Posts Tagged With: Local History

History Corner: Battle of Dysart O’Dea 1318

I’d like to take a slight detour from my usual blog topics and write about the battle of Dysart O’Dea 1318. As you may have noticed, my second name being O’Dea, I’ve taken a particular interest in this topic. Though one of the lesser well-known battles in Irish history, it had monumental implications on Norman rule, leaving Thomond an autonomous kingdom free of any Anglo influence until its disestablishment in 1543.

The Battle of Dysert O’Dea took place on the 10th of  May 1318 at Dysert O’Dea near Corofin, in The Kingdom of Thomond.

Kingdom of Thomond at its full extent.

Kingdom of Thomond at its full extent.

The Anglo-Normans had been clashing on and off with Thomond since the day their arrival in Munster. Thomond was a kingdom stretching across North Munster, ruled by the successors of the great Brian Boru and attained its independence where so many Gaelic kingdoms had not.

However, by the time of the Norman invasion, its borders had shrunk to present day County Clare. On its borders the Norman forces of Richard De Clare resided in Limerick City and the townland of Bunratty in South Clare.

However, by the time of the Norman invasion, its borders had shrunk to present day County Clare. On its borders the Norman forces of Richard De Clare resided in Limerick City and the townland of Bunratty in South Clare.

The Gaels and Normans had co-existed in uneasy truce with one another and adopted the “live and let live” sentiment between them. Simply put the Normans lacked the military strength to topple Thomond, while Thomond was unwilling to risk an open siege on Limerick or confrontation with Norman forces. Instead, the Normans opted for an alternative method of asserting influence over Thomond in the form of supporting one claimant to the throne over the other.

Gaelic Kingdoms lacked the stability of Norman dynasties in that it wasn’t of primogeniture (first-born males’ inheritance). Rather, in these kingdoms the new leader would be elected through the backing of smaller clans within the region. This meant that there was never an easy handover of power after the death of a ruler and left Gaelic kingdoms in constant conflict. Richard De Clare hoped that by backing one faction over the other he would either put a friendly face on the throne or weaken the kingdom as a whole.

Norman Knight (foreground) with typical mixed infantry (background) dawning both chainmail and typically Gaelic woolen armour.

Norman Knight (foreground) with typical mixed infantry (background) dawning both chainmail and typically Gaelic woolen armour.

13th century Gaelic warriors with Kerns (right) skirmishers.

13th century Gaelic Gallowglass heavy infantry with Kern skirmishers (right).

 

This particular conflict over the throne was between two individuals, Donough O’Brien and Murtough O’Brien. De Clare backed Donough, whom though having the initial success was quickly on the lower hand after a crushing defeat to his rivals in the Burren. After relentless cattle raids by the O’Deas on De Clare’s stocks, he was provoked into a response. He assembled what forces he could; made up of spearman, some archers, light cavalry, with the main bulk of the force consisting of footmen supplemented by Donough.

These were experienced frontier soldiers who had some knowledge of the terrain and a considerable experience fighting the Irish. Heading north past Ennis, De Clare began pillaging what he could along the way, determined to knock Murtough off his feet by removing the main backing force of his campaign from the face of Thomond, Conor O’Dea.

dysert o'dea battle map

Map illustrating the battle

Confident of victory, De Clare split his forces into three divisions, the left towards Magowna with the right towards Tully, spreading out to continue to pillage and raze, providing a guard to the flanks of the main force in the centre. Meanwhile in the centre column, De Clare and his son took the direct route to Dysert O’Dea Castle; determined to destroy O’Dea’s forces.

As De Clare approached Lough Ballycullinan, North East of Dysert, he came upon a party of O’Dea’s men, the Irish account describes it as “a well ordered detachment of horse and foot” – driving a herd of cattle across a ford. The Normans upon seeing this easy prize made charge and De Clare in his haste separated from the main body of his units. At first the Irish seemed full of flight, but it was a trap. O’Dea was no fool, and all too aware that his troops would have little chance of matching De Clare’s in open combat. O’Dea’s men quickly turned around after luring De Clare close enough and began skirmishing the Normans with showers of darts, sling-stones and hand-stones. De Clare grew rash and charged into the forces.

In the midst of the long standing skirmish, Conor O’Dea reputedly felled De Clare with his axe; “the O’Deas killed both himself and every man with him”. The Gaels began to slowly retire towards the woods as De Clare’s troops ensued their pursuit. Upon reaching the treeline, De Clare’s men were immediately bombarded by O’Dea’s main body of units, hidden amongst the trees and found themselves being assailed from both front and rear.

Dyart O'Dea Castle a later 15th century addition to where Conor O'Dea made his stronghold.

Dyart O’Dea Castle a later 15th century addition to where Conor O’Dea made his stronghold.

Site of the ford where the ambush and subsequent skirmishing took place.

Site of the ford where the ambush and subsequent skirmishing took place.

The Normans were holding their own remarkably well despite the loss of their leader, closer to victory than the Irish and remaining disciplined enough to continue the fight with vigour. Both rears of the Norman units were reinforced by the arrival of the two other bodies of Norman forces and joined up into a central column. O’Dea’s forces were relieved with the arrival of O’Connor’s and O’Hehir’s forces who charged swiftly down Scool Hill to the West. Conor O’Dea’s men cut their way through and joined the reinforcements outside the wood.The fight became a melee and the Irish became engulfed in a surging, hacking mass as the Normans reformed to counter. The Irish forces became compacted by the overwhelming forces and formed into a phalanx and held their ground as the Normans struggled to break through. Individual warriors came out and fought one on one and it is said that De Clare’s son was slew by O’Connor.

Through the determination of the Irish forces with the leadership and remarkably use of the geography to their advantage by Conor O’Dea, victory was made possible, but not yet ensured. Murtough and his forces were still outside of combat. It was their intervention that was decisive. Murtough followed the burning countryside over Spancil Hill from North-East Clare in such a hurried piecemeal fashion that they were at first mistaken for Norman reinforcements. The weight of Murtough’s forces tipped the balance. The Normans still fought with equal vigour and discipline but were trapped between the two Irish forces, collapsed and were slaughtered, “so dour the hand-to-to hand work was, that neither noble nor commander of them left the ground, but the far greater part fell where they stood”.

Modern re-enactment of Norman light cavalry, these would have provided the rear and front guard of De Clare's party

Modern re-enactment of Frontier light cavalry, these would have provided the rear and front guard of De Clare’s party

 

Site of the battle with Spancil Hill (background) where Murtough O'Brien's reinforcements arrived from.

Site of the battle with Spancil Hill (background) where Murtough O’Brien’s reinforcements arrived from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The battle was decisive, 400-500 of De Clare’s forces including him and his son were slain in comparison to only 80 Irish forces. Murtough pursued the retreating survivors to Bunratty Castle where he found the castle and settlement set aflame by order of De Clare’s wife who had fled to England by boat upon hearing of her husband’s death. Thomond remained independent of foreign rule and influence for the next 200 years until the intervention of Queen Elizabeth in Ireland.

Conor O’Dea had utilized the best tactics available to him – ruse, concealment, goading and ambush and a new found hardness, which allowed his forces to stand against the Normans through the thick and thin of the battle. Luck may well have played a significant role in the series of events that happened during the battle as it does in any battle. But regardless, O’Dea’s skill as a tactician, ability to hold his nerve where De Clare was incapable, and quick thinking is a credit to him and the victory.

Thanks for reading and if you’ve any suggestions for my next historical post be sure to comment below!

All the best,

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