In an attempt to negotiate a truce between two warring factions; the Normans led by Richard De Clare and the Thomond Irish led by Muirceartach O’Brien, a meeting was held in King John’s castle in Limerick in 1317. Negotiations failed and that same evening, at full moon, Muirceartach and his entourage left Limerick for a safe haven at Tulla in Co. Clare. This essay traces their route through the modern South East Clare countryside, using the text of a near contemporary record; the Caithréim.
The Caithréim or to give it its full title the Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh / The Triumphs of Turlough, was written in Irish in 1459 by John son of Rory Magrath. It was translated into English by Standish Hayes O’Grady before 1915 and was published in 1929 by the Irish Texts Society.
It is a military history of Thomond from the arrival of the Normans in 1172 to the death of King Diarmaid O’Brien in 1364. It is strongly biased in favour of the O’Briens and then whichever O’Brien became king. The writing style of the original Irish version, to the modern reader, is very verbose and is overburdened with alliterative adjectives. This probably indicates that the story was intended for listeners rather than readers. However, the accuracy of its contents has withstood the test of time and has been widely used as a reference book by historians down to the present day.
The Normans arrived in Ireland from Britain in 1169. By 1172 they had reached Limerick and by 1199, from their base in Limerick city, they felt able to grant territory to their supporters north of the River Shannon, in Thomond. A castle, built on the orders of King John and bearing his name, was completed around 1210. In 1248 Robert de Muscegros was granted the land of Tradaree which appears to have covered that part of Thomond from the river O’Garney in the east to the river Fergus in the west, north to Clarecastle. In 1276, the whole of Thomond, including Tradaree, was granted to Thomas de Clare. De Clare’s tenure in Thomond was not at all peaceful due to constant warfare with the native Irish, primarily the O’Briens and their allied clans. In 1308, Thomas’s grandson Richard inherited the De Clare lands including the castle and manor of Bunratty, where he set up his headquarters. It is he who features in this excerpt when, in 1317, he demanded a meeting with the new O’Brien king, Muirceartach.
The kingdom of Thomond at its height comprised the area now encompassing the dioceses of Killaloe and Limerick. It was ruled by Donal Mór O’Brien who, by marriage alliances and military prowess, was able to keep the Normans at bay until his death in 1194. His capital was in Limerick city. From 1194 to 1317, eight O’Brien kings reigned in Thomond, all of whom had to fight both other O’Brien claimants to the throne and the Normans in Limerick. In that period, territories south and east of the River Shannon were lost to the Normans and the O’Brien capital was moved from Limerick to Clonroad in Ennis. The kingdom of Thomond was then almost coterminous with the modern county Clare. During the inter-O’Brien disputes, the De Clare assisted whichever branch suited him at the time to further his cause.
In 1317, Muirceartach O’Brien became king, having eliminated his O’Brien challenger at the battle of Corcomroe. At a meeting in Limerick with Richard de Clare, Muirceartach refused to accept any imposed settlement from De Clare. War was the only solution to this impasse between the two for control of Thomond. It is Muirceartach who features in this account.
The Route taken by O’Brien
When reading the following account, it should be noted that we cannot be 100% certain of the route taken because of the passage of 800 years. In the first part of the journey up to Cullane, there are several named places close enough together for us to be confident of the general route taken. Between these named places, there are stretches of ancient track ways, either existing or shown on the oldest Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, that indicate to us the likely route. Between the trackways, where the route has vanished, interpolation is possible. However, there is no information in the Caithréim about the final leg of the journey from Cullane to Tulla and so some difficulty was expected in identifying the route. When the time came to examine that part of the journey, by applying some local knowledge with some creative map reading, it turned out to be quite easy.
The following excerpts from the Caithréim (in italics) are taken from Vol. xxvii, pp.121, 122 of the Irish Texts Society’s publication. The Irish language version is in Vol. xxvi, p.138.
After the failed meeting, Muirceartach requested safe passage for him and his followers from the Norman barons who were at the meeting.
Of the barons under whose protection they were, Thomond now prayed that they would convoy them safe [out of de Clare’s immediate grasp]. They did so, coming with them as far as the head of Thomond-bridge where the barons told them that it was injustice was done them, and added: ‘it just happens well for you that at this departing on your journey both tide and moon at the full await you.’
The barons appear to be telling O’Brien that due to the favourable sailing conditions, De Clare was going to Bunratty by boat and so wouldn’t attack O’Brien’s troop.
They took leave one of the other, and O’Brien’s party sought the place in which their horses, their riding-gear and horse-boys expected them.
Horse boys are kerns, lightly armed soldiers who travel to battle on horses and dismount prior to engagement. These presumably were the bodyguards. Since the troop consisted of senior O’Briens and allied clans, we can assume all were mounted.
With spirits bent on action, yet prudently contained, roundly they coasted along the Cratalachs’ [‘Cratloes’] thick-sheltering, fruitful-branched, mast-abounding woods;
This tells us that they rode in a North–West direction out of Limerick via the Old Cratloe road, locally known as the Wood road, through the Cratloe woods. These were ancient oak woods and in 1317 belonged to the Norman King John, reigning in England. From Limerick, one can see the Cratloe Hills gently sloping from their high point at Woodcock hill on the viewer’s right – distinguishable by a white radome on its summit – down to the flatlands along the River Shannon. Cratloe crossroads (now a village) is located at the base of the slope and was a good marker for a traveller going into Thomond.
entered into Hy-Amrid of the high hills with pleasant levels, clear, good horse-paths and salmon-yielding rivers;
Hy Amirid or to give it its modern historical name Uí Ainmire corresponds roughly to that part of Limerick diocese in Thomond, and so was accepted as being part of the Norman possession of Limerick.
At Cratloe, the troop turned North, travelling between the Cratloe hills on the East and the estuary of the River O’Garney on the West. The old road briefly disappears at Cratloe, due to later road and rail works. It reappears as the access road to Crughaun cemetery which contains a ruined medieval church beside a much reconfigured wedge-tomb. The road then continues through farmland, much overgrown and exits c. 500m later close to and on the west side of Poulawooly bridge.
The official name for the bridge is Brickhill Railway bridge. However, other than by Irish Rail, the bridge is referred to as Poulawooly Bridge. This is a corruption of the Irish name Poll a’ Mhárla – the marl pit. This refers to a source of marl, about 2km from the bridge, in the former estuary of the O’Garney. Marl is a mixture of clay and lime associated with the beds of freshwater lakes and rivers in limestone areas. It could only be dug out in Summer when the water table was low and when the excavated material could be laid out to dry. It was used as an acid land fertiliser, being alkaline, for at least 400 years prior to the widespread use of limestone.
We pick up the old road on the east side of Poulawooly. It is 12ft. (3.5m) wide, sufficient for two horsemen riding abreast or a wheeled chariot. It winds through the country side for about 1.5 km. It is difficult to traverse in places due to dense vegetation and a multitude of insects. Underfoot, a clay layer of about 30cm would make the going difficult in wet weather. In places, the road has been destroyed by local land-owners, but its track can be followed thanks to the OS first edition of the 6-inch map, surveyed in the early 1840s. The surrounding land is undulating probably as a result of the deposition of glacial till rather than underlying bedrock close to the surface. Fields on both sides are small and at the time of visiting were either cut for silage or used for grazing. At one location, where the track crosses a stream, a damp corner of the fields on both sides, and fenced off, contains a profusion of wild flowers.
The road disappears when it meets the main Cratloe/Sixmilebridge road again. O’Brien’s troop would have continued their march northwards along this road, parallel to the O’Garney River to the west, reaching the location of the future Sixmilebridge/Droichead Abhann Uí gCearnaigh in the district of Uí Cearnaigh. For land transportation between Limerick and Bunratty, this would have been the optimum place to bridge the river as the river was tidal up to this point and underfoot was exposed limestone bedrock suitable for supporting a bridge. It is strange that this place wasn’t mentioned in the Caithréim. Perhaps it didn’t exist in 1317.
past hazel-woody Ballymulcashel
Continuing northwards towards the next placename, evidence of the old road stays hidden for a while but its route may be followed relatively easily. From Sixmilebridge and on the way to Ballymulcashel, the route again follows another main road, this time towards Kilmurry and Kilkishen. About 3km from Sixmilebridge, the main road veers to the left and route of the old road continues straight on through an entrance gate to Annagore mill. A short section of the old road is extant but is not accessible due to greenery. A much longer stretch of the old road leading to Ballymulcashel existed three decades ago, but was removed as part of farm improvements.
Ballymulcashel is a large townland of approximately 250ha. It is bounded on the south by Castle Lake from which flows the O’Garney River. This is where O’Brien’s troop crossed the river and left the O’Garney river behind. This seems to have been a strategic crossing point through time, as an O’Brien tower house was built in Mountcashel townland nearby in the 15th century. We do not know whether there was a bridge at the time of O’Brien’s crossing but certainly the river bed was and is of limestone and would support a bridge. A medieval 4 arch bridge was built there, possibly at the same time as the O’Brien castle. This bridge was replaced by a single arch structure in 1855. One arch of the medieval bridge is preserved in situ.
Having crossed the river, the road rises steeply to the village of Kilmurry/Cill Mhuire na nGall, the church of Mary of the Foreigners. The foreigners are of course the Normans, who had built a settlement at this point, including a church and possibly a windmill at Drummullan. Kilmurry was deemed to be part of the manor of Bunratty along with the seven parishes of Newmarket-On-Fergus. Kilmurry appears to have been constructed around a crossroads as, in addition to the North-South route taken by O’Brien, there are ancient roads leading southwards to Bunratty and north-eastwards via Aonach Uí BhFloinn (Enagh) to Ath Leathan (Broadford). The latter two places were allies of the Normans and so were connected by road to Bunratty for fast access. It is strange that Kilmurry, like Sixmilebridge, didn’t get a mention in the Caithréim. Kilmurry did exist in 1317 as the parish was assessed at 4 marks in 1304 to fund a crusade to Jerusalem.
towards the much-resorted hard-flagged strath of Cullane, with its tracks among the rocks and eminences of pleasant prospect;
Leaving Kilmurry behind, the route taken by the troop passes through farmland, preserved initially by a farm track, passing the site of Kilmurry church on the East and Drummullan on the West. Thereafter, the route disappears on the ground due to land improvements but may be followed on the OS map.
Still travelling northwards, the troop were now in the district of Uí Caisín, the home district of McNamaras and their allies. The name comes from the Dal gCais, the origin clan of several of the Thomond clans. Strath is a glen. Cullane contains a large lake whose full name is Cullanyheeda named after a Síoda McNamara. Much of the ground here was and is limestone crag which would have made for slow going for the horses in the group. The more likely route is that followed by the present road which is on the ridge of an elongated hill which separates the craggy ground on the west and a string of lakes to the east. Further on, past Cullane at Dangan, the present road divides, one branch going through the crags to the O’Brien inauguration site at Magh Adair and thence to Quin in the west and the other through a drumlin field towards Tulla, to the east.
on to Tulach na nespoc [‘hill of bishops’] sanctified by bell and precious Mass, by relics gold-enshrined, by rare piety and notable miracles. In shelter of which famous church that night they lay, and on the irachts enjoined to keep good watch and ward in their ‘gaps of danger’ [at their vulnerable points], at the common border-fords, and to guard the ways; to be alert and vigilant, ready to meet all alarms assaults and sudden war. On the extreme verge of demarcation [between de Clare and him] O’Brien pitched a standing camp to hold that position.
Iracht is not in the Irish/English dictionary but is used several times in the Caithréim. From the contexts, it appears to mean helper or in the military sense, auxillary.
The above extract is not helpful when plotting a likely route for the troop. The extensive plain between Dangan and Tulla contains drumlins, lakes and bogs and is agriculturally quite fertile when drained. Just one roadway exists between Dangan and the vicinity of Tulla and an inspection of the relevant OS 6-inch map shows that this was a likely route for O’Brien. We know that a network of trackways existed in the area, connecting settlements of ring forts and cashels. Thus a likely route would be one threading its way between these settlements. By following a route framed by Cragnaganaha Fort, Knockmoyle Fort, the Derrymore West enclosures and finally Knockadoon Fort the route to Tulla is clear. Tulla is a village on a hilltop, crowned by St. Mochulla’s church and is visible for miles around.
The De Clare/O’Brien war continued almost immediately. In May 1318, the two forces met in battle in Dysert-O’Dea where O’Brien was victorious and De Clare was killed. His wife and children fled Bunratty to England. Bunratty was taken and destroyed by the McNamaras. The O’Brien clan continued to be the dominant clan in Thomond and occupied themselves with battles, both inter-clan and outside Thomond. The Normans did not attempt to conquer Thomond again. However, their descendants, the English, were getting involved in Irish affairs and in 1542, ironically, it was the O’Brien clan who submitted to Henry VIII under the Surrender and Regrant policy.
Maintaining the Marches…. in Anglo-Norman Thomond by David Nally in Clare History and Society, pp 27-59, Editors Matthew Lynch and Patrick Nugent, Geography Publications, Dublin, 2008.
The Normans in Thomond by Joe Power https://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/history/norman.htm
Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh / The Triumphs of Turlough, Vols. xxvi and xxvii, Irish Texts Society, Dublin 1929, reprinted 1988.
All photographs are by the author.