King Edward Bruce

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


EARLY in the second century of the Norman settlement we find the Irish for the first time apparently realizing their true position in relation to England. They begin to appreciate the fact that it is England and not the Anglo-Norman colony they have to combat, and that recognition of the English power means loss of liberty, loss of honor, loss of property, alienation of the soil! Had the Irish awakened sooner to these facts, it is just possible they might have exerted themselves and combined in a national struggle against the fate thus presaged. But they awoke to them too late:

The fatal chain was o'er them cast,
And they were men no more!

As if to quicken within them the strings of self-reproach, they saw their Gaelic kinsmen of Caledonia bravely battling in compact national array against this same English power that had for a time conquered them also. When King Edward marched northward to measure swords with the Scottish "rebel" Robert Bruce, he summoned his Norman lieges and all other true and royal subjects in Ireland to send him aid. The Anglo-Norman lords of Ireland did accordingly equip considerable bodies, and with them joined the king in Scotland. The native Irish, on the other hand, sent aid to Bruce; and on the field of Bannockburn old foes on Irish soil met once more in deadly combat on new ground—the Norman lords and the Irish chieftains. "Twenty-one clans, Highlanders and Islesmen, and many Ulstermen fought on the side of Bruce on the field of Bannockburn. The grant of Kincardine-O'Neill,' made by the victor-king to his Irish followers, remains a striking evidence of their fidelity to his person and their sacrifices in his cause. The result of that glorious day was, by the testimony of all historians, English as well as Scottish, received with enthusiasm on the Irish side of the channel."[1]

Fired by the glorious example of their Scottish kinsmen, the native Irish princes for the first time took up the design of a really national and united effort to expel the English invaders root and branch. Utterly unused to union or combination as they had been for hundreds of years, it is really wonderful how readily and successfully they carried out their design. The northern Irish princes with few exceptions entered into it; and it was agreed that as well to secure the prestige of Bruce's name and the alliance of Scotland, as also to avoid native Irish jealousies in submitting to a national leader or king, Edward Bruce, the brother of King Robert, should be invited to land in Ireland with an auxiliary liberating army, and should be recognized as king. The Ulster princes, with Donald O'Neill at their head, sent off a memorial to the pope (John the Twelfth), a document which is still extant, and is, as may be supposed, of singular interest and importance. In this memorable letter the Irish princes acquaint his holiness with their national design; and having reference to the bulls or letters of popes Adrian and Alexander, they proceed to justify their resolution of destroying the hated English power in their country, and point out the fraud and false pretense upon which those documents were obtained by King Henry from the pontiffs named. The sovereign pontiff appears to have been profoundly moved by the recital of facts in this remonstrance or memorial. Not long after he addressed to the English king (Edward the Third) a letter forcibly reproaching the English sovereigns who had obtained those bulls from popes Adrian and Alexander, with the crimes of deceit and violation of their specific conditions and covenants. To the objects of those bulls, his holiness says, "neither King Henry nor his successors paid any regard; but, passing the bounds that had been prescribed for them, they had heaped upon the Irish the most unheard-of miseries and persecutions, and had, during a long period, imposed on them a yoke of slavery which could not be borne."

The Irish themselves were now, however, about to make a brave effort to break that unbearable yoke, to terminate those miseries and: persecutions, and to establish a national throne once more in the land. On May 25, 1315, Edward Bruce, the invited deliverer, landed near Glenarm in Antrim with a force of six thousand men. He was instantly joined by Donald O'Neill, prince of Ulster, and throughout all the northern half of the island the most intense excitement spread. The native Irish flocked to Bruce's standard; the Anglo-Normans, in dismay, hurried from all parts to encounter this truly formidable danger, and succeeded in compelling, or inducing, the Connacian prince, O'Connor, to join them. Meanwhile the Scotto-Irish army marched southward, defeating every attempt of the local English garrisons to obstruct its victorious progress. The lord justice, coming from Dublin with all the forces he could bring from the south, and Richard de Burgo, Anglo-Norman titular Earl of Ulster, hurrying from Athlone with a powerful contingent raised in the west, came up with the national army at, Ardee, too late however, to save that town, which the Irish had just captured and destroyed.

This Earl Richard is known in Anglo-Irish history as "the Red Earl." He was the most prominent character, and in every sense the greatest—the ablest and most powerful and influential—man of that century among the Anglo-Norman rulers or nobles. As a matter of fact, his influence and power overtopped and overshadowed that of the lord justice; and, singular to relate, the king's letters and writs, coming to Ireland, were invariably, as a matter of form, addressed to him in the first instance, that is, his name came first, and that of the lord justice for the time being next. He was, in truth, king of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland. He raised armies, levied war, made treaties, conferred titles, and bestowed lands, without the least reference to the formal royal deputy—the lord justice in Dublin—whom he looked down upon with disdain. Accordingly, when these two magnates met on this occasion, the Red Earl contemptuously desired the lord justice to get him back to his castle of Dublin as quickly as he pleased, for that he himself, Earl Richard, as befitted his rank of Earl of Ulster, would take in hands the work of clearing the province of the Scottish-Irish army, and would guarantee to deliver Edward Bruce, living or dead, into the justice's hands ere many days. Notwithstanding this haughty speech, the lord justice and his forces remained, and the combined army now confronted Bruce, outnumbering him hopelessly; whereupon he commenced to retreat slowly, his object being to effect, either by military strategy or diplomacy, a separation of the enemy's forces. This object was soon accomplished.

When the Connacian king, Felim O'Connor, joined the Red Earl and marched against Bruce in his own principality, his act was revolted against as parricidal treason. Ruari, son of Cathal Roe O'Conor, head of the Clanna-Murtough, unfurled the national flag, declared for the national cause, and soon struck for it boldly and decisively. Hurriedly dispatching envoys to Bruce, tendering adhesion, and requesting to be commissioned or recognized as Prince of Connaught in place of Felim, who had forfeited by fighting against his country at such a crisis, he meanwhile swept through all the west, tearing down the Norman rule and erecting in its stead the national authority, declaring the penalty of high treason against all who favored or sided with the Norman enemy or refused to aid the national cause. Felim heard of these proceedings before Ruari's envoys reached Bruce, and quickly saw that his only chance of safety—and in truth the course most in consonance with his secret feelings—was, himself, to make overtures to Bruce, which he did; so that about the time Ruari's envoys arrived, Felim's offers were also before the Scotto-Irish commander. Valuable as were Ruari's services in the west, the greater and more urgent consideration was to detach Felim from the Norman army, which thus might be fought, but which otherwise could not be withstood. Accordingly, Bruce came to terms with Felim, and answered to Ruari that he was in no way to molest the possessions of Felim, who was now on the right side, but to take all he could from the common enemy the English. Felim, in pursuance of his agreement with Bruce, now withdrew from the English camp and faced homeward, whereupon Bruce and O'Neill, no longer afraid to encounter the enemy, though still superior to them in numbers, gave battle to the lord justice. A desperate engagement ensued at Connoyr, on the banks of the river Bann, near Ballymena.

The great Norman army was defeated; the haughty Earl Richard was obliged to seek personal safety in flight; his brother, William, with quite a number of other Norman knights and nobles, being taken prisoners by that same soldier-chief whom he had arrogantly undertaken to capture and present, dead or alive, within a few days, at Dublin Castle gate! The shattered forces of the lord justice retreated southward as best they could. The Red Earl fled into Connaught, where, for a year, he was fain to seek safety in comparative obscurity, shorn of all power, pomp, and possessions. Of these, what he had not lost on the battlefield at Connoyr, he found wrested from him by the Prince of Tyrconnell, who, by way of giving the Red Earl something to do near home, had burst down upon the Anglo-Norman possessions in the west, and levelled every castle that flew the red flag of England! The Irish army now marched southward once more, capturing all the great towns and Norman castles on the way. At Loughsweedy, in West-Meath, Bruce and O'Neill went into winter quarters, and spent their Christmas "in the midst of the most considerable chiefs of Ulster, Meath, and Connaught."

Thus closed the first campaign in this, the first really national war undertaken against the English power in Ireland. "The termination of his first campaign on Irish soil," says a historian, "might be considered highly favorable to Bruce. More than half the clans had risen, and others were certain to follow their example; the clergy were almost wholly with him, and his heroic brother had promised to lead an army to his aid in the ensuing spring."

In the early spring of the succeeding year (1316) he opened the next campaign by a march southward. The Anglo-Norman armies made several ineffectual efforts to bar his progress. At Kells, in King's County of the present day, Sir Roger Mortimer at the head of fifteen thousand men made the most determined stand. A great battle ensued, the Irish utterly routing this the last army of any proportions now opposed to them. Soon after this decisive victory, Bruce and O'Neill returned northward in proud exultation. Already it seemed that the liberation of Ireland was complete. Having arrived at, Dundalk, the national army halted, and preparations were commenced for the great ceremonial that was to consummate and commemorate the national deliverance. At a solemn council of the native princes and chiefs, Edward Bruce was elected king of Ireland; Donald O'Neill, the heart and head of the entire movement, formally resigning by letters patent in favor of Bruce such rights as belonged to him as son of the last acknowledged native sovereign. After the election, the ceremonial of inauguaration was carried out in the native Irish forms, with a pomp and splendor such as had not been witnessed since the reign of Brian the First. This imposing ceremony took place on the hill of Knocknemelan, within a mile of Dundalk; and the formal election and inauguaration being over, the king and the assembled princes and chiefs marched in procession into the town, where the solemn consecration took place in one of the churches. King Edward now established his court in the castle of Northburg, possessing and exercising all the prerogatives, powers, and privileges of royalty, holding courts of justice, and enforcing such regulations as were necessary for the welfare and good order of the country.


[1] M'Gee.