The Heroic Death of Godfrey O’Donnell 1258
In Conwal graveyard today, near the ruins of the old church, lies a burial slab with an ancient Celtic cross carving. This simple engraving is believed to mark the final resting place of one of the most famous chiefs of Tír Chonaill, Godfrey O’Donnell, who died a heroic death in this area in 1258.
When Niall Óg Ua Canannáin was killed at the hands of the Norman Lord Maurice Fitzgerald in 1248, Godfrey O’Donnell seized power for his clan and consolidated his power base within Tír Chonaill. Despite previous Tír Chonaill chiefs residing near Ballyshannon, Godfrey is recorded as having had a crannóg on Lough Bethach (Gartan Lough) where he built a fort closer to his ancestral territories.
Whether due to an offensive into Connacht by Godfrey or by an advance into Tír Chonaill by the Norman Lord Maurice Fitzgerald, the two armies of Gaelic and Norman forces met at Credan Kille, near Drumcliffe in County Sligo in 1257. Godfrey and Fitzgerald even met in single combat, with Godfrey getting the upper hand, and Fitzgerald was carried from the field as the Norman English retreated. Despite the victory however, Godfrey also received serious injuries in this battle.
O’Donnell was borne home with his injuries to die at his crannóg on Lough Bethach. However, hearing that he lay stricken, Brian O’Neill, the Cinéal nEoghain ruler of Tír Eoghain, saw his opportunity to demand hostages, pledges of loyalty and submission. Despite his fatal injuries though, Godfrey rallied all the fighting men of his kingdom and the two armies met near the crossing into his territory at Ath-thairsí, near Conwal.
Godfrey was given his last rites but he gave instructions to his generals and to inspire his troops to victory, knowing that he would not last the battle, he ordered that he be carried on a litter onto the field. When his exhausted troops saw their heroic leader they are said to have fought bravely to drive O’Neill and his invading troops away. The Red Hand Army of Tír Eoghain were defeated by the gallant men of Tír Chonaill but their heroic leader died during this bloody battle. His body and those of the other fallen soldiers were laid in the nearby monastic settlement of Conwal.
With such a glorious death, it is no surprise that several poems were written about Godfrey and his battle with O’Neill, painting the picture of the heroic O’Donnell valiantly defending his territory from the invading Cinéal nEoghain. The fierce battle is described as: “Then rose the roar of battle loud, as clan met clan in fight; The axe and skian grew red with blood, a sad and woeful sight;”with the waters of the Swilly described as being “red with blood”. It was within these poems that the legacy of Godfrey O’Donnell was forever enshrined. A dominant personality forever associated with Conwal, perhaps the last word on Godfrey O’Donnell is indeed best left to the poets:
“Yet died he there all gloriously–a victor in the fight;
A chieftain at his people’s head, a warrior in his might;
They dug him there a fitting grave upon that field of pride,
And a lofty cairn they raised above, by fair Lough Swilly’s side.”