John de Courcy in Ulster

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XVIII

The new Viceroy was not a favourite with the Anglo-Norman colonists. He was openly accused of partiality to the Irish, because he attempted to demand justice for them. It is not known whether this policy was the result of his own judgment, or a compliance with the wishes of his royal master. His conciliatory conduct, whatever may have been its motive, was unhappily counteracted by the violence of De Courcy. This nobleman asserted that he had obtained a grant of Ulster from Henry II., on what grounds it would be indeed difficult to ascertain. He proceeded to make good his claim; and, in defiance of the Viceroy's prohibition, set out for the north, with a small army of chosen knights and soldiers. His friend, Sir Almaric Tristram de Saint Lawrence, was of the number. He was De Courcy's brother-in-law, and they had made vows of eternal friendship in the famous Cathedral of Rouen. De Courcy is described as a man of extraordinary physical strength, of large proportions, shamefully penurious, rashly impetuous, and, despite a fair share in the vices of the age, full of reverence for the clergy, at least if they belonged to his own race. Cambrensis gives a glowing description of his valour, and says that "any one who had seen Jean de Courci wield his sword, lopping off heads and arms, might well have commended the might of this warrior."[7]

De Courcy arrived in Downpatrick in four days. The inhabitants were taken by surprise; and the sound of his bugles at daybreak was the first intimation they received of their danger. Cardinal Vivian, who had come as Legate from Alexander III., had but just arrived at the spot. He did his best to promote peace. But neither party would yield; and as the demands of the Norman knights were perfectly unreasonable, Vivian advised Dunlevy, the chieftain of Ulidia, to have recourse to arms. A sharp conflict ensued, in which the English gained the victory, principally through the personal bravery of their leader. This battle was fought about the beginning of February; another engagement took place on the 24th of June, in which the northerns were again defeated.[8]


[7] Warrior.—Hib. Expug. lib. ii. cap. 17.

[8] Defeated.—Giraldus gives a detailed account of these affairs.—Hib. Expug. lib. ii. cap. 17. He says the Irish forces under Dunlevy amounted to ten thousand warriors; but this statement cannot at all be credited. De Courcy took advantage of some old Irish prophecies to further his cause. They were attributed to St. Columbkille, and to the effect that a foreigner who would ride upon a white horse, and have little birds painted on his shield, should conquer the country. De Courcy did ride upon a white horse, and the birds were a part of his armorial bearings.