Irish History Overview

Norman Invasion & Conquest

The Norman invasion of England in 1066 had put the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, on the throne in London, and his descendants consolidated a new and efficient system of centralised feudal power in England and parts of Wales over the next 100 years.

King Henry II (1154-1189) was engaged in a major French war when Dermot MacMurrough appealed to him in Aquitaine to intervene in Ireland. The English king allowed him to canvas amongst his courtiers, and the Leinsterman received promises of aid from a group of French speaking Norman barons based in Wales, led by the Earl of Pembroke, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, better known as Strongbow.

With 600 troops of Welsh and Flemish origin, Robert FitzStephen led the invasion of Ireland, taking the Old Norse settlement of Wexford with ease in May 1169. With only one hundred knights and archers, Raymond “le Gros” Carew defeated a large Norse force from Waterford, and in August 1170, they joined Strongbow as his army overwhelmed the town.

They marched on Dublin, which was also still controlled by Norsemen. Despite intervention by the High King, Rory O’Connor, and his ally O’Rourke of Breifne, the capital fell to the Normans in September 1170. In 1171, about 1,000 Vikings arrived by sea from the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and Norway but were defeated, and the deposed Norse ruler, Earl Hasculf, was beheaded in the hall of his own palace. Rory O’Connor and his allies besieged Strongbow in Dublin for two months. Near to surrender, Strongbow and Raymond le Gros made a surprise sally against the Irish camp, killing hundreds, and thus effectively established Norman supremacy in Ireland. Dermot MacMurrough died in May 1171, and Strongbow succeeded him as king of Leinster.

King Henry II was disturbed by the success of Strongbow and his followers, fearing that they would try to set up their own centres of power beyond the reach of London. However, because Irish prelates had long been in disagreement with Rome on doctrinal and other ecclesiastical issues, it had not been difficult for Henry II, years earlier, to get Pope Adrian IV (the only Englishman ever to become Pope) to issue a Papal Bull, Laudabiliter, granting him the title of Lord of Ireland.

Intent on getting the Irish kings and bishops to acknowledge this, he arrived in Waterford with a large English army in 1171, and proceeded to hold court in Cashel (to coincide with the Synod) and Dublin. His impressive army ensured that Henry II was formally recognised as Lord of Ireland by the Irish and Norman lords as well as by the church.

The king’s rapid intervention ensured that the main beneficiaries of the conquests were men associated with the royal court and military household, some of whom retained estates in England and Wales. However unruly they might be in the Irish regions, they held their lands from the crown and saw themselves as the king’s subjects. Royal power prevented the conquests from developing into an unregulated scramble, and ensured that Ireland would henceforth be politically tied to England.

King Henry confirmed Strongbow in his possession of Leinster, except for the towns of Dublin, Wexford and Waterford. He made Dublin itself a dependency of the English city of Bristol, and Dubliners were long thereafter known as Bristolmen. He made Hugh de Lacy his Justiciar (Viceroy), and granted him the kingdom of Meath (which was much bigger then than now). De Lacy built castles at Kells and Trim.

The Treaty of Windsor 1175 granted protection to certain leading Irish families, and Rory O’Connor accepted demotion to the title of king of Connacht, but was ultimately obliged to abdicate.

Meanwhile, the Normans continued to seize lands. Leading conquerors were the FitzGeralds, who took over great swathes of Kildare and Munster; the Butlers in East Munster; the de Burgos in Connacht; the Le Poers in County Waterford; the Barrys in County Cork; and the de Verdons in County Louth. In 1177, John de Courcy led 22 mailed horsemen and 300 soldiers to conquer most of Antrim and Down, and virtually became an independent prince of eastern Ulster. Then in 1199 de Courcy was ousted by Hugh de Lacy, younger son of the Lord of Meath.

King Henry II of England conferred the title of Lord of Ireland on his younger son, derisively known as John Lackland, and when he unexpectedly succeeded his brother Richard I (the Lionheart) as king of England in 1199, the Lordship of Ireland and the English Crown were reunited.

In 1210, King John (1199-1216) arrived in Waterford with the greatest army yet seen in Ireland. His aim was to crush Hugh de Lacy and his allies, who had become too powerful. After the sieges of Dundrum and Carrickfergus castles, De Lacy fled to France, but survived to recover his lands in the next reign.

King John was instrumental in building Dublin Castle, and also had important castles built at Limerick, Carlingford and Naas. He introduced centralised secular administration to Ireland, together with a full coinage system and Common Law courts with juries. His edict that English law should apply in Ireland made a principle out of an already emerging fact, since the settlers tended to carry their feudal law and customs with them.

Trim Castle (Co. Meath).

The Normans built castles, motes and manors wherever they settled, and new towns grew up around these. Town dwellers of a variety of backgrounds, including Viking, Norman, English, Welsh, French and Flemish, freely intermarried with the natives and adopted Irish customs. The growth of towns and cities led to the flourishing of trade and commerce. Wool, livestock, hides, cloth, wine and food were all traded between towns, and wool, hides and grain were exported.  Ireland became exposed to continental culture and learning. The settlers developed their own Anglo Irish poetry. Miracle and morality plays were performed in the towns by the guilds of craftsmen and tradespeople.

Church reforms were completed during the Norman period. New continental monastic orders such as the Benedictines, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans arrived, forging stronger links between Ireland and the papacy.  Several important abbeys and friaries were built at this time, notably at Boyle, Ennis, Ballintubber and Mellifont. There was an increased demand for education and many of the new monasteries had schools attached. The Normans were also responsible for building magnificent churches around the country, including Kilkenny’s St. Canice’s Cathedral and Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and extending Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, where Strongbow is buried.

The majority of Gaelic Irish families continued to live outside these settlements, and were indeed encouraged to remain on the land and work it, although not under the same system as under their former Gaelic rulers.  The typical Norman estates or manor was divided into a demesne, held by the lord himself, and small holdings which were given to tenant farmers in return for rent and services. On the manors, forest areas were cleared so that the land could be cultivated and new agricultural methods used.

The Anglo-Norman Lordship of Ireland grew steadily throughout the first half of the 13th century.  However, the natives were hostile to the feudal system, especially the primogeniture succession system and the payment of rent, which were alien to Gaelic culture.

It is not known if King John had intended English law to be available to the native Irish population. In any event, his successors Henry III (1216-1272), Edward I “Hammer of the Scots” (1272-1307) and Edward II (1307-1327) were more interested in subduing their inorthern neighbours, and by the time of Edward III (1327-1377), English Common Law was the birthright of the settlers alone. Individual Irishmen could gain access to the courts only by buying charters from the king in England, which was beyond the means of most.

The ordinary people were not displaced by the Normans, but the Irish aristocracy were pushed sideways by the Norman nobility. Marriage alliances between the two groups became increasingly common. Some Anglo-Norman lords set up power bases in parts of Ireland beyond Dublin’s reach, and their families often became “more Irish than the Irish themselves“, even adopting Irish forms of their surnames. A classic example was the case of the powerful de Burgo family, whose name became variously de Burca, Bourke and Burke. The most common Norman surname from this period is Brannach, anglicised as Walsh, meaning Welsh.

Carrickfergus Castle, the most northerly Norman stronghold in the world.

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