The Invasion of Edward Bruce and the Gaelic Revival

Eleanor Hull
The Invasion of Edward Bruce and the Gaelic Revival

The wars with Scotland, which occupied so much of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, and into which Ireland was now to be drawn, had arisen largely out of the new relations which existed between England and Scotland after the marriage of Henry I with Matilda, daughter of King Malcolm, a princess of the Scottish line. The Court of Malcolm became filled with families from the South, of which two, the Norman Bruces and Balliols, were destined to play a leading part in Scottish history.

The enforced consent of William the Lion, extracted from him during his captivity in England, to hold his crown in fief from the English kings, with the right of homage from the Scottish lords, though for nearly a hundred years held in abeyance, provided a convenient pretext for interference when the occasion should arise; and the passing of the succession from the direct line of William the Lion to that of the daughters of his brother David brought into the field a number of claimants, who were quite ready to appeal to Edward I to support their rival pretensions. Of these John Balliol was descended from David’s eldest daughter and Robert Bruce from the second daughter. Their appeal to the English King gave the latter the opportunity of asserting a right to overlordship not expected by the Scottish claimants and vigorously resisted by the general body of the Scottish lords.

Balliol gave way; his claim to the sovereignty as a representative of the elder line was allowed, but he received it as the suzerain of the English King. The wars that followed were a protest against the carrying out of the pact in its various implications; and the terrible massacre at Berwick (1296), which compares in horror with Cromwell’s later sack of Drogheda, the battle of Falkirk in 1298, and the surrender of Stirling in 1305, completed the conquest of Scotland.

Wallace, the hero of these earlier struggles, had refused mercy, and his head was placed on London Bridge; Balliol was confined in an English prison. For a short time after the Convention of Perth quiet reigned in the North, but it was soon to be broken by a revolt of the whole country under Robert Bruce, who again came forward on the death of Balliol to lay claim to the Scottish crown. For four years his enterprise was a desperate adventure, until the weakness of the second Edward and his absorption in the internal troubles of his kingdom gave Bruce his chance. One after another the towns fell into his hands, and in 1313 he was strong enough to invest Stirling. It was under those exalted walls that the battle of Bannockburn was fought on June 24, 1314, when the footmen of Bruce totally overthrew the thirty thousand horsemen sent to oppose them, and “the feld so cleyn was maid of Inglis men, that nane abad.”[1] The King of England himself barely escaped from the field.

The news of the English defeat at Bannockburn stirred the Irish as no event for many years had done. Their attention had been frequently turned to the Scottish wars by the drawing off of troops from Ireland to aid the English kings, whose appeals for help in their Scottish expeditions had been made not only to their Norman barons, but also to the Irish princes.

The Red Earl of Ulster was the natural leader in these expeditions. His vast estates and claims in Ulster and Connacht gave him almost the position of an independent prince, the maker and unmaker of Irish kings and the most powerful man in Ireland. He took a foremost place in the Parliaments of the country and signed his name in important documents before that of the Justiciar. In 1302 he took what appeared at the time a strange step in marrying his daughter Elizabeth to Robert Bruce, then practically an outlaw; for his struggle for the independence of his country had only just begun. Yet we find de Burgh in the following year (1303) again carrying over a great Irish army to fight against his son-in-law. This marriage had the natural result of casting suspicion upon the fidelity of the Red Earl, especially during the wars of Edward Bruce in Ireland. He seems, indeed, throughout their course to have played a double and uncertain game.

The arrival of Edward Bruce in the North of Ireland in 1315 was not an unexpected event. His brother Robert had since 1312 been coasting round North Ulster and had been repulsed by the inhabitants; he had then sailed out for the Isle of Man, where he destroyed MacDowell’s castle and hanged its owner. His marriage with the daughter of the Red Earl had brought the two countries into close connexion; and the news of his wonderful success at Bannockburn had been received with enthusiasm among the Irish.

A definite resolution was taken by the native princes of Ulster to invite over a member of the house of the successful leader and to make him king of the whole country. They regarded the Bruces as in some sort belonging to their own nation, by virtue of their descent from Dermot MacMorrogh in the female line, while de Burgh’s daughter, Bruce’s wife, was of the race of Rory O’Conor.

It is quite probable that those who planned the invitation to Bruce’s brother, Sir Edward, believed that an outside claimant to the throne might unite the Irish princes as no one of themselves could hope to do; and they might well consider that a king living and ruling in Ireland itself would be more effectual in keeping quiet in the country than a monarch across seas could ever be. An old account says that the envoys sent were Hugh O’Neill, Bishop of Derry, Brian, son of Donal O’Neill, Manus O’Hanlon, Lord of Orior, and the chief ‘ollave’ or law-adviser of the O’Neills. Bishop Hugh was the speaker.[2]

Among other steps they appealed for help and countenance to Pope John XXII, in a Remonstrance which has ever since been regarded as the extreme statement of the views and sufferings of the Irish people at the time in which it was written. The Remonstrance begins thus:

“It is extremely painful to us that the vigorous detractions of slanderous Englishmen and their iniquitous suggestions against the defenders of our rights should exasperate your Holiness against the Irish nation. But alas! you know us only by the misrepresentations of our enemies, and you are exposed to the danger of adopting the infamous falsehoods which they propagate, without hearing anything of the detestable cruelties they have committed against our ancestors and still continue to commit, even to this day, against ourselves.”

They then recite a number of bad cases, such as the murder of O’Brien by de Clare, in which the Norman barons had behaved with cruelty to the Irish lords. They speak of the gift of Ireland to Henry II by the Pope’s predecessor, Adrian, and complain that the terms of the grant had been violated, and the bounds of the Church narrowed. “Through the oppressions of the English,” they exclaim, “we have been driven to the woods and the rocks, and fifty thousand of both races have perished by the sword alone in virtue of Adrian’s Bull.”

They complain of the uneven laws directed against the Irish, and declare that “the middle nation” in Ireland differs so widely in their principles of morality from those of England and all other nations that they may be called a nation of the most extreme degree of perfidy.

The Remonstrance is addressed to Pope John by “his attached children, Donaldus Oneyl, Rex Ultoniæ, true heir by hereditary right of all Ireland” (a title which would certainly not have been admitted by the princes of Munster) “as well as the kings, nobles, and Irish people in general of the same realm.”

The appeal prays the support of the Pope for Bruce, whom the Irish people have chosen as their deliverer, and in whose favour O’Neill is ready to resign his rights to the throne. It speaks as though this decision had only recently been come to, but, as Pope John was not elected till August 1316, the appeal must have been written after that date, certainly after Edward Bruce had been crowned king in May 1316, and probably when the sudden turn in his fortunes had made his permanent success doubtful.[3]

The appeal had little effect; the Pope merely passed it on to King Edward II, with a recommendation that he should inquire into the complaints contained in it, and if they were true should endeavour to put them right. He was, at that very moment, contemplating the excommunication of Robert Bruce for rebellion against England, and the time was not favourable for an appeal on behalf of a member of his house.

The Irish invitation to Bruce came most auspiciously to the young Scottish lord, for Edward, like his brother, was ambitious, and he desired to share with his brother the throne of Scotland. He was now Earl of Carrick, a brave man and proving himself a successful general, and he had no liking to take a second place in the kingdom.

The idea of making himself king of Ireland and ousting the English was a tempting one, and on May 26, 1315, he crossed over with a fleet of three hundred ships and six thousand men-at-arms, having with him Sir Philip de Mowbrey, the Earl of Moray, Sir Alan and John Stewart, Sir John Campbell, and Sir Robert Boyd; with these he landed on the coast of Antrim.[4] But his reception was hardly such as he had been led to expect.

Of the Irish, only the O’Neills and their ‘urraghs,’ or dependent chieftains, such as O’Kane, O’Hanlon, and O’Hagan, rose; many held back because they were dissatisfied with O’Neill’s alliance, “for they held their own power, dignity, and course of policy in too high estimation.”[5]

The old Scottish and English settlers in Co. Antrim, such as the Bysets, Logans, and Savages, far from welcoming a Scottish ruler, united with the Mandevilles to resist him and fight for their own, and an alliance was made between them and the Red Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, to oppose him. But in a great battle on the Bann this formidable army was put to flight, and “the Flower of Ulster was tane and slain,” the Red Earl himself flying from the field.

After this propitious victory Sir Edward Bruce cut his way through to Dundalk, forcing the Pass of Moira, called by Barbour the Pass of Endnellan, which was held by two Irish chiefs against him. The English combination which resisted Bruce’s entry into Dundalk included the Justiciar, Edmond le Boteler, or Butler; Maurice FitzThomas, who was later created first Earl of Desmond; and John FitzThomas FitzGerald, afterward first Earl of Kildare. They were usually commanded by Richard de Clare, who held a position of great authority in the army during the wars of Bruce.[6] He is called by Barbour “lieutenant of all Ireland,” an error to which his prominence as commander in the field may well have given rise. He was later pardoned a debt and given special privileges “for his great labour and cost in repelling … the Scottish enemies.”[7]

The combination was joined by the Red Earl with an army that had ravaged its way through Connacht with savage cruelties, the Earl having sworn to the Justiciar that he would deliver to him Bruce alive or dead.

Persuaded by O’Neill, Bruce thought it prudent to retire on Eastern Ulster, where he was followed by the English armies. His retreat was beset with difficulties. He was led astray by an Irish chief, named O’Dempsey, who had sworn fealty to him, but who guided his men into a morass from which the weary army had much ado to get away. At the passage of the Bann Bruce found no boats sufficient for his wants until a pirate vessel or “scummer of the sea” came up and ferried them over. Nevertheless, he inflicted another total defeat on the English at Connor, Co. Antrim, killing many of the leaders and capturing William de Burgh, ‘the Grey’; the defeated English fled for refuge into Carrickfergus Castle, where they valiantly maintained themselves against the Scots during a long siege, while the Red Earl led the shattered remnants of his army back to Connacht.

The terror of Bruce’s successes spread through Ireland, all the land being said to “shake with fear.” He again marched south, routing an army of fifteen thousand men under Roger Mortimer at Kells, and sending him and the de Lacys flying to Dublin. He kept Christmas triumphantly in Meath, and caused himself to be crowned King of Ireland, Fleming and de Lacy offering their submission and promising their support. At the opening of the New Year he defeated the Lord Justice at Ardscull, near Athy.

Wherever the Scottish army went it ravaged the country, destroying the remnants of an already bad harvest and leaving famine and suffering in its train. Acts like the burning of Ardee Church full of refugees—men, women and children—on its first march south added to the dread of veterans who in nine months had dispersed and defeated three armies. The Lords of Leinster and Meath met in solemn consultation and bound themselves with an oath to unite in defence of the country against the Scots.

Famine, partly caused by his own devastations, forced Bruce to retire into Ulster while he sent to Scotland for reinforcements. There, as King of Ireland, he took hostages, collected the revenues, and forced the lords to deliver to him the regalities belonging to the King of England. This would have been the moment for concerted action on the part of his Irish adherents had they really desired to drive the English from their country. But the most powerful of them made no move, save to appeal to these very English for help.

Bruce intrigued first with King Felim, who had followed the army of de Burgh out of Connacht and then with his rival Rory, as he thought each in turn was getting the upper hand. To Felim he offered undivided sway in Connacht if he would forsake the Earl; to Rory a free hand to expel the English, but not to “commit spoliation on Felim or enter his lands.” Such a stipulation had little effect on Rory, and soon Felim was forced to fight his way step by step home across the Shannon, for news came from Connacht that Rory was using his opportunity during Felim’s absence to advance his own cause; he had good hopes of being elected king of the province, since all the chiefs except MacDermott, Felim’s foster-father, had by this time submitted to him.

The affairs of Connacht were in a desperate state, there being three native princes alive who each claimed to have been duly elected king; and the country was "entirely convulsed” their internal quarrels, even at the moment when a foreigner was rapidly advancing into the heart of the land.

Felim fell at the early age of twenty-three years, with his standard-bearers around him, bearing the leopard flag, the arms of the O’Conors. Twenty-eight of the O’Kelly family lay dead in that rout, with a host of other chiefs and tanists.

On the return of the Red Earl, who was practically in flight before Bruce, the dispossessed chieftains “flocked to his house” to acknowledge his authority and claim his help. But de Burgh was in no position to render aid at this moment. His castles had been burnt down in the wretched struggles for power that had afflicted the province; he had been turned out of Ulster by the victorious arms of Bruce; he was in ill-odour with the authorities because he had tartly told the Justiciar at Dundalk that he did not need his assistance to drive Bruce out of the country, but could deal with him alone; and he was shrewdly suspected of a leaning to the Scottish cause. For a year he wandered about, unable to intervene, while his brother, the Grey William de Burgh, was a prisoner in Scotland, whither he had been conveyed by the Earl of Moray.

It was now noised abroad that Edward Bruce was again moving southward with twenty thousand men and that his brother, the King of Scotland, was come over to join him. From time to time the people of Dublin had heard of the stern justice that Bruce had been meting out in his Parliaments in the North. He had put the Logans to death and hanged many others; while rumour said that the English shut up in Carrickfergus were “living upon hides for want of victuals and had eaten up eight Scots whom they had taken”!

Before long Edward Bruce was at Castleknock, close to Dublin, and had formed a junction with his brother at Leixlip. Moreover, the O’Mores, the O’Tooles, and the O’Byrnes were reported to be ‘out,’ and David O’Toole was discovered hiding with eighty of his men in the woods of Cullinswood, almost beneath the walls.

On that “Black Sunday” grave citizens thought they saw the dead rising from their tombs and fighting with each other, shouting their old battle-cry of “Fennok aboo!” Stricken with fear, they hastened to burn down Thomas Street, St John’s Church, and other buildings to make the town more easy to defend, but the flames extended farther than was intended, and most of the suburbs were destroyed. The city authorities showed unwonted activity.

The de Lacys, who appear sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, were called upon to clear themselves of collusion with the Scots, and the Red Earl was apprehended by the Mayor as a measure of security, even the intervention of the King not proving sufficient to set him free. Sir Thomas de Mandeville had thrown himself across the path of the Scots near Carrickfergus, with men from Drogheda, having previously replenished the beleaguered city with men and provisions during a time of truce agreed upon for the celebration of Easter; de Mandeville deliberately broke the truce for this purpose. But, “as falsat [falsehood] evir mair sall haif [have] unfayr and ewill ending,” the attack ended in the defeat of the Government troops, “auld Schyr Thomas” falling on the field of battle. On emerging into the plain from the Moira Pass, where Sir Richard de Clare was awaiting them, hoping to cut in twain the two divisions led respectively by Robert and Edward Bruce, the six thousand hardy and seasoned veterans led by King Robert fell upon de Clare’s troops and cut them to pieces.