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What should everyone know about Irish history?
Gosh, I don’t know about “everyone” — there are lots of people around the world who aren’t interested even in the histories of their own countries, much less the history of Ireland. But anyway, here are a few of the big topics for the period between 8000 BC and the English invasion of 1169–71:
The Irish share a close common ancestry with the other peoples of northwestern Europe. Although traces have been found in Ireland of human habitation dating back as far as 10,500 BC, the island has been continuously occupied since the end of the last Ice Age in Europe, ca. 8000 BC. Recent DNA research suggests that the peoples of northwestern Europe (i.e., Great Britain and Ireland, northern and western France, northern Iberia) share a close common ancestry going back to the beginning of that 10,000-year period. Although many other peoples have come into the region during that time and added their genes to the mix, those ancient post-Ice Age settlers are the vanilla in the sundae that is the western European gene pool.
The archeological evidence also supports the theory that the peoples of northwestern Europe share common origins. For example, many readers may be aware of the magnificent, astronomically-aligned neolithic tombs at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne valley (ca. 6000 BC); but although Newgrange is the finest known example of these, there are numerous similar (but unexcavated) passage tombs to be found over much of Ireland, and many others in Britain, France and Spain.
Similarly, the Beaker culture (2800–1800 BC) and La Tene culture (600–500 AD) spread across western Europe, including the British Isles.[FN. 1] There is no consensus, however, as to how any of these cultures spread: was it the result of voluntary adoption of a perceived superior culture (such as the way in which the Irish, thousands of years later, later became Christian)? Or was it a consequence of invasion and subjugation (such as the manner in which the Irish mainly became English speaking)? Nobody really knows.
Brownshill Dolmen, ca. 3300–2900 BC. Source:
There never were any Celts in Ireland. It is a widespread popular belief that the Irish (along with the Scots, Welsh, and some others) are descended from Celts, a race of mystics and warrior-poets who settled these islands in the middle of the first millennium BC. But the mythical ancient Irish Celts are, alas, just a myth.
The first known use of the word Κελτοί or Keltoi was by the Greek geographer Hecataeus in the 6th century BC, referring to a tribe in southern France (near present-day Marseille). About a century later, Herodotus used the same word to describe certain tribes living near the head of the Danube, but without citing any evidence that they were related to the Κελτοί from Marseille. Others used the term in connection with tribes living in parts of what are now Spain and Portugal. In other words, by about 400–300 BC, “Κελτοί” had become a generic Greek term for “tribal people living in lands north of the Mediterranean.”
The Romans encountered people that they named Galli (Gauls) as they expanded northward into the foothills of the Italian Alps. These Gauls were also to be found on the other side of the Alps, in what is now France (Roman Gallia) and in northern Iberia (Galicia). Roman writers familiar with Hecataeus and especially Herodotus hypothesized that these Gauls must be the same peoples as the Keltoi discovered by the Greeks. Thus, the terms Galli and Κελτοί, Gauls and Celts, became more or less synonymous, the collective name for certain tribal peoples who had come to be civilized by the Romans.
The myth of the Celts in modern times really began with the discovery in the 17th century AD that some of the surviving languages of northwestern Europe (specifically Irish and Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton) had a common origin. Scholars assumed without much by way of evidence that these languages had been spoken by the Gauls or Keltoi of yore, and labeled them “Celtic.”[FN. 2] By the 19th century, it had come to be believed that these languages, along with the lost languages of pre-Roman Gaul and Galicia formed a Celtic branch of the Indo-European family of languages.[FN. 3]
The discovery of a family of Celtic languages (and thus presumably a proto-Celtic from which they were all descended) reinforced the notion of a distinctly Celtic identity and sparked all manner of speculation regarding these Celts and their origin. For example, it was widely accepted in Ireland until very recently that our Celtic ancestors were ancient Greeks named Milesians.
In the later 20th century, a theory took hold that attributed the the iron-age La Tene culture to the Celts. The dating of archeological finds suggested that this culture had spread outwards from La Tene in present-day Switzerland until it dominated much of northern, western and central Europe. This of course included the lands that had come to be associated with the Celtic languages. Moreover, it seemed that the Celtic language(s) and La Tene technology had spread at about the same time (500 BC or thereabouts), which led to the inescapable conclusion that Le Tene culture was Celtic, and the Celts originated at La Tene.
This theory, while it still has its proponents, has also come in for a lot of criticism. For one thing, La Tene culture took hold in large areas of central and eastern Europe where there is no evidence that any Celtic languages were ever spoken. Conversely, La Tene artifacts have not been found in many parts of Ireland and Great Britain that seem indisputably to have been Celtic speaking. In other words, La Tene culture and the Celtic languages can be understood as two overlapping Venn diagrams, with Celtic-speaking practitioners of La Tene technology in the shared area, Celtic speakers in much of Ireland and Great Britain beyond the La Tene horizon, and La Tene practitioners in parts of central Europe where ne’er a word of Celtic was ever spoken.
The “La Tene equals Celtic” theory has also been called into question by more recent evidence that La Tene culture and the Celtic languages did not actually spread simultaneously through western and northwestern Europe as was once thought. In addition, recent DNA research casts doubt on the idea that northwestern Europeans (including the peoples of the British Isles) share a close common ancestry with others within the larger area associated with the spread of La Tene.
Le Tene-era torcs (gold bracelets or necklaces): from (top to bottom): (a) Snettisham, England, (b) Burela, Spain, and (c) Ireland. Source: Wikipedia
In summary then, we are left with the facts that: (a) Keltoi, the name that a Greek geographer gave to a specific tribal group in the south of France about 2500 years ago came to be (mis)applied to the peoples the Romans knew as Galli or Gauls; (b) scholars from the 17th century assumed, without a lot of evidence, that the archaic languages of the British Isles had their common origin among those ancient Gauls or Celts; and (c) more recently, based on what now look like very flawed assumptions, historians attributed the rise of the La Tene culture to those long-ago Celtic speakers. In the circumstances, I think it is now safe to say that the iron-age inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland did not think of themselves as “Celts” and that no ancient Celt ever set foot on this green and pleasant island.
We are also left, however, with the family of languages that were erroneously labeled “Celtic.” These languages — the ancestral tongues of at least Great Britain and Ireland — took root in or around the middle of the first millennium AD. How this came to pass is unknown. Did these Celtic speakers invade western Europe and the Isles in significant numbers and displace the previous inhabitants? Almost certainly not, in light of the DNA evidence suggesting a great degree of continuity in the region’s gene pool for the past 10,000 years. Did the languages themselves spread from tribe to tribe because the inhabitants perceived them to offer cultural or economic benefits that were not available to speakers of the old languages? Perhaps — this is not an uncommon phenomenon throughout history, though there is no evidence either way here. Or did relatively small numbers of Celtic-speaking warriors equipped with superior iron-age weaponry subdue the numerically greater indigenes, who then adopted the invaders’ language and customs? Although the latter explanation seems plausible to me, we likely will never know for sure.
There was a remarkable degree of cultural unity in early Gaelic Ireland. It’s fair to consider the people who lived in Ireland during the last few centuries BC as “Irish.” They spoke a primitive or proto-Irish, and key elements of the culture that remained distinctively Irish until the late middle ages were already in place.
Significantly, the Irish from earliest times saw themselves as a people distinct from everyone else. Linguists divide the Insular Celtic languages into two sub-branches, P-Celtic (the old Brythonic languages of pre-Roman Britain and their successors Welsh, Cornish, and Breton), and Q-Celtic (Goidelic and its successors Irish and Scots Gaelic, as well as Manx). The Goidelic or Gaelic-speaking Irish referred to themselves as Gaeil or “Gaels” and to their neighbors as Gaill or “Gauls.” In time, gall (Gaul) came to be the generic term for a “foreigner” or “outsider.”
Mud and wattle house, typical of early Ireland. Source:
There was remarkable cultural unity among the Irish that persisted until long after the English invasion of 1169–71. Not only did the Irish speak a common language, but there seems to have been uniformity within the language spoken in different parts of Ireland. In other words, the different dialects of Irish did not develop until much, much later.
Moreover, the same body of law applied throughout the land (the seanchus, often referred to as the “brehon laws”). These laws transcended political boundaries and could not be amended or altered by mere kings (who were subject to the law 1,000 years before Magna Carta in the neighboring island).
Irish society was hierarchical, with a noble warrior class at the top of the pyramid, but also with prestigious hereditary castes of priests (draoi or “druids’), lawyers (breitimh) and poets/historians (filid). In addition, there were several ranks of free men whose lives were defined by client relationships with nobles. Women (well, noble women at least) had considerable autonomy under the law with regard to issues of property owning and inheritance, as well as divorce. At the bottom of the pile were slaves, originally captives taken in war but later including men and women seized in organized slave-raids from Britain and the European mainland.
Government in ancient Ireland was very decentralized. The country was divided into about 170 petty kingdoms known as tuatha, each ruled by a king or rí tuaithe. These kings were elected from within the dominant family in each tuath. The petty kings were subject to an overlord known as a ruirí, who controlled an area about the size of a modern county. Each ruirí in turn was subject to a rí ruirech, the king of one of the principal kingdoms of Ireland. In theory there were five such kingdoms (the name for such a kingdom was a cúige or “fifth”), but there generally were about seven of them at any point in time.
There was also, in theory, an ard rí or “high king” to whom every other rí ruirech submitted. It is likely that nobody actually achieved this kind of dominance before Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig (“Brian Boru”), who managed to subdue all of the other Irish kings around the turn of the 11th century (earning himself the appellation Imperator Scottorum, or “Emperor of the Irish” in the annals). He was slain at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, where he confronted a rebellion by the kings of Leinster and the Norse of Dublin. His successors could not hold onto what Brian had won, however, and no Irish king was truly able to dominate all his rivals before the rise of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair in the late twelfth century; he had the bad luck to be in power when the English invaded, however, and thus is known as the “last high king of Ireland.”
For a bit more detail, see
The coming of Christianity to Ireland was a very big deal. According to tradition, St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in 432 AD. We now know that this is not strictly accurate — a Gaulish bishop named Palladius had been sent by the pope a year earlier (with several companions) to minister to the Christians in Ireland. Who these Christians were, nobody knows: British slaves (as Patrick had been)? Colonies of merchants or traders? But regardless of who got here first and the precise date when they arrived, it is undisputed that Christianity took root in Ireland during the 5th century, leading to a complete transformation of the country and its culture.
“Beehive houses” built by early Christian monks, Co. Kerry. Source:
A major feature of early Irish Christianity was the preservation and transmission of learning and literature. From the beginnings of the Irish Church in the fifth century, Irish monks sought out and gathered in from all over Europe the writings of the early Church fathers as well as the classics of pagan Greece and Rome. Even as Europe was succumbing to barbarian invasions and falling into the darkness that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Irish monks were to be seen scurrying about collecting manuscripts to be borne home to Ireland.
Back in Ireland, the monks set about copying the manuscripts in their scriptoria in order that each book would have many copies, to be shared among the brethren, and read and savored. The monks were not content simply to copy such texts as the Gospels, however: they illuminated their work with the fantastic shapes and colors that gave us such masterpieces as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells.
Detail from Book of Kells. Source: Wikipedia
Moreover, the monks did not limit themselves to copying the Gospels or the works of Augustine or Plato. They also wrote about what they read, leaving us biblical exegeses and original works of philosophy. Some of them branched out into poetry, producing work (in Latin) of considerable sophistication. They corresponded confidently with scholars on the continent (for the Dark Ages were never quite as dark as they’ve been painted), turning Ireland into the intellectual powerhouse of Europe.
In the seventh century, the monks turned their energies outward. St. Colm Cille or Columba, an abbot and scholar from the powerful Uí Néill dynasty in the north of Ireland, founded the great monastery of Iona, whence began the Christianization of Scotland. Columba’s follower, St. Aedan, established Lindisfarne,which introduced Christianity and literacy to Northumbria. And perhaps most remarkable of all was St. Columbanus, who set out with a shipload of followers for the European mainland. Once ashore, they fanned out to establish literally scores of monasteries in what are now France, western Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy, thereby reigniting European learning and literacy on a large scale.
St. Aedan’s monastery at Lindisfarne.
The monks also created one of the earliest written vernaculars in Europe. They began to compose in Irish the “annals,” matter-of-fact accounts of daily events of local and national significance that are the source of most of what historians know about early medieval Ireland. Equally important are the jottings in Irish by monastic scribes in the margins of the books that they were working on, which ranged from complaints about the uncomfortable working conditions in the scriptorium, to comments on the monastery diet, and to gems like Pangúr Bán, a little poem about the author’s cat that has delighted generations of Irish schoolchildren.
The Coming of the Norsemen profoundly changed Ireland. According to the annalists, the first appearance by Norsemen [FN. 4] on Irish shores was in the year 795, when a raiding party attacked a monastery on Rathlin Island off the coast of what is now Co. Antrim. There was a lull of several years before such raids became a common event. According to the annals, the Norse had a particular propensity for sacking monasteries, which by then had become very rich after centuries of accumulating gold and other wealth donated by pious benefactors, and which would have not offered much by way of armed resistance. Irish national treasures such as the Ardagh and Derrynaflan chalices and the Cross of Cong are believed to have been hidden or dropped by monks fleeing the raiders.
Derrynaflan Chalice: Wikipedia
The round towers that dot the Irish landscape have traditionally been seen as defensive structures into which the monks could retreat when Norse raiders approached. It was believed that the monks would climb into the towers (whose doors were typically eight to ten feet above the ground) and pull their ladders up after them. Recent historians have challenged this, however, pointing out that it would not have been beyond the capabilities of the raiders to use their own eight-foot ladders!
Glendalough Round Tower: Wikipedia
The Norse progressed from coastal raids to raiding deep inland by traveling deep inland on Ireland’s navigable rivers. There are reports also of Norse raiding parties porting their longships overland between different river systems. See also
In time, the raiders took to remaining in Ireland over the winter. They began trading for food and other supplies with the people who lived near their encampments, and many of the camps evolved into permanent, year-round trading settlements. The Norse living in the settlements now needed protection against raids by Irish kings and so these trading camps were fortified first with fences and palisades and later with strong stone walls, sturdy wooden gates, and reinforced defensive towers. In other words, the Norse built Ireland’s first towns. These included Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, as well as Wicklow town, Arklow and others.[FN. 5]
The Norse also triggered dramatic changes in Ireland’s political structure. The native kings’ initial encounters with the Norse raiders left them reeling in shock. Although the persistent warfare among the Irish tuatha involved levels of violence that seem shocking to the 21st century mind, this pales compared to the savage brutality employed by the Norse. If the annalists are to believed, the Scandinavian raiders employed torture and sadistic violence to a degree that would have made members of ISIS faint.
But what really troubled the Irish kings was that they initially were no match for the foreign raiders. Although Ireland had been deeply engaged with Christian Europe culturally for centuries, it had been isolated militarily. Thus, Irish weaponry and tactics proved to be useless in the face of Norse battle-axes and shield walls, and the remarkable mobility provided by fleets of fast longships. Over time, of course, the Irish adopted Norse weapons and tactics, and the battle-axe and round shield became essential components of an Irish warrior’s equipment.
Modern reproduction of a Dane axe. Source: Wikipedia
Reenactment of a shield wall. Source: Wikipedia
The native kings responded to the Norse incursions in a couple of different ways. Some realized that the incessant warring with their neighbors could not be maintained in the face of the Norse attacks and thus many a rí tuaithe forged more permanent mutual alliances with his former local rivals or or placed himself more firmly under the protection of a ruirí or rí ruirech. Thus, one lasting effect of the Norse incursions was a centralization of power at the expense of the local petty kings. Indeed, by the time of the coming of the English, the title rí tuaithe had fallen into disuse; the head of a petty tuath had become a tiarna (“lord”) instead of a king.
In other cases, Irish kings perceived it to be to their advantage to make alliances with Norse earls or kings, and to use Norse fleets to move rapidly up and down Ireland’s many navigable rivers when bringing war to their enemies. This led in time to ever greater cooperation between native Irish and Norse settlers, with intermarriage becoming commonplace and many Norse towns becoming increasingly assimilated with the surrounding Irish culture. Thus, by the arrival of the English in 1169–71, Limerick had become a de facto capital of the Uí Bríain (O’Brien) kings of Thomond and Cork likewise a stronghold of the Mac Cartaig (Mac Carthy) kings of Desmond.
Other towns more successfully maintained their independence. Dublin in particular had become a major trading center. It was home to perhaps the largest slave market in Europe, enjoyed very close ties with the Norse-controlled Isle of Man and the Orkneys, and was a vital part of a vast trade network that extended to Scandinavia and (via Sweden) to modern Russia and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire. The kings of Leinster claimed overlordship of Dublin but the city’s Norse rulers were adept at playing off the Uí Bríain of Munster and Uí Conchobair (O’Connors) of Connacht against the Leinster kings. The rulers of Waterford similarly exploited rivalries among Leinster, Thomond, Desmond and Ossory (Osraige) to maintain substantial independence.
Finally, every Irish schoolchild learned (or used to learn) that king Brian Boru (see above) led an Irish army to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 and drove them from Ireland. Although there is an element of fact to this, the larger truth was more complicated. Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig subdued all of the other Irish kings as well as the Norse towns, likely becoming the first man to turn the theory of an Irish “high king” into reality. In 1014, however, the king and lords of Leinster, along with their allies the Norse of Dublin, rebelled against Brian. Brian called upon the kings of the rest of Ireland to join him in an assault on Dublin as a prelude to subduing Leinster. Although most of the kings answered his call, many of them remained aloof on the day and declined to participate in the battle (though I note that the O’Kelly king of Uí Máine honored his oath to Brian and died that day along with several of his sons and nobles).
“Battle of Clontarf” by Hugh Frazier (1826): Wikipedia
The battle, which took place at Clontarf (Cluain Tarbh, “bull’s pasture”) just to the north of Dublin, was the bloodiest day in Irish history up to that time (it was the talk of Europe). The contest seems to have been inconclusive, however. The kings of Leinster (who were from the northern part of the kingdom) were greatly weakened and had to contend thereafter with their south Leinster rivals, the Uí Cennselaig. As for the Norse/Danes of Dublin, those who were not slain were driven out of the country; although they were later to return, their autonomy was greatly weakened and they had to rely thereafter on shifting alliances with various Irish kings. On the other side, Brian was slain by a Dane fleeing from the field at the end of the day; Brian’s son and designated heir died also; his successors (thereafter known as the Uí Bríain, i.e. O’Briens) were unable to hold the high kingship and eventually lost the southern half of Munster to the Mac Carthys.
The Norse of Ireland, although increasingly dependent on Irish allies after the early 11th century, remained a power in the land of another 150 years. Their long run finally came to an end with the arrival of the English in 1169 …
Diarmait Mac Murchada was not a traitor who sold Ireland to the English. Even people who paid no attention at all during history lessons in Irish National School know this one thing: The king of Leinster, Dermot Mac Murrough, was the worst Irishman that ever lived; having been deposed by the high king for abducting another king’s wife, he fled to England where he invited king Henry II to come and help him regain his crown; upon landing in Ireland, Henry and his henchman Strongbow set about massacring the Irish, establishing a template for their English successors for the next 800 years.
Diarmait Mac Murchada; note the Danish-style axe: Wikipedia
There is very little about this story that is true. In 1166, Diarmait Mac Murchada was deposed as king of Leinster by the high king, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair of Connacht. This brought an end to ten golden years in which Diarmait, as a close ally of the previous high king Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn, had ruled unopposed over Leinster and half the neighboring kingdom of Meath. But now Muirchertach had been slain in a skirmish by Diarmait’s lifelong enemy Tigernán Ua Ruairc, opening the way for Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair to become high king. Ruaidrí had repaid Tigernán by overthrowing Tigernán’s nemesis Diarmait.
The enmity between Diarmait and Tigernán went back almost 40 years. In 1128, Diarmaith unexpectedly became king of Leinster at the age of 16 following the deaths of his father and elder brother. The then-high king Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair (Ruaidrí’s father) sent his subordinate Tigernán Ua Ruairc of Bréifne to subdue Diarmait and install a member of the rival Ua Faeláin dynasty as king of Leinster. Tigernán, however, slaughtered all the livestock and burned the crops of in the Mac Murchadas’ home territory Uí Cennselaig (now Cos. Wexford and Carlow and south Co. Wicklow), condemning the people of the region to a terrible famine. This horrified all of Ireland, such genocidal conduct being forbidden by the Irish laws of war — and it planted in the young Diarmait Mac Murchada a lifelong hatred of Tigernán Ua Ruairc.
Diarmait and Tigernán clashed repeatedly during the following decades, mainly over the troubled kingdom of Meath. The kingdom was in a state of seeming intractable civil war among different factions of the ruling dynasty. Both Diarmait and Tigernán coveted the rich lands of Meath and jockeyed to take advantage of the disorder among its ruling class, which brought them into frequent conflict with each other.
Diarmait scored a considerable coup in 1152, when he raided into the heart of Bréifne and abducted Tigernán’s wife, Derbforgaill. This “abduction” was not simply the impulsive act of a hot-blooded warlord as it has often portrayed. In fact, it had been engineered by Derbforgaill and her brother, a pretender to the crown of Meath: she wanted to be free of her brutal husband, her brother wanted to weaken Tigernán because of his ambitions in Meath, and Diarmait was happy to oblige them both. He spirited Derbforgaill (along with her furniture and cattle) away to his capital at Ferns, where the pair openly conducted themselves like young lovers. This may have been staged for the benefit of Tigernán, because both Derbforgaill and Diarmait were in their forties at the time. But in any event, the entire affair was a mortal insult to Tigernán at a time when honor was everything.
But now in 1166, it seemed that Tigernán was about to have the ultimate revenge. Once the high king Ruairí Ua Conchobair had deposed Diarmait and stripped him of his army and much of his ancestral lands, he headed contentedly home to Connacht. With his more moderate overlord out of the way, Tigernán turned his army around and marched again on Ferns. With him were the forces of Diarmait’s traditional enemies, the Uí Faeláin of north Leinster and the Norse of Dublin. Tigernán’s purpose was clear: he was going to Ferns to kill Diarmait for once and for all.
Stone carving of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, Cong Abbey: Wikipedia
Diarmait fled to England with his few remaining followers. On the advice of a friend in Bristol, he journeyed to France to seek out the English king, Henry II, and obtain his permission to recruit mercenaries from among Henry’s vassals in England and Wales. His initial recruitment efforts came to nothing, however, until he approached Richard de Clare, lord of Strigoil (Chepstow) and former earl of Pembroke, and who was regarded as a sort of unofficial leader among the Norman and Flemish knights of the Welsh marches.
De Clare demurred at first. It was not clear to him that any benefits of journeying with an army to Ireland would exceed the cost. In desperation, Diarmait offered him the hand of his beautiful daughter Aoife in marriage and the kingship of Leinster after Diarmait’s death. After consulting with his knights, de Clare accepted the deal.
(Richard de Clare is known to history as Strongbow. It seems, however, that he may never have been known by this nickname in his own lifetime. “Strongbow” was originally the appellation of his father, Gilbert de Clare, who was noted for his strength as an archer.)
On 1 May, 1169, English troops landed on Irish soil for the first time ever, when about 60 mail-clad soldiers and 300 archers and crossbowmen under the command of the half-Welsh, half-Norman Robert fitz Stephen stepped ashore on Bannow Island near Wexford.[FN. 6] A second party of seven Flemish knights and 70 archers and foot soldiers landed the following day. Then, joined by Diarmait’s cavalry which had raced from Ferns to join them, they besieged the Norse town of Wexford, which quickly surrendered.
The forces of the native Irish kings were no match for the English knights with their chain mail, stirrups, and modern weapons, and their Welsh and English archers. Following one victorious engagement after another, the new arrivals soon gained a reputation for invincibility.
In 1170, Richard de Clare landed near Waterford with a much larger force. He took the city without waiting for Diarmait to arrive and massacred many of the inhabitants. Then, as the story has it, while the streets of Waterford flowed with blood, de Clare married the beautiful Aoife.
“The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife” by Daniel Maclise (1854): National Gallery of Ireland
For the rest of 1170, Diarmait and de Clare raided and crushed Diarmait’s rivals one after another. Vast herds of cattle and other plunder were transported to Ferns. The high king Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair finally stirred himself to respond to the foreign invaders and assembled a massive army to come to the defense of Dublin. But despite commanding perhaps 15,000 troops versus the 2,000 to 3,000 men under Diarmait and de Clare, Ruaidrí declined to do battle. Dublin fell to the invaders.
Diarmait was jubilant and began to talk openly about how, with de Clare by side, he would seize the high kingship the following year. It was not to be. Diarmait was taken ill over the winter (he may have suffered a stroke upon learning that his youngest son, given as a hostage to Ruairí Ua Conchobair, had been executed by Ruairí at the urging of Tigernán Ua Ruairc), and he died in the spring of 1171.
Then in October that year, Henry II landed with a massive army near Waterford. Overawed by this overwhelming force, most of the kings of Ireland submitted to Henry as their overlord. He entered into a treaty with Ruairí in which: (a) he pledged not to extend the English colony beyond what had already been conquered (by that stage, sizable tracts of the kingdoms of Leinster, Meath, and Ulaid); and (b) he acknowledged Ruairí as king of the Irish in the rest of the island. This treaty was a dead letter from the outset because neither Ruairí nor any subsequent Irish king was able to resist continuing depredations by the English colonists.
Henry also made it clear to the English in Ireland that he, and not de Clare the supposed “king of Leinster,” was boss. He confirmed some of the grants of land that Diarmait had made to the Norman and Flemish knights but shunted others aside and installed his own trusted men in their place. Then in 1172 the self-declared “Lord of Ireland” sailed away to deal with rebellions elsewhere in his Angevin Empire.
- So — was Diarmait Mac Murchada a traitor who sold out Ireland to Henry II of England? The answer has to be “no.” Diarmait’s purpose in going to England in 1166 (aside from saving his neck from the axe of Tigernán Ua Ruairc) was to recruit mercenaries in order to win back his lands and crown in Leinster. Being short of cash, Diarmait offered to compensate these knights and their followers by giving them land captured from his enemies in Ireland.
Although there is no record of an Irish king’s specifically having imported English mercenaries previously, the concept of engaging foreign troops was not an especially strange one. Irish kings had frequently engaged the services of Norse fighting men or had hired Norse fleets for use in wartime. Diarmait himself saw an express parallel with the numerous times that English kings had recruited mercenaries from Ireland —including Henry II as recently as 1165, when Diarmait had brokered his hiring of the Dublin war fleet for a campaign against the Scots. From Diarmait’s perspective, it made no difference that the mercenaries were traveling in the other direction this time.
Diarmait’s peers evidently did not see anything wrong with employing English troops either. In 1169, the king of Osraige lured the Anglo-Flemish knight Maurice de Prendergast and his followers away from Diarmait and took them into his service. The following year, Diarmait subcontracted a sizable force under the Cambro-Norman Robert fitz Stephen to his son-in-law Domnall Mór Ua Bríain, king of Thomond, who had rebelled against Ruairí Ua Conchobair.
We must also consider the peculiar arrangement Diarmait entered into with Richard de Clare, whereby the latter married Aoife nic Murchada with the promise of succeeding to the kingship of Leinster after Diarmait’s death. This promise was contrary to Irish law and utterly unenforceable: kingship was only partly hereditary, with kings being elected by members of a tuath from among eligible males in the “royal” family; and eligibility never passed through the female line.
Diarmait’s motivation for this offer is obvious: He was increasingly desperate to recruit de Clare, given that the latter was a sort of natural leader among the knights of the Welsh marches and thus the key to Diarmait’s ability to raise a mercenary army. De Clare could not have known that the offer was essentially empty: he wasn’t familiar with the Irish laws of succession and there were numerous examples in the Crusading states and elsewhere of knights marrying heiresses and succeeding to royal or princely titles. The offer was also attractive to de Clare as a middle-aged widower who was down on his luck and with very limited prospects: in the civil war known as the “Anarchy,” he had backed king Stephen against the Empress Matilda, Henry II’s mother, and thus was viewed with intense suspicion and denied advancement by Henry.
Finally, there is the crucial fact that Diarmait never invited Henry II to Ireland. Indeed, when he met Henry in France, Henry said that he regretted he could not personally come to Diarmait’s aid at the moment, being tied up dealing with rebellious French vassals. Diarmait hastened to assure him that there was no need for Henry to go to Ireland, and permission to recruit some of Henry’s knights was all that Diarmait needed.
Much has been made of Henry’s long-standing ambition to invade and conquer Ireland, including his obtaining papal approval in 1155 for an intervention ostensibly to reform the Irish Church. But this speaks to Henry’s motivation, not Diarmait’s. There is no evidence that Diarmait was aware of the supposed Papal Bull Laudabilter, which Henry publicized only after his invasion of Ireland.
- But isn’t it true that but for Diarmait Mac Murchada, Henry II would never have invaded Ireland and therefore 800 years of conflict would have been avoided? The answer to the first part of this question can only be “perhaps,” and to the second part a definite “no.”
Henry was prompted to invade Ireland in 1171 because Richard de Clare and his followers were establishing what appeared to be an independent state in Ireland. This was not something that Henry could tolerate — especially given his distrust of de Clare. It is possible, therefore, that if Diarmait had not brought de Clare and his followers to Ireland in the first place, then Henry would not have followed.
It is also possible, however, perhaps even likely, that Henry would have come eventually anyway. He had harbored an ambition to invade Ireland and add it to his Angevin Empire since the early 1150s but the time had never seemed right. In 1171, however the time was very right: Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered in December 1170 and everyone blamed Henry; the invasion of Ireland provided a perfect opportunity for him to be away from France and England until 1172, when the heat had begun to die down.
Moreover, even if Henry had never invaded Ireland, one of his successors would have done so sooner or later. There is no way that over the many centuries of wars with France and Spain, the kings of England would have allowed the vulnerable portal that was Ireland to remain open at their back. The numerous “re-invasions” of Ireland and incursions into Scotland during medieval and early modern times attest to that.
FN.1. My occasional use of the convenient geographical term “British Isles” should not be taken as having any political connotation.
FN. 2. The label “Celtic” has by now become too firmly attached to the ancestral languages of the British Isles to be worth arguing against. But the use of this term should not be taken to imply that those languages were ever spoken by any actual Celts.
FN. 3. It is well established by now that the Brythonic and Goidelic languages of the British Isles (and including Breton) have a common origin. The question of whether the continental Gauls spoke a Celtic language (or languages) is far from settled, however.
FN. 4. Most historians nowadays use the terms Norse or Norsemen, i.e., “Northmen,” rather than the more popular “Viking.” The latter name comes from a verb meaning “raiding” or “pirating” and refers to something that these men did rather than what they were. The Irish annalists called them “Gaill” (Gauls, by then a generic term for foreigner), and distinguished between “Fionn Gaill” and “Dubh Gaill” (fair-haired foreigners and dark-haired foreigners), which some believe refer to Danes and Norwegians, respectively. The later annalists also use the Norse term “Ostmen” (East men), which appears to have been how these Scandinavians referred to themselves.
FN. 5. There were no towns in Ireland before the coming of the Norse. Many of the monasteries had had communities grow up around them, populated with providers of what we might call support services for the monasteries and the pilgrims who visited them. In a few cases, these communities grew so large as to have thousands of inhabitants, lay and monastic. They had no independent economic purpose beyond the monasteries, however, and cannot be regarded as fully fledged medieval towns. Many of them did grow into real towns later, of course: most Irish towns beginning with “Kil_” or “Kill_” (“cill,” church) began as monastic communities, as did those beginning “Abbey_” or “Monaster_” (“monastair,” monastery).
FN. 5. Historians argue over whether to call the invaders of 1169–71 the “Normans,” the “Anglo-Normans,” the “Cambro-Normans,” the “Anglo-French,” and so on. I think it is simpler to say “English,” because that is how they saw themselves at the time. For example, the chronicler of the invasion, Gerald de Barri (“Gerald of Wales”), repeatedly refers to his compatriots as “English,” and notes at one point the different varieties of Englishmen involved, including Normans, Flemings and Welsh. It is true that the English aristocratic and knightly class was Francophone and descended from knights who had come over from Normandy and Flanders with William the Conqueror; but by 1169, their families had been in England for a century and many had intermarried with Saxons and Welsh. Moreover, the sergeants, archers and footsoldiers were predominantly of Welsh or plain English (Saxon) origin. Even Henry II, although born in France and a descendant of William the Conqueror on his mother’s side, was not Norman but Angevin, having been born at Le Mans and raised in Anjou.