Turtle Bunbury

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The Massacre of Mullaghmast of 1577 (2001)



Historical Boffery

image title

Above: Hero or Horror? Captain Thomas
Lee is among the more interesting
Englishmen who came to Ireland during
the Elizabethan Age. He is said to have
been so appalled by the treachery at
Mullaghmast that he transferred his
allegiance to the army of Red Hugh
O'Neill. And yet he was no means an
innocent and harmless man himself.

History is a peculiar sport. Like modern day celebrities and football managers, its greatest stars - the heroes and villains of centuries past - must endure the ever-changing whims and fancies of the general public. He that is considered a fool and a bigot today may well be hailed a genius and a progressive in a few short years time.

The dawn of the cinematic epic in the last century has done wonders to help us colour in time's past. For seven centuries, William Wallace was an invisible Scot who failed to beat King Edward I of England. In 1995, he was reborn in "Braveheart" as a good looking blue-faced Aussie bloke who makes pretty speeches about freedom and gets it on with the Princess of Wales. Oscars are awarded and Hollywood lauds it up at the prospect of more bums on seat than ever before.

I'm constantly on the look out for good tales to convert into a historical epic. I once wrote a column for The Dubliner about the Marquis of Sligo, a charming cad from County Mayo. He was sent to prison for pilfering an ancient Greek tomb at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, and reemerged 30 years later to champion the cause of the free slave in Jamaica. I reckoned there could be the makings of a great movie in this.

But now, I have a new script to start working on. This latest masterpiece-to-be was prompted by a spontaneous visit to the Rath of Mullaghmast, located a few miles west of Ballitore Quaker Village in County Kildare.

A rath in Irish means an ancient fort and Ireland is full to the brim with raths. In fact, raths were so commonplace that over the last few centuries many of them were ploughed under by grown men who felt that producing food and earning an income was more relevant than wistfully pondering what might have been.

The Rath of Mullaghmast survived intact and that is a Very Good Thing. For if the sturdy earthen walls of this 1500 year old ringfort had been torn asunder by the blades of a farmer's plough, my spontaneous visit could not feasibly have occurred.

Shiring the Midlands

During the 1550s, several hundred English families were dispatched across the Irish Sea and relocated in the heart of the Irish Midlands. The ancient territories of Leix (Laois) and Ui Failie (Offaly) had been seized from their native Irish occupants and shired in the Engish manner. Leix had been rechristened the "Queen's County" for Queen "Bloody Mary" Tudor, the Catholic successor of King Henry VIII. Ui Failie had similarly been created "King's County" in honour of her husband, Philip II, the King of Spain who would one day mastermind the Spanish Armada.

Not surprisingly the chieftains of Leix and Ui Failie greatly resented this forced colonization of their ancestral lands. By the time Queen Elizabeth Tudor succeeded her sister to the throne in 1559, this resentment had evolved into what Mafia hitmen like to call a "rumpus". For close on 20 years, the two English "counties" were plunged into a state of perpetual war with native tribesmen employing time-honoured guerrilla tactics to systematically eliminate the hard-nosed English soldiers posted to defend the planter families. Casualties were high on both sides and morale was at an all time low.

Captain Thomas Lee

However,amongst the English garrison stationed at Philipstown (Daingean, Co. Offaly) there was a young officer named Thomas Lee who believed he could solve the crisis. Captain Lee will be the hero of my movie, a good man, a noble warrior of honest principles and great capability .... or at least, I had him pegged as that sort of a character until August 2015 when Lucille Redmond alerted me to a Wiki remark about him that ran as follows: "Lee preferred articles of treason against the sheriff of Kilkenny for secretly maintaining Rice O'Toole. She was imprisoned in the castle, and Lee had her execution stayed in return for her promise to assist in the apprehension and killing of O'Byrne's sons, two of whom were married to her own sisters. Lee was accused of pulling out the eyes of Art O'Toole while the latter was under protection, and of driving the victim's brother, Rowny, into rebellion while under the same protection." Lucille also understandably described Lee's book 'The Discovery and Recovery of Ireland' as 'crazed railings by a seriously horrible person!'

So, hmmmm to that. But let us imagine Lee as a nice guy for a moment, in the same way 'Braveheart' imagined that the Princess of Wales was a beautiful French chick with the hots for Mel, rather than a 9-year-old girl, which is the age the Princess really was when Wallace was executed ...

In 1574, Thomas Lee made his mark with the English authorities in Dublin when he led a regiment of 100 men deep into the unknown badlands of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It is difficult to conceive quite how dangerous such a trek would actually have been but, when Lee emerged with his garrison still wholly intact, he was roundly applauded by his commanding officers and, some months later, received the Queen's personal congratulations.

In due course, Captain Lee was summoned to Dublin Castle to confer with Her Majesty's Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney. Lee was an unusually enlightened and educated soldier who believed and, indeed, regularly advocated that the way forward lay in negotiations with the enemy. Prior to Mullaghmast, peace between the English and Irish was not such an unreasonable possibility. Over the course of the Middle Ages, many men of Anglo-Norman stock had gladly adopted Gaelic Irish traditions while the Irish chieftains seem to have been quite prepared to adapt the feudal notion of taxation to their own concept of tributes. Yes, there were times of immense savagery and life expectancy was short but there was also a sense of honour. The old chivalry of Arthurian legend still held its head in the 17th century.

Sir Henry Sidney

Sir Henry Sidney is generally acclaimed as a great figurehead of the English Renaissance. He was certainly a highly influential and ambitious man. His father, William Sidney, was a Kentish gentleman knighted by a young King Henry VII in 1513 for his role in the battle of Flodden in which the English had routed the Scots and slain their King. Sir William had later been appointed Royal Tutor to Edward, Prince of Wales. Henry grew up in the same household as Henry VIII's fragile heir.

When Edward VI succeeded to the throne in 1547, an era of tremendous instability gripped the kingdom. Nobody expected the sickly boy king to live long enough to produce an heir, in which case his elder sister the disconcertingly Catholic Princess Mary was next in line. To his credit, Henry Sidney seems to have ignored the perilous intrigues and treacheries of court life during this period and devoted his time instead to supporting the young King during a time of great difficulty. At Greenwich Palace on the morning of Thursday 16th July 1553, Henry Sidney took King Edward VI of England into his arms and held him there until the 15 year old boy breathed his last and died.

Lady Jane Grey

But Sidney was just too intricately involved in the complexities of Tudor court politics to escape the next crisis. Shortly before Edward's death, the 24 year old Sidney married Lady Mary Dudley, a close friend of Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth and daughter of the most influential man in the kingdom at that time, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. The marriage very nearly brought an end to Sidney's career before it had begun for Northumberland, a staunch Protestant, was the man who orchestrated the disastrous plot to oust "Bloody Mary" from the English succession and secure the throne instead for Henry VIII's Protestant teenage niece, Lady Jane Grey. Poor, sweet, multi-lingual Lady Jane had earlier been bullied into marrying the Duke's youngest son, Guildford Dudley, brother of Queen Elizabeth's later paramour, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

The attempted coup failed miserably. Northumberland, Lady Jane and Guildford Dudley were arrested, tried, sentenced and beheaded in February 1554. Sir Henry - who succeeded his father at the height of the crisis - was fortunate to avoid the executioner's axe, since it was his wife who had personally escorted Lady Jane to Syon House where she'd been proclaimed Queen. Perhaps it was concern for his reputation that inspired Sir Henry to name his firstborn son for Queen Mary's husband, King Philip of Spain. The "apology" was evidently accepted for Philip agreed to stand as godfather to the baby. This boy would grow up to be Sir Philip Sidney, the celebrated Elizabethan poet.

Old map of IrelandThe Marian Elite

The following spring, Sir Henry's elder sister Frances married Thomas Radcliffe, the 30 year old Earl of Sussex, at Hampton Court. Three months later Sussex was dispatched to the "Kingdom of Ireland" to take up the office of Lord Deputy. 26 year old Sir Henry Sidney accompanied him as Vice-Treasurer. A third member of this close-knit Marian elite was another of Sir Henry's brother-in-laws and future Lord Deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam. These three men were charged with the task of securing and stabilising the kingdom of Ireland.

Sidney in Ireland

Sir Henry Sidney was intricately involved in the administration of the Irish kingdom from 1556 until his death in 1586. For 15 of those years, he was the most powerful man in Ireland, the Lord Deputy, answerable only to the Queen and her Privy Council . It was he who ordered the rebuilding of Dublin Castle to serve as the headquarters of English rule throughout Ireland. And it was he who first proposed the establishment of a university in Dublin so that the young men of the Pale might be educated to serve the Church of Ireland. During the 1560s and 1570s, he masterminded a policy of "divide and conquer" which deliberately and successfully undermined attempts by native Irish chieftains to form a united front against the English invaders. Supported by one of the largest armies ever seen in Ireland, he secured and expanded the boundaries of the Pale as far as the Shannon; he oversaw the construction of a new bridge at Athlone and strengthened its existing castle. He dispatched his army north to suppress a rebellion by Shane O'Neill and then, in 1571, sent his men south to suppress a much more serious outbreak across Munster where the Fitzgeralds had risen up. He received the submission of the chieftains of Connaught in 1574 and there chanced upon Grace O'Malley (Granuaile) the Pirate Queen of Connaught, whom he described as a 'most famous feminine sea captain' and 'a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland'. Mercenary as ever, she offered Sidney her ships and men in return for cash payment should he require assistance in his colonisation policy. He also lured the wealthy Earl of Essex across the sea to start what ultimately became the first plantation of Ulster - it ended up in disaster and the banrkrupt Earl committed suicide.

Life in 1576

It is difficult to imagine what was going through Sir Henry's head when he listened to Captain Thomas Lee's suggestion that he summon the leading men of Leix and Offaly to a peace conference. 1576 was a good year for England. Adventurers like Raleigh, Drake and Sidney's friend Sir Humphrey Gilbert were constantly sailing up the Thames laden with Spanish gold and silver. There had been little trouble from either Scotland or France, whilst the Earl of Leicester - another of Sidney's brother-in-laws - had secured several great victories over the Dutch on the continent. Perhaps these thoughts, coupled with the repetitive outbreak of rebellion across Ireland, compelled Sidney to take such a radical approach to "the Irish question".

Locating Mullaghmast

I swung into the Texaco station at Crookstown, last petrol station for 400 miles, and asked the attendant for directions to the Rath of Mullaghmast. As he gave me the very detailed details, I went of into a daydream, as I generally do when I'm being given instructions. I was trying to imagine what 40 men marching to a Peace Conference 400 years ago might have looked like. And then I wondered did anybody around here actually know what took place that day at Mullaghmast. "Is it where everyone went in to the party and none of them came out?", chanced the attendant and he beamed with pride as I headed on through Crookstown, past the burgeoning business park, the newly restored church, the national school, the community hall and didn't know quite where to go next and came to a halt by an old man carrying a bag of peat briquettes who gave me brand new directions and I listened dutifully and didn't daydream at all.

Wheel right, first left, wheel right. Down long and scraggly green-fringed boreens designed for donkey carts and Granny bikes. This is farming territory. Cowshite dripping upon metallic gateposts. Sheep's wool waving from barbed fences. Rusty corrugated barns. Magpies conferring in ditches. A mugshot of a bulldog stuck on a door saying "Go Ahead … Make My Day!".

Daniel O'Connell

What am I looking for? A rath? A rath, if I'm not mistaken, is an earthen fort, as opposed to a dun, which is made of stone. I'm looking for an earthen fort so. A great big earthy circular thingy. If I'm … what was that? A granite rock on the right hand side of the road. I reversed. On the rock, engraved in strangely a familiar golden font the rock simply said:

daniel o'connell
monster repeal meeting at mullaghmast 1 10 1843
this monument was unveiled 3 10 1993

Good man Dan. Always throwing Monster Meetings, getting the masses worked up into a grand sweat and then telling them that, after 600 years of failed rebellions, the road to independence lay in peaceful negotiations. A million people showed up to hear him speak at the Hill of Tara once. I don't know who was counting but - a million people! I was in Tampa, Florida, a few weeks ago when they hosted the 2001 Superbowl Finals. I was one of 750,000 people dancing on the streets of Tampa that day. I guess you just have to think of a packed out Wembley and multiply the crowd by ten.

And … Action!

I got out of my car and I stood on Dan's rock and there before me was the Rath of Mullaghmast. I pole-vaulted the fence and walked towards the rath, slowly, vaguely, assuredly, aware of some ancient eeriness in the air. It's probably just me. Drifting off again. I paused beneath the muddy entrance, looked up at the great earthen walls and closed my eyes.

It's New Years Day 1577. Cold and frosty and clear skied. Forty men are jostling and shouting at one another. The colours of their cloaks and robes and strappy boots and raggedy caps and straggly beards swirl and clatter as they trudge towards the fort. The mood is one of mixed humours. Some seem edgy, whispering through cupped hands, scratching their chins with uncertain frowns and puckered lips. They are wary of the foreigners, the pale-faced Englishmen mounted on horseback, two rows of them, their horses sneering and agitated with the noise of it all. Clad in his finest robes, Sir Henry Sidney is strolling around the fortress with the chieftains of the O'Conor and O'Dunne tribes, urging them to have no fear of his intentions. He reminds them the Queen has personally guaranteed the safety of all who attend the conference. "Come come gentlemen, return to your men and I assure you all will be revealed in good time". Others are laughing, standing in a circle around two young bucks wrestling over a girl they both snogged at a dance the night before. Some are just plain exhausted - it's been a hell of a long walk from their home in the Slieve Blooms and they rather overindulged at the Christmas feasts. There are chubby hotheads and skinny clowns and tiny philosophers and giant babyfaces. The Lord Deputy and his officers are clapping their hands and urging everyone into the Rath.

Drink is flowing but some of the Englishmen are starting to sweat and the more hot-headed tribesmen are concerned. What trick does this Sidney have up his sleeve? Why are the O'Dempseys looking so pleased with themselves? In the west, the sun is starting to settle, orange and pink, across the grey misty peaks and dips of the Slieve Blooms, its shadows falling blackly across the great plains of Kildare over which these men have just marched. In the east, the moon glows a wicked white above the Wicklow Mountains; it's ever-changing face seems upset, wide-eyed, aghast. Crows croak and swirl in the sycamore trees, a pheasant spooks and flees noisily amid the brambles, somewhere in the distance a wounded wolf is howling in pain. But nobody can hear any of this because the solitary sound in their ears is the sound of men at arms.

Sir Henry Sidney stands at the entrance to the rath. He looks up at the earthen wall, catches the eye of a yellow bearded man clad in chain-mail and nods discreetly. Yellowbeard disappears from sight. Sidney throws his robes over his shoulder and about turns. The Irishmen start uneasily in his direction. Where's he off to now? The atmosphere has suddenly become tense. Something's up. And then everything goes deathly quiet, just for a moment, because the sound the Irishmen are now hearing is the unmistakable sound of horses, galloping, thundering, towards them.

Suddenly the walls of the earthen mound are smothered in archers, firing their lethal arrows into the panic-stricken gathering. Horses appear at the entrance and start charging in, slashing and stabbing, rearing and kicking. Chaos reigns. Noses are broken. Ribs smashed. Legs snapped. Ankles severed. Necks ripped. Backs cracked. Stomachs lanced. Brains crushed. Several of the Englishmen are dragged from their horses and disappear into the vile melee of congealing blood and severed guts and churned up mud. Desperate screams of agony and fear. Young men and old boys trampled to death. Those who make it out of the fort are immediately hacked down by mounted cavalry who have emerged from nowhere. Among these are a number of the O'Dempsey clan, more than happy to exchange Gaelic loyalty for English silver.

In a matter of minutes, the massacre is over. 40 men lie dead, including the chiefs of the Seven Septs of Leix - O'Moore, O'Lalor, O'Kelly, O'Doran, O'Dowling, McEvoy and Devoy - and the chiefs of the O'Dunne, O'Molloy, O'Connor and O'More clans. Only two men escape. In an instant, native opposition in the Irish Midlands has been totally annihilated. Sidney quickly dispatches his soldiers to consolidate the grim victory. They burn the dead chieftains' homes and villages, rape and murder their women and leave the orphaned children to survive in the hostile wilds. Sidney returned to Dublin, put quill to parchment and assured his Queen that the two royal counties were now secure. And so they would remain until the children of the murdered tribesmen came of age and started to wreak their powerful vengeance.

Death of Peace

The massacre came as a devastating blow to Captain Lee who was not present on the day. When the truth finally reached him, he was utterly appalled. All his efforts at negotiation with the natives had amounted to nothing. The men with whom he had occasionally laughed and often fought had been brutally murdered. He promptly sent a stinging condemnation to Queen Elizabeth - "those country people under cover to do your Majesty's service were brought to a place of meeting where our soldiers were appointed to be and were most dishonourably put to the sword". Lee was later executed by his countryman for offering support to the Irish during Hugh O'Neill's rebellion. For the native Irish, the savage massacre came as a profoundly unpleasant reminder that these invaders were wholly intent on conquering them, even if it be through brute force and treachery. Trust lay on the frosty ground at Mullaghmast dripping with the blood of those unsuspecting corpses.

Ack, it's so easy to regard this sort of barbaric carry on as typical of our bloody-minded ancestors but actually, regrettably, horribly, this ain't a whole lot different to the sort of carry on many unfortunate souls are going through in a country near you right about now. Rwanda? Zambia? Afganistan? Iraq? Are they any different today? Honour and trust were noble values in day's of old. The old chivalry of Arthurian legend still held its head in the 17th century. But the aims of this new wave of invaders were now clear to all. They had come to conquer and vanquish. But perhaps there is hope in this tale too for one day the English and the Irish did finally stop massacring one another and peace existed between the two nations.

Further Reading

Surviving the Tudors: Gerald the 'Wizard' Earl of Kildare and English Rule in Ireland, 1537-1586, Dr. Vincent Carey (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002).
John Derricke's Image of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney and the massacre at Mullaghmast, 1578, Dr. Vincent Carey (Irish Historical Studies,May 1999).
Mullaghmast, its History and Traditions, Lord Walter FitzGerald, Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol. I, No. 6, p. 379-390 (1895).

With thanks to Brian Donovan, Richard O'Rouke, James Fennell and William Fennell.