Monday 1 May 2023

Land and Gentry: Medieval Ballybrown


St Margaret's Church, Newtown

Medieval Ballybrown/Clarina

By Dr Matthew Potter



The Middle Ages or Medieval Period is the period in European history which lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire to the discovery of America and covers an enormously long time span of approximately one thousand years (fifth to the fifteenth centuries inclusive). Because of this, the period is often divided into the Early Middle Ages (400-1000), High Middle Ages (1000-1300) and Late Middle Ages (1300-1500). In this article, I will examine the history of Medieval Ballybrown with the main focus being on the period after 1200. In addition, for reasons which will become apparent later on, I will argue that the Middle Ages in Ballybrown really lasted until the 1650s, long after the period had ended in most of Ireland.


The Uí Fidgenti (fourth-twelfth centuries)


Archaeological evidence suggests that the Ballybrown area has been inhabited by man for some 6,000 years but organised political structures emerged at a much more period. The Northern part of what is now the Parish of Patrickswell and Ballybrown was known as Esclon (Aos Cluan) in the Middle Ages and seems to have been inhabited by a tribe called the Caoille from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. The centre of Esclon was the large townland of Newtown and its principal surviving feature is the now ruinous Saint Margaret’s Church. Another tribe called the Ui Chonaing also settled in the area and gave their name to both Carrigogunnell and Castleconnell. In 1419, Esclon was absorbed into the parish of Kilkeedy (Cill Caoidhe in Irish), named after Saint Caoide about whom little is known. The Patrickswell and Ballybrown parish continued to be known as Kilkeedy until the mid-twentieth century, a name still preserved in the graveyard near Carrigogunnell Castle.


During the Early Middle Ages, what is now County Limerick formed the central part of the Kingdom of the Uí Fidgenti, whose modern descendants include the O’Connells, O’Donovans, Traceys, Flannerys, Rings and the Collins family. The Uí Fidgenti generally had a good relationship with their overlords, the Eóganachta, who were Kings of Munster from the seventh to the tenth centuries, but less so with the Dál gCáis who took the Munster throne in 963. From 1118, Munster was divided into the Kingdoms of Thomond (North Munster) ruled by the O’Briens, descended from the Dál gCáis and Desmond (South Munster) ruled by the McCarthys, descended from the Eóganachta. After surviving for 800 years, the power of the Uí Fidgenti was overthrown in 1178 by Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond from 1168 to 1194.


The Normans invaded Ireland in 1169 and contrary to traditional nationalist mythology, many of the Gaelic Irish rulers co-operated and often intermarried with them. Though possessing a common Gaelic culture, the pre-Norman Irish kings had no sense of nationalism and were constantly at war with one another. To them, the Normans, like the Vikings before them, were just another element in the constantly changing political landscape. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the ruthless and pragmatic Donal Mór did homage to King Henry II of England in 1171, and thus established an alliance between the O’Briens and the English Crown that lasted for a hundred years.



The de Burghs 1200-1333


After 1200, the Anglo-Norman settlement of Limerick which had been kept in check by Donal Mór O’Brien began in earnest. The County of Munster which comprised modern Limerick and Tipperary was established in 1211-12 and divided into Counties Limerick and Tipperary between 1251 and 1254. Around 1200, Esclon (and also Castleconnell across the Shannon) were granted by King John to William de Burgh (1160-1206), one of the most powerful Norman lords, who married a daughter of Donal Mór O’Brien and founded one of the greatest dynasties in Ireland (later known as the Burkes).


After William’s death in 1206, his estates were held by the Crown until his infant son Richard Mór de Burgh, 1st Lord of Connacht (1194-1242) reached adulthood. One of the most powerful men in Ireland, Richard ruled both Esclon and Castleconnell, conquered the whole of Connacht in 1235 and founded the towns of Galway, Ballinasloe and Loughrea. By his marriage to Egidia de Lacy, grand- daughter of Hugh de Lacy Earl of Ulster, he came into possession of the Earldom of Ulster which comprised the modern Counties Antrim and Down.


 After Richard’s death, he was succeeded by his son Walter (1230-71) who was created first Earl of Ulster in 1263. By far the greatest of the family was Richard de Burgh (1259-1326), the Red Earl who ruled the Earldom of Ulster, the Lordship of Connacht, Esclon, Castleconnell and his other possessions for fifty-five years (1271-1326). His significance is demonstrated by the marriage of one of his daughters Elizabeth to King Robert the Bruce of Scotland and her reign as Queen-Consort of Scotland from 1306 to 1327.


The empire of the de Burghs collapsed when the Red Earl’s grandson and successor, William the Brown Earl (1312-33) was assassinated in June 1333 and in the ensuing conflict between his kinsmen known as the Burke Civil War his vast territories were partitioned between them. As a result, Esclon came into the hands of Sir Edmond de Burgh of Castleconnell, only surviving uncle of the Brown Earl and senior member of the de Burgh dynasty.



Table of the de Burghs











Richard Mór

First Lord of Connacht





first Earl of Ulster

second Lord of Connacht




the Red Earl

second Earl of Ulster

third Lord of Connacht




the Brown Earl

third Earl of Ulster

fourth Lord of Connacht




The O’Briens, Lords of Pubblebrien (1449-1651).


Unfortunately, the paucity of the records means that it is not possible for us to know when exactly the de Burghs (or Burkes as they were now called) lost control of Esclon, although they held onto Castleconnell until the 1650s. However, it would appear that the Burke Civil Wars of the 1330s enabled the O’Briens to move into Esclon, though when exactly is difficult to establish. What is certain is that in the early fourteenth century the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond from 1329 to 1583 established themselves as overlords of all of County Limerick, North Cork and North Kerry and continued to rule this vast territory for 250 years. Although they generally acknowledged the supremacy of the English Crown, the Earls of Desmond often behaved as if they were independent princes and in the sixteenth century even attempted to transfer their allegiance to the King of Spain.


Even in its present ruinous state, the most striking feature in Ballybrown is Carrigogunnell Castle but the details of its early history are vague and contradictory. The earliest reference to it dates to 1209, when King John granted it to Donal Cairbreach O’Brien, King of Thomond, a son of the redoubtable Donal Mór O’Brien. As Esclon had recently been granted to the de Burghs, the relationship between it and  Carrigogunnell is ambiguous to say the least. However, Esclon does not appear to have included Carrigogunnell. What is certain is that the O’Briens briefly occupied Carrigogunnell in the 1330s and by the fifteenth century had become Lords of a much enlarged Esclon and Kilkeedy, now renamed Pubblebrien in their honour. In addition what is now Patrickswell-Ballybrown, Pubblebrien also included the modern parish of Mungret-Crecora-Raheen, while the villages of Clarina, Patrickswell and Mungret later developed within its boundaries.


In 1414, Conor O’Brien, King of Thomond (a kingdom that by this time was confined to what is now County Clare, having lost County Limerick to the Earls of Desmond) abdicated and was succeeded by his nephew Tadhg. Subsequently, Conor’s branch of the O’Briens was never again to wear the Thomond Crown. As relations between the O’Briens of Thomond and the Earls of Desmond were often strained, it would appear that James, the seventh Earl of Desmond (who reigned from 1411 to 1463) took advantage of this family feud to instal Conor’s son Brian Dubh in Carrigogunnell in 1449, thus marking the beginning of the Lordship of Pubblebrien. At the same time, Brian Dubh’s brother Mahon was installed as Lord of Corcamore.


The Lordship of Pubblebrien was always subject to the overlordship of the Earls of Desmond, who used it as a buffer against the O’Briens of Thomond and their vassals, the McNamaras of Cratloe. However, Pubblebrien also became a major opponent of the then semi-independent city of Limerick whose inhabitants were often plundered and terrorised by the O’Briens and their followers. Under the O’Briens, Pubblebrien retained its Gaelic political system and culture for two centuries and thus it can be argued that the Middle Ages did not end there until the 1650s.


While Carrigogunnell Castle dates back to the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, it was extensively rebuilt by the O’Briens in the fifteenth century, with further editions in the sixteenth century. However, even at its peak, it does not appear to have been either well fortified or impressive in appearance, especially in comparison with King John’s Castle in Limerick City.


Brian Dubh was succeeded by his son Donough, whose territories stretched from the Shannon at Newtown to Manister and from Adare to Limerick City. After his death in 1502, his lands were divided between ten of his eleven sons, with one of them Mahon (or Mago) succeeding him as Lord of Pubblebrien. During his reign, the most dramatic event in the history of Carrigigunnell occurred in 1536, when it was captured by Lord Leonard Grey, chief governor of Ireland under King Henry VIII; came back into Mahon’s hands by trickery and was then stormed and recaptured by Grey, who hanged the entire garrison in Limerick City soon after.


Nevertheless, the O’Briens soon recovered Carrigigunnell and even survived the destruction of the Earldom of Desmond in 1579-83 and subsequent Plantation of Munster of 1585-98. However, their subsequent fortunes were mixed, to put it mildly. Mahon had two sons, Muirechetach and Donnchadh, whose respective branches of the family reacted very differently to the collapse of the Desmond lordship. Muirechetach’s sons Mahon, Murtough and Turlough and grandson Turlough died during the Desmond Rebellion of 1579-83, while another grandson Murtough was executed in 1577. Only one grandson of this line, Tadhg survived.


By contrast, Mahon’s other son Donncadh withdrew into judicious obscurity and managed to hang onto Carrigogunnell, while dividing the lands of the Lordship among his sons. His son and successor, another Brian Dubh went further and fought on the side of the English Crown against his  overlord, the Earl of Desmond during the war of 1579-83. In 1584, he surrendered Pubblebrien to Queen Elizabeth I who regranted it all back to him. He reigned for a further thirty years until his death in 1615, and proved a ruthless and shrewd politician, who remained loyal to the Crown, even though one of his brothers joined the rebellion of O’Neill and O’Donnell in 1601.


Brian Dubh was succeeded by his only son Donough who died childless in 1632, and whose widow married Edmund Burke, Lord of Castleconnell, whose family had once ruled Esclon. Donough was succeeded by his cousin another Donough of Dooneen who was in turn succeeded by his son, yet another Donough. This last Donough O’Brien took part in the 1641 Rebellion, and in 1642 indulged in the traditional Pubblebrien practice of plundering the inhabitants of Limerick city when he stole a large amount of property from the wealthy merchant David Roche. However, the Rebellion was crushed by Oliver Cromwell in his ferocious campaign of 1649-50 and as a result the hapless Donough O’Brien lost all his possessions, thus bringing the Lordship of Pubblebrien (and the confusing succession of Donoughs!) to an end in 1651. Their lands were given to English settlers and the age of the Anglo-Irish landlords in Ballybrown, the era of the Monsells, Barkers, Coopers, Tuthills and Masseys was thus commenced.


Carrigogunnell Castle itself survived for another forty years, and surrendered without a fight at the time of the second Siege of Limerick (1691). However, the authorities were afraid that it might be of use to potential rebels in the future, so in September 1691, eighty-four barrels of gunpowder were used to blow it up. The last vestige of Medieval Ballybrown had disappeared.


Gerard Beggan, In the Barony of Pubblebrien, Patrickswell and Crecora. History of a Co. Limerick village and its environs (Oranswell, Galway: Privately Published 1991).


Reverend John Begley, The Diocese of Limerick, Ancient and Medieval (Dublin: Brown and Nolan, 1906, reprinted by O’Brien- Toomey, Limerick, 1993).


Andrew Thomas Blacoe, ‘Carrigogunnell Castle and the O’Briens of Pubblebrien: The History and Archaeology’ (Unpublished MA thesis, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1996).


T.W. Moody, F.X. Martin and F.J. Byrne (eds.), A New History of Ireland, Vol. IX, Maps, Genealogies, Lists. A Companion to Irish History, Part II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). 


Emmet O’Byrne, ‘The Crown of England, the Common Law and Conflict: The Communities of Limerick 1170-1270’ in Liam Irwin, Gearóid O Tuathaigh and Matthew Potter (eds.), Limerick History and Society, Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County (Dublin: Geography Publications, 2009), pp 41-69.


A.J. Otway-Ruthven, A History of Medieval Ireland (London: Ernest Benn, 1968).


John Sheehan, A Corner of Limerick (Limerick: Privately printed, 1989).


T.J. Westropp, ‘Carrigogunnell Castle and the O’Briens of Pubblebrien in the county of Limerick’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 17, fifth series (1907), pp 374-92 and Vol. 18, fifth series (1908), pp 141-59.

Iverus Research Foundation is indebted to the author, Dr Matthew Potter, for his kind permission to reproduce this article.

photos: IRF