Ireland’s Wars: A Bloody Night At Knockavoe

I mentioned in the last piece that the early years of the 16th century saw a destructive feud between the two most powerful families of Ulster dominate that part of the country. Today, I’ll talk about one of the more notable clashes of that feud that took place in the summer of 1522.

Ever since the Anglo-Normans had been forced to cede the territory of north-western Ulster after the De Burgh collapse, the area had been dominated by two native Irish Kingdoms. The O’Donnell’s were the ruling clan in Tyrconnell, an area roughly proportionate to modern Donegal taking in large parts of northern Connaught on occasion. To the east of them were their neighbours the O’Neill’s, the chief clan of the Kingdom of Tir Eoghain, taking in most of modern day Tyrone.

As neighbours within the fractured island of Ireland they were bound to be enemies frequently. Numerous castles and fortresses along the border between the two, cattle, land, and sea ports were up for grabs, not to mention the desire by both to be the only native Irish power worth considering in Ulster. Of all the native Irish, perhaps only the O’Brien’s of Thomond could claim to be on the same level as the O’Donnell’s and O’Neill’s in terms of military and political power.

There was also alliances and prestige with the Earldom of Kildare to be fought for, which was allied to both Kingdoms at the time, through marriage and common cause in war, more so to the O’Neill’s. Both native Irish Kingdoms had contingents of varying size at Knockdoe at Gerald Fitzgerald’s side and both had adopted aggressive, if not tangibly hostile, stances against the Earl of Surrey during his time in Ireland, possibly at the urging of the Earl of Kildare.

All of these provided reasons for combat, with the period of the early 16th century seeing the Annals and other chronicles repeatedly note the fighting that was taking place there, indicating that it was not just merely the usual cattle raids and small scale clashes. Though the terrain of the region – rocky and mountainous between the two kingdoms – would have made large scale fighting next to impossible, it is likely that the wars between the O’Donnell’s and the O’Neill’s were not just guerrilla in nature and comprised armed forces of a larger size than normal.

The leader of Tir Eoghain was Conn O’Neill, who would have been around 40, though he had only been chief of his clan since 1519. Having secured the leadership of the Kingdom (never a guaranteed thing for the son of the previous ruler when it came to Irish Kingdoms) he was perhaps eager to expand his holdings and cement his rule with military victories.

His opposite number was Manus O’Donnell, whose age isunrecorded, but was probably somewhere in his 20s. He had taken over the leadership of Tyrconnell when his father went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and had been capable enough to keep it when he returned. That being said, he had actually needed a temporary alliance and support from the O’Neill’s in order to secure his place, which does not indicate a man who was as sure in his position as Conn.

If the O’Neill’s had previously supported Manus, it was presumably just to further their own interests, probably because they viewed him as a weaker choice to be head of the O’Donnell’s. That must have been the line of thinking for Conn in 1522, when he moved to snuff out his western neighbours for good.

Not content with just raiding or the typical border clashes that marked previous conflicts, Conn O’Neill was clearly playing for keeps when he contemplated military action in 1522. This can be ascertained from the size of the army he raised to combat the O’Donnell’s which was drawn from throughout Ireland. It included elements from the MacWilliam Burke’s (another of the O’Donnell’s most bitter enemies) and O’Connor’s of Connaught, the O’Carroll’s of Offaly and the O’Brien’s of Thomond. What exactly drew all of these disparate elements into O’Neill’s service is unknown, though it may have been little more than the promise of plunder and booty, or in the case of the Connaught contingents, land from the south of Tyrconnell.

O’Neill’s family connections to the Kildare Fitzgerald’s (he was Gerald’s grandson) also saw him garner some support from the English in the form of forces from Meath and Leinster gallowglass, which was matched by a contingent of the same troops coming from Scotland. Such an endeavour must have been very expensive for Conn to put together, considering the number of fighters from outside his Kingdom that he had to keep paid (or promise reward too). The size of his army is not stated, but considering what happened later it is not unreasonable to guess its size at a couple of thousand troops, large enough numbers for the area.

With that in mind, it is easy to assume that he had war aims that were more reaching then previous campaigns against the O’Donnell’s. Perhaps he did not mean to take over Tyrconnell completely, but he was surely after more substantial gain than usual.

Manus saw this all coming of course, and assembled his own clan army and whatever allies he could muster from elsewhere. In comparison to the forces that his enemy could bring to the field, he was pitifully outnumbered. His sole advantage as the campaign started was that O’Neill’s coalition was split between two forces – one with O’Neill himself in Tyrone comprising the Ulster and Leinster elements, and the other, the Thomond and Connaught contingents, marching northwards. Manus had some time, albeit brief, to attempt to deal with O’Neill before the other threat presented itself.

With that in mind he decided not to split his own army but to centre it at the border with Tir Eoghain, leaving behind only a token force to guard his holdings in southern Tyrconnell, which at the time stretched as far as Sligo. His army assembled near Strabane, at the castle of Portnatrynod, which he expected Conn to attack. From this we can assume that O’Donnell meant to fight a defensive war, perhaps drawing Conn into a siege situation, or at least into a position that was tactically favourable to Manus.

Conn was no fool however. This was the height of summer and the best time for marching, and Conn took his own army and turned in a south-westerly direction, marching undetected through Tyrconnell lands until he reached Ballyshannon (near the modern day border of Donegal and Leitrim). This town and its castle had been left guarded by only a small amount of the Mac Sweeny clan. Though the sources note the defenders fighting bravely, they couldn’t hold out long, and the tow and castle were captured by June 11th, with the defenders largely wiped out, including several O’Donnell family members.

With the surrounding countryside undefended, O’Neill went on a rampage, plundering and despoiling, burning towns and other settlements. Aside from feeding (and paying) his own army, O’Neill was probably trying to provoke Manus into an open confrontation through his actions. Conn was successfully showing Manus as a man who could not defend his own lands, which would have increased the likelihood of internal instability in the Tyrconnell leadership. Manus had to do something, and fast, as the Connaught/Thomond forces were also at his doorstep in Sligo.

His answer was to simply replicate what Conn was doing, detaching part of his army under his son which was ordered into Tir Eoghain. There, the familiar tactics of burning, looting and general mayhem could be seen, as Conn’s homeland was presumably ill-defended against assault.

Conn could not have been so stupid as to not have foreseen this possibility, so he probably deemed it acceptable damage for the cause he was fighting. The force that Manus’ son was commanding could not have been all that big, and his mission was as much an act of vengeance as an act of military strategy. Conn did not go rushing home to defend his lands with speed, though he did start heading in that direction, attacking everything in his path as he did so.

Still, Manus did not go out to face Conn directly, allowing his rival to cross the River Finn and re-enter the western edges of his own Kingdom. Conn’s march is presented in the sources as “a triumph” as he was carrying a great degree of spoils with him, that had presumably not cost him much to get. Further, the forces of Connaught and Thomond that were allied to him were by now besieging Sligo town, which was only sparsely defended. But at least Manus had been able to direct the two armies away from each other, which was a small victory in itself.

Conn made camp at a place called Cnoc na Bhoga or Knockavoe, which lay south of Strabane, on the modern day border between Donegal and Tyrone, quite near the River Foyle. Manus, whose own army had slowly been following in Conn’s wake, was in a fix. His son had returned from Tir Eoghain with his own spoils but it could hardly have been just compensation for the damage that had taken place in Ballyshannon and elsewhere. He knew Sligo couldn’t hold out for long, and that those besieging it would then head northwards to unite with Conn and form an army that Manus had no possibility of defeating. Things looked grim.

Manus decided to risk it all by attacking Conn’s force while it was still somewhat manageable (thought he was still outnumbered). Seeking to offset his inferior numbers, he and his lieutenants committed to a night assault on the Knockavoe campsite.

Military manoeuvres at night, in the time period discussed, were not unheard of, but were extremely rare and for good reason. While it afforded a measure of stealth and surprise (if not discovered prematurely) it was impossible to direct such an attack once fighting began, as friend and foe could not be easily distinguished in the absence of light. Such assaults were always risky, due to sheer lack of control that leaders of both attacker and defender suffered from after the first point of contact.

Approaching Knockavoe, O’Donnell’s forces abandoned their horses, not seeking a method of retreat should they fail, content to fight to the last man should it come to it. He managed to get at least part of his army past the O’Neill sentinels before being discovered, but it was not long before the alarm was raised and all hell broke loose.

The resulting fight was a mess that is not easily recorded, seemingly little more than a mass brawl in the darkness. The O’Neill’s were unprepared for a fight, but still had numbers, while the O’Donnell faction probably killed a large amount of their own army in the confusion. From The Annals of the Four Masters:

“On thus coming into collision with one another they raised great shouts aloud, and their clamour was not feebly responded to by O’Neill’s common soldiers, for they proceeded bravely and protectively to defend their chief and their camp. Both armies were engaged at striking and killing each other, and mighty men were subdued, and heroes hacked, on either side; men were hewn down, and death and evil destiny seized vigorous youths in that place. Scarcely did any one of them on either side know with whom he should engage in combat, for they could not discern one another’s faces on account of the darkness of the night, and their close intermixing with each other.”

The fighting was horrific, but by dawn the result was clear: O’Donnell had won. 900 of O’Neill’s force were dead on the field, with all the various contingents lamenting over the bloodshed. Conn escaped and retreated with the force he had left, but was forced to leave behind much of the plunder he had won in Tyrconnell, along with the vast majority of his own supply train. The O’Neill’s were out of the fight.

For Manus, it was a vital victory, though it came with a great degree of luck. He had driven off half of the armies threatening his homeland, had won the prestige that only such a victory could bring, and was enriched by all of the supplies, horses and loot he had captured. With his eastern border secured, he could now turn to the threat from the south-west.

The only thing stopping the Thomond and Connaught forces from heading north was the siege at Sligo, something probably instigated by the land hungry MacWilliam Burke’s, which was lasting longer than expected. Manus immediately gathered his army and headed in that direction, with news of his victory going ahead of him.

Those outside Sligo, upon hearing the news of Knockavoe, panicked. There seems to have been some confusion amongst them, probably exacerbated by the results of the battle which was likely exaggerated (such things always are). The initial response was to send out a team of emissaries from the various families advocating a peace that would leave the main dispute between the MacWilliam Burke’s and the O’Donnell’s to be sorted out privately.

But before this ambassadorial group even reached the army of Manus, the besiegers of Sligo decided to break camp and retreat, despite still having a numerical advantage over the O’Donnell’s and their allies. So ended this campaign, with the Connaught and Thomond forces separating and departing back to their old lands without even attempting battle or any kind of proper negotiations. Poor morale, fear of an exaggerated Tyrconnell army, trouble at home, fractions between the allies could all have combined to force this outcome.

Regardless, Manus had won and saved his Kingdom.

There is a lot to be learned from this whole episode. Alliances are not reliable at the best of times, and even the soundest strategy can be undone by the strange twists of fate that battle brings. Perhaps Conn should have been more aggressive towards Tyrconnell after Ballyshannon, rather than turning back to shield his own land. Maybe he should have moved to join up with the other army. Maybe he should not have been so lax at his Knockavoe campsite. In truth, Conn didn’t really make any major decisions that were unreasonable or ill-thought, but was the victim of a risky tactic from his enemy that had the good fortune of working out as intended. Conn was humiliated, but would be back to fight another day.

For Manus, he successfully defended his Kingdom against aggression on numerous fronts with a numerically inferior force. He did it through patient moving of his army, through distraction and tempting of the enemy force by raiding his homeland, and by daring to take the risky course with his night attack. It could easily have turned out badly for him that night, but his victory was critical to the political make-up of Ulster for the coming decades.

Both Kingdoms would be a part of the critical events soon to take place within Ireland. The next entry goes back to the Earldoms within Leinster and Munster, and the series of plots and intrigues that led to what is viewed as, perhaps, Ireland’s first great rebellion against the English crown.

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

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11 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: A Bloody Night At Knockavoe

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