© Donal G. Burke 2013
Individuals of the name Erle or Erla were Anglo-Norman tenants within the de Burgh lordship of Connacht in the medieval period. While there are few records relating to members of the family in Connacht, it would appear likely that those of the name Erla or Earls later established in east Galway were descendants of these medieval colonists. The name, however, did also occur elsewhere in Ireland in the medieval period.
One John de Erlegh was a knight in the service of William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and came to Ireland with Marshall about 1206-7. He was again in Ireland with Marshall in 1212 but returned to England as he had gone again to Ireland with William Marshall the younger in 1224.[i] Those of the de Erlegh family took their name from the manor of Earley in Berkshire, about which they held property. Lands granted to this John de Erlegh in the barony of Shillelogher, County Kilkenny were subsequently known as Earlstown, with which this family were connected throughout much of the medieval period and the family of one Henry de Erleye held lands about Ballycallan, County Kilkenny about 1307.[ii] There is no evidence to suggest, however, that this family was connected with a family of the similar name of Erle based in Connacht.
The Galway historian James Hardiman, writing in the mid nineteenth century, referred to an old tradition at that time that those of the name Erla were a branch of the Anglo-Norman de Bermingham family, the chief tenants of the de Burgh lords of Connacht.[iii] There is little, however, to connect the name to that of de Bermingham with the exception of this tradition and a contemporary note written on a deed of 1391 involving a member of the Erla name.
The first of the de Berminghams to hold the title of Earl, however, was John de Bermingham, who gave a decisive defeat to the forces of Edward Bruce at the battle of Faughart in 1318 in which Bruce was slain. He was created Earl of Louth by King Edward II in the following year. The Earl had one known son and a number of daughters and was murdered along with many of his immediate family and followers in 1329. His son Richard had died in 1322 and on the murder of the Earl in 1329 the title came to an end until a later de Bermingham Baron of Athenry acquired the earldom in the mid eighteenth century.
Individuals of the name Erle, however, were associated with the Anglo-Norman colony in Connacht from at least the late thirteenth century and prior to the creation of an earldom for John de Bermingham.
Peter le Erle acted for Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster and Lord of Connacht, in the payment to the Exchequer of 50 marks for de Burgh’s debts in Connacht in 1285. Two years later Peter Erle again acted for Richard de Burgh in the payment of 100 marks, the rent due to the Crown for de Burgh’s twenty-five cantreds of the lordship of Connacht.[iv] Erle may have been deceased by 1292, in which year Margery, ‘who was the wife of Peter Erel,’ was required to pay a half mark in Connacht, having been found guilty of ‘a false action.’[v]
Walter Erle held lands in fee as a free tenant of the de Burgh Earl of Ulster and Lord of Connacht in the townland of ‘Clus’ or ‘Olus’ at the time of the Inquisition Post Mortem taken at Athenry in October 1333 into the extent of the property, services and dues of the deceased William de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, who had been murdered earlier that year by conspirators both within and without his own wider family group.[vi] This townland formed part of the Manor of Loughrea, the administrative unit attached to the castle and settlement at Loughrea, the centre of de Burgh power in Connacht.
With the sudden loss of the Earl without a male heir at a time when the Anglo-Norman colony was in decline and infighting among the leading members of the family, the principal lordship in Ireland began to crumble. In Ulster, the powerful O Neills, along with the Maguires and O Cahans broke free of the Crown, and in the turmoil that followed in Connacht, the native Irish such as the O Kellys and O Maddens, began to expand and regain lost ground. In the ensuing violence and with the loss of a major magnate such as the Earl of Ulster as a focus for the administration of law and justice, the value of the lands of the lordship to the Earl’s heiress was significantly depleted. The lands held by Walter Erle had previously yielded an annual income of ten pounds to the estate of the Earl of Ulster but by the time of the Inquisition in October 1333 the townland was worth only one hundred shillings.[vii]
Several of the Anglo-Norman colonist families, in the upheaval following the Gaelic resurgence in the fourteenth century, maintained a presence within the gaelicised territory ruled by the Burkes of Clanricarde, descendants of the de Burgh lords of Connacht. With the Gaelic O Kellys and O Maddens expanding from the east and regaining lost ground, the more prominent Anglo-Norman landholders such as the Dolphins and Walls survived on their lands in close proximity to Athenry and Loughrea, the latter of which continued as the centre of power of the Burkes.
The Erles held a relatively minor presence in the Anglo-Norman colony and, while they appear to have maintained their presence their lands were small in comparison to the larger tracts of land associated with the Dophins, Walls and junior branches of the de Burghs.
The few references to those of the name in east Galway from the medieval period relate to lands about Athenry, where, at an unspecified date in the medieval period Hugh Erla granted three acres known as ‘Kyllralma’ to the Dominican abbey at Athenry. His son Willic (ie. Ulick or William) Erla later confirmed the same grant.[viii]
In 1391 Phillip son of William Erla granted to John son of Walter Blake lands in Payrkbeig and Clonyntornoyr, ‘situated in the franchises of the town of Athenry’ in ‘Clantayg.’[ix] An additional note was appended to the deed of 1391, taken by the antiquary James Hardiman to have been a contemporary fourteenth century indorsement, identifying the document as ‘carta de Bermingham dicto Phillipo Erla.’ The indorsement, translating as the ‘charter’ (or ‘letter’) of ‘de Bermingham called Phillip Erla’ suggested to Hardiman that the tradition of descent from de Bermingham may have been true.
One Peter Erla was witness in 1424 to an agreement between Henry Blake, burgess of the towns of Galway and Athenry and William Blake, burgess of Galway, to refer to arbitration in a case concerning the inheritance of another member of the Blake family.[x]
Of this family Hardiman stated in the early nineteenth century that one Mr. Kilroy, ‘the respectable proprietor’ of Kilroy’s Hotel on Eyre Square in the town of Galway, was maternally descended from the Erla family.[xi] He went on to comment that ‘some individuals of the name Erla may still be traced in the vicinity of Athenry, but sunk into poverty.’
As Hardiman wrote about 1846 it would appear that those to whom he referred as Erla may have been known also about that time as Earls. The name Erla does not appear in the country in the records of Sir Richard Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Ireland undertaken in the mid nineteenth century but the name Earls does occur. The latter name occurred in a wide spread about Ireland but none of that name in County Kilkenny. There were few occupiers of land of that name in County Galway. Those recorded held land in the parishes of Killimordaly (between Loughrea and Athenry) and Ballymacward and one in the parish of Moyrus, on the west coast near Clifden. In addition to those of that name in County Clare and elsewhere, there occurred a proliferation of that name in the north of Ireland, in County Fermanagh, suggesting that not all of those of the name Earls shared a common origin in Ireland. The name Earl also occurred at that time but with only one in County Galway, in the parish of Moyrus, that name proliferating principally about Counties Carlow and Wexford.
[i] Sweetman, H.S. (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland, 1171-1251, London, Longman & Co., 1875, pp. 47, 73, 181.
[ii] St. John Brooks, E., Knight’s Fees in Counties Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny (13th – 15th Century), Dublin, I.M.C., 1950, pp. 243-246; Sweetman, H.S. and Handcock, G.F. (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland, 1302-1307, London, Longman & Co., 1886, p. 193.
[iii] Hardiman, J., A Chronological description of West or h-Iar Connaught, written A.D. 1684 by Roderick O Flaherty Esq., author of the ‘Ogygia’, edited from a manuscript in the library of Trinity College Dublin, with notes and illustrations, Dublin, Irish Archaeological Society, 1846, p. 273.
[iv] Sweetman, H.S. (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland, 1285-1292, London, Longman & Co., 1879, pp. 52, 138.
[v] Sweetman, H.S. (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland, 1285-1292, London, Longman & Co., 1879, p. 477.
[vi] Knox, H.T., Occupation of Connaught by the Anglo-Normans after A.D. 1237 (Part I) J.R.S.A.I., Fifth Series, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1902, p. 135.
[vii] Knox, H.T., Occupation of Connaught by the Anglo-Normans after A.D. 1237 (Part I) J.R.S.A.I., Fifth Series, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1902, p. 135.
[viii] Blake, M.J., The Abbey of Athenry, J.G.A.H.S., Vol. 2, 1902, pp. 77-8.
[ix] Hardiman, J., A Chronological description of West or h-Iar Connaught, written A.D. 1684 by Roderick O Flaherty Esq., author of the ‘Ogygia’, edited from a manuscript in the library of Trinity College Dublin, with notes and illustrations, Dublin, Irish Archaeological Society, 1846, pp. 196-7.
[x] Blake Family Records 1300-1600.
[xi] Hardiman, J., A Chronological description of West or h-Iar Connaught, written A.D. 1684 by Roderick O Flaherty Esq., author of the ‘Ogygia’, edited from a manuscript in the library of Trinity College Dublin, with notes and illustrations, Dublin, Irish Archaeological Society, 1846, p. 273.