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Ireland, lordship of

Ireland, lordship of. Ireland first emerges into the light of history with the introduction of Christianity in the 5th cent. in documents ascribed to the British missionary St Patrick. Thereafter it developed a highly literate society, which has left us a substantial corpus of Latin and vernacular literature, allowing us to form a mental picture of Dark Age Ireland that is clearer and far more detailed than that available for almost any other European country. The 7th–8th cent. law tracts, heavily influenced by the Scriptures, portray a society that was intensely hierarchical, where status and honour meant much, and where sharp distinctions were made between the various grades of society, principally between those regarded as ‘sacred’ (including kings, clerics, and poets) and those who were not, and between the free and the unfree.

At the highest rung of the ladder stood the kings, around whom society revolved. Ireland was a land of many kings, the law tracts defining three grades: kings of petty local kingdoms, overkings ruling several of these, and ‘kings of overkings’ who effectively ruled a whole province. Although the laws rarely refer to a high king of all Ireland, it is clear that for several centuries until the early 11th cent. the leading dynasty, the Uí Néill (based in the northern half of the country, having their capital at Tara), did claim, and were occasionally able to enforce, supremacy throughout the island. Their primacy was smashed by the upstart Munster king Brian Boru (d. 1014) and throughout the 11th and 12th cents. power revolved around a half-dozen or so leading province kings, each seeking to force his rivals into submission and assert himself as high king.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which these changes were the result of the Viking incursions which began in the late 8th cent., and which for a time in the 9th cent. seemed likely to overwhelm the country. Certainly, the Vikings increased the intensity of warfare in an already violent society, and by developing towns at Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, and Cork, and trading networks overseas, they added to the wealth of what was otherwise a largely pastoral economy. In time, the Viking enclaves were assimilated into the Irish political superstructure, and those Irish kings who succeeded in asserting dominance over them, in some cases establishing the Viking town as their capital, gained an advantage over their rivals in the race for the high kingship. This was especially true in the case of Dublin, overlordship of which was, by the late 10th cent., generally asserted by successful claimants to the high kingship and which, by the mid-11th cent., was directly ruled by Irish kings, in effect replacing Tara as the country's symbolic capital.

What might have been the evolution of a national monarchy was cut short in the mid-12th cent. by the Anglo-Norman invasion, spearheaded by men from the Welsh borderlands, at the instigation of the Leinster king, Dermot MacMurrough, who had been expelled by the reigning high king, Rory O'Connor. The invaders were led by Richard de Clare, earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow, who married MacMurrough's daughter and succeeded to Leinster himself. At this point, late in 1171, Henry II (who had received a papal licence to invade Ireland in order, it was claimed, to aid in the process of reform then under way in the Irish church) came to Ireland himself, the first English king ever to do so, and established the English lordship. A widespread process of colonization then began, which involved the introduction to Ireland of English common law and institutions. Early attempts to reach an accommodation with Rory O'Connor were soon abandoned in favour of a policy of all-out conquest which at first proved remarkably successful, to the extent that, by the end of the 13th cent., English rule was effective over perhaps two-thirds of the island.

At this point a gradual decline began to take place in the fortunes of the English colony, exacerbated by a Scottish invasion led by Robert Bruce's brother Edward in 1315–18, and worsening economic conditions throughout much of the 14th cent. This was accompanied by a dramatic revival in the power of the native Irish lords, whose culture many of the settlers had begun to adopt, in spite of frequent attempts by the Irish Parliament to legislate against it. Costly military campaigns in the second half of the 14th cent., two led by Richard II, the first English king to visit his lordship since King John's expedition in 1210, failed to turn the tide. A preoccupation with the war with France and a series of cash-starved Lancastrian administrations meant a curtailment in the English commitment to the government of Ireland in the 15th cent., resources being channelled into the preservation of peace in a cordoned enclave surrounding Dublin known as the Pale, with responsibility for the government of the rest of the lordship being devolved on the resident Anglo-Irish magnates, principally the earls of Ormond, Desmond, and Kildare.

A growing separatist tendency among the Anglo-Irish community, culminating in a declaration of parliamentary independence in 1460 (though checked by the passage of Poynings's Law in 1494, forbidding the holding of parliaments without the king's licence), led to the emergence of the earls of Kildare as effective masters of the Pale and of much of the country, though nominally the king's deputy. The Kildare ascendancy continued until the rebellion by Thomas FitzGerald, son of the 9th earl, in 1534, which was used by Henry VIII as a pretext for destroying Kildare power, the males of the family being put to death and their lands confiscated. The fall of the Geraldines left much of Ireland ungoverned and served to reinforce the view that a reconquest of the country was needed. The Irish ‘Reformation Parliament’ convened in 1536 declared Henry supreme head of the church, while that of 1541 gave the English monarch for the first time the title of king (as opposed to lord) of Ireland, in the process bringing the medieval lordship to an end.

Sean Duffy


Duffy, S. , Ireland in the Middle Ages (1996);
Frame, R. , Colonial Ireland, 1169–1369 (Dublin, 1981);
Ó Corráin, D. , Ireland before the Normans (Dublin, 1972);
Ó Cróinin, D. , Early Medieval Ireland, 400–1200 (1995).

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