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Brackloon 1500-1600

Brackloon Castle was built around 1500 in the eastern part of Síl Anmchadha, the ancestral territory of the O Maddens. Ireland at that period was almost unrecognisable from that we know today. Stone tower houses such as Brackloon largely arose from the insecurity of Irish society, affording better defence than the traditional Irish thatched dwellings and enclosures.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century only a small area around Dublin was under English law. In most other regions, Gaelic law and customs prevailed in varying degrees. Ireland was divided into a myriad of lordships, many hostile to their neighbouring territories, with little reference to the Crown or a central government. Each chieftain or strong man, in the eyes of one contemporary Englishman, ‘maketh war and peace for himself without any licence from the king, or of any other temporal person, save to him that is strongest, and of such that may subdue him by the sword.’

The Crown sought to extend its influence over the country throughout the 1500s. As it did, individuals allied themselves with, or opposed, the English. In many cases these alliances were most often influenced by what was most politically expedient at any given time. One such person occasionally allied with the Crown in the late 1540s was Melaghlin Balbh (‘the Silent’) O Madden, whose sons were closely associated with Brackloon.

As the son of a previous chieftain, Melaghlin Balbh was a prominent individual in the territory and he and his family formed one branch of a wider extended family who were continually fighting among themselves for the chieftaincy. However, although Melaghlin Balbh was occasionally an ally of the Crown, his sons at this time were actively opposed to the growing English power in the midlands of Ireland. In the mid 1550s, Brackloon and a number of other O Madden castles in the east of the O Madden territory were under the control of the sons of Melaghlin Balbh.

The taking of Brackloon 1557

In July of 1557 the sons of Melaghlin Balbh were providing refuge to a party of O Connors, who were in open rebellion after their lands had been confiscated by the Crown. In response, the English Lord Deputy, the Earl of Sussex, marched towards O Madden’s territory and ordered cannon to be sailed downriver from Athlone to dislodge the rebels. After securing the surrender of Cloghan Castle on the eastern side of the River Shannon, he moved against both Meelick and Brackloon Castle where the rebels were holding out.

The occupants of Meelick escaped by a concealed gate after cannon destroyed part of their bawn wall, leaving only one prisoner and some provisions behind. Brackloon and its occupants were less fortunate. Here the castle was defended by Donagh mac Collo O Madden and others but the castle was taken and Donagh mac Collo and the defenders killed.

Melaghlin Balbh’s sons survived as they were not at Brackloon during the attack but were forced to leave the territory in the aftermath. They returned, however, as, after Melaghlin’s death in 1566, his eldest son Hugh was appointed ‘Captain of his Nation’ (i.e. ‘of the O Maddens’) by the Crown. He didn’t live long to enjoy his power as he was killed in the following year by a rival of a different branch; Donal O Madden, who was in turn recognised by the English as ‘Captain of his Nation.’

Owen Balbh and Rory Mac Collo O Madden

Brackloon and the much larger Cloghan castle nearby were closely associated around this time. In the 1570s both were under the control of Owen Balbh O Madden, a younger son of Melaghlin Balbh. Owen’s principal residence was Cloghan, and Brackloon appears to have been occupied by Rory mac Collo O Madden, who may have been a brother of the warder killed in 1557. Owen was now the second most powerful individual in O Madden’s territory after the chieftain Donal. While Donal remained loyal to the Queen, Owen spent a considerable part of his career in opposition to the Crown.

Rory mac Collo O Madden of Brackloon, gentleman, was pardoned on a number of occasions by the Queen, in 1570 and again in 1581 on the recommendation of the Governor of Connacht and in 1603 by the new King James I. He was one of a number of leading men, alongside Owen Balbh and Donal the chieftain, who gave evidence which brought about the Composition of Connacht in 1585, an agreement which did away with the old Irish form of internal government and inheritance and accepted English law in their place.

The change from Irish laws of inheritance would disenfranchise many leading individuals of the territory and despite this agreement, Owen Balbh was among the leading O Maddens who rose out in rebellion in 1595. In retaliation, Owen’s castle of Cloghan was burnt by the Lord Deputy that same year and he was killed in action in early 1599. His four sons were still in rebellion later that year at the head of fifty followers, but their father’s castle at Cloghan was confiscated and granted to a Crown official.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Rory O Madden remained in possession of Brackloon Castle and the lands attached to it in the surrounding parish of Clonfert. It may have been he or his son Ambrose Maol ('the Bald') who was responsible for the building work undertaken around 1600 that substantially rebuilt Brackloon’s upper floors and roof. As English laws of inheritance were replacing the older Gaelic customs, in 1592 Rory conveyed his castle and lands in trust for his own use during his lifetime and, after his death, to his son Ambrose Maol and made provisions for younger sons. Rory mac Collo O Madden died on 12th March 1616 and his castle and extensive property in the parish of Clonfert descended to Ambrose Maol.

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