The Normans in Ireland (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Normans in Ireland | start of chapter

The so-called conquest of Ireland falls into three sections: the arrival of the first-comers under FitzStephen, FitzGerald, and Maurice de Prendergast in May 1169; the landing of Earl Richard, or “Strongbow,” and the events following this in August 1170; and, finally, the visit of Henry II in October of the next year, 1171.

When Dermot had returned to his own country it did not seem as though the Norman lords who had promised him their aid were in any hurry to carry out their engagements. No forces seemed to be arriving to the support of the few men who had accompanied him on his return. In his impatience Dermot sent over his companion and interpreter, Morice Regan, to whom we owe the French poetical version of this history, to stir up the dilatory barons. He increased his offers by a general promise of land, horses, armour, and money to any who would volunteer.

Robert FitzStephen led the way, and in his party came Meiler FitzHenry, Miles FitzGerald, son of the Bishop of St Davids, Maurice de Prendergast, and Hervey de Montmaurice, all Norman-Welsh scions or connexions of the great house which derived from Nesta, or Nes, the daughter of Rhys ap Teudwr, last independent king of South Wales, by her two husbands and by Henry I, who was grandfather to Meiler and Robert FitzHenry. They were thus closely allied by blood with Henry II.

FitzStephen marched straight on Wexford, and after a short contest the town surrendered and was handed over, with the adjoining lands, to the newcomers. The victorious army then marched northward into Ossory to reinstate Dermot; by a sudden charge of cavalry they met and defeated a large body of men who had entrenched themselves behind stockades in a difficult country of woods and bogs. To the savage delight of King Dermot two hundred heads of his enemies were laid dripping at his feet.

But a strong combination was being formed against Dermot.

“The wheel of fortune turned and those that were above were threatened with a sudden fall.”

Rory (or Roderick) O’Conor, King of Connacht, had just succeeded to the sovereignty of Ireland on the death of Murtogh O’Lochlan, a prince of the house of Ulster. Rory was destined to be the last king of an independent Ireland.

A hundred years before, the aged Donogh, son of King Brian Boromhe, being deposed, had taken the pilgrim’s staff and set out to end his days in Rome. It was said that he took with him the crown of Ireland, which remained in the possession of the Popes until Pope Adrian gave it to King Henry II after the latter’s conquest of the country. The story must be metaphorical, for we hear of no crown in the possession of Henry, nor did he even style himself King of Ireland. But it symbolizes the condition of the supreme monarchy during the century that elapsed between the death of Donogh and the death of Rory O’Conor, in whose time the overlordship came to an end.

All the kings who reigned between these two had ruled with disputed authority. The balance of power had swung from the O’Briens of Munster away to the O’Lochlans of the north-west of Ulster; but Connacht, which had been advancing in power and influence, was able to place on the throne two of her princes during the twelfth century. The policy of Rory O’Conor, who for years had been reigning king of Connacht before he attained to the throne of Ireland, had been to try to weaken the other provinces and at the same time to satisfy the rival aspirations of the underlords by subdividing the provinces between them. Three times he had enforced a division of Munster between the O’Briens and MacCarthys, princes ever at war for ascendancy; twice he had divided Meath and once Tyrone (Tir Eoghan) in Ulster. But the only result of his policy had been still further to weaken the already enfeebled country. So far from showing a disposition to unite, Ireland during the last years of her independence was more broken up into rival chieftainries than ever before.

Rory had usually sided with O’Rorke and Malaughlan of Meath against Dermot, and on hearing of his advance northward accompanied by foreign troops armed in such coats of mail as had never before been seen in Ireland he sent messengers all round the island and convoked a great assembly to march against him. He also tried to detach FitzStephen from Dermot’s side with large offers, and when these were declined he appealed to Dermot to come over to his side and aid him in exterminating the foreigners, on an undertaking to restore to him his kingdom of Leinster. These offers having been likewise refused, the armies were drawn up in battle, but at the last moment peace was made between the rival kings, on condition of the restoration of Dermot to the throne of Leinster and his recognition of Rory as King of Ireland Dermot gave his son Canute (Cnut) to Rory as a hostage and secretly engaged to bring no more foreigners over to Ireland.

The peace was a fortunate one for Dermot, for already some of his ‘fair-weather friends’ were falling off and desiring to return to Wales. The most serious defection was that of Maurice de Prendergast, who fell out with Dermot and offered his services to MacGillapatrick of Ossory, Dermot’s old enemy, who “leaped to his feet with joy” when he heard the news. Henceforth Prendergast is known as Maurice of Ossory, but he did not long remain in Ireland. Hearing of plots to massacre him and his followers, he watched an opportunity to escape to Waterford and take ship to Wales. His defection was partly atoned for by the arrival of FitzGerald, half-brother to FitzStephen; but still Dermot’s plans, which had been expanding with each success, did not ripen as he wished. Leinster, which he had won back, no longer sufficed him; he aspired to replace Rory as King of Ireland. In the autumn he wrote to Earl Richard in this strain:

“We have watched the storks and swallows; the summer birds have come and are gone with the wind of the south; but neither winds from the east nor the west have brought your much-desired presence."

Strongbow had indeed been prudently waiting to hear the result of the successes of the first adventurers. He was of a more gentle build and retiring nature than most of Dermot’s helpers. His grey eyes, feminine features, and weak voice bespoke the quiet gentleman rather than the bold man-at-arms. Out of the camp he had the air of a simple soldier, and he was at all times more disposed to be led by others than to command. But, encouraged by Dermot’s assurances that he had regained his kingdom, he set about preparing for the great hazard. Having obtained the King’s permission to go, he sent forward Raymond le Gros, a brave and stout soldier, who crossed over, erected a fort between Wexford and Waterford, and after a sharp skirmish brought to his camp seventy of the principal townsmen as hostages. The first act of wanton cruelty shown by the adventurers stained their bravery on that day. Raymond, in a noble speech, prayed for pity on these citizens, but the fighting men, worked upon by Hervey de Montmaurice, gave their voices for their immediate execution; and the unfortunate hostages were beheaded, it is said by a girl, and their bodies thrown over the cliff into the sea.

When Earl Richard arrived from Milford Haven he took Waterford by assault after severe fighting and entered the town, slaughtering as he went. The Danish rulers, Reginald (Ragnall) and the two Sitrics, held out for a time in Reginald’s Tower, the massive Danish stronghold which still stands to prove the solidity of their defences, but the Sitrics were finally taken and put to the sword, Reginald and an Irish chief named MacLoghlan of Offaly being saved by Dermot’s intervention.

Then, the town having been garrisoned, Dermot was sent for to bring his daughter, Strongbow’s promised wife and prize, and the marriage of Strongbow and Eva was solemnized with great state, a symbol of the union, for good and evil, between the two countries.[7]

The news of the fall of the Danish towns of Wexford and Waterford filled the citizens of Dublin with dismay. From all parts of Ireland they summoned help, and Dermot received tidings that between Dublin and the South all roads were blocked and passes barricaded, and that Rory with an immense army lay at Clondalkin ready to oppose his passage. He summoned the Earl and laid before him a bold plan. Avoiding the open ways, he marched straight across the mountains of Glendalough, appearing before the gates of Dublin with an army of over five thousand men. The citizens, having the fate of the Danish cities of the South before their eyes, sent Laurence O’Toole, Archbishop of Dublin, to treat for peace. While negotiations were going on, young Miles de Cogan, with a party of hot-headed followers, grew impatient of the delay and fell suddenly on the city, taking it by a surprise attack. Asculf, the Danish king, fled away by sea, and Strongbow entered the town, of which, in reward for his services, he appointed de Cogan the Warden.

At this critical stage of the story a break occurs. In the manuscript of the poem which has related his history there are dashed across the page the words Si est mort li rei Dermot. Propitius sit Deus anime! (“King Dermot is dead. May God have mercy on his soul!”).[8] He died, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, on May 1, 1171, at his home in Ferns “without will, without penance, without the body of Christ, without unction, as his evil deeds deserved.”

To his own retainers in Ireland he had a better aspect. “Very rich and powerful” they held him; “he loved the generous, hated the mean, the noble king who lies buried at Ferns.”

Dermot of the Foreigners had some good qualities. He founded the priory of All Hallows in Dublin, and the Cistercian monastery at Baltinglas; and the famous Book of Leinster, which preserves the records of his Province, was drawn up at his instigation. It was written by a Bishop of Kildare in Dermot’s reign.

Dervorgil also devoted herself to church-building. The beautifully decorated church of the nuns of Clonmacnois was erected by her, and she made munificent gifts to the new Cistercian monastery of Mellifont near Drogheda, which the enthusiasm of Archbishop Malachy was founding on the Continental pattern. He had liberal helpers in Tiernan O’Rorke, Dervorgil’s husband, and in Donagh O’Carroll of Oriel, while the erring wife presented a chalice of gold to the new church, with fine cloth for the altars and threescore ounces of gold. Dervorgil, who died in 1195, at the age of eighty-five, was buried in the monastery she had helped to endow.

The abbey church had been consecrated with great solemnity in 1157, several princes and seventeen bishops, with the Papal legate, being present. It was the mother-church of five Cistercian houses founded about this time by Irish princes. These buildings mark in a definite way the dying out of the old native forms of organization and the closer union with the Roman Church and system. The visits of Papal legates, beginning at the date when Cardinal Paparo presided over the Synod of Kells in 1152, also point to a definite change of position. The liberality of Dervorgil to two religious foundations, of which one belonged to the old form of Irish Christianity and the other to the foreign orders now for the first time making their home in Ireland, is symbolic of the double allegiance of the people, and of their lingering affection for a system now gradually to pass away.

Between 1139 and 1272 thirty-four abbeys of the Cistercian order were founded in Ireland, of which twelve were established before 1172. These include St Mary’s, Dublin, and Mellifont, founded in 1142, with the latter’s daughter-abbeys—Bective, in Meath, called De Beatitudine; Baltinglas, in Wicklow, called De Valle Salutis; and Boyle, in Roscommon.[9]

The introduction of the Cistercian and Augustinian orders led to a great architectural outburst all over the country, in which the Irish princes took the lead. The Norman adventurers, men of the race which was covering England and Normandy with splendid cathedrals and abbeys, entered into the work, and, besides the massive keeps and castles which gradually replaced the earlier earthen forts all over the provinces, there arose during the thirteenth century stately abbeys, whose outlines we admire in their ruin to-day.

At this moment it must have seemed to Strongbow that he had realized all the hopes with which he had come to Ireland. He had married Aoife (Eva), who brought him a rich inheritance; and Leinster, from Waterford to Dublin, was subdued. King Dermot was dead, and it only remained to enter peacefully into his promised lordship as his successor. But, just when all seemed fair, he found himself encompassed with difficulties. First came a demand from Henry, who in his far realm of Aquitaine had from time to time received exaggerated reports of the doings of his knights in Ireland, that all his feudatories should return to England before Easter on pain of forfeiting their lands, a command that he followed up by ordering a blockade of the Irish ports. All supplies and reinforcements at once ceased, and the Earl, much embarrassed, sent off Raymond le Gros to the King with the following letter:

“It was with your licence, if I remember rightly, my Lord and King, that I crossed to Ireland to aid your faithful vassal Dermot. … Whatever lands I have had the good fortune to acquire here, inasmuch as I owe them all to your gracious favour, I shall hold them at your will and disposal.”

The letter was a politic one and gave the Earl time to plan out his future movements. Events pressed upon him. The Irish, to whom the idea of an Irish prince bequeathing his kingdom outside his family, and moreover to a foreigner, was hitherto unheard of, rose in revolt; “all the Irish of Ireland” were suddenly ranged against Strongbow, save his wife’s brother, Kavanagh, and two minor chiefs. They lay, sixty thousand strong under Rory’s banner, at Castleknock outside Dublin, Tiernan O’Rorke being in their company.

Archbishop Laurence O’Toole exerted himself to strengthen the combination by going through the country and rousing up the chiefs, and by inviting over Godred of Man and the lords of the Isles, who were to blockade the city on the sea-coast side, while the Irish, including the Archbishop’s troops, surrounded it on the north, west, and south. A two months’ siege ensued, during which, partly owing to the Norse blockade and partly to that carried out by Henry’s orders, no food could be got into the town, and provisions were running short. Moreover, news was brought that Robert FitzStephen was closely besieged in his half-built fort at Carrick, and, soon after, that he had been captured and sent prisoner to Wexford.

Strongbow attempted to treat with Rory, but again the young knight-errant Miles de Cogan cut a straight road out of the difficulty. Keeping the matter secret, a little band of six hundred knights with some Irish under Donal Kavanagh suddenly sallied out of the town and crept close up to the stockades of the Irish camp before they were perceived, with Miles at their head shouting his war-cry of “De Cogan!” The Irish were quite unprepared for the attack. Rory and many of his men were bathing in the river at some distance from the camp, and, being left without leaders, the unarmed Irish “fled through the moors like scattered cattle.”

After collecting the spoils, which sufficed for a whole year, Earl Richard marched straight to Wexford, hoping to release FitzStephen; but, hearing that his captors would put FitzStephen to death if he advanced, he abandoned the attempt, and, receiving an urgent message from Henry, who was now in England near Gloucester gathering a large force to take with him over to Ireland, Strongbow hastily delivered Dublin into the care of Miles de Cogan and Waterford to Gilbert de Boisrohard, and set out to face his angry liege.

It required some courage to confront the blazing eyes of Henry “Curtmantle” when “the demon blood of Anjou” mounted to his face, but the Norman poem says that Henry assumed a friendly manner toward the Earl and at this time made no show of anger. On reflection the King may well have thought that a subject who had gained a fifth of Ireland with its two chief towns, and who was ready to resign all claim to Dublin and the coast towns and fortresses, holding the remainder as a fief under himself, had not done so badly for his kingdom. The matter was settled for the time, and the King set out with his usual promptitude for Waterford, accompanied by the Earl and a splendid fleet. He had in his army 4500 knights and archers. On October 17, 1171, Henry landed at Crook, a little below Waterford.

Henry’s stay in Ireland had the aspect of a triumphal progress. As far west as Limerick and as far north as the borders of Ulster the Irish chiefs came in and made submission to him. It was recognized that the prime object of his visit was not to fight the Irish, but to take over the Norse towns and to check the growing power of his own barons; and kings who had stoutly withstood the aggressions of a set of Norman knights, apparently each fighting for his own hand, now came in without a contest and made their submission to the overlord. Dermot MacCarthy, King of Cork, Donal O’Brien, King of Limerick, who surrendered his capital into Henry’s hands, MacGillapatrick, Lord of Ossory, and Malachy O’Phelan, chief of the Decies, and after them the lesser chiefs of Munster, came in, and were courteously received and sent away with gifts. In Dublin Tiernan O’Rorke and other chiefs submitted.

Henry brought over a considerable army, but he did not shed Irish blood. “All the Irish in Ireland” had risen against the barons when they found Dermot giving away the tribal lands, or the barons conquering them, but they did not rise against Henry; on the contrary, they seem to have looked on him as their natural protector against the aggression of his nobles.

A curious instance of the general attitude is shown in the action of the citizens of Wexford, who had imprisoned FitzStephen. They informed Henry that they had acted on his behalf against his rebellious vassal, who had invaded the country without the King’s licence. Henry, “who loved the baron much,” taking his cue from this curious argument, had FitzStephen brought before him to Waterford, soundly rated him, and committed him to prison in Reginald’s Tower with great show of wrath and anger, “for he feared the Irish would murder him.” At Waterford he had him under his own eye. He took an early opportunity of setting him at liberty, though he did not hesitate to reap advantage from his present helplessness by requiring him to relinquish the town and lands of Wexford into the King’s hands—a method of asserting his suzerainty which Henry had already practised with success in dealing with his barons in South Wales.[10]