The Triumphs of Thurlough (Catthreim Thoirdhealbhaigh) was written late in the fourteen century, probably by John mac Rory MacGrath, and it contains the only detailed account of the Battle of Dysert O’Dea. It was, of course, a propaganda piece, promoting the cause of the Thurlough faction of the O’Briens, but it is full of such exact bits of information (such as how an ambush is set up) that it is probably based on earlier documents. It says something about the early rise of Irish nationalism that the fiercest verbal attacks are not on rival O’Briens but on the English, who, in a passage that precedes the account of the battle, are called an “abominable, perverse English gang, cruel and insatiable, over-bearing, surly, sullen, fully of spite malevolence and ill design.” Never, except by “bravery” and “war” will the Irish achieve “freedom or truce, peace or goodfellowship.”

Besides battlefield tactics and diplomatic maneuvers, this excerpt includes one of the best prophesying hags in early Irish literature. Readers should also watch for how cattle are used. The account begins with Murtough O’Brien’s men capturing all of Mahon’s livestock in an effort to drive him out of Thomond, while cattle later become useful in luring an enemy into a trap. In keeping track of who is on which side, remember that Mahon O’Brien (both names are always used), his sons, and Robert de Clare are called the English, Galls, or foreigners. Murtough (usually called simply O’Brien or Thomond), Mac Conmara, and the O’Deas are the Irish or the Gaels.

SINCE APPARENTLY WAR THEY must have, they [the men of Murtough O’Brien] would harry and banish Mahon O’Brien so that he should not be in their midst, and de Clare on their outer side, to vex them with hostilities. For to elude their enemies and to provide against them on one hand alone, seemed easier than it would be with some of them in their own bosom.

At early morn and in the one day, rigorously, unsparingly, with all circumstance of hostile fury and resentment, from the Leap to S. Mac Duach’s church they made the intended creachs [raids]. So efficiently and skilfully they congregated flocks and herds, that whether of single horses or of whole studs, of kine by the head or kine in frightened droves, of swine, of small cattle few or many, of sheep, of plough-teams, of wolfdogs or of hounds in packs, of “agriculture” [implements and produce], of gear and goods of value, of raiment and of arms, they left not a jot but speedily and completely they swept clean and forcibly brought away ….

It came to pass now, that within the city of Limerick Ireland’s principal barons appointed a general meeting, having for its purpose a composition of some sort between O’Brien and the gentlemen of Thomond of the one part, de Clare and Mahon O’Brien of the other. All concerned, both Gall and Gael, answered the tryst; Murtough O’Brien and Mac Conmara, with many others of degree, coming (under protection of the chief Butler and of sir Maurice, joined with Thomas and sir William Oge Burke) with proposals of redress to de Clare and Mahon, in the matter of preyings done on the latter.

They propounded their terms, with guarantee of the barons that they should have effect; but de Clare refused the security and insisted rather that they should submit themselves to his honour, that is to say: their tender of reparation to be duly carried out at maturity, or [failing that] themselves to lie [in his hands] as pledges of fulfilment. The other side, as well knowing what measure of grace would be theirs if they gave in to de Clare, repelled such settlement ….

Of the barons under whose protection they were, Thomond now prayed that they would convoy them safe [out of de Clare’s immediate grasp]. They did so, coming with them as far as the head of Thomond-bridge, where the barons told them that injustice was done them, and added: “it just happens well for you that at this departing on your journey both tide and moon at the full await you.” The Butler went on: “I beseech you injure not this night aught that is de Clare’s, but suffer him to use [this present favourable] opportunity of the sea to gain Bunratty; for he himself says that, at all times when it may be his chance personally to oppose you, no whit he cares for your war. Wherefore be ye not again cozened in the same quarter; so shall ye fare well.” They took leave one of the other, and O’Brien’s party sought the place in which their horses their riding-gear and horseboys expected them.

With spirits bent on action, yet prudently contained, roundly they coasted along the Cratalachs’ [“Cratloes”] thick-sheltering fruitful-branched mast-abounding woods; entered into Hy-Amrid of the high hills with pleasant levels, clear good horse-paths and salmon-yielding rivers; past hazel-woody Ballymulcashel towards the much-resorted hard-flagged strath of Cullane, with its tracks among the rocks and eminences of pleasant prospect; on to Tulach na nespoc [“hill of bishops”] sanctified by bell and precious Mass, by relics gold-enshrined, by rare piety and notable miracles. In shelter of which famous church that night they lay, and on the irachts enjoined to keep good watch and ward in their “gaps of danger” [at their vulnerable points], at the common border-fords, and to guard the ways; to be alert and vigilant, ready to meet all alarms assaults and sudden war. On the extreme verge of demarcation [between de Clare and him] O’Brien pitched a standing camp to hold that position. With a strong body of horse Mac Conmara penetrated to Bunratty of the wide roads, oared galleys and safe harbour, where past and close to the town’s outskirts he drove a trifling stealth of cattle, sheep and horses; and de Clare pursued, because he thought that Mac Conmara would be found following close in the wake of the prey, whereby opportunity might be had to detain him; and that day he had it too, had his own numbers but been sufficient.

Concerning Mahon O’Brien’s two sons: out of Connacht by night they came with a troop of horsemen and rode through Thomond to Bunratty, to speak with de Clare ….

Concerning O’Brien and the men of Thomond: the aforesaid night was the same during which they set themselves in motion to execute a creach on de Clare, who [so soon as he was advised that they stirred] determined himself to go in pursuit and to effect their detention.

The cows and the families that tended them [the entire contemplated prey in fact] lay in Maethal, where precisely Mahon O’Brien’s sons had left their horses and horseboys; and there it was that O’Brien appointed his men to lie low: along the very way by which he supposed that de Clare would come [on his avenging progress, and so walk fair] in among the ambushed parties. In the morning he covered Maethal with squads of marauders [apparently] rashly daring, and ostentatious with flying colours, who to the baron’s contumely, by main force yet without a blow stricken, pillaged and gutted the place of its horses, its stock of all other kinds, its plenishing and wealth.

When de Clare beheld these preys boldly before his face lumped together and, without zig-zag or twist or wavering without offer to evade, without let or hindrance driven straight along the road; in his heart he understood that it was on behalf of Thomond’s main host and Murtough O’Brien the chief that this overweening attack so was pushed home on him. For which reason he suffered not a man of his own pursuing force to press or follow the raiders, nor with the children of Cas to content for this ample haul that they had made.

O’Brien marking that de Clare persevered not in the quest he made his men to rise out of the lurking watch that they had kept; and when the baron saw the ranks start up out of their hiding places, the conduct that he had observed pleased him vastly. Well for him who had shunned those young men’s weaponed vigour, and refrained from meddling with them!

As from the English aforesaid they had had neither fight nor other hardship, jovially and prosperously they followed the preys, droves and herds, into Echtge’s woody deep-valleyed white-rocked lofty-hilled pap-peaked fastnesses, and there divided their creachs and other booty. A good thing and an opportune too they judged it that they had hold of Mahon O’Brien’s sons’ horsemen: horsemen of them that came for de Clare to go and meet their enemies’ flittings, for ever meddling and making to their mischief, and fomenting constant war upon them.

De Clare now despatched messengers to sir William Oge Burke to bid him protect Mahon O’Brien and Kineldunal with their irachts and flittings [baggage], and convey them to Kilnasula’s causeway, whither he with his full numbers would repair to meet them. [On arrival of the envoy] Mac William mustered heavily, and on that day [of his start] came as far as Ardrahen; de Clare in the same day marching to the venerable fane of Quin. That night he abode in S. Finian’s church, and on the morrow’s morn early advanced into grassy apple-fruitful fiadh uachtarach; thence up to the glittering river and rushing water of Curra-Neill, not fairly practicable for horses. But as they were for crossing the cool broad pools, boiling eddies, swelling volume and clear calm backwaters of huge-fish-containing Fergus, there they saw await them a horrific beldam [hag], that in the current washed and with huge exertion dipped old armours, satin vestments, goldthreaded jacks of price, smooth finetextured silken shirts, handsome oversea-fashioned wares, with other garments and strippings of a host; so that of all the river below her was made a broo of blood and water, while from above the sunlighted glaucous spoutings, in gurgling torrent of pure water, over smooth sand rolled down to her.

From the frightful being’s fists [as she wrang those fabrics], violently the red blood squirted and fell, dyeing the river over. De Clare with his cavalry and the rest took heed to her fashion and behaviour, to the work she had in hand and to the change of the fair proud river’s hue; then to the gentlemen of the Gael that for the nonce were with him, he signified that, in a tongue by vehicle of which she might [be made to] comprehend, this strange and hideous creature they should question as to whose gear and armour was that which she washed. [This being done] she answered them, and to this effect:—

“Armour, raiment and other strippings of de Clare with this sons, chief barons, knights, and young lads of gentle birth, with his squires of high degree, his oversea-men and his noble Gael, are these which now I wash. Blood and gore of their hurts and wounds and bodies are these crimson rills which thou [that speakest with me] seest carried away with this rushing stream. Haughty as ye go on this your errand, your immolation all together (some few excepted) is very near to you.”

He that conversed with her asked her what was her name, her business and original habitation, and she said: “I am ‘the Water-doleful,’ that in this land’s hill-dwellings often sojourn, but in my origin I am of Hell’s tuatha; and to invite you all I am come now, for but a little while and we [you and I] shall be denizens of one country.”

At this point de Clare enquired: “what is yon weird thing’s message?” and her fellow in the dialogue replied: “in melancholy grumbling wise, and with discordant voice, she makes for us ill-omened presage and evil prophecy on this course we run. But for the very reason that she is fallen in our way, the rather should we infer that all good luck attends us; inasmuch as we may tell that ‘tis as a wellwisher to clan-Turlough-More she comes to frustrate us of this expedition.”

“It is not she that has it in her,” said de Clare, “neither can that she utters work us harm, because a witch cannot be truthful; and she shall not prevail to hinder us but that this time we overrun all Thomond and make her tributary to us. For Murtough O’Brien has not means to encounter even ourselves; whereas the Burkes’ host is on the way to act with us and for ever to hunt Murtough away out of the country.” With that they pass on; but of that colloquy with the hag it resulted that for the night they needs must halt in the open ground of Ruane’s grassgrown hollow cahers.

Concerning the judicious Conor O’Dea: his scouts and sentinels come in with intelligence of de Clare’s being on his way towards him. To O’Hechir (Lochlainn) therefore, and to O’Conor (Felim), hastily he sends to show them the baron’s journey and to pray them come with their irachts in full force, and without delay, to meet the same; to the end that of de Clare (if to such pass it came) they collectively should have terms of peace all the more favourable for the fact that the individual means of each would be found ranked on the same side [so that he could not hope to use them one against the other as his wont was]. Moreover, to de Clare he commissioned O’Grifa (Thomas mac Urhilly) to offer him conditions and tribute.

De Clare’s answer was that, at this time of asking, nor peace nor satisfaction whatsoever would he grant, whether to him [O’Dea] or to any other whom he held to live in inveterate enmity to him, as always they had been with his friends before him.

Which bad news having reached O’Dea (Conor), out of all quarters he calls in his people, discloses to them de Clare’s reply; hurriedly they debate of this quandary, and that which they hit off and agreed upon was: to ambush the great bulk of their good men well to the rear, out of sight of de Clare’s army; the remnant to hold the “fighting ford” [that which was to be the pivot of the battle] and to protect their preys until Felim O’Conor’s and Lochlainn O’Hechir’s advent to relieve them. To accelerate those captains, again he sends them despatches bearing de Clare’s answer to his overtures.

Let us return to the English leader: as morning broke, he wondered at the stillness of the country round about, just as though every one had been at peace with him. He made of his force three divisions to waste the land in all directions, to kill their women and their “silly [little] boys”: one he detailed to pass by Tulach-O’Dea and westwards on to Rath; another to follow the Fergus through Kinelcualachta down to Magowna; while as straight as might be, he with the notables of his host held a due-west course for Disert, where at that time O’Dea’s residence was, to sack it. When they were come thither, they saw a well ordered detachment of horse and foot that diligently conveyed a heavy prey across the stream westwards; whereupon universally that dense mass of de Clare’s follows them, and by the English a good share of the rearmost chase are killed before they could win over the ford. Withal, boldly O’Dea turns to hold the ford against the enemy, so that, ere long, it had been hard to count them that on either side were slain.

When de Clare made out that it was by that small number the ford so stiffly was held against him, in furious temper he urging on his troops put himself at their head. At sight of the baron in person advancing on them, O’Dea’s handful began “to fight and back” [fight on the retreat] towards the ford at which, and close to hand, the ambush lay. The English continue to follow them hard and massacre them, so that along with de Clare a large body of his men impetuously cross the ford westwards.

Now for the ambush: smartly and boldly they stand up; and while one party of them independently goes to help hold the ford against the heavy shock of the enemy’s main corps [which as yet was not come over], the lesser section joins the chase in lashing and smiting de Clare and company insomuch that, before the overwhelming strength of his reserves could succour him, the O’Deas killed both himself and every man that he had with him. Howbeit, those Gael (so many of them as lived) were forced to refuge in a neighbouring wood; and there their assailants “make of themselves a battle-hedge” to surround them.

But over the hill of Scule, out of the west, here comes red-sworded Felim O’Conor; in whom as in his merry men all, when they were certified of the many slain, their spirit was magnified and without roundabout or digression he presses on until he is in the thick of it. For the O’Deas, he hacked and rent out a passage, a high road, by which to come out of the wood to join him; and they now, all being of a side, fell to lacerating of their eternal enemies and to fending for themselves, de Clare’s forces all the time {after abandoning of their preys and enormous plunder, marching up compact and crowded and coming on the field). Both parties, Gall and Gael, mowed down and mishandled each other: some diving into and rigidly keeping up the fray and “setting foot to fulcrum”; others indeed scared, and even terrified into flight from off the ground: so that of either set many gentles and fine warriors were destroyed.

That in which the Gael were now, was a sad plight indeed, the greater part of their men having perished, and before their faces lying piled in death, they were driven to form themselves into a fast impenetrable phalanx that their enemies should not break though them; and he among them that had the least on his hands, him four of his fierce foes beset at once. Besides and beyond all which, O’Conor (Felim) and de Clare’s arrogant hot-headed son (that after his father’s death was fair gone wud [mad], rushing at all and sundry) came together. Equally rapid as were their well-meant blows, yet not long their combat retained this equilibrium; for Felim wounds and rewounds and triple-wounds the Englishman and, in all his gentlemen’s despite, converted him upon the spot into a disfigured corpse.

Again now we take up O’Brien and the men of Thomond: after having at the goad’s point driven Mahon O’Brien’s prey, in Echtge’s leafy borders they rested when certain of their own near friends and favourers that were in de Clare’s host hurried off to the chief advice of the baron’s vigorous enterprise, and the motive of his journey. To Murtough O’Brien it was as a violent mortal sickness that ever his faithful natural friends should come to lie under merciless oppression of those English; therefore on the instant his gentlemen and irachts all (horse and foot) assemble and, before clearing and full shining of the day, across the grasslands of the open plain strike westwards, past the pleasant hill of Uarchoill [Spancelhill], westwards still to the Fergus, ever as hard as they could go. Broad Fergus being crossed, in all directions they see the land aflame, hear it resound as with one mighty outcry. Soon they descry headlong folk (hard to stay), and swiftly flying groups that head towards them; insomuch that they found it a main effort to check the fugitives in their mad career. Dejectedly then, and they scarce able to contain themselves, these narrate the deaths and losses [of which we have heard].

As for O’Brien’s gentlemen and men, as one they intensify their travail to relieve their friends in common danger: some abandon their mantles and “rampart-arms” [missile weapons]; others leave behind them their horses and all superfluous weight; for they (so many as thus divested themselves of armour) thought that on foot they would make better play over the rough intricate paths. When at last they neared the spot in which the tug of war went on (which they did without halt for formation, without consideration or respect shewed by loon to lord, by man-at-arms to high commander), O’Conor seeing them at a distance [and not knowing them] said, angrily despairing: “a pity ’tis; for we this poor remainder of the Gael stand in need of succour more than does our foe. Still, now that out of this pinch there is no way for us (since to fly beseems us not), on our bitter enemies avenge we ourselves handsomely, and in such guise that after us they shall not muster strong enough to offer battle to our friends!”

With the lionlike chief’s exhortation their valour blazed and their strength expanded, in such measure that right through the pale English they made for themselves “a warrior’s gap” and common path, to go [as they thought] to this fresh enemy’s encounter. But when they knew their fellows, loudly they emitted three cries: one of joy and welcome; one of triumph and exultation for the deeds that they had done, the slaughter they had made; lastly, a groanful cry of lamentation for their own hurts and losses. Here [at last] the wounded fell to the rear of the others as they fought; from their respective directions both parties [O’Conor and the O’Deas on the one hand, O’Brien and Clancullen on the other] charge each towards each, in form so grim that neither may one count nor [consequently] recite all that fell of them [friend and foe] while the thing lasted, so imperious was their desire to reach their comrades and to join their forces. So dour the hand-to-hand work was, that nor noble nor commander of them [the English] left the ground, but the far greater part fell where they stood. Nor was Lochlainn O’Hechir with his iracht who came on the scene a little before O’Brien, idle in the tight-jammed press.

There remains but to say that the gentles of the pale English being extinguished utterly: both knecht and battle-baron, both knight and aspirant, the common herd (so many as survived) took to shift for themselves. Which when the Gael perceived they followed them hard and close; seeking to get round them [head them off] so that not a soul of them should pull through, for they esteemed that now, de Clare and his son and Mahon O’Brien’s two sons with the gentlemen of his iracht and people being fallen, there was an end of the cleavage among them [the Dalcassians] all. Nevertheless, by main fighting strength Brian Bane mac Donall mac Brian Rua came off; but he never cried halt until he had crossed Shannon eastwards [into Duharra], where for his race he (with Murtough O’Brien’s goodwill) effected a settlement.

As for O’Brien and his people: with cutting down and expeditious slaying of their perpetual enemies, earnestly they follow the rout right into Bunratty of the spacious roads; and (a thing which never had happened) the manner in which he found the town before him was: deserted, empty, wrapped in fire. For upon his wife’s and household’s receiving of the tidings that de Clare was killed, with one consent they betake them to their fast galleys and shove off on Shannon, taking with them the choicest of the town’s wealth and valuable effects, and having at all points set it on fire. From which time to this, never a one of their breed has come back to look after it.

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