(The account below is taken from Jim McGarry's booklet Collooney published in 1980. Though they are traditionally called mountains the Curlews are in fact rather modest hills. Also the name has no connection with birds but comes from the Irish corrsléibhte, the rounded hills. )
The O'Connors Sligo, a branch of the descendants of Turlough Mor were overlords of most of the County, including Collooney. When the McDonaghs branched out from the parent family of the l4th century, they settled in the baronies of Tirerrill and Corran, under the leadership of the O'Connors. In time they split into two branches, McDonagh of Ballymote, known as McDonagh of Corran, and McDonagh of Ballindoon, known as McDonagh of Tirerrill.
A branch of the latter family settled at Collooney and built castles at Colloonoy and Knockmullen. The castle at Collooney, built circa 1408, was strategically situated in the angle of the confluence of the Owenmore and Arrow rivers, locally known as The Meeting of the Waters and The Black Hole. The castle thus controlled the Collooney Gap and possession of it was essential in the constant warfare between the O'Donnells of Tirconnell and the O'Connors Sligo. The O'Donnells claimed overlordship of North Connacht and constantly asserted that lordship in warlike raids in which the castle played its part.
In particular, this was so in the Nine Years War waged by Red Hugh O'Donnell and Hugh O'Neill in the last years of the 16th century. It was one of the most triumphant periods in the Irish fight against English domination. Battle after battle was won by the combined forces of the two Hughs, showing what might so easily be achieved if the Irish ceased their internal warfare and united to face the common foe. By 1599 all Connacht was in the hands of the two Hughs, who were waiting the promised help from Spain. Collooney Castle was held by O'Connor Sligo, who at this time was on the side of the English.
The two Hughs realised they dare not march south and leave Collooney in enemy hands. In this way Collooncy Castle became the immediate cause of the final victorious battle fought by the two Hughs, the Battle of the Curlews.
The rectangle indicates the area
shown on the relief map.
Map showing the road north from Boyle to Collooney over the Curlew Mountains
Red Hugh O'Donnell laid siege to the Castle, which was too strong to take by assault. News of O'Connor's predicament reached Dublin, and Sir Conyers Clifford, Governor of Connacht, one of the best and most humane of the English generals in Ireland, was ordered to march from Athlone to the relief of O'Connor. He got as far as the Curlews
(just north of Boyle) by the night of the August 1599. Eager to lose no time in getting to Collooney he decided to march on. But Red Hugh, with his own forces and those under O'Rorke and McDermot, was ready and lying in wait. O'Rorke, in particular, had a recent outrage to avenge and, without waiting for the English to get into the trap laid for them, impetuously launched a fierce attack on the flank of the enemy and caught them unawares: he was soon joined by McDermot and his men on the other flank, and the English forces were utterly routed before Red Hugh, who was waiting to meet the head-on clash, could join in. Clifford was killed trying to rally his men.
His death unnerved his soldiers and they fled to the shelter of Boyle.
Clifford was the one English General respected by the Irish and in a rare gesture of chivalry Red Hugh wrote a letter in to the Governor of Boyle, offering to send Clifford's head for burial. The offer was refused. O'Donnell decapitated Clifford and sent his body to be buried in the holy ground of Trinity Island, Lough Key, where an ornamental tombstone was erected over his grave beside a wall of the Abbey and near graves of Una Bhan Nic Dhiarmada and Tomas Laidir MacCostello, the ill starred lovers of Irish romance.
O'Donnell returned to Collooney, bringing with him Clifford's head. When he reached the castle he sent the head to O'Connor who recognised it. Recognising, too, that all hope of help was gone he surrendered the castle to O'Donnell and forces with him. Thus the last obstacle in Connacht was removed and Red Hugh retired to Ballymote Castle to finalise his plans for the glorious march to Kinsale with its tragic ending.
POSTSCRIPT: Until recently the road from Dublin to Sligo passed over the Curlew hills. Recent road improvements have resulted in a new road which curves around the Curlews.
To commemorate the Battle of the Curlews the figure of a man on horseback - both man and horse being made of metal pieces welded together - has been placed on a prominence over the new road. It is a striking sight when seen in the distance silhouetted against the sky.