Bridge and Castle of Shruel (Shrule), County of Mayo, and the massacre of 1641

From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 33, February 9, 1833

The Bridge and Castle of Shruel or Shrule, County Mayo

Bridge and Castle of Shruel, County Mayo

The subject of our prefixed illustration, which is a small town in the barony of Kilmaine, in the county of Mayo, immediately bordering on the county of Galway, possesses in its ancient bridge, and proud baronial castle, much picturesque attraction,–but unhappily it derives a deeper interest from being the scene of one of those disgraceful deeds of atrocity but too common in all periods of our history, and more particularly in the long and disastrous civil war of the 17th century. In the beginning of that calamitous era, this bridge was the scene of a frightful massacre–and this castle, now gloomy and untenanted,–a chief residence of the supposed instigator of the bloody deed!

We are aware that in this unhappy country, where even yet the events of remote times are regarded by society with all the prejudices of partizanship, it may be dangerous to our own immediate interests, to lay open the pages of history with an impartial hand, and that with the ultras of all parties, our love of truth and desire for peace, will obtain us but little favour. But we aim at higher objects, and shall take our chance for success, animated by the conviction, that even if we fail, we shall sow the seeds of future national improvement, and have, in addition to the approbation of our own conscience, the applause of good and wise men. Hitherto our literature, as regards the multitude, has only lived in connexion with, and been made subservient to the purposes of party. History has been distorted, and the madness and the crimes of past ages have not been held up impartially as warnings to the present.

Man, unimproved by judicious mental cultivation, is the same slave of passion and prejudice in all ages and under every appellation, and acting under their influences, the virtues of his nature remain undeveloped, and his vices rise predominant. We, in our humble sphere, shall endeavour to give our countrymen juster views, and more benevolent feelings towards each other, and as the ancient Greeks were accustomed to inspire a detestation of drunkenness in the minds of their children, by shewing them their slaves in all the disgusting deformity of intoxication, so we hope to excite in our countrymen a horror of religious feuds and civil strife, by exhibiting to them their frightful consequences.

These explanatory observations are due to our own character, for we have been assailed by ultras of each side as having a leaning to the other–the motto of all being that –he that is not with us–out and out–is against us. But we utterly deny a leaning to any side, or a purpose of any kind, but the cause of truth and the improvement of our country , and we confidently refer to the pages of our little journal for the evidences of our sincerity. We now proceed with our subject.

On Sunday the 18th of February 1641, a great number of English protestants, who had surrendered to the Lord Mayo at Castlebar, on condition that they should march away with their arms, and be safely conveyed to Galway, were inhumanly attacked on the bridge of Shruel by their convoy, who butchered men, women and children, to the number of sixty-five individuals. That this statement is however somewhat exaggerated, as well as many of the circumstances of the massacre, we have little doubt; and though we have no wish to palliate the motives or lessen the disgust that such an act of atrocity should excite, it gives us pleasure to believe from facts we shall presently relate, that the amount of guilt was not so great as the prejudice of party has assigned to it, and that even in those dark times of general bigotry and barbarism, there were many of all sects and classes, in whom the divine principles of benevolence and humanity still shone triumphantly conspicuous.

The circumstances of this massacre will be best understood from the quaint, but circumstantial details, in the depositions taken immediately after before the privy council and commission appointed for that purpose, and to be found in Archdall’s Peerage vol. iv. From the deposition of Mr. John Gouldsmith, incumbent of Brashowle, County of Mayo, it appears that “Sir Henry Bingham’s castle of Castlebar being beleaguer’d by the rebel Edmond Bourke, Sir Henry desired the Lord Mayo to take that castle from him, and to keep it for his use, for that he himself could hold it no longer; whereupon he went thither with his forces, but the rest of the castle not assenting to part with it, he returned home. About which time, the Bishop of Killala [Dr. John Maxwell] having formerly lost his castle and goods, contracted with Bourke of Castleleaken to give him a safe convoy; but he most perfidiously brought him into the hands of the said Edmond Bourke (as he was besieging Castlebar) who proposed to have put him upon the engine or Sow, which he had prepared for undermining and breaking down the castle, purposely that if the besieged should shoot against the Sow, they might hit the Bishop their friend; whereof the Lord Mayo having notice, wrote a letter to Bourke the convoy, blaming his perfidiousness, and signifying plainly unto him, that if he did not deal with the Bishop according to his promise, he would deal with him as an enemy, wheresoever he met him; whereupon, Bourke brought the Bishop within sight of his Lordship’s house, and there left him. His Lordship then went to meet the Bishop, and took him and his family home, where he kindly entertained them, and gave him a band to put about his neck, and a shirt which he wanted, and kept him, with his wife, three children, servants, and five or six of his ministers, for 8 or 10 days.

At that time Sir Henry Bingham again desired his Lordship to “come and take his castle, which he could no longer keep; whereupon, he marched thither with an army, drove away Edmond Bourke, and entered and possessed the castle, upon quarter, and his promise to convoy the garrison safe to Galway. Whereupon, Sir Henry, with his company, the Bishop of Killala, and many of the neighbouring English, above 60 in number, (whereof some fifteen were Ministers) were taken to be conveyed to Galway, his Lordship covenanting with one Edmond Bourke for their safe convoy upon a certain day, in whose custody he left them at Shrule; but was not gone far, when Bourke drew out his sword, directing the rest what they should do, and began to massacre these Protestants; some whereof were shot; some stabb’d with skeins; some run through with pikes; some cast into the water and drowned; and the women, that were stripped naked, lying upon their husbands to save them, were run through with pikes; so that very few escaped; among whom was the Bishop of Killala, but was wounded in the head; and Mr. Crowd, a clergyman, was so beaten with cudgels on his feet, that he died thereof shortly after, the other Ministers being slain.

“This bloody affair is more distinctly specified in the deposition of Henry Bringhurst, of Kileran in the county of Mayo, Esq. who deposeth, that his Lordship, with his son Sir Tibbot Bourke, did personally accompany the said unhappy people from Castlebar, Kinturk, and Bellcarrow, with five companies of soldiers, for their better security, to the town of Shrule, where two companies were to receive them over the bridge, being in the county of Galway, and for their more safe convoy, the titular Archbishop of Tuam faithfully promised his Lordship to accompany them with his letter, and several Priests and Friars, to see them safely delivered at the fort of Galway; And being all come to Shrule on Saturday night, 12 February 1641, the Lord Mayo provided for them at the house of Serjeant Robert Lambert and others, and the next day for their dinner, lying that night in one bed with the Bishop of Killala, whose wife and children, according to his desire, lay in the next chamber.

The next day being Sunday, (that bloody day) the gentlemen of the barony of Kilmaine, finding themselves much burthened by the soldiers (having lain upon them four nights) entreated to be eased of them, by sending them to their homes, for that they had brought them to the end of the county of Mayo, where they were to be received by the companies of Murrough-na-Doe O’Flaherty, and Ulick Bourke of Castlehacket, who lay that night within two miles of Shrule, and appointed to meet the company at Kilnemanagh, about a mile from Shrule, on Sunday morning. Upon which earnest request of the gentry, the Lord Mayo dismissed his companies (except one under the command of Captain Walter Bourke, who lived within a mile of Shrule, or little more) which company being then commanded by his brother Edmond, was appointed to convoy the company to Kilnemanagh, to the two companies there ready to receive them; and it being almost twelve o’clock, and the march long (14 miles) and having no place nearer for the poor travellers to lodge at that night than Clare, which was ten miles, the said Edmond Bourke having, with his wicked company, been at Mass, and the titular Bishop having failed to send either Priests, Friars, or letter, and the town not being able to provide for the company another night, they desired to be going, undertook for their safe delivery at Kilnemanagh, and the company being desirous to get to Galway, the Lord Mayo furnished them with his own and his son’s horses, so that his son had not a horse left to go with him; and having seen the Bishop, with his wife and children, and the rest that had horses, mounted, he took leave with them; and accompanied by two or three horsemen, rode away towards Conge, Sir Tibbot Bourke’s house, 6 miles from Shrule; who (notwithstanding that he rode a good round pace, for the weather was very cold) intending to stay for his son at the horse of one Andrew Lynch, 2 miles short of Conge, a messenger, as he was ready to dismount, came and told him, that presently after he was out of sight, the said Edmond Bourke and his men fell upon the Bishop and his company, had wounded and stripped him, with his wife and children and all the rest, had murdered some, and were about to murder the remainder. Whereupon his Lordship went instantly into a chamber, and there wept bitterly; pulling off his hair, and refusing to hear any manner of persuasion or comfort, or to be patient, having no means at that time left him to be revenged of that inhuman bloody massacre; fearing besides the loss of his son, and that now they were entered into blood, they would fall upon himself, being then a Protestant, with the few English he had under his protection.

And within half an hour after came Sir Tibbot, his son, who with tears related the tragedy, but could not certainly tell who was killed, or who escaped; But being demanded by his father, why he would ever come away, but either have preserved their lives, or have died with them? Answered, that when they began the slaughter, they charged him, (having his sword drawn against them) both with their pikes and musquets, and would have killed him, but that John Garvy, the Sheriff of the county of Mayo, (who was brother-in-law to Edmond Bourke, the principal murderer) came in betwixt him and them, took him in his arms, and by the assistance of others, forcibly carried him over the bridge, brought him a horse, and caused him to be gone after his father, for that there he could do no good, but would be killed or endangered, if he opposed them, whereupon he came away.”

Sixty-five persons are said to have been killed at Shruel among whom were two women great with child, and were all tumbled into two pits close by the highway, without any ceremony or order, But we have already expressed our belief that this number is exaggerated, and according to the Roman Catholic authorities of the time, it did not exceed above thirty persons. The survivors were rescued by the Catholic gentry of the neighbourhood, who hastened to their assistance, and carried them to their houses and treated them with hospitality and kindness, and we have great pleasure in adding that one of the persons who most distinguished himself in this Christian work of charity was Bryan Kilkenny the guardian of the neighbouring abbey of Ross, who though an aged man was of the first that made haste to the rescue, and brought the Bishop’s wife and children, and many others to his Monastery, where they were hospitably entertained to the best of the friars’ ability for several nights, when they were removed to the house of Mr. Bourke of Castle Hacket.

That the Lord Mayo and his son Sir Theobald had no real participation in this massacre appears to us certain from the depositions given above. Yet by Cromwell’s act of parliament for the settlement of Ireland, passed the 12th of August, 1652, they were both excepted from pardon, (though the former had died in 1649,) and the latter, having been tried by the High Court of Justice, as it was called, on the 30th of December in the same year, was found guilty, and condemned to be shot by a majority of the Commissioners–seven voting for his condemnation, and four dissenting. The sentence was carried into effect in Galway, where he was buried. The soldiers appointed to shoot him missed fire three times, and strange to say, the individual by whom he was finally shot was, as Lodge familiarly tells us–a corporal blind of an eye!

The son of Sir Tibbot was restored to his estates, consisting; of 50,000 acres, in the county of Mayo, in 1666,–but the property was sold by his brother Miles, who succeeded him in the title. Since the death of the last viscount, which occurred in 1767, the title has lain dormant.

Shruel is remarkable for its handsome modern Roman Catholic chapel, and the ruins of a very ancient church, called after one of the numerous Saints Colman. The town is now the property of Patrick Kirwan, of Dalgin, Esq., whose house is one of the finest in the county.

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