Godfrey O'Donnell of Tyrconnell

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


I HAVE remarked that the Irish chiefs may be said to have fought each other with one hand, while they fought the English with the other. Illustrating this state of things, I may refer to the story of Godfrey, Prince of Tyrconnell—as glorious a character as ever adorned the page of history. For years the Normans had striven in vain to gain a foothold in Tyrconnell. Elsewhere—in Connaught, in Munster, throughout all Leinster, and in Southern Ulster—they could betimes assert their sway, either by dint of arms or insidious diplomatic strategy. But never could they overreach the wary and martial Cinel-Connal, from whom more than once the Norman armies had suffered overthrow. At length the lord justice, Maurice Fitzgerald, felt that this hitherto invulnerable fortress of native Irish power in the northwest had become a formidable standing peril to the entire English colony; and it was accordingly resolved that the whole strength of the Anglo-Norman force in Ireland should be put forth in one grand expedition against it; and this expedition the lord justice decided that he himself would lead and command in person! At this time Tyrconnell was ruled by a prince who was the soul of chivalric bravery, wise in the council, and daring in the field—Godfrey O'Donnell.

The lord justice, while assembling his forces, employed the time, moreover, in skillfully diplomatizing, playing the insidious game which, in every century, most largely helped the Anglo-Norman interest in Ireland—setting up rivalries and inciting hostilities among the Irish princes! Having, as he thought, not only cut off Godfrey from all chance of alliance or support from his fellow-princes of the north and west, but environed him with their active hostility, Fitzgerald marched on Tyrconnell. His army moved with all the pomp and panoply of Norman pride. Lords, earls, knights, and squires, from every Norman castle or settlement in the land, had rallied at the summons of the king's representative. Godfrey, isolated though he found himself, was nothing daunted by the tremendous odds which he knew were against him. He was conscious of his own military superiority to any of the Norman lords yet sent against him—he was in fact one of the most skillful captains of the age—and he relied implicitly on the unconquerable bravery of his clansmen. Both armies met at Credan-Kille in the north of Sligo. A battle which the Normans describe as fiercely and vehemently contested, ensued and raged for hours without palpable advantage to either side. In vain the mail-clad battalion's of England rushed upon the saffron kilted Irish clansmen; each time they reeled from the shock and fled in bloody rout! In vain the cavalry squadrons—long the boasted pride of the Normans—headed by earls and knights whose names were rallying cries in Norman England, swept upon the Irish lines! Riderless horses alone returned,

"Their nostrils all red with the sign of despair."

The lord justice in wild dismay saw the proudest army ever rallied by Norman power on Irish soil being routed and hewn piecemeal before his eyes! Godfrey, on the other hand, the very impersonation of valor, was everywhere cheering his men, directing the battle and dealing destruction to the Normans. The gleam of his battle-ax or the flash of his sword was the sure precursor of death to the haughtiest earl or knight that dared to confront him. The lord justice—than whom no abler general or braver soldier served the king—saw that the day was lost if he could not save it by some desperate effort, and at the worst he had no wish to survive the overthrow of the splendid army he had led into the field. The flower of the Norman nobles had fallen under the sword of Godfrey, and him the Lord Maurice now sought out, dashing into the thickest of the fight. The two leaders met in single combat. Fitzgerald dealt the Tyrconnell chief a deadly wound; but Godfrey, still keeping his seat, with one blow of his battle-ax, clove the lord justice to the earth, and the proud baron was carried senseless off the field by his followers. The English fled in hopeless confusion; and of them the chroniclers tell us there was made a slaughter that night's darkness alone arrested. The Lord Maurice was done with pomp and power after the ruin of that day. He survived his dreadful wound for some time; he retired into a Franciscan monastery which he himself had built and endowed at Youghal, and there taking the habit of a monk, he departed this life tranquilly in the bosom of religion. Godfrey, meanwhile, mortally wounded, was unable to follow up quickly the great victory of Credan-Kille; but stricken as he was, and with life ebbing fast, he did not disband his army till he had demolished the only castle the English had dared to raise on the soil of Tyrconnell. This being done, and the last soldier of England chased beyond the frontier line, he gave the order for dispersion, and himself was borne homeward to die.

This, however, sad to tell, was the moment seized upon by O'Neill, Prince of Tyrone, to wrest from the Cinel-Connal submission to his power! Hearing that the lion-hearted Godfrey lay dying, and while yet the Tyrconnellian clans, disbanded and on their homeward roads, were suffering from their recent engagement with the Normans, O'Neill sent envoys to the dying prince demanding hostages in token of submission. The envoys, say all the historians, no sooner delivered this message than they fled for their lives! Dying though Godfrey was, and broken and wounded as were his clansmen by their recent glorious struggle, the messengers of Tyrowen felt but too forcibly the peril of delivering this insolent demand! And characteristically was it answered by Godfrey! His only reply was to order an instantaneous muster of all the fighting men of Tyrconnell. The army of Tyrowen meanwhile pressed forward rapidly to strike the Cinel-Connal, if possible, before their available strength (such as it was), could be rallied. Nevertheless, they found the quickly reassembled victors of Credan-Kille awaiting them. But alas, sorrowful story! On the morning of the battle death had but too plainly set his seal upon the brow of the heroic Godfrey! As the troops were being drawn up in line, ready to march into the field, the physicians announced that his last moments were at hand; he had but a few hours to live! Godfrey himself received the information with sublime composure. Having first received the last sacraments of the church, and given minute instructions as to the order of battle, he directed that he should be laid upon the bier which was to have borne him to the grave; and that thus he should be carried at the head of his army on their march! His orders were obeyed, and then was witnessed a scene for which history has not a parallel! The dying king, laid on his bier, was borne at the head of his troops into the field! After the bier came the standard of Godfrey—on which was emblazoned a cross with the words, In hoc signo vinces [1]—and next came the charger of the dying king, caparisoned as if for battle! But Godfrey's last fight was fought! Never more was that charger to bear him where the sword-blows fell thickest. Never more would his battle-ax gleam in the front of the combat. But as if his presence, living, dead, or dying, was still a potential assurance of triumph to his people, the Cinel-Connal bore down all opposition. Long and fiercely, but vainly, the army of Tyrowen contested the field. Around the bier of Godfrey his faithful clansmen made an adamantine rampart which no foe could penetrate. Wherever it was borne the Tyrconnell phalanx, of which it was the heart and center, swept all before them. At length, when the foe was flying on all sides, they laid the bier upon the ground to tell the king that the day was won. But the face of Godfrey was marble pale, and cold and motionless! All was over! His heroic spirit had departed amid his people's shouts of victory!

Several poems have been written on this tragic yet glorious episode. That from which I take the following passages is generally accounted the best:[2]

"All worn and wan, and sore with wounds from Credan's bloody fray,
In Donegal for weary months the proud O'Donnell lay;
Around his couch in bitter grief his trusty clansmen wait,
And silent watch, with aching hearts, his faint and feeble state."

The chief asks one evening to be brought into the open air, that he may gaze once more on the landscape's familiar scenes:

"'And see the stag upon the hills, the white clouds drifting by;
And feel upon my wasted cheek God's sunshine ere I die.'"

Suddenly he starts on his pallet, and exclaims:

"'A war-steed's tramp is on the heath, and onward cometh fast,
And by the rood! a trumpet sounds! hark! it is the Red Hand's blast!'
And soon a kern all breathless ran, and told a stranger train
Across the heath was spurring fast, and then in sight it came.

"'Go, bring me, quick, my father's sword,' the noble chieftain said;
'My mantle o'er my shoulders fling, place helmet on my head;
And raise me to my feet, for ne'er shall clansman of my foe
Go boasting tell in far Tyrone he saw O'Donnell low.'"

The envoys of O'Neill arrive in Godfrey's presence, and deliver their message, demanding tribute:

"'A hundred hawks from out your woods, all trained their prey to get;
A hundred steeds from off your hills, uncrossed by rider yet;
A hundred kine from off your hills, the best your land doth know;
A hundred hounds from out your halls, to hunt the stag and roe.'"

Godfrey, however, is resolved to let his foes, be they Norman or native, know that, though dying, he is not dead yet. He orders a levy of all the fighting men of Tyrconnell:

"'Go call around Tyrconnell's chief my warriors tried and true;
Send forth a friend to Donal More, a scout to Lisnahue;
Light baal-fires quick on Esker's towers, that all the land may know
O'Donnell needeth help and haste to meet his haughty foe.

"'Oh, could I but my people head, or wield once more a spear,
Saint Augus! but we'd hunt their hosts like herds of fallow deer.
But vain the wish, since I am now a faint and failing man;
Yet, ye shall bear me to the field, in the center of my clan.

"'Right in the midst, and lest, perchance, upon the march I die,
In my coffin ye shall place me, uncovered let me lie;
And swear ye now, my body cold shall never rest in clay,
Until you drive from Donegal O'Niall's host away.'

"Then sad and stern, with hand on skian, that solemn oath they swore,
And in a coffin placed their chief, and on a litter bore.
Tho' ebbing fast his life-throbs came, yet dauntless in his mood,
He marshaled well Tyrconnell's chiefs, like leader wise and good.

"Lough Swilly's sides are thick with spears, O'Niall's host is there,
And proud and gay their battle sheen, their banners float the air;
And haughtily a challenge bold their trumpets bloweth free,
When winding down the heath-clad hills, O'Donnell's band they see!

"No answer back those warriors gave, but sternly on they stept,
And in their center, curtained black, a litter close is kept;
And all their host it guideth fair, as did in Galilee
Proud Judah's tribes the Ark of God, when crossing Egypt's sea.

"Then rose the roar of battle loud, as clan met clan in fight;
The ax and skian grew red with blood, a sad and woeful sight;
Yet in the midst o'er all, unmoved, that litter black is seen,
Like some dark rock that lifts its head o'er ocean's war serene.

"Yet once, when blenching back fierce Bryan's charge before,
Tyrconnell wavered in its ranks, and all was nearly o'er,
Aside those curtains wide were flung, and plainly to the view
Each host beheld O'Donnell there, all pale and wan in hue.

"And to his tribes he stretch'd his hands—then pointed to the foe,
When with a shout they rally round, and on Clan Hugh they go;
And back they beat their horsemen fierce, and in a column deep,
With O'Donnell in their foremost rank, in one fierce charge they sweep.

"Lough Swilly's banks are thick with spears!—O'Niall's host is there,
But rent and tost like tempest clouds—Clan Donnell in the rere!
Lough Swilly's waves are red with blood, as madly in its tide
O'Niall's horsemen wildly plunge, to reach the other side.

"And broken is Tyrowen's pride, and vanquished Clannaboy,
And there is wailing thro' the land, from Bann to Aughnacloy;
The Bed Hand's crest is bent in grief, upon its shield a stain,
For its stoutest clans are broken, its stoutest chiefs are slain.

"And proud and high Tyrconnell shouts; but blending on the gale,
Upon the ear ascendeth a sad and sullen wail;
For on that field, as back they bore, from chasing of the foe,
The spirit of O'Donnell fled!—oh, woe for Ulster, woe!

"Yet died he there all gloriously—a victor in the fight;
A chieftain at his people's head, a warrior in his might;
They dug him there a fitting grave upon that field of pride,
And a lofty cairn they raised above, by fair Lough Swilly's side."

In this story of Godfrey of Tyrconnell we have a perfect illustration of the state of affairs in Ireland at the time. Studying it, no one can marvel that the English power eventually prevailed; but many may wonder that the struggle lasted so many centuries. What Irishman can contemplate without sorrow the spectacle of those brave soldiers of Tyrconnell and their heroic prince, after contending with, and defeating, the concentrated power of the Anglo-Norman settlement, called upon to hurriedly re-unite their broken and wounded ranks that they might fight yet another battle against fresh foes—those foes their own countrymen! Only among a people given over to the madness that precedes destruction, could conduct like that of O'Neill be exhibited. At a moment when Godfrey and his battle-wounded clansmen had routed the common foe—at a moment when they were known to be weakened after such a desperate combat—at a moment when they should have been hailed with acclaim, and greeted with aid and succour by every chief and clan in Ireland—they are foully taken at disadvantage, and called upon to fight anew by their own fellow-countrymen and neighbors of Tyrowen!

The conduct of O'Neill on this occasion was a fair sample of the. prevailing practice among the Irish princes. Faction-split to the last degree, each one sought merely his own personal advantage or ambition. Nationality and patriotism were sentiments no longer understood. Bravery in battle, dauntless courage, heroic endurance, marvelous skill, we find them displaying to the last; but the higher political virtues so essential to the existence of a nation—unity of purpose and of action against a common foe—recognition of and obedience to a central national authority—were utterly absent. Let us own in sorrow that a people among whom such conduct as that of O'Neill toward Godfrey of Tyrconnell was not only possible but of frequent occurrence, deserved subjection—invited it—rendered it inevitable. Nations, like individuals, must expect the penalty of disregarding the first essentials to existence. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Factionism like that of the Irish princes found its sure punishment in subjugation.


[1] On the banner and shield of Tyrconnell were emblazoned a cross surrounded by the words In hoc signo vinces. One readily inclines to the conjecture that this was borrowed from the Roman emperor Constantine. The words may have been; but among the treasured traditions of the Cinel-Connal was one which there is reason for regarding as historically reliable, assigning to an interesting circumstance the adoption by them of the cross as the armorial bearings of the sept. One of the earliest of St. Patrick's converts was Conall Crievan, brother of Ard-Ri Laori and ancestor of the Cinel-Connal. Conall was a prince famed for his courage and bravery, and much attached to military pursuits; but on his conversion he desired to become a priest; preferring his request to this effect to St. Patrick, when either baptizing or confirming him. The saint, however, commanded him to remain a soldier; but to fight henceforth as became a Christian warrior; "and under this sign serve and conquer," said the saint, raising the iron-pointed end of the "Staff of Jesus," and marking on the shield of Conall a cross. The shield thus marked by St. Patrick's crozier was ever after called "Sciath Bachlach," or the "Shield of the Crozier." Mr. Aubrey de Vere very truly calls this the "inauguration of Irish (Christian) chivalry," and has made the incident the subject of the following poem:


"Thou shalt not be a priest," he said;
"Christ hath for thee a lowlier task:
Be thou his soldier! Wear with dread
His cross upon thy shield and casque!
Put on God's armor, faithful knight!
Mercy with justice, love with law;
Nor e'er, except for truth and right,
This sword, cross-hilted, dare to draw."

He spake, and with his crozier pointed
Graved on the broad shield's brazen boss
(That hour baptized, confirmed, anointed,
Stood Erin's chivalry) the Cross:
And there was heard a whisper low—
(Saint Michael, was that whisper thine?)—
Thou sword, keep pure thy virgin vow,
And trenchant thou shalt be as mine.

[2]The name of the author is unknown.