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.
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.
Bruces 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
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
churchs 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 Godeknaves 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 Berminghams 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 Johns response was
haughty: He wasnt sheltering any criminals, but even
if he was, he wouldnt 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 Clintons 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 Berminghams 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.
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 Johns 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.