Irish History Overview

 Gaelic Resistance

The Gaelic tradition of warfare had largely developed though cattle raids, and the lightly dressed Irish kerns had little chance against the well-organised and highly disciplined Norman troops, consisting of expert Welsh archers with longbows and heavily armoured cavalry and infantry. However, the Gaelic chieftains were never fully conquered, and all over the country there were pockets of resistance, with occasional major confrontations between natives and settlers.

Dublin suffered several attacks by the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles from their strongholds in the Wicklow Mountains, notably the Black Monday massacre of English settlers at Easter 1209, and subsequent battles at Rathfarnham and Bloody Bank (now Sunnybank, in Bray). The O’Donnell family defeated the Normans at the Battle of Credran in Tir Connel1 in 1257, and the Battle of Callan in south Kerry in 1261 was a major Gaelic victory against the Normans, securing the independence of the McCarthys

Most of Ulster west of the River Bann remained beyond Norman reach, blocked by the O’Flynns and O’Neills. In 1258, Brian O’Neill of Cenél Eógain was acknowledged by Tadhg O’Brien of Thomond and Féilim O’Connor of Connacht .as ‘King of the Gael of Erin’, and determined to lead a major attack against the Normans and English, but he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Downpatrick in 1260.

King Haakon of Norway was eager to reassert sovereignty over the Orkney and Shetland isles, most of the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man, which were still largely populated by people of Norse descent. In 1262, a group of Irish chieftains invited him to occupy the Irish throne. Delighted, he sent an advance party of Hebridean thugs – the first gallogladh, [foreign warriors, Anglised as gallowglasses]. King Alexander III of Scotland immediately took advantage of their absence to invade the Hebrides and Orkneys, and the Norwegian monarch was killed in battle in 1263.

The homeless gallowglasses philosophically settled in Ireland, hiring themselves out as elite mercenaries. Huge, armed with vicious claymores and axes, and highly skilled in the arts of war, their names -such as MacDonald, MacRory, MacSweeney, MacCabe, and MacDowell – became notorious throughout the land. The high esteem in which these warriors were held is evident from relief carvings of them on the tombstones of Gaelic chieftains.

In 1264 the de Burgos, Lords of Connacht, were granted the earldom of Ulster. Having survived a furious struggle for land between the de Mandevilles and the FitzWarins that was not brought to an end until 1280, young Richard de Burgo, known as the Red Earl, had title to almost half of Ireland. In 1305 he began building Northburgh castle, the most north-westerly Norman bastion in Europe.

From 1277 to 1318 the de Clares made sustained, although ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to conquer Thomond, west of the Shannon, from the O’Briains, during the course of which Bunratty and Clare castles were built.

At the start of the 14th century, the king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce (1306-1329), was engaged in war with England. In May 1315, in order to open a second front, or possibly to rally pan-Celtic resistance to the English, his brother Edward disembarked near Larne with a formidable army, and routed a substantial force led by Richard de Burgo, the “Red Earl” of Ulster. Survivors made their way to Carrickfergus castle, and were reduced to killing and eating eight men before surrendering after a year’s siege. Robert joined his brother, and they besieged Dublin in February 1317, but the capital held out successfully.

Appalling weather across the northern hemisphere brought about the Great European Famine of 1315-18, and unable to live off the country, Robert was forced to return hungry to Scotland in May 1317. Edward stayed and had himself crowned High King of Ireland at the invitation of some Gaelic Irish chieftains, who also petitioned the Pope on his behalf (“Remonstrances of the Irish Princes“); but was defeated and killed near Dundalk in the autumn of 1318 by John de Bermingham. The Red Earl rapidly recovered his ravaged lands, but soon after he died in 1326, his young heir, William “the Brown Earl” was assassinated, and most of Ulster was again under Gaelic rule.

The annals for the 14th century contain many references to lethal frosts and bad harvests. The Anglo-Normans, who depended more heavily on corn than the Gaelic Irish, suffered most and, in addition, were scourged by a succession of plagues. The Black Death killed over one-third of the population of Europe and had a similar effect on Ireland. The settlers were worst affected, as the foul, congested streets of Dublin, Drogheda, Kilkenny and other towns harboured populations of black rats, hosts to fleas and lice carrying the deadly bacillus, which probably reduced the urban population by 40 or 50 per cent. The death rate was much lower amongst the rural population.

Surrounded and threatened by ‘the king’s Irish enemies’, his ‘faithful subjects’ in Ireland emphasized their loyalty to the English monarch and the English status which, as they saw it, entitled them to royal protection and to parity of esteem with the ‘English of England’. It is not surprising that the settlers, holding their lands by charter from the King of England and living under English custom and law, thought of themselves as English, whatever the language or ultimate origins of individual members.

Their governmental arrangements were closely modelled on those of England, and they elected representatives to the peripatetic Irish Parliament, which had grown in importance since its first meeting in 1264. This was basically a settlers’ forum to “rubber stamp” English government proposals and to deplore Gaelicisation, despite which the number of Gaelicised landholders continued to increase.

The 1366 Statutes of Kilkenny rather belatedly forbade them to intermarry with the Irish, to adopt Irish customs, to wear Irish dress or to speak the Irish language, all of which were condemned as barbarous. The Viceroy, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, son of King Edward III, required the services of the chief Butler of Ireland, the Earl of Ormond, in whose castle the parliament was held, as interpreter. The Parliament listed the “obedient” (English-controlled) lands as Louth, Meath, Trim, Dublin, Carlow, Kildare, Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford, and Tipperary. In fact, the English authorities found it increasingly difficult to maintain control in Ireland “beyond the Pale“, i.e. outside the sporadically fenced region extending to varying distances along the Eastern coast and inland from Dublin. The independent Irish outside the Pale were regarded as enemies and were assumed to possess their lands only by usurpation. In practice they were feared, and their attacks were often bought off by regular payments.

Richard II (1377-99), the last Plantagenet king of England, was the first reigning monarch to visit Ireland since 1210. He landed at Waterford in October 1394 with the greatest army Ireland had yet seen, and brought the Leinster Irish to heel. However, his 2nd expedition in 1399 was disastrous and, while he was in Ireland, the rival House of Lancaster rose in revolt. He returned to England to lose his throne and his head.

During the first part of the 15th century, England was engaged in the 100 Years War with France, and sporadically convulsed by the Wars of the Roses between the competing Houses of Lancaster and York. Ireland was left largely undisturbed. Old Gaelic customs and institutions were restored, and many books were written in Irish around this time. Across much of the island, a multitude of practical, and often friendly, ties bound members of Gaelic and Anglo-Norman society together, and many of the latter became patrons of traditional bards and scholars.

Most of the country was under the rule of what contemporaries called  ‘Irish enemies’ and ‘English rebels’. The ‘Irish enemies’ were the Gaelic chieftains who ruled their lands independently, according to  Brehon Laws: in Leinster, the O’Moores, O’Byrne, O’Carrolls and O’Connors; in Munster, the O’Sullivans, MacCarthys, and O’Briens;  in Connacht, the O’Connors, and in Ulster, the O’Neills, O’Donnells and MacMahons, joined by the Scottish immigrant MacDonnells. The ‘English rebels’ were the Anglo-Norman lords who had become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, and included families such as the Barrys and Roches of Munster and the Burkes and Joyces of Connacht.

The most powerful Norman families were the Butlers of Ormond and the Geraldines, the collective name for the FitzGeralds of Kildare and the closely related FitzGeralds of Desmond. To English eyes, even these “loyal” houses were exotically un-English in many ways.

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