Strongbow and the Norman Invasion
The Making of Norman Ireland
Far from settling into peaceful coexistence following the defeat of the Vikings in the early 11th century, Irish Chieftains immediately engaged in a series of often bloody battles in an effort to reassert their authority and regain control of land.
Eventually two main contenders for overall control of the whole island emerged – Dermot McMurrough and Rory O’Connor. McMurrough was defeated and left Ireland in the mid 12th century, leaving his rival as the generally recognised High King of Ireland.
For a short time there was relative peace, but in England McMurrough was plotting his return. He sought the support of the King of England, Henry II, and of other powerful English allies, with promises of land and influence in return for their help.
He succeeded admirably and his main supporter was the powerful Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow. In 1170 Strongbow arrived in Ireland with a skilled, well armed and professional army, which with the addition of McMurrough’s supporters made short work of reinstating McMurrough as King of Leinster. The alliance was sealed when Strongbow married McMurrough’s daughter, Aoife, and was promised that he would succeed to the throne, which he did in May 1171.
None of this was exactly music to the ears of King Henry, who saw Stongbow’s rapid rise and increasing power in Ireland as both a threat and an affront to his authority. In August 1171 he arrived with a huge army and, ever a pragmatist, Strongbow met him on the way to Dublin and pledged renewed allegiance.
In the light of subsequent events, the reaction of the remaining Irish Kings, including Rory O’Connell whose status as High King of Ireland was by now nominal only, was ironic. They welcomed Henry, seeing him as an ally in curtailing Strongbow’s power and were quick to come to agreements with him which saw their positions consolidated locally. Strongbow held onto Leinster, but was curtailed by the renewed status of the Irish Chieftains who now also had treaties with the King.
“More Irish than the Irish Themselves”
The Normans came to Ireland for land, and they were ruthless in acquiring it, whether by using diplomacy to enter into allegiances with local chieftains or flexing their military might and simply seizing it.
They were skilled artisans who began almost immediately to establish themselves by building large and imposing castles, to defend the land they amassed. Many of the famous castles of Ireland were built around this time and as commercial centres began to build up around them, some of Ireland’s largest towns were founded or developed beyond small settlements, from Kilkenny and Cahir in the south to Carrickfergus in the North.
Almost inevitably intermarriage with the Irish followed, which of course had the advantage of allowing them to marry into land and cement relationships with Irish landowners.
Integration with the Irish developed to such an extent that a new Anglo-Irish ruling class emerged, with dual Irish and Norman heritage, who were often referred to as being “more Irish than the Irish themselves“.
Land Ownership & the Native Irish
Prior to the arrival of the Normans Irish land was generally held as commonage. While the chieftains controlled areas and expected those living there to contribute food and fighting men there was no real land ownership as we know it today. This all changed pretty rapidly. Not only did the Normans bring the concept of land ownership with them, they brought the belief that they now owned it!
Soon large numbers of Irish farmers were reduced to the status of tenants, paying rent and tithes to their Norman rulers in return for being permitted to continue to farm land they had occupied for centuries. This was a situation that would persist, even as the identity of the actual landlords changed, over hundreds of subsequent years, with sometimes horrifying consequences.
Ireland Beyond the Pale
Back in England the gradual adoption by the Normans of Irish dress, laws and language caused horror. Between 1295 and 1365 a series of 12 parliaments sat in Kilkenny and they were much occupied with stopping or even reversing this assimilation.
The final act of this parliament was to pass into law the “Statutes of Kilkenny“, a series of measures to curb further integration. The Norman Irish were forbidden to obey or recognise Irish law, to use the Irish language, to intermarry with the Irish or to give their children Irish names. The measures however were a complete failure, and although nominally still under English rule in reality large areas of Ireland operated independently of the crown.
By the end of the fifteenth century only the area around Dublin remained effectively under English control. This area became known as “The Pale”, from the Latin ‘palus’ meaning fence or boundary, and indeed an attempt was made to literally fence off this part of Ireland from the rest of the country.
Within the Pale English Law and manners prevailed, beyond it the Norman Irish basically did as they pleased, which led to the modern usage of the term “beyond the pale” to describe unacceptable or uncontrollable behaviour.
Eventually of course the English would tolerate this situation no more, and that leads to the story of Ireland’s struggle to maintain its identity over the next 500 years.