No facts of the ages over which we have already passed are better authenticated than the identity of origin and feeling which existed between the Celts of Erin and of Albyn. Nor was this sympathy of race diminished by their common dangers from a common enemy. On the eve of the Norman invasion we saw how heartily the Irish were with Somerled and the men of Moray in resisting the feudal polity of the successors of Malcolm Caen-More. As the Plantagenet Princes in person led their forces against Scotland, the interest of the Irish, especially those of the North, increased, year by year, in the struggles of the Scots. Irish adherents followed the fortunes of Wallace to the close; and when Robert Bruce, after being crowned and seated in the chair of the McAlpin line, on the summit of the hill of Scone, had to flee into exile, he naturally sought refuge where he knew he would find friends. Accompanied by three of his brothers, several adherents, and even by some of the females of his family, he steered, in the autumn of 1306, for the little island of Rathlin--seven miles long by a mile wide--one point of which is within three miles of the Antrim beach. In its most populous modern day Rathlin contained not above 1,000 souls, and little wonder if its still smaller population, five centuries ago, fled in terror at the approach of Bruce. They were, however, soon disarmed of their fears, and agreed to supply the fugitive King daily with provisions for 300 persons, the whole number who accompanied or followed him into exile. His faithful adherents soon erected for him a castle, commanding one of the few landing places on the island, the ruins of which are still shown to strangers as "Bruce's Castle." Here he passed in perfect safety the winter of 1306, while his emissaries were recruiting in Ulster, or passing to and fro, in the intervals of storm, among the western islands. Without waiting for the spring to come round again, they issued from their retreat in different directions; one body of 700 Irish sailed under Thomas and Alexander, the King's brothers, for the Clyde, while Robert and Edward took the more direct passage towards the coast of Argyle, and, after many adventures, found themselves strong enough to attack the foreign forces in Perth and Ayrshire. The opportune death of Edward of England the same summer, and the civil strife bred by his successor's inordinate favour towards Gaveston, enabled the Bruces gradually to root out the internal garrisons of their enemies; but the party that had sailed, under the younger brothers, from Rathlin, were attacked and captured in Loch Ryan by McDowell, and the survivors of the engagement, with Thomas and Alexander Bruce, were carried prisoners to Carlisle and there put to death.
The seven years' war of Scottish independence was drawn to a close by the decisive campaign of 1314. The second Edward prepared an overwhelming force for this expedition, summoning, as usual, the Norman-Irish Earls, and inviting in different language his "beloved" cousins, the native Irish Chiefs, not only such as had entered into English alliances at any time, but also notorious allies of Bruce, like O'Neil, O'Donnell, and O'Kane. These writs were generally unheeded; we have no record of either Norman-Irish or native-Irish Chief having responded to Edward's summons, nor could nobles so summoned have been present without some record remaining of the fact. On the contrary all the wishes of the old Irish went with the Scots, and the Normans were more than suspected of leaning the same way. Twenty-one clans, Highlanders and Islemen, and many Ulstermen, fought on the side of Bruce, on the field of Bannockburn; the grant of "Kincardine-O'Neil," 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.
Whether any understanding had been come to between the northern Irish and Bruce, during his sojourn in Rathlin, or whether the victory of Bannockburn suggested the design, Edward Bruce, the gallant companion of all his brother's fortunes and misfortunes, was now invited to place himself at the head of the men of Ulster, in a war for Irish independence. He was a soldier of not inferior fame to his brother for courage and fortitude, though he had never exhibited the higher qualities of general and statesman which crowned the glory of King Robert. Yet as he had never held a separate command of consequence, his rashness and obstinacy, though well known to his intimates, were lost sight of, at a distance, by those who gazed with admiration on the brilliant achievements, in which he had certainly borne the second part. The chief mover in the negotiation by which this gallant soldier was brought to embark his fortunes in an Irish war, was Donald, Prince of Ulster. This Prince, whose name is so familiar from his celebrated remonstrance addressed to Pope John XXII., was son of King Brian of the battle of Down, who, half a century before, at the Conference of Caeluisge, was formally chosen Ard-Righ, by the nobles of three Provinces. He had succeeded to the principality --not without a protracted struggle with the Red Earl --some twenty years before the date of the battle of Bannockburn. Endued with an intensely national spirit, he seems to have fully adopted the views of Nicholas McMaelisa, the Primate of Armagh, his early cotemporary. This Prelate--one of the most resolute opponents of the Norman conquest--had constantly refused to instal any foreigner in a northern diocese. When the Chapter of Ardagh delayed their election, he nominated a suitable person to the Holy See; when the See of Meath was distracted between two national parties he installed his nominee; when the Countess of Ulster caused Edward I. to issue his writ for the installation of John, Bishop of Conor, he refused his acquiescence. He left nearly every See in his Province, at the time of his decease (the year 1303), under the administration of a native ecclesiastic; a dozen years before he had established a formal "association" among the Prelates at large, by which they bound themselves to resist the interference of the Kings of England in the nomination of Bishops, and to be subject only to the sanction of the See of Rome. In the Provinces of Cashel and Tuam, in the fourteenth century, we do not often find a foreign born Bishop; even in Leinster double elections and double delegations to Rome, show how deeply the views of the patriotic Nicholas McMaelisa had seized upon the clergy of the next age. It was Donald O'Neil's darling project to establish a unity of action against the common enemy among the chiefs, similar to that which the Primate had brought about among the Bishops. His own pretensions to the sovereignty were greater than that of any Prince of his age; his house had given more monarchs to the island than any other; his father had been acknowledged by the requisite majority; his courage, patriotism, and talents, were admittedly equal to the task. But he felt the utter impossibility of conciliating that fatal family pride, fed into extravagance by Bards and Senachies, which we have so often pointed out as the worst consequence of the Celtic system. He saw chiefs, proud of their lineage and their name, submit to serve a foreign Earl of Ulster, who refused homage to the native Prince of Ulster; he saw the seedlings of a vice of which we have seen the fruit--that his countrymen would submit to a stranger rather than to one of themselves, and he reasoned, not unnaturally, that, by the hand of some friendly stranger, they might be united and liberated. The attempt of Edward Bruce was a failure, and was followed by many disasters; but a more patriotic design, or one with fairer omens of success, could not have entered the mind or heart of a native Prince, after the event of the battle at Bannockburn. Edward of England, having intelligence of the negotiations on foot between the Irish and Scots, after his great defeat, summoned over to Windsor during the winter, de Burgh, Fitzgerald, de Verdon, and Edmund Butler, the Lord Deputy. After conferring with them, and confirming Butler in his office, they were despatched back in all haste to defend their country. Nor was there time to lose. Edward Bruce, with his usual impetuosity, without waiting for his full armament, had sailed from Ayr with 6,000 men in 300 galleys, accompanied by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, Sir John Stuart, Sir Philip Moubray, Sir Fergus of Ardrossan, and other distinguished knights. He landed on the 25th day of May, 1315, in the Glendun river, near Glenarm, and was promptly joined by Donald O'Neil, and twelve other chiefs. Their first advance was from the coast towards that angle of Lough Neagh, near which stands the town of Antrim. Here, at Rathmore, in the plain of Moylinny, they were attacked by the Mandevilles and Savages of the Ards of Down, whom they defeated. From Antrim they continued their route evidently towards Dublin, taking Dundalk and Ardee, after a sharp resistance. At Ardee they were but 35 miles north of Dublin, easy of conquest, if they had been provided with siege trains--which it seemed they were not.
While Bruce and O'Neil were coming up from the north, Hugh O'Donnell, lord of Tyrconnell, as if to provide occupation for the Earl of Ulster, attacked and sacked the castle and town of Sligo, and wasted the adjacent country. The Earl, on hearing of the landing of the Scots, had mustered his forces at Athlone, and compelled the unwilling attendance of Felim O'Conor, with his clansmen. From Athlone he directed his march towards Drogheda, where he arrived with "20 cohorts," about the same time that the Lord Deputy Butler came up with "30 cohorts." Bruce, unprepared to meet so vast a force--taken together some 25,000 or 30,000 men--retreated slowly towards his point of debarkation. De Burgh, who, as Commander-in-Chief, took precedence in the field of the Lord Deputy, ordered the latter to protect Meath and Leinster, while he pursued the enemy. Bruce, having despatched the Earl of Moray to his brother, was now anxious to hold some northern position where they could most easily join him. He led de Burgh, therefore, into the North of Antrim, thence across the Bann at Coleraine, breaking down the bridge at that point. Here the armies encamped for some days, separated by the river, the outposts occasionally indulging in a "shooting of arrows." By negotiation, Bruce and O'Neil succeeded in detaching O'Conor from de Burgh. Under the plea--which really had sufficient foundation--of suppressing an insurrection headed by one of his rivals, O'Conor returned to his own country. No sooner had he left than Bruce assumed the offensive, and it was now the Red Earl's turn to fall back. They retreated towards the castle of Conyre (probably Conor, near Ballymena, in Antrim), where an engagement was fought, in which de Burgh was defeated, his brother William, Sir John Mandeville, and several other knights being taken prisoners. The Earl continued his retreat through Meath towards his own possession; Bruce followed, capturing in succession Granard, Fenagh, and Kells, celebrating his Christmas at Loughsweedy, in West-Meath, in the midst of the most considerable chiefs of Ulster, Meath, and Connaught. It was probably at this stage of his progress that he received the adhesion of the junior branches of the Lacys--the chief Norman family that openly joined his standard.
This termination of his first campaign on Irish soil might be considered highly favourable 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.