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The History of Ulster
Ulster and the Bruce Invasion


Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster - War between Tirconnell and Tirowen - Battle of Drumcliff - Godfrey O'Donnell's Heroism - Felim O'Conor joins Brian O'Neill - Edward Bruce invited by Ulster to invade Ireland - Joined by O'Neill and O'Conor - The Earl of Ulster defeated - Bruce crowned King of Ireland - Arrival of Robert the Bruce - Terrible State of the Country - Defeat and Death of Edward Bruce.

Amongst those who accompanied John on his first visit to Ireland was William de Burgh, a brother of the Hubert de Burgh whose name is familiar to all readers of English history. William received large grants of land in Munster, and is stated to have married a daughter of Donnell O'Brien, King of Munster another instance of an Anglo-Norman strengthening his position by an alliance with an Irish princess. William de Burgh's eldest son, Richard, when Cathal Crovderg, King of Connaught, died, made an offer for the whole of the province, and through the influence of his uncle, Hubert de Burgh, who was Justiciary of England, his offer was accepted. He then (1226) assumed the title of Lord of Connaught. His lordship was no sinecure, for the various claimants to the vacant throne of Connaught fought in support of their titles, and De Burgh took such stern measures as overlord that he left Connaught "without peace or tranquillity, or without food in any territory". After a tempestuous life he died in 1243. His son, Walter, married the daughter of Hugh de Lacy, Earl of Ulster, and in 1286 we find his grandson, Richard, known as the "Red" Earl of Ulster, in conflict with Donald Oge O'Donnell, a chieftain of Tirconnell.

The old feud between Tirconnell and Tirowen showed no signs of being settled. When the sons of Roderick O'Conor sought an asylum they found one in Tirconnell, while their rivals were welcomed in Tirowen. When Hugh O'Neill died, in 1230, his successor, Domhnall O'Loughlin, waged war on Tirconnell, and had in consequence his own territories devastated by Godfrey O'Donnell in 1232. In 1238 the English deemed the time opportune to subdue the North. Accordingly the Lord Justice, Maurice FitzGerald, with John de Lacy and others, marched into Tirowen and Tirconnell, and, deposing O'Loughlin, placed Brian O'Neill on his throne. By this means they obtained hostages from Tirconnell and the surrounding territories, and could claim, with some justice, that Ulster had at last submitted to English rule. But O'Loughlin had no intention to calmly give up his claim to Tirowen. He fought with O'Neill, and, obtaining assistance from O'Donnell, a battle took place at Maghera in 1241, in which, after a very obstinate fight, O'Loughlin was defeated and slain, and Brian O'Neill became undisputed chief of Tirowen.

Maurice FitzGerald now made a vigorous effort to bring Ulster into subjection. Having erected a strong castle at Sligo, he made frequent incursions into Tirconnell, with varying success. In 1247 he defeated O'Donnell at the battle of Ballyshannon, and so thoroughly overwhelmed his force that he deposed him, and appointed Rory O'Cannannan in his place. This move does not appear to have been successful, for the new chief made such an indifferent ruler that O'Donnell seized the opportunity to make friends with the Lord Justice, and obtained a reinstatement to his old position. This, however, was not done without opposition on O'Cannannan's part ; but when he had recourse to arms he was defeated and slain. FitzGerald then sent word to the Viceroy that Tirowen and Tirconnell were prepared to submit, and the Lord Deputy, De Marisco, entered Tirowen and took formal possession for the Crown. But this submission to the English did not ensure peace between Tirowen and Tirconnell, for we find O'Neill and O'Donnell at war in 1252, and in the next year O'Neill fought FitzGerald, inflicting severe losses and razing several English castles in the north to the ground. Ulster was again free, and continued on her own independent way; but as the clansmen did not confine their activities to their own borders, and invaded Connaught (1257), a huge force was raised by the Viceroy and FitzGerald for the purpose of crushing Godfrey O'Donnell. Though the odds were greatly against him, O'Donnell, nothing daunted, marched to meet the English at the head of a body composed solely of his own subjects. The opposing forces met at Drumcliff, and a long and severely contested battle took place, in which the enthusiasm of the Irish won the day. In this action O'Donnell is said to have met FitzGerald in single combat, both of them being wounded.

The lack of unity amongst the Irish cannot be better illustrated than by the fact that O'Donnell's severe wounds and the weakening of his forces led Brian O'Neill of Tirowen to seize the opportunity to demand hostages of Tirconnell; and though O'Donnell lay suffering from injuries received in combating the common enemy, and many of his most trusted followers had been slain in the same cause, the demand was peremptory. Ill though he was, O'Donnell never flinched, and sending the haughty reply to O'Neill that Tirconnell could still defend herself, he summoned his followers and prepared for battle, being himself carried in a litter at the head of his army. The struggle for supremacy took place on the banks of Lough Swilly, with the result that O'Neill's force was routed. The heroic O'Donnell did not long survive this victory, for on the return journey he died. He was succeeded by Donald Oge O'Donnell.

The history of Ulster, as of Ireland, is at this period the record of endless fights and reprisals. An attempt was made in 1258 to bring about a spirit of unity amongst the Irish chiefs, and a conference was held in 1258 with that object. But though some of the chiefs attended, and O'Neill was elected Ardri, others refused to acknowledge him, amongst them being O'Donnell of Tirconnell. The conference, however, had some good results, one of them being that Felim O'Conor, King of Connaught, joined Brian O'Neill to oppose the English, and at the battle of Downpatrick (1260) they fought side by side. The alliance, however, was unavailing, for the Irish were defeated, and many chiefs of Ulster and Connaught were slain.

The constant warfare between Tirconnell and Tirowen continued, and in 1275 the O'Neills invaded Tirconnell and devastated the entire district. They were not, however, allowed to do so with impunity, for they were pursued by the new chief, Donald Oge O'Donnell, and were defeated, losing "men, horses, accoutrements, arms, and armour". Six years later Tirowen and Tirconnell were again engaged in conflict, and the latter was defeated with heavy loss.

By these internal dissensions the power of the Ulster chieftains was so weakened that they were unable to offer any resistance to their English adversaries, who lay in wait for a fitting opportunity to attack them. Thus we find Richard de Burgh, who was known as the Red Earl of Ulster, marching north in 1286 and compelling O'Donnell to submit. He also deposed Brian O'Neill, and made a sycophant named  Niall O'Neill chief of Tirowen. In 1290 De Burgh plundered Tirconnell, and later pushed as far north as Innishowen, planting a colony there, and erecting at Moville a strong fortress to command the entire district.

Edward I was now on the throne of England, but though in character and aims he proved a great contrast to his predecessor, his succession to the crown made no impression in Ireland, which remained indifferent to such changes, so absorbed was she in her own affairs. But she was shortly awakened to a wider outlook, and indulged for a time in the wild hope that she might regain her ancient liberty.

There was, as we have seen, a Scottish settlement in Ulster which grew in number and in power under the fostering care of the representatives of the Crown, the Earls of Athol and of Galloway being given, on one pretext or another, large grants of land, the real reason for these grants being that they were rewards for services rendered to the English against the Irish. As time went on the Scots and their Irish neighbours, having much in common, settled down more or less amicably; and finally, by intermarriage and the sympathy which springs from a common origin and similarity in language and in habits, the Scots were merged in their surroundings. The connection between Ireland and Scotland by means of this Scottish colony in Ulster became strengthened, while the wars carried on in Scotland by Edward I tended to make both Scotch and Irish look on him as their common enemy. Such was the sentiment in Ulster when, in Edward II's reign, the overthrow of the English King at Bannockburn in 1314 seemed to point to the possibility of Ireland being enabled to throw off the yoke of the conqueror. Ulster had afforded a sanctuary to Robert Bruce in his hour of adversity, and she now appealed to the victorious king for the dispatch to Ireland of his brother Edward, to whom they offered the crown.

Edward Bruce landed near Carrickfergus, in May, 1315, at the head of 6000 men. He was immediately joined by the O'Neills, and later by Felim O'Conor, King of Connaught. Donald O'Neill, who had been the first to invite Edward to Ireland, swore allegiance to him, other chiefs, Irish and Scottish, following his example. The English settlers in Ulster became the first objects of attack, a hastily formed combination of the various leaders being defeated and driven to take refuge in Carrickfergus. Bruce now proceeded southwards to Dundalk and Ardee, both of which he took.

In the meantime Richard de Burgh had not been idle. He was in Galway at the time of Bruce's landing, and he at once made preparations to stop the depredations in Ulster, by summoning his retainers throughout the west to assemble at Athlone. Here a huge army was formed, at the head of which the Red Earl placed himself, and proceeded northwards to meet Edward Bruce. On the way he came up with the forces of Sir Edmund Butler, Lord Deputy, who was also marching north. De Burgh, desiring to have all the honour and glory of the victory he anticipated, told the Lord Deputy that he had better return to Dublin, as the Earl of Ulster was quite able to defend his possessions unaided. Butler accordingly returned south, and De Burgh, proceeding, met Bruce at Ardee. Seeing the numerical strength of the Red Earl's forces, O'Neill advised Bruce to fall back and take up a position on the River Bann, which he did, being closely followed by De Burgh. Here the opposing armies faced each other on opposite banks of the river, and commenced hostilities by shooting arrows across the water. This strange situation remained unchanged for some days, during which O'Neill and Bruce opened secret negotiations with O'Conor, promising him that, in the event of Bruce's success, Connaught should be his once more, freed from the overrule of the hated English, and that to secure this desirable end he should withdraw from his alliance with De Burgh. Felim was impressed by these overtures from so powerful a prince as Edward Bruce, and he therefore represented to De Burgh that he could no longer linger, and hastily took his departure. The Red Earl, when he saw the departing hosts under the banner of O'Conor, came to the conclusion that he could not cope alone with the enemy, and he therefore began to retreat; but having got as far eastwards as Ballymena, he was overtaken, and compelled to stand his ground. On 10th September a battle was fought at a village four miles south-east of Ballymena, the result being an utter defeat of De Burgh, who lost the flower of his army and fled south, with the foe in hot pursuit.

Ulster was thus lost, not a town in the whole province remaining loyal to the English, while Bruce marched from victory to victory as he proceeded through Louth and Meath until he reached Kells, where he was met by a fresh opponent in the person of Roger Mortimer at the head of 15,000 men. Despite this large force, Mortimer seems not to have been able to cope with Bruce's troops, who, flushed with success, scattered their enemies and continued their march through Westmeath and Longford. Finally Bruce settled for a time at Loughseudy, in Westmeath, making it his head-quarters, and spending there the winter of 1315. In the spring of 1316 Bruce met near Athy a force of nearly 30,000 men under the command of Butler, and defeated them; and, finding that his own troops were growing restive, he marched northwards, and set up fresh quarters in Dundalk. Here, on the 1st of May, he was crowned King of Ireland in the presence of a huge assembly of Irish and Scottish chieftains.

In the autumn of 1316 Robert Bruce arrived with reinforcements, and the burning and plundering of towns, castles, and churches was carried into Tipperary and Kildare, and even to the walls of Dublin. But the excesses of Edward Bruce had left the country unable to support a standing army of any magnitude, and the natural result was that famine and pestilence decimated his troops. The deplorable condition of the land was such that the inhabitants "used then", according to the annalists, "to eat one another throughout Erin". Bruce also erred in his indiscriminate plunder of foes and friends, a fact which made his Irish allies fall away in dismay.

Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, was now appointed Lieutenant-Governor, and landed in Youghal with 15,000 men. The Geraldines, Butlers, and De la Poers agreed to suspend their differences, and succeeded in raising an army of 30,000 men ready to take the field. Seeing the state of affairs, Robert Bruce returned to Scotland for reinforcements, promising to return to continue the campaign in the following year; and Edward, as the famine he himself created was raging, remained in enforced inactivity at Dundalk.

In 1318 the English forces, under John de Bermingham, took the field against Bruce. Seeing their superiority in numbers, O'Neill advised Bruce to retreat and await the arrival of the promised reinforcements from Scotland; but Bruce determined to fight, and turning a deaf ear to the counsels of the leaders, both Irish and Scottish, he met the opposing force at Faughart, not far from Dundalk. The combat was short, hot, and decisive. The Scots were defeated, Edward Bruce himself killed by an English knight, Sir John de Maupas, and his head was struck off and sent to London. John de Lacy and Sir John de Culwick, who had joined Bruce, were taken prisoners and starved to death. John de Bermingham, for his victory over Bruce, was created Earl of Louth, and three years later we find him appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Ireland. The Scottish invasion was at an end.


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