The Battle of Thurles – 1174


The first band of Norman invaders, led by Robert Fitzstephen, landed at Bannow Island on the south coast of Wexford about the 1st May, 1169.Their numbers were soon augmented by a force under the command of Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, nicknamed Strongbow.

So successful was their campaign and so rapidly did they extend their conquests that King Henry II of England feared that they intended to throw off their allegiance to him and set up an independent Norman state in Ireland. So he set out for Ireland with a great army to reduce his turbulent subjects to submission and claim Ireland for his crown. He landed at Crook on the 17th October 1171, and before his departure from Ireland on the 17th April 1172, the Irish hierarchy and nearly all the principal Irish chiefs except O’Neill and O’Donnell in the north had sworn allegiance to him, and received back their lands from him under a yearly payment of tribute.

This wholesale submission has never been satisfactorily explained. Perhaps they were influenced by the much-discussed Papal Bull “Laudabiliter,” or were over-awed by the massive display of force by Henry, or indeed hoped that this action would protect them from the rapacity of marauding Norman barons. Events soon proved that neither Henry nor the invaders had any intention of keeping faith with the Irish.

One of those who took the oath of fealty to Henry was Donal Mor O’Brien, king of Limerick or Thomond, a territory that embraces Co. Clare and the greater part of counties Limerick and Tipperary, including Eile. This leader of the warrior race of the Dalcassians soon learned that his submission to Henry afforded no protection from incursions into his territory by the land-hungry adventurers, and he determined to resist.

     Norman Invaders

Strongbow decided to chastise him, and with his lieutenant, Hervé de Marisco, led a strong force from Waterford towards Co. Tipperary, plundering the country on the way, including the monastery of Lismore. He summoned assistance from Dublin, and a well-armed force of Ostmen led by experienced knights set out to join him. While awaiting their arrival, Strongbow encamped at Cashel. O’Brien had intelligence of their approach and led his army from Limerick to meet them. A fierce engagement took place at Thurles in which the Normans were routed, and suffered their first major defeat, leaving four of their commanders and over 700 men dead on the field of Laghtagalla.

Some accounts put the number slain at 1700; (Annals of Tighernach: Dublin Annals of Inisfallen, etc.). Gerald Barry or Giraldus Cambrensis as he is more commonly known, the Invaders’ historian, in his “Hibernia Expugnata“, tries to make the magnitude of the defeat less severe. He alleges that O’Brien surprised the Dublin forces in Ossory while asleep in their camp, and slaughtered 400 of them, but no other source supports his account.

Which ever is true, a now chastened Strongbow fled in confusion to Waterford. He found that the news of the Thurles defeat had preceded him there, and the populace had risen up and killed the Constable of the town and 200 of the garrison. He was forced to shut himself up, with the remnants of his forces, in Little Island in the River Suir. He was confined there for a month until Raymond le Gros came from Wales with about 450 men to relieve him from his perilous situation (See Dublin Annals of Inisfallen: Annals of Tighernach: Cambrensis).

The rank and file of the Normans attributed their defeat to inept leadership. Their most experienced commander, Raymond le Gros, had withdrawn to Wales because of disputes with Strongbow. Raymond had demanded from Strongbow the Constableship of Leinster and the hand of his sister, Basilia, in marriage, but both requests were refused. Strongbow now had to swallow his pride and send a messenger to beg Raymond to return, promising to accede to his requests. Raymond came over, landed at Wexford, then proceeded to Waterford and rescued Strongbow whom he conveyed to Wexford where the marriage with Basilia was celebrated.

Cambrensis states that all Ireland was so heartened by the news of O’Brien’s victory that there was a general uprising against the invaders whose castles and strongholds were burned and destroyed right up to the confines of Dublin. But this unity of purpose was short-lived. Disunion soon made its appearance again and even the sad spectacle of petty Irish chiefs assisting the invaders against their fellow-countrymen was evident. The Normans took advantage of this disunity, and in the very next year (1175) Raymond Le Gros seized and occupied O’Brien’s town of Limerick, but in the following year, O’Brien expelled the garrison and burned the town to the ground.

It is believed that in 1179, Raymond le Gros took possession of Thurles, while O’Brien was away ingloriously fighting his countrymen, the MacCarthys. If the town was fortified and garrisoned at this time, the Norman hold on it must have been exceedingly tenuous for shortly afterwards O’Brien and his retinue are found traversing this territory without let or hindrance from the foreigners.

On this expedition O’Brien granted charters to the Cistercian Abbeys of Holycross and Kilcooley. With regard to the charter to Holycross, it is remarkable that, while O’Faelan of the Decies was a witness, the name of O’Fogarty, in whose territory the Abbey was situated, is absent. This strongly suggests that the clan was completely disorganised and leaderless. The slaughter by MacGillapatrick in 1171 greatly weakened the O’Fogartys, and soon afterwards Eile became a battle-ground between the Normans and the Dalcassians.

No doubt the continuous marching and counter-marching across this territory left it waste and desolate.

2 thoughts on “The Battle of Thurles – 1174

  1. Seán Ó hAonghusa

    Great to have ready access to such informative, easily-read material. It would help if some well-known landmarks were mentioned to help identify the location of the battle. Míle buíochas

  2. James Bourke

    Any information about the extent of territory controlled by William de Burgh? Did he manage to take land from the Theobald Walter (Butler) in North Tipperary / Clanwilliam? Which Norman castles or mottes in Tipperary or beyond were built by Wm de Burgh? Any information about W. de Burgh (1160-1205 ) will be greatly appreciated. He is often confused with another de Burgh – William FitzAldelin de Burgh.
    James Bourle, (A Clonmel de Burgh, living in Dublin)

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