John de Courcy (1177-1204)

Patrick Weston Joyce

219. The new governor was from the first disliked by the colonists: for he wished for peace and discouraged outrage on the natives; whereas war was what the colonists most desired, as it brought them plunder and sure increase of territory.

220. Among all De Burgo's followers not one was so discontented as Sir John de Courcy. He was a man of gigantic size and strength—brave and daring; and he now resolved to attempt the conquest of Ulster, which King Henry II. had granted to him five years before. So gathering round him a small band of about 320 knights and archers, who with their attendants made an army of about 1,000, he set out from Dublin for Ulster.

Passing northwards with all speed, he arrived on the morning of the fourth day—the 2nd of February 1177—at Downpatrick, then the capital of Ulidia. The adventurers were half starved as they entered the town; and now they fell upon everything they could lay hands on: they ate and drank, plundered, killed, and destroyed, till half the town was in ruins.

221. At the end of a week Mac Dunlevy prince of Ulidia came with a large undisciplined army to attack him. De Courcy nothing daunted, went out to meet them, and chose a favorable position to meet the assault. The Irish rushed on with tumultuous bravery, but they were not able to break the disciplined ranks of the enemy; and after a furious fight they were repulsed with great loss.

222. But the Ulidians continued to offer the most determined resistance. The valiant De Courcy battled bravely through all his difficulties, and three several times in the same year, 1177, he defeated in battle the people of the surrounding districts, But as time went on he met with many reverses, and he had quite enough to do to hold his ground. In the following year he was defeated near Newry with a loss of 450 men; and again he was intercepted in one of his terrible raids, and defeated by the Dalaradian chief Cumee O'Flynn. He escaped from this battlefield with only eleven companions; and having lost their horses they fled on foot for two days and two nights closely pursued, without food or sleep, till they reached a place of safety. But in several other battles he was victorious, so that as years went by he strengthened his position in Ulster: and as opportunities offered he built many castles.

223. In 1177, the second year of De Burgo's viceroyalty, Miles de Cogan invaded Connaught in violation of the treaty of Windsor; but he was defeated with great loss and driven back across the Shannon by king Roderick.

224. William De Burgo became at last so unpopular with the colonists, that king Henry removed him from the viceroyalty (in 1178), and appointed Hugh de Lacy in his place.

After De Lacy's appointment he married (in 1180) a daughter of king Roderick O'Conor. This marriage greatly increased his power and influence among the Irish, insomuch that it excited the jealousy and suspicion of the king, who in consequence dismissed him from his office. But in a few months he was reinstated: and he built castles all over Leinster.

225. The country still continued to be very much disturbed; and the king determined to send over his son prince John, hoping that his presence would restore tranquillity. The prince, then 19 years of age, landed at Waterford in 1185 with a splendid retinue and a large body of cavalry. He had the title of Lord of Ireland. His secretary and tutor was a Welsh priest named Gerald Barry, now better known as Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, who afterwards wrote a description of Ireland and of the Anglo Norman invasion.

226. But Prince John soon raised the whole country in revolt by his silly and vicious conduct; and he even turned the old colonists against him. The Irish chiefs crowded to him in Waterford, both to pay him respect and to acknowledge him as their lord; but his insolent young associates — close shaven dandies — ridiculed their dress and manners, and insulted them by plucking their beards, which they wore long according to the custom of the country.

Incensed by this treatment the proud Irish nobles withdrew to their homes, brooding mischief. The settlements were attacked at all points; and the most active of the assailants was the valiant Donall O'Brien of Thomond. A great number of the strongholds were taken, and many of the bravest of the Anglo-Norman chiefs were slain. The colonists were driven to take refuge in the towns; and almost the whole of John's splendid army perished in the various conflicts.

227. When the country had been for some time in this state of turmoil, king Henry heard how matters stood, and at once recalled the prince, after a stay of about eight mouths, appointing De Courcy viceroy. The prince, both before and after his return, threw the whole blame of the disturbances on De Lacy; but De Lacy never lived to clear himself. One day in 1186, while with a few attendants he was inspecting his new castle at Durrow, a young Irishman suddenly drew forth a battle-axe from under his cloak, and with one blow struck off the great baron's head: after which he made his escape. This was done to avenge De Lacy's seizure of lands, and his desecration of St. Columkille's venerated monastery of Durrow (133), which he had pulled down.

228. During De Courcy's viceroyalty he invaded Connaught, burning and slaying after his usual fashion. But before he had advanced far into the province he was confronted by the two kings of Connaught and Thomond — Conor Mainmoy and Donall O'Brien — with their united armies. Not venturing to give battle to this formidable force, he retreated northwards, his only anxiety now being to save himself and his army from destruction. But when he had arrived at Ballysadare, on the coast of Sligo, the prince of Tirconnell came marching down on him in front, while his pursuers were pressing on close behind. Setting fire to Ballysadare, he fled south-east; but as he was crossing the Curlieu Hills he was overtaken by Conor Mainmoy and O'Brien, who fell upon him and killed a great number of his men; and it was with much difficulty he escaped with the remnant of his army into Leinster.

229. Two years later, A.D. 1200, he was tempted to try his fortune a second time in Connaught; but with no better result than before. He and Hugh de Lacy the younger were both induced by Cahal Crovderg to come to his assistance in the struggle for the throne. But the rival king, Cahal Carrach, caught the allies in an ambuscade in a wood near Kilmacduagh in Galway, and inflicted on them a crushing defeat, slaying more than half of the English army. De Courcy had a narrow escape here, being felled from his horse by a stone. Recovering, however, he fled from the battlefield northwards till he reached Rindown castle on the western shore of Lough Ree, where he proceeded to convey his army in boats across the lake. He had been a week engaged at this, when, on the very last day, Cahal Carrach pounced down on those that still remained at Rindown and killed and drowned great numbers of them; while De Courcy and the rest, being safe at the far side, made good their escape.

230. The chequered career of this extraordinary man ended in ruin and disgrace. Hugh de Lacy (the younger: son of the great De Lacy) took every means to poison king John's mind against him. He was proclaimed a rebel and a traitor; and De Lacy, now lord justice, was commissioned to arrest him. After several unsuccessful attempts De Courcy was at length betrayed by some of his own servants, who led De Lacy's men to his retreat at Downpatrick, where he was taken in 1204. Some records relate that his enemies came down on him on Good Friday, when he was barefoot and unarmed, doing penance in the cathedral of Downpatrick, and that he snatched the nearest weapon — a great wooden cross standing on a grave — with which he dashed out the brains of thirteen of his assailants before he was overpowered.