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Article Published February 12, 2002

County Mayo (Ireland): An Outline History -- The Lordship of MacWilliam Eighter
By Bernard O'Hara and Nollaig ÓMuraíle, Mayo Ireland Ltd

The Lordship of MacWilliam Eighter

The 15th century was marked by frequent quarrels between the Mayo Burkes (as the people of Mac Uilliam ochtair may be called for convenience) and the Clanrickard Burkes of what is now County Galway, as well as by much internecine fighting among the minor Norman lords of Mayo. From mid-century onwards, the O'Donnells, the great Gaelic lords of Tír Chonaill (in present-day Co. Donegal), interfered frequently in the affairs of north Connacht, as they sought to extend their way southwards. They met with opposition from the Burkes, who were also quite often embroiled in the affairs of their eastern neighbours, the O'Connors of Roscommon and Sligo. Another Gaelic family, the O'Kellys of east Galway and south Roscommon were usually to be found in alliance with the Burkes of Mayo.

The turn of the century saw the Lord Deputy, Garrett Mór Fitzgerald, the great Earl of Kidare, ruling as virtual king of Ireland. In August 1504 he demonstrated his power by inflicting a crushing defeat on his son-in-law, Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanrickard, in a battle at Cnoc Tuagh (Knockdoe) near Galway. Among those who joined the great alliance against Clanrickard an his Munster allies were his cousins and rivals, the Mayo Burkes.

A mere thirty years after Cnoc Tuagh the great House of Kildare succumbed to the growing might of the Tudor monarchy, and by mid-century English power was making itself felt in Connacht, where the rivalry between the Mayo and Clanrickard Burkes had flared up again into war. By the late 1560s the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, had procured the submission of both de Burgo lords, and was making provision for the future government of the province in the interests of the Crown. In July 1569 Sir Edward Fitton was appointed President, or Governor, of Connacht. One of the first tasks facing him and his council was to lay down the boundaries of the new counties of Connacht and Thomond. Almost immediately he was faced with what was to become a commonplace over the next thirty years - a rebellion by the Mayo Burkes. Fitton, with various allies, including Clanrickard, met them in battle at Shrule in June 1570. The outcome of the battle was somewhat indecisive, but Mac Uilliam ochtair submitted and made peace shortly afterwards. 1572 saw another short-lived revolt, this time in alliance with two sons of Clanrickard. When Clanrickard's sons rebelled again in 1576, however, the Mayo Burkes remained loyal, holding Castlebar for the Queen.

It was in this last campaign, in 1576, that the remarkable 'sea-queen' from the shores of Clew Bay, Gráinne Ní Mháille (variously anglicised Granie ny Maille, Grace O'Malley, Granuaile, etc.) first makes her appearance in history, offering the services of her galleys and two hundred fighting men to Lord Deputy Sidney. But within two years Gráinne's second husband, Risteard an Iarainn - a Burke, and claimant to the MacWilliamship - was in revolt; his rebellion simmered on until 1582, when the new Lord Deputy, Sir Nicholas Malbie, recognised him as MacWilliam, and later knighted him.

A rebellion in 1585 by various branches of the Burkes was suppressed with great severity by the new Governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham. A month later, a force of 2,000 Scots mercenaries came to Connacht to assist the Burkes, but they were routed with a great slaughter near Ardnaree.

In the summer of 1588 the galleons of the Spanish Armada were wrecked by a storm along the west coast of Ireland. Some of the hapless Spaniards came ashore in Mayo, only to be robbed and imprisoned, and in many cases slaughtered.

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