The O’Conors of Connacht and the O’Briens of Thomond (4)

Eleanor Hull
The O’Conors of Connacht and the O’Briens of Thomond | start of chapter

This wasting and cruel war lasted for over fifty years with varying fortunes. De Clare dreaded the success of Turlogh, who was a strong prince and uniformly successful in the field, and he took the course of deliberately stirring up hostilities between the rival houses. The uproar was, even for Ireland, so unusual that it penetrated to Westminster, and the King sent for the Lord Justice to answer in person for the tumult that was going on in the land.

Turlogh proved a formidable foe. In 1285 he defeated de Clare and laid waste English Thomond to the walls of Bunratty. In 1287 he repeated his success, and Thomas de Clare, FitzMaurice, and others were slain. He built in Ennis the first castle erected by a native prince of Thomond all of stone. In 1304 he received hostages from all the chiefs of North Munster, demolished the English castles as far as Youghal, and forced Richard de Clare to acknowledge him. His reign was one of uninterrupted prosperity. But the wars continued after his death in 1306, and were still in progress when Edward Bruce landed in 1315. The race of Brian Roe O’Brien was nearly extirpated at the battle of Corcomroe, leaving the line of Turlogh in the ascendant; and the de Clares were expelled from Thomond, leaving no trace of their occupation behind. After the fatal battle of Dysart O’Dea in 1318, in which de Clare was slain, his wife and followers abandoned the country and went back to England, never to return. The O’Briens had prevailed.

By the end of the thirteenth century the larger part of Ireland, except O’Neill’s and O’Donnell’s vast territories in Western Ulster, Oriell (Co. Louth), and the O’Rorkes’ country of Breifne (Cos. Leitrim and Cavan), were claimed by various Norman barons in right of grants from English sovereigns, often overlapping each other, equally a matter of contention between opposing feudatories as between them and the Irish kings whom they were endeavouring to displace. The great Liberties of Meath, Carlow, Kilkenny, and Wexford were practically independent principalities, in which quiet was enforced by the garrisons occupying the motes or castles scattered thickly about the country.

The family of the Butlers, later to become Earls, and finally Dukes, of Ormonde, who came over for the first time with King John in 1210, settled down on estates in Upper Tipperary; and the larger part of the estates of Strongbow had passed into the hands of the family of Mareschal, or Marshal, who became, by the marriage of William Marshal with the daughter and heiress of Strongbow, Earls of Pembroke and Striguil, and possessors of her great position and estates.

Of all the Norman lords who founded families in Ireland, Earl Marshal bears the most unblemished character. He worthily carried on the tradition left by Strongbow in Leinster by endeavouring to build up a peaceable and settled principality in which the Irish inhabitants and English settlers could live in amity side by side. His was a romantic career. He had grown up during the wars of Stephen, when England was reduced to a condition of anarchy and misrule perhaps never equalled in her history. As a boy he had been handed over to Stephen as a hostage, (1152), and he only escaped a horrible death by being shot out of a huge catapult used for storming castles by his childish prattle about the weapon, which he thought was only a pretty toy, thus attracting the attention and liking of Stephen. His youth was spent in the wars of Poitou and in the Crusades, where his exploits brought him into prominence and aroused the jealousy of his rivals. His whole early life was beset by the endeavours of enemies to undermine his influence with Henry II, whose part he took against his rebellious sons, John and Richard, but his incorruptible loyalty and his nobility of character carried him to the highest offices of the realm. He took his family name from the high position held by himself and by his father before him as Lords Marshal of England. He came to Ireland for the first time in 1207, but he was constantly recalled to England either on official business or by the intrigues of his enemies in Ireland, who envied him his great estates.

Meiler FitzHenry, the younger de Lacy, and afterward Geoffrey de Marisco were the determined adversaries of his house, and plunged him and his sons and successors, William Marshal the Younger and Richard Marshal, into perpetual wars; but the earls showed their steadfastness and independence of mind by sheltering de Braose of Limerick from the wrath of his sovereign and Kings Aedh and Felim of Connacht from the designs of their enemies.

The elder Marshal, of whom it was said that “He who made him was a great architect,” spent the latter years of his long life, passed under four English monarchs, in his favourite town of Kilkenny,[37] beautifying it by building the splendid castle and abbeys by which it is adorned and founding the Cathedral of St Canice, from which the city takes its name. It quickly became a town of repute, second only to Dublin in historical interest, and several of the earliest Irish Parliaments assembled there. He and his sons developed Ossory, encouraged trade, established markets, and watched with interested eyes the progress of the new towns and villages springing up around the Norman keeps and castles all over Southern Leinster. New Ross they specially fostered as a possible rival to Waterford.

When William Marshal the elder died in 1219[38] he left five sons and five daughters; the sons were successively Earls of Pembroke and Marshals of England, and the two eldest succeeded him in his Irish estates, but they all died without issue. Giraldus remarks on the paucity of male descendants among the Geraldines; and in the second generation the lack of legitimate sons to the Norman lords continued. Neither Richard de Burgh nor the de Lacys left adult male heirs, and the great inheritance of the Earls Marshal was parcelled out among the five daughters of the first of their line. By the marriages of these ladies into the families of the Bigods, Earls of Norfolk, the de Clares, Earls of Gloucester, the de Warennes, Earls of Surrey, and others of the highest families of England, King Dermot’s daughter Eva (Aoife) became the ancestress of many English lines of distinction closely connected in some cases with the throne.

Richard Marshal, the third earl, with the usual fearless rectitude of his house endeavoured to resist the evil influence which “the mean brood of Poitevin favourites” was exercising over the mind of young Henry III, and suffered outlawry for his fidelity; in Ireland he was beset by intrigues and finally fell a victim to a combination formed against him; abandoned by his own people, he fought single-handed against his enemies and was mortally wounded in the battle of the Curragh of Kildare in 1234. The annalist adds, “This deed was one of the greatest deeds committed in that time.”

There are various indications that at this time many of the Irish leaders desired to throw themselves on the side of law and order and to support any honourable officer who set himself to bring about peaceable relations between the contending parties in the country. An instance of this is found in the action of certain Irish chiefs in Ulster, who had been assisting Sir William FitzWarenne to restore peace between the English and Irish in that district and who wrote to the King that they had endeavoured with all their might to support the seneschal by pursuing and routing the King’s Irish enemies, but had only been oppressed by some of the Council of Ireland as their reward. They pray that these evildoers may not escape punishment, otherwise they fear that this war will serve as an example for others to follow.[39] They are referring especially to the discord stirred up in the district by the evil deeds of Sir Henry de Mandeville, who had been appointed bailiff in Twescard, in the north of the present Co. Antrim, at a moment when, through the exertions of de Warenne, the whole land of Ulster had been brought into a condition of peace, and hostages had been rendered for the continuance of these good relations. But with the entry of this fire-eating knight all was changed. Though himself an Anglo-Norman, he set himself to stir up the Irish to commit crimes on all the surrounding Norman settlers and their dependents, in order to secure their properties for himself; he had defrauded the revenue and “by rapine and unjust extortion to his own use had brought the land into a state of ruin.”

The whole community “as well of English as of Irish” threatened to rise if the bailiwick were granted to Sir Henry, “saving their fealty to Lord Edward.” No country could settle down with violent men like de Mandeville setting his neighbours by the ears, and instigating one party to murder the other, and there were unfortunately always some officials in the Government in Dublin to support these evildoers. A three-cornered contest between the de Burghs, FitzWarennes, and de Mandevilles, which was carried on from father to son, culminated in 1333 in the awful tragedy of the murder of the youthful Brown Earl of Ulster, William de Burgh, by Richard de Mandeville, when they were quietly riding home together from morning prayer in apparent friendship.

In Ulster, Munster, and Connacht alike jealousies and treacheries between the Anglo-Norman families were ever ready to break out, as one member more ambitious or warlike than the others got the upper hand; each was ready to combine with the Irish princes against his own compatriots or to use Irish quarrels to further his own ends. From time to time the distant kings intervened, pointing out how “Ireland is depauperated by discord and wars,” and expressing their disturbance and anxiety of mind thereat; “desiring much that these controversies and wars should be appeased and that peace and tranquility should prevail.”[40] But these desires had little effect on men intent upon their family disputes and ambitions in Ireland.

In the year 1311 the compiler of the Annals of Clonmacnois, copying from an earlier writer “whom he would take to be an authentic author who would tell nothing but the truth,” says that in his time “there reigned more dissensions, strifes, warres and debates, between the Englishmen themselves than between the Irishmen, as by perusing the warres betweene the Lacies of Meath, John Courcy, Earl of Ulster, William Marshal and the English of Meath and Mounster, mac Gerrald [FitzGerald], the Burkes, Butlers and Cogan may appear.”

In addition, the constant changes of policy in England produced a perpetual ferment. They were always destined to be a source of weakness and unrest in Ireland, and especially so during the frequent revolutions and changes of dynasty which disturbed England throughout the period of the Plantagenet and Yorkist wars. Though not directly concerned in the dynastic conflicts raging round the English throne, the Anglo-Irish barons were inevitably dragged into them, and rival parties were formed which took different sides in these distant struggles.

From the time of John’s visits in 1185 and 1210, first as prince and later as king, the barons in Ireland began to experience sudden changes of royal favour. From his day the old settlers began to fall into disfavour and were forced to make way for the “new English,” as the later comers were loosely called. John had brought with him to Ireland a swarm of dissolute favourites, “talkers, boasters, enormous swearers,” Angevin and Poitevin by birth, men who were “bold in the town but cowards in the field” and “who in Ireland would be far from the west and nigh to the east and the sea, as though they had a mind to flee rather than to fight.” They clung round the Court in order to receive favours, though they gave none. The Irish christened the new lords, French and English alike, the Dubh-Gaill, or “Black Foreigners,” when comparing them with the great barons of an earlier day, as in times gone by they had so named the Danes in comparing them with the more friendly Norsemen who had preceded them.[41]

These men of the old nobility were thrust aside and only young favourites were called to the Council. Thus, while busily engaged in building up their Irish estates, the Anglo-Irish lords were forced all the time to keep one eye fixed on affairs in England and on the policies of English kings. At any moment they might find themselves fallen into disfavour, either through a change in State policy or through the whispering of some malicious enemy near the throne who was anxious to undermine their influence. They became, in consequence, more and more independent of outside interference, and each baron ruled within his own domain like a free prince in his palatinate.