In 1588 the English government’s hold on Erris was recent and fragile. It was only nineteen years since Mayo’s boundaries as a county had been laid out, along with those of Galway, Clare, Roscommon and Sligo, by Elizabeth I’s first governor of Connacht, Sir Edward Fitton. Fitton, whose formal title was Lord President, had appointed sheriffs to each county, after the English system; he encouraged tribal chieftains to give up their Gaelic titles and laws, their system of land holding, their rights to that land. Those chiefs who submitted to the queen and acknowledged the rule of English law were given back their estates. Only now they had to pay rent.
The process of composition, as it was called, had not gone well. Chieftains resented the loss of their traditional rights. Some resisted with force, backed up by contingents of Scottish mercenaries, gallowglasses (from the Gaelic gallóglaigh, ‘foreign warriors’) who had settled in Ireland over the centuries. Others submitted readily enough – and then thought better of it when the English governor’s attention was elsewhere. Throughout the 1570s and early 1580s local warlords in Mayo played a cat-and-mouse game with Fitton and his successors as governor, Sir Nicholas Malby and Sir Richard Bingham. They would refuse to pay their taxes, ignoring and sometimes killing the queen’s officers who came to collect them. Then, when the governor of the day sent soldiers to put down their rebellion, they would come in and negotiate a pardon in return for payment of a small fine. Even the English practice of demanding their sons as pledges of future good behaviour – and hanging those sons when the pledges were broken – didn’t stop the cycle of surrender and rebellion.
One of the big causes of dispute in Mayo in the 1580s was not the English occupation, but a series of inter-tribal disagreements over the MacWilliamship, an old Gaelic title in north Connacht. Although it no longer had much legal authority under the new regime, that didn’t stop local chieftains fighting over it, most recently in the summer of 1586, when the death of the current MacWilliam heralded another internal succession dispute and the contenders realised that the latest English drive for composition would mean that ‘the names, titles, and superiorities of their chief lords, and specially of MacWilliam, should cease’. Thomas Roe Burke, a chief of the clan which expected to supply the next MacWilliam, refused to present himself to Bingham: he was arrested and, when he resisted, he was killed. That was a signal for rebellion. The Burkes and their allies declared ‘they would have a MacWilliam, or else they would go to Spain for one’. They broke down castles and burned towns in Mayo, sent messengers north to ask for help from the Scots and made seditious speeches against Elizabeth I, allegedly asking ‘What have we to do with that caliaghe [hag]? How unwise are we, being so might a nation, to have been so long subject to a woman. The Pope and the King of Spain shall have the rule of us, and none other.’
Bingham was a hard man, even by the less exacting moral standards of the day. For most of his thirteen-year governorship he was in dispute with local gentry, with the English and Anglo-Irish officers serving under him in Connacht, and with his immediate superiors, successive Lord Deputies in Dublin – at least one of whom he threatened to kill. He responded to the Burke rebellion by having three Burke children, currently being held as pledges for their fathers’ behaviour, brought to his camp. The boys were fourteen, nine and seven, and in spite of legal advice that they were too young to be held responsible for their parents’ actions, they ‘most devilish and Turkishly were executed’ while Bingham ate supper with the Bishop of Kilmore. The governor also arrested the one-legged octogenarian Edmund Burke, leading contender for the MacWilliamship. Although the old man had played no part in the rebellion, Bingham decided he had encouraged it. So he hanged him, too.
Then he took a force into the Burkes’ heartlands, hunting them from place to place. Almost all the Mayo rebels sent in messengers asking for pardon: Richard Burke of Erris, known to the English as the Devil’s Hook (a mistranslation of the Gaelic original, which means ‘Demon of the Reaping Hook’); William Burke, called the Blind Abbot, although he seems to have been neither blind nor an abbot; Justin MacDonnell, a leading member of the Clan Donnell in Erris, and half a dozen more. ‘They were so ghasted with fear’, said a contemporary, ‘that they looked rather like ghosts than men’. A brutal but brilliant rout of the Scots gallowglasses later that summer put Bingham’s victory over the rebels beyond doubt.
But it didn’t put a stop to Mayo’s resentment at the conquest of its culture. And in Erris, it didn’t enforce loyalty to the English crown. When news of the Rata Encoronada’s grounding on the shoal at Tullaghanbaun began to spread in September 1588, Sir Richard Bingham sent soldiers to take and kill survivors. At the same time the Devil’s Hook set out to rescue Don Alonso before the English reached him.
The race was on.