- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


Though the victorious and protracted career of Richard de Burgh, the "Red Earl" of Ulster, might, without overstraining, be included in the Norman period, yet, as introductory to the memorable advent and election of King Edward Bruce, we must leave it for the succeeding book. Having brought down the narrative, as regards all the provinces, to the end of the first century, from the invasion, we must now cast a backward glance on the events of that hundred years before passing into the presence of other times and new combinations.

"There were," says Giraldus Cambriensis, "three sundry sorts of servitors which served in the realm of Ireland, Normans, Englishmen, and the Cambrians, which were the first conquerors of the land: the first were in most credit and estimation, the second next, but the last were not accounted or regarded of." "The Normans," adds the author, "were very fine in their apparel, and delicate in their diets; they could not feed but upon dainties, neither could their meat digest without wine at each meal; yet would they not serve in the marches or any remote place against the enemy, neither would they lie in garrison to keep any remote castle or fort, but, would be still about their lord's side to serve and guard his person; they would be where they might be full and have plenty; they could talk and brag, swear, and stare, and, standing in their own reputation, disdain all others." This is rather the language of a partizan than of an historian; of one who felt and spoke for those, his own kinsmen many of them, who, he complains, although the first to enter on the conquest, were yet held in contempt and disdain, "and only new-comers called to council."

The Normans were certainly the captains in every campaign from Robert Fitzstephen to Stephen de Longespay. They made the war, and they maintained it. In the rank and file, and even among the knighthood, men of pure Welsh, English, and Flemish and Danish blood, may be singled out, but each host was marshalled by Norman skill, and every defeat was borne with Norman fortitude. It may seem strange, then, that these greatest masters of the art of war, as waged in the middle ages, invincible in England, France, Italy, and the East, should, after a hundred years, be no nearer to the conquest of Ireland than they were at the end of the tenth year.

The main causes of the fluctuations of the war were, no doubt, the divided military command, and the frequent change of their civil authorities. They had never marched or colonized before without their Duke or King at their head, and in their midst. One supreme chief was necessary to keep to any common purpose the minds of so many proud, intractable nobles. The feuds of the de Lacys with the Marshals, of the Geraldines with the de Burghs, broke out periodically during the thirteenth century, and were naturally seized upon, by the Irish as opportunities for attacking either or both. The secondary nobles and all the adventurers understood their danger and its cause, when they petitioned Henry II. and Henry III. so often and so urgently as they did, that a member of the royal family might reside permanently in Ireland, to exercise the supreme authority, military and civil.

The civil administration of the colonists passing into different hands every three or four years, suffered from the absence of permanent authority. The law of the marches was, of necessity, the law of the strong hand, and no other. But Cambrensis, whose personal prejudices are not involved in this fact, describes the walled towns as filled with litigation in his time. "There was," he says, "such lawing and vexation, that the veteran was more troubled in lawing within the town than he was in peril at large with the enemy." This being the case, we must take with great caution the bold assertions so often made of the zeal with which the natives petitioned the Henrys and Edwards that the law of England might be extended to them. Certain Celts whose lands lay within or upon the marches, others who compounded with their Norman invaders, a chief or prince, hard pressed by domestic enemies, may have wished to be in a position to quote Norman law against Norman spoilers, but the popular petitions which went to England, beseeching the extension of its laws to Ireland, went only from the townsmen of Dublin, and the new settlers in Leinster or Meath, harassed and impoverished by the arbitrary jurisdiction of manorial courts, from which they had no appeal. The great mass of the Irish remained as warmly attached to their Brehon code down to the seventeenth century as they were before the invasion of Norman or Dane. It may sound barbarous to our ears that, according to that code, murder should be compounded by an eric, or fine; that putting out the eyes should be the usual punishment of treason; that maiming should be judiciously inflicted for sundry offences; and that the land of a whole clan should be equally shared between the free members of that clan. We are not yet in a position to form an intelligent opinion upon the primitive jurisprudence of our ancestors, but the system itself could not have been very vicious which nourished in the governed such a thirst for justice, that, according to one of their earliest English law reformers, they were anxious for its execution, even against themselves.

The distinction made in the courts of the adventurers against natives of the soil, even when long domiciled within their borders, was of itself a sufficient cause of war between the races. In the eloquent letter of the O'Neil to Pope John XXII.--written about the year 1318--we read, that no man of Irish origin could sue in an English court; that no Irishman, within the marches, could make a legal will; that his property was appropriated by his English neighbours; and that the murder of an Irishman was not even a felony punishable by fine. This latter charge would appear incredible, if we had not the record of more than one case where the homicide justified his act by the plea that his victim was a mere native, and where the plea was held good and sufficient.

A very vivid picture of Hiberno-Norman town-life in those days is presented to us in an old poem, on the "Entrenchment of the Town of Ross," in the year 1265. We have there the various trades and crafts-mariners, coat-makers, fullers, cloth-dyers and sellers, butchers, cordwainers, tanners, hucksters, smiths, masons, carpenters, arranged by guilds, and marching to the sound of flute and tabor, under banners bearing a fish and platter, a painted ship, and other "rare devices." On the walls, when finished, cross-bows hung, with store of arrows ready to shoot; when the city horn sounded twice, burgess and bachelor vied with each other in warlike haste. In time of peace the stranger was always welcome in the streets; he was free to buy and sell without toll or tax, and to admire the fair dames who walked the quiet ramparts, clad in mantles of green, or russet, or scarlet. Such is the poetic picture of the town of Ross in the thirteenth century; the poem itself is written in Norman-French, though evidently intended for popular use, and the author is called "Friar Michael of Kildare." It is pretty evident from this instance, which is not singular, that a century after the first invasion, the French language was still the speech of part, if not the majority, of these Hiberno-Norman townsmen.

So walls, and laws, and language arose, a triple barrier between the races. That common religion which might be expected to form a strong bond between them had itself to adopt a twofold organization. Distinctions of nationality were carried into the Sanctuary and into the Cloister. The historian Giraldus, in preaching at Dublin against the alleged vices of the native Clergy, sounded the first note of a long and bitter controversy. He was promptly answered from the same pulpit on the next occasion by Albin O'Mulloy, the patriot Abbot of Baltinglass. In one of the early Courts or Parliaments of the Adventurers, they decreed that no Monastery in those districts of which they had possession, should admit any but natives of England, as novices,--a rule which, according to O'Neil's letter, was faithfully acted upon by English Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, and regular canons. Some of the great Cistercian houses on the marches, in which the native religious predominated, adopted a retaliatory rule, for which they were severely censured by the general Chapter of their Order. But the length to which this feud was carried may be imagined by the sweeping charge O'Neil brings against "Brother Symon, a relative of the Bishop of Coventry," and other religious of his nation, who openly maintained, he says, that the killing of a mere Irishman was no murder.

When this was the feeling on one side, or was believed to be the feeling, we cannot wonder that the war should have been renewed as regularly as the seasons. No sooner was the husbandman in the field than the knight was upon the road. Some peculiarities of the wars of those days gleam out at intervals through the methodic indifference to detail of the old annals, and reveal to us curious conditions of society. In the Irish country, where castle-building was but slowly introduced, we see, for example, that the usual storage for provisions, in time of war, was in churches and churchyards. Thus de Burgh, in his expedition to Mayo, in 1236, "left neither rick nor basket of corn in the large churchyard of Mayo, or in the yard of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, and carried away eighty baskets out of the churches themselves." When we read, therefore, as we frequently do, of both Irish and Normans plundering churches in the land of their enemies, we are not to suppose the plunder of the sanctuary. Popularly this seizing the supplies of an enemy on consecrated ground was considered next to sacrilege; and well it was for the fugitives in the sanctuary in those iron times that it should be so considered. Yet not the less is it necessary for us to distinguish a high-handed military measure from actual sacrilege, for which there can be no apology, and hardly any earthly atonement.

In their first campaigns the Irish had one great advantage over the Normans in their familiarity with the country. This helped them to their first victories. But when the invaders were able to set up rival houses against each other, and to secure the co-operation of natives, the advantage was soon equalized. Great importance was attached to the intelligence and good faith of the guides, who accompanied every army, and were personally consulted by the leaders in determining their march. A country so thickly studded with the ancient forest, and so netted with rivers (then of much greater volume than since they have been stripped of their guardian woods), afforded constant occasion for the display of minute local knowledge. To miss a pass or to find a ford might determine a campaign, almost as much as the skill of the chief, or the courage of the battalion.

The Irish depended for their knowledge of the English towns and castles on their daring spies, who continually risked their necks in acquiring for their clansmen such needful information. This perilous duty, when undertaken by a native for the benefit of his country, was justly accounted highly honourable. Proud poets, educated in all the mysteries of their art, and even men of chieftain rank, did not hesitate to assume disguises and act the patriot spy. One of the most celebrated spies of this century was Donogh Fitzpatrick, son of the Lord of Ossory, who was slain by the English in 1250. He was said to be "one of the three men" most feared by the English in his day. "He was in the habit of going about to reconnoitre their market towns," say the Annalists, "in various disguises." An old quatrain gives us a list of some of the parts he played when in the towns of his enemies--

"He is a carpenter, he is a turner. My nursling is a bookman. He is selling wine and hides Where he sees a gathering."

An able captain, as well as an intrepid spy, he met his fate in acting out his favourite part, "which," adds our justice-loving Four Masters, "was a retaliation due to the English, for, up to that time, he had killed, burned, and destroyed many of them."

Of the equipments and tactics of the belligerents we get from our Annals but scanty details. The Norman battalion, according to the usage of that people, led by the marshal of the field, charged, after the archers had delivered their fire. But these wars had bred a new mounted force, called hobiler-archers, who were found so effective that they were adopted into all the armies of Europe. Although the bow was never a favourite weapon with the Irish, particular tribes seem to have been noted for its use. We hear in the campaigns of this century of the archers of Breffni, and we may probably interpret as referring to the same weapon, Felim O'Conor's order to his men, in his combat with the sons of Roderick at Drumraitte (1237), "not to shoot but to come to a close fight." It is possible, however, that this order may have reference to the old Irish weapon, the javelin or dart. The pike, the battle-axe, the sword, and skein, or dagger, both parties had in common, though their construction was different. The favourite tactique, on both sides, seems to have been the old military expedient of outflanking an enemy, and attacking him simultaneously in front and rear. Thus, in the year 1225, in one of the combats of the O'Conors, when the son of Cathal Crovdearg endeavoured to surround Turlogh O'Conor, the latter ordered his recruits to the van, and Donn Oge Magheraty, with some Tyronian and other soldiers to cover the rear, "by which means they escaped without the loss of a man." The flank movement by which the Lord Justice Fitzgerald carried the passage of the Erne (A.D. 1247) against O'Donnell, according to the Annalists, was suggested to Fitzgerald by Cormac, the grandson of Roderick O'Conor. By that period in their intercourse the Normans and Irish had fought so often together that their stock of tactical knowledge must have been, from experience, very much common property. In the eyes of the Irish chiefs and chroniclers, the foreign soldiers who served with them were but hired mercenaries. They were sometimes repaid by the plunder of the country attacked, but usually they received fixed wages for the length of time they entered. "Hostages for the payment of wages" are frequently referred to, as given by native nobles to these foreign auxiliaries. The chief expedient for subsisting an army was driving before them herds and flocks; free quarters for men and horses were supplied by the tenants of allied chiefs within their territory, and for the rest, the simple outfit was probably not very unlike that of the Scottish borderers described by Froissart, who cooked the cattle they captured in their skins, carrying a broad plate of metal and a little bag of oatmeal trussed up behind the saddle.

One inveterate habit clung to the ancient race, even until long after the times of which we now speak--their unconquerable prejudice against defensive armour. Gilbride McNamee, the laureate to King Brian O'Neil, gives due prominence to this fact in his poem on the death of his patron in the battle of Down (A.D. 1260). Thus sings the northern bard--

"The foreigners from London, The hosts from Port-Largy * Came in a bright green body, In gold and iron armour.

"Unequal they engage in the battle, The foreigners and the Gael of Tara, Fine linen shirts on the race of Conn, And the strangers one mass of iron."

[Footnote: Port-Largy, Waterford.]

With what courage they fought, these scorners of armour, their victories of Ennis, of Callanglen, and of Credran, as well as their defeats at the Erne and at Down, amply testify. The first hundred years of war for native land, with their new foes, had passed over, and three-fourths of the Saer Clanna were still as free as they had ever been. It was not reserved even for the Norman race--the conquest of Innisfail!

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.