The Plantations of Laois and Offaly - The Rebellion of Rory Óg O'Moore

Around the time that the Fitzpatricks were establishing their control of the area around Camross, the O’Moores of Laois and the O’Connors of Offaly were becoming a thorn in the side of the English in Dublin and the surrounding ‘Pale’. Their intransigence eventually led to the establishment of the plantations of Laois and Offaly. As we will see, the impact of these plantations did not make much difference to the region around Camross and the Slieve Blooms. However, in order to continue on with the story of Camross, the context in which the dominant Irish clans of the rest of Laois were destroyed must be established.

When Mary succeeded her brother Edward to the English throne in 1553 she set about re-establishing English control of Ireland by ‘planting’ English settlers upon Irish land which she intended to seize from disloyal subjects. The seeds for the plantation of Laois and Offaly were planted with the rebellion of Silken Thomas Fitzgerald which began 20 summers earlier when Mary’s father, Henry VIII was King.

Traditionally, the loyal Earls of Kildare had protected the Pale from the rebellious O’Moores and O’Connors in return for the freedom to administer their own lands. But after the execution of Silken Thomas in 1537, English authorities were faced with the prospect of hordes of armed Irish launching sustained attacks on the Pale and exacting black rents, or what we might term today as protection money, from beleaguered settlers. Met with this grim likelihood, the English entered into protracted negotiations with the O’Moores and the O’Connors. A surrender and re-grant arrangement was agreed between the parties. This meant that the Irish would surrender their lands freely and would have them granted back to them on certain conditions. One of these conditions was that they adopt a system of inheritance based on primogeniture (the automatic inheritance of an eldest son to his father’s land) as opposed to older Gaelic traditions of inheritance.

Ruaidhrí Caoch mac Conaill O’Moore was the chieftain of Laois at the time. The new inheritance structures which would have emerged had the O’Moores continued to respect the law of primogeniture annoyed the chieftain’s brother, Giolla Pádraig. Giolla Pádraig would have inherited O’Moore territory had his brother died but the new arrangement would have meant he would never inherit anything. As a consequence, a bloody conflict erupted between the brothers. It was this conflict which spurred the English into action. Forts were constructed in the modern towns of Portlaoise (Fort Protector) and Daingean (Fort Governor). And with the necessary garrisons in place the lands of O’Moore and O’Connor were seized in June 1557.

The Irish in Laois and Offaly were given the option of becoming loyal citizens or be forced off their lands altogether. Initially the lands assigned for planting comprised of the modern baronies of Warrenstown, Coolestown, Upper and Lower Philipstown in Offaly, and of Portnahinch, Maryborough East and West, Stradbally, Cullenagh, and Ballyadams in Laois.[1] The barony of Upperwoods, of which Camross was a part, was not included in the planted area.

Whatever land that was vacated or forcibly taken from the native Irish would then be offered to any loyal Englishmen that wanted to move to the Irish midlands and live there. The conditions attached to being granted land included the provision that no assignment should be made without the approval of the lord deputy; that the leasee should not cause any of the lands to be inhabited by any person with a surname of O’Moore or O'Conor; and that that every person inhabiting should have sufficient weapons to serve the king and for his own defence.[2] They also had to farm in the English manner, build stone houses and maintain the roads and infrastructure of their lands. The towns around Fort Governor and Protector were named Maryborough and Philipstown after Queen Mary and her Spanish husband Philip. The counties themselves were named Queen’s County and King’s County.

However, despite the large investment of English funds into the venture, the plantations were doomed to failure. There was a distinct lack of interest amongst English people to leave their stable homes and move to the volatile midlands of Ireland. Their settled way of life in England bore little resemblance to the danger that they would have faced in Ireland. The promise of vast swathes of land only enticed some to make the move across the Irish Sea. Those who settled lived in constant fear of raids from the O’Connors and the O’Moores. Indeed many of the planters that were granted land were English soldiers who had served in the area already. These same soldiers were deeply mistrusted by the local Irish and they had gained a reputation for brutality and greed.

Once it became apparent that it would not be practical to populate all the planted regions with English planters, loyal natives were also given lands. But these arrangements often ended with the natives coming into conflict with both their Irish and English neighbours. For instance, one of the most prominent native planters, Callough O’Connor, fled his lands and took up arms against the English. By the time O’Connor was caught and killed, the English claimed that they had killed ninety prominent members of the O’Connor clan and thirty-five O’Moores.[3] This grim statistic shows the extent of the bloodshed that was concurrent with the establishment of the plantations in the 16th Century.

By 1571, there remained merely one dominant member of the O’Moore clan; Rory Óg O’Moore. Rory Óg orchestrated a successful guerrilla war campaign against the English. His in-depth knowledge of the rough boggy terrain gave him a huge advantage when evading Crown Forces. Displaced and angered members of the O’Moore and O’Connor clans, along with the other septs of Laois and Offaly, joined Rory Óg in terrorising the English.

Facing the imminent disintegration of their midland colonies, English authorities began to look at their options. Prominent English official, Sir William Fitzgerald, believed that nothing short of the annihilation of the O’Moore clan would suffice and he supported the idea of re-granting lands to a bitter enemy of the O’Moores; the O’Dempseys. In late 1575, Sir Henry Sidney became the Lord Deputy of Ireland for a second time. Through the Earl of Ormonde, Sidney made contact with Rory Óg and a meeting between the two took place in St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny. Rory Óg made the surprise gesture of repenting his earlier faults and promised Sidney ‘to live in better sorts’.[4] Initially sceptical at Rory Óg’s humility Sidney was encouraged by a largely peaceful year in the midlands throughout 1576. Sidney optimistically ordered that the garrisons in Offaly be downsized and troops relocated to elsewhere.

But this was a naive and disastrous move on Sidney’s part, a move which Rory Óg dramatically took advantage of. On Christmas Eve 1576, the O’Moores dramatically picked up where they left off a year prior. About a hundred men led raids deep into Offaly, burning houses and farmyards before moving into Kildare where they led a devastating surprise attack on Naas. Sidney wrote the following on the rebels’ attack on the Kildare town;

They ran through the town, [the gates being] open, like hags and furies of hell, with flakes of fire fastened on poles ends, and so fired the low thatched houses … and it being a great windy night one house took fire of another in a moment. They tarried not half an hour in the town...[5]

From Naas, the Irish moved south to Leighlinbridge in Carlow. Rory Óg and his men set about the destruction of yet another town on their rampage but were impeded by the resistance of George Carew and a handful of English soldiers. They fought the rebels back but half the town was ablaze regardless of their efforts. Indeed, as we will see later, the young Carew would not forget the barbarism of the rampaging O’Moores.

English forces began a massive manhunt for Rory Óg and his men and they succeeded in picking off several of O’Moore’s band of followers. But the situation became far more personal for Sidney when his own nephew, Captain Harrington, was taken prisoner by Rory Óg, along with Alexander Cosby of Stradbally, after they had foolishly tried to discuss terms with Rory Óg. Sidney wrote of the brutality that Rory Óg allegedly meted out to his nephew whilst under his guard;

The villanous rebell fell upon my most dear nephue, being tyed in chaynes and him most shamefully hacked with my nephue's own sword, to the effusion of such a quantity of blood as was incredible to be tould. He brake his arm with that blunt sword, and cut off the little finger of one of his hand.[6]

Sidney was more determined than ever to permanently solve his O’Moore problem and the other rebellious hordes of Laois and Offaly. There are numerous accounts of the circumstances that led to the culmination of treachery that Sidney employed to eradicate his enemies, many of which are contradictory. The official silence from Sidney and all Dublin Castle authorities ensure that official state documents on the planning of one of the most infamous events in early modern Irish history is non-existent. However, from sources such as the Annals of the Four Masters, personal correspondences of high ranking English officials and oral histories and traditions, one can piece together a chain of events in the confidence that it likely closely resembles the truth.

The concept of negotiating with the Irish was not alien to Sidney. After all, he had gained a year’s respite from Rory Óg through a face to face meeting in Kilkenny. So when the suggestion was made that the best course of action might be to discuss terms with Rory Óg it is very likely that he would have entertained the idea. The man who made the suggestion was Thomas Lee, a young English officer based in Philipstown, who had been summoned to Dublin Castle to discuss the rebellion in the midlands with Sidney. Lee had gained the respect of Sidney and the personal gratitude of Queen Elizabeth after he had led a very successful attack deep into the Slieve Blooms in 1574.[7] From his experience of dealing with the Irish in Laois and Offaly, Lee suggested to Sidney that the only way to find peace was to begin talks with the leaders of the disaffected clans of Laois and Offaly.

Sidney agreed and a meeting was called for Mullaghmast, Co. Kildare. To the meeting were invited Rory Óg and the leaders of the other six of the seven septs of Laois; the O'Devoys, O'Dorans, O'Dowlings, McEvoys, O'Kellys and O'Lalors. Several clans from Offaly also came, including the O’Connors.[8] They travelled from all directions to the conference of leaders under the protection of a senior officer of the administration of Queen’s County, Francis Cosby. As they were escorted through the heart of the planted lands of Laois, the Irish were no doubt nervous of what might happen once they arrived in Mullaghmast but they could hardly have expected the bloodshed that awaited them.

The Annals of the Four Masters described what happened on that fateful day in 1577 as follows;

A horrible and abominable act of treachery was committed by the English … upon that part of the people of Offally and Leix … 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 rath of Mullach-Maistean (Mullaghmast) 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.[9]

Another medieval Irish text, the Annals of Loch Cé, states that no uglier deed than what happened in Mullaghmast was ever committed by the English in Ireland.[10]

Many were left with blood on their hands following the massacre. Aside from Cosby, whose men escorted the Irish to their deaths, Robert Walpole was accredited with planning the treachery and the O’Dempseys and other Gaelic clans were blamed for aiding the murders. It is highly likely that Sidney was also complicit in the massacre. Thomas Lee, in his memoirs of his services in Ireland, confirmed as much. He wrote that the authorities drew 'unto them by protection three or four hundred of those country people ... and brought them to a place of meeting, where ... garrison soldiers ... dishonourably put them all to the sword; and this hath been by the consent and practice of the lord deputy (Sidney)'.[11]

The Annals of the Four Masters clearly state that no one escaped the violence in Mullaghmast.[12] But Rory Óg O’Moore was not among the dead. It is likely that blind luck or skilful evasion allowed him to escape. In any case, as news spread of the horror that had befallen a generation of clan leaders, Rory Óg easily tapped into the growing anger and brought together a small force of men. They attacked Carlow town but faced English forces that had now redoubled their efforts to capture him. He was forced to flee to the bogs and mountains around Slieve Bloom for cover. However, he had other foes in the area to deal with also, and not all of them were English.

By this time, the first Lord Baron of Upper Ossory, Brian Fitzpatrick had died. He was succeeded by his son Brian Óg, or as he was known by then, Sir Barnaby Fitzpatrick. Barnaby had an extraordinary upbringing which shaped his loyalty to the English crown for all his life. His father had sent him to the Pale to be raised in the English manner and he was subsequently sent to England to be educated. Whilst there, the young Barnaby became best friends with the young Prince of Wales, Edward, who would go on to become, albeit briefly, King Edward VI. Barnaby maintained this friendship throughout Edward’s short reign as King of England and Ireland. Edward had Barnaby sent to France where he served King Henry II of France during his war against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He returned to England in 1552 and was knighted shortly afterwards. He became the Second Lord Baron of Upper Ossory in 1575.

Barnaby was as determined as any member of the English establishment in Dublin to capture Rory Óg. Rory Óg had done a great deal of damage to his stock and lands over the years and he was eager to maintain his high standing amongst his peers in Dublin. But in the end, despite being in hiding, it was Rory Óg who made the first move. He told some of his men to spread a rumour that he was nearby to Barnaby’s stronghold and that he was in possession of ‘pots, pans, pewter, nappery, linen, and other household stuff and implements’. The rumour also suggested that he could be easily captured if he was surprised by a small band of troops sneaking upon his position.[13] Rory Óg wanted to continue his campaign and felt that if he could lure out small bands of Barnaby’s men he could claim some valuable heads with little fuss. Barnaby took the bait, but not in the manner that Rory Óg would have hoped. Barnaby sent out a great number of cavalry and soldiers to search for the rebel and when they found him and his men they easily killed them all. Barnaby showed no mercy or remorse for the death of Rory Óg even though they were related through Barnaby’s mother.

A delighted Henry Sidney commented upon how the local people had helped Rory Óg to evade capture for so long;

And this was the end of this rank rebel, the last day of June in the morning, who by the maintenance of his neighbours and supply of aid and relief of some of his friendly borderers, which he wanted not in the time of his necessities, had so long continuance to the charge of her Majesty and disquiet of the State.



[1] R. Dunlop, ‘The Plantation of Leix and Offaly’ in The English Historical Review, Vol. 6, No. 21 (Jan., 1891), pp. 61-96.

[2] Dunlop, ‘The Plantation of Leix and Offaly', p. 65.

[3] Vincent P. Carey, ‘John Derricke's "Image of Irelande", Sir Henry Sidney, and the Massacre at Mullaghmast, 1578’ in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 31, No. 123 (May, 1999), pp. 305-327.

[4] Dunlop, ‘The Plantation of Leix and Offaly', p. 81.

[5] Dunlop, ‘The Plantation of Leix and Offaly', p. 81.

[6] Carey, ‘John Derricke's "Image of Irelande", Sir Henry Sidney, and the Massacre at Mullaghmast, 1578’, p. 318.

[7] Taken from Turtle Bunbury’s exciting article on Mullaghmast: http://www.turtlebunbury.com/history/history_irish/history_irish_mullaghmast.htm

[8] Taken from http://www.libraryireland.com/Atlas/XXXVII-Massacre-Mullaghmast.php

[9] Taken from University College Cork’s online Annals of the Four Masters archive: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/T100005E/text008.html

[10] Taken from University College Cork’s online Annals of Lough Cé archive: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100010B/text011.html

[11] Carey, ‘John Derricke's "Image of Irelande", Sir Henry Sidney, and the Massacre at Mullaghmast, 1578’, p. 324.

[12] The encyclopedia of Ireland describes the heroism of Henry O’Lalor in his escape from Mullaghmast also. Indeed, the only certainty that emerges from the various accounts is that there was a very bloody and likely treacherous event that took place in Mullagmast, which may have had two or more escapees.

[13] Dunlop, ‘The Plantation of Leix and Offaly', p. 83.