The Normans in Ireland

Eleanor Hull
The Normans in Ireland

It was while the country was in this unsettled condition that a new turn was given to the course of events by the appeal of Dermot MacMorrogh, King of Leinster, to King Henry II of England to become his ally in his quarrel with Tiernan O’Rorke, Prince of Breifne (Counties of Leitrim and Cavan). This was the first step in the drama of events which led to the permanent establishment of the English in Ireland.

The coming of the English has been often treated as if it were an isolated occurrence, a sudden bolt from the blue for which nothing in the previous history of Ireland had made preparation. But, as we have seen, the relations between the two countries had become increasingly close in the twelfth century, and both in politics and commerce the two neighbouring kingdoms had frequent interaction.

When, therefore, an Irish prince made his appeal for help to an English king against his personal enemy there was nothing to cause special surprise either to his own people or to the sovereign to whom he applied. Nor was the idea of adding Ireland to his great empire a new one to Henry. Lord already of Normandy, Anjou, Aquitaine, Maine, Touraine, Poitou, suzerain of Brittany, King of England, prince of dominions which made England the centre of power in the West, Henry had long turned his thoughts toward Ireland.

Already in 1155 he had considered that the island to the west would be a fair gift to make to his favourite brother William, and he had made tentative preparations by consulting his Council of Winchester about its conquest and had sent the learned John of Salisbury, then coming into notice as one of the most remarkable men of his day, to the English Pope, Adrian IV, to request permission to add the island of Ireland to his dominions. But the King’s mother, the Empress Maud, or Matilda, resisted the project, and it was temporarily dropped, though after the death of Prince William in 1164 the thoughts of the King still occasionally returned to the idea, with the object of making his son John lord of Ireland.

But the Papal permission and benediction, often erroneously styled a Bull, lay in his archives unused till long after Adrian’s death, and the ensuing contest between rival Popes made it, for the moment, of little avail for the purpose for which it had been given.[1] Henry’s mind was fully occupied with the affairs of his unwieldy and disunited empire; most of his time was spent in France, and to his English subjects this king, who only visited his English kingdom for short intervals with absences of from four to eight years between the visits, was almost a foreigner. He spoke no English but only French or Latin with a smattering of many other tongues “from the Bay of Biscay to the Jordan.”

Only gradually did this descendant of the conquering Normans, who by marriage or inheritance was also lord of the greater half of France, come to recognize the superior importance of his English possessions. He was absorbed at the moment in the affairs of his French territories, and the dream of a conquest of Ireland might never have been revived but for the sudden appearance of an Irish King coming in his own person to request that Henry would help him in the recovery of the kingdom of Leinster, from which his rebellious sub-chiefs had driven him. This unexpected appeal revived all Henry’s old ambitions; it gave an excellent opening, which might prove profitable to himself, for interference in the affairs of Ireland. His gracious reception of Dermot showed that the proposal was not unwelcome to him.

It was soon after Christmas in the year 1166 that Dermot MacMorrogh, King of Leinster (b. 1110), sought Henry’s aid to extract him from the difficulties that his own misconduct had brought upon himself and his province. Wild as were the times in which he lived, Dermot is singled out among the princes of his period as being so intolerable that he was expelled by the chiefs over whom he ruled. Gerald of Wales avers that “the cruel and intolerable tyranny which he imposed upon the chiefs of the land” was the result of youth and inexperience, but this can hardly be accepted as an excuse for a prince who had occupied the throne for over thirty years when he was driven out.

Already in 1133 he is stated to have imposed “great tyrannies and cruelties” upon his Leinster nobles, seventeen of whom he had blinded or slain. He had confirmed himself in the possession of his kingdom by the killing of two princes and the blinding of a third. He spoiled churches without compunction. A still more brutal and unseemly act was the forcing of the Abbess of Kildare to leave her convent and to marry one of his people; at the same time he slew nearly two hundred of her nuns and townsmen who endeavoured to defend her. He was in perpetual strife with the men of Ossory and the King of Meath, as well as with the O’Rorkes of Breifne and the O’Kellys of Oriel.[2] He fought with the Dublin Danes against the Danes of Waterford. All this was much in the manner of the times, but the fact that Leinster was ‘confirmed’ to Dermot on more than one occasion shows that he held his position with an unusual degree of precariousness. He is said to have been “hated by his Leinstermen.”

Dermot is described by Gerald, the historian of the conquest, as very tall, “of a large and great body, a valiant and bold warrior of his nation and by reason of his continual halowing [? halloing] and crying, his voice was hoarse; he rather chose to be feared than loved; a great oppressor of his nobility, but a great advancer of the poor and weak. To his own people he would be rough, and grievous and hateful to strangers. He would be against all men and all men against him.”[3]

The act for which, according to the popular judgment, Dermot was driven out of Ireland, his abduction of Dervorgil, wife of Tiernan O’Rorke, Prince of Breifne, occurred in 1152, fourteen years before his expulsion.[4] Tiernan belonged to a family noted for its pride and turbulence from the days of Art O’Rorke, “the Cock,” who in 1031 had descended the Shannon in boats to menace Thomond (Clare) and had met with a signal defeat at the hands of Donogh O’Brien, to those of Elizabeth. Descended from old kings of Connacht, they never forgot their high estate or ceased to try to recover it. They had been ousted by the O’Conors, and pushed back into the narrower limits of Breifne, which they shared with the O’Reilleys. Standing thus in the gangway between the warlike Cinel Eoghan of Tyrconnel in Ulster and the province of Connacht, their country was perpetually overrun with armies in whose wars they became involved; but in the eleventh century they were chiefly bent on recovering their position by a series of wars with Thomond.

In 1084 the son of “the Cock” had fallen in battle with Murtogh O’Brien, and his head had been cut off and exposed by O’Brien on the hills above Limerick. It was recovered four years later by Rory O’Conor and Donell MacLochlan, and Limerick and Kincora were burned by them in revenge.

Tiernan (or Tighernan) O’Rorke, who now plays an important rôle in the annals of his country, had been stripped of fresh portions of his territory alike by the kings of Ulster and Connacht. In the Book of Fenagh, written in O’Rorke’s own district of Breifne, Dervorgil, his unfaithful wife, is called “the wife of one-eyed Tiernan of many crimes.” One of these crimes for which the annalist says no equal had previously been found in Erin, and which earned the malediction of both laymen and clergy, was the profanation, openly in his own presence, of the Abbot of Armagh and the plundering of his retinue, many of whom were slain; even a young cleric, specially protected, was killed. The annalist exclaims that this act was like contempt of the Lord Himself and that it produced a universal distrust of any protection throughout the country.[5]

Dervorgil may have been weary of life with such a man; she is said to have been carried off by her own consent and at the instigation of her brother, who had his own scores to pay off against Dermot for the latter’s rebellion against their father the King of Meath. A year later, Dervorgil was restored, with the rich dowry of cattle and valuables that she had carried with her on her elopement. But though this act made some sensation at the time, and though years afterward O’Rorke demanded a heavy eric of a hundred ounces of gold from Dermot (probably nearly £5000 of our money), “more for the shame than the loss that he had suffered,” the event had no immediate influence on Irish affairs beyond the fresh cause of revolt and disaffection that it provided. It had all been over long before Dermot sought King Henry in Aquitaine.

The restless energy and ceaseless journeyings of Henry II made it always difficult to know in what part of his widespread dominions he would be found. “The King,” said one of his courtiers, “never sits down, but is on his legs from morning till night.”

When Dermot, after searching for him “up and down, forwards and back,” at last arrived before him, he was far away beyond seas in the remote parts of Aquitaine and, as always, “much engaged in business.” The meeting of these two men, who represented in their persons the future relationship and destiny of their two countries, is interesting. There was probably something sympathetic between the English King, with his square, stout build, his muscular arms and neck bent forward, and his grey eyes that flashed so readily into anger, and the Irish Prince, whose huge frame and tall stature announced the warrior and whose voice had become hoarse by constantly raising his war-cry in battle. Henry, brought unexpectedly face to face in a French city with a representative of a country that had often been in his thoughts, at once agreed to Dermot’s request. He gave him a letter authorizing all who desired it to go with Dermot, and liberally provided him with gifts and with the money necessary for his enterprise. Dermot returned to Bristol, where he stayed on both journeys with one Robert FitzHarding, an influential citizen and friend of King Henry, who assisted him in his efforts to induce the nobles of South Wales to accompany him to Ireland.

Though Dermot was forced to return to Ireland alone and to lie hidden for a time in his house at Ferns or at the monastery near by, he had been successful in securing a promise of help from several of the Norman lords who had recently carved out for themselves at the sword’s point properties in South Wales, and who promised to follow him as soon as their preparations were complete. Many of them were men of good birth but broken fortunes, who, in the free manner of the Norman kings, had been granted lands in different parts of England and Wales “if they were able to conquer them,” as rewards for their services at the battle of Hastings and elsewhere. Others were mere freebooters, whose advent into Wales was marked by the most frightful cruelties to the inhabitants and many of whom were in sore need of money to support their impecunious families. To all of them Dermot held out a variety of tempting baits; and to the most powerful of them all, Richard of Striguil, Earl of Pembroke, the ancestor of the house of the de Clares, later to be more familiarly known by his sobriquet of “Strongbow,” he offered the great bribe of the hand of his daughter, Aoife, or Eva, with the succession to the kingdom of Leinster after his own death.

Earl Richard had forfeited the royal favour by his support of King Stephen, and to a man who possessed high titles, but little means to support them, the prospect of restoring his fortunes in Ireland out of the way of the royal displeasure must have been an attractive one. To Robert FitzStephen, who had been kept a close prisoner by Rhys, the Welsh king, for three years, but who was now released at Dermot’s request, were promised the town of Wexford and some adjoining lands to be held in fee by him and his half-brother Maurice FitzGerald. The town of Wexford, being a Danish city and in Danish hands, could, like most of Dermot’s other gifts, only be obtained by conquest.

“A knight, bipartite, shall first break the bonds of Ireland.” So ran an ancient prophecy attributed to Merlin, and men thought they saw the prophecy fulfilled when FitzStephen, who was on his father’s side an Anglo-Norman, or rather Welsh-Norman, and on his mother’s a Cambro-Briton, and whose armorial bearings were bipartite, gave his word to follow Dermot across seas. He was the first of that remarkable family who supplied no less than eighteen knights to take part in the conquest of Ireland, and who were the progenitors of the famous line of the Geraldines, Earls of Kildare and Lords of Desmond. They brought with them also one of their own family to be the historian of the conquest, the Archdeacon Gerald de Barry, called Cambrensis, or “the Welshman,” through whose vivid pages, supplemented by an old French poem for which the materials were supplied by the scribe and interpreter of Dermot MacMorrogh, we are enabled to follow the fortunes of each member of the family. It is an unusual piece of historical good fortune that we should possess these two independent reports, which supplement each other and which tell the same story from two different points of view, both of the writers being closely interested in the persons and events of which they supply the record.

Though the adventure which Dermot-na-nGaill, or “Dermot of the Foreigners,” set on foot is commonly spoken of as the coming of the English to Ireland, few of the adventurers could be called Englishmen. The leaders were Normans, French-speaking Lords, recently settled in Wales, the most westward offshoots of that turbulent and ambitious race which, starting from the same Northern homes from which the earlier race of Northmen had come, had in their piratical raids southward gradually established their rule in Normandy and up the Seine, and swept round the coasts of Spain to find a footing in Sicily, Apulia, and Calabria.

Just a hundred years before Dermot sought the help of Henry II, William of Normandy had completed the onward march of his race by his conquest of England, but the two nations were only slowly uniting into a homogeneous population. All the differences of language, tradition, and systems of law and tenure, which were to complicate the future relations of the two peoples in Ireland, were now in process of being fought out in the neighbouring country.

As later in Ireland, the conquering knights who were spreading over the land stood haughtily aloof from the main body of the population, whom they were endeavouring to accustom to new feudal relations as their underlings.

Most of the knights who volunteered to follow Dermot to Ireland had made their homes in the extreme south-west of Wales, from which Earl Richard de Clare, or “Strongbow,” took his title of Earl of Pembroke, a district often known as “little England beyond Wales.” Their men-at-arms were largely Flemings who had come over from Flanders in the reign of Henry I, and had been settled by him among his enemies the Welsh, in the hope that their solid virtues, their love of industry and commerce, and their brave and robust character, might ease his task in subduing the rebellious Welshmen. These Flemings were destined to form a useful and permanent element in the towns of Leinster, and to give their name to the family of the Flemings, Lords of Slane.[6] Of these Normans, Welsh, and Flemings, few would have styled themselves Englishmen, though there may have been an admixture of English citizens from Bristol, interested through the efforts of FitzHarding in Dermot’s enterprise.

The Annals of the Four Masters speak of the “fleet of the Flemings” which Dermot induced to come over, and of “seventy heroes, dressed in coats of mail.”

The Irish looked on this little army with contempt; the great hosts collected by Rory O’Conor and O’Rorke “set nothing by the Flemings.” The arrival of these new gaill, or foreigners, may have seemed to them only one more attack, and an insignificant one, of their old foes the vikings, who still from time to time descended on the coasts, carried off their prey, and departed again. What the coming of these “seventy heroes” meant for Ireland they were only slowly to discover.