The Braganstown Massacre

Early Ardee
Ardee was founded as a town in the early thirteenth century by the Anglo-Normans, although a small settlement had probably stood not far from the ford on the nearly river for many centuries. It was located in the county or shire of Uriel, the local government administrative unit established by the Anglo-Normans in the wake of their conquest of the area in the 1170s and 1180s.

The Anglo-Normans come to Louth
Louth received quite a number of colonists from England and Wales at this period, attracted by the relative amenability of the land to ploughing and food production. Although census or demographic material does not survive, they probably never formed anything more than a sizable minority of the whole population, and this declined throughout the medieval period as a consequence of natural disasters like the Black Death, migration back to England and a continuous influx of Irish settlers and workers from the west and north.

The main unit of Anglo-Norman society was the manor, an agricultural estate whose tenants had varying degrees of status and security. Each manor also had an urban element or vill that served as a market place and which housed the local court. Many (including Ardee) developed into sizable villages and towns; while others declined into invisibility in the midst of the rural landscape, the only signpost to their existence being the survival of the element town at the end of their place-names.

Medieval Society
In the century and a half following the establishment of the Anglo-Norman conquest Louth was controlled by a group of middling-sized non-noble landholders. This was unlike many other areas in Ireland under Anglo-Norman control that were dominated by powerful noblemen and their relatives.
In 1313 the Pippards, one of the biggest landlords in Co Louth, gave up the pretence of having any interests there and sold up. Not long afterwards Ireland was invaded by Edward, brother of Robert Bruce King of Scotland. His armies criss-crossed the country and their destructive forays corresponded with one of the most serious famines to hit Western Europe. Bruce’s army was finally defeated in battle at Faughart near Dundalk in 1318. The victorious crown forces were led by an Anglo-Norman landlord from Tethmoy in west Kildare, sir John de Bermingham, who was rewarded with the newly created title, Earl of Louth.

De Bermingham relocates to Ardee
De Bermingham established his local residence at the manor of Braganstown (modern Ballybragan) outside Ardee. It would be an understatement to say that the locals did not welcome him with open arms. Part of the problem was that he came from a different social and cultural world. He was a man bred to fighting, usually with his Irish neighbours in Offaly. But the people who fought with him were usually Irishmen and Scotsmen, attracted to him by gifts, money and protection from legal redress for any misdemeanours they might commit. When Sir John came to Ardee he brought many of his hangers-on (or satellites) with him.

In common with most parts of Europe medieval Louth was a violent place even compared with our own times. There had initially been admittedly primitive judicial means of dealing with crime and bringing miscreant to often rough justice. When a crime was committed hue and cry would be raised, and if the criminal fled the scene a group made up of local residents formed the Posse Comitatus which would head off in hot pursuit. If caught he or she would be tried before a local court, and would usually be executed or fined. Imprisonment was rarely an option as it was too expensive. However, de Bermingham and company could do what they liked, assault anyone they chose (or worse), and steal what they wanted; there was nothing anybody could do about it, because John De Bermingham was the law in Louth; when he was made earl the county was made into a palatine jurisdiction or liberty, which meant that nearly all disputes had to be settled in his court by his officials.

De Bermingham was an important player in the politics of the Lordship of Ireland i.e. those parts of the island under the control of the lord of Ireland who was also the king of England. He was briefly made justiciar or chief governor. But the 1320s were troubled times. In England even King Edward II was not secure on his throne, being deposed and subsequently murdered by his wife and her paramour Roger Mortimer. De Bermingham had an uncanny ability to stay just one step ahead in the shifting sands of high politics, always changing sides at the right moment. But his luck could not last indefinitely.
High noon in Ardee

After ten years of De Berminghams depredations the inhabitants of Ardee had enough. On Friday June 9th 1329 Robert Godeknave (probably the origin of the surname Goodman) intervened in a fight over a lime-kiln between its owner and some of De Berminghams men. Godeknave was killed but his death set in motion a train of events leading to a bloody denouement. The inhabitants of Ardee set upon Godeknave killers and murdered them. Some managed to escape to the Carmelite friary in the town where they thought they were safe within the church’s sanctuary. In the event the men dragged nineteen of them out of the church and killed them, a few managing to escape out to the De Bermingham residence at Braganstown.

Meanwhile Godeknave’s father-in-law, sir John Clinton, a leading member of the local gentry who had previously called the shots in Co Louth, decided to settle scores once and for all with the earl. Aided by another prominent citizen Roger Gernon, he went around the North Lough area recounting what had happened in Ardee but spreading the false rumour that some of the leading local notables had been kidnapped by De Bermingham and carried off to his home area of Carbury in Kildare. Clinton collected a force of over sixty men who, learning of the fight of De Bermingham’s men to Ballybragan, encamped outside the manor the next morning, demanding the hand-over of all those involved in the previous days disturbances in Ardee. Sir John’s response was haughty: He wasn’t sheltering any criminals, but even if he was, he wouldn’t hand them over to Clinton but would try them in his own palatine court. This infuriated the crowd outside who moved ever closer to the manors main residence. At this stage the earl seemed to have had second thoughts about his initial macho response, sending out an emissary promising Clinton’s men all they asked if they dispersed peacefully, but this was apparently too little too late and the messenger had to retreat under a hail of stones. The mood was growing increasingly ugly, as shown by the reception afforded to De Bermingham’s wife when she was sent out with a babe in arms accompanied by a squire. She was roughed up and a gold brooch and a pair of clasps were pulled from her body. She probably only escaped with her life because she was a De Burgo, a member of one of the most important Anglo-Norman family in Ireland. Her squire was not so lucky. When the front door was barred the uninvited guests gained entry by the haggard at the back. Sir John, his brother, eight relatives and more than twenty retainers who had not managed to escape were butchered. But not all the attackers were after blood. It was later claimed that they had robbed over 350 pounds worth of money, silver, fur and horses from De Bermingham and his followers, no doubt after they had died.

The aftermath
An official inquiry into the bloodshed was set up which indicated some of the apparent ring leaders, all of whom escaped with a reasonably heavy fine. Their careers in subsequent local politics were unaffected.

It is possible that the Braganstown massacre was not just a sporadic outbreak of pent-up fury. The medieval world was a dangerous place and the risk of attack and robbery was so common that most people carried light arms such as knives or daggers on their persons at all times. The body count from Braganstown suggests that those who attacked the manor were armed with more than the usual medieval self-defence kit. Apart from Sir John’s harpist, Cam (crooked-eyed) O Cearbhaill and his apprentices who died in the massacre, his retainers had been bred to fighting, so John Clinton and his allies went to Braganstown prepared for more than a fresh and frank exchange of views.

The events in Ardee caused some ripples throughout the Lordship. Numerous conspiracy theories circulated but most people were prepared to share the view of these happenings expressed by the Franciscan chronicler of Kilkenny, John Clyn; De Bermingham died because the men of Louth no longer wished him to rule over them. His death was probably greeted with some relief, for the palatine liberty granted to him with the title of Earl of Louth had only been for the term of his life, and so with his demise it became extinct.