The Bruces in Ireland and the Irish Famine of 1317

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE Anglo Irish power was almost extinct. It would probably never more have been heard of, and the newly-revived nationality would have lasted long and prospered, had there not been behind that broken and ruined colony all the resources of a great and powerful nation. The English monarch summoned to a conference with himself in London several of the Anglo-Irish barons, and it was agreed by all that nothing but a compact union among themselves, strong reinforcements from England, and the equipment of an army of great magnitude for a new campaign in Ireland, could avert the complete and final extinction of the English power in that country. Preparations were accordingly made for placing in the field such an army as had never before been assembled by the Anglo-Irish colony.

King Edward of Ireland, on the other hand, was fully conscious that the next campaign would be the supreme trial, and both parties, English and Irish, prepared to put forth their utmost strength. True to his promise, King Robert of Scotland arrived to the aid of his brother, bringing with him a small contingent. The royal brothers soon opened the campaign. Marching southward at the head of thirty-six thousand men, they crossed the Boyne at Slane, and soon were beneath the walls of Castleknock, a powerful Anglo-Norman fortress, barely three miles form the gate of Dublin. Castleknock was assaulted and taken, the governor, Hugh Tyrell, being made prisoner.

The Irish and Scotch kings took up their quarters in the castle, and the Anglo-Normans of Dublin, gazing from the city walls, could see between them and the setting sun the royal standards of Ireland and Scotland floating proudly side by side! In this extremity the citizens of Dublin exhibited a spirit of indomitable courage and determination. To their action in this emergency—designated by some as the desperation of wild panic, but by others, in my opinion more justly, intrepidity and heroic public spirit—they saved the chief seat of Anglo-Norman authority and power, the loss of which at that moment would have altered the whole fate and fortunes of the ensuing campaign. Led on by the mayor, they exhibited a frantic spirit of resistance, burning down the suburbs of their city, and freely devoting to demolition even their churches and priories outside the walls, lest these should afford shelter or advantage to a besieging army. The Irish army had no sieging materials, and could not just then pause for the tedious operations of reducing a walled and fortified city like Dublin, especially when such a spirit of vehement determination was evinced not merely by the garrison but by the citizens themselves. In fact, the city could not be invested without the co-operation of a powerful fleet to cut off supplies by sea from England. The Irish army, therefore, was compelled to turn away from Dublin, and leave that formidable position intact in their rear. They marched southward as in the previous campaigns, this time reaching as far as Limerick. Again, as before, victory followed their banners. Their course was literally a succession of splendid achievements. The Normans never offered battle that they were not utterly defeated.

The full strength of the English, however, had not yet been available, and a foe more deadly and more formidable than all the power of England was about to fall upon the Irish army.

By one of those calamitous concurrences which are often to be noted in history, there fell upon Ireland in this year (1317) a famine of dreadful severity. The crops had entirely failed the previous autumn, and now throughout the land the dread consequences were spreading desolation. The brothers Bruce each day found it more and more difficult to provision the army, and soon it became apparent that hunger and privation were destroying and demoralizing the national force. This evil in itself was bad enough, but a worse followed upon it. As privation and hunger loosed the bonds of military discipline, the soldiers spread themselves over the country seeking food, and soon there sprung up between the Scottish contingent and the Irish troops and inhabitants bitter ill feeling and contention. The Scots—who from the very outset appear to have discriminated nought in plundering castles and churches when the opportunity came fairly in their way—now, throwing off all restraint, broke into churches, and broke open and rifled shrines and tombs. The Irish, whose reverence for religion was always so intense and solemn, were horrified at these acts of sacrilege and desecration, and there gradually spread through the country a vague but all-powerful popular belief that the dreadful scourge of famine was a "visitation of heaven" called down upon the country by the presence of the irreverent Scots!

Meanwhile the English were mustering a tremendous force in the rear of the wasted Irish army. The Bruces, on learning the fact, quickly ordered a night retreat, and pushed northward by forced marches. An Anglo-Irish army of thirty thousand men, well appointed and provisioned, lay across their path; yet such was the terror inspired by vivid recollection of the recent victories of the Irish and the prestige of Bruce's name, that this vast force, as the historian tells us, hung around the camp of the half-starved and diminished Scotto-Irish army, without ever once daring to attack them in a pitched battle! On the 1st May, after a march full of unexampled suffering, the remnant of the Irish army safely reached Ulster.

The famine now raged with such intensity all over Ireland that it brought about a suspension of hostilities. Neither party could provision an army in the field. King Robert of Scotland, utterly disheartened, sailed homeward. His own country was not free from suffering, and in any event, the terrible privations of the past few months had filled the Scottish contingent with discontent. King Edward, however, nothing daunted, resolved to stand by the Irish kingdom to the last, and it was arranged that whenever a resumption of hostilities became feasible, Robert should send him another Scottish contingent.

The harvest of the following year 1318 was no sooner gathered in and found to be of comparative abundance, than both parties sprang to arms. The English commander-in-chief, John de Birmingham, was quickly across the Boyne at the head of twelve thousand men, intent on striking King Edward before his hourly expected Scottish contingent could arrive. The Irish levies were but slowly coming in, and Edward at this time had barely two or three thousand men at hand. Nevertheless he resolved to meet the English and give them battle. Donald O'Neill and the other native princes saw the madness of this course, and vainly endeavored to dissuade the king from it. They pointed out that the true strategy to be adopted under the circumstances was to gain time, to retire slowly on their northern base, disputing each inch of ground, but risking no pitched battle until the national levies would have come in, and the Scottish contingent arrived, by which time, moreover, they would have drawn Birmingham away from his base, and would have him in a hostile country. There can be no second opinion about the merits of this scheme. It was the only one for Edward to pursue just then. It was identical with that which had enabled him to overthrow the Bed Earl three years before and had won the battle of Connoyr. But the king was immovable. At all times headstrong, self-willed, and impetuous, he now seemed to have been rendered extravagantly over-confident by the singular fact (for fact it was), that never yet had he met the English in battle on Irish soil that he did not defeat them. It is said that some of the Irish princes, fully persuaded of the madness of the course resolved upon, and incensed by the despotic obstinacy of the king, withdrew from the camp. "There remained with the iron-headed king," says the historian, "the lords Mowbray de Soulis and Stewart, with the throe brothers of the latter, Mac Roy, Lord of the Isles, and Mac Donald, chief of his clan. The neighborhood of Dundalk, the scene of his triumphs and coronation, was to be the scene of the last act of Bruce's chivalrous and stormy career." From the same authority (M'Gee) I quote the following account of that scene:

"On the 14th of October, 1318, at the Hill of Faughard, within a couple of miles of Dundalk, the advance guard of the hostile armies came into the presence of each other, and made ready for battle. Roland de Jorse, the foreign Archbishop of Armagh, who had not been able to take possession of his see, though appointed to it seven years before, accompanied the Anglo-Irish, and moving through their ranks, gave his benediction to their banners. But the impetuosity of Bruce gave little time for preparation. At the head of the vanguard, without waiting for the whole of his company to come up, he charged the enemy with impetuosity. The action became general, and the skill of De Birmingham as a leader was again demonstrated. An incident common to the warfare of that age was, however, the immediate cause of the victory. Master John de Maupas, a burgher of Dundalk, believing that the death of the Scottish leader would be the signal for the retreat of his followers, disguised as a jester or a fool, sought him throughout the field. One of the royal esquires named Gilbert Harper, wearing the surcoat of his master, was mistaken for him and slain; but the true leader was at length found by De Maupas, and struck down by the blow of a leaden plummet or slung-shot. After the battle, when the field was searched for his body, it was found under that of De Maupas, who had bravely yielded up life for life. The Hiberno-Scottish forces dispersed in dismay, and when King Robert of Scotland landed, a day or two afterward, he was met by the fugitive men of Carrick, under their leader Thompson, who informed him of his brother's fate. He returned at once into his own country, carrying off the few Scottish survivors. The head of the impetuous Edward was sent to London, but the body was interred in the churchyard of Faughard, where, within living memory, a tall pillar stone was pointed out by every peasant in the neigborhood as marking the grave of King Bruce."

Thus ended the first grand effort of Ireland as an independent nation to expel the Anglo-Norman power. Never was so great an effort so brilliantly successful, yet eventually defeated by means outside and beyond human skill to avert, or human bravery to withstand. The seasons fought against Ireland in this great crisis of her fate. A dreadful scourge struck down the country in the very moment of national triumph. The arm that was victorious in battle fell lifeless at the breath of this dread destroyer. To the singular and calamitous coincidence of a famine so terrible at such a critical moment for Ireland, and to this alone was the ruin of the national cause attributable. The Irish under the king of their choice had, in three heavy campaigns, shown themselves able to meet and overcome the utmost force that could be brought against them. England had put forth her best energies and had been defeated. Prestige was rapidly multiplying the forces and increasing the moral and material resources of the Irish; and but for the circumstances which compelled the retreat northward from Limerick, reducing and disorganizing the national army, and leading in a long train of still greater evils, as far as human ken could see, the independent nationality of Ireland was triumphantly consolidated and her freedom securely established.

The battle of Faughard—or rather the fall of Edward under such circumstances—-was a decisive termination of the whole struggle. The expected Scottish contingent arrived soon after; but all was over, and it returned home. The English king, some years subsequently, took measures to guard against the recurrence of such a formidable danger as that which had so nearly wrested Ireland from his grasp—a Scotto-Irish alliance. On March 17, 1328, a treaty between England and Scotland was signed at Edinburg, by which it was stipulated that, in the event of a rebellion against Scotland in Skye, Man, or the Islands, or against England in Ireland, the respective kings would not assist each other's "rebel subjects." Ireland had played for a great stake, and lost the game. The nation that had reappeared for a moment again disappeared, and once more the struggle against the English power was waged merely by isolated chiefs and princes, each one acting for himself alone.