Connacht’s Brutal Knight and Doonamona Castle

Sir Nicholas Malby (c.1530–1584) was a soldier and President (or Governor) of Connacht. In 1576, toward the end of his life, Malby was knighted and appointed military governor of Connacht. We highlight Malby here because our local area of Clogher bears a strong but gruesome link to his harsh rule, namely in the shape of the Doonamona castle massacre (Clavin, 2009), (McCafferty, 2018).

Malby’s Early Life and Rise to Power

It was in his early thirties that Malby’s journey began in earnest. In 1562, he was sentenced to death after being convicted of counterfeiting money, yet he was given a reprieve-- so long as he agreed to serve with the English military in France. Malby soon became highly competent-- both as a soldier and also in diplomacy, and his abilities were recognised by his superiors. In 1566, Malby appeared in Dublin, seeking military command, and shortly thereafter began his colonising activity in both Ulster and Leinster. But it was as Royal Governor of Connacht that Malby’s connection to Mayo was strongest. In Connacht, Malby helped lead the English forces against the rebellious Burkes of Mayo. His scorched earth tactics were ruthless and he was largely successful in quashing the Burke’s 1577 revolt. The Burkes of Mayo had the shrewd John Burke (d. 1580) as their leader. John swore to give Malby his entire support in return for a measure of independence (Clavin, 2009).

Malby - The Canny Tactician

Malby proved tactful in dealing with difficult Irish opposition - both in war and also in times of peace. The Queen was so impressed by Malby that she granted him a twenty-one-year lease of Roscommon Castle along with it’s 17,000 acre estate. However, Malby’s tactics soon began to attract some criticism. He was somewhat of a maverick in his rule of Connacht, and he reacted with great viciousness to any opposition. Nevertheless, Malby was a canny tactician and would forgive opponents quickly and even reward opponents who gave in to his rule—​whether they were English or Irish. In a remarkably candid letter in 1578, Malby remarked that he had learned to govern the Irish according to their own laws, ostensibly for practical reasons. Difficult as it is to believe, Malby fostered his children to Irish families according to Gaelic custom, and even learned some Irish, all in an effort to build links with the local people. However, Malby’s intimate links with the Irish were sincerely questioned by London, and this even threatened his tenure in Connacht. Nevertheless, in 1579 Queen Elizabeth I gave Malby the more prestigious title of Lord President of Connacht. Malby’s ruthless streak continued and during a controversial military victory in Limerick, men under his command killed people indiscriminately and terrorised the local population. His reckless actions infuriated the Queen (Clavin, 2009).

Malby’s Brutal Streak—The Doonamona Castle Massacre

Clavin (2009) notes that Malby came close to becoming the Viceroy of Ireland but the slaughter that had taken place in Munster stood against him. In the latter part of the 1570’s, Malby was involved in military activity in Munster, and Connacht was quiet in his absence—​that is, apart from Richard an Iarainn Burke, however. Burke was known as ‘Iron Dick’ perhaps due to the metal suit of armour he wore, or from the iron deposits on his land. Burke rose up in support of the Desmond rebellion in Munster in 1579. In retaliation for Burke’s actions Malby launched a scorched earth campaign on Burke’s lands in Mayo (Clavin, 2009). Infamously, on the 15th of February 1580, our very own Doonamona castle here in the Clogher area suffered a bloody attack at the hands of Sir Nicholas Malby, Governor of Connacht (McCafferty, 2018). Malby later boasted to London, “I put the band, (the garrison in the castle) men, women and children to the sword, whereupon all the other castles in the area were given up without resistance” (Cook, 2004 & 2021). After Malby took Doonamona castle, local resistance collapsed for a time and Burke fled to an island in Clew Bay, off the coast of Co. Mayo (Cook, 2004 & 2021). It is said that the memory of Doonamona castle as a place of violence lingered well into the 20th Century (McCafferty, 2018).

Malby’s later campaigns in Connacht

Although Malby continued to reign supreme in Connacht, Ulick and John Burke rose in revolt against him, and by 1580 the province had largely fallen into disorder. The Queen had also turned against him by this time. On 1st of March 1581, the Mayo Burkes, the Clanricard Burkes and Scottish mercenaries plotted to meet in Doonlaur in Galway to come against Malby’s forces. However, Malby intercepted them and the Scots and Mayo Burkes scattered in confusion. Malby then instated the rebel leader, ‘Richard an Iarainn’ as chief of the Mayo Burkes in return for his promise of help. After this, Iron Dick Burke and Malby joined forces to push the Scottish forces out of Connacht. Malby proved to be a master manipulator of clan and tribal rivalries within Connacht and proof of this was his ability to recruit Irish auxiliary soldiers to beef up his English forces in the province (Clavin, 2009). 

Recall to London

Malby was successful militarily in Ireland but political struggles at the Royal Court still hampered his position. Malby’s hard-line tactics had caused the Queen to lose all patience with him and it is said that his harsh rule caused the Irish to rebel all the more. The Queen gave him a royal rebuke and his authority and pay were reduced in Connacht. In 1583, following the death of Iron Dick Burke, Malby installed a puppet leader on the Burkes of Mayo, and despite being undermined by the Queen, he went on to achieve utter dominance in Connacht after 7 years of gruelling war against the Clanricard Burkes (Clavin, 2009). 

Malby’s Death and His Legacy

Malby died in Athlone in March, 1584. Malby’s legacy is complex, but it is said that the Irish both feared him and respected him in equal measure. The Annals of the Four Masters commended Malby for his bravery in battle, while the Annals of Loch Cé condemned Malby for reducing the people of Connacht to servitude and for sowing havoc throughout Ireland. Without doubt, Malby was the most effective English military leader and coloniser of his generation although perhaps didn’t get the credit he felt he deserved from his royal mistress. It is said that although Malby’s methods may have been brutish, it was possibly the only way Connacht could have been subdued by the English (Clavin, 2009).


  1. Clavin, T. (2009). Malby, Sir Nicholas. Available at: (Accessed 11th of November, 2022)

  2. Cook, J. (2004 & 2021) Pirate Queen: The Life of Grace O’Malley. Tuckwell Press Ltd (2004) and Edinburgh. Birlinn Limited (2021). Available at: (Accessed: 8th of November, 2022).

  3. Hoban, B. Kelly, C. Kelly H (2005). Donomona Castle, Clogher in Co. Mayo. Available at: (Accessed 11th of November, 2022).

  4. McCafferty, J.(Twitter)  (2018). Donamona Castle. Available at: (Accessed 11th of November, 2022).