Massacre at Mullaghmast and the Battle of Glenmalure

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IT was within the period which we have just passed over that the ever-memorable massacre of Mullaghmast occurred.

It is not, unhappily, the only tragedy of the kind to be met with in our blood-stained annals; yet it is of all the most vividly perpetuated in popular traditions.

In 1577, Sir Francis Cosby, commanding the queen's troops in Leix and Offaly, formed a diabolical plot for the permanent conquest of that district.

Peace at the moment prevailed between the government and the inhabitants; but Cosby seemed to think that in extirpation lay the only effectual security for the crown.

Feigning, however, great friendship, albeit suspicious of some few “evil disposed” persons said not to be well affected, he invited to a grand feast all the chief families of the territory; attendance thereat being a sort of test of amity.

To this summons responded the flower of the Irish nobility in Leix and Offaly, with their kinsmen and friends—the O'Mores, O'Kellys, Lalors, O'Nolans, etc.

The “banquet”—alas!—was prepared by Cosby in the great Rath or Fort of Mullach-Maisten, or Mullaghmast, in Kildare county.

Into the great rath rode many a pleasant cavalcade that day; but none ever came forth that entered in.

A gentleman named Lalor who had halted a little way off, had his suspicions in some way aroused. He noticed, it is said, that while many went into the rath, none were seen to reappear outside.

Accordingly he desired his friends to remain behind while he advanced and reconnoitered. He entered cautiously. Inside, what a horrid spectacle met his sight! At the very entrance the dead bodies of some of his slaughtered kinsmen!

In an instant he himself was set upon; but drawing his sword, he hewed his way out of the fort and back to his friends, and they barely escaped with their lives to Dysart!

He was the only Irishman out of more than four hundred who entered the fort that day that escaped with life!

The invited guests were butchered to a man; one hundred and eighty of the O'Mores alone having thus perished.

The peasantry long earnestly believed and asserted that on the encircled rath of slaughter rain nor dew never fell, and that the ghosts of the slain might be seen, and their groans distinctly heard “on the solemn midnight blast!”

“O'er the Rath of Mullaghmast,

On the solemn midnight blast,

What bleeding specters pass'd

With their gashed breasts bare!

“Hast thou heard the fitful wail

That o'erloads the sullen gale

When the waning moon shines pale

O'er the cursed ground there?

“Hark! hollow moans arise

Through the black tempestuous skies,

And curses, strife, and cries,

From the lone rath swell;

“For bloody Sydney there

Nightly fills the lurid air

With the unholy pompous glare

Of the foul, deep hell.

“False Sydney! knighthood's stain!

The trusting brave—in vain

Thy guests—ride o'er the plain

To thy dark cow'rd snare;

“Flow'r of Offaly and Leix,

They have come thy board to grace—

Fools! to meet a faithless race,

Save with true swords bare.

“While cup and song abound,

The triple lines surround

The closed and guarded mound,

In the night's dark noon.

“Alas! too brave O'Moore,

Ere the revelry was o'er,

They have spill'd thy young heart's gore,

Snatch'd from love too soon!

“At the feast, unarmèd all,

Priest, bard, and chieftain fall

In the treacherous Saxon's hall,

O'er the bright wine bowl;

“And now nightly round the board,

With unsheath'd and reeking sword,

Strides the cruel felon lord

Of the blood-stain'd soul.

“Since that hour the clouds that pass'd

O'er the Rath of Mullaghmast,

One tear have never cast

On the gore-dyed sod;

“For the shower of crimson rain

That o'erflowed that fatal plain,

Cries aloud, and not in vain,

To the most high God!"

A sword of vengeance tracked Cosby from that day.

In Leix or Offaly after this terrible blow there was no raising a regular force; yet of the family thus murderously cut down, there remained one man who thenceforth lived but to avenge his slaughtered kindred. This was Ruari Oge O'More, the guerrilla chief of Leix and Offaly, long the terror and the scourge of the Pale.

While he lived none of Cosby's “undertakers” slept securely in the homes of the plundered race.

Swooping down upon their castles and mansions, towns and settlements, Ruari became to them an angel of destruction.

When they deemed him farthest away his sword of vengeance was at hand.

In the lurid glare of burning roof and blazing granary, they saw like a specter from the rath, the face of an O'More; and, above the roar of the flames, the shrieks of victims, or the crash of falling battlements, they heard in the hoarse voice of an implacable avenger—“Remember Mullaghmast!”

And the sword of Ireland still was swift and strong to pursue the author of that bloody deed, and to strike him and his race through two generations. One by one they met their doom:

“In the lost battle

Borne down by the flying;

Where mingles war's rattle

With the groans of the dying.”

On the bloody day of Glenmalure, when the red flag of England went down in the battle's hurricane, and Elizabeth's proud viceroy, Lord Grey de Wilton, and all the chivalry of the Pale were scattered and strewn like autumn leaves in the gale, Cosby of Mullaghmast fell in the rout, sent swiftly to eternal judgment with the brand of Cain upon his brow.

A like doom, a fatality, tracked his children from generation to generation! They too perished by the sword or the battle-ax—the last of them, son and grandson, on one day, by the stroke of an avenging O'More[1]—until it may be questioned if there now exists a human being in whose veins runs the blood of the greatly infamous knight commander, Sir Francis Cosby.

The battle of Glenmalure was fought August 25, 1580.

That magnificent defile, as I have already remarked, in the words of one of our historians, had long been for the patriots of Leinster “a fortress dedicated by nature to the defense of freedom;” and never had fortress of freedom a nobler soul to command its defense than he who now held Glenmalure for God and Ireland—Feach M'Hugh O'Byrne, of Ballinacor, called by the English “The Firebrand of the Mountains.”

In his time no sword was drawn for liberty in any corner of the island, near or far, that his own good blade did not leap responsively from its scabbard to aid “the good old cause.”

Whether the tocsin was sounded in the north or in the south, it ever woke pealing echoes amid the hills of Glenmalure.

As in later years, Feach of Ballinacor was the most trusted and faithful of Hugh O'Neill's friends and allies, so was he now in arms stoutly battling for the Geraldine league.

His son-in-law, Sir Francis Fitzgerald, and James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass, had rallied what survived of the clansmen of Idrone, Offaly, and Leix, and had effected a junction with him, taking up strong positions in the passes of Slieveroe and Glenmalure.

Lord Grey of Wilton arrived as lord lieutenant from England on August 12th. Eager to signalize his advent to office by some brilliant achievement, he rejoiced greatly that so near at hand—within a day's march of Dublin Castle—an opportunity presented itself.

Yes! He would measure swords with this wild chief of Glenmalure who had so often defied the power of England.

He would extinguish the “Firebrand of the Mountain,” and plant the cross of St. George on the ruins of Ballinacor!

So, assembling a right royal host, the haughty viceroy marched upon Glenmalure.

The only accounts which we possess of the battle are those contained in letters written to England by Sir William Stanley and others of the lord lieutenant's officials and subordinates; so that we may be sure the truth is very scantily revealed.

Lord Grey having arrived at the entrance to the glen, seems to have had no greater anxiety than to “hem in” the Irish.

So he constructed a strong earthwork or intrenched camp at the mouth of the valley the more effectually to stop “escape.”

It never once occurred to the vainglorious English viceroy that it was he himself and his royal army that were to play the part of fugitives in the approaching scene!

All being in readiness, Lord Grey gave the order of the advance; he and a group of courtier friends taking their places on a high ground commanding a full view up the valley, so that they might lose nothing of the gratifying spectacle anticipated.

An ominous silence prevailed as the English regiments pushed their way into the glen.

The courtiers waxed witty; they wondered whether the game had not “stolen away;” they sadly thought there would be “no sport;” or they halloed right merrily to the troops to follow on and “unearth” the “old fox.”

After a while the way became more and more tedious. “We were,” says Sir William Stanley, “forced to slide sometimes three or four fathoms ere we could stay our feet;” the way being “full of stones, rocks, logs, and wood; in the bottom thereof a river full of loose stones which we were driven to cross divers times.”

At length it seemed good to Feach M'Hugh O'Byrne to declare that the time had come for action.

Then, from the forest-clad mountain sides there burst forth a wild shout, whereat many of the jesting courtiers turned pale; and a storm of bullets assailed the entangled English legions.

As yet the foe was unseen, but his execution was disastrous.

The English troops broke into disorder.

Lord Grey, furious and distracted, ordered up the reserves; but now Feach passed the word along the Irish lines to charge the foe.

Like the torrents of winter pouring down those hills, down swept the Irish force from every side upon the struggling mass below.

Vain was all effort to wrestle against such a furious charge.

From the very first it became a pursuit. How to escape was now each castle courtier's wild endeavor.

Discipline was utterly cast aside in the panic rout!

Lord Grey and a few attendants fled early, and by fleet horses saved themselves; but of all the brilliant host the viceroy had led out of Dublin a few days before, there returned but a few shattered companies to tell the tale of disaster, and to surround with new terrors the name of Feach M'Hugh, the “Firebrand of the Mountains.”


[1] “Ouney, son of Ruari Oge O'More, slew Alexander and Francis Cosby, son and grandson of Cosby of Mullaghmast, and routed their troops with great slaughter, at Stradbally Bridge, May 19, 1597.”