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Magnates, Gaelic and Anglo-Irish

Magnates, Gaelic and Anglo-Irish

The Anglo-Norman invasion, by reducing the arena of warfare that was left in the hands of native Irish lords to less than half of the island, meant that the days had ended when great royal circuits of Ireland were made by provincial kings to assert their claim to the elusive high-kingship. Instead, those who retained their territories intact, primarily in the north and west of the island, raided their neighbors in petty pursuit of cattle-prey, while those who lost lands in the colonial settlement compensated by expanding into their neighbors' territory. As the colony expanded, two strategies were variously employed: one, never very effective for long, was to unite with their fellow Irish against a common threat; the other was the temptation to align with the all-conquering invader against a neighbor who had, after all, been an enemy for generations.

As for the Anglo-Normans, antagonisms fueled by land-hunger had been in evidence from the beginning, and for them too an alliance with the Irish "enemy" (frequently sealed by marriage, fosterage, or the bond of gossipred [sponsorship at baptism]) could prove useful if it undermined the ambitions of a rival Anglo-Norman. Thus, although there was undoubtedly an ongoing war in medieval Ireland between native lords and newcomers, the paramount powers on both sides had much in common, and as time wore on, the differences became fewer. On the Irish side, by and large, the dynasties most prominent at the time of the invasion remained so after its initial shockwave, an exception being the MacDunleavys of Ulaidh (east Ulster), while the Mac Lochlainns of Cineál Eoghain were supplanted by their O'Neill cousins in the early thirteenth century. Some thrived, but at the expense of other Irish dynasties: when the Mac Carthys lost Cork, they compensated in Kerry; when the O'Briens lost Limerick, they fell back on their Clare birthright.

It would have been harder to predict at the start of the invasion which of the invaders would stand the test of time. This was because of the feudal law of inheritance, which stipulated that an estate without a direct male heir passed to another family or families through heiresses, as in the case of Strongbow's lordship of Leinster and de Lacy's lordship of Meath. Predictability came only with the creation in the early fourteenth century of three new earldoms entailed in the male line, so that the estates were never subdivided among heiresses but were inherited by the nearest male family member. Henceforth, therefore, the paramount Anglo-Irish magnates were the Geraldine earls of Kildare and Desmond, and the Butler earls of Ormond. Unfortunately for the vast de Burgh (Burke) estate of Connacht and Ulster, it was not so entailed, and the earl's murder in 1333 saw the inheritance go to an absentee heiress, a situation having two main consequences: cadet branches of the family in Connacht filled the vacuum and flourished while the absence of a resident Anglo-Norman magnate in Ulster was an enormous stroke of luck for the O'Neill family.

These were the dominant players on the Irish political scene in the fifteenth century, troubled only by the turbulence of the contemporary English scene: the Butlers had Lancastrian affiliations and strong English landed interests, the Geraldines were Yorkist sympathizers, largely free of English interests and much more immersed in native Irish politics. Control by the various families over government waxed and waned with developments in England, the Kildares emerging preeminent, despite supporting Yorkist pretenders in the early Tudor years. Their downfall came only with their failed rebellion in 1534, a key factor in the collapse of the superstructure of power in medieval Ireland.

SEE ALSO English Government in Medieval Ireland; Gaelic Recovery; Gaelic Society in the Late Middle Ages; Norman Invasion and Gaelic Resurgence


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Duffy, Seán. Ireland in the Middle Ages. 1997.

Ellis, Steven. Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, 1447–1603. 1998.

Frame, Robin. English Lordship in Ireland, 1318–1361. 1981.

Simms, Katharine. From Kings to Warlords: The Changing Political Structure of Gaelic Ireland in the Later Middle Ages. 1987.

Seán Duffy

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