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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

A Fight With O'Rourke: 1589

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

This account of the government’s final engagement with Brian na Múrtha O’Rourke provides a vivid picture of the nature of Elizabethan Irish warfare. Small in scale and ranging at speed over great distances, it now featured the late addition of firearms. O’Rourke’s kern were schooled in their use by several Armada survivors in his service, but the arcabuz had been gaining ground amongst the Irish since the Desmond Rebellions. This struggle in Connacht was the immediate prelude to the Nine Year’s War, which would see the fielding of regularly organised modern Irish troops by the Earl of Tyrone and his allies.


Lord Deputy Sidney judged Brian na Múrtha (‘of the ramparts’) O’Rourke to be the proudest man he ever dealt with in Ireland. Lord of Breifne O’Rourke (modern Leitrim), Brian had been knighted by the government, and submitted on paper to the Composition of Connacht in 1585. The latter was a ‘surrender and regrant’ scheme, whereby the Irish chiefs would relinquish their holdings to be granted title from the crown. But he refused to pay rent or admit sheriffs to his remote territory. Resisting all incursions, he was already in the field when the shipwrecked Spanish Captain Cuellar sheltered in the O’Rourke castle at Castletown. Brian housed, clothed and armed large numbers of Armada refugees, thus sealing his fate. He spoke no English. He and his wife were described as attractive people who favoured Philip II’s severe, all-black ‘sacristan’ style of dress when appearing at the opening of parliament in Dublin in 1585.

Brian’s nemesis, Sir Richard Bingham, in 1564.  Known as the ‘Flail of Connacht.’
Brian’s nemesis, Sir Richard Bingham, in 1564. He was known as the ‘Flail of Connacht.’

The Opposing Forces

Brian na Múrtha, ‘strong in galloglass,’ was served by two battles of his hereditary MacCabe galloglasses, totaling 160 men. A government report called “The Power of Irishmen,” circa 1500, says the O’Rourke forces included 40 horse and 300 kern, which is probably about what Brian now had, though the kern were likely less numerous and served as shot. He also ‘kept constantly employed’ the MacEvies, who were Scots Redshanks, having 200 ‘on bonnaught’ (i.e., billeted) in 1584 amongst his towns and crannogs, such as the one at Glencar Lake near Castletown. Scottish swords found in crannogs attest to this mercenary activity. The Scots are often referred to as ‘mailed’ and also wore ‘sculls,’ being armed with bows and claymores.

Redshank with mail shirt, bow and claymore.
Scots Redshank with mail shirt, bow and claymore.

Brian was fortified in “Sundry Ilandes and holdes within his country, and therin maytayned and releved the Clanshees, McGwyres, and others oute of Munster, whoe were in actuall rebellion with the arch-traytor, Therle of Desmond.” These Clanshees, ex-Desmond galloglasses, were described by Sir Richard Bingham in April of 1589: “There be 200 of the M’Shees, of Munster, in Tirconnel, who made motion to be entertained for Her Majesty’s service to be done within this province [Connacht]. If they be not entertained for Her Majesty’s service, they will go to O’Rourke, which will greatly strengthen him.” When the Lord Deputy demurred, Bingham argued without success that although there was no great need of them, yet it would be good policy to keep them from going to the enemy.

Another refugee from the Desmond Rebellions was Murrough na Mart (‘of the beeves’) MacSweeny, who was now leading his 200 Munster galloglasses in Brian’s service. Murrough’s men had just come from service with Turlough Luineach O’Neill. Lastly, Brian’s main uirríthe (sub-king), MacClancy, was said to have hired 100 kern for their rebellion, and had 14 Spaniards with him when he was finally killed. The kern were largely armed with Armada harquebuses, and trained in their use by the Spanish. But unlike the O’Flaherty’s and MacWilliam Burkes, there is no evidence that Brian’s men used pike and shot formations.

Thus in March of 1589 Brian’s forces raiding in Sligo were said to total 600-700 men.

By the way, Murrough na Mart MacSweeny was later described by Florence MacCarthy as “without exception . . . the most exercised commander, and of greatest skill, experience, and reputation for that country’s wars of any mere Irishman.” He thus served Brian na Múrtha O’Rourke in the capacity of Marshall. Novelist/historian Standish O’Grady paints this word-picture of him: “Murrough na Mart was a vicious old war-scoundrel, and looked it; but he was brave, a skilled soldier, and an honest workman in his fearful trade. His hideous face wore a look of reliableness and valour, and his one eye—it was blue and bright—looked out frankly from under a composed brow. Few of my readers have ever heard of this one-eyed captain, but he was a famous man in his day; Lord Burleigh and Walsyngham and the Queen were well acquainted with Murrough na Mart. Murrough had in his time commanded large armies, and also small; now he only led a company. Such are the vicissitudes of a professional career.”

Murrough na Mart  MacSweeny
Murrough na Mart MacSweeny

O’Rourke was knighted at Dublin in 1579, receiving the following arms from ‘Ulster’s Office,’ the government heraldry office: Or, two lions passant in pale sable. In his rebellion, he and his brothers and sons are described as appearing ‘with banners displayed,’—no doubt heraldic banners prepared at Dublin. Display of banners while under arms by an Irish nobleman was defined as treason if he was not on crown service. In fact, the other Connacht rebels—the Burkes and O’Flahertys, are also frequently described as flying banners and guidons, often six or seven. So much for Fynes Moryson’s latter claim about ‘rebels in woods not using that martial bravery’.

Brian na Múrtha O’Rourke’s banner.
Brian na Múrtha O’Rourke’s banner.

The crown forces in this action were two bands of English foot under Captain Nicholas Mordant and Captain Hugh Mostyn. But that of Hugh Mostyn, an old Welsh soldier, had recently lost 17 men, so this would have been less than 200 men. They were joined by the Earl of Clanricarde Burke, the most zealous Queen’s man of the Irish of Connacht. Clanricarde’s forces typically averaged 120 horse, 2 battels of galloglasses, and 300 kern. On this occasion he seems to have had about 30 horse and a number of light troops, with no mention of his galloglasses being present.

This Clanricarde was Ulick Burke, the 3rd Earl. He and his brother John were sons of the 2nd Earl, Richard Sassenach (‘the anglicized’) Burke, who married an O’Carroll. Not surprisingly, Richard’s surviving tailor’s bill features doublet and hose of satin ‘cut, raised and laced,’ with doublets of ‘yellow canvas pinkt’ and Venetian breeches with leather pockets and ash coloured hose for his sons. However, Ulick and John were wild children who caused their loyal father much heartache, and they were repeatedly in rebellion from 1570 on. Returning from their submission in Dublin, they doffed their English clothes and put on Irish attire in sight of the garrison of Athlone, having safely crossed the river first. When the 2nd Earl died in 1582, Ulick murdered his brother John to secure the Earldom to himself, and remained steadfastly loyal until his death in 1603.

After Action Report

May 21, 1589

Dublin Castle.

Captain Nicholas Mordant to the Lord Deputy.

The Right Hon. the Earl of Clanrickarde was directed by Commission from Sir R. Bingham to follow the service against O’Rourke, now in action of rebellion. I being appointed to assist the said Earl, we marched from Ulfyn out of Roscommon to Beall Amathafadae in Co. Sligo the 8th of May, being 14 miles, where we encamped ourselves about 4 of the clock in the afternoon, meeting there with the Sheriff of the County of Sligo and John Byrmingham pursuivant, who gave intelligence unto us that O’Rourke was at his house of Dromathyely with the most part of all his force, and that the Sheriff’s opinion was that he would march towards us that night in the respect our forces were small. This nobleman hearing of this, and being very desirous to serve presently upon O’Rourke, did confer with me whether our soldiers were able to march 14 miles more that night, to whom I answered we would do our best, and so after the setting of our watch we removed our camp, and marched towards Dromathyely that night, being in number but 30 horsemen of the Earl’s, mine own band, and Capt. Hugh Mostyn with some other light footmen of the Earl’s.

O’Rourke’s Masonry hall at Dromahair (‘Dromathyely’), similar to the one at Augnanure.
O’Rourke’s masonry hall by the castle of Dromahair (‘Dromathyely’), similar to the one at Augnanure.

The night being short the day overtook us three miles before coming to Dromathyely, and being discovered, and our force known O’Rourke had intelligence, and made himself ready with a great force, and his chief Captain Morogh ny Morth did avow to fight with us; and when we were within half a mile to the town, our scout came in and told us they were in battle ready to fight with us; and presently I did embattle our footmen and march towards them. But O’Rourke being always a valiant champion fled. The Earl of Clanricard seeing the same said, “Captain Mordant I will follow him with my horsemen,” I answered him “Good my Lord do not, for your horsemen are not able to deal with them,” but the noble man being so courageous would not be persuaded by me, but followed them most bravely three miles in most dangerous way. I set out Captain Mostyn with loose shot both of mine and his, with all the light footmen the Earl had himself, but no man could come to him.

But I must needs commend unto your honour the great valour of that noble man, who notwithstanding the force of O’Rourke’s shot, and gallowglasses, the bullets flying about his ears, he still charging upon them, and foremost man still, the villains, half a dozen shot at him at once; who made his horse plunge sidling, and threw the Earl to the ground, the spur sticking in the pillion, and by force “teared” the spur off his foot, yet he rose up again, and drew his sword most valiantly, and stood to his defence, his horsemen being a good distance from him, but two of his horsemen made great haste, and defended him till he got his horse again, at which time O’Rourke had gotten the bog, and the Earl then cried out to his horsemen to charge, the loose shot being coming all this while. A gentleman of my company called Derby Newman, being a better footman than all the rest came to the Earl, even as the latter end of O’Rourke’s force took the bog, the gentleman seeing Morogh ny Morth keeping the rereward of O’Rourke’s men called to him, and desperately ran upon him, and a shot made upon him missed him, but he most valiantly ran the shot through. Morogh then came upon him, and wounded him most cruelly: then the Earl called for shot, and half a dozen of my shot being come unloaded, and Morogh ny Marth was shot, and the enemy took him away and set him over a horse and so carried him. I thought to let your honour understand of the “value” of this nobleman. Further I am to put your honour in remembrance as touching my entertainment for my journey to the north with your honour. Camp at Moymely, May 11. Copy pp. 2.

half a dozen shot at him at once; who made his horse plunge sidling, and threw the Earl to the ground
half a dozen shot at him at once; who made his horse plunge sidling, and threw the Earl to the ground


Clanricarde obviously still rode in the Irish manner, on a pillion saddle. His large Irish-style rowel spurs caught in the checkered blanketing of the pad saddle when he was unhorsed. He is pictured here in a ‘Spanish murrion’ with mail and aketon, with a conventional sword and an Irish horseman’s staff, wielded overhead rather than couched.

John Hunt (in Medieval Irish Figure Sculpture, 1974) has noted that even such an exalted nobleman as Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, would use this homely native armour while on foray with his galloglasses and kerns. Piers was familiar with the splendours of the court of Henry VIII, and no fashionable extravagance was beyond his purse. Yet at his death in 1539 he leaves not his best habergeon (mail shirt), but his only habergeon, ‘meam loricam,’ to his heir, James the 9th Earl. And Gerald Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, who died in 1513, gave the better part of an armour fashioned in the Irish manner to his friend Henry Says— “the haberion and pisayn that was had of MacCabe and a basnet that Donyll Oge had.” It continued to be used at this late date because it was suited to the conditions of Irish warfare.

Notice that Clanricarde “seeing Morogh ny Morth keeping the rereward of O’Rourke’s men called to him, and desperately ran upon him, and a shot made upon him missed him, but he most valiantly ran the shot through.” This heroic combat between champions remained a part of Irish warfare, as it had been at Knockdoe in 1504 when MacSweeny cried out for ‘great Darcy’ amid the melee. Well known examples are the mounted duel between Tyrone and Seagrave, the giant Palesman, at Clontibret in 1595—which ended with them grappling on the ground—and Hugh Maguire’s impromptu fight with St. Leger at Cork in 1600, which resulted in both their deaths.

There are another two contemporary instances of a single combat between an Irish horseman and a ‘shot,’ in particular, which echo Clanricarde running the shot through in this fight.

(In 1595 during Sir John Norys approach to the Blackwater.): “In the morning at the remove of the campe (the rebells forces lying not farre of), an English soldier came forth on foote with his peece, in bravinge sorte, traversinge his ground and makinge shew to challenge single fight. An Irish horseman of Tyrone’s, whoe scouted on that quarter and was neare hym, charged home to hym. The footeman shotte hym thorow, and the other, runninge in with a full careare, strake the footeman with his staff into the body. The general took his jorney backe from Ardmagh to victuell Monahon.” —from Carew’s Chronicle of Ireland.

About the vii of July 1598 ... Bryan Magoghegan, being but himself and one horseman, risse forth to see what they were, and understanding it was Tirrell, came uppon the sparr in manner of a bravado, and for that he was alone, one of the miscreantes thincking he had bene in jeste, went forth from his comepany, using some of his country Apish tricks, but Bryan beinge otherwyse determynded, and taking his opportunitie, strake my northern vyper cleane through the boddy with his staffe, and went clere away withowt hurte. —from Dialogue of Sylvynne and Peregrynne, by H.C. (Hugh Collier).


After this final engagement, Brian na Múrtha O’Rourke took refuge with MacSweeny Doe in Tirconnell for a year before fleeing to Scotland in February 1591, with diplomatic gifts of Irish hobbies and wolfhounds for King James VI. Angling for the English throne after Elizabeth’s imminent death, James wouldn’t see him, and extradited him to England instead. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on November 3, 1591. His son, Brian Oge, had been called back from Oxford University when the rebellion began, and he now succeeded as Lord of Breifne O’Rourke. Brian Oge, with his two battles of MacCabe galloglasses, played an important role in the Irish victory at the battle of the Curlew Mountains in 1599.

As for Murrough na Mart MacSweeny, he survived his wounds. After this defeat, he deserted Brian na Múrtha, and took service with Sir Richard Bingham, “who sent him and his soldiers pardoned into their country,” Munster. There he is last heard of in 1601, having taken service now with O’Sullivan Bere, who rose out in the aftermath of the Spanish landing at Kinsale.

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Jun 30, 2023

Cheers for all that

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