The coming of the Normans

Dermot McMurrough became king of Leinster and was soon involved in all sorts of trouble. Disliked even by his own subjects, he also came into conflict with the High King, Rory O’Connor when he carried off the wife of O’Rourke, prince of Breifne. Ordered by Rory to restore her to O’Rourke, Dermot refused and was immediately deposed by the High King. Longing for revenge, Dermot crossed the Irish Sea to Britain in 1166 to seek the assistance of King Henry II. The latter was in France at the time trying to subdue some of his stubborn subjects there, but Dermot was not to be denied and followed him across the English Channel. Henry duly received Dermot and was delighted with the opportunity to attack Ireland. He had already hoped to do just that on the pretence that he had been authorised by Pope Adrian (also an Englishman) to re-organise the errant Church in Ireland, but the occasion had never arisen. Here, however, was the excuse he had been hoping for, and, giving Dermot letters of authorisation for his Welsh barons to go to the Leinsterman’s aid, the deposed provincial king immediately returned with them to South Wales.

The adventure seeking barons of South Wales were delighted to oblige Dermot, particularly Richard de Clare, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow, to whom Dermot promised his daughter in marriage and the kingdom of Leinster on his (Dermot’s) death. Dermot returned to Ireland and was soon followed by the Norman barons, Maurice Fitzgerald, Robert Fitzstephen, Raymond le Gros and Strongbow himself. Waterford was attacked and captured in 1170 and Strongbow wedded Aoife, the daughter of Dermot, amidst the carnage. Dublin was then attacked and, despite some hopeful negotiations by Lawrence O’Toole, the Archbishop of Dublin, the city was entered and quickly fell. On Dermot’s death Strongbow proclaimed himself king of Leinster, an arrangement which the High King certainly could not approve. Rory then besieged the Normans in the city, but in a period of laxity by the Irish, the hard-pressed Normans broke through Rory’s forces and lifted the siege. The country was now at the mercy of the invaders.

Henry himself landed at Waterford in 1171 and most of the Irish chieftains submitted to his authority. Arriving in Dublin in 1172, Henry granted Leinster to Strongbow, the kingdom of Meath to Hugh de Lacey, and Ulster (Antrim and Down) to John de Courcey. These Norman barons, with their heavily armour-clad knights, soon over-ran the territories granted to them and English rule became the norm in a large section of the country. The conquest was made so much easier by the fact that the Normans built strong stone castles in each annexed territory, thus ensuring their own safety and their stranglehold on the vanquished.

Further grants of land to Norman lords were made in the 1180s, aggravating even more the Irish chieftains and resulting in the assassination of Hugh de Lacey in 1186. An English government was established in Dublin and Richard de Burgh conquered Connacht. The last great obstacle to complete English rule came from the north of the country where the two great dynasties, O’Neill of Tyrone and O’Donnell of Tir Conaill (Donegal), refused to submit, successfully repelling all attacks on their northern province.

The Irish also quickly learned from their Norman conquerors, now wearing armour for the first time and employing ‘galloglaigh’ (foreign mercenaries) mainly from the western isles of Scotland, in their fight against the invaders. Their recovery was signalled by the great victory of the McCarthys of Munster over the English at the battle of Callan in 1261. Encouraged by the success of the McCarthys, the O’Briens also took up arms and regained much of their confiscated territories in the South. Now too, having learned from the example of the Normans, they began the structure of strong stone castles to keep a firm hold on their regained territories.

The success of Robert Bruce at Bannockburn in Scotland in 1314 was also a tremendous boost to Irish hopes and they immediately invited him to come to Ireland as their king, and help them to oust the Normans from this country. Robert sent his brother, Edward Bruce, in his stead, the latter scoring an early victory shortly after his arrival in 1315, and he was then crowned king of Ireland near Dundalk in 1316. Victories at Kells, Ballymena and Ardscoil appeared promising, but Bruce adopted the wrong tactics, destroying many of the crops in a ‘scorched earth’ policy, that was more harmful to the natives than to the invaders, and also antagonising many of the Irish chieftains, several of whom actually took up arms against him. He failed to take Dublin and was eventually defeated and killed at the battle of Faughart, Co. Louth in 1318.

Despite the failure of the Bruce “invasion” the Gaelic recovery continued and the main Irish families regained much of their previously owned territories. As the years passed a remarkable change also became very noticable among the descendants of the original Norman settlers. Through their constant contact and intermingling with the native Irish, these Anglo-Normans or “Old English” (later to be known as the Sean-Ghall) gradually adopted many Irish customs, wore Irish dress, spoke the Irish language, married Irish women, resorted to Irish (Brehon) Law, maintained Irish bards, and began to practice the ancient Irish custom of fosterage.

This was viewed with alarm by the governing authorities and, in 1366, at a specially convened parliament in Kilkenny, then the most prominent city in the country, a series of laws were passed to come into force the following year and are usually referred to as “The Statutes of Kilkenny, 1367.” Among other things these laws forbade the ‘Old English’ to become involved in any of the aforementioned ‘malpractices’ ... wearing Irish dress, marrying Irish women speaking Gaelic practising fosterage, etc., etc.. Such laws were a complete failure and they were more or less ignored by the great families of the period who continued as before and gradually became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. English law, in fact, was now confined to a small area around Dublin, known as “The Pale.”

Eventually the situation became so intolerable that the English king, Richard II, decided to visit Ireland himself. He arrived in Waterford in 1394 with a massive army of some 34,000 troops and marched towards Dublin. On his journey through Wicklow he was constantly harrassed by Art McMurrough, who had now proclaimed himself “King of Leinster”, and his light-armed horsemen, in what might be described as ‘guerrilla warfare.’ Art persisted in attacking the rear of Richard’s army as it marched through the Wicklow glens, striking quickly and retreating just as quickly into the fastnesses of the woods and glens of Wicklow, the heavily armed knights of King Richard getting bogged down in the marshlands which Art knew like the back of his hand. By the time Richard arrived in Dublin his army had been considerably reduced in size. Meeting with little success Richard returned to England but made a second expedition to Ireland in 1398. Again arriving in Waterford and again with a huge army, he met with the same fate as on his first visit - Art McMurrough proving his master as the huge convoy travelled through Wicklow.

By the turn of the century the greater part of Ireland was ruled by three great anglo-norman families ... the earls of Desmond (Fitzgeralds) ruled most of Munster (Kerry, Cork, Limerick and Waterford); the earls of Ormond (Butlers) ruled Kilkenny and Tipperary; and the earls of Kildare (Fitzgeralds) were the dominant family in Leinster. Thus it remained right through the 15th century and the Dublin parliament was in the total control of these three families.

Gearoid Mor Fitzgerald “The Great Earl of Kildare”, who inherited that title in 1477, became the strongest and most famous of all these great earls. He was also appointed as the king’s ‘Lord Lieutenant’ in Ireland and quickly attained such power that even the King, Henry VII, became alarmed, but still greatly respected him. Gearoid’s sister had also married to other Irish chiefs. The Butlers, who became his arch enemies, were jealous of his power and repeatedly informed the king of his activities. “All Ireland cannot rule this man”, they were reported as saying to Henry, but the king was not moved and was recorded as replying “Then this man shall rule all Ireland.

Despite this, Gearoid was removed from the post of Lord Lieutenant for a period because of his policies, and Edward Poynings was appointed in his place in 1494. Poynings is remembered for his passing of the famous “Poynings Law”, which laid down that ‘no law could be passed in Ireland without first getting the approval of the king and council of England.” Such a law had little relevance at the time, but it would become a very important piece of legislation in later Irish history. Poynings did not remain long in the post of Lord Lieutenant as Henry restored Gearoid to that position in 1496 and the “Great Earl” continued to rule Ireland until his death in 1513.