Ireland, during the first three quarters of the thirteenth century, produced fewer important events, and fewer great men, than in the thirty last years of the century preceding. From the side of England, she was subjected to no imminent danger in all that interval. The reign of John ending in 1216, and that of Henry III. extending till 1271, were fully occupied with the insurrections of the Barons, with French, Scotch, and Welsh wars, family feuds, the rise and fall of royal favourites, and all those other incidents which naturally, befall in a state of society where the King is weak, the aristocracy strong and insolent, and the commons disunited and despised. During this period the fusion of Norman, Saxon, and Briton went slowly on, and the next age saw for the first time a population which could be properly called English. "Do you take me for an Englishman?" was the last expression of Norman arrogance in the reign of King John; but the close of the reign of Henry III., through the action of commercial and political causes, saw a very different state of feeling growing up between the descendants of the races which contended for mastery under Harold and William. The strongly marked Norman characteristics lingered in Ireland half a century later, for it is usually the case that traits of caste survive longest in colonies and remote provinces. In Richard de Burgo, commonly called the Red Earl of Ulster, all the genius and the vices of the race of Rollo blazed out over Ireland for the last time, and with terrible effect.
During the first three quarters of the century, our history, like that of England, is the history of a few great houses; nation there is, strictly speaking, none. It will be necessary, therefore, to group together the acts of two or three generations of men of the same name, as the only method of finding our way through the shifting scenes of this stormy period.
The power of the great Connaught family of O'Conor, so terribly shaken by the fratricidal wars and unnatural alliances of the sons and grandsons of Roderick, was in great part restored by the ability and energy of Cathal Crovdearg. In his early struggles for power he was greatly assisted by the anarchy which reigned among the English nobles. Mayler Fitz-Henry, the last of Strongbow's companions, who rose to such eminence, being Justiciary in the first six years of the century, was aided by O'Conor to besiege William de Burgo in Limerick, and to cripple the power of the de Lacys in Meath. In the year 1207, John Gray, Bishop of Norwich, was sent over, as more likely to be impartial than any ruler personally interested in the old quarrels, but during his first term of office, the interdict with which Innocent III. had smitten England, hung like an Egyptian darkness over the Anglo-Norman power in Ireland. The native Irish, however, were exempt from its enervating effects, and Cathal O'Conor, by the time King John came over in person--in the year 1210--to endeavour to retrieve the English interest, had warred down all his enemies, and was of power sufficient to treat with the English sovereign as independently as Roderick had done with Henry II. thirty-five years before. He personally conferred with John at Dublin, as the O'Neil and other native Princes did; he procured from the English King the condemnation of John de Burgo, who had maintained his father's claims on a portion of Connaught, and he was formally recognised, according to the approved forms of Norman diplomacy, as seized of the whole of Connaught, in his own right.
The visit of King John, which lasted from the 20th of June till the 25th of August, was mainly directed to the reduction of those intractable Anglo-Irish Barons 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 700 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 from that fortress, 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 2,500 marks for his lordship in Meath, and Hugh 4,000 marks 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. The de Lacys, on their restoration, were accompanied to Ireland by a nephew of the Abbot of St. Taurin, on whom they conferred an estate and the honour of knighthood.
The only other acts of John's sojourn in Ireland was his treaty with O'Conor, already mentioned, and the mapping out, on paper, of the intended counties of Oriel (or Louth), Meath, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Katherlough (or Carlow), Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary, as the only districts in which those he claimed as his subjects had any possessions. He again installed the Bishop of Norwich as his justiciary or lieutenant, who, three years, later, was succeeded by Henry de Londres, the next Archbishop of Dublin, and he again (A.D. 1215), by Geoffrey de Marisco, the last of John's deputies. In the year 1216, Henry III., an infant ten years of age, succeeded to the English throne, and the next dozen years the history of the two islands is slightly connected, except by the fortunes of the family of de Burgh, whose head, Hubert de Burgh, the Chief Justiciary, from the accession of the new King, until the first third of the century had closed, was in reality the Sovereign of England. Among his other titles he held that of Lord of Connaught, which he conveyed to his relative, Richard de Burgo, the son or grandson of William Fitz-Aldelm de Burgo, about the year 1225. And this brings us to relate how the house of Clanrickarde rose upon the flank of the house of O'Conor, and after holding an almost equal front for two generations, finally overshadowed its more ancient rival.
While Cathal Crovdearg lived, the O'Conor's held their own, and rather more than their own, by policy or arms. Not only did his own power suffer no diminution, but he more than once assisted the Dalgais and the Eugenians to expel their invaders from North and South Munster, and to uphold their ancient rights and laws. During the last years of John's reign that King and his Barons were mutually too busy to set aside the arrangement entered into in 1210. In the first years of Henry it was also left undisturbed by the English court. In 1221 we read that the de Lacys, remembering, no doubt, the part he had played in their expulsion, endeavoured to fortify Athleague against him, but the veteran King, crossing the Shannon farther northward, took them in the rear, compelled them to make peace, and broke down their Castle. This was almost the last of his victories. In the year 1213 we read in the Annals of "an awful and heavy shower which fell over Connaught," and was held to presage the death of its heroic King. Feeling his hour had come, this Prince, to whom are justly attributed the rare union of virtues, ardour of mind, chastity of body, meekness in prosperity, fortitude under defeat, prudence in civil business, undaunted bravery in battle, and a piety of life beyond all his cotemporaries--feeling the near approach of death, retired to the Abbey of Knockmoy, which he had founded and endowed, and there expired in the Franciscan habit, at an age which must have bordered on fourscore. He was succeeded by his son, Hugh O'Conor, "the hostages of Connaught being in his house" at the time of his illustrious father's death.
No sooner was Cathal Crovdearg deceased than Hubert de Burgo procured the grants of the whole Province, reserving only five cantreds about Athlone for a royal garrison to be made to Richard de Burgo, his nephew. Richard had married Hodierna, granddaughter to Cathal, and thus, like all the Normans, though totally against the Irish custom, claimed a part of Connaught in right of his wife. But in the sons of Cathal he found his equal both in policy and arms, and with the fall of his uncle at the English court (about the year 1233), Feidlim O'Conor, the successor of Hugh, taking advantage of the event, made interest at the Court of Henry III. sufficient to have his overgrown neighbour stripped of some of his strongholds by royal order. The King was so impressed with O'Conor's representations that he wrote peremptorily to Maurice Fitzgerald, second Lord Offally, then his deputy, "to root out that barren tree planted in Offally by Hubert de Burgh, in the madness of his power, and not to suffer it to shoot forth." Five years later, Feidlim, in return, carried some of his force, in conjunction with the deputy, to Henry's aid in Wales, though, as their arrival was somewhat tardy, Fitzgerald was soon after dismissed on that account.
Richard de Burgo died in attendance on King Henry in France (A.D. 1243), and was succeeded by his son, Walter de Burgo, who continued, with varying fortunes, the contest for Connaught with Feidlim, until the death of the latter, in the Black Abbey of Roscommon, in the year 1265. Hugh O'Conor, the son and successor of Feidlim, continued the intrepid guardian of his house and province during the nine years he survived his father. In the year 1254, by marriage with the daughter of de Lacy, Earl of Ulster, that title had passed into the family of de Burgh, bringing with it, for the time, much substantial, though distant, strength. It was considered only a secondary title, and as the eldest son of the first de Lacy remained Lord of Meath, while the younger took de Courcy's forfeited title of Ulster, so, in the next generation, did the sons of this Walter de Burgh, until death and time reunited both titles in the same person. Walter de Burgh died in the year 1271, in the Castle of Galway; his great rival, Feidlim O'Conor, in 1274, was buried in the Abbey of Boyle. The former is styled King of the English of Connaught by the Irish Annalists, who also speak of Feidlim as "the most triumphant and the most feared (by the invaders) of any King that had been in Connaught before his time." The relative position of the Irish and English in that Province, towards the end of this century, may be judged by the fact, that of the Anglo-Normans summoned by Edward I. to join him in Scotland in 1299, but two, Richard de Burgo and Piers de Bermingham, Baron of Athenry, had then possessions in Connaught. There were Norman Castles at Athlone, at Athenry, at Galway, and perhaps at other points; but the natives still swayed supreme over the plains of Rathcrogan, the plains of Boyle, the forests and lakes of Roscommon, and the whole of Iar, or West Connaught, from Lough Corrib to the ocean, with the very important exception of the castle and port of Galway. A mightier de Burgo than any that had yet appeared was to see in his house, in the year 1286, "the hostages of all Connaught;" but his life and death form a distinct epoch in our story and must be treated separately.