AS WE SAW IN HOLINSHED’s CHRONICLES, the Bruce invasion provided cover for a number of small local wars that had little or nothing to do with the Scots. One of the most decisive broke out in Brian Boru’s old kingdom of Thomond in 1318.

For generations two factions of the O’Brien family had been battling each other over the crown. In 1318, the king of Thomond was Murtough, a descendant of Thurlough O’Brien, and his challenger was Mahon, from the Brian O’Brien side of the family, who had a powerful ally in Richard de Clare. De Clare, himself a descendant of the invader Strongbow, ruled—at least in theory—most of the west of Ireland from Limerick or his castle at Bunratty. In practice, however, the English respected the sovereignty of Thomond and remained outside its borders. De Clare’s alliance with Mahon O’Brien, however, gave him an excuse to invade the kingdom. The two sides—Murtough’s Irish and de Clare’s “pale Englishmen,” as they are frequently called in the text—met in battle in May 1318, at Dysert O’Dea near the present town of Ennis in County Clare.

Although horses are mentioned in accounts of the battle, it was a battle fought on foot that began with the Irish typically setting up an ambush that, this time, turned into a pitched battle. A curious thing about this particular fight is that some of the Irish seem to have worn armor and in its final moments—when fresh Irish troops arrived to save the day for Murtough—they looked so much like de Clare’s men that there was some confusion as to what side they were on.

Another distinctive aspect of this battle is that the Irish clearly won it. Almost six hundred years later, writing about the 1916 Easter Week uprising then in progress, James Stephens, a Dubliner with no love for the English, noted that for the Irish fighting well was more important than winning. He quotes, “‘They went forth always to the battle; and they always fell.’” And he adds, “Indeed, the history of the Irish race is in that phrase.” But Dysert O’Dea was an undisputed win for the Irish, and for centuries to come the English left Thomond alone as a place for the O’Briens to rule and squabble over. Not until the early years of Hugh O’Neill’s rebellion at the end of the sixteenth century would there be another such clear-cut victory. Ironically, by then most of the O’Briens would become allies of the English against their fellow Irishmen.

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