Irish History Overview

 Late Medieval Ireland

The English Wars of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York, flared sporadically throughout much of the 15th century. Richard, Duke of York, a putative successor to King Henry VI (1422-73), was sent to Dublin as Viceroy in 1449, and managed to raise support for the Yorkist cause. He was killed in battle in 1460, but his son claimed the throne as King Edward IV in 1461 and outlived Henry VI by 10 years.

The Butlers of Ormond were amongst the few supporters of the house of Lancaster in Ireland, but were defeated at the Battle of Pilltown in 1462 by Thomas, the 8th Earl of Desmond, appointed by King Edward IV as Lord Deputy (to a semi-fictitious absentee Viceroy or Lord Lieutenant) of Ireland in 1463. Desmond was a highly educated man, and a patron of the Irish poets and scholars. However, he was mistrusted by many of the other Gaelic and Anglo-Irish leaders, and had many enemies within the Pale. Their machinations led to his dismissal and replacement by the Earl of Worcester in 1467. Desmond was accused of aspiring to rule Ireland in his own right, and was summarily beheaded on 14th February 1468. This caused such outrage in Ireland that his brother in law, Thomas Fitzgerald, 7th Earl of Kildare, was made Lord Deputy, and passed the position to his eldest son in 1477. The family was based in Maynooth, just 15 miles from Dublin, and owned vast estates along the borders of the Pale.

Garret, 8th Earl of Kildare, popularly called Gearoid Mór, came to be known as the Great Earl. A strong lord in his own right, his power as the king’s representative in Ireland was immense. He was a learned man with a great interest in Irish language and culture, and also spoke French and Latin. He skilfully allied Anglo Irish and Gaelic dynasties, and arranged for family marriages into the Butlers, Burkes, O’Carrolls, and the O’Neills of Tyrone.

The boy king Edward V (1483) died mysteriously with his brother Richard in the Tower of London, and their uncle Richard III (1483-85) was defeated at the famous battle of Bosworth Field, putting the first Tudor monarch on the English throne. However, Henry VII (1485-1509) was not unopposed as king of England. In May 1487 Lambert Simnel was crowned as “King Edward VI” in Dublin. Backed by Irish troops and German mercenaries, he invaded England but was defeated in June 1487, and spent the rest of his life as a scullion in the royal kitchen. In November 1491, Perkin Warbeck (possibly an illegitimate son of Edward IV) arrived in Ireland, claiming to be Richard, the brother of Edward V and the younger Prince in the Tower. With the help of various European monarchs, he several times attempted to invade England, but he was captured in October 1497 and executed for treason in November 1499.

Because of Garret Mór‘s support for the pretenders, he was dismissed as Lord Deputy in 1494, and his replacement, Sir Edward Poynings, persuaded the Irish Parliament, meeting at Drogheda in 1495, to pass Poynings’ Law, whereby Irish Parliamentary meetings and legislative drafts became subject to the control of the English king and council. This Act was to bedevil Anglo-Irish affairs for 300 years.

Garret Mór was arrested in 1496 on suspicion of treason. This threatened to provoke a major uprising, so he was re-appointed as Lord Deputy, (this time initially to the infant prince Henry). His son was kept at English court as pledge of his father’s loyalty. The Great Earl outlived Henry VII, and was often referred to as “the uncrowned king of Ireland”. He remained the most important and powerful figure in Ireland until his death in 1513, when his son Garret / Gearoid Óg succeeded him.

When Henry VIII (1509-47) ascended the English throne, he could claim little authority over most of Ireland. Outside the very limited area of the Pale, English sheriffs or judges dare not appear to administer English law; no taxes were paid to the crown; no levies of troops could be raised, and the “loyal English” could only hope for comparative peace by paying an annual tribute to the most powerful of their Irish neighbours.

Initially, the king was immersed in Continental affairs, and did nothing to prevent Garrett Óg from becoming, like his father before him, the most powerful man in Ireland, by his matrimonial alliances with the O’Neills, the MacCarthys, The O’Carroll of Ely, and The O’Connor of Offaly, his bargains with many of the other Irish and Anglo-Irish nobles, and his well-known prowess in the field. His very success raised up a host of enemies against him, led by his family’s old rivals the Butlers of Ormond, whose allegations caused him to be called to account in London and his authority superseded by the appointment as Lord Lieutenant of the Earl of Surrey (1520), Sir Piers Butler, claimant to the Earldom of Ormond (1521), and Sir William Skeffington (1529). Nevertheless, Garrett Óg, whether in office or out, continued to dictate government policy in Ireland.

By 1534 Henry VIII had begun to take a more direct role in Irish affairs. He no longer wanted to depend on the Norman lords to give him some degree of control over the country, but preferred to make the King’s Council in Ireland more powerful. Garrett Óg was summoned yet again, and confined in the Tower of London. Before setting out on his last journey across the Irish Sea, he gave the sword of state to his son, the 10th Earl of Kildare, known as Silken Thomas. Upon hearing false rumours of his father’s execution, this impulsive young man dramatically cast down the sword before the King’s Council in Dublin in June 1534.

The response to this petulant rebellion was rapid and severe, as Sir William Skeffington, the king’s highest military officer in Ireland, ordered an artillery attack on Maynooth castle. When its defenders surrendered, they were summarily executed. This was an unprecedented event in the history of Irish warfare, and acted as an early demonstration of Tudor power and ruthlessness.

Garret Ög died in December 1534. Silken Thomas surrendered to the new Lord Deputy, his brother-in-law, Lord Leonard Grey, in August 1535. Despite the latter’s assurances, he was hanged, drawn and quartered, along with five uncles, at Tyburn Hill in London in 1537.

In Leinster, the O’Moores, O’Carrolls, O’Connors, MacMurroughs, Kavanaghs, MacGillipatricks and other adherents of the Geraldines were reduced to submission. Sporadic rebellion flared until 1540, but was savagely repressed.  The brilliant English military campaign was blighted by failure to capture the infant heir of the house of Kildare, for which Lord Grey was executed in London in 1542.

In the mid-16th century, the predominantly Gaelic west and north of Ireland was, according to English officials, ‘a land of war’, inhabited by ‘a rude and savage people’ (‘the wild Irish‘) living in scattered, largely impermanent settlements around castles in the bogs and mountains, with many rival clans and chieftaincies. The smaller ‘Englishry’ (the Pale around Dublin, and parts of the south) contained numerous English-style towns and villages and prided itself on its Englishness and loyalty. English landowners still lived in tower-houses, their tenants in wattle and daub cabins.

The king vacillated between plans for full-scale conquest of the entire island, which were prohibitively expensive, and appeasement of the more troublesome Irish rulers. Sir Anthony St Leger, the Lord Lieutenant, believed that the Irish, if treated with respect, would abide by English law. The king adopted a policy known as Surrender and Re-grant, whereby the Gaelic chieftains and rebellious Norman families were invited to acknowledge the king’s authority, submit to him and surrender their lands, and, in return, under English feudal law, the king would confer a title on them and re-grant them their traditional lands as feudal fiefs. Henry believed that lords such as O’Neill, Burke and O’Brien could be converted into loyal subjects of the Crown by thus ennobling them. They became the Earls of Tyrone, Clanrickard and Thomond respectively, and over forty other chieftains and lords surrendered their lands and received them back. But this policy disregarded Irish customs, whereby land belonged to the clan rather than the chieftain, and caused disputes between parallel claimants entitled to inherit under the old Brehon Laws as opposed to the English law of primogeniture.

Henry VIII was a pious man, and had won the title Fidei Defensor from the Pope for a refutation of Luther in 1519. However, his anxiety to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in the face of Papal disapprobation, led him to break with Rome, and by the Act of Supremacy 1534 the English Parliament declared him Head of the Church of England. Henry forced the Irish Parliament to follow suit in 1536. The Church of Ireland thus ceased to be Roman Catholic.

Although Europeanised abbeys had long replaced the ancient monastic centres of learning, the 1539 Dissolution of the Monasteries inflicted a traumatic wound on surviving Gaelic culture. (Thomas Cromwell‘s destruction of monastic buildings and libraries in England and Wales has been likened to recent Taliban barbarities).

In 1541 Henry VIII had the Irish Parliament grant him the title of King of Ireland.