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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 17384

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The invasion of Ireland by the Anglo-Normans differs in several respects from other invasions and conquests, not the least singular feature about it being that nearly the whole of that famous band of knightly adventurers who took part in it, and to whose audacity it was in the first instance due, were more or less closely related to one another, either as brothers, nephews, uncles, or cousins. The connecting link between these variously-named relations was one Nesta, princess of South Wales, daughter of a Welsh king, Rice ap Tudor, a heroine whose adventures are of a sufficiently striking, not to say startling, character. By dint of a succession of alliances, some regular, others highly irregular, she became the ancestress of nearly all the great Anglo-Norman families in Ireland. Of these the Fitzgeralds, Carews, Barrys, and Cogans, are descended from her first husband, Gerald of Windsor. Robert FitzStephen, who plays, as will presently be seen, a prominent part in the conquest, was the son of her second husband, Stephen, the Castlelan of Abertivy, while Robert and Meiler FitzHenry, of whom we shall also hear, are said to have


(From a Photograph).

been the sons of no less a person than King Henry I. of England.

Conspicuous amongst this band of knights and adventurers was one who was himself no knight, but a priest and the self-appointed chronicler of the rest, Gerald de Barri--better known as Gerald of Wales, or Giraldus Cambrensis, who was the grandson of Nesta, through her daughter Angareta.

Giraldus is one of those writers whom, to tell the truth, we like a great deal better than they deserve. He is prejudiced to the point of perversity, and gullible almost to sublimity, uncritical even for an eminently uncritical age, accepting and retailing any and every monstrous invention, the more readily apparently in proportion to its monstrosity. For all that--despite his prejudices, despite even his often deliberate perversion of the truth, it is difficult to avoid a certain kindliness for him. To the literary student he is indeed a captivating figure. With his half-Welsh, half-Norman blood; with the nimble, excitable, distinctly Celtic vein constantly discernible in him; with a love of fighting which could hardly have been exceeded by the doughtiest of the knights, his cousins and brothers; with a pen that seems to fly like an arrow across the page; with a conceit which knows neither stint nor limit, he is the most entertaining, the most vividly alive of chroniclers; no historian certainly in any rigid sense of the word, but the first, as he was also unquestionably the chief and prince of war correspondents.

Whether we like him or not, we at any rate cannot dispense with him, seeing that nearly everything we know of the Ireland of the Conquest, we know from those marvellous pages of his, which, if often exasperating, are at any rate never dull. In them, as in a mirror, we see how, when, and where the whole plan of the campaign was laid; who took part in it; what they said, did, projected; their very motives and thoughts--the whole thing stands out fresh and alive as if it had happened yesterday.

There were no lack of motives, any of which would have been temptation enough for invasion. To the pious it took on the alluring guise of a Crusade. The Irish Church, which had obtained such glowing fame in its early days, had long since, as we have seen, grown into very bad repute with Rome. Despite that halo of early sanctity, she was held to be seriously tainted with heresy. She allowed bishops to be irregularly multiplied, and consecrated contrary to the Roman rule by one bishop only; tithes and firstfruits were not collected with any regularity; above all, the collection of Peter's pence, being the sum of one penny due from every household, was always scandalously in arrears, nay, often no attempt was made to collect it at all. She did many wrong things, but it may shrewdly be suspected that this was one of the very worst of them.

It is not a little edifying at this juncture to find the Danes of Dublin amongst those who were enlisted upon the orthodox side. Cut off by mutual hatred rather than theological differences from the Church of Ireland, they had for some time back been regularly applying to Canterbury for their supply of priests. These priests upon being sent over painted the condition of Irish heterodoxy in tints of the deepest black for their own


(From a Photograph.)

countrymen. Even before this there had been grave complaints. Lanfranc, Anselm, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, all had had their theological ire aroused against the Irish recusants. Many of the Irish ecclesiastics themselves seem to have desired that closer union with Rome, which could only be brought about by bringing Ireland under the power of a sworn son of the Church. Henry I--little as that most secular-minded of monarchs cared probably for the more purely theological question--was fully alive to its value as supporting his own claims. He obtained from Pope Hadrian IV. (the Englishman Brakespeare), a Bull sanctioning and approving of the conquest of Ireland as prompted by "the ardour of faith and love of religion," in which Bull he is desired to enter the island and therein execute "whatever shall pertain to the honour of God, and the welfare of the land."

Fourteen years elapsed before the enterprise thus warmly commended was carried into effect. The story of Dermot McMurrough, king of Leinster, and his part in the invasion, has often been told, and does not, I think, need dwelling upon at any great length. He was a brutal, violent-tempered savage, detested in his own country, and especially by his unfortunate subjects in Leinster. How he foully wronged the honour of O'Rorke, a chieftain of Connaught; how, for this and other offences, he was upon the accession of Roderick O'Connor driven away from Ireland; how he fled to England to do homage to Henry, and seek his protection; how, finding him gone to Aquitaine, he followed him there, and in return for his vows of allegiance received letters authorizing the king's subjects to enlist if they choose for the Irish service; how armed with these he went to Wales, and there succeeded in recruiting a band of mixed Norman and Norman-Welsh adventurers--all this is recorded at large in the histories.

Of the recruits thus enlisted, the most important was Robert de Clair, Earl of Pembroke and Chepstow, nicknamed by his contemporaries, Strongbow, whom Dermot met at Bristol, and won over by a double bribe--the hand, namely, of his daughter Eva, and the succession to the sovereignty of Leinster--a succession which, upon the Irish mode of election, he had, it may be observed, no shadow of right to dispose of.

Giraldus, who seems to have been himself in Wales at the time, speaks sentimentally of the unfortunate exile, and describes him inhaling the scent of his beloved country from the Welsh coast, and feasting his eyes tenderly upon his own land: "Although the distance," he more prosaically adds, "being very great, it was difficult to distinguish mountains from clouds." As a matter of fact, Dermot McMurrough, we may be sure, was not the person to do anything of the sort. He was simply hungry--as a wild beast or a savage is hungry--for revenge, and would have plunged into any number of perjuries, or have bound himself to give away any amount of property he had no right to dispose of in order to get it. He could safely trust, too, he knew, to the ignorance of his new allies as to what was or was not a legal transfer in Ireland.

His purpose achieved, "inflamed," says Giraldus, "with the desire to see his native land," but really the better to concoct his plans, he returned home, landing a little south of Arklow Head, and arriving at Ferns, where he was hospitably entertained during the winter by its bishop. The following spring, in the month of May, the first instalment of the invaders arrived under Robert FitzStephen, a small fleet of Welsh boats landing them in a creek of the bay of Bannow, where a chasm between the rocks was long known as "FitzStephen's stride."

Here they were met by Donald McMurrough, son of Dermot, and ten days later drew up under the walls of Wexford, having so far encountered no opposition.

In this old Danish town a stout fight was made. The townsfolk, no longer Vikings but simple traders, did what they could in their own defence. They burnt their suburbs, consisting doubtless of rude wooden huts; shut the gates, and upon the first two assaults drove back the assailan

ts. So violently were they repelled, "that they withdrew," Giraldus tells us, "in all great haste from the walls." His own younger brother, Robert de Barri, was amongst the wounded, a great stone falling upon his helmet and tumbling him headlong into one of the ditches, from the effects of which blow, that careful historian informs us incidentally, "Sixteen years later all his jaw teeth fell out!"

Next morning, after mass, they renewed the assault; this time with more circumspection. Now there were at that time, as it happened, two bishops in the town, who devoted their energies to endeavouring to induce the citizens to make peace. In this attempt they were successful, more successful than might have been expected with men descended from the old Land Leapers. Wexford opened its gates, its townsmen submitting to Dermot, who thereupon presented the town to his allies, FitzStephen, true to his Norman instincts, proceeding forthwith to build a castle upon the rock of Carneg, at the narrowest point of the river Slaney, the first of that large crop of castles which subsequently sprang up upon Irish soil.

The next sharers of the struggle were the wild Ossory clans, who gathered to the defence of their territory under Donough McPatrick, an old and especially hated enemy of Dermot's. The latter had now three thousand men at his back, in addition to his Welsh and Norman allies. The Ossory men fought, as Giraldus admits, with furious valour, but upon rashly venturing out of their own forests into the open, were charged by FitzStephen, whose horsemen defeated them, killing a great number, over two hundred heads being collected and laid at the feet of Dermot, who, "turning them over, one by one, to recognize them, lifted his hands to heaven in excess of joy, and with a loud voice returned thanks to God most High." So pious was Dermot!

After this, finding that the country at large was beginning to take some note of their proceedings, the invaders fell back upon Ferns, which they fortified according to the science of the age under the superintendence of Robert FitzStephen. Roderick O'Connor, the Ard-Reagh, was by this time not unnaturally beginning to get alarmed, and had gathered his men together against the invaders. The winter, however, was now at hand, and a temporary peace was accordingly patched up; Leinster being restored to Dermot on condition of his acknowledging the over-lordship of Roderick. Giraldus recounts at much length the speeches made upon both sides on this occasion; the martial addresses to the troops, the many classical and flowery quotations, which last he is good enough to bestow upon the unlucky Roderick no less than upon his own allies. Seeing, probably, that all were alike imaginary, it is hardly necessary to delay to record them.

The next to arrive upon the scene was Maurice Fitzgerald, half brother of Robert FitzStephen and uncle of Giraldus. Strongbow meanwhile was still upon the eastern side of the channel awaiting the return of his uncle, Hervey de Montmorency, whom he had sent over to report upon the condition of affairs. Even after Hervey's return bringing with him a favourable report, he had still the king's permission to gain. Early in 1170 he again sought Henry and this time received an ambiguous reply, which, however, he chose to interpret in his own favour. He sent back Hervey to Ireland, accompanied by Raymond Fitzgerald, surnamed Le Gros, and a score of knights with some seventy archers. These, landing in Kilkenny, entrenched themselves, and being shortly afterwards attacked by the Danes of Waterford, defeated them with great slaughter, seizing a number of prisoners. Over these prisoners a dispute arose; Raymond was for sparing their lives, Hervey de Montmorency for slaying. The eloquence of the latter prevailed. "The citizens," says Giraldus, "as men condemned, had their limbs broken and were cast headlong into the sea and so drowned."

Shortly after this satisfactory beginning, Strongbow himself appeared with reinforcements. He attacked Waterford, which was taken after a short but furious resistance, and the united forces of Dermot and the Earl marched into the town, where the marriage of the latter with Eva, Dermot's daughter, was celebrated, as Maclise has represented it in his picture, amid lowering smoke and heaps of the dead and dying.

Dermot was now on the top of the wave. With his English allies and his own followers he had a considerable force around him. Guiding the latter through the Wicklow mountains, which they would probably have hardly got through unaided, he descended with them upon Dublin, and despite the efforts of St. Lawrence O'Toole, its archbishop, to effect a pacific arrangement, the town was taken by assault. The principal Danes, with Hasculph, their Danish governor, escaped to their ships and sailed hastily away for the Orkneys.

Meath was the next point to be attacked. O'Rorke, the old foe of Dermot, who held it for King Roderick, was defeated; whereupon, in defiance of his previous promises, Dermot threw off all disguise and proclaimed himself king of Ireland, upon which Roderick, as the only retaliation left in his power, slew Dermot's son who had been deposited in his hands as hostage.

It was now Strongbow's aim to hasten back and place his new lordship at the feet of his sovereign, already angry and jealous at such unlocked for and uncountenanced successes. He was not able however to do so at once. Hasculph the Dane returned suddenly with sixty ships, and a large force under a noted Berserker of the day, known as John the Mad, "warriors," says Giraldus, "armed in Danish fashion, having long breast-plates and shirts of mail, their shields round and bound about with iron. They were iron-hearted," he says, "as well as iron-armed men."

In spite of their arms and their hearts, he is able triumphantly to proclaim their defeat. Milo de Cogan, the Norman governor of Dublin, fell upon his assailants suddenly. John the Mad was slain, as were also nearly all the Berserkers. Hasculph was brought back in triumph, and promptly beheaded by the conquerors.

He was hardly dead before a new assailant, Godred, king of Man, appeared with thirty ships at the mouth of the Liffy. Roderick, in the meanwhile, had collected men from every part of Ireland, with the exception of the north which stood aloof from him, and now laid siege to Dublin by land, helped by St. Lawrence its patriotic archbishop. Strongbow was thus shut in with foes behind and before, and the like disaster had befallen Robert FitzStephen, who was at this time closely besieged in his own new castle at Wexford. Dermot their chief native ally had recently died. There seemed for a while a reasonable chance that the invaders would be driven back and pushed bodily into the sea.

Discipline and science however again prevailed. The besieged, excited both by their own danger and that of their friends in the south, made a desperate sally. The Irish army kept no watch, and was absolutely undrilled. A panic set in. The besiegers fled, leaving behind them their stores of provisions, and the conquerors thereupon marched away in triumph to the relief of FitzStephen. Here they were less successful. By force, or according to Giraldus, by a pretended tale of the destruction of all the other invaders, the Wexford men seized possession of him and the other English, and had them flung into a dungeon. Finding that Strongbow and the rest were not destroyed, but that on the contrary they were marching down on them, the Wexford men set fire to their own town and departed to an island in the harbour, carrying their prisoner with them and threatening if pursued to cut off his head.

Foiled in this attempt, Strongbow hastened to Waterford, took boat there, and flew to meet the king, whom he encountered near Gloucester with a large army. Henry's greeting was a wrathful one. His anger and jealousy had been thoroughly aroused. Not unwarrantably. But for his promptness his head-strong subjects--several of them it must be remembered of his own dominant blood--would have been perfectly capable of attempting to carve out a kingdom for themselves at his very gates. Happily Strongbow had found the task too large for his unaided energies, and, as we have seen, had barely escaped annihilation. He was ready, therefore, to accept any terms which his sovereign chose to impose. His submission appears to have disarmed the king. He allowed himself to be pacified, and after a while they returned to Ireland together. Henry II. landed at Waterford in the month of October, 1171.


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