Ireland’s Wars: Knockdoe, The All-Ireland Battle

It is a “thing” in historical writing to often refer to noble individuals by the geographical part of their title, e.g., the Duke of Clarence is often just called “Clarence” (even though his name was George). I tend to switch back and forth between titles and actual names just to vary the text, but if this actually causes any confusion, let me know.

Gerald, the Eighth Earl of Kildare, remained the most powerful man in Ireland in the aftermath of the Simnel incident. He and Henry would never have the most positive relationship during their time on this earth, but they would never come to open blows, not really. English reform and attempts to introduce more direct control on the Pale would create friction, as would favour being shown to the other great Anglo-Irish families, especially the Ormond’s. On one memorable occasion, a dispute with the King led to Kildare withdrawing his protection from inhabitants of Meath and east-Kildare, who refused to back him, and who subsequently saw their lands raided and pillaged by the native Irish.

But Kildare was reconciled with the King, in a fashion, after agreeing to attend a summons in London, that was basically a trial of the Earl on charges of treason. The results of this event saw Kildare retained in his position in Ireland, but with more of an understanding that Henry VII was the man in charge. Kildare walked a fine line on occasion, and he could easily have lost his head if Henry was feeling less generous. But the arrangement, as previously stated, suited both men. Henry recognised the power that Gerald had in Ireland, not solely as a potential rival but as someone who could ensure stability, and Gerald, who never seems to have pursued his Yorkists feelings again to a great degree (not even during the attempted usurpations of Perkin Warbeck, another false pretender), seems to have been happy to defer to Henry’s authority on occasion in return for the entrenchment of his own, powerful position as Lord Deputy.

This all took place during Henry’s attempt to improve the position of the Pale and to solidify English control in Ireland. More troops were sent to the Pale, more money was funnelled in. New laws were introduced, that radically curtailed the autonomy of the Irish Parliament, unwilling to allow it the leeway that had basically made the Pale independent from the crown at times during the Wars of the Roses. The Tudor conquest of Ireland was yet to come, but its origins as a strategy can be sourced to this part of history. Perhaps Henry VII was planning, at some point, a widening of English power and control in Ireland, was laying the groundwork, but this never came to pass. It would be left to his children and grandchildren to fulfil that design.

Regardless of all that, the fortunes of the Pale were finally on the upswing after so many decades of decline. Gerald oversaw much of that, though he often interfered with, rather than aided the process. He was frequently busy campaigning against enemies outside his lands, throughout Ireland, and the sources note him as a man who preferred to capture forts and castles rather than simply raid. He was not like Art MacMurragh, in that he is not noted almost singularly as a warlord, but he was no craven when it came to military matters. He would try diplomacy, and would ride to war if it failed.

Gerald’s “rule” in Ireland, for that was what it was, essentially, is marked by a very important innovation. In 1487, Irish sources record the first death as a result of gunpowder, a member of the O’Rourke clan of Breifne (Cavan, Leitrim and parts of Sligo) shot dead “by a ball from a gun” at the hand of an O’Donnell of Tyrconnell (modern Donegal). This was probably an arquebus or some other primitive firearm, one that had a rather long reloading time, made up for by its power and distance. Firearms were introduced to Europe decades before and were becoming more and more popular among armies throughout the continent ( Schwartz’ men, in the last entry, probably included gunners). Cannon too, were now a standard part of military affairs, and it was Gerald, in 1488, who introduced artillery to Ireland, using it to capture a castle at Balrath, Westmeath. These would have been slow, ponderous pieces of military technology, which took hours to reload, were used almost exclusively in sieges, and could be just as dangerous to their users as they were to the enemy. But in a country like Ireland, such an advantage, for the psychological effect alone, would have been huge, and must have added significantly to the power (and perception of power) that Gerald had.

All throughout Ireland, military life continued. It may seem like I focus a lot on the Anglo-Irish, the Pale and English activities in Ireland (and vice versa) at the expense of the native Irish, but all this time the endless internecine wars of the natives did not stop, proceeding in much the same way as they always had – many raids, small battles when they happened, rare sieges. In Ulster, the O’Neill’s and O’Donnell’s clashed with each other and with Breifne. In Leinster, the Anglo-Irish fought the native Irish clans in Wicklow and Wexford, who fought each other as well. In Munster, the Desmond Earldom fought with the O’Brien’s of Thomond, who fought internally whenever a vacancy at the head of the family came up, occasionally pausing to also clash with the McCarthy’s of Kerry. And in Connaught, well, events were taking place that would soon draw in nearly all the major families in Ireland.

Connaught was largely divided between the two main Burke clans, which had split so spectacularly in 1333. The Mac William Burkes, located largely in modern day Mayo, fought with their kinsman, the Clanricardes, located largely in south Galway. The Irish Kingdom of Ui Maine (North and East Galway)  headed by the O’Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) clan was also involved in warfare there, not to mention the English cities of Galway and Athenry, who had fought for their independence from native Irish control on many occasions. The old O’Connor clan, that had once ruled much of Connaught, had been reduced to a tiny power by this time, largely as a consequence of Burke expansion.

It was the Clanricarde’s (both a family title and the name of a territory) who brought the attention of the crown down upon Connaught. Led by Ulick Fionn Burke at the time, they had gone on a series of aggressive military expeditions during the late 1400’s, against the Mac Williams, Ui Maine, the O’Connor’s and the O’Donnell’s. Ulick apparently made great use of gallowglass infantry and was successful in many battles, raids and sieges, capturing numerous castles and forts. It appears from the sources that no one was really able to withstand his advances, and within a few years Ulick was the pre-eminent chief of the province.

Gerald, worried about potential attacks on Galway or Athenry, and keen to promote stability, tried what he had done with nearly every other great Irish family – he made Ulick a relative. The Earl had already marched forces into Connaught once, in 1499, to try and bring some closure to the feuding there, but this had been unsuccessful. Seeking greater control, Gerald convinced Ulick to marry his daughter (or his sister depending on the sources), tying him to the Clanricarde Burkes as he was with the O’Neill’s and other Irish clans.

This does not seem to have worked as successfully as it did for Gerald before (especially with the O’Neill’s of Ulster). Peace settled for a short time, but before too long Ulick was on the march again. Perhaps he thought his marriage ties with Kildare would lead to a blind eye being cast. In 1503 matters finally came to head after a vicious campaign where Ulick defeated and then seized three castles from the O’Kelly clan of Ui Maine, who seem to have been among his most prominent enemies at this point. This campaign seems to have smashed the O’Kelly’s totally, bringing Ui Maine close to ruin.

The O’Kelly’s were left to plea with Gerald for assistance. Further, there is a suggestion that Ulick was having an openly adulterous affair with the wife of Tadhg, King of Ui Maine. While this may just be historical propaganda meant to discredit Ulick, if true it was an insult both to the O’Kelly’s and Gerald, whose sister was being dishonoured by such an activity. All of this paints Ulick as some sort of medieval James Bond, smashing his enemies and bedding their wives in the process and deflects from the issues of real geo-political importance. But for a man like the Earl of Kildare, so used to fruitful relations being borne of marriage alliances, such behaviour must have seemed like a ghastly affront. While Gerald was presumably experienced enough not to let it cloud his judgement, it might be part of the reason the reaction was so strong: Ulick was embarrassing and insulting the Fitzgerald’s very publically if he was openly “involved” with the Queen of Ui Maine. As stated previously, perception of power was very important, and Ulick committing adultery on his Fitzgerald wife was a slight that could not go unanswered.

Even with that, things might have been smoothed over, but for two further acts. The first was the seizure of Galway and Athenry, the two English cities, that same year, which set Ulick on an inevitable path of confrontation with his father-in-law. The second was an alliance with the O’Brien’s of Thomond, a coming together of the two great Irish families of Connaught and Munster. Such acts made Ulick too powerful to ignore, and made him public enemy number one for many. Gerald and many native Irish Kings were not going to tolerate a man whose ambitions did not seem to be quenchable.

For Kildare, the entire affair was also an opportunity to cement his better relationship with Henry VII. The King gave the Earl full permission to deal with Ulick harshly, and the Earl was probably eager to prove his loyalty to the King, as well as simply maintain his own power base in Ireland.

The second Ulick took Galway and Athenry, he must have known that a fight with Gerald and his allies was inevitable, hence the alliance with Thomond. Now both sides gathered those close to them and their forces, building two distinct coalitions.

On Kildare’s side came the O’Donnell’s of Tyrconnell, the O’Kelly’s of Ui Maine, the O’Connor clans of Connaught, the Mac William Burkes of Mayo, the MacDermots of Moylurg, the O’Farrels of Annaly, the Magennis, Macmahon and O’Hanlon’s of Ulster, the O’Reilly’s of Breifne and at least some part of the O’Neill clan (though not led by its chieftain).

The force he assembled also contained numerous English lords and a contingent from the Pale, but it did not contain any Desmond’s, kin of Kildare, at least not according to the sources. Why this is, is not stated. Perhaps they were too busy fighting Thomond to offer any meaningful assistance. Of less complexity to work out is the absence of Ormond Butlers, who seem to have taken no part in the coming battle at all.

On Ulick’s side came the forces of Thomond and Aran, the MacNamara’s of Clare, the O’Kennedy’s of Ormond (an Irish family who lived in the land, but were not affiliated with the Anglo-Irish Earldom) and the O’Carroll’s of Offaly, not to mention his own strength from his own, powerful clan.

With families, septs, clans and Kings from every province, the battle that would take place was truly an All-Ireland affair. In fact, so numerous were the native Irish in the respective contingents that some of the Irish sources ridicule the idea of it being a fight between those loyal to the crown and those who were not – they claim it was simply a fight between Irishmen, which happened to involve the leading Anglo-Irish noble of the time.

Kildare marched his force into the lands of Clanricarde and Ulick went out to face him. Kildare may have around 6’000 men in the field, Ulick around 4’000, huge numbers for a battle between mostly Irish forces. A few miles north of the castle of Claregalway, north of modern day Galway City, on a hill called variously Knoc-tuagh,Knocktow or Knockdoe, dubbed “the hill of axes” by one source, they fought their battle. It was the 19th August 1504.

What sources that survive indicate that gallowglass infantry, employed by most of the different clans that were combatants, made up a large part of the fighting. The battle is described as, essentially, a slogging match between the different groups of gallowglass, with Kildare adding longbowmen to the mix. It’s quite possible too that primitive firearms were employed by both sides for a shock and awe effect, fired at the advancing enemy and then wielded like a club. Though Kildare brought a contingent of cavalry, placed on his right flank, they did not appear to have been used in the battle. In fact, many sources are quick to note of the lack of involvement from the Pale English, who were held back, adding to the idea that Knockdoe was an “Irish” battle. A claim is even made that no English were killed in the fighting that took place, though this is likely an exaggeration.

The battle was, by most accounts, a slaughter, impressive in its bloodshed for the day, the field strewn with bodies in the aftermath. Ulick’s gallowglass and other infantry, outnumbered, were pressed back and eventually broke. They fled to the banks of the River Clare where they attempted to regroup, but were cut down by Kildare’s pursuers. Some sources quote that 2’000 men, half of Ulick’s total force, died that day, while Kildare lost over a thousand himself. One source reports that out of the nine “battles” (the standard gallowglass unit) that Ulick put forward, only one remained somewhat intact by the close of fighting. Whatever else remained of the Clanricarde coalition, scattered.

Ulick escaped capture or death, but his army had been utterly mauled, his allies depleted and broken, his power irrevocably shattered. Kildare was wisely advised not to pursue Ulick and his remnant immediately, so exhausted and bloodied was his own army. After reorganising and resting, Kildare set out to Galway and Athenry, the Burke defenders of which appear to have surrendered without a fight. Kildare had won a great victory. Ulick lived, and the sources little note him until his death five years later. It is likely that he never had the opportunity to continue his relationship with the Queen of Ui Maine. Kildare, and O’Kelly, could claim to have avenged that particular insult to their families.

There are many different ways to look at Knockdoe. At its most basic, it was a victory for Kildare and the loose coalition he had managed to muster, a union borne out of skilful use of diplomacy and marriages. Connaught’s balance of power swung again and another great uniting threat to the English was gone. It is worth contemplating that if the result had been reversed, Ulick may well have grown into a MacMurragh-type figure, with plenty of momentum on his side to continue a campaign against the English and their allies. Munster too suffered heavy losses, as did native Irish families in Leinster. With Ulster largely on his side, Kildare had managed to either seriously harm or neutralise the threat of the native Irish for a time.

And he did that without the serious risk of English life. I often note how the constant feuding and warfare between the Irish was the main obstacle to defeating the English in Ireland, which could have been easily done at many points over the past few decades. Well, Knockdoe was a bloody extension of that, where what could be described simply as a feud between a father and son-in-law resulted in a masse expenditure of native Irish military strength. In the aftermath of Knockdoe, few of the great Irish families had the strength to seriously threaten the interests of positions of the Anglo-Irish or the Pale.

That many sources see Knockdoe as just another battle between the South and North of Ireland, that we see in Irish history as far back as its mythical beginnings, is missing the point: this was a fight that came about because of the direct influence of one man, the Earl of Kildare, who not only managed to defeat a potentially dangerous rival, defend his own and the crown’s interest, but severely weakened many of the native Irish who could have wanted to oppose him in the future.

As the Viscount Gormanstown, one of Kildare’s English allies in the fight, allegedly said, “We have slaughtered our enemies, but to complete the good deed we must do the like with all the Irish of our own party”. Was this just a jest, or the brutal reality of 16th century Ireland, where the tangled web of alliances with the native Irish that Gerald had created were just a delay? The English, starting in the reign of Henry VII, started to pull themselves together in regards to Ireland, and Knockdoe was a triumph that recalled the glory days of the initial Norman Conquest, it being fought not so far from the field where so many Irish had died in 1316. That the victory was achieved largely without loss of English blood was just another positive. There would be more days like Knockdoe to come.

The Tudors were not content to be bystanders to Irish affairs. But the Irish, and the Anglo-Irish, were still no pushovers, as the next great English Lord to visit these shores would find out.

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