The most blood-soaked battle in Irish medieval history occurred on August 19, 1504, at Knockdoe, a hillock in County Galway. It would prove to be the last old-school medieval infantry battle. Aside from taking home the gory gold, this battle marked the first use of firearms during battle in Ireland.
It all began when Gerald Fitzgerald, the 8th Earl of Kildare, decided to kiss Henry VII of England’s ass. He was already Henry’s guy in Ireland, but a grand gesture here and there never hurt since Fitzgerald wasn’t always the most trust-worthy of servants. The King put up with it because he knew the Earl was quite adept at keeping the Irish under control without being too heavy-handed and causing inconvenient uprisings.
Why can’t Ireland just behave like a good little occupied country, anyway?
Ulick Burke of Clanrickard was unimpressed with the Earl’s power. He captured three castles in the south of Galway belonging to the O’Kelly family. Burke also took control of the royal city of Galway in direct opposition to the Great Earl’s authority. To fan the flames further, Burke was married to the Earl of Kildare’s daughter Eustacia. The story is that Ulick had strayed from the marital bed, and the Missus went home to Daddy. So there was a big jumble of political and personal bad vibes thrown in the mix.
Burke’s actions were ample cause for the Earl to take action against him. This would allow the Earl to avenge his daughter, take Burke down a peg or two, and look good to the King in one fell swoop. He gathered a formidable army, including mercenary Gallowglass warriors, the Gaelic fighters reminiscent of Vikings, who came from the Hebrides in Scotland. These warriors-for-hire would dominate the battlefields of Ireland in the Middle Ages.
To the Earl, the battle was a suppression of rebellion against the King across the sea. To Burke, it was more akin to the old battles between the provincial kings before the English arrived in Ireland. In reality, it was a mixture of both, but it was still the Irish fighting the Irish to settle old scores, much like my family on every holiday.
Burke came to the battle with about 4,000 men (there also were Gallowglass fighters among his ranks), roughly 2,000 less than the Earl. Burke and his forces also had the morning sun shining straight in their eyes and forgot their Raybans, giving them a sizable disadvantage. Even still, Burke showed up to the battle fashionably late in true Celtic chieftain fashion.
During the Battle of Knockdoe, a new weapon made its debut in Ireland — the handgun. It’s believed that firearms were used for the first time in Irish history that day, but since they took so long to reload their primary use on the field that day was as bludgeons. That’s called “making do.”
The battle was a blood-soaked slash-and-hack job so common in medieval times. Yet, in an era infamous for its bellicose tendencies, Knockdoe stands out. After the battle, Knockdoe was renamed Axe Hill. Considering the extent of the carnage, they kinda had to.
When the battle din silenced, there was a seemingly endless stretch of mangled and dismembered bodies, broken spears, and shattered shields all lying in hideous pools of gore. Anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Irish lives were lost. The number was never certain, but there's no doubt there were an exceedingly high number of causalities even for that bloody period in history. Some historians believe this defeat discouraged the Irish from mounting any serious resistance to English colonialism for the foreseeable future.
Hope the English enjoyed it while it lasted.