The Pale (a word taken from the Latin meaning fence) was a strip of land along Ireland’s east coast, stretching from Dundalk, County Louth in the north to Dún Laoghaire, south of Dublin City. It was the base of English rule in Ireland since the Norman invasion of 1169. The Normans increasingly assimilated into Irish culture and after 1300, made alliances with neighboring Gaelic lords. However, over time, residents of the Pale began to extend its borders into the territories of the Gaelic Chieftains and conflicts arose. By the reign of Henry VIII, the Pale’s areas varied considerably depending upon the faithless strength of the English authorities and included parts of Counties Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare and were encroaching on Leix and Offaly. The O’Mores of Leix and O’Connors of Offaly were a particular thorn in the side of England’s plans of expansion. In July, 1540, Henry sent Anthony St. Leger as Lord Deputy to suppress disorder. He applied the tactic of ‘Surrender and Regrant’ which allowed Chiefs to surrender their lands to the Crown, after which they would receive them back with a title of Lord, Earl, or some other indication of fealty to the Crown. Many Chieftains saw no harm in the plan as long as they retained control of their ancestral land, no matter the title. What they didn’t realize was that now they adopted a system of inheritance based on primogeniture (the automatic inheritance of an eldest son to his father’s land) as opposed to older Gaelic tradition of Tanistry by which the successor was selected and named during the reign of the current Chieftain – while he was still living. So it was clear who, in fact, would succeed upon the Chieftain’s death.

Above, Rory O'More from John Derrick's The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne. Wikimedia Commons.

In January 1547, Henry died and his 9-year old Edward VI became King, but was controlled by a regency council led by his uncle Edward Seymour from 1547 to 1549. As Protector, he began a lavish hand-out of lands and honors to his own power group. By Autumn 1549, his authority lost momentum, the crown faced financial ruin as religious riots and rebellions had broken out around England. In 1549, General John Dudley put down a country-wide uprising based on religion and land reform. Sadly, when religion was linked with any real social concerns, authorities lumped both together and saw all the unrest as a Catholic rising and by the reasoning of the time, a rebellion over religion was a rebellion against the crown and was treated as treason. Convinced of the Protector's incompetence, Dudley and other privy councillors forced Somerset out of office in October 1549. Dudley emerged in early 1550 as de facto regent for the 12-year-old Edward VI and Somerset was executed on fabricated charges. As Lord President of the Council, Dudley ended the costly wars with France and Scotland and tackled finances in ways that led to some economic recovery. Now the only conflicts were in Ireland. His policy was decidedly Protestant, further enforcing the Reformation by promoting radical reformers to high Church positions. In 1553, when Edward died, he was succeeded by Mary after a 9-day rule by Lady Jane Grey. Mary overturned Henry VIII’s Reformation, but continued planting Ireland, renaming Leix as Queen’s County and Offaly as King’s County for her husband.

Meanwhile, during the entire reign of Edward VI, the province of Leinster had been kept in turmoil under the two Irish Chieftains – Cedagh O’More of Leix and Brian O’Connor of Offaly adding to the Crown cost by no less than £100,000. Finally reduced to starvation, the two chiefs eventually surrendered and were sent to England and confined in 1547. Cedagh died in their first year of captivity and his brother Rory took the chieftainship of the clan back home. However, Lord Deputy St. Leger, refusing to recognize the Brehon Law concept of Tanistry, sold their lands which had been surrendered to the Crown to English settlers. The new settlers were encouraged to hunt the rightful occupants from their homes. Thus began the first of the infamous plantations in Ireland. Naturally, the native Irish fiercely resisted the new order; they were not to be driven from their ancestral homes without a struggle!

By June 1547, O’Connor rebelled as a result of an expedition against him in 1546. To counter this, Sir Edward Bellingham, a soldier and member of the Privy Council, was sent with troops, money and supplies as Captain-General to Ireland and the Lord Deputy was instructed that Bellingham’s advice on military affairs had the King’s backing! At the head of 10,000 men, Bellingham wasted and killed, driving the O’Mores and O’Connors into the hills and kept up attacks through the reign of Edward VI forcing the O’Mores and O’Connors to join forces.

By order on 15 March 1550, no O’More was allowed to own any land in Leix. At that, Connell O’More rebelled and was captured and killed in 1557 and, for a time, the clans were suppressed. Then Catholic Queen Mary died and Protestant Elizabeth took over in 1558, re-instating her father’s Protestant Reformation. She also set to subjugate any area under conflict and her ministers gradually began using religion as a weapon. Power-hungry English officials began a ruthless war of extermination against the native Irish. With his elder brother gone, 20-year-old Rory Oge O’More took over, commencing a guerrilla war against the invaders of his land. Finding little support, he surrendered and received a pardon on 17 February 1565. Unable to retain his own land against undertakers, in 1571 he formed an alliance with O'Connor and O’Mulloy and took the field again that summer.

In November 1574 Rory Oge was taken prisoner but released by the new Lord Deputy Edward Sydney who granted Rory a pardon in 1575 and allowed him an insultingly small patch of his former land in Leix. Rory immediately renounced his allegiance. Supplied with arms by Clanricard, head of a fully Gaelicized branch of the Hiberno-Norman House of Burgh of Galway, Rory Oge joined Cormac McCormac O'Connor and gathered an army. Now he added the return of Catholicism to his demands. In 1576 they ravaged and almost wiped out all the alien settlers in Leix, Offaly, and Meath as well. Then in 1577, the Sentinel of the newly-named Queens County, Sir Francis Cosby, organized most of the settlers and with the help of the O’Dempseys, invited the Chiefs of the seven clans of Leix and Offaly with their families to a friendly conference at the historic Rath of Mullaghmast to celebrate the new year in a peaceful manner and plan for a peaceful future. Mullaghmast was an ancient circle fort surrounded by an earthen wall that had been used for peaceful clan gatherings for centuries and, as the O’Dempseys were involved, no treachery was suspected.

The O’Mores, the O’Lalors, O’Dowlings, O'Kelly's, O’Nolans and others all arrived with their wives and children. As they entered, they found a triple wall of armed English soldiers encircling the inside of the Rath. At a signal given, everyone of the near 400 Irish were slaughtered. One man, Henry O’Lalor, arrived late, observed the butchery and carried the news to those who wouldn’t or couldn’t be there. English captain Thomas Lee wrote that the horror was done with the full knowledge and approval of Lord deputy Sydney. Fortunately, among those not present was Rory Oge and his fury knew no bounds. Not only castles and fortified mansions, but entire towns fell to his rage. On St. Patrick’s night, three months after the massacre, the cry “Remember Mullaghmast” was heard as the town of Naas was burned to the ground! It was followed by every English town or settlement in Leinster until all were gone.

Treachery almost finished Rory Oge as a follower was paid to betray his hiding place. Attacked by English forces, he narrowly escaped death though his wife and household did not. That led to a frustration and carelessness that eventually may have led to his death as an opponent rushed at him in an unguarded moment and thrust a sword through the heart of the man called ‘Ireland’s First Rapparree’ – a heart that knew great love for his land and his people. Years later, his sons Owney and Brian, under the banner of the great Hugh O’Neill, recovered almost all of Leix. Owney also put the finishing touch on the revenge for Mullaghmast when he killed the son and grandson of Sir Francis Cosby – the knave who planned Ireland’s slaughter of the innocents – and he routed their troops with great slaughter at Stradbally Bridge on 19 May, 1597!

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