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The Massacre of Mullaghmast

Above: Derrick’s depiction of Sir Henry Sidney leaving Dublin Castle. One of the heads spiked on the wall is said to have been Rory Óg O’More’s wife Margaret.

This article was originally written in 2001 but it has been continually amended since, as I learn more of the events surrounding that darkest of days. The most recent update is June 2019, as per the timeline below.

Historical Boffery

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.

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.

Above: Irish shilling of 1555, showing Philip and Mary, in whose time King’s Co, and Queen’s co were created.

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

Hero or Horror? Captain Thomas Lee in Irish dress by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1594.  Captain 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.

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 daughte

r 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.

The Marian Elite

The Earl of Sussex, Lord Deputy of Ireland under Queens Mary and Elizabeth Tudor.

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 bankrupt Earl killed himself.

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“.

Above: Aerial view of the ringfort at Mullaghmast.

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.

Extracted from Lord Walter FitzGerald’s article on Mullaghmast in the Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Volume 1, p. 383. Lord Walter has much additional information on the events, which I hope to incorporate into this page.


And … Action!

Depiction of Ruairí Óge Ó Mórdha, aka “Rory O’More’, from ‘Pacata Hibernia,’ edited by Standish O’Grady 1896. O’Grady may have based his image on the 1581 woodcut below.

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.

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 only contemporary depiction of Ruairí Óge Ó Mórdha comes from John Derricke’s “Image of Irelande” – 1581 (3/4 years after his death) – “Ruairí Óge in the Company of Wolves”.

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? Afghanistan? 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.



Birth of Ruairí Óge Ó Mórdha, aka “Rory O’More’, son of Ruairí Caoch Ó Mórdha (c.1515–1547), aka Ruairí the Blind, derived from the Old Irish word cáech, meaning ‎ a person blind in one eye.


Ruaidhri Caoch mac Conaill More recognised by Dublin Castle as Lord of Leix in what appears to have been a Surrender and Regrant.


Ruaidhri More killed by his brother Giolla Padraig; Rory sent to be fostered by Hugh MacShane O’Byrne in the Wicklow Mountains and becomes fast friends with Hugh’s son, Fiach MacHugh, and daughter, Margaret (who he later marries).

Edward VI succeeds to throne on death of his father, Henry VIII.


Francis Cosby first appears on edges of the Pale; Giollapatrick O’More killed … land seized for planters. [Did Hartpole kill him? Did Cosby get the land?]


Francis Cosby petitions Parliament for permission to plant in Queen’s Co; secures lands at Moyanna, Ballynavivare (Vicarstown) & Garrymaddock etc. Cultivation begins.


(July): King Edward VI of England dies, aged 15, in Henry Sidney’s arms; after failure of Lady Jane Grey’s plot, Queen Mary ascends the throne.


(Nov 30): Birth of (Sir) Philip Sidney; King Philip of Spain stands as his godfather.


Queen Mary appoints 26-year-old Sir Henry Sidney to office of Lord Justice of Ireland under his 30-year-old brother-in-law, the Earl of Sussex, as Lord Deputy. Now aged 46, Francis Cosby is living in the Lord Deputy’s house at Monastereven. He’s also a member of the commission that shired the Queen’s County.


(June): O’Connors and O’Mores declared rebels.


Lord Sussex goes to England, leaving Sidney in sole charge of Ireland. (10 Sept) Francis Cosby appointed General of the Kern by Queen Mary, raising a force of mercenary police that includes members of the O’Connor and O’Dempsey families. He is also appointed Sheriff of Kildare [when] and given power to executed martial law in Leix, Ophaly, Irre & Glymaliry.

[What year does Rory marry Margaret?]

1560 (circa)

Map of Fort Protector shows that one of 14 detached, single-storey houses surrounding fort was occupied by Francis Cosby.


30 of Francis Cosby’s kern help 60 English soldiers defend Fort Protector from a combined O’More / O’Connor attack. Cosby chases the attackers and apparently kills Richard Oge O’Connor (‘a man of enormous stature and strength’) with his own hands. He gradually builds up his kerne force to 100 men. By October, Cosby’s men are said to have killed 90 O’Connors and 35 O’Mores in 1564.

(Nov): ‘The Mores have desired peace by Francis Cosbie,’ writes Sir Thomas Wrothe to Cecil, ‘but the Lord Justice and Council have rejected their request.’


(Oct): Sidney appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in place of Sir Nicholas Arnold, who had succeeded Lord Sussex; Francis Cosby becomes Seneschal of Queen’s County (until 1577).


Alexander Cosby, eldest son of Francis, marries Dorcas Sidney of Otford, Kent, a second cousin of Lord Deputy Sidney and a former maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth.

Robert Hartpole, Constable of Leighlinbridge, appointed Constable of Carlow Castle.


Lord Deputy Sidney stands godfather at christening to Francis Cosby, firstborn son of Alexander and Dorcas Cosby, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Execution of Laoiseach and Cahir MacCeadach O’More [by Sidney?] creates power vacuum for leadership of the clan.

(April): Rory Óg O’More elected chieftain of his clan. He launches a furious, devastating assault upon the Leix-Offaly plantation. His revolt coincides with the First Desmond Rebellion and widespread disturbances in Connaught and Ulster. At then time, the entire Leix-Offaly plantation generated an annual revenue of £200; O’More’s damage cost £1000 in 1571 alone.


St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris leaves between 5,000 and 30,000 Protestant Huguenots dead.

Lord Sussex, Sidney’s brother-in-law, becomes Lord Chamberlain, and is henceforth in frequent attendance on Queen Elizabeth, both in her progresses through the country and at court, until his death in 1583.


(Feb) Lord Deputy FitzWilliam admits that the Queen’s County us ‘in too miserable a state to be particularly declared’ and ‘like to be much worse if it is not provided for.’

(April) Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam outlines plan to exterminate O’More and to give Owen MacHugh O’Dempsey, a loyalist, the lands at Gallen, a 2,000-acre plot, west of Stradbally covered in wood, bog and mountains that reputedly offered the rebels access to every corner of the Pale.

(July): ‘Francis Cosbie to be called to account for the loss of Leix.’ [Nicholas White, Master of the Rolls, and William Cecil, the Queen’s chief advisor, held him personally accountable ‘for the loss of Leix’ … he had enabled the territory to become ‘far out of order’, refusing to use ‘justice against offenders’ … Lucas Dillon, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, claimed he had never seen such a fall from duty in the ‘degenerate men of English name’ … but when were these accusations levelled?]

(Nov): Rory Óg allegedly in league with Piers Grace, a close ally to the Earls of Desmond and the Geraldine cause.


(March): Lucas Dillon, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, informs Burghley that the Queen’s County and King’s County are both ‘in manner overrun … The O’Connors and the O’Mores seem as stout and courageous now as before we began with them.’

1574/1575: Massacre of the Clandeboye O’Neill’s on the orders of Led Deputy Fitzwilliam


(July 26): Earl of Essex orchestrates massacre of 600 people on Rathlin Island.

(Sept) Sidney returns to Ireland as Lord Deputy. (Dec) Rory Óg submits to Sidney in St Canice’s Cathedral.


Rory Óg [with Connor McCormack O’Connor & [maybe, Earl of Clanricarde, Richard Burke] burns c. 140 thatched houses on borders of Pale, ‘divers haggard and poor men’s (settlers) cottages’ in the King’s County + large portion of Leighlinbridge [?]. After two decades, the government-sponsored project of shiring & plantations is in total jeopardy, an expense that would cost its organisers their heads unless they reasserted control.


(St Patrick’s Day): Sidney writes to Privy Council, praising Cosby, Hartpole & others for their ‘great diligence, policy and pain taking’ in eradicating the ‘principal men’ of the O’More and O’Connor clans. [Vincent P Carey seems to place this in 1578 in his own findings, but the letter is also said to have been written in 1577 …]

(March 18): Sydney orders Cosby ‘to follow & attack with fire and sword Rory oge, the O’Conors, and their company, and all other traitors and rebels in any place where they may be found.’ [Fiant no.2997 Elizabeth] To this end, Cosby is given a martial law commission, empowering him to jail or execute anyone aiding rebels at his discretion. Sidney’s letters enthusiastically report the killing of ‘hundreds’ of O’More followers, including principal men. It appears to be standard practice to execute prisoners, not least as there is such little provision for keeping them. Francis Cosby’s kerne force includes Captain Edmond O’Dempsey.

(March): Francis Cosby apparently offers Rory Óg O’More the lands at Galen but Rory doesn’t believe him and goes on rampage. He burns over 800 houses in Naas on the night after Pattern Day (when everyone was in their cups with the drink). Apparently his understanding of psychological warfare was such that his pipers piped around places before an attack. The Rains of Castermere springs to mind.

A £1,000 (marks) price is placed on Rory Óg O’More’s head and he is now the most wanted man in Britain or Ireland.

(July 27): Francis Cosby relieved of command of Maryborough fort, while Queen Elizabeth confirms his successor: ‘George Harvie, who had been appointed Constable of Maryborough fort, should hold that office with the commodities thereto belonging, and not be removed without her Majesty’s commands’.

(Sept): Cosby recorded by Carew as still General of her Majesties Kern, and a Captain of his personal band.

(Sept): Sidney appoints his beloved nephew Henry Harrington to be lieutenant of King’s County. Ordered to suppress Rory Óg O’More.

(Oct/Nov): Harrington persuades O’More to meet him for a parlay at Clontycoe Castle near Ballyroan. However, it is a trap and O’More sizes the opportunity to capture both Captain Harrington and Alexander Cosby, the son of Francis. There is thus an argument that O’More was the first to use a “peace conference” for devious means. Sidney claims Harrington was treated ‘like a slave’, ‘handfasted togither’ with Cosby, and the two prisoners were paraded around ‘as his water spaniels’, led about by Edward Butler, with nooses tied around their necks. Sidney discovers location of O’More’s winter home and sends Robert Hartpole, with 50 men, to liberate Harrington and Cosby. Rory Óg O’More is at home with 26 followers, including his tanaiste (Shane MacRorye Reogh), Cormac O’Connor [?], his wife Margaret and two of their sons. Sidney later claims that when O’More heard Hartpole’s men coming, “‘The villainous rebel fell upon my most dear nephew, being tied in chains and him most shamefully hacked with my nephew’s own sword, to the effusion of such a quantity of blood as was incredible to be told. He broke his arm and with that blunt sword, and cut off the little finger of one of his hands, and in sundry parts of his head so wounded him as I myself in his dressing did see his brains moving.” [Sir Henry Sidney to Sir Francis Walsingham, 1 March 1583, TNA, SP 12/159/1. The story becomes a rich symbol of Irish brutality in English lore (but, of course, there’s n’er a whisper for O’More’s beheaded wife).

Hartpole wins the battle and all the O’More’s are killed except Rory Óg and his marshal who hack their way out. Hartpole beheads Rory’s wife, Margaret, and it is believed to be her head that adorns a pike in Derrick’s image of triumphant soldiers returning to Dublin. Rory Óg’s two sons also said to have been killed.

The war has become extremely personal; Harrington fingerless and nearly dead; Margaret O’More’s head on a spike, Rory Óg’s sons dead.

(Nov): Rory Óg O’More seriously damages Carlow town, burning hay stacks all across the place. His attack on Leighlinbridge is repelled by George Carew.

Nov 26: Sidney reports to the Privy Council that he has ‘appointed a general hosting to extrip Rory Oge, the O’Conors and O’Mores’ [SP 63/59 f.128] This may have referred to Francis Cosby.


New Year’s Day (Lord Walter Fitzgerald) or March (Vincent Carey *): An unspecified number of the leading men of Laois and Offaly are summoned, perhaps with their families, to a peace conference at the ancient rath of Mullaghmast. They are then set upon and killed with the numbers dead listed as anything between 40 and 400. Curiously its Englishmen, Lee and Moryson, who claim the number slain was in the hundreds’. The dead, who reputedly included leaders of Seven Septs, as well as various O’Connors, Keatings and FitzGeralds, are said to have been invited to the rath under the Queen’s protection. Why would English kills people who were ‘under their protection’? The impression is that these people had already signed up to the shiring deal so was this just blatant ethnic cleansing, ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ style? Certainly it cleared the runway for the plantations to proceed apace. But how were they tricked into the rath with all the soldiers and cavalry about? Was it a ‘Red Wedding’ style ambush? Harry Lalor of Dysart is said to be the only escapee while Muircheartach Mac Laoighseach O’Mordha, a cousin of Rory Óg, is named as one of the leading victims.

John Kelly proposes two reasons. ‘The immediate one was to put down the O’Moore and O’Connor rebellion and the massacre was both an elimination of potential support and a warning to the Irish septs of the consequences of rebellion. The Irish clans who had submitted had an obligation to provide a number of days service to the State and the presence of soldiers at the gathering point may not have been unusual. In essence they were an easy mark. The second and more strategic reason was to free land for settlement and remove any future threat from the borders of the extensive lands held by the perpetrators, Cosby, Davells, Hartpole et al.’

O’More, O’Dunn, O’Connor, O’Carroll, O’Molloy, O’Dempsey, MacCoghlans and others are turfed from hereditary lands in place of Hartpole, Cosby, Bellingham, Barrington, Bowen, Digby, Hovenden, Hetherington, Rushe, Piggott….

* Carey seems to base his date on the fact that the administrative year until 1752 ran from Lady Day (25th March) and not 1st January, so New Years Eve 1577 could have been 24 March 1578 .

1578 (March 22): Earliest contemporary record of massacre by Corc Og O Cadhla, a Gaelic surgeon from Graiguenamanagh, blames ‘Harpol’ and ‘Sir Henry Sitny’ for the ‘disgraceful deed’, suggesting the massacre was sanctioned by the Lord Deputy. Vincent Carey believes this was a frustrated reaction on Sidney’s part to Rory’s continued evasion, as well as his embarrassment over the failing midlands colonies and the stinging criticism he was receiving from London.

(April 20): In a letter to Queen Elizabeth, Lord Deputy Sidney claims his forces have slain the majority of O’More’s forces. ‘Touchinge the Rebel Rorie Oge, and his Complices, it is straunge that the Prosecution of hym, havinge bene so fervent, his Escapes to beyonde all Opinion, the Execution so blouddye, by cuttinge of his Company frome 500 to 50, which are nowe his Remayne at the uttermost. those also distressed by Lacke of Victualls, nor daringe to abyde in any Place of the Irish Countries, nor the Borders adioyninge.’

(May 26): Sir Henry Sidney steps down as Lord Deputy and hands the sword of state to Sir William Drury, Lord President of Munster.

(June 30): Rory Óg killed during a raid into MacGillapatrick territory of Ossory. His death is credited to his cousin Brian Oge MacGillapatrick (Barnaby FitzPatrick), a grandson of Piers, 8th Earl of Ormonde, who had been a close friend of Edward VI and, presumably, Sidney in his boyhood. Sidney reports that when he was offered the £1000 bounty on O’More’s head, Barnaby was content to accept £100. Sidney also claimed: ‘For a long time after [Rory’s] death no one was desirous to discharge one shot against the soldiers of the Crown.’

(Sept): Pardon No .3497 of Elizabeth. Although it does not specifically mention Mullaghmast, John Kelly writes: “The list of families pardoned and the date strongly suggest that it covers the massacre. In particular the inclusion of the Keatings strengthens this view. They had only confirmed their loyalty to Sidney in Kilkenny at Christmas 1577 and Lord Walter Fitzgerald claims they were the only Irish clan to participate in the massacre. Ouin O Byrn from Tinryland, who is also named, was Hartpoles brother in law and his right hand man.”

O’Dempsey is hunted down and killed by one of Rory Óg O’More’s chief lieutenants, Niall MacLaoiseach O’More. In the absence of male offspring, his lands pass to his nephew, Terence O’Dempsey, a minor who becomes the ward of Francis Cosby. Terence later leads the only faction of the O’Dempsey’s to resist the Gaelic coalition during Nine Years’ War and he is involved in intelligence gathering in the aftermath of O’Neill’s defeat at Kinsale. Terence later becomes Viscount Clanmalire and Baron Phillipstown and serves in parliament in 1630s.

(Sept): Sidney finally leaves Ireland.


Lord Grey de Wilton arrives as new Lord Deputy of Ireland.

(August 25) ‘Old Captain Francis Cosby’, aged 70, among those killed when Lord Grey’s army is ambushed at Glenmalure in the Wicklow Mountains by O’Byrne’s men, armed with hand-held muskets.

(Nov 7-10): Approximately 400 Spanish and Italian soldiers are taken prisoner and massacred by Sir Walter Raleigh at Smerwick in County Kerry, on the orders of Lord Deputy Grey de Wilton.


Publication of John Derrick’s ‘Image of Irelande’ woodcuts.

Imprisoned in Dublin Castle by his arch-enemy (and kinsman) Black Tom Butler, Earl of Ormonde, Barnaby Fitzpatrick dies aged 46.


(May 5) Death of Sir Henry Sidney; (Oct 17) Sir Philip Sydney killed in action at Zutphen in the Netherlands.


Arnold Cosby, brother of Alexander, executed for killing Lord Bourke of Castleconnell.


Rory Óg’s only surviving son Owen Mc Rory O’More (Owny), headquartered at Clontycoe Castle, Ballyroan, assumes position of chieftain of O’More clan and reignites the rebellion.


Publication of Thomas Lee’s ‘A Brief Declaration of the Government of Ireland showing its corruptions and discovering the causes of the discontent of the Irishry” in which, explaining the O’Neill’s distrust of the Tudor government, he writes to Queen Elizabeth: ‘They have drawn unto them by protection three or four hundred of those country people, under colour to do your Majesty service, and brought them to a place of meeting, where your garrison soldiers were appointed to be, who have there most dishonourably put them all to the sword; and this hath been by the consent and practise of the Lord Deputy for the time being. If this be a good course to draw these savage people to the state, to do your Majesty’s service, and not rather to enforce them to stand upon their guard, I humbly leave to your Majesty.’ [Lee reasons this is what set the O’Neill’s to distrust the English. Hiram Morgan believes Lee’s remarks may refer to the massacre of the Clandeboye O’Neill’s in 1574-5, under the orders of Led Deputy Fitzwilliam]


Robert Hartpole’s daughter, Helen, marries old Francis Cosby’s grandson Francis.


(May): Battle at at Stradbally Bridge in which 49-year-old Alexander and his eldest son, 25-year-old Francis (husband of Helen Hartpole of Shrule, father to small baby, godson of Sidney) are slain along with a number of their retinue. Dorcas Sidney and Helena Hartpole are said to have watched their husbands being shot dead from a window of Stradbally Abbey. Alexander was the first to die and ‘it is recorded that Helena Harpole with the coolest presence of mind addressed herself to Dorcas Sidney saying: “Remember, mother, that my father was shot before my husband and that thereupon the latter was the legal possessor of the estate and consequently I am entitled to my thirds and dower.’


Thomas Lee commands the party which killed the ailing Fiach McHugh O’Byrne.


(17 May): Owny O’More scores his greatest success at the Pass of the Plumes, 8km south, near Ballyhyland, when he defeats Lord Essex; accounts the dead vary from Irish sources (400 dead) to English (32 officers and a few privates).


(Aug 17): Owny O’More killed near Timahoe, sword in hand, leaving the cause of the Septs of Leix shattered. The Four Masters opine, “Laois was seized by the English, and they proceeded to repair their mansions of lime and stone, and to settle in the old seats of the race of Conall Cearnach, to whom Laois was the hereditary principality, for there was no heir worthy of it like Owny to defend it against them.”


Thomas Lee put to death at Tyburn in 1601 for his involvement in the treason of the 2nd Earl of Essex.


Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, claims chronic rebellions throughout Ireland are inspired by the seven septs of Queen’s County; transplantation of Leix families to Kerry begins, primarily to 10 parishes in north Kerry (incl. Ardfert, Lixnaw & Ballyeheigue), and also extreme north-east (incl. Tarbert, where Patrick Crosbie planted c. 300 members of leading families).


The Cosbys and the O’Mores are said to have had a brutal fight in the Glyn of Aughnahelly under the Rock of Dunamace, which the Cosbys won. The two families apparently put their animosity aside after that.


O’Sullevan Beare, in his Catholic History of Ireland, vilifies Francis Cosby in a section entitled ‘Tyranny of Cosby, an Englishman’ that reads: ‘WHEN disturbances were allayed tyranny used ever increase. Francis Cosby, governor of Leix, and his son Alexander raged savagely against the entire Catholic body. He summoned the men of his province to Mullagh Mast for a convention to discuss matters of administration. He suddenly surrounded the assembly with armed bands, and of the family of O’More killed on the spot one hundred and eighty unarmed and unsuspecting men. He lived mostly at Stradbally, where before his doors grew a tree of great height and abounding in spreading branches. From this he was accustomed to hang not only men but also women and children for no crime. When women were hanging from the tree by a halter he took an incredible pleasure in at the same time hanging by the mother’s long hair their infant children. It is said that when the tree was without the corpses of Catholics hanging from it, he was wont to say—‘You seem to me, my tree, shrouded with great sadness, and no wonder, for you have now long been childless. I will speedily relieve your mourning. I will shortly adorn your boughs with corpses.’


Fynes Moryson, a celebrated traveler who served as secretary to Lord Deputy Mountjoy at the close of Elizabeth’s reign, also denounced the ‘horrible massacre … committed by the English on some hundreds of the most peaceable of the Irish gentry, invited thither on the public faith, and under the protection of government.’[i]

[i] Michael O’Clery, Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters as translated into English by Owen Connellan: Volume 2 (Irish Roots Cafe, 2003).


The Annals of the Four Masters complied and has this to say of the events of 1578: ‘A horrible and abominable act of treachery was committed by the English of Leinster and Meath upon that part of the people of Offaly and Leix that remained in confederacy with them, and under their protection. It was effected thus: they were all summoned to shew themselves, with the greatest number they could be able to bring with them, at the great ráth of Mullach-Maistean; and on their arrival at that place they were surrounded on every side by four lines of soldiers and cavalry, who proceeded to shoot and slaughter them without mercy, so that not a single individual escaped, by flight or force.’

The Annals of Lough Ce, also compiled in the 1630s, state: ‘Treachery was committed by Master Francis (Cosby) and by Macomas (?) and the Saxons on Muirchertach O’Mordha and on his people : and the place where this treachery was committed was in the great rath of Mullagh Maistin ; and Muirchertach and seventy-four men were slain there; and no uglier deed than that was ever committed in Erinn.”


Record by old gentleman called Cullen who often discoursed with one Dwyer & one Dowling actually living at Mullamast when horrid murder committed.


(1 Oct): Daniel O’Connell hosts what becomes his last monster meeting at Mullaghmast. Due to its success & the huge attendance, the next planned meeting scheduled for Clontarf is banned by the British government. The Emancipator is presented with a Milesian ‘Cap of Liberty’ by artists John Hogan and Henry MacManus). He tells the crowd: “[We are] at Mullaghmast (and I have chosen this for this obvious reason), we are on the precise spot where English treachery – aye, and false Irish treachery, too – consummated a massacre that has never been imitated. . . . I thought this a fit and becoming spot to celebrate, in the open day, our unanimity (both Protestant and Catholic) in declaring our determination not to be misled by any treachery.”


Electoral register of 30,000 people in North Kerry area around Castleisland & Tralee reveals almost 1,000 names derived from one of the Seven Septs.

Further Reading

Further articles to consult include the Carte Mss in the Bodleian (there’s s a rough calendar on microfilm), as well as older 19th century versions of the Calendars (by Hamilton?), the Carew Calendars, the Fiants of the Tudor Monarchs, the Gale State Papers (online, which have the calendars and facsimiles of the actual papers) in the National Library, and the newer Irish Manuscripts Commission Calendars (detailed but not available for 1577 period yet). [With thanks to John Kelly.]

With thanks to Brian Donovan, John Kelly, Tom Cosby, Adrian Cosby, Ivan Cosby, Richard O’Rouke, Eamon Kane, Michael Quinn, Jane Ohlmeyer, Ciaran Brady, Sean Martin, Bill & Birdie Martin, Suzanne Carroll, Walter Lawler, Mark Onions, James Fennell and William Fennell.