The Battle of Knockdoe
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
Knockdoe, in the parish of Lackagh, four miles north east of Claregalway, just outside Galway city was the scene of was one of the bloodiest battles in Irish history. It is believed that up to 5,000 people lost their lives during the course of the battle, which only lasted a few hours.
The battle was the result of a clash of interests between two Norman families, the Burkes of Clanrickard in South Galway and the Fitzgerald’s of Kildare, both of whom had by the 16th century become more Irish than the Irish themselves. The War of the Roses had kept King Henry VII out of Irish affairs, and this enabled the king’s representative Gearóid Mór Fitzgerald, eighth Earl of Kildare, to consolidate his power. His influence however was weakest in the West.
Ulick Finn Burke of Clanrickard, who had been elected as chieftain in 1485, had emerged as the most powerful chieftain in the West and was unwilling to accept Gearóid Mór’s authority. Subsequently, he formed an alliance with O'Brien of Thomond and the Munster clans. In an effort to win over Burke, Gearóid Mór offered him his daughter Eustacia in marriage. While Burke took her as his wife he mistreated her and this according to The Book of Howth was the cause of the conflict. There was however other factors that caused Gearóid Mór to march against his son-in-law.
Burke had attacked and destroyed the Castles of O'Kelly, Lord of Hymany, at Monivea, Garbally and Castleblakeney. Furthermore, Burke was living in open adultery with the wife of O'Kelly. The O'Kelly went to Gearóid Mór to complain of these outrages and thus an army was gathered. The Burkes of Mayo and most of the northern clans also declared their support for Gearóid Mór.
Gearóid Mór was also supported by approximately eighty English soldiers from The Pale, which was at odds with a law the English had passed in 1498, declaring that English soldiers were not to be used in private wars between Irish chieftains. It was a law he was supposed to uphold but he also realised he needed all the support he could get if he were to check Burke’s challenge to his ambitions of becoming the dominating figure in Ireland.
In the summer of 1504 Ulick Burke entered Galway, which was in breach on the town’s charter. His presence in Galway disrupted trade and the freedom the Galwegians had been granted by the English kings. Thus the fuse for battle had been lit and Gearóid Mór marched his army west.
News of his march west reached Burke who marched out to where the hostile army had taken up position. The two armies faced each other a mile to the North of where the parish church of Lackagh now stands. In all about 10,000 people took part in the battle, with 6,000 supporting Gearóid Mór and 4,000 supporting Ulick Burke.
The galloglass formed the backbone of both armies. They were mercenary soldiers from the western isles of Scotland, hence their name gall óglaigh (foreign soldiers). The MacSweeneys were the most famous galloglasses of the times and at Knockdoe they fought on opposing sides, with one branch serving the O Donnells of Donegal and another Burke of Clanrickard. They were famous for their use of the razor sharp axe which accounted for the large number of casualties. Indeed, this is probably where the name Knockdoe comes from, Cnoc Tua meaning Hill of the Axes.
Gearóid Mór deployed his troops in such a way that their right flank was protected by a stone wall and his left by archers. Ulick formed his army into a solid block with his two flanks protected by the galloglass. Accounts of the battle, most notably The Annals of the Fours Masters and The Book of Howth are somewhat sketchy as to what went wrong, but at some stage the tide of battle turned against Burke. Ballybrone on the banks of the River Clare was the scene of the greatest slaughter. Of the nine battalions of galloglass that had taken part, only one left the field.
It is said of Knockdoe that it was the first time gunpowder was used in Ireland and one of Ulick Burke’s men was beaten to death by a new weapon called a gun, when he strayed into the wrong camp. Burke’s troops fled the field and despite attempts to regroup for another battle his troops went their separate ways. Gearóid Mór held the field and the next day he ransacked Claregalway Castle, taking two of Ulick’s sons and a daughter prisoner. From there he marched unopposed into Galway where he rewarded his men with thirty large barrels of wine.
As a result of his victory, the pinnacle of his career, according to the Fitzgerald chroniclers, Gearóid Mór was able to extend English influence into the West, while Ulick Burke’s power was destroyed and he himself faded into obscurity. The Burkes of Mayo prospered at his expense and three branches of the O Kellys west of the river Suck were established at Moylough, Galagh and Mullaghmore, where they would retain power until the end of Gaelic Ireland. Today a number of cairns still adorn the summit of the 130 metre high hill where the dead are said to be buried.