Norman Invasion of Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE fatal hour was now at hand. Early in the month of May a small flotilla of strange vessels ran into a little creek on the Wexford coast, near Bannow and disembarked an armed force upon the shore. This was the advanced guard of the Norman invasion; a party of thirty knights, sixty men in armor, and three hundred footmen, under Robert Fitzstephen. Next day at the same point of disembarkation arrived Maurice de Prendergast, a Welsh gentleman who had joined the enterprise, bringing with him an additional force. Camping on the coast, they quickly dispatched a courier to M'Murrogh to say that they had come. Diarmid hastened to the spot with all the men he could rally. The joint force at once marched upon and laid siege to Wexford, "which town, after a gallant defence, capitulated to them. Elate with this important victory, and strengthened in numbers, Diarmid now marched into Ossory. Here he was confronted by Fitzpatrick, prince of Ossory, commanding, however, a force quite inferior to M'Murrogh's. A sanguinary engagement ensued. The Ossorians bravely held their own throughout the day, until decoyed from their chosen position into an open ground where the Norman cavalry had full play, "the poise of the beam" was turned against them; they were thrown into confusion, pressed by the enemy, and at length overthrown with great slaughter.

Roderick the Second, titular Ard-Ri, now awakened to the necessity of interposing with the national forces; not as against an invasion; for at this period, and indeed for some time afterward, none of the Irish princes attached such a character or meaning to the circumstance that M'Murrogh had enlisted into his service some men of England. It was to check M'Murrogh, the deposed king of Leinster, in his hostile proceedings, that the Ard-Ri summoned the national forces to meet him at the Hill of Tara. The provincial princes, with their respective forces, assembled at his call; but had scarcely done so, when, owing to some contention, the northern contingent, under Mac Dunlevy, prince of Ulidia, withdrew. With the remainder, however, Roderick marched upon Ferns, the Lagenian capital, where M'Murrogh had intrenched himself. Roderick appears to have exhibited weakness and vacillation in the crisis, when boldness, promptitude, and vigor were so vitally requisite. He began to parley and diplomatize with M'Murrogh, who cunningly feigned willingness to agree to any terms; for all he secretly desired was to gain time till Strongbow and the full force from Wales would be at his side. M'Murrogh, with much show of moderation and humility, agreed to a treaty with the Ard-Ri, by which the sovereignty of Leinster was restored to him; and he, on the other hand, solemnly bound himself by a secret clause, guaranteed by his own son as hostage, that he would bring over no more foreigners to serve in his army.

No suspicion of any such scheme as an invasion seems even for an instant to have crossed the monarch's mind; yet he wisely saw the danger of importing a foreign force into the country. He and the other princes really believed that the only object M'Murrogh had was to regain the sovereignty of Leinster.

The crafty and perfidious Diarmid in this treaty gained the object he sought—time. Scarcely had Roderick and the national forces retired, than the Leinster king, hearing that a further Norman contingent, under Maurice Fitzgerald, had landed at Wexford, marched upon Dublin—then held by the Danes under their prince Hasculf Mac Turkill, tributary to the Irish Ard-Ri—and set up a claim to the monarchy of Ireland. The struggle was now fully inaugurated. Soon after a third Norman force, under Raymond le Gros (or "the Fat"), landed in Waterford estuary, on the Wexford side, and hastily fortified themselves on the rock of Dundonolf, awaiting the main force under Strongbow.

And now we encounter the evil and terrible results of the riven and disorganized state of Ireland, to which I have already sufficiently adverted. The hour at last had come, when the curse was to work, when the punishment was to fall!

It was at such a moment as this—just as Roderick was again preparing to take the field to crush the more fully developed designs of Diarmid—that Donogh O'Brien, Prince of Thomond, chose to throw off allegiance to the Ard-Ri, and precipitate a civil war in the very face of a foreign invasion! Meanwhile, Strongbow was on the point of embarking at Milford Haven with a most formidable force, when King Henry, much mistrusting the adventurous and powerful knight—and having, secretly, his own designs about Ireland, which he feared the ambition of Strongbow, if successful, might thwart—imperatively forbade his sailing. Strongbow disregarded the royal mandate, and set sail with his fleet. He landed at Waterford (August 23, 1171), and joined by the force of Raymond, which had been cooped up in their fort on the rock of Dundonolf, laid siege to the city. Waterford, like Dublin, was a Dano-Irish city, and was governed and commanded by Reginald, a prince of Danish race. The neighboring Irish under O'Felan, prince of the Deisi, patriotically hurried to the assistance of the Danish citizens; and the city was defended with a heroism equal to that of the three hundred at Thermopylae. Again and again the assailants were hurled from the walls; but at length the Norman sieging skill prevailed; a breach was effected; the enemy poured into the town, and a scene of butchery shocking to contemplate ensued. Diarmid arrived just in time to congratulate Strongbow on this important victory. He had brought his daughter Eva with him, and amid the smoking and blood-stained ruins of the city the nuptials of the Norman knight and the Irish princess were celebrated.

Strongbow and M'Murrogh now marched for Dublin. The Ard-Ri who had meantime taken the field, made an effort to intercept them, but he was out-maneuvered, and they reached and commenced to siege the city. The citizens sought a parley. The fate of Waterford had struck terror into them. They dispatched to the besiegers' camp, as negotiator or mediator, their archbishop, Laurence, or Lorcan O'Tuahal, the first prelate of Dublin of Irish origin.

"This illustrious man, canonized both by sanctity and patriotism, was then in the thirty-ninth year of his age, and the ninth of his episcopate. His father was lord of Imayle and chief of his clan; his sister had been wife of Dermid and mother of Eva, the prize bride of Earl Richard. He himself had been a hostage with Dermid in his youth, and afterward abbot of Glendalough, the most celebrated monastic city of Leinster. He stood, therefore, to the besieged, being their chief pastor, in the relation of a father; to Dermid, and strangely enough to Strongbow also, as brother-in-law and uncle by marriage. A fitter ambassador could not be found.

"Maurice Regan, the 'Latiner,' or secretary of Dermid, had advanced to the walls and summoned the city to surrender, and deliver up 'thirty pledges' to his master, their lawful prince. Asculph, son of Torcall, was in favor of the surrender, but the citizens could not agree among themselves as to hostages. No one was willing to trust himself to the notoriously untrustworthy Dermid. The archbishop was then sent out on the part of the citizens to arrange the terms in detail. He was received with all reverence in the camp, but while he was deliberating with the commanders without, and the townsmen were anxiously awaiting his return, Milo de Cogan and Raymond the Fat, seizing the opportunity, broke into the city at the head of their companies, and began to put the inhabitants ruthlessly to the sword. They were soon followed by the whole force eager for massacre and pillage. The archbishop hastened back to endeavor to stay the havoc which was being made of his people. He threw himself before the infuriated Irish and Normans, he threatened, he denounced, he bared his own breast to the swords of the assassins. All to little purpose: the blood fury exhausted itself before peace settled over the city. Its Danish chief Asculph, with many of his followers, escaped to their ships, and fled to the Isle of Man and the Hebrides in search of succor and revenge. Roderick, unprepared to besiege the enemy who had thus outmarched and outwitted him, at that season of the year—it could not be earlier than October—broke up his encampment at Clondalkin and retired to Connaught. Earl Richard having appointed De Cogan his governor of Dublin, followed on the rear of the retreating Ard-Ri, at the instigation of M'Murrogh, burning and plundering the churches of Kells, Clonard, and Slane, and carrying off the hostages of East-Meath."[1]

Roderick, having first vainly notified M'Murrogh to return to his allegiance on forfeit of the life of his hostage, beheaded the son of Diarmid, who had been given as surety for his father's good faith at the treaty of Ferns. Soon after M'Murrogh himself died, and his end, as recorded in the chronicles, was truly horrible. "His death, which took place in less than a year after his sacrilegious church burnings in Meath, is described as being accompanied by fearful evidence of divine displeasure. He died intestate, and without the sacraments of the church. His disease was of some unknown and loathsome kind, and was attended with insufferable pain, which, acting on the naturally savage violence of his temper, rendered him so furious that his ordinary attendants must have been afraid to approach him, and his body became at once a putrid mass, so that its presence above ground could not be endured. Some historians suggest that this account of his death may have been the invention of enemies, yet it is so consistent with what we know of M'Murrogh's character and career from other sources, as to be noways incredible. He was at his death eighty-one years of age, and is known in Irish history as Diarmaid-na-Gall, or Dermot of the Foreigners."

An incident well calculated to win our admiration presents itself, in the midst of the dismal chapter I have just sketched in outline; an instance of chivalrous honor and good faith on the part of a Norman lord in behalf of an Irish chieftain! Maurice de Prendergast was deputed by Earl "Strongbow" as envoy to Mac Gilla Patrick, prince of Ossory, charged to invite him to a conference in the Norman camp. Prendergast undertook to prevail upon the Ossorian prince to comply, on receiving from Strongbow a solemn pledge that good faith would be observed toward the Irish chief, and that he should be free and safe coming and returning. Relying on this pledge, Prendergast bore the invitation to Mac Gilla Patrick, and prevailed upon him to accompany him to the earl. "Understanding, however, during the conference," says the historian, "that treachery was about to be used toward Mac Gilla Patrick, he rushed into Earl Strongbow's presence, and 'sware by the cross of his sword that no man there that day should dare lay handes on the kyng of Ossery.'" And well kept he his word. Out of the camp, when the conference ended, rode the Irish chief, and by his side, good sword in hand, that glorious type of honor and chivalry, Prendergast, ever since named in Irish tradition and history as "the Faithful Norman"—"faithful among the faithless" we might truly say! Scrupulously did he redeem his word to the Irish prince. He not only conducted him safely back to his own camp, but, encountering on the way a force belonging to Strongbow's ally, O'Brien, returning from a foray into Ossory, he attacked and defeated them. That night "the Faithful Norman" remained, as the old chronicler has it, "in the woods," the guest of the Irish chief, and next day returned to the English lines. This truly pleasing episode—this little oasis of chivalrous honor in the midst of a trackless expanse of treacherous and ruthless warfare, has been made the subject of a short poem by Mr. Aubrey De Vere, in his "Lyrical Chronicle of Ireland:"


Praise to the valiant and faithful foe!
Give us noble foes, not the friend who lies!
We dread the drugged cup, not the open blow:
We dread the old hate in the new disguise.

To Ossory's king they had pledged their word:
He stood in their camp, and their pledge they broke;
Then Maurice the Norman upraised his sword;
The cross on its hilt he kiss'd, and spoke:

"So long as this sword or this arm hath might,
I swear by the cross which is lord of all,
By the faith and honor of noble and knight,
Who touches you, Prince, by this hand shall fall!"

So side by side through the throng they pass'd;
And Eire gave praise to the just and true.
Brave foe! the past truth heals at last:
There is room in the great heart of Eire for you!

It is nigh seven hundred years since "the Faithful Norman" linked the name of Prendergast to honor and chivalry on Irish soil. Those who have read that truly remarkable work, Pren-dergast's "Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland" will conclude that the spirit of Maurice is still to be found among some of those who bear his name.


[1] M'Gee.