LAST OF THE
long, terrible struggle between the English and the Irish
began in 1169,
Diarmuid Mac Murchada asked King Henry II for aid against
- only to learn that it was easier to invite the Normans
than it was to convince them to leave.
most people hear of the “Norman invasion,” they
instantly think of Duke William’s invasion of England in
were, however, actually four identifiable Norman
first and original invasion was the conquest of the area
in France that later came to be called Normandy, named for
the Norsemen who carried out the invasion.
Second, and according to some people the most
historically important and influential, was the Norman
conquest of southern Italy and Sicily.
That began in 1016, a full half century before the
invasion and subjugation of England by William I and his
fourth and final invasion was the Anglo-Norman invasion
and partial conquest of Ireland, which began in 1169 at
the invitation of Diarmuid Mac Murchada, king of Leinster,
under the auspices of King Henry II of England.
The relative difficulty of the conquests can be estimated by noting the
length of time it took for each undertaking to be
conquest of England was effectively accomplished in part
of one day. It
was more than three-quarters of a century before Norman
control was firmly established over southern Italy and
Sicily. The total conquest of Ireland by the Normans was never
actually completed - unless the utter devastation during
Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of 1649-50 is viewed as an
extension of Norman activity.
By that time, however, the Normans and Saxons had
fused to become the “English”.
The invasion of Ireland was apparently the last burst of Norman
expansionism and marked the greatest extent of their
unofficial empire. At
their height, Norman kings, dukes or warlords exerted
varying degrees of political control over Normandy,
southern Italy, Sicily, England, Wales, parts of what is
now Yugoslavia, Turkey and, according to some authorities,
small enclaves in the north of Africa, as well as Ireland.
It all began as a somewhat typical Irish internecine fight.
The underlying reasons for the success of the
Normans in Ireland, however, go back to April 23, 1014.
It was on that Good Friday, on the field of
Clontarf, that the Irish won a battle and a war - but lost
the nation. The
unarmored Irish under Brian Bóruma
(modern spelling Boru), himself a noncombatant, fought and
defeated the armored Danes, resulting in the elimination
of the Danish threat in Ireland.
What turned this otherwise stunning success into a
Pyrrhic victory was the death of Brian, known as ard
righ (high king) and imperator
scrotorum (emperor of Ireland), along with his
son and grandson, before he could adequately centralize
the government and appoint a successor.
That virtually guaranteed Irish disunity at a
crucial time a century and a half later.
Although he was himself a usurper of the high
kingship, Brian was the first Irish ruler with a practical
(albeit flawed) vision of a united Ireland.
His personal failure was Ireland’s ultimate
failure, and the Normans took full advantage of it.
In 1152, the specific incident occurred that triggered the Norman
invasion of Ireland - not that much of a pretext was
needed once Henry Plantagenet had decided it was his duty
to take possession of the island and add it to the Angevin
empire, which then encompassed territory in France as well
as England. It
was in that year that Dervorgilla, the wife of Tighernan O’Ruarc
(modern spelling Tiernan O’Rourke), king of Breffni and
East Meath, ran off with Diarmuid Mac Murchada (modern
spelling Dermot MacMurrough, also known as the Mac
Carty-Murrough), king of Leinster.
Opinion seems divided as to whether or not she went
willingly, but the evidence suggests that she not only had
plenty of opportunities to escape but also connived in the
plot herself. In
any event, both of the principals should have known better
- Dervorgilla was more than 40 years old, and Mac Murchada
was over 60. Legend
has it that Tighernan O’Ruarc, the lady’s lawful
husband, was of uncomely appearance (his nickname was Monoculus, or “One-eye”), which might seem a sufficient
excuse for his wife running off with another man.
In any event, it took O’Ruarc 14 years to build a power base
sufficient to repay the man who had wronged him.
He had already regained his wife in 1153 with the
help of Ard
Righ Turlough O’Connor, but he obviously felt
that simply taking back what had been stolen was not
14 years may seem like a long time to wait for vengeance,
the Irish have apparently always agreed with the Sicilians’
belief that revenge is a dish best served cold.
There is also the more practical aspect of the
matter in that O’Ruarc, as king of Breffni and East
Meath, did not control nearly the strength in arms that
the king of Leinster had at his command.
It was obviously the best strategy, militarily
speaking, to wait.
When Mac Murcharda’s strong ally in the north, O’Loughlin of
Tir-Eoghan, died in 1165, the king of Leinster was
weakened to such a degree that it was at last feasible to
move against him. A confederacy was formed, headed by Turlough’s successor
Ruairi (often Anglicized to “Rory” or “Roderick”)
O’Connor, king of Connaught and ard
was joined not only by the wronged O’Ruarc but also by
the king of the Danes of Dublin and many of the lesser
kings and nobles of Leinster who had for years resented
the tyranny of their lord.
Yet, although many of the upper classes were antagonistic toward Mac
Murchada, most of the common people seemed to hold him in
great affection. He
was viewed as their protector against the aggression of
the “men of Erin,” particularly of the ard righ and his armies.
For centuries the Leinstermen had allied themselves
with foreign invaders against the rest of Ireland, a
pattern that would be repeated with the Normans.
In spite of Mac Murchada’s popularity with the
common people, however, the ouster was successful, and the
king fled to Aquitaine to try and drum up support for a
Two reasons are generally given as a justification for the Norman
involvement, aside from helping some minor king (from the
English point of view) regain his throne.
One motive was to stop the slave trade between the
western coast of England and the eastern part of Ireland.
The other was to halt the decay of the Irish church
and reform it in order to bring it more into line with the
But an invasion of Ireland would have done little or nothing to halt the
traffic in human beings.
English slavers sold their own countrymen to the
Danes in Ireland, and the practice continued for some time
after the conquest had been consolidated.
It is generally agreed nowadays that the trade
would better have been stopped by carrying out sanctions
against those primarily responsible for it - the English.
As to the plausibility of religious motives for the conquest, the
holiness of the Irish clergy and the effectiveness of
their pastoral care were known throughout the Western
Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the strictest and most
rigorous reformers of the medieval church, was greatly
impressed with the Irish priesthood.
His best friend was Saint Malachy O’More, primate
of all Ireland, who died in Saint Bernard’s arms and was
buried in the holy abbot’s own habit.
When Saint Bernard’s time came to die, he was in
turn buried in the habit of the Irish archbishop.
Such an endorsement tends to negate the claim that
the Irish church was in need of such drastic reform,
although civil and religious order had not fully recovered
from the chaos following the Battle of Clontarf.
The only plausible reason for the conquest is virtually the only one
remaining - and the only one not generally brought up -
Norman hunger for land, for which Ireland seemed to be
It is often stated that the Irish were a savage and barbarous people in
the 12th century. That
description comes largely from Giraldus
Cambrensis, the Welsh-born Norman scribe who, like
Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History
of the Kings of Britain, had a vested interest
in representing the Norman invasion as being necessary to
the well-being of the people and the improvement of
was essentially a medieval version of the “white man’s
burden” argument of the 19th century.
However, Irish art, literature and scholarship were
known and valued even in the Byzantine empire.
And although the various Irish kingdoms under the ard
righ had a large measure of autonomy
(especially since Brian Boruma had failed in his attempt
to consolidate power) and were often at war with one
another, political stability is not a strong criterion for
determining whether or not a people is civilized.
Cambrensis is also the source of the idea that the
entire nation of Ireland was virtually without religion at
that time, but Saint Bernard’s testimony largely
contradicts that claim.
In any event, while the exiled Mac Murchada offered to do homage to the
English king for his domain of Leinster, he did not
immediately succeed in gaining the support and assistance
of Henry II. Henry had other fish to fry, but he did issue a declaration
of friendship with Mac Murchada and give general
permission for any Norman lords and knights who wished to
join with him in the venture.
After all, while Henry II was notoriously stingy, a
piece of parchment cost him nothing, and the declaration
might rid him of possible troublemakers by sending them on
a foreign campaign. Later,
as liege lord, Henry could take possession of any lands
gained by his vassals without having risked any of his own
army or spent any of his own money.
He had nothing to lose.
Mac Murchada then went to Wales, where he managed to find two men
willing to give him material aid - Rhys, prince of South
Wales, and Richard de Clare, earl of Striguil and
Pembroke, known to history as Strongbow.
The motives of the two men were similar.
The Norman-Welsh prince had to deal with a great
many landless relatives and vassals, and he needed some
kind of outlet for them and a way to establish them
without draining his purse.
Red-haired Strongbow, whose arms reached to his
knees, was in debt over his head and fleeing from
Ireland seemed a perfect solution.
Despite his seemingly effeminate manners, Strongbow was actually a man
of great courage and resourcefulness.
Readily accepting the proposals of the dispossessed
Irish monarch, he agreed to gather a force of volunteers
sufficient to replace Mac Murchada on his throne.
For his part, the Irish king, upon the success of
the venture, was to give Strongbow the hand of his
daughter, the beautiful Princess Aoife (usually Anglicized
to “Eva”), and the succession of his kingdom when he
should die - something that was not Mac Murchada’s to
Mac Murchada returned to Ireland with a small personal Norman-Welsh
guard - and probably to popular acclaim from the people of
was permitted to stay on the condition that he get rid of
his escort, agree to bring no more foreigners into the
country, and go into immediate seclusion at the monastery
of Saint Madog. He
complied at once, having no scruples about negotiating an
agreement that he had already made plans to break.
Early in May in the year 1169 marked the first Norman incursion into
Strongbow was in disfavor with Henry II, he sent some of
his close relatives until he should obtain the English
king’s express permission to take part in the
aid supplied turned out to be all that was needed to carry
out the agreement and restore Mac Murchada to the throne
of Leinster. Unfortunately
for Ireland, the Normans had a somewhat more ambitious
program in mind.
While an army of 1,200 men may not seem very large today, it was for its
time a most efficient and effective fighting force,
particularly noteworthy for the soldiers’ discipline and
relatively modern arms, which dramatically increased their
without modern arms, training, discipline and morale can
produce a victory against disproportionate numerical odds.
It was not want of courage that would lead to the Irish defeat, but the
training, skill and discipline of the invaders, combined
with their strange appearance.
When Mac Murchada appeared with his foreign allies
before the Norse-Irish city of Wexford, the Irish quickly
retreated behind the walls at the sight of armored men and
At that time, the Irish fought either unarmored or used old-fashioned
scale armor. They
did not usually fight from horseback, and when they did,
they rode bareback because stirrups had not yet been
introduced into Ireland.
The weapon most commonly used was the ax,
supplemented with the short Irish spear - hardly the
equals of Norman chain mail and swords. It would not be until Irish developed an early version of the
hedgehog formation, using shields and longer spears, that
they would be able to stand against armored cavalry.
After enduring two days of continuous assault against the walls of
Wexford, the Irish capitulated and again acknowledged Mac
Murchada as their lord.
As the restoration seems to have been supported by
a popular rising, the nobility probably had little choice.
Ossory was conquered in short order, leaving Mac
Murchada once again in full possession of the kingdom of
granted lands along the coast between Wexford and
Waterford to his Norman allies, and it appeared that the
project had reached its completion without the Earl of
Pembroke - the man later given sole credit for the victory
- ever having left England.
The return of the obnoxious king Leinster - made even more distasteful
to the rest of Ireland by the fact that he had dragged in
foreigners and made them permanent residents - was not to
be countenanced by the ard
Mac Murchada also seemed to have lost a great deal
of his personal popularity with the common people of his
kingdom - something that he managed to lose completely in
the next year. Ruairi
O’Connor assembled a large army and prepared to move
against Mac Murchada.
Before the campaign began, however, Ruairi reached
an agreement with the reinstated king that permitted Mac
Murchada to remain in possession of Leinster if no more
foreign mercenaries were brought into the country.
This was not as cowardly an act as it seems,
although the ard righ was not to be remembered for his decisive actions.
Ruairi simply recognized that his Irish levies,
however impressive their spirit and courage, were no match
for the Normans.
No sooner had the agreement been reached, however, than more Normans
Murchada promptly sent them against Dublin to avenge his
father’s murder many years before.
Dublin surrendered after suffering heavy losses.
Then Mac Murchada became even more ambitious. Having regained his kingdom, obtained his revenge and
gathered spoils from the sacking of Dublin, he now judged
himself fit to be Rd
righ - with the help, of course, of his Norman
allies. He sent word to Strongbow to come and assist him as promised.
Strongbow landed north of Waterford in August 1170, with as many men as
were already in Ireland under the Normans.
Waterford fell almost immediately, and the combined
forces of Mac Murchada and Strongbow then marched against
Dublin again in September to punish its Danish King,
Haskulf, for having shown signs of resistance.
Dublin surrendered in September.
When Haskulf’s forces regrouped on the Isle of
Man and returned with a fleet, Strongbow dispersed the
Danish force, apparently with little effort.
Diarmuid Mac Murchada died in May 1171, unmourned by either the nobility
or commoners of Leinster.
Although Irish law clearly stated that a successor
was to be chosen by the people, that system did not please
the Normans, who had succeeded in installing Europe’s
only completely feudal system in England after 1066.
Strongbow, having married Aoife Ni Diarmuid,
announced that he was the new ruler in her right and
proclaimed himself Earl of Leinster.
Brutal as the initial Normal conquest of Ireland was, it still cannot be
compared with the later subjugation of the island,
particularly during and after Elizabethan times.
While the Normans were cruel and unprincipled,
their invasions ultimately resulted in a simple change of
rulers, with no basic change in the culture or
Italy, the Normans became Italian; in Sicily, Sicilian;
and in France, they became merely one more breed of
was their assimilative tendency more evident than in
Ireland, where the invaders adopted the Irish language,
culture and customs to such an extent that they became, in
the famous phrase, Hibernicis
ipsis Hibernior - “More Irish than the Irish.”
That assimilation was so prevalent among the new
rulers that an actual distinction would be made in law
(particularly in the infamous and oppressive Statutes of
Kilkenny) between “native Englishmen” and “Englishmen
born in Ireland” (i.e., resident Normans).
Although Strongbow had declared himself the new ruler of Leinster, he
had yet to convince either the Irish chiefs and princes or
Henry II. At
reports of de Clare’s successes in Ireland, the English
king had grown suspicious and jealous.
Afraid that de Clare would establish himself as an
independent monarch, the king demanded that Strongbow and
all the rest of his subjects return to England forthwith.
Nothing could have better suited the Irish, but it
was not to be.
Having had prior experience of Henry’s wrath, Strongbow quickly found
reasons to avoid going to England - some of those reasons
were forced upon him by the Irish.
Haskulf and Godred, the Danish king of the Isle of
Man, landed near Dublin in mid-May 1171, only to be caught
between the Norman forces of brothers Miles and Richard de
Cogan, and destroyed.
Arriving too late to save his ally Haskulf, the ard
righ and his princes lay siege to Dublin until
September, when Strongbow suddenly sallied out, surprised
the Irish camp at Castleknock and scattered Ruairi’s
army, capturing a large amount of booty and provisions.
He immediately invaded and devastated Meath and
Breffni, then quickly turned to the south to relieve his
half brother, Robert FitzStephen, who was under siege in
Strongbow arrived too late to save the city, however, and hard upon the
heels of that disappointment he received a second summons
to present himself before Henry in London without further
Clare may have been reluctant to go to England, but he was
far from stupid, especially with a royal “or else”
hanging over his head.
He left immediately and appeased his royal master’s wrath by laying
his gains at the king’s feet, asking only to retain
cupidity excited by Strongbow’s report, Henry decided
that the situation in Ireland demanded his personal
king landed in Waterford in October 1171, accompanied by a
force of 500 knights and 4,000 men at arms.
Awed by such a display of force, a large number of Irish princes and
chiefs in the south and east paid Henry homage - and thus
planted the seeds of future misunderstanding and strife.
The Irish viewed their offering of homage to this
foreign king as a tribute to his power and strength not
something that affected their sovereignty or independence.
The Normans, coming from the almost perfect feudal
society they had installed in England, looked on this
homage as acknowledgment by the Irish chiefs of the
English king as their liege lord.
Thus the Irish could view a fight against the
Norman invader as a struggle between two independent
sovereignties, while the Normans would naturally view it
Despite Henry’s success in the south and east, none of the Irish
chiefs and princes of the west or north made submission -
nor did the ard
righ, although Ruairi was increasingly alarmed
at the large number of defections to the enemy camp.
Finally, Ruairi sent an envoy to Henry, inviting
him to a parley at the river Shannon.
Henry did not accept the invitation in person but
sent his own envoys, through whom the ard righ made a pact of peace
and friendship with Henry.
Henry kept busy that winter holding court in Dublin in a temporary “field
palace” built of woven willow branches.
His lavish hospitality helped win the fealty of the
various princes who had submitted to him and contrasted
sharply with the more familiar brutality and barbarism of
the Norman invaders.
Henry put a stop to further acquisition of land by
the rapacious Normans, and such was his political skill
that he managed to put himself in the position of being
the one true protector of the Irish against the rapacity
of the noble adventurers who saw Ireland as the perfect
opportunity to grow wealthy and powerful.
In large measure, the kings of England managed to maintain that good
impression for centuries; even Henry’s son, John, while
seen as the worst of kings by the English, was called “Good
King John” by the Irish.
Ireland’s first viceroy, Henry’s own seneschal,
FitzAldelm de Burgo (progenitor of the Burke family), was
under orders to refuse permission to extend the conquest,
which made him extremely unpopular with the Normans,
although they largely ignored English authority anyway.
When Henry returned to England at Easter, trouble resumed.
Relieved of the watchful eye of the king, the
Normans restarted their aborted campaigns.
Almost immediately the Irish began to rise up
against the Normans, who - now that their methods and arms
were no longer unfamiliar - seemed less formidable.
Pitting native strategy against Norman skill, the
Irish inflicted several defeats on the once-invincible
Strongbow was bottled up in Waterford and in danger of
being captured. Only
timely aid from Wales saved the new Earl of Leinster from
losing his liberty and possessions - and quite probably
his life as well.
Even Ard Righ Ruairi fielded a large force that overran Meath and
might easily have captured Dublin and driven the
foreigners out of Ireland completely but for his
he thought it to his advantage to make a treaty with Henry
acknowledging him as overlord but confirming Ruairi in the
high kingship of five-sixths of Ireland.
This “Treaty of Windsor” would be virtually ignored by both the
Irish and the Normans, however.
With foreigners occupying and
controlling a substantial portion of the country,
the confusing issue of who ruled what, and the authority
of the ard
righ effectively abolished by his own actions,
the country dissolved into almost complete anarchy.
The Irish continued to fight among themselves, and
the Normans began to have falling-outs as well.
It was not uncommon, as had happened with the
earlier Viking invasions, for both Irish and Norman to
unite with each other against either Norman or Irish
With the destruction of the native system of government and the failure
of the Irish to form a united front to drive out the
invaders, the victory of the Normans in Ireland was
absolute control of the country would not be established
for centuries - due to the tenacity of the Irish in
refusing to admit defeat - for all intents and purposes
Ireland would now be seen as an English possession.