Connacht was the frontier for the English position in Ireland, with much of the territory under English control – centred mainly around the towns of Galway and Athenry – operating in an almost constant state of alert for raids from the native Irish. The province remained a patchwork of small clans and families with the two Burke clans – the Mac William (or “lower”) Burke’s in Mayo and the Clanricarde Burkes in County Galway – being among the main players. Prior to the time we will be discussing, the 1570’s, the Clanricarde Burkes had sworn allegiance to the English crown and become Earls, adopting the new religion as well. The Mac William’s remained defiantly Irish and Catholic. Both sides clashed incessantly, drawing on the support of clans and families on the lower side of the social scale.
Henry Sidney was so dissatisfied with what he found there at the end of the 1560’s that he soon appointed an aggressive Lord President of the province to bring it under control. Sir Edward Fitton was his man, a devout Protestant and intent on brining an English ruled stability to the province.
He didn’t get off to a great start however, almost immediately starting an ill-advised war with the rebellious Earl of Thomond that soon had Fitton pleading for help from Sidney. Sidney did indeed lead a force to rescue a beleaguered Galway from Thomond’s army and settle the situation, but it was perfectly clear that a simple conquering of the province would not suffice.
Turning away from Thomond, Fitton looked towards the Mac William Burke’s up north. Counting Richard Burke, the Earl of Clanricarde, as his main ally, he embarked on what would be his favoured strategy in Connacht: the besieging and taking of numerous castles and forts in order to weaken and dispossess the enemy. Fitton was content, throughout his tenure, to play the long game, probably mindful of what little resources he had.
In the summer of 1570, Fitton marched for South Mayo and the castle of Shrule, just inside the border of the modern day county. Situated on a crossing of the Black River, it was important defensive point between the two feuding Burke lands.
Fitton’s army was an immensely varied collection of English soldiers, armoured cavalry, mercenary gallowglass and Irish light infantry from various sources. He soon had the castle at Shrule besieged and under fire from his cannon contingent.
The leader of the Mac William Burkes at the time, Sean (or John in many sources) Burke, was not one to just simply let this happen. Determined to make a fight of it, against the common trend of native Irish confronting the English at the time, he soon gathered his own allies to his army. Like his opponent, it was a patchwork of various underlings, vassals and hired gallowglass. It is likely too that he had the support of the sons of Richard Burke, the Clanrickarde offspring already with a reputation for rebellion against the crown.
What took place is one of the rare set-piece battles of the period between Irish and English forces (though plenty of Irish fought on both sides). John confronted Fitton on the 21st of June.
The Mac William side decided to focus on an infantry approach, observing the strong defences that Fitton had prepared, going so far as to make some horsemen dismount and fight in their own two feet. Lining up in six cohorts, with what cavalry they had to the rear as a reserve, they marched from their position of height down towards the enemy army. It was a risky move, knowing what they were advancing into, but they were the offensive party. Fitton didn’t have the need or the inclination to attack an enemy force, uphill, when he could just wait for them to come to him or continue on with his siege.
Fitton was content to fight a defensive battle, surely reckoning that he had the advantage in terms of gun, cannon and quality of soldier. He prepared an intensive barrage to press down on the advancing enemy, with his more armoured troops ready to meet what he hoped would be the shattered remnant. Like the Mac William Burkes, Fitton and Richard Burke kept their cavalry in reserve, with the plan of sweeping round the beleaguered enemy once they had engaged the English infantry.
However it happened, the artillery and musketry fire did not do the damage that Fitton expected. Irish sources are all for putting this down to the heroism of the Mac William Burke army, but misfire, inaccuracy and bad luck may all have played a part. However it happened, the Mac William Burke infantry slammed into the English army with force and momentum.
After a period of tough fighting and slaughter, the English were forced back and broke under the strain, fleeing back toward their camp a few miles distant. The Mac William Burke infantry, especially noted being the native Irish pikemen, were buoyed by their success and pursued. In so doing, they allowed the enemy cavalry to get behind them. Led by Fitton himself, there was every possibility of victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat for the English.
But the Irish kept their defensive shape under this sudden rear onslaught, though they took a fair number of casualties. The introduction of the Irish cavalry further confused matters, resulting in a bitter slaughter. Though the Irish perhaps still held the advantage – some sources claim that the English had run out of gunpowder at this point, while Fitton had been unhorsed and wounded – John/Sean decided enough was enough. Maintaining the formation that had seen them withstand the cavalry assault, the Irish removed themselves from the melee and withdrew the way they came.
Both sides would claim victory in the aftermath. The Mac William Burke had inflicted a high number of casualties in their brutally simple frontal assault, and had come the closest to actually winning the fight outright. But they did not stay on the field overnight, and were soon retreating northwards. Perhaps they had taken too many casualties. Perhaps they thought that the point had been proven. Perhaps their leaders were worried about keeping such a disparate force together.
Either way, Fitton was able to keep his army in place and take Shrule Castle shortly after the battle, slaughtering the garrison. The battle might be effectively seen as a stalemate, but the aftermath was anything but. Any advantage that the Mac William Burke’s might have gained in such a fight was not used to the full, and Fitton was able to return from his campaign with an undisputable success. The losses incurred in gaining that success may have hard to bear, but Fitton achieved his primary aim.
While the size of the forces involved is not recorded in great detail, Shrule was probably the largest battle of what would become an endless series of wars that Fitton and the Tudors would be forced to fight in the province. It was the sons of Richard Burke who would cause him the most problems over the following decade, with a string of rebellions, raids and burnings before they were brought to heel, in a period dubbed the “Mac-en-Earlas Wars”, which saw numerous costly sieges and the destruction of Athenry twice over. Combined with James Fitzmaurice’s rebellion in Desmond, this made the west of Ireland a troublesome place for the Tudor administration, the warfare only coming to an end after a long series of campaigns undertaken by Fitton and others. With such a limited English colonial and military presence, trouble in maintaining control and order was inevitable.
Connacht would remain a volatile area for the English for some time to come, being furthest from sources of trained men, lacking good campaigning ground and being infested with those who had no interest in English domination. But for all that, Connacht was not the vital area of English interest. It lacked valuable land and resources, and the enemies that could be found there were separated from the core of English controlled territory by a substantial natural barrier – the Shannon – and were distracted by their own infighting.
Much worse threat for the English to combat could be found elsewhere in the country. First Munster, then Ulster, would soon be providing more dangerous challenges.
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