Terra Incognita: Offaly, Fercall and the Tullamore district of the O’Molloys in the 1550s. By Cosney Molloy

Laois Offaly 1560s
Laois Offaly in the 1560s

The 1540s and the 1550s was a turning point in what we now know as the county of Offaly. It was a time of colonising wars when the administrative county, then known as King’s County, was established by force and expropriation of the lands of the native families. It was in the time of Henry VIII of the Tudors and Wolf Hall television series fame that serious inroads began to be made into the area we now call County Offaly. The actual shiring into an administrative county of the territory of the O’Connors, O’Molloys and the other native families went on over sixty years from the 1550s to the 1610s. The O’Connors had been allies of the Kildare family of FitzGeralds, whose leaders were all killed in the 1530s, after the revolt of Lord Offaly, Silken Thomas. From then on the conquest of the midlands was the firm policy of a reinvigorated English administration under Henry V111 and the administrative expertise of Thomas Cromwell.

From the mid-1530s with the incursions in the midlands of Lord Deputy Leonard Grey and, from the late 1540s of Bellingham (sometimes described as a precursor of Oliver Cromwell) the process of fortification and plantation with new soldier-settlers was government policy. The new fort at Daingean was built and called Fort Governor. Later in 1557 it was to become the county town of Philipstown and in 1569 would receive a charter as did Maryborough or Portlaoise. These were the first Tudor towns and the first in Laois and Offaly leaving aside the monastic settlements or proto-towns as they are sometimes called. The fort at Daingean had been built on the site of O’Connor’s new castle destroyed in 1537 by Grey. The new county, then the eastern part of the present county, was called King’s County, after Queen Mary’s consort Philip II (Felipe II 1556-1598) of Spain. Mary reigned for only four years and died in 1558. She was succeeded by Elizabeth who continued the policy of colonisation which would reach its zenith in the time of James, Cromwell and William of Orange (the 1690s). By the stage the O’Molloys had little left of their once great estates. The O’Connors were long gone.


Fort Governor, Daingean, map and view of house built on the site and removed in 1927. The date stones of the 1550s each side of the door still survive in Castle Barnagh and Daingean Library


Roads or passes between Daingean and Ballycowan in the 1550s

After the taking of the castle at Daingean and Bracknagh Grey had cut passes into Offaly some of which were a mile in length and wide enough to let four or five carts pass abreast. His victory was short-lived as Henry had him beheaded for treason in 1541. Some 20 years later, in 1557, another English soldier, Sir Henry Sidney, would cut passes from Durrow to Ballycowan during the time of the deputyship of Sir Thomas Radcliffe, earl of Sussex.

Robert Dunlop writes in his pioneering article on the Laois-Offaly plantation (1891):

‘very different was the appearance of the country thus allotted to the planters then-a-days, to that which it now presents with its luxuriant green crops and fields of waving corn. The Slievebloom and Slievecomar mountains, the bog of Allen and the great heath of Maryborough still, it is true, remain its most distinctive features. But the vast forests of oak, of wild pine and yew, with their tangled underwood of alder and hazel that then covered the whole country, rendering it almost inaccessible to any save the wild wood-kerne, have long ago disappeared, though here and there, as in the demesne of Droughtville [in Eglish barony] vestiges of them still remain.’

Felipe VI King of Spain
Felipe VI, King of Spain, a Bourbon successor to Philip 11, from whom the King’s County took its name

A country full of woods

Lord Leonard Grey’s expeditions and those of Sir Edward Bellingham had done much to open up the district lying along the Pale. Passes had here and there been cut through the woods, bridges thrown across the rivers, and forts erected in commanding situations to curb the natives. But between the Slievebloom mountains and the Shannon the country was practically a terra incognita; while the woods of Glenmalier and Iregan and the mountainous district between the Barrow and the Nore long remained the impenetrable strongholds of the O’Mores and O’Conors, and of such as in the official language of the day ‘pretended ownership’ to the lands which they saw gradually passing into the hands of Englishmen. Even in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the woodman’s axe had played sad havoc among these ancient forests, the country was described by Boate as throughout full of woods ‘some whereof are many miles long and broad.’ Interspersed among the woods and bogs were wide tracts of rich arable and pasture land . .

One who has described the country of the O’Molloys or Fir Ceall (from Durrow to Drumcullen) is Gerald Dymmok whose survey of Ireland in the sixteenth century (written about 1600) was published in the 1840s by Graisberry and Gill as (Richard ButlerA Treatice of Ireland, by John Dymmok. Now first published from a MS. preserved in the British Museum, with Notes, by the Rev. Richard Butler, A. B., M. R. I. A. in Tracts relating to Ireland, Dublin, University Press, Graisberry and Gill (1843) volume 2page 1–85). Gill, one of the printers, is an ancestor of the present firm of Gill in Dublin.

The description captures the mood of the ‘civilising conquerors’ who used the Roman idea of bringing civility to cover greed for lands and conquests at the expense of the native Irish families, who it has to be said fought a good deal among themselves, thus making it easier for the new colonists.

Ophaly in the mid-sixteenth century

From ‘A treatice of Ireland’ by John Dymmok published in Tracts relating to Ireland printed for the Irish Archaeological Society (Dublin, 1843), p. 43 (there is a copy in the library at Offaly History Centre I see from the online catalogue). The Elizabethan English is preserved here and is a good deal easier to figure out than is the handwriting of that time. Dymmok wrote:

‘A porcion of the county of Ophalye is called Fergall, a place so stronge as nature could devise to make yt by wood and bogge, with which yt is environed, which for the naturall strength thereof, the rebells in those partes have ever since the begininge of these warres made a storehowse for all their prayes, peaceably enjoyinge there without molestacion what they had injuriously robbed from other parties. In Fergall from Derrow [Durrow] (whether the lord Lieutenant parposed to conduct his army) leadeth awaye through a thick woode, and over two fordes, both of them (besydes their naturall difficulties) entrenchded and plashed in such a manner, (as his Lordship was perswaded by them to whome the country was well knowen) to leave the accustomed waye, and to passe the ryver Derrow [Durrow] by a bridge which his Lordship caused to be made, to which worke the rebell gave no impediment; although that for the advantage of the place, he might with a very small number and without any losse have defeated the passage. The army aryved that night late at Ballycowen, halfe a mile from which is Ardenegroffe, whether Sr. Conyers Clifford, governor of Connaght, was come with 9 companies of foote, according to direction which the lo: Lieutenant had geven him by his letters not many days before: Sir Conyers Clifford was sore fought with all his entrance into Fergall having 10 men slayne and 40 hurte, which losse was by the vertu of his men dobled upon the rebel of whome were slayne and hurt about 100. In this skirmish, was of singular note the vertu of Sir Griffin Markham whome the governor commended to the Lord Lieutenant for having made demonstracion of his forwardness, even to the undertakynge of the duty of a sergeant.

Later Dymmok would describe the King’s County as:

The Kinge’s County

This county beinge aunciently called Ophaly, was inhabited by the O’Connors a wicked and rebellious people, who for their sundrye treasons and rebellions, were by the erle of Sussex in the tyme of Queene Mary banished and disherited their cuntry converted to shire grounde and called the King’s county, and the cheiffe towne thereof, Phillipstown. The shire conteyneth all the grounde betweene the county of Kildare and the ryver Shenin includinge Claneboye and O’Dempsies cuntry on both sydes the Barrow, also Ballinies and Ferall which is lykewise O’Dempsies cuntry, the Shenogh or Foxes cuntrye, and Phelim Mac Couglians cuntry, to the brinke of Shenin neare Mellike. This cuntry in the beginning of her Maiesties reigne was very well quieted by a proscription of the

O’Connors made by the erle of Kildare, who in manner wholly did extirp that race, yet of late they have increased to such numbers as they have beene able to make stronge forces in this last rebellion.

[I am obliged to my old friends in UCC Celt programme for this piece.]

More about the geography of the county in the 1550s to the 1600s can be obtained by studying the plantation maps of Laois and Offaly and the Cowley survey of the O’Connor territory in what is now east County Offaly. A full history of the Laois-Offaly plantation still remains to be written, but the materials for it and accessibility are improving all the time. Dunlop’s article of 1891 is a primer and can be viewed on the Offalyhistory.com website.

I hope to return the story of my own family the proud O’Molloys in another article.