare pursued.
But he was walking into a trap. Conor O’Dea was no fool, and knew that in open battle he would stand little chance against the Normans. His own force was small, but he had reinforcements coming, from other clans and Murtough’s main force. To that end, he was happy to send a small part of his army to goad de Clare and draw his army towards a wood where his main force was waiting.
De Clare fell for the ambush, or perhaps he saw what was coming and was confident of breaking it. He pursued the smaller part of O’Dea’s army to the wood, where his column of Norman troops were immediately assailed by greater numbers to the front and rear.
The Anglo-Normans actually held their own remarkably well, according to the accounts, being better disciplined, more used to fighting in packed ranks. It was likely not the first ambush that those troops had endured. But they had already suffered disaster: In the early parts of this expanded skirmish, Richard de Clare was struck down and killed, fighting at the head of the column. His killer may have been Conor himself, the frontiers of Ireland no place for “leading from the rear”.
Despite this, the Anglo-Normans were closer to victory then their opposition. They had the discipline to continue fighting. Both sides were reinforced as the battle continued in and around the wood, as the other Norman columns joined up with the centre and other Irish clans arrived to assist O’Dea. The Irish were eventually reduced to a more compact formation that the Normans found difficult to break through, described as a “phalanx” of the O’Dea men, which held its ground: by this point the younger de Clare was also dead, cut down by a member of the O’Connor clan from Ennistymon.
The arrival Of Murough’s forces was the decisive moment. Though they appeared at the scene of the fight in piecemeal fashion, they soon had the Normans trapped between themselves and O’Dea’s army. The result was a slaughter and a collapse, as the Anglo-Normans and their allies broke and retreated as best they could back south. The casualties had been heavy, but especially so for the Normans.
Murtough was determined to press his advantage and pursued those fleeing Normans all the way to Bunratty. He found the castle and the surrounding lands burnt by de Clare’s widow, she and what was left of her people having gone across the Shannon to Limerick.
The battle had numerous effects. In the short term, Murtough’s kingship was secured and the Normans lands in Clare re-captured. In the medium term, Anglo-Norman pretensions in the area were dealt a large blow, their activities confined to Limerick City, which Thomand lacked the resources to attack. In the longer term, Thomand secured itself against the English threat, and would remain in existence as its own state for the next two centuries.
A lot had changed for the Irish, and the Battle of Dysert O’Dea exemplifies much of it. The very building the battle is named after, a tower house a few miles from Corofin, was an impressive stone structure that were not often created by the Irish up to that time. The dominance of the mounted knight, heavily armoured and charging at his enemies, was passing. In Ireland, the work of battle was done primarily by foot soldiers, supported by lighter cavalry, and here the Irish had improved greatly since the days of Strongbow. The years of the Anglo-Norman presence had introduced many innovations to Irish warfare, as more and more, native soldiers found themselves wearing Norman designed armour, carrying better weapons, organising into tighter, better drilled units. At Dysert, the O’Dea’s are recorded as wearing mail and helmets, which became almost standard after the Bruce campaign. Some of Murtough’s soldiers were mistaken for Norman reinforcements, so similar was their raiment to de Clare’s men. The growing use of Gallowglass, with the professionalism and fighting skill that they possessed, was also a factor.
Conor O’Dea utilised the best of Irish tactics – ruse, concealment, goading and ambush – and combined with a new found hardness, which allowed his forces to stand and fight against the Normans, even when the battle was going against them. Perhaps the Irish got lucky with the early death of Richard de Clare and the good timing of Murtough’s men, but O’Dea deserves great credit for his accomplishment.
Simply put, the Irish were pushing back. Athenry had seen the English gain a great victory over the Irish, but the tables were turned at Dysert O’Dea. While the numbers of dead were probably quite small, in a relative sense they were gigantic, gutting the Norman presence in the west of Ireland of many of its best soldiers.
But more than the practical benefits of the victory, it was just a victory. The English had been decisively beaten in the field by a native Irish force, a force that could easily have been beaten at any time during the day. The Anglo-Norman commander had been outmanoeuvred and killed, his force scattered, his people’s long term prospects damaged in the area. In the larger sense of what was happening in Ireland, the Normans may not have cared too much: after all, Thomand was not supporting Edward Bruce and what was happening in Clare may as well have been happening in the new world for all that it mattered to the key fight against the Scottish invaders.
Yet, it was one of the major military signs of what was to come. The Irish were no longer the poorly clad rabble that were so easily swept away at Druim-Dearg and Athenry. They were changing their tactics, their style of combat. They had met the enemy, fought against him, lost to him, and learned from him. It had taken a very long time, a great degree of intermixing and marriage, but the native Irish were beginning to face the “foreigners” on a more even keel.
That, aside many other factors, from money to disease, was why the Anglo-Norman presence in Ireland would soon take a nosedive in terms of control, far worse then was already the case. The English had survived the Scottish invasion. Now, they would have to survive a long retreat.
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