Gloriana's Bloody Age

Massacre and Misrule in Elizabethan Ireland

Chapter 5 : The Mullaghhmast Massacre

Was the savagery displayed by Essex, Norreys, Drake and the soldiers they led exceptional? The events at Mullaghmast in Co. Laois showed this was becoming the model of English treatment of the Irish when they stood in the way of English goals. As Essex schemed to colonise Antrim, the Crown attempted to colonise territory in Queens County (modern Co, Laois). As in Ulster, the local lords, notably the Rory Óg O'More, were not going to gift their lands to the English adventurers. Hit-and-run attacks by the Irish gradually weakened the English foothold, and all attempts by the Crown to engage them failed. O'More had to be dealt with, but if the English agreed to a settlement with O'More, they risked undermining their plantation of the region. Therefore, at the end of 1577 (or the start of 1578), the O'Mores were invited to a meeting at Mullaghmast. The meeting was held inside a large rath, a high-status farmstead enclosed by a circular earthwork bank. What happened as the O'Mores arrived was recounted in the Irish Annals of the Four Masters;

'A horrible and abominable act of treachery was committed by the English ... upon that part of the people of Offaly and Leix ... It was effected thus, they were all summoned to show themselves with greatest number they could be able to bring with them, at the great rath of Mullagh-Maistean; and on their arrival at that place, they were surrounded on every side by four lines of soldiers and cavalry, who proceeded to shoot and slaughter without mercy, so that not a single individual escaped'.

The number of those killed remains unclear. Reports put the total killed anywhere from 40-400. Nevertheless, despite the breach of trust, Captain Francis Cosby, the perpetrator of this atrocity, was protected by English law. His warrant under martial law allowed any and all measures against the Irish, ensuring he had no case to answer.

Though the events of 1560-80 were brutal, the conflict that broke out in 1593 became the high watermark for the bloody tide of Elizabethan rule in Ireland. The levels of bloodshed and devastation inflicted on the land and civilian population of Ireland by Gloriana's officers surpassed anything that came before and led to atrocity, famine and destruction that brought misery and bloodshed to hitherto unseen levels in a country that already had experienced its fair share of barbarism and civilian victimisation.