Lets’ turn back to Connacht for a little bit.
Since the days of Edward Fitton, Connacht had been restless, if not largely peaceful. Many of the clans and native Irish on the western side of the Shannon would have had sympathies for the Desmond cause, hence why James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald would have tried to garner their support, but aside from some aborted efforts to send aid to the besieged at Smerwick and a few raids here and there, the Irish families of Connacht were largely unable or unwilling to confront the English administration.
In 1584, with the Desmond Rebellion finished and Arthur Grey dispatched from his Lord Deputy post, a wide-scale reorganisation of roles in the country took place. Sir John Perrot, previously the man who had, over time, brought an end to the first Desmond Rebellion, was appointed as the new Lord Deputy, with Sir Richard Bingham, a veteran of William Wynter’s fleet who had been present at Smerwick, appointed as the new Lord President of Connacht.
The two men’s attitudes could not have been more different. Perrot went into the job looking for conciliation and peace. His main task, after gathering together the first Irish Parliament in decades, was to commence the plantation of Munster, much of the Desmond Earldom now in the hands of the crown following the attainder of the ruling Geraldine family. Thousands of English families were transported to the severely under populated province in an attempt to paper over the Irish culture that remained there and firmly establish a loyal presence.
Perrot also had to deal with the unsatisfied and rebelliously-minded people of Connacht, and set out to do so in as reasonable a fashion as possible. To that end, in meetings held early in his tenure, he came up with the “composition” of Connacht, a legal arrangement whereby the queen received certain rents in return for settling land titles and tenant dues. The arrangement was received well by the more powerful families, like the MacWilliam Burkes of Mayo, who not only agreed to abide by its terms but offered up hostages to the Pale in order to demonstrate their commitment.
It might be wondered why the English were suddenly so peace-seeking, but the simple fact is that the Desmond Rebellions and all other associated conflicts had bled the Royal treasury dry. Military campaigns elsewhere, like those in the Low Countries and the brewing tensions with Spain needed financial muscle too. A soft power approach to problems in Ireland was thus pursued. And with the defeat of the Desmond’s, the Irish had motivation for accepting such offers.
Someone forgot to tell Richard Bingham though, as he soon had garnered a cruel reputation in his position as, essentially, the military governor of Connacht. He didn’t especially like Perrot or his methods (and he wasn’t the only one) and seemed to go out of his way to antagonise and provoke the native Irish, especially the MacWilliam Burkes, though arrests and encroachments on Burke territory. When the chief of the MacWilliams died, Bingham hesitated in naming his preferred successor, a power given to him by the composition, which caused further problems. Irish hereditary laws being what they were, the compositions was a sort of compromise on that score, a means to slowly erode away the violent aftermaths of a leaders death in favour of primogeniture, one step closer to an English style system.
By 1586, Bingham’s provocations, especially on the succession issue when the expected man, Edmund Burke, was not named as the new Burke chief, went a step too far, or perhaps he always intended to cause a minor rebellion to break out. After a legal session in January of that year, where he presided over the condemning of 70 or so people for disloyalty to the crown – exact crimes are not recorded – large parts of Connacht pulled out the red flags.
The sources for this conflict are not great, admittedly, and some holes in the timeline do appear. I am unable to ascertain just what actions the MacWilliam Burke’s took against the English, but it may have been as limited as refusing to pay taxes or allowing no quarter for English troops.
What we do know is that Burke castles were fortified and attempts to take them were resisted. Bingham sprang into action as soon as he had cause to do, marshalling an army and moving to besiege the castle at Cloonoan in Clare. After the death of its commander, Mahon O’Brien, the castle fell and its garrison was slaughtered. Little detail remains as to why Bingham had felt the need to march into Thomond territory, or why the O’Brien’s resisted him.
Next, he moved north to besiege “Hag’s Castle”, a small fortification built on an artificial island in Lough Mask, Mayo. Bingham personally led a detachment in boats to attack the castle, which had to turn back after a storm came up. Bingham had a narrow escape from the tempest apparently, but by the time the storm had gone the occupiers of the castle had fled themselves. Bingham pulled the structure down and executed the few prisoners he was able to find – which included the son of the Edmund Burke.
Following these two successes, Bingham sent his soldiers deeper into west Connacht with the purview of seeking out and destroying “rebels”, a campaign of despoiling, plundering and death. It was back to the old tactics, which had so devastated Munster. Bingham was certainly committed to a harsh policy in Connacht, for whatever reason.
By now Perrot, increasingly annoyed, intervened. Angry exchanges occurred between the two men when Bingham was summoned to Dublin to explain himself. Fractures within the Dublin leadership were all too obvious, but so were the problems in Connacht.
With the Burke’s “out” in rebellions and refusing to pay their dues and taxes, matters were out of Perrot’s hands. Bingham was allowed to go back to Connacht to restart his campaign, killing the hostages that had previously been given over to the Pale and continuing his actions “with redoubled fury”. It seems clear that Bingham wanted a war and went out of his way to get one. Once that rebellion was going, it could not be ignored.
In truth, it was not a very large or dangerous rebellion. The Burke’s seemed to make few or no offensive moves, and their aims were probably limited in scope, just recognition of their concerns and plight. They could muster less than a thousand men after all, and were in no great position to launch attacks on the English.
Instead, they decided to hire out the problem. In the summer of 1586, a party of Scots landed in Inishowen, Donegal. They were members of the Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg who controlled substantial territory in Antrim. Sorley Boy MacDonald, last mentioned for his part in the downfall of Shane O’Neill, was a member of this family, and still active – Perrot had led a military expedition to combat his raids just the previous year, with partial success.
Again, the sources are hazy on what this meant. It might have been an altogether separate endeavour, a military raid and plunder that the Burke’s choose to take advantage of. Or maybe the MacDonald’s were invited to that side of the country by the Burke’s.
Whatever it was, the Scots were stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down in Inishowen when they decided to move south. Entreaties from the MacWilliam Burke’s promised them plunder and land if they assisted in the defeat of Bingham, as the Burke’s were so obviously unable to accomplish. The Scottish, presumably with a strong contingent of experience gallowglass in the area of a few thousand, agreed.
The two forces had soon met up in County Sligo, leaving Bingham in an awkward position. Leading an army to crush the Burke’s was one thing, battle-tested and organised Scots another. What followed, as late summer turned to Autumn, was a constant series of manoeuvre.
It seemed that neither side of this unlikely conflict were too committed to a set-piece battle, as the two forces spent weeks marching and out-manoeuvring the other, with only limited clashes taking place between the two. The Scots took the opportunity to continue their plundering ways. While the English probably did their share of this as well, Bingham was also gathering more men – probably locals – to his army as well as employing a better noted espionage effort, spying out the enemy at every opportunity.
As late September came on, Bingham decided to force the issue. After receiving word that the Scots were encamped at Ardnaree, Mayo, he prepared his final move. A forced march, through the night of 22/23 September, from the Barony of Leyny in Sligo – around 50km away – resulted in him gaining a total surprise over the (mostly) sleeping Scots.
The Burke army was absent, raiding elsewhere, so was spared the slaughter that followed. The stunned Scots could not get into effective formations fast enough, and were routed in the attack that took place. Bingham had a shortage of cavalry, so his assault had to happen fast, lest his army be out-flanked by a more prepared enemy. As it happened, the Scots were either killed or driven into the nearby River Moy. We have no record of how big exactly the Socttish force was, but some sources claim that anywhere between 1’000 to 2’000 were killed at the Battle of Ardnaree.
After another round of executions of prisoners and captured Burke’s, the rebellion seems to have petered out, with the Burke’s consumed by the succession disputes that was deemed more important than the English enemy. Bingham would install his own favoured candidate, Tioboid or Theobold Burke, the son of the famous Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, as the chief of the MacWilliams, but this would prove to only be a temporary respite from rebellions elements. But, for a time, the composition was restored and peace reigned.
Bingham faced more charges of misconduct and overstepping his bounds as Lord President, but none of them stuck. Perrot was growing increasingly unpopular due to his financial mismanagement in Dublin and many enmities, while Bingham’s victories made him a liked figure.
The Ardnaree affair and all that coincided with it illustrates the thin line between peace and war in Ireland at the time. The Tudor conquest was continuing apace, but the efforts of men like Perrot could fall apart very quickly. Divides in the approaches of the Pale administrational and provincial governors could easily provokes minor rebellions and plenty of motivation for those rebellions did exist.
Those problems would only get worse, especially in the north, where succession disputes and English involvement were steering the island towards a much greater clash of arms.
But before all that, this colony was to become the centrepoint of one of the most famed episodes in this periods history. A Spanish invasion of England would soon fail, and the remains of that invasion would soon be spotted close to the western shores of Ireland.
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