Many of the men of Erin all, around the great plain—
Many sons of kings, whom I name not, were slain in the great defeat:
Sorrowful to my heart is the conflict of the host of Midhe and Mumha.
On the day of St Laurence the martyr these deeds were committed; and Fedlim was twenty-three years old when slain; and he had been five years in the sovereignty of Connacht when Ruaidhri, son of Cathal Ruadh, assumed it in opposition to him during the space of half a year; and he was another half-year after Ruaidhri in the sovereignty until he was slain in this battle of Ath-na-righ.
A force of Anglo-Normans, led by Rickard De Bermingham, Lord of Athenry, inflicted a crushing defeat on an alliance of Irish clans led by Fedlim Ó Conchobair, Gaelic king of Connacht, at the town walls of the Norman town.
Athenry, Co Galway, was the scene of two crucial medieval battles which took place in the shadow of these very town walls. The Second Battle of Athenry in 1316 changed the power balance in medieval Ireland. History would never be the same with an alliance of Gaelic chiefs being defeated in the shadow of these well-preserved town walls.
The battle became known as the ‘The Second Battle Of Athenry’, the first battle being of lesser significance when Athenry was a military outpost in 1249.
The assistance of the prolific soldier William Liath De Burgo was pivotal in securing victory for the vulnerable Anglo-Norman enclave from the onslaught of the Gaelic Irish, who hoped to drive the colonists out of Ireland. History’s course would be changed with the defeat of the Irish on that fateful day, and the resulting chaos among local dynasties finally marked the end of Gaelic power in the province of Connacht.
Victory paved the way for Anglo-Norman supremacy in what was traditionally a difficult region to control. It also had far-reaching effects for the Anglo-Norman colony as a whole, at a time when things were looking bleak from an English perspective.
Athenry Castle in Co Galway played an important part in Ireland’s history holding out in two crucial ‘Battles of Athenry’, the second of which in 1316 changed the power balance in medieval Ireland in favour of the Anglo-Norman invaders.
Only about half of Ireland was under Anglo-Norman control at the time. The remainder of the country was a patchwork of Gaelic Kingdoms and although Richard De Burgo, Earl of Ulster was the Lord of Connaught in name, the reality on the ground was quite different.
The land west of the Shannon had proven extremely difficult to subdue, and the Anglo-Normans had to settle for an uneasy co-existence with the locals, forming skittish alliances with Gaelic leaders.
The battle took place during the invasion of Edward Bruce from Scotland, and the outcome at Athenry greatly contributed to the failure of his campaign in Ireland. History is replete with examples of the need for a long-term strategy, if one is to invade another country. Crucial to this strategy is the support of local leaders. England and Scotland were engaged in a bloody conflict as the Scots fought for their independence under the leadership of ‘Robert the Bruce’, King of Scotland. Bruce’s spectacular Victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn resulted in a stalemate.
For years the English colony in Ireland had provided vital supplies and fighting men for the war in Scotland. Bruce saw that an invasion of Ireland could seriously undermine the English ability to wage war on the Scots. It would also export the carnage to Ireland from a war-torn Scotland. He was invited to come to Ireland by Ulster chieftain Domhnal O’Neil, who along with others offered the Irish High-kingship to Robert’s brother Edward, in exchange for expelling the English.
The Scots and the Irish shared a common Gaelic language and similar culture as well as ties through kinship. Although the Bruces were of Norman descent they identified themselves as Scottish and promoted the idea of a United Scots/Irish Gaelic Kingdom.
The idea appealed to many of the Irish who were weary of English subjugation. Success in Ireland would also allow the Scots to attack England through Wales, but Bruce would have to count on the backing of local leaders, not all of whom were impressed by his audacious claim to the High kingship.
He arrived in Ulster with an army of 6,000 and they began with a series of defeats over the English. At the battle of Conor they captured William De Burgo and shipped him to Scotland in chains. De Burgo had fought the Scots with help from Fedlim Ó Conchobair, but when the battle was in Bruce’s favour, the Connacht king, essentially concerned with his own interests, abandoned the cause and returned home.
Before the battle Edward Bruce had offered Felim possession of Connacht if he supported him. At around the same time Fedlim’s rival kinsman Ruaidhri met with the Scots and offered to oust the English from Connacht.
He was well received and was told not to invade Fedlim’s territory. He agreed, but he had his own ideas. When he went home to Connacht he attacked Fedlim and was looking like becoming the dominant Conchobair in the region, and if the Anglo-Norman Rickard De Bermingham had not came to Fedlim’s aid, he would have succeeded.
Together they defeated and killed Ruaidhri O’Conchobhair. De Bermingham, who was gambling on securing Fedlim’s allegiance, was wounded for his trouble. Shortly after Fedlim commenced hostilities attacking Anglo-Norman settlements and killing many of their Noblemen.
Things were looking dire from an Anglo-Norman perspective, as the Scots controlled Ulster, raiding and pillaging around the Pale, with Fedlim Ó Conchobair’s rampage around Connacht adding to their woes. The participation of William Burke would be vital to checking the progress of the Bruce army.
William, unlike his cousin Richard, had grown up in Connacht and forged many deep connections with both Anglo-Normans and the local chiefs. If anyone could gather a powerful alliance to defeat Fedlim Ó Conchobair and impede the Scots, it was William.
Richard De Burgo made a deal with the Scots. In exchange for the release of his cousin he would send a ship of food supplies to Scotland. The ship had been meant to re-supply the starving Anglo-Norman garrison at the besieged Carirckfergus Castle.
William would be released on condition that his one year-old son would take his place as a hostage, and if he would promise not to confront the Scots in Ireland. He gathered an alliance of Anglo-Normans and their loyal Irish supporters and they marched on Connacht. Fedlim Ó Conchobair was getting ready to sack Roscommon when the arrival of De Burgo in the area prompted him to change tack.
Fedlim gathered an army of 8,000, which included many prominent Irish chiefs and they set off to attack Athenry. There they were met by William’s hosting, which had come to the aid of the vulnerable Rickard de Bermingham.
Fedlim made the fatal mistake of engaging the superior military might of the Anglo-Normans in an open battle, and despite his ranks being bolstered by the presence of powerful Gallowglass mercenaries, they were utterly routed, with numerous Irish kings and their sons slain.
The result was chaos among the Gaels in the west of Ireland. History was written on that fateful day with victory at Athenry providing the Anglo-Normans with a much-needed morale boost, effectively destroying Ó Conchobair power in Connacht and establishing the De Burgos as the dominant force for years to come.
Photo: Athenry Castle, Co Galway © Stair na hÉireann