Sir John De Courcy

Patrick Weston Joyce

Among the many Anglo-Norman lords and knights who came to settle in Ireland in the time of Henry II., one of the most renowned was John de Courcy. The Welsh writer, Gerald Barry, already mentioned (pp. 2, 160), who lived at that time and knew him personally, thus describes him:—

“He was of huge size, tall and powerfully built, with bony and muscular limbs, wonderfully active and daring, full of courage, and a bold and venturous soldier from his youth. He was so eager for fighting that though commanding as general he always mingled with the foremost ranks in charging the enemy, which might have lost the battle; for if he chanced to be killed or badly wounded, there was no general able to take his place. But though so fierce in war, he was gentle and modest in time of peace and very exact in attending to his religious devotions; and when he had gained a victory he gave all the glory to God and took none to himself.”

When King Henry II. divided the country among his lords in 1172, he gave Ulster to De Courcy. But it was one thing to be granted the province and another thing to take possession of it; for the Ulster chiefs and people were warlike and strong: and for five years De Courcy remained in Dublin without making any attempt to conquer it.

At length he made up his mind to try his fortune; and gathering his followers to the number of about a thousand, every man well armed and trained to battle, he set out for the north. Through rugged and difficult ways the party rode on, and early in the morning of the fourth day—the 2nd February 1177—they arrived at Downpatrick, then the capital of that part of the country. The Irish of those times never surrounded their towns with walls; and the astonished Downpatrick people, who knew nothing of the expedition, were startled from their beds at daybreak by a mighty uproar in the streets—shouts and the clatter of horses' hoofs and the martial notes of bugles. Whatever little stock of provisions the party had brought with them was gone soon after they left Dublin; and by the time they arrived at Downpatrick they were half-starved. They scattered themselves everywhere, and breaking away for the time from the control of their leader, they fell ravenously on all the food they could lay their hands on: they smashed in doors and set fire to houses, and ate and drank and slew as if they were mad, till the town was half destroyed. And the people were taken so completely by surprise that there was hardly any resistance.

When this terrible onslaught at last came to an end, De Courcy, having succeeded in bringing his men together, made an encampment which he carefully fortified; and there the little army rested from their toils. At the end of a week the chief of the district came with a great army to expel the invaders; while De Courcy arranged his men in ranks with great skill to withstand the attack. The Ulstermen, who were without armour, wearing a loose saffron-coloured tunic over the ordinary dress according to the Irish fashion, rushed on with fearless bravery; but by no effort could they break the solid ranks of the armour-clad Anglo-Normans, who after a long struggle put them to flight, and pursued them for miles along the seashore.

After this victory De Courcy settled in Downpatrick with his followers, and built a strong castle there for his better security. Nevertheless the Ulstermen in no way discouraged continued their fierce attacks: and though he was victorious in several battles he was defeated in others, so that for a long time he had quite enough to do to hold his ground.

But through all his difficulties the valiant De Courcy kept up his heart and battled bravely on, continually enlarging his territory, founding churches and building strong castles all over the province. King Henry was so pleased with his bravery and with his success in extending the English dominions, that he made him earl of Ulster and lord of Connaught; and in 1185 he appointed him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This obliged him to live in Dublin; but he left captains and governors in Ulster to hold his castles and protect his territory till he should return, which he did in 1189.