‘They fell upon the Bishop and they mangled him with many a wound’ - 420 years ago Bishop Redmond O’Gallagher was murdered by Henry Docwra’s men outside Derry

Four hundred and twenty years ago, as the Nine Years’ War raged, Redmond O’Gallagher, was murdered by English soldiers outside Derry.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 14th May 2021, 6:21 pm
The ruins of St. Brecan’s Chapel in St. Columb’s Park.  A chapel is believed to have been located on the site from the sixth century. Bishop Redmond O’Gallagher is credited with rebuilding the church in the late 1500s.
The ruins of St. Brecan’s Chapel in St. Columb’s Park. A chapel is believed to have been located on the site from the sixth century. Bishop Redmond O’Gallagher is credited with rebuilding the church in the late 1500s.

The Raphoe-born bishop, a confidant and counsellor to Red Hugh O’Donnell and ‘The Great’ Hugh O’Neill, was a notable scalp for Elizabeth I and her henchmen.

His murder, on Ash Wednesday, 1601, deprived Gaelic society in the territories of Inis Eógain, Tir Chonail, Oireacht-Ui-Chathain, Cianacht and Tír Eoghain, of a temporal, as well as a spiritual, leader. Derry was left without a Catholic bishop for 119 years after his death.

The atrocity occurred a year after Henry Docwra sailed up the Foyle and, as the Annals of the Four Masters (AFM) record ‘tore down the monastery and cathedral, and destroyed all the ecclesiastical edifices in the town, and erected houses and apartments of them’. It was no time to be a counter-reformation cleric in communication, not only with, the rebellious O’Neill and O’Donnell, but their allies in Spain and Rome.

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The bishop famously harboured several Spaniards who had been shipwrecked with the Armada in 1588, a few years before the Nine Years’ War erupted. Francisco de Cuéllar , a sea captain, who ran aground off Sligo, identified O’Gallagher as an ‘honourable man’ in his autobiographical, ‘Captain Cuellar’s Adventures in Connacht and Ulster,’ written in Antwerp, in 1589.

Cuéllar met O’Gallagher at Ó Catháin’s Castle, probably the ruined fortification that can still be located by the River Roe in Limavady.

The sailor, believed by historian Rafael M. Girón Pascual to have been born in Valladolid - the final resting place of Red Hugh as it happens - had made his way to Ó Catháin’s country with the help of the native Irish. He was hospitably received by the prelate. Cuéllar reports: “This bishop was a very good Christian, and went about in the garb of a savage for concealment, and I assure you I could not restrain tears when I approached him to kiss his hand. He had twelve Spaniards with him for the purpose of passing them over to Scotland, and he was much delighted at my arrival, all the more so when the soldiers told him that I was a captain.

“He treated me with every kindness that he could for the six days I was with him, and gave orders that a boat should come to take us over to Scotland, which is usually done in two days. He gave us provisions for the voyage and said Mass to us in the castle and spoke with me about some things concerning the loss of the kingdom, and how His Majesty had assisted them; and that he should come to Spain as soon as possible after my arrival in Scotland, where he advised me to live with much patience, as in general they were all Lutherans and very few Catholics. The bishop was called Don Reimundo Termi...an honourable just man. God keep him in His hands and preserve him from his enemies.”

Cuéllar noted how the ‘English kept [O’Gallagher] in banishment and retirement’ at Limavady. There is no doubt the persecution had escalated significantly by 1601.

The late historian Ciarán J. Devlin, in ‘The Making of Medieval Derry,’ tells us that in the spring of 1601, O’Gallagher was possibly in Fahan. He quotes State Papers which declare that ‘over against Inch in O’Dogherty’s country is a castle and church called the Fanne [Fahan] but broke down since our arrival. Here dwells the Bishop O’Galthar’.

A harried figure the bishop was eventually run down by the English outside Derry on March 7, 1601.

The Ó Cléirigh scribes who wrote the AFM in Donegal in the 1600s, record it thus: “Redmond O’Gallagher, Bishop of Derry, was killed by the English in Oireacht-Ui-Chathain.” He was reputedly 80 years old.

Dr. John Lynch, in his ‘Cambrensis Eversus’, written in 1662, writes that he had been abandoned by Niall Garbh Ó Domhnaill who had sided with the English against his own kinsman Red Hugh.

“Henry Docwra, with the Lough Foyle garrison, got on his track and at last seized him in Cumalia, a remote area about a mile from Derry on the road that leads to Strabane, where there was a parochial church. A short time before the bishop had learned the arrangements the enemy had made for getting hold of him, and had in consequence hid himself in a bog, winter though it was; but the bitter cold and his enfeebled old age compelled him to slip into a house at the dead of night.”

Lynch explains that everyone in the house fled apart from O’Gallagher who was too old and tried to hide among sheaves of corn.

“The enemy having got up to the house, and having laid hold on a woman and boy, slaughtered them both, and went away. The people of the place then went into the house and asked was there anyone there still alive. The bishop from his hiding-place answered that he was still alive.

“One of the army servants of the enemy, who was lurking close by, overhearing the voice, hurries off to his party with his utmost speed, urges them to come back, which they do without delay, fall upon the Bishop, thus taken by surprise, mangle him with many a wound and leave him lifeless.”

Lynch is quoted at length in ‘The Martyred Bishop of Derry’, which was written by one of O’Gallagher’s successors, the Killea-born, Bishop of Derry, John Keys O’Doherty, at the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, the site of his martyrdom has been controversial. O’Doherty insisted it took place in his own home village. Indeed, anyone familiar with the Killea area will know local lore has it that the bishop met his end there.

O’Doherty writes: “In Lewis’s ‘Topographical Dictionary’ mention is made of two cairns in the townland of Killea, one of which, the writer states, is in the bed of a rivulet called the ‘Priest’s Burn’, from a tradition that a priest was killed on the spot.

“This, too, helps to indicate the place where O’Gallagher was slain; for, from the testimony of a native of the place, now in his 93rd year, the present writer has learned, that there was a cairn formerly at Killea Burn a few hundred yards from the church, at the edge of the bog, where he believes the hamlet stood which Lynch describes, and where the bishop was done to death by the brutal soldiers of Elizabeth.”

This is disputed. Devlin, suggests ‘Cumalia’, was ‘clearly a mistake for Cumaria, now Cumber (Claudy), confirmed by George Montgomery’s ‘Survey’ of the parishes of the diocese, reaffirmed by Bishop Downham’s later ‘Marginalia’.

He does address a conundrum, however: “Lynch’s distances and the reference to the Strabane road do not really stand up to examination, but the other details have a ring of truth, reported by someone who was an eyewitness.”

For the record the Diocese of Derry states that, “In 1601 the bishop of the diocese, Redmond O’Gallagher, was slain by the English near Claudy.”

Wherever he was killed the English were relieved to have rid themselves of a thorn in their side. John Bolles (Bowles), was a commander of Docrwa’s garrison at Dunnalong. He wrote to Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State Robert Cecil providing details.

“The Bishop of the Derry (who is said to be the chief contriver of this general defection and combination with the Spaniards, and hath himself been thrice to Rome and Spain to negotiate), God gave into my hand upon Ash Wednesday at night, but, before I could come to him, the soldiers had slain him. We got there about 80 lean cows, and burned many more in the houses, besides sheep, goats, and corn, and slew betwixt eighty and one hundred persons. This was in O’Cahan’s country, and his people, being gathered in small numbers together, fought with us for the marching of five miles, but so coldly that in all that time they killed but one of our me, and hurt five.”

Bolles’ correspondence is quoted in Devlin who relates how England’s persecution of O’Gallagher persisted beyond his death on March 7, 1601.

The Lord Deputy Mountjoy received correspondence from Derry about what Devlin believes may have been the desecration of O’Gallagher’s Funeral Mass.

“Lord Deputy Mountjoy wrote to Cecil at the end of March 1601 from Drogheda enclosing an extract from a letter that had just come from Derry with the news that the ‘garrisons of Derry hath slain (at a Mass, as is said) the Prior of Derry and twenty of the principal priests of Ulster in a church’. The only possible explanation for such an assembly at such a time, surely, is that they had gathered to bury the leading churchman of the country, and that, aware of this, Bolles or some such had returned to ambush the funeral,” Devlin muses.

There followed a very dark period as the English colonial project was turbo-charged in Ulster which had hitherto been one of the last major reboubts of Gaelic civilisation in Ireland. Little over a year later O’Donnell was buried in Valladolid, after either being poisoned by the English agent James Blake or succumbing to illness in Simancas castle. In 1603 the insurgency was over and by 1607 the leaders, including O’Neill left Rathmullan for Europe. This had a profound impact on the ecclesiastical history of the city.

Devlin writes: “The Plantation of Ulster from 1609 onward dispossessed all native leadership, political or ecclesiastical, and with the wars of the 17th century and the Penal Laws of the 18th the diocese entered its own ‘Dark Ages’.” Devlin notes the Irish were forced to live outside town precincts and that this is how the many ‘Irishtowns’ in Irish cities got their names.

“The atmosphere in the city of Derry was especially unsympathetic. Priests were discouraged, particularly those educated in continental seminaries, and bishops were forbidden. In fact, the diocese lacked a bishop for 119 years after the martyrdom of Réamann Ó Gallachair in 1601, a period when vicars apostolic ran affairs.” Traces of O’Gallagher remain. He rebuilt the St. Brecan’s church in the late 1500s. Its ruin can still be seen today in St. Columb’s Park. Equally, the ruins of the Ó Catháin’s Castle where he likely provided refuge for Cuéllar and his compatriots in the late 1580s is detectable yet on the banks of the River Roe.