The word medieval conjures up rich brocades, ladies at court, fine feasts, jousting knights, early scientists, and a world where magic was still very much alive. The medieval reality is considerably more interesting. Borders shifted, beliefs were flexible, religion flexed its muscles, kings were created and tossed over, heroes were bold and heroines were born.
Early Medieval Ireland
The history of Ireland has been turbulent. (Does that sound like an understatement? It is.) Raiders have come from all directions, each leaving their mark, for better and worse, upon Ireland. The years of early Medieval Ireland are from 800 AD to 1166. Ireland was prosperous, rural and well-settled. Irish monasteries were centers for prayer and learning, but also places of great commerce and wealth.
Ireland was divided into many small kingdoms called tuatha. Every man who owned land, or was a professional, or was a craftsman was a member of a local assembly called an oenach. These men created policies, declared war or peace on other groups, and elected or deposed their kings. The king’s territory wasn’t owned by the king, but by all free men living on the land. (They did owe the king military service and taxes. It seems taxes have been eternal.) The tuath became united for reasons that benefited all. About 80 to 100 groups were in Ireland at any given time. (There were a few powerful kings above these groups such as the Ui Neill’s.) Despite infighting among families when it was time for a new king, life was good.
Kings of a tuath were considered sacred; so were the clergy and—unbelievably!—the Irish poets. This meant they didn’t have to perform manual labor. (Perhaps this is why so many Irish have become great poets and writers…) Gaelic society was basically a caste system that went down from free men who were landowners down to those without land. These were the laborers. Laws of organization were explicit and written in the Brehon Laws between 600 and 900 AD.
And then came the Vikings.
The raiders came from Norway and landed off Dublin. They rained quick and harsh upon Ireland without warning. Just when the poets had it good, they found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the laborers.
The first we hear of a Viking raid was in 795 BC when Vikings decided to leave Norway for greener pastures—Ireland.
These early raids interrupted the golden age of Christian Irish culture and began two hundred years of warfare. Vikings destroyed a number of monasteries and towns throughout Ireland. Most of the early raiders came from the fjords of western Norway. Their route? The Vikings sailed down the Atlantic coast of Scotland and then over to Ireland. During these early raids the Vikings also traveled to the west coast of Ireland to the Skellig Islands off the coast of County Kerry.
The Vikings Settled in Ireland
The Vikings established settlements along the Irish coasts and began to spend the winter months there. (Ireland became their winter playground—hard to imagine, but true.) Vikings settled in Waterford, Wexford, Limerick, Cork, Arklow, and Dublin. There’s archaeological evidence found in Kilmainham, on the western side of Dublin, that shows a small Viking settlement in Ireland in the mid-840s. We also have written Irish journals describing the Vikings’ movement inland, often by way of rivers such as the Shannon , and then their retreat to coastal settlements.
Thorgest was the first Viking who set up an Irish kingdom. In 839 he sailed up the Shannon and the River Bann to Armagh where he carved out a kingdom containing Ulster, Connacht and Meath . His glory lasted for six years until several of his subjects had just about had enough. Thorgest was caught and drowned in Lough Owen by Máel Sechnaill mac Maíl Ruanaid, the King of Mide.
After that, Máel Sechnaill, High King, defeated a Norse army at Sciath Nechtain. The High King Máel contacted Charles the Bald, Emperor in what was then France, and asked for help saying they needed to ally themselves as Christians against the pagans. It didn’t fly, and in the end turned out to be an all-around poor decision to contact.
Onward… In 852, the Vikings established a strong fortress where the city of Dublin now stands. One of the foreigners declared himself the King of Dublin. The next year they established a stronghold at Waterford.
Sometime in the ninth century the Norse established a fortified settlement near the mouth of the River Avoca, now known as Arklow, in County Wicklow. Arklow was occupied by at least 836 AD when the Annals of Ulster record the attack of the heathens (the Vikings) at Kildare.
In 914 AD, Viking settlements in Ireland began in earnest. Waterford was taken and became Ireland’s first city. (Waterford was settled by a Viking named Regnall. Reginald’s Tower is Ireland’s oldest civic building. As a mater of fact, Waterford is the only Irish city that still has a Viking name. Ram fjord or Windy fjord, was originally called Cuan na Gréine, Harbour of the Sun, by the Irish.) Between the years of 915 and 922 Cork, Dublin, Wexford and Limerick were urbanized. Modern excavations in Dublin and Waterford have unearthed a heavy Viking presence.
After several generations of plundering and courtship, a group of mixed Irish and Viking people were called the Norse—the Irish word for foreigner—and they began to influence their Irsh homeland. There is current DNA evidence in the Irish coastal residents of their Norse descent today.
Viking Power Ends. Finally.
Viking rule was broken by the joint efforts of the King of Meath and Brian Boru (c. 941- 1014). By the late tenth century, Brian Boru, from midwestern Ireland, had gained influence through political maneuvering and conquest. He claimed the title of High King. Boru and his allies defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. He was killed in battle, but the Vikings lost their power in Ireland and the Norse who stayed on became part of the Irish population.
The Irish were free from invasion for 150 years. In-fighting drained Irish resources and weakened them. In 1150 the Abbot of Clonmacnoise wrote a famous book entitled Chronicum Scotorum. It is the story of Ireland from the Great Flood to the 12th century. (Now that was one very long tale.)
This Time it’s the Normans: 1167-1185
By the 12th century, Ireland was a country of divided kingdoms. Power was in the hands of a few regional dynasties, and these dynasties fought each other for control of all Ireland. The Northern Uí Néills held much of what is now Ulster. Their family, the Southern Uí Néills, were the Kings of Meath.
The land was divided into several other large kingships, and one king, Diarmid, was exiled by a group of Irish forces. He fled to Normandy. Diarmid got permission from Henry II of England to use his subjects in order to regain his kingdom. Most importantly, Diarmid obtained the support of the great Norman, Marcher Lord Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. The man known as Strongbow.
In 1169 a huge force of Normans, along with mercenaries consisting of Welsh and Flemish, landed in Wexford. Within a short time Leinster was regained, Port Láirge Waterford and Baile Átha Cliath Dublin were under Diarmaid’s control, and suddenly Strongbow, a Norman, was his son-in-law. Diarmid named Strongbow as heir to his kingdom. This, of course, concerned King Henry II of England. He was quite worried about the establishment of a rival Norman state in Ireland. And so, Henry II decided to visit Leinster to establish his authority. And one thing led to another.
Henry’s Invasion—Everyone wants a Piece of Ireland
Pope Adrian IV gave Henry the authority to invade Ireland in order to cleanse the Church of corruption and abuse. With a large fleet, Henry II landed at Waterford in 1171, becoming the first King of England to walk upon dear Irish soil. He immediately claimed Waterford and Dublin as Royal Cities. Henry received even more Irish land with the Pope’s blessing. He gave his Irish territories to his younger son John. John unexpectedly succeeded his brother, and the Lordship of Ireland fell directly to the English Crown.
Henry was happily acknowledged by most of the Irish Kings, who saw him as a chance to get out from under the Normans. (This response by the Irish Kings may be found in the dictionary under the word “shortsighted.”) This led to the Treaty of Windsor in 1175. Soon, with all involved parties gone or dead, the treaty was worthless. In 1177 Limerick and lands north of Munster were captured by the Normans. Other Norman families, including familiar names such as Fitzgerald, carved kingdoms from the Irish soil.
The Lordship of Ireland, 1185-1254
King John’s Castle, built in the 12th century, still sits on the southern bank of the River Shannon. In 1185 the Normans owned huge parts of Ireland. Over the years, they had secured the entire eastern coast, including Dublin and then from Waterford up to eastern Ulster. The Normans had gone as far west as Galway and Mayo. The Lord of Ireland, King John of England, secured the Norman areas while at the same time ensuring that the Irish kings were under his control. Many Irish kings found themselves owing their thrones, and their armies, to King John of England.
Norman Invasion Contained—It was about Time
(This section may also be called, “Oh What Tangled Webs we Weave…”)
The Normans suffered from a series of events that slowed, and then stopped, the spread of their settlement and power.
Gaelic rebels attacked the English lordships. The rebels relied on raids and surprise attacks. This put a strain on Norman resources, and many of their knights were killed. Gaelic chieftains regained territory. In England, Kings Henry III and his successor, Edward I, were busy with warring factions in England, Wales, and Scotland. This meant the Norman colonists in Ireland lost their English pocketbook. Chaos ensued within Norman ranks, and Norman lords started fighting each other. Western European politics and the new strength of a Gaelic Ireland pulled residents and settlers deep into the heart of the Irish countryside and its spirit.
What occurred in Ireland during the late 12th and early 13th century was a change from acquiring lordship over men to colonizing land. The Norman invasion resulted in the creation of borough towns, numerous castles and churches, importing tenants, and an increase in agriculture and commerce. These changes became permanent. Normans altered Gaelic society with efficient land use. It was a balancing act: Normans had acquired the Irish language, DNA, and customs. On the other hand, the Irish way of life changed—in some ways for the better—and many Irish, especially those in Leinster and Munster, have Norman surnames. Gaelic Resurgence, Norman Decline, and the Black Death: 1254–1536. (So much to conquer, so little time.)
Ireland was deeply shaken by three events of the 14th century:
- The first was the invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce of Scotland. (Remember him from the movie Braveheart? He was real.) In 1315, Bruce rallied many of the Irish lords against the English presence in Ireland. Bruce was eventually defeated in Ireland at the Battle of Faughart, near Dundalk, his troops caused a load of destruction, especially in the heavily populated areas around Dublin. In the midst of this chaos, local Irish lords won back land that had been lost to their families for generatons.
- The second was the murder of William Donn de Burgh, 3rd Earl of Ulster, in June 1333. His land was split among his family. Those in Connacht rebelled against the English Crown and openly sided with the Irish—not always the best course of action as history shows, but they were quite a family. What this mean was that just about all of Ireland west of the Shannon was lost by the English to the Normans. After more than two hundred years the Burkes, as they were now called, were allied with the administration in Dublin.
- The third catastrophe for the English in Ireland during medieval times was the Black Death. It arrived on Ireland’s shores in 1348. Most of the English and Normans lived in towns and vllages, while the native Irish were rural. Because of this, the Plague hit the invaders like a ton of bricks. A celebrated account from a monastery in Cill Chainnigh (Kilkenny) chronicles the plague as “the beginning of the extinction of humanity and the end of the world.” After the plague passed, Gaelic Irish language and customs dominated the country again. The English-controlled area of Ireland shrunk back to the Pale, a fortified area around Dublin. (We native Irish were beyond the Pale. Now you know where that expression comes from.)
Desiring to save their hides, many of the Norman lords living outside the Pale adopted Irish language and customs. They became known as the Old English. According to some people, they became more Irish than the Irish. (Who could blame them?) During the following centuries they sided with the native Irish in political and military conflicts with England, and they were Catholic after the Reformation.
The authorities inside the Pale were so worried about Ireland going Irish that they passed special legislation, known as the Statutes of Kilkenny, in 1367. They banned people of Eglish descent from speaking the Irish language, from wearing Irish clothes, or inter-marrying with the Irish. Since their government in Dublin had almost zero authority, no one paid much attention and proceeded to speak and marry to a fare-thee-well.
During the 15th century the government in Dublin continued withering away. (For one thing, the English monarchy was entrenched in the War of the Roses, and that kept them busy elsewhere.)
Many kings of England delegated their authority to the powerful Fitzgerald Earls of Kildare. The politics in Ireland became even more remote to the English Crown. At the same time, the Gaelic lords expanded their powers, further decreasing English power in Dublin.
But were there castles? Were there fine homes, and did people play music and wander the Burren? Absolutely. Were there banquets and poets and did people live in close-knit groups? Of course they did, and this unity is what you’ll feel in Ireland, particularly in the west and in the heartland. It’s this unity that has saved us over and again. It’s what will make you feel welcome when you come home to Ireland. Because, really, with so many people coming and going during the centuries, everyone here is related, and some of them are most surely related to you.