Norman Invasion and Gaelic Resurgence

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Norman Invasion and Gaelic Resurgence

The Norman invasion of 1169 at the request of Diarmaid Mac Murchadha (Dermot MacMurrough, 1110?–1171), king of Leinster, is traditionally identified as the start of non-Irish rule. But the first Norman invasion was almost a century earlier and was spiritual, not military.

Religious Background to the Conflict

William the Conqueror saw his ally Lanfranc installed as archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. Lanfranc claimed primacy over the entire archipelago (chiefly to assert his superiority to York), ordaining and winning the obedience of two bishops of Dublin, Patrick (in 1074) and Donngus (in 1085), both monks of Canterbury province, with Donngus directly under Lanfranc. In 1074 Lanfranc also sought to enlist Ireland's most powerful king, Terdelvacus (Turlough) Ó Briain (1009–1086) of Munster into the work of church reform, denouncing Irish polygamy and simony (notably in bishops taking money for ordaining priests). Lanfranc's successor, St. Anselm, ordained bishops of Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick, and his pressure on Turlough's son and successor Murtagh (d. 1119) brought about the reform Synod of Cashel in 1101.

The papacy was made aware of Irish church abuses, including lay control of ecclesiastical nominations, notably by St. Malachy (1094?–1148) and his friend and biographer St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). Pope Adrian IV therefore granted crusader rights in 1155 to Henry II of England to control Ireland so as to effect church reform, a right confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1172. (Both popes fought the issue of lay control against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa with ultimate success.) Henry avoided personal intervention until it became desperately necessary to win back papal favor after the murder of Archbishop Saint Thomas Becket in 1170, allegedly on his orders.

The Military Invasion

Henry had permitted Diarmaid to seek aid from Norman Welsh vassals from 1166 to recover Leinster, from which the high king Rory O'Conor (1116?–1198) had ousted him. Diarmaid brought in a complex network of families headed by Richard de Clare (d. 1176), second earl of Pembroke ("Strongbow"), an opponent of Henry in the civil wars before his accession. Linked to him were many descendants and kinsfolk of Gerald of Windsor or at least of his wife, the Princess Nesta a Rhys ap Twedwr, whose paramours had included Henry I, grandfather of one of Diarmaid's allies, Meiler FitzHenry (who would serve as his cousin King John's Irish justiciar from 1200 to 1208). The arrival in Ireland of Henry II and his forces in 1171 was as much to control his old subjects as to convert his new ones.

After Diarmaid's death, Strongbow, now his sonin-law, claimed the kingship of Leinster, which accounted for Henry's enormous though unused army. Strongbow had foiled O'Conor's siege of Dublin, put its Norse jarl to death, recovered Waterford, and allied with Donal Mór Ó Briain (d. 1194) to attack Ossory, but he made no resistance to Henry, who reduced his Leinster title to an earldom and made Hugh de Lacy (d. 1186) his justiciar. De Lacy was made lord of Meath, but before his assassination he too would be accused of aspiring to independent Irish kinship. Before returning to Normandy in 1172, Henry received homage from Ó Briain and several other Gaelic kings. These proceedings were emblematic of the future relationships of English government, colonial magnates, and native leaders: constant maneuvering, short-term alliances, and a consistent belief down the centuries among the English that any of their number established in Ireland, however recently, were not to be trusted.

The Normans, unlike the Norse, could establish Irish bases far from the sea, and their kings depended on these to keep control. Norman castles, the open secret of their success, encouraged and proclaimed self-reliance, as did their modern armor, professional armies, and effective archers. The papacy supported Norman conquest in the perceived need of strong, centralized rule to facilitate reform, hierarchy, and control. However, the papacy found that excessive power in regal hands worked to its detriment, while regal weakness bred Norman as well as Gaelic autonomy and the emasculation of communications and tributes.

Early Chronicles and Commentary

There is no equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry for the Norman invasion of Ireland, but two versions of the conquest of high literary value have survived. One is the Song of Dermot and the Earl, a heroic chanson so titled by its translator, the pro-Norman historian Goddard H. Orpen (Ireland under the Normans, 1911–1920). The chanson is tentatively ascribed to Morice Regan, an interpreter in Diarmaid's service who appears in its text in what seems an assertion of authorship. It may be no earlier in writing than 1225 but survived as a great dining-hall oral performance in Norman castles over the previous half-century. Although pro-Norman (its Irish natives are treacherous as well as primitive), it is a vivid narrative, with skillful deployment of character differentiation (possibly for reasons of sponsorship) and a companionable eagerness, which makes it as valuable for what it tells of its audience as for its events.

The other source is the various writings of Giraldus of Wales (Gerald de Barri, 1146?–1223), yet another grandson of the industrious Nesta, topographer, propagandist, historian, archdeacon, incessant autobiographer, and family partisan for the FitzGerald invaders of 1169 and 1170. His fullest portrait, more revealing than he realized, is of his assertive, gossipy, intriguing, persistent, iconoclastic, snobbish, affectionate, treacherous, comic, and tragic self. But he made fine stories and good descriptions of the invaders, producing Topographia Hibernica after one visit (1183) and Expugnatio (Conquest) Hibernica, which concludes with what he saw of the visit of Prince John in 1185, when the prince had been appointed lord of Ireland by his father, Henry II. Giraldus was ready to vilify the Irish partly to vindicate his Norman identity from the suspicion of undue Welshness that had cost him at least one bishopric, but his marginal status must have resembled that of many Irish in these years, including Morice Regan.

Meanwhile the Irish annalists continued their work at various periods, not always greatly concerned with the invasion. The contemporary Munster Annals of Inisfallen merely state of Henry's massive incursion ("arguably the single most important turning point in Irish history," wrote Sean Duffy in 1997), that he landed in Waterford, received submission from Ó Briain and from the southernmost major king Mac Carthaigh, and wintered in Dublin. Annalists had their own art, notably in invective: Diarmaid's death was recorded as of "a man who troubled and destroyed Ireland" by the Connacht contemporary chronicler in the Annals of Tighearnach, which noted for Strongbow's obituary that no greater brigand than he had existed since the Viking Turgesius. The same vigorous strain is audible in Gaelic poetry more than five centuries later.

Anglicization of the Irish Church

All of these writers (possibly excepting Regan) were clerics, and the ecclesiastical rationale for the invasion consolidated its advance. Henry II ensured a synod at Cashel during his visit and had its proposed reforms of marriage, liturgy, and so on reported to the pope. He had the new archbishop of Dublin, the Englishman John Cumin (d. 1212) elected under his auspices in 1181 and consecrated by the pope in 1182. Irish dioceses steadily fell into English or Norman hands in Leinster and east Munster over the next 150 years, but much of this seems to have been the result of local Norman influence, not royal demands or appointments. J. A. Watt (1972) estimates the anglicization of dioceses as having occurred in Meath (from 1192), Waterford (from c. 1200), Down, Ossory, and Leighlin (from c. 1202), Limerick (from 1215), Ferns and Kildare (from 1223), Lismore (1216–1246 and then from 1253), Emly (1212–1236 and then from 1286), Armagh (1217–1227 and then from 1306), Cork (1267–1276? and then from 1321), and Cloyne (1284–1321 and then from 1333). Leinster's dependence on Canterbury was preconquest, and east Munster reflected Norse as well as Norman and royal control of Waterford. (The former Mac Carthaigh capital and subsequent archbishopric of Cashel stayed under Gaelic influence.) But even before John Cumin, the diocese of Connor (County Antrim) was anglicized from c. 1178, which testified to a Norman breakthrough in eastern Ulster under John de Courcy (d. 1219?) in 1177, and the subsequent fates of Down and Armagh show consolidation and extension under successive magnates.

From the first, the invaders had intermarried with the natives: Hugh de Lacy married Rory O'Conor's daughter, which did not prevent O'Conor from leveling one of his castles a short time later. But ecclesiastical anglicization meant making the Irish church in all things akin to the church in England, and clerics of note had to be English-born or obviously English in culture. Cumin's successor was named Henry of London. It was essentially intellectuals, bards, annalists, and clerics who were supremely conscious of the Irish-English divide. That is not to say that they were always reliably on one side of it. De Courcy, carving out eastern Ulster for a quarter-century, became passionately attached to the cult of St. Patrick and saw to the transfer of what he was certain were the saint's remains to a grave in Downpatrick. De Courcy's native Cumbria is a popular candidate for Patrick's birthplace, so there may have been a personal identification, and de Courcy was a most generous ecclesiastical provider. Eventually de Courcy was ousted by Hugh de Lacy's eponymous son (d. 1242), who was first ennobled (earl of Ulster) and then in his turn ousted by King John. The effect was to gain security for the rise of the O'Neills of Tyrone.

The papacy's battles with John and with the infant Henry III's effective regent (and Anglo-Irish magnate) William Marshal seriously impaired the initial papal principle of support for strong English rule as desirable for reform. The king's clerical friends might not be the pope's—Henry of London backed John under interdict and won the Dublin archbishopric when John gave way. And William Marshal's ukase that only Englishmen should be appointed to Irish dioceses was repudiated and condemned by Honorius III in 1220. Honorius also terminated at that point the papal legateship of Henry of London, who once again showed himself the king's man rather that the pope's in combining the office of justiciar with that of archbishop from 1221 to 1224, as he had done from 1213 to 1215. In practice the line dividing Irish and English clerical rule roughly approximated the pattern established in lay territorial control. Those Normans who penetrated beyond the line from Carrickfergus to Cork were even more conscious of the need to serve themselves, and sometimes such a reputation may have advanced them.

Post-Conquest Assimilation

The first generations of Normans from Strongbow to de Courcy who established themselves and their successors or supplanters in eastern Ireland brought their followers with them, and the country took its pattern from this. In many ways the real division in Ireland remains between east and west rather than north and south. The Normans who arrived after King John's death in 1216 were much more on their own. Many of them might have made great conquests in the west, as the de Burghs did, but they then grew much more dependent on the native population, lost influence at court, found that lands they claimed were now awarded elsewhere, and became increasingly Gaelic in speech, manners, usages, and even law. As Victorian imperialists might put it, they "went native." This did not mean identification with Gaelic interests; it meant that they became further groups of Gaelic magnates playing off king's men against Norman barons and moving to a deeper level of mutual mistrust with royal officials and recent settlers.

The first fifty years of Norman Ireland had also established common law there, ultimately to form the basis of the present-day Irish legal system (cousin to the English and remote from the Scots). Local government on the shire principal was introduced then, where sheriffs could enforce their authority. Urban liberties were granted and regal councils were started, to evolve by the end of the thirteenth century into the Irish parliament. Irish intellectuals from 1169 to the present might curse the Normans, but Sean O'Faolain (1900–1991), evolving from his youthful nationalism, correctly spoke in his The Irish (1947) of "the Norman gift." Licensed brigandage begat democracy.

That history evolved thus was in part due to the crusading role in which Henry II had arrived: the native Irish were far from high in his priorities, but he and his successors had some sense of responsibility for them. The natives were expected to attend the early councils and first parliaments, and the language of apartheid or "Jim Crow" only came into legal use during periods when Normans had gone native and the English had lost confidence in their powers of assimilation. Giraldus, the classic exemplar of assimilation, wrote of Irish life and manners with the utmost contempt but with the assumption that under due royal or noble guidance, however rough the tutelage, civilization and salvation might ultimately extend to the Irish. Only after the lapse of two centuries did the tone change, when the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed in 1366 under Lionel (1338–1368), duke of Clarence and earl of Ulster, third son of Edward III. Lionel had married the de Burgh heiress Elizabeth (d. 1362), only to find her male kinsmen occupying her enormous inheritance of Connacht land and serving themselves by flaunting native status. In his rage and frustration Lionel had the statutes outlaw "alliance by marriage, . . . fostering of children, concubinage or amour or in any other manner . . . between the English and Irish." The English were also forbidden to adopt Irish names, customs, fashions, modes of riding, dress, shaving, and so on, or to sell horses or armor to the Irish on penalty of being adjudged traitors. It shows how deeply the Irish and English peoples had intermingled and would continue so to do, but it also asserted a government principle—however often ignored—separating natives from colonizers. Past regimes had exhibited metropolitan hostility to the periphery, but Lionel codified it—uselessly, as far as the next 150 years were concerned, since England had no military resources to overawe natives and bring the alienated to heel. It had to await the invention of gunpowder for any hope of realization.

Native Irish Response

The native Irish position from the start had been consistent in its divisions. High King Rory had suddenly replaced the previous strongman, Murtagh Mac Lochlainn of Tyrone (d. 1166), and driven out his ally Diarmaid from Leinster. Diarmaid's return with the Normans was welcomed by Ó Briain and other kings who disliked the thought of Rory becoming too powerful. The same considerations governed individual kings and chieftains in the formulation of policy over subsequent centuries: resist the foreigner by all means, but not so as to give too much strength to a native rival; assist the foreigner where appropriate, but not where it infringes unduly on your own power. King John in 1310 alienated two friendly native rulers, Cathal ("Red-Hand") O'Conor and Aedh Ó Néill, by demands for hostages. This was not simply a feeling that John was hardly a wise choice for guardian of a child: family feeling was not particularly delicate on either side of the Irish Sea (Rory, for instance, burned out the eyes of a son of his who guided a Norman raid on Connacht). They refused to turn alliance for the present into dependency for the future.

As the century progressed, disputed successions to Irish kingships were decided by Norman intervention, although sometimes later repudiated by the selected protégé. For instance, Hugh de Lacy the younger backed Brian Ó Néill in 1238. Brian cut his teeth as ruler in a 1241 massacre of his rivals for the rule of Tyrone, the Mac Lochlainns of Inishowen, but he subsequently allied with their remnant against Mael Seachlainn O'Donnell (d. 1247), who had supported him against them. He allied with the O'Conors of Connacht (now limited to Roscommon) against the English in 1249, and after de Lacy's death he withheld the tribute he had previously paid to the earldom of Ulster. In 1258 he met with Aedh O'Connor and Tadhg Ó Briain at Belleek and won Aedh's support (but probably not Tadhg's) as "king of the Irish in Ireland," only to be defeated and killed by the Normans at the battle of Down in 1260. It seems like a mark of Gaelic resurgence, and in effect it was, but not with the sense of unity implied by the readiness of the Annals of Ulster in 1248 to describe Brian as "high king of the north of Ireland" or of King Henry III to complain after Brian's death that he had "presumptuously borne himself as king of the kings of Ireland."

The high kingship had consistently bred fear and rivalry rather than any enduring unity and had thus given rise to the Norman invasion itself. Brian Ó Néill won no support from his O'Donnell neighbors for his high kingship ambitions, yet his career was paralleled by that of Godfrey O'Donnell (d. 1257), who repelled the attempts of Maurice FitzGerald (d. 1257) against O'Donnell territory by destroying his castle at Caol Uisce, wrecking his base at Sligo, and defeating his forces at Credran in 1257. FitzGerald had been a formidable member of his formidable family, threatening the northwest as well as supporting de Lacy's ill-advised intervention in the Ó Néill succession. This reminds us that Gaelic resurgence rose highest with the stimulation of an extended Norman threat. John fitz Thomas FitzGerald (d. 1261), menacing MacCarthaigh in south Munster, was comparably routed at the battle of Callan (1261) despite support both from the justiciar and from a cousin of Fineen MacCarthaigh who defeated him.


The Irish frontier remained a vortex of conflict but also of cultural exchange, and if its Normans became gaelicized, it no more limited their hostilities against their native Gaelic neighbors than it did against Norman rivals or against increasingly ineffectual royal attempts to assert authority. Kenneth Nicholls (1972), authoritative historian of medieval Gaelic Ireland, estimates that the re-gaelicization primarily turned on intermarriage, sometimes on Norman procreation of children with Gaelic tenants; the very looseness and secular character of marriage, still unreformed to clerical specifications, dramatically increased the intermingling of peoples. At the very time when Parliament was taking root under Edward I, Anglo-Norman control of the regions where initial Norman leaders had had few followers was now fraying away. But what succeeded it was broadly a synthesis, with clerics pulling toward anglicization. (Gaelic bishops even offered Edward I 8,000 marks to grant English law to all Ireland outside the impenetrably Gaelic Ulster, but Edward refused: it was too daunting for the conqueror of Wales and Scotland).

The Bruce invasion (1315–1318) proved something of a Pyrrhic victory for Crown forces, revealing how shaky royal government was (very much dependent on magnates such as the Red Earl of Ulster, whose lands were chiefly in gaelicized Norman possession within two generations). In Ulster itself Niall Mór Ó Néill was master of central and most of eastern Ulster by the end of the fourteenth century, partly by the use of Scottish troops, some of whom settled in Down and Antrim (MacDonnell, Magennis, possibly MacQuillin). English families were chiefly limited to the now-gaelicized "savages," surviving intermittently in the Ards peninsula. Meanwhile, in the extreme south of the once heavily anglicized Leinster, the Mac Murchadha (MacMurrough) family had maintained and extended its kingship of Leinster as though it had never been interrupted by Strongbow. Art Mór held the Barrow valley in Carlow and Wexford at the end of the century, and the O'Tooles and O'Byrnes threatened Dublin from the hills of Wicklow. In Munster the de Clares, to whom Edward I had granted all Thomond (i.e., north Munster) in 1276, were smashed by the O'Briens at the battle of Dysert O'Dea in 1318 and disappeared. Gaelicized FitzGeralds and Butlers continued to play a major part in English affairs, partly from lust for power, partly for self-protection: Butlers were Lancastrian and FitzGeralds Yorkist in the Wars of the Roses, and the successive English rulers worried more about them than about the Gaelic rulers of the late fifteenth century. Royal rule now extended little beyond Dublin, while church authorities bewailed the persistent raids on cathedrals and lands by incessantly predatory Gaels and Normans.

SEE ALSO Bruce Invasion; English Government in Medieval Ireland; Gaelic Recovery; Gaelic Society in the Late Middle Ages; MacMurrough, Dermot, and the Anglo-Norman Invasion; Magnates, Gaelic and Anglo-Irish; Norman Conquest and Colonization; Richard II in Ireland; Primary Documents: The Bull Laudabiliter, Pope Adrian IV's Grant of Ireland to Henry II (c. 1155); Three Letters of Pope Alexander III, Confirming Henry II's Conquest of Ireland (1172); The Treaty of Windsor (1175); The Statutes of Kilkenny (1366); King Richard II in Ireland (1395)


Cosgrove, Art, ed. Medieval Ireland, 1169–1534. Vol. 2 of A New History of Ireland. 1993.

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

Edwards, R. Dudley. A New History of Ireland. 1972.

Frame, Robin. Colonial Ireland, 1169–1369. 1981.

Lyndon, James. The Making of Ireland. 1998.

Nicholls, Kenneth. Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages. 1972.

Watt, John A. The Church in Medieval Ireland. 1972.

Owen Dudley Edwards

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Norman Invasion and Gaelic Resurgence

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