Anglo-Norman Colony in Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


I HAVE, in the foregoing pages, endeavored to narrate fully and minutely all the circumstances leading to, and attendant upon, the Anglo-Norman landing and settlement in this country, A. D. 1169-1172. It transcends in importance all other events in our history, having regard to ulterior and enduring consequences; and a clear and correct understanding of that event will furnish a key to the confused history of the troubled period which immediately succeeded it.

It is not my design to follow the formal histories of Ireland in relating at full length, and in consecutive detail, the events of the four centuries that succeeded the date of King Henry's landing. It was a period of such wild, confused and chaotic struggle that youthful readers would be hopelessly bewildered in the effort to keep its incidents minutely and consecutively remembered. Moreover, the history of those four centuries, fully written out, would make a goodly volume in itself; a volume abounding with stirring incidents and affecting tragedies, and with episodes of valor and heroism, adventurous daring, and chivalrous, patriotic devotion, not to be surpassed in the pages of romance. But the scope of my story forbids my dwelling at any great length upon the events of this period. Such of my readers as may desire to trace them in detail will find them succinctly related in the formal histories of Ireland. What I propose to do here is to make my youthful readers acquainted with the general character, course, and progress of the struggle; the phases, changes, or mutations through which it passed; the aspects it presented, and the issues it contested, as each century rolled on, dwelling only upon events of comparative importance, and incidents illustrating the actions and the actors of the period.

Let us suppose a hundred years to have passed away since King Henry's visit to Ireland—that event which Englishmen who write Irish history affect to regard as an "easy conquest" of our country. Let us see what the Normans have achieved by the end of one hundred years in Ireland. They required but one year to conquer England; and, accordingly, judging by all ordinary calculations and probabilities, we ought surely, in one hundred times that duration, to find Ireland as thoroughly subdued and as completely pacified as England had been in the twelvemonth that sufficed for its utter subjugation.

The nature of the struggle waged by the Anglo-Normans against Ireland during this period was rather peculiar. At no time was it an open and avowed effort to conquer Ireland as England had been conquered, though, as a matter of fact, the military force engaged against the Irish throughout the period exceeded that which had sufficed the Normans to conquer England. King Henry, as we have already seen, presented himself and his designs in no such hostile guise to the Irish. He seems to have concluded that, broken and faction-split, disorganized and demoralized, as the Irish princes were, they would probably be rallied into union by the appearance of a nakedly hostile invasion; and he knew well that it would be easier to conquer a dozen Englands than to overcome this soldier race if only united against a common foe. So the crown of England did not, until long after this time, openly profess to pursue a conquest of Ireland, any more than it professed to pursue a conquest in India in the time of Clive.

An Anglo-Norman colony was planted on the southeastern corner of the island. This colony, which was well sustained from England, was to push its own fortunes, as it were, in Ireland, and to extend itself as rapidly as it could. To it, as ample excitement, sustainment, and recompense was given, prospectively, the land to be taken from the Irish. The planting of such a colony—composed, as it was, of able, skillful, and desperate military adventurers—and the endowing of it, so to speak, with such rich prospect of plunder, was the establishment of a perpetual and self-acting mechanism for the gradual reduction of Ireland.

Against this colony the Irish warred in their own desultory way, very much as they warred against each other, neither better nor worse; and in the fierce warring of the Irish princes with each other, the Anglo-Norman colonists sided now with one, now with another; nay, very frequently in such conflicts Anglo-Normans fought on each side! The colony, however, had precisely that which the Irish needed—a supreme authority ever guiding it in the one purpose; and it always felt strong in the consciousness that, at the worst, England was at its back, and that in its front lay, not the Irish nation, but the broken fragments of that once great and glorious power.

The Irish princes, meantime, each one for himself, fought away as usual, either against the Norman colonists or against some neighboring Irish chief. Indeed, they may be described as fighting each other with one hand, and fighting England with the other! Quite as curious is the fact that in all their struggles with the latter, they seem to have been ready enough to admit the honorary lordship or suzerainty of the English king, but resolved to resist to the death the Norman encroachments beyond the cities and lands to the possession of which they had attained by reason of their treaties with, or successes under, Dermot M'Murrogh. The fight was all for the soil. Then, as in our own times, the battle cry was "Land or Life!"

But the English power had two modes of action; and when one failed the other was tried. As long as the rapacious freebooting of the barons was working profitably, not only for themselves but for the king, it was all very well. But when that policy resulted in arousing the Irish to successful resistance, and the freebooters were being routed everywhere, or when they had learned to think too much of their own profit and too little of the king's, then his English majesty could take to the role of magnanimous friend, protector, or suzerain of the Irish princes, and angry punisher of the rapacious Norman barons.

We have already seen that when Henry the Second visited Ireland it was (pretendedly at least) in the character of a just-minded king who came to chastise his own subjects, the Norman settlers. When next an English king visited these shores, it was professedly with a like design. In 1210 King John arrived, and during his entire stay in this country he was occupied, not in wars or conflicts with the Irish—quite the contrary—in chastising the most powerful and presumptuous of the great Norman lords! What wonder that the Irish princes were confirmed in the old idea, impressed upon them by King: Henry's words and actions, that though in the Norman barons they had to deal with savage and. merciless spoliators, in the English king they had a friendly suzerain? As a matter of fact, the Irish princes who had fought most stoutly and victoriously against the Normans up to the date of John's arrival, at once joined their armies to his, and at the head of this combined force: the English king proceeded to overthrow the most piratical and powerful of the barons!

Says M'Gee: "The visit of King John, which lasted from 20th of June to the 25th of August, was mainly directed to the reduction of those intractable Anglo-Irish princes whom Fitz-Henry and Gray had proved themselves unable to cope with. Of these the De Lacys of Meath were the most obnoxious. They not only assumed an independent state, but had sheltered De Braos, Lord of Brecknock, one of the recusant barons of Wales, and refused to surrender him on the royal summons. To assert his authority and to strike terror into the nobles of other possessions, John crossed the channel with a prodigious fleet—in the Irish annals said to consist of seven hundred sail. He landed at Crook, reached Dublin, and. prepared at once to subdue the Lacys. With his own army, and the co-operation of Cathal O'Conor, he drove out Walter de Lacy, Lord of Meath, who fled to his brother, Hugh de Lacy, since De Courcy's disgrace, Earl of Ulster. From Meath into Louth John pursued the brothers, crossing the lough at Carlingford with his. ships, which must have coasted in his company. From Carlingford they retreated, and he pursued to Carrickfergus, and that fortress, being unable to resist a royal fleet and navy, they fled into. Man or Scotland, and thence escaped in disguise, into France. With their guest De Braos, they wrought as gardeners in the grounds of the Abbey of Saint Taurin Evreux, until the abbot, having discovered by their manners the key to their real rank, negotiated successfully with John for their restoration to their estates. Walter agreed to pay a fine of twenty-five hundred marks for his lordship in Meath, and Hugh four thousand for his possessions in Ulster. Of De Braos we have no particulars; his high-spirited wife and children were thought to have been starved to death by order of the unforgiving tyrant in one of his castles."

In the next succeeding reign (that of Henry the Third), we find a like impression existing and encouraged among the Irish princes; the king of Connaught proceeding to England and complaining to the king of the unjust, oppressive, and rapacious conduct of the barons. And we find King Henry ordering him substantial redress, writing to his lord justice in Ireland, Maurice Fitzgerald, to "pluck up by the root" the powerful De Burgo, who lorded it over all the west. There is still in existence a letter written by the Connacian king to Henry the Third, thanking him for the many favors he had conferred upon him, but particularly for this one.