Ireland’s greatest Gaelic lords gathered at Knockdoe

Warriors for hire: The galloglas were well armoured and feared. Their favourite weapons were the broadsword,  and double sided axe. They were available when sufficient soldiers could not be raised among the population of the Irish lordships.

Warriors for hire: The galloglas were well armoured and feared. Their favourite weapons were the broadsword, and double sided axe. They were available when sufficient soldiers could not be raised among the population of the Irish lordships.

(Week II )

The battle was fought on August 19 1504 on a plane, with a slight rise, appropriately named Knockdoe (the hill of the axes ), eight miles north-east of Galway city near Lackagh. Gerald FitzGerald, the Great Earl of Kildare, on one side, and his son-in-law Ulick de Burgh (Burke ) of Claregalway castle on the other*.

The earl, who probably drew up his forces along the top of the hill, was supported by men from Dublin and within the English Pale, with the O’Donnells, the O’Neills, the MacMahons, Magennises, O’Reillys, O’Connors, MacDermots and others including Ulick’s detested enemies the Mayo Burkes. Approximately 6,000 in all.

Ulick Burke was supported by his neighbours, O’Brien of Thomond, the Macnamaras, O’Kennedys, O’Carroll of Ely and other Munster warriors. Approximately 4,000 men.

Both sides introduced a new type of warrior that was to change the dynamics of Irish warfare at the time, namely the Scottish mercenary known as the galloglas (Gall óglach, foreign warrior ). These men, recruited mainly from the Scottish Isles and the West Highlands, were descendants from Vikings and enjoyed a fierce reputation on the battlefield where they gave no quarter nor expected any. They dressed for battle wearing shirts of mail over quilted jackets. Their preferred weapons were the spear, the broadsword, and the double bladed axe, which they wielded with strength and skill. They were a terrifying prospect in close contact warfare, and Knockdoe was a foot fight.

Another novelty of the battle was the introduction of firearms. Even though artillery pieces were in use at the time, Knockdoe was the first Irish battle where handguns were in evidence. They were fired and, because of the slowness of reloading, then used as a bludgeon.

Yet despite the evidence of firearms, and the shock tactics of the Galloglas, the Great Earl lined up his army in the proper military manner of the time. He placed his archers at either flank,**his pike and swordsmen in the middle, and his baggage train well behind the line, which he regarded so important that his son Garret Óg was put in charge of it.

Ulick Burke probably arrived on the field later than the Great Earl. He represented the old Gaelic chieftain, against the agents of the English king. I would like to think that he looked magnificent. He drew up his footmen in one great line facing the earl, but with the disadvantage of looking into the rising sun, and having to move up the rise. He placed his cavalry on his left, and ordered his men to advance.

The annalists say that his men had spent the night ‘drinking and playing cards, ‘but when the word to advance was given they showed themselves full of fight.

Tudor power

How did this sorry state of affairs come about? I have said before that Ulick belonged to the greatest Anglo-Norman house in Connacht, namely de Burgh (Burke ), which had long been divided into two branches, that of Mac William of Clanrickard, with large territories in Galway, including Claregalway castle, and the branch of Mac William of Mayo. The two families and their allies were deadly enemies, and inflicted dire punishment on each other through raids, burnings of castles and crops, and murder. Perhaps Ulick felt he could carry on pillaging and plundering with impunity as he had married the Great Earl of Kildare’s daughter Eustacia,*** and must have assumed the earl would turn a blind eye to his activities.

The king of England, Henry VII, had recently gained the throne after years of internecine strife, and was anxious to have peace in his kingdom. Ten years before Knockdoe, the king’s man, Sir Edward Poynings, established a parliament in Drogheda where he enacted a number of laws to keep the Irish in check. It was the first tentative steps of Tudor power in Ireland. Among other matters, Poynings insisted that there was to be an end to all aristocratic faction fights, which in future could only be conducted with the permission of the king. Furthermore all Irish family war cries****were forbidden. If there had to be a cry, let him call on ‘St George, or the name of his sovereign lord, the king of England.’

An ambitious man

I can only imagine that our bold Ulick de Burgh scoffed at these restrictions. To antagonise matters further, some months before Knockdoe, Ulick seized the town of Galway. Even though the town was founded in the 13th century by his ancestors, who remained its overlords and patrons for 200 years, somehow Ulick felt slighted, and entered the walled town as an intruder. All this, and the demolition of his neighbour’s castles, was heard with gathering indignation by the king’s men in Dublin. Their concerns were conveyed to the Great Earl of Kildare. The earl was an ambitious man, but a cloud had hung over his loyalty to the house of Tudor during the War of the Roses. He appeared to dither as to whom he should support. But now, with Henry VII securely on the throne, he was anxious to prove his loyalty, and to be recognised as the ‘king’s man’ in Ireland. But what really drove him to fury was the report that Ulick had ill treated his daughter. Furthermore, having sacked three O’Kelly castles, allies of the Mayo Burkes, Ulick had bedded O’Kelly’s wife.

The king gave Kildare permission to destroy Ulick. Historian G A Hayes-McCoy tells us that the status of the lords who came to Kildare’s aid suggest the seriousness of the dispute... ‘It was a remarkable hosting. It was, as far as we know, the most varied, if not the greatest, muster of the Irish Gaelic lords and their forces that ever took place, a rally comparable for Ireland with those of Bannockburn and Flodden and of the ‘15 and the ‘45 for Scotland. It was a tribute to the greatness of the Earl of Kildare, and proof positive of his power.’

Next week: disaster for Ulick


*I am leaning heavily on GA Hayes-McCoy’s renowned description of Knockdoe in Irish battles - A military history of Ireland, published by Longmans 1969.

**Eighty nine years after the battle of Agincourt, the long bow was still a formidable weapon on a battlefield especially where enemy soldiers moved in close ranks.

***I am aware that some authorities say that the fair Eustacia was the earl’s sister, not his daughter. But I am going the Hayes-McCoy way.

****The war cry of the O’Neills was lamh-derg abu (the Red hand to victory ), the O’Briens and the MacCarthy’s lamh-laidir abu (the strong hand to victory ), and so on.


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