The Normans and Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


We now approach the period at which, for the first time, the history of Ireland needs to be read with that of England.

A quarter of a century after the rout of the Danes by the Irish at Clontarf, the Anglo-Saxons drove them from the English throne, the Anglo-Saxon line being restored in the person of Edward the Confessor. A quarter of a century subsequently, however, the Anglo-Saxons were again dethroned, and England was again conquered by new invaders—or the old ones with a new name—the Normans. In this last struggle, the Anglo-Saxons were aided by troops from Ireland, for the Normans were kith and kin of the Norse foes whom Ireland had such reason to hate. An Irish contingent fought side by side with the Saxons in their struggle against William; and when the brave but unfortunate Harold fell at Hastings, it was to Ireland his children were sent for friendly asylum.

The Normans treasured a bitter remembrance of this against Ireland; and there is evidence that from the first they meant to essay the subjugation of that island also, as soon as they should have consolidated their British conquest. These same Normans were a brave race. They possessed every quality requisite for military conquerors. To the rough, fierce vigor of their Norse ancestors they had added the military discipline and scientific skill which the Gauls had learned from their Roman masters. They conquered united England in one year. Yet they were five hundred years unsuccessfully laboring to conquer disunited Ireland!

During the one hundred and fifty years following Brian's death (devoted by the Irish princes to every factious folly and crime that could weaken, disorganize, disunite, and demoralize their country), the Normans in England were solidifying and strengthing their power. England was becoming a compact nation, governed by concentrated national authority, and possessed of a military organization formidable in numbers and in arms, but most of all in scientific mode of warfare and perfection of military discipline; while Ireland, like a noble vessel amid the breakers, was absolutely going to pieces—breaking up into fragments, or "clans," north, south, east, and west. As a natural result of this anarchy or wasting strife of factions, social and religious disorders supervened; and as a historian aptly remarks, the "Island of Saints" became an "Island of Sinners." The state of religion was deplorable. The rules of ecclesiastical discipline were in many places overthrown, as was nearly every other necessary moral and social safeguard; and, inevitably, the most lamentable disorders and scandals resulted. The bishops vainly sought to calm this fearful war of factions that was thus ruining the power of a great nation, and destroying or disgracing its Christian faith. They threatened to appeal to the Supreme Pontiff, and to invoke his interposition in behalf of religion thus outraged, and civil society thus desolated. St. Malachy, the primate of Armagh, the fame of whose sanctity, piety, and learning had reached all Europe, labored heroically amid these terrible afflictions. He proceeded to Borne, and was received with every mark of consideration by the reigning pope, Innocent the Second, who, "descending from his throne, placed his own mitre on the head of the Irish saint, presented him with his own vestments and other religious gifts, and appointed him apostolic legate in the place of Gilbert, Bishop of Limerick, then a very old man."

St. Malachy petitioned the pope for the necessary recognition of the Irish archiepiscopal sees, by the sending of the palliums to the archbishops; but the pope pointed out that so grave a request should proceed from a synod of the Irish Church. The primate returned to Ireland; and after some time devoted to still more energetic measures to cope with the difficulties created by perpetual civil war, he eventually convened a national synod, which was held at Innis-Patrick, near Skerries, county Dublin. St. Malachy was authorized again to proceed to the Holy Father, and in the name of the Irish Church beseech him to grant the palliums. The aged primate set out on his journey. But while on his way, having reached Clairvaux, he was seized with his death-sickness, and expired there (November 2, 1148), attended by the great St. Bernard, between whom and the Irish primate a personal friendship existed, and a correspondence passed, a portion of which is still extant. Three years afterward the palliums, sent by Pope Eugene the Third, were brought to Ireland by Cardinal Paparo, and were solemnly conferred on the archbishops the year following, at a national synod held at Kells.

But all the efforts of the ministers of religion could not compensate for the want of a stable civil government in the land. Nothing could permanently restrain the fierce violence of the chiefs; and it is clear that at Rome, and throughout Europe, the opinion at this time began to gain ground that Ireland was a hopeless case. And, indeed, so it must have seemed. It is true that the innate virtue and morality of the Irish national character began to assert itself the moment society was allowed to enjoy the least respite: it is beyond question that, during and after the time of the sainted primate, Malachy, vigorous and comprehensive efforts were afoot, and great strides made, toward reforming the abuses with which chronic civil war had covered the land. But, like many another reformation, it came too late. Before the ruined nation could be reconstituted, the Nemesis of invasion arrived, to teach all peoples, by the story of Ireland's fate, that when national cohesiveness is gone, national power has departed and national suffering is at hand.