The Normans in Ireland (4)

Eleanor Hull
The Normans in Ireland | start of chapter

We must return to the date of King Henry’s departure for England. Neither to the Irish nor to the Norman knights left behind him was there any finality in Henry’s ‘conquest.’ His last acts before his departure put an end to all hope of this.

He made a new disposition of the lands and offices of his grantees, plainly designed to weaken the power of Earl Richard and to divide the Geraldines. It was the first step in that policy of keeping the Norman colony weak and separated in order to preserve the distant influence of the Crown that was to prove in later days so frequent a source of demoralization to the settlers.

Nothing, as we may well believe, could have prevented the ambitious and restless Norman barons who had reached the extreme westerly coasts of Wales from ultimately crossing to the country which on a fine day they could see distinctly from the opposite headlands. It became, therefore, the plain policy of the King either to support his vassals and bind them to the Crown by fair treatment, or to let them set up semi-independent, strong principalities of their own. But he did neither. He granted all Meath to Hugh de Lacy[26] by service of fifty knights, and made him Constable of Dublin, passing over Strongbow; the gallant Miles de Cogan he took with him to Wales, where Raymond le Gros, who had been refused Earl Richard’s sister in marriage, soon followed him. His retention in his own hands of the coast towns, and of a strip of land on the Wicklow shore, was plainly designed to keep Strongbow in check and to weaken his power.

On another of his nobles, the afterward famous John de Courcy, Henry, after the manner of many earlier Norman grants, bestowed Ulster “if he could conquer it.” These are new names—barons who had come over with Henry and who had borne none of the struggles of the first-comers; and though de Courcy and de Lacy proved to be among the ablest of Henry’s settlers and the best fitted for the work in hand, their appointments must have been received with chagrin by their predecessors.

That the King, although he appeared to slight Strongbow, had not lost faith in him is shown by his sending for him and de Lacy shortly afterward to Normandy to aid him in his troubles with his rebellious sons. With them went many of the veteran troops that had served in Ireland to fight for the King, apparently with Irish followers, against the Earl of Leicester and the King of Scotland. Earl Richard’s prompt obedience and valuable help restored him to favour, and he was shortly afterward sent back to Leinster, granted Wexford and the castle of Wicklow, and appointed to the custody of the coast towns.

Strongbow returned none too soon; during his absence the country had risen in revolt against the new lords. Tiernan O’Rorke, who saw the castles of de Lacy advancing farther west and the foreigners pushing their way into his country, demanded redress. A meeting had been arranged at Tlachtgha, or the “Hill of Ward,” near Athboy, in Meath, at which Tiernan attended with a large following. While the discussion was going on between him and de Lacy the latter was surrounded and would have been killed but that his bodyguard, who suspected treachery, had lingered within sight on the pretence of tilting in the French fashion, and came up to his rescue. One of them ran his spear through O’Rorke and the horse he was mounting, slaying at the same time three of his clansmen who at the risk of their lives had brought him his horse.

This is the English version of the old chief’s death. The Irish accounts say that he was treacherously slain by Hugh and Donal O’Rorke, members of his own family. His head was cut off and sent to the King in England, and his body was hung, feet upward, on the north side of Dublin. This was the first of those horrible exhibitions which defaced the walls and castle-gates of Dublin from century to century.

With the country in revolt, and confronted with the prospect of his troops throwing down their arms and returning to Wales, Strongbow bethought him of Raymond le Gros. The troops roundly declared they would fight under no other leader. Raymond’s cheerful easy temperament made him the favourite of his men. His care for his army was such that he would pass whole nights without sleep, taking the rounds himself to see that all was well in the camp, and though his stoutness brought him the nickname of “le Gros” his activity prevented this from being an encumbrance.

In war he was prudent as well as fearless, and he thought more of the welfare of his men than of being their commander. They liked a general who allowed them to carry off booty and to raid at will. Hervey de Montmaurice, who had been placed in command of the forces on Raymond’s withdrawal to Wales, was a very different man. He was no soldier, and his only thought in joining the expedition to Ireland had been to repair his broken fortunes. He was the rival and bitter enemy of Raymond, a cruel and ruthless man, who, when Raymond had pleaded for mercy, insisted (in the early days of the invasion) on throwing the unfortunate citizens of Waterford over the cliff.

Strongbow now sent for Raymond, promising that he would at last give him his sister if he would come over at once to his aid.

The most notable of Raymond’s exploits was the capture of Limerick in October 1175. The events that led up to this expedition had occurred during the absence of Raymond in Wales; and to understand it we must revert to the condition of things in Munster. The family of the O’Briens, which had attained its greatest power during the century and a quarter between the reigns of King Brian and Murtogh Mór (d. 1119), was now represented by Donal O’Brien, who had made submission to Henry on his landing, owing perhaps to his alliance with Dermot MacMorrogh.

Donal had married Dermot’s daughter, resigning at the same time the city of Limerick into his hands. But no sooner was Henry back in England than the South rose in revolt, Dermot MacCarthy recapturing Cork, from which the English garrison had been withdrawn, and Donal O’Brien repossessing himself of Limerick.

Hervey de Montmaurice saw in these moves an occasion to recover his waning popularity. He induced Strongbow to join him in an expedition against Munster, and called the Danes of Dublin to their aid. Rory O’Conor, hearing of the coming struggle, advanced into Ormond to the assistance of his former foe, O’Brien, who flung himself with his whole strength between the army of Strongbow and the advancing Danes from Dublin. He was completely successful in his manœuvre. The English forces suffered their first considerable defeat at the pass of Thurles (Co. Tipperary) (1174), and left four of the leaders and a large number of men dead on the field.[27] Strongbow shut himself up in the fort of Waterford, while several of the Leinster princes, who had given in their submissions, headed by Donal Kavanagh, a natural son of Dermot MacMorrogh, declared against the English.

In the North Rory was putting forth all his efforts to rouse the princes of Ulster to make common cause with the South. Raymond arrived in Ireland to find the Earl shut up in Waterford and the citizens threatening to massacre every Englishman they could lay hands on. His old troops, too, had broken out and had restored their spirits by a raid into Offaly, from which they returned with new mounts and an immense booty of food and plunder, fighting their way by sea through an attack by the ships of Cork, and sailing into Waterford Harbour with the captive vessels in tow.

In the city Strongbow still held out in Reginald’s Tower with the remnant of his garrison. Having relieved the Earl, and fought his way through with him to Wexford, Raymond demanded the fulfilment of the promises made to him, and messengers were dispatched in great haste to Dublin to bring Basilia, Strongbow’s sister, to whom Raymond was married straightway with great festivities. In the midst of the wedding feast news was brought that Rory of Connacht had raided Meath right up to the walls of Dublin. “Forgetting wine and love,” Raymond sprang to arms, but, before he could reach Meath, Rory, who had previously had experience of Raymond’s furious onslaughts, prudently retired to his own country.

For a time all was quiet. Raymond occupied himself in rebuilding the Meath castles which Rory had razed to the ground, while Strongbow and Hugh de Lacy set about the work of parcelling out the provinces of Leinster and Meath among their followers on a fixed feudal tenure which ignored completely the rights of the original inhabitants.

Each of the new owners endeavoured to sustain himself in his possessions by building castles and forts in which he could lie entrenched against attack. At first the forts were mere erections of wood or earth, with wooden stockades, but gradually these gave way to massive and imposing buildings of stone, the remains of which are still to be seen wherever the Normans settled.

Earl Richard’s own castle at Kildare, Hugh Tyrrell’s great fortress at Trim, Maurice FitzGerald’s stronghold at Naas, of which the outlines still remain, are only examples of the solid fastnesses in which the barons entrenched themselves all over the East of Ireland. Some of the grants then made became permanent; such was that of Howth to St Laurent, which has been held by his heirs the St Lawrences as Barons or Earls of Howth in direct descent to the present day.

Donal O’Brien had celebrated his great victory at Thurles by an orgy of frightful atrocities on members of his own family, with the object of removing out of his way all possible competitors to the throne of Munster. He blinded two of his nearest relations, one of whom died soon after, and put two neighbouring princes to death. So great were his crimes that Rory O’Conor descended on Thomond and drove out O’Brien, who, in revenge, laid siege to the city of Limerick, where the garrison was ill-provided with food. Hearing of its condition, Raymond flew to the relief of the city. It was a hazardous expedition, for the town was now surrounded by a wall and dike, as well as by the strong waters of the Shannon. But Raymond had with him the intrepid Meiler FitzHenry, whom no force could daunt, and Donal MacGillapatrick, King of Ossory, whose services Raymond accepted with some mistrust, but who pledged his faith to commit no deceit or treachery against him and to conduct him safely to Limerick.

When they arrived before the town they found the river so swollen by the winter rains that the ford was impassable. Two young soldiers plunged on horseback into the rushing stream, but one was carried away by the torrent, and no one seemed disposed to attempt to join the survivor on the opposite bank. Nevertheless, Meiler, spurring his horse, dashed furiously into the river. He managed to brave the flood, and crossed safely to the far shore, though attacked on all sides by the stones and darts of the Irish, which he warded off as well as he could with his helmet and shield.

Raymond, seeing the danger to his friend, in great agitation called on his troops to follow him as he plunged into the river. They crossed with few losses, and drove back the enemy within the walls. They then followed them up and entered behind them, taking the town by assault, enriching themselves with a great spoil. Having placed the command of the town in the hands of his cousin, Miles de Cogan, Raymond returned into Leinster.

During his absence Raymond’s crafty enemy Hervey de Montmaurice had been using his opportunity to undermine his influence with the King. He misrepresented his actions and assured Henry that Raymond was aiming not only at the dominion of Limerick, but at the sovereignty of Ireland.

Raymond found himself faced with a recall to England; but, while he was preparing to obey, hurried messengers from Limerick arrived with the intelligence that the town was once more blockaded by a vast army under Donal O’Brien and that all the stores were exhausted; they implored that immediate help might be sent. Again the troops declared that except under Raymond’s command they would not move, and in this strait, after consulting with the commissioners sent by the King to recall him, Raymond consented to lead the relief party, which consisted of some eighty knights and five hundred trained troops, with Irish contingents from Ossory and Wexford. On their way they learned that O’Brien had raised the siege and was awaiting them behind a strongly fortified and entrenched rampart at the pass of Cashel. On this spot the Prince of Ossory, whose kinsman O’Brien had murdered, made an ominous speech to the small body of Norman troops whom he was accompanying:

“Brave soldiers,” he proclaimed, “and conquerors of this island, … look well to yourselves, for if we find your ranks give way, which God forbid, it may chance that, in conjunction with the enemy, our Irish battleaxes may be turned against you. It is our custom to side with the winning party and to fall on those who run away. Trust to us, therefore, but only while you are conquerors.”

Spurred to action, as was intended by this threat, Meiler, who led the van, rushed like a whirlwind upon the enemy, cutting them down right and left, and forcing his way through with great slaughter. They entered Limerick, restored order, and held a lengthy conference with O’Brien and Rory O’Conor outside the city near Killaloe, in which these princes renewed their fealty to the English King and gave hostages for their obedience. Raymond also received a fresh submission from MacCarthy of Desmond in return for his help in replacing him on his throne, from which his own son had ejected him. Raymond accepted for his service to this prince a valuable grant of land in Kerry, which has ever since remained in the hands of a branch of the FitzGerald family, who hold the title of Knights of Kerry.

While Raymond was so occupied a secret letter from his wife, Basilia, was put into his hand. It ran thus:

“Be it known to your sincere love that the great jaw-tooth which of late gave me so much trouble has just dropped out. Wherefore, if thou hast any regard for thyself or me, delay not thy return."

He recognized in the cryptic message an intimation that her brother, Earl Richard, who had never approved of her marriage to Raymond le Gros, was dead. He had been very sick when Raymond left Dublin. Raymond hastened his return, and all arrangements for the burial of the Earl in the new Cathedral of the Holy Trinity were made before the news became generally known, and Richard de Clare was laid to rest under a stately tomb by Archbishop Laurence O’Toole in June 1176.

So long as Strongbow lived and was present on his lands quiet seems to have prevailed. He was rather a statesman than a soldier of fortune, and his marriage with an Irish wife shows that he had definitely thrown in his lot with Ireland. His natural successor was Raymond le Gros, but the King’s jealousy of the brilliant services he had performed, and the favour with which he was regarded, again stood in the way of his advancement. His recall was not waived, and he was allowed to leave Ireland, after the resignation of his offices. A noble, closely attached to the King’s interests and allied to him by blood, William FitzAudelin, was sent over in his place, thus once more proving Henry’s purpose to strengthen the authority of the Crown at the expense of that of his barons.

Meanwhile in Limerick things had not gone well. On his departure Raymond had committed the government of the town into the hands of O’Brien, as a baron of the King who had just renewed his oath of fealty and given his solemn promise to keep the peace. But hardly had Raymond evacuated the town than O’Brien cut down the bridge over the Shannon behind the departing troops, and, looking back, Raymond saw the city flaming in every quarter, the fierce descendant of Brian Boromhe having declared that Limerick should no longer be “a nest for foreigners.” When the news of the taking of Limerick was reported to King Henry he shrewdly said:

“The attack on Limerick was a bold adventure; greater still its relief; but only in its evacuation was there wisdom.”