Category Archives: Ireland

Conquest and Ireland’s Great Dance with History

In the scale of iniquities, how does the Norman conquest of Ireland rate? Is it to be regarded as the start of eight hundred years of oppression, culminating in the Great Famine, the nearest we Irish came to annihilation? Was Dermot, as he was damned by generations, truly the fons et origo mali, the source and origin of Ireland’s evil?

Conquest.  Let’s start with that unfashionable word.  It is a word that is not used much today.  It has been consigned to history, like some old habit long in abeyance.  Yet the word is worth ongoing consideration.  Around it pivots the great moral question of history, made pervasive and relevant by the sheer predominance of conquest in the world’s historical narrative.  By what right, by what calculation of cost and benefit to the conqueror and the conquered, could conquest be justified?

By what right do technologically superior nations or more warlike peoples arrive on the shores of less technically or martially enthused ones and take them over, often assisted of course by the diseases they bring?

At base, there is no ‘right’ at issue, merely the reality of power, an elemental capacity to take territory from others, the better to promulgate one’s own species.  Possession of territory is a living imperative for all life.  Evolution is driven by it and so humans are not exempt.

Yet the imperialism of Western Europe sought to justify its expansion in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia by a moral yardstick; sometimes religious, sometimes the more secular but ethically satisfying  ‘progress’.  There were evidently qualms in the minds of conquerers by this need for justification.  So a rationale was not long in the making as a companion to conquest.  The Normans needed to justify their invasion of a fellow christian people.

Irony seems to light a word but irony there was in using Christianity – that mildest and most pacifist of ethe  – to justify Western expansion across the globe.  This was allied with a profound notion that progress was linear, that Western Europe was top of the social evolutionary chain, and that other societies were just a little tardy, a tardiness that benign European rule could correct.

That such correction involved brutality, genocide and exploitation were mere side effects of doing God’s work; no omelettes without broken eggs. More than that, progress was a revelation of God’s divine plan, history the evolution of His intentions for man. Hegel created his philosophical system around this notion and Marx would apply it to economics.  ‘Progress’ had ready-made uses for imperialists and ideologues generally.

Darwin would add another layer to the appreciation of ‘progress’, a scientifically based revelation of immutable laws of nature.  German nationalists seized on this to justify their European war in 1914, as later would Hitler and the fascists; “inferior” peoples must give way to “superior ones.”

Add in Malthusian ideas about other inexorable economic processes that dictated that population always outgrew the means of sustenance (think Ireland), and a healthy dollop of racism, and you have all the ingredients for Hitlerism; by which I mean the early aims of his European war to secure territory and the resources (minerals, oil, grain) for his Third Reich, not the later and consolatory one of genocide.

To reconcile its value system of Christianity and democracy, the modern West needed to establish its right to conquest. The West justified it as the White Man’s burden, the obligation to bring what conquering nations identify as progress – order, Christianity, medicine, economic development, and government. Think that’s passé? Not so, by a long shot.

If you think they’re old ideas, remember the US invasion of Iraq and the ideas of the neoconservative ideologists in Washington that counselled it. Think too of some of the advocacy of Brexiters about the glories of British imperialism only to be regained once free of the EU. Think of American and European populism and its underpinnings of xenophobia and fear.

How much of conquest has to do with the patriarchy? To judge by the number of women leading imperialist ventures over the centuries, evidently everything. It takes a certain male determination to turn Christian precepts – love, compassion, charity, forgiveness, tolerance, turning the other cheek, the almost deliberate antipathy to Roman virtues that glorified conquest and death in battle – into justification for war and expropriation – the classic Roman tropes. The role of the patriarchy in conquest is so pervasive, it defies analysis.  Conquest is a male characteristic.

The conquests of the past and indeed more recently define the very world order of today.  They divide globally the North from the South, organise the voting blocs in the United Nations, define the alliances of powers great and small, and form the foundation for the rules of world trade, deemed free only insofar as the mightiest blocs tolerate it so.

For England and later the British, the conquest of Ireland was a debut for its future global assertions. The moral issues of conquest were played out in Ireland as they would be up to the present day. By what right did Strongbow claim to be heir to the Lordship of Leinster?  Only by a right of marriage in his society that was alien in Ireland. By what right did the Normans hold Dublin, Wexford and Waterford?  By right of successful occupation.  By what right did they seize and settle land?  By Norman and feudal rights, not Gaelic and Brehon ones.

How did the Irish right cede these rights? Through technical inferiority in warfare; through their culture which directed their energies to forms of activity, including regnal wars, that made the island vulnerable; through a distaste for urban concentrations that led to ignore their value as centres of power; through a form of law that was based on tort, on law as a precept for settling relationships not a code for the common good sustained by a state; through a failure to centralise power and impose authority which could have marshalled resistance to the Normans; above all by an insularity and bravado that shielded them from the momentous events in the archipelago and nearby Continental Europe.

The Irish kings were quick to use the Normans in their own local squabbles, much to the advantage of the Normans.  And they were quick to pay homage to Henry II as their king, again one senses because, inter alia, it was better to have a distant king than a local overweening one, all the better to preserve the autonomy of their own little kingdoms (Irish county pride has deep roots!)

If one regards the nation state as the militarisation of society, the garnering of the monopoly of violence to the instruments of government, one can see that its centralised organisation makes it virtually unstoppable in the face of tribal and disparately organised societies.  So Ireland in the 12th century; so later South American, North American, African and Australian indigenous peoples.

If the conquest of Ireland did not achieve the annihilation of the Gaelic Irish – as conquest virtually did in the Americas, for example – that was largely because it unfolded in stages, allowing the natives to learn and adapt.  Geraldus Cambrensis, the Cambro-Norman reporter-cum-historian of the conquest, could see this happening already in the early 1180s.  The Gaelic Irish were learning to counter the Norman advantage in arms.  And as Geraldus wrote with some perspicacity, this meant that complete pacification of the Irish under Norman rule – at least as far west as the Shannon – would be impossible.  The colony would not be secure otherwise, he pointed out.  Indeed, the Gaelic did indeed push the Normans back, so much so that by the 14th century there were real doubts about the very survival of the colony.  The colony survived because it hung on to Dublin and the Pale and in extremis received grudging support from the Crown.

Henry II had at any rate set the template for the conquest; enough resources to maintain suzerainty but never enough to complete the conquest. Even Tudor ferocity would relent and seek to engage local Gaelic loyalty.  The Tudors were motivated more by concerns that Ireland presented an exposed flank to its Continental enemies, primarily Spain and then later France. Like the Normans before them, the New English that arrived in Ireland formed an elite that needed the local Irish to actually farm the land.  Successful plantation of settlers was confined to Ulster.  Irish fertility quickly refilled the demographic slumps from the wars and starvation that dominated the 16th and 17th centuries.

So the Irish never faced such disproportions of technology, way of life and demographics, as say Native Americans did.  Hitler was impressed and inspired by how America cleared out Native Americans, without global opprobrium.  His conquest of Poland, Ukraine and eastern Russia entailed plans of killing 35m to 40m to make way for German settlers.  Only Russian resistance at Leningrad and Stalingrad put paid to this particular dream of conquest and colonisation. Not a hundred years separates us from the frustration of plans of such malignancy.

For all that can be said in mitigation of the Normans and later the New English in not actually wiping out us Irish, there is still something remarkable about our story.  We survived and our particular assemblage of social values and personal orientations endured.   Pre-Norman Gaelic Ireland survived throughout the Middle Ages in all its vital characteristics.  Its aristocracy, and the native courtly culture that went with it, was done in by the Tudors and the Flight of the Earls.  Bereft of its leadership, Gaelic society continued in cultural expression, language, and social mores.  It took the catastrophic Great Famine to really kill of so many of its characteristics, particularly the language.  Besides dealing a near fatal blow to spoken Irish , the Famine also provided an opening for the adoption of a particularly repressive form of Catholicism that came to dominate land, marriage, and society.  The iron triangle of farm, church, and pub defined Ireland until the Celtic Tiger.

That post-Famine, Catholic, rural, patriarchal, heterosexual social order has disintegrated in my lifetime. In its place there is a verve, a creativity, a joie de vivre, yes a bravado and pride, to Ireland today.  Gaelic Ireland has reclaimed its soul with a liberating whiff of pagan hedonism about it. Our great dance with history goes on.

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Norman Invasion of Ireland: A Good Word for Strongbow

“I have not thought it part of my duty to pass moral judgements on anybody….To understand an action he must regard it from the point of view of the actor and with reference to the circumstances in which the actor stood.”

Gooddard H. Opren, Preface to Ireland Under the Normans 1169-1333 (1911, 1920)

I’ve written before about Strongbow’s reputation in Ireland.  If it amounts to much – and it doesn’t really – it is a portrait of an indecisive and hesitant man who belatedly joins the invasion a year after its begun, marries the local princess Aoife, and then fades from the scene.

I think this is a misreading.  I’d argue that Strongbow was an archetypal Norman lord, a man who found himself in a very tricky situation and boldly extricated himself.  He showed the qualities that made the Normans such a formidable force from Western Europe to the Middle East – vision, preparedness, calculation, and audacity deployed with great precision.

Strongbow as a sobriquet had nothing to do with bows and arrows: nobles trained as mounted cavalry with lances and swords. It may have been one inherited from his father, Gilbert de Clare, or indeed imposed by posterity, even perhaps a corruption of his seat, Strigoil or Striguil, now Chepstow.

Strongbow’s name was Richard de Clare and his title Earl of Strigoil.  Like his father, he was a marcher lord, meaning that he lived and warred at the borders of the realm, between England and Wales.  Marcher lords enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy, acting as local judicial figures and pretty much at war or at least on guard constantly.  Richard’s domaine Pembrokeshire, southern Wales (Deheubarth to the Welsh).  He craved his father’s title, Earl of Pembroke. In feudal society, an earl was second only to a duke, the highest rank short of royalty.

However, the king, Henry II, was unlikely to grant it to him. Henry II had come to the throne via his mother, the Empress Matilda, Henry I’s daughter.  When Henry I died without a male heir, the crown was contested between Matilda and his nephew, Stephen of Blois.  Matilda had grown up in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor and her heavy German accent and apparent lack of charm didn’t win her many allies, not enough to secure the throne.  Nor could Stephen accrue enough support for an outright win. The ensuring civil war, dubbed the Anarchy by Victorian historians, lasted from virtually the start of Stephen’s reign in 1135 until his death in 1154. By prior agreement, Matilda’s son Henry (Duke of Normandy via his father Geoffrey from whom the Plantagenets descend) assumed the throne on Stephen’s death.

The problem for Strongbow was that his father, Gilbert, had supported Stephen.  Stephen had in fact made Gilbert the First Earl of Pembroke.  Henry II then had two reasons not to recognise Richard as the Second Earl; the earldom had been created by Stephen and had been occupied by those who had sided against his mother.  Henry was not a man likely to admit Strongbow into his favour, though he would tolerate Richard as a marcher lord on the edges of his realm.

Strongbow faced local pressures too.  The Welsh were resurgent under the Lord Rhys (Princess Nest was his aunt), pushing back against the Norman colony.  The threat was serious enough for Henry II to mount several expeditions but the campaign of 1165 ended ignominiously under drenching rain and Welsh aggression.  In a rare military setback, Henry II sued for terms and returned most of Rhys’s territory.  Their compact turned into an alliance with Rhys even being granted the role of Justiciar in 1171, effectively the governor of south Wales.  This was all very bad news for the Cambro-Norman colony.

As the wheel of fortune turned against Strongbow, another local magnate, in Ireland, was in trouble.  Dermot MacMurrough, king of Uí Chinnseallagh (Southern Wexford) and sometime king of Leinster, found himself uncharacteristically isolated when Rory O’Connor became High King of Ireland. Dermot had been allied with his father, the great Turlough Mór O’Connor, but father and son had been at odds.  Dermot’s bitter enemy, Tiernan O’Rourke, allied with Rory, seized his chance and Dermot was sent into exile in 1166. Rory was now in a powerful position and poised to be Ireland’s first High King in more than name only since Brian Ború.  He faced a strategic weakness in that his base in Connaught was on the other side of the island to Dublin, the emergent capital.

Meanwhile Strongbow met with Dermot who bore a letter patent from Henry II approving aid in Dermot’s quest to regain his kingdom. The temptation was as sweet as it was dangerous for Strongbow. Dermot’s offer of fertile land aplenty in Ireland for Strongbow and his men was enticing for a colony under such pressure. Yet Strongbow could not be sure of military success is the wilds of Ireland, however much experience he and his followers had of fighting the Welsh. Nor could he be sure that Henry would tolerate his reach for a new lordship. The costs of failure would likely mean a precipitous fall in status from which recovery would be unlikely under the cold eye of the king. Yet success could also mean the ire of the king, annoyed at Strongbow’s boldness is seeking a virgin lordship beyond his realm.

Clearly, Strongbow could see the possibilities. Leinster, unlike most of Ireland, was well known across the sea, particularly in Wales, Bristol and Chester which traded with the settlements of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin.  While urban settlements were disregarded by the Gaelic Irish and not well fortified, the Normans understood that cities were the key to conquest and sources of revenue to pay for war, debts and trade.

The Norman approach to warfare was in its professionalism formidable: disciplined formations aided by archers and heavy cavalry won engagements decisively; this was  followed by the quick erection of fortifications to hold land seized in battle; and then settle it with followers.

In contrast, the Irish fought wearing little armour, bareback on horses, used darts and stones rather than archery, and moved quickly to raid and return home.

With marriage to Aoife, Strongbow would have a claim under feudal law, to the title of Lord of Leinster. With the Cambro-Norman colony under such pressure, he would likely not be short of followers to enfeoff lands won by the sword.

The sequence of events testifies to Strongbow’s stealthy approach.  Dermot goes back to Ireland first, re-establishes his rule in Uí Chinnseallagh, and raids around Dublin without much response from Rory.  The Cambro-Norman FitzGeralds lead the way in seizing Wexford and then the headland of Baginbun near Waterford.  The forces they bring with them are small but elite and prove devastatingly effectively against the far looser style of Irish warfare.  Risking the ire of Henry II, Strongbow goes ahead with the invasion of his main force and once he lands in Ireland, almost two years after Dermot’s return, his forces lose no time in seizing Waterford and marching on Dublin.  Strongbow clearly knows what he’s about; with these three cities under his control, he is master of Leinster. Once seized, Dublin remains in foreign hands for 750 years, from 1170 until January 1922, with the short exception of Easter week, 1916.

Henry II follows up with his own arrival in Ireland in 1171, accompanied by a mighty force that has more pageantry about it than military intent. Strongbow submits to him and surrenders the cities to the crown: Strongbow can have Leinster but not the means to power in Ireland.  Henry woos the Irish kings who mostly submit to him as their Lord.  Henry imposes his own men in authority over Strongbow, like Hugh de Lacy. In his Connaught fastness, Rory O’Connor holds out until he agrees a treaty with Henry II.  He will be the last Gael to aspire to the kingship of Ireland.

Despite conspiracy theories and beliefs, the Norman invasion was not an ambition of the English crown.  In fact, a proposal to invade Ireland had been put to Henry some years previously and he had passed up on the chance.  When he did come to Ireland, he did so to ensure that Strongbow would not contend to create his own rival kingdom.  He was also ducking the censure of Rome for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. Henry II settled with the partial invasion of Ireland he had found there, content to have Irish kings submit to him, and then returned to England and the trials of holding his Angevin domain together.

How does the Norman invasion fit into the broader developments in Europe? It is important to see it in this wider context.

The fall of the Roman Empire and the dissolution of order that came in its wake allowed the Viking age.  Defeat at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 frustrated the creation of a Viking kingdom in Ireland.  The Anglo-Saxon defeat of Harald Hardrada in September 1066 under the leadership of Harold II put paid to the last chance of a new Viking kingdom in England and indeed brought to a close the Viking Age.  The following month, Harold II faced a formidable new foe in the form of the Normans under William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings.  Norman victory was a pivotal event for it meant that the centre of European influence moved decisively from the north to the south, to Rome, the spiritual and very often political centre of the Normans.  Western Europe and its nation states as we know them began to take shape under the dual influence of kings and popes.

The engagement of Ireland in this wider narrative in Western Europe lurched forward with Strongbow, Henry II and the Normans arrival in Ireland. The partial invasion that followed, often facilitated by rival Irish kings using Normans to sway battles in their favour, created two Irelands, a Norman and  Gaelic.  Their interaction would drive politics until the hammer of the Tudors fell on the island.

Yet this is not the full story.  There were other forces at work in both Ireland and England that were moving to bind Ireland into the revolution and reforms underway in 12th century Europe.  They were driven by a belief that Ireland was violent, unstable and morally degenerate.

Its tempting to think that Dermot McMurrough saw himself as a harbinger of a more Europeanised Ireland, with he as king of Ireland under the benign and somewhat removed suzerainty of Henry II.  Dermot died in Ferns in May 1171, too soon to realise his grander ambitions.   So Strongbow stands alone as the decisive figure whose audacity pivoted Ireland toward England and the mainstream of European developments. Indeed, the Norman colony he founded in Ireland would have its ups and downs but its influence was decisive in shaping our modern history.

Yet its drama conceals the work of those other forces at work which conspired to dramatically change Ireland and its relationship to Europe.  More anon.

 

 

 

 

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Princess Nest, Ireland’s Forgotten Mother

Princess Nest?  You’ve probably never heard of her.  So it’s a bold claim to label her one of our forgotten mothers (aren’t they all eventually?) As well as being bold, it probably doesn’t make much sense. How can a woman be mother to a nation?  I’m not saying that she was the only one.  But I do claim that her influence was quite direct and formative in the development of Ireland, through her lineage; how her sons and grandsons changed Ireland during their lifetimes, and how their descendants played critical roles in our history.

So let me explain and if you stick with this, you’ll have earned a little bit of esoterica which might come in useful next year.  Why?  Because next year is the 850th anniversary of the arrival of the Normans in Ireland. And if you’re persuaded, then it won’t be esoterica but an important element in our national story.

When William the Bastard defeated Harold II at the battle of Hastings in 1066, Anglo-Saxon England came to an end as William seized the crown and became William the Conqueror.  His Norman knights swept the old order aside and imposed themselves as feudal overlords of England. Harold’s sons fled to Wexford, bringing with them their father’s battle standard as a gift to their host.

For the Normans, holding land was the basis for their feudal way of life – the manner in which it was held, parcelled out, organised, and inherited.  Each estate was a building block in a hierarchy whose summit was the crown, itself held by men (mostly) who combined in their physical person the actual and symbolic divine right to rule.  Normans coveted land as the sole basis of their social standing. When they could not inherit it, they used their martial prowess to seize it.  After victory in battle, they quickly threw up a temporary fortification (the mote and bailey).  They would then build more permanent fortresses and manors, organising the land, enfeoffing it with supporters, building villages and markets, and generally creating an aristocratic lifestyle and a recognisably medieval way of life. Their non-inheriting sons would in turn be compelled to find new lands to conquer and repeat the pattern.

So it was that after the conquest of England, Norman lords pushed into Wales where they encountered the Celtic Welsh kings. The last independent Welsh king, Rhys ap Tewdwr, of Deheubarth (south Wales, including that long peninsula that reaches toward Ireland), was killed around 1090 in battle by Bernard de Neufmarche –  a marcher (frontier) lord from Normandy.  Deheubarth was then open to the Normans and the lordship of Pembrokeshire was created by the crown.  Rhys’s son, Gruffydd, fled to Ireland where he spent some of his youthful years. He would eventually return to Wales and regain a small foothold in Cantref Mawr, tradition seat of the clan. His son, the Lord Rhys, would emerge as a powerful Welsh leader and put such pressure on the Normans that one Earl of Strigoil would look across the sea to Ireland for fresh lands to seize – he is known to us as Strongbow.

Nest, Rhys’s daughter, probably about 15 years of age at the time, found herself as a prize in the court of William “Rufus” II, William the Conqueror’s heir. There, Princess Nest’s beauty caught the eye of his younger brother Henry, renowned Lothario and later Henry I.  In about 1103, she bore him a son, Henry FitzHenry aka Henry FitzRoy. As princes do with women of no political use, Henry then married her off to Gerald FitzWalter, Constable of Pembroke Castle.  She bore him three sons and two daughters,  Angharad and Gwladys.

At this time, surnames as we know them were forming and her sons were to be known as sons of Gerald – FitzGerald.  Her son, Maurice, would team up with another son of Nest by a subsequent relationship, Robert FitzStephen.  The half-brothers would lead the vanguard of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 after Dermot MacMurrough, the ousted King of Leinster, solicited the help of Henry II and Strongbow in regaining his kingdom.  In fact, by agreeing to go to Ireland, Robert was released from the captivity of the Lord Rhys, the nephew of Nest – Wales was nothing if not a small world!  Maurice was about 60 at the time, Robert much younger, but both were bereft of opportunities at home.

Promised Wexford and its surrounding lands by Dermot (in contempt of Brehon law), Robert FitzStephen led the first arrivals, landing at Bannow Bay with the clear intention of taking Wexford not only as a prize but as a key beachhead.  With him was Robert de Barry, a grandson of Nest, son of Angharad, Robert FitzStephen’s half-sister. Mark the arrival of the first Barry in Ireland – his brother Philip de Barry would come some years later.  FitzStephen’s main lieutenant was Maurice de Prendergast and both were reinforced by the arrival of Dermot MacMurrough with a force of 500 Irish from his seat at Ferns.  Possibly persuaded to do so by their bishops, the people of Wexford surrendered to Dermot MacMurrough and renewed their vows of allegiance to him.

Alerted to these alarming developments, Rory O’Connor, the High King of Ireland, came to agreement with Dermot that Dermot would reign again as King of Leinster so long as his foreign allies left Ireland.  Shortly thereafter, Maurice FitzGerald arrived with reinforcements but Rory stayed his hand.

In May 1170, Dermot and his Norman allies were joined by another force led by a grandson of Nest, Raymond FitzGerald, known as Raymond le Gros for his stocky build.  Raymond was a son of William FitzGerald (Maurice’s brother); to note, William’s daughter forged the Carew lineage.  Raymond was a young knight in the service of Strongbow and acting as the advance guard of the main force being assembled in Pembroke.

Raymond landed at Baginbun in May 1170 and quickly proved himself a supreme battlefield commander, defeating a local Irish-Norse army sent to expel him from the headland of Baginbun.  Greatly outnumbered, he won a stunning victory, killing about 500 and capturing 70.  Raymond wanted to spare the prisoners but Strongbow’s uncle, Montmorency (evidently along to look after Strongbow’s interests), said clemency was a luxury they couldn’t afford.  All 70 died a brutal death and their bodies were flung into the sea.

By now, the Norman invasion was inexorable and Strongbow landed with his main force at Passage in August 1170, quickly overwhelming Waterford (who had resisted in fear after the massacre at Baginbun), slaughtering a good many, and taking Aoife, daughter of Dermot, as his wife.  Thereby, Strongbow established his claim to the Lordship of Leinster after Dermot either died or became king of Ireland (another promise made ultra vires, as neither feudalism nor English law existed in Ireland).

Milo de Cogan, who arrived with Strongbow, was another grandson of Nest, son of her daughter Gwladys. In September, Milo and Raymond seized Dublin by rudely interrupting the mediation by Archbishop O’Toole between the besieging Strongbow and the Danish King of Dublin, Haskulf. Milo also saved the Norman occupation of Dublin the following spring with a timely sally against a force of mercenary Norse supporting Haskulf’s attempt to retake Dublin.  Haskulf was captured and, in response to his defiant insults to his Norman captors, the Normans cut off his head there and then.  The Danes, or Ostmen, of Dublin were expelled beyond the walls to the north side of the river, hence Oxmantown. Thus ended Dublin’s Viking connection.

We know quite a lot about the Norman invasion thanks to another grandson of Nest, Gerald de Barry, son of  her daughter Angharad and her husband William FitzOdo de Barry.  Gerald, as a cleric and historian, would famously chronicle the Norman invasion of Ireland and record his impressions of Ireland and the Irish.

Altogether, Nest’s offspring would therefore include the Fitzgeralds, Fitzmaurices, de Barrys, de Cogans, and Carews. The FitzGeralds would create two dynasties in Ireland (earls of Desmond and Kildare) and effectively rule Ireland, technically on behalf of the English crown, until they were deposed by the New English under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

So it was that Edmund Curtis in his history of Ireland referred to Nest as the “queen bee of the Welsh-Norman swarm.”  It is interesting that this is the only treatment that Nest receives from Curtis.  Nor does she feature much in any of the histories.  This treatment at the hands of almost exclusively male historians is too dismissive and here’s why.

Nest’s sons and grandsons were the key agents in the Norman invasion of Ireland.  They were the first to cross the sea and establish the critical beachhead of Wexford and then Baginbun.  They battled against ferocious odds to hold on until Strongbow arrived with his main force, almost a year and a half after Maurice. Strongbow, out of favour with Henry II and very probably against the King’s instruction, was necessarily crafty and patient as his position depended on the success of this audacious adventure.  Had Maurice and Robert faltered, or had the High King mustered effectively against the Normans, Strongbow would in all likelihood not have risked crossing the channel.  He was gambling with his reputation and remaining resources in Ireland; he was gambling just about everything.

Taking ‘medieval’ to describe a particular type of European culture rather than a chronological period, medieval Ireland was a creation of the Normans.  They took the towns of Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin from the Ostmen and developed them through city charters, the emergent English common law, and investment.  The Normans built castles and sponsored a new wave of abbey building.  They established manors and new forms of agriculture, introduced taxation (King John’s Tower in Dublin was built as a treasury) and bureaucratic government.  They created permanent villages, developed markets and improved ports.  The Normans ended the Irish slave trade and replaced it with new trade through improved links with towns like Bristol and Chester.

Gaelic Ireland stayed wedded to its pastoral, raiding ways and regnal wars, eschewing primogeniture and urban living, all the while adhering to their Irish language, Brehon laws, customs, and culture.  It was clearly an attractive life and Normans were quickly Hibernicised, such that by the fourteenth century, the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed to try to save the English colony from complete Gaelicisation.

The source of political power of the FitzGeralds was their ability to negotiate between the two societies within Ireland, the Norman and the Gaelic, and between the English crown and the many sources of contending power within Ireland.  They applied Brehon or English law, depending on which was most advantageous to their interests.  This capacity was pretty much in their blood, from the marriage of Nest and Gerald de Windsor.  Like the Normans who intermarried in Wales, they forged an affinity with the society within which they had seized lands, the better to hold those lands and pass them on securely. The story of Nest and her intermarriage with the Normans prefigured what would happen a century later in Ireland.

This was most clearly so in the case of Aoife, Dermot MacMurrough’s daughter.  Her marriage to Strongbow in Waterford, in the days following its capture, was a revolutionary event.  It audaciously declared that Strongbow would become Lord of Leinster and holds its lands under feudal norms.  It defied the norms of Gaelic society, both in terms of how power and land were held as well as passed on.

The Normans formed an embryonic Irish government under the Crown.  Their state council would form the nucleus of what would become the Irish parliament.  Their house of Lords developed over the intervening centuries a distinctive Irish identity that was often in conflict with the Crown in Ireland, particularly on the issue of who had the right to initiate legislation, which in turn was emblematic of the deeper issue of whether Ireland’s interests or the rights of the Crown were predominant in Ireland.  Their influence in the House of Lords survived even as the chamber absorbed the parvenus of the New English and Cromwellian settlers in the seventeenth century.  Norman identification with Ireland and distinctly Irish interests formed the seed bed for the ideas expressed by Grattan and more radically by Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

There is a strange echo too in the stories of Nest and Dermot McMurrough.  Nest captivated Owain ap Cadwgan, a Welsh princeling, who raided and kidnapped her and her children.  Her husband and a few companions escaped, apparently using the toilet chute. Owain eventually returned Nest to her husband, Gerald, and, not for the first time, fled to Ireland.  In the topsy-turvy world of Welsh-Norman intrigue and war, Owain was eventually knighted by Henry I, Nest’s former lover, and agreed to support him in suppressing the revolt by Nest’s brother, Gruffyd.  Gerald was also supporting the King’s campaign, but killed Owain upon their encounter.

There was more consequence to the parallel story in Ireland.  In 1152, Dermot MacMurrough kidnapped Derbforgaill, the wife of the king of Breffni, Tieran O’Rourke, and the daughter of the king of Meath. Neither Dermot nor Derbforgaill were spring-chickens so it is as likely they had their own agendas.  Derbforgaill may not have been an unwilling victim as it is said she took most of her furniture with her.  Certainly Dermot might have seen her as a route to the kingship of Meath, a strategically critical area in the swaying balance of regnal wars in Ireland. Like Nest, Derbforgaill eventually returned to her husband.  The Brehons decreed that Dermot pay O’Rourke compensation in gold.  He didn’t and thus continued the bitter feud between them.  When the balance of power swung in O’Rourke’s favour in 1166, he settled his feud by exiling Dermot.  This in turn led to Dermot’s solicitation of help from Henry II, and the Norman invasion of Ireland.

While neither might have launched a thousand ships, both Nest and Derbforgaill were to be known as the ‘Helens’ of their homelands for these colourful episodes in their lives.

Princess Nest clearly had many qualities that helped her survive tumultuous times as her society was turned upside-down by Norman invasion.  History as it was written then – or indeed ever –  was not kind to women, even when they occupied positions of power and influence.  So we know little of Nest.  We do know that her immediate descendants took great pride in her and their lineage to her.  Gerald de Barry writes his history of the invasion such that the FitzGeralds and other relatives predominate, even at the expense of Strongbow (and particularly Montmorency).

Through the strength of the familial lines to which she gave rise, Nest was one of the great influencers in the development of Ireland’s history and indeed that of the British-Irish archipelago. The Tudors trace their line to her.  And through the FitzGeralds, so too could the Kennedys, giving Nest a reach to the US and the twentieth century.

Yet it is in Ireland that Nest’s influence was most direct and formative.  It is impossible to reconstruct the Norman invasion of Ireland without the critical leadership and influence of her sons and grandsons. Without FitzStephen and FitzGerald, it’s unlikely that Strongbow himself would have taken the fateful steps that led him to Ireland.  There might well not have been a Norman invasion at all.  And it is impossible to imagine Ireland’s historical narrative without the Normans.  Try to imagine Ireland without the FitzGeralds, or all the other Norman cognomens that abound in Ireland past and present. This is not a value judgement as to whether that is a bad or a good thing.   It is to say that our history would have been very different. However, I would hazard that Ireland would eventually have been invaded by the Tudors simply because they regarded Ireland as an exposed flank likely to be exploited by their arch-rivals, the Spanish, as indeed it was.

Have I persuaded you that Ireland is unimaginable without Princess Nest? That, if she was not the mother of us all, then mother of quite a few and through them an elemental ingredient in our history? I may not have persuaded you that Princess Nest is a lost mother of Ireland but perhaps you’ll grant that she deserves to be better known here. In knowing about her, we know more about ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fake News: The Sinking of the Athenia, not the Titanic, is the Metaphor of our Time

The sinking of the Titanic is the most popular maritime disaster, an endless source of fascination and metaphor.  Yet it tells us less about our times than the fate of the Athenia.

Depending on the time of year, the SS Athenia of the Donaldson Atlantic Line regularly plied the route from Glasgow to Montreal or Halifax carrying passengers and emigrants.  This time she was headed to Montreal.  After a stop at Liverpool, she made her way around the Irish coast and headed northwest setting a course to take her between Rockall and Inishtrahull, well off her usual track.  This was because it was September 1939 and all merchant ships had been ordered off their usual routes since 22 August.  Though Captain James Cooke and all aboard knew that war had just been declared between Britain and Germany, the trip was deemed safe because as a passenger ship the Athenia was protected by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which Germany had not ratified but had agreed to abide by its terms.  Under those terms, passengers and crew of merchant ships and passenger liners were first to be put in places of safety before their vessel was sunk.

Oberleutant Frist-Julius Lemp was in command of U-30 based out of Wilhelmshaven on patrol in the North Atlantic since 27 August.  He spotted the Athenia in the late afternoon and followed her for three hours.  It was by all accounts a beautiful evening with a sky shimmering with moonlight and stars, though a heavy swell surged.  As passengers finished the first dinner sitting, they had no idea that their lives depended on what one man would do in an iron vessel in the sea beneath them.

We do not know what went through this young man’s head (he was twenty-six at the time).  All we can say is that Lemp claimed that the zigzag course and its unusual location indicated to him that the ship in his sights was an armed merchant cruiser.  He ordered a torpedo attack.  On board the ship, Quartermaster Bowman saw the silhouette of a submarine against the moonlight.  Some passengers heard a hissing sound as if something passed under the hull.  Then a second torpedo found its mark near the engine room, killing many there,  in the nearby main stairwell, and on the deck nearby.  It was Sunday evening, at 8:50pm, and the second sitting for dinner had just begun when the explosion occurred.  The lights went out and the passengers rushed in panic onto the decks.  The ship was doomed, and the lives of its remaining passengers from its complement of 1,103 passengers, including some 500 Jewish refugees, and 315 crew were in serious jeopardy.

Captain Cooke and his crew were calm and professional.   A distress signal was sent.  They restored calm and the evacuation was orderly.  Mercifully the safety systems on board contained the damage and the ship stayed afloat for hours, though listing.  This certainly avoided a far higher if not almost complete loss of life.  In heavy seas, lifeboats were readied.  Witnesses spotted the submarine on the surface and reported that it fired one or two shells at the stricken vessel, blowing off a mast.  A lifeboat already loaded with passengers broke from its davits causing more fatalities.  Passengers jumped into the sea. The heavy swells meant that lifeboats had to be rowed and bailed; women grabbed oars and used their shoes to bail. Exposure was likely as passengers lacked overcoats and were soaked; some were over ten hours on the open sea.

The destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Fame, and HMS Escort, a Swedish yacht called the Southern Cross, a US cargo ship City of Flint, and a Norwegian tanker the MS Knute Nelson arrived at the scene within hours.  HMS Fame was dispatched to find the U-boat.  Lifeboats were by then spread out, lit by flares, and while calling for help made their way to the  ships nearest them.  One lifeboat tied up only metres from the exposed propeller of the MS Knute Nelson and in the confusion the ship started up her engines.  The great thrashing propeller sucked in the lifeboat, pulverising it and killing fifty.  Some hours later another lifeboat capsized behind the Southern Cross, with ten fatalities.  A Jewish-Russian couple saw their two sons drown.  A young woman was pulled from the water into another life boat but screamed “my baby” and leapt back into the sea. At one point a great school of whales “plunged around the boats”. Others died in the transfers to the destroyers as the sea jostled the lifeboats against the towering hulls.  At 10 am the following morning, the Athenia’s bow reared up and ship sank vertically beneath the waves. In all, 98 passengers and 19 crew died.  28 of the fatalities were U.S. citizens.

The MS Knute Nelson made for Galway with 441 passengers and 90 crew on board.  It arrived at 9:30 am on Tuesday 5 September.  Ten were stretchered off the tender City of Galway, four seriously injured.  The survivors were greeted by a warm reception from hundreds of well-wishers along the dockside.  Nurses from Central Hospital Galway and the Army Medical Corps were on hand and a local committee had prepared food and accommodation in local hotels and guest houses.  VIPs included Dr. Browne, the Bishop of Galway, the Mayors of Galway and Limerick, and the U.S. Minister to Ireland, John D. Cudahy.  Cudahy comforted J.D. Wilkes who broke down, having lost his wife and two children. The Irish Times reported: “It was a motley and somewhat hysterical crowd that trooped down the gangway to the tender…. Men, women and children were in almost every stage of undress, having lost their clothes and belongings.  Seven women were attired in men’s dungarees and trousers lent them by the crew of the Knute Nelson.”

Passengers arriving in Glasgow told similar stories; of the explosion, seeing the submarine, of the shelling, of the desperate rescue and the heaving seas.  Some spoke avidly, some were too traumatised to say anything.  Some smiled at the memory of the whales.  All were sure that is was a torpedo, not a mine or an aircraft.

In London, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was already swamped trying to organise the evacuation of U.S. citizens from wartime Britain when news arrived of the sinking of the Athenia.  It hugely complicated the effort to get Americans home from Europe.  Since he could not leave London to help the survivors landing at Glasgow, he dispatched his second son.  John F. Kennedy toured the hotels to visit the survivors, get first-hand accounts and assure them that America was there to protect their interests.  With cameras filming, he met with 150 survivors in a hotel and assured them that a liner had been dispatched from America to bring them home.  They would be safe under an American flag.  They protested, not surprisingly, that they would only travel home in a convoy.  JFK’s assurances were to little avail initially.  As reported by The Irish Times: ‘“We definitely refuse to go until we have a convoy,” declared the American college girls among the rescued.  “You have seen what they will do to us.”’  Another pointedly referred to Amilia Earhart saying “a year ago the whole Pacific fleet was sent out for one woman flier.”  Kennedy said he would inform his father.

Eventually most of the survivors were convinced to travel on board the Orizaba though only after its sides were painted with the Stars and Stripes and it was flood lit during the night. They landed at New York on Wednesday 27 September, met by a large crowd some of whom hoped that their loved ones were not in fact lost, that some good news might be discovered.  American Express doled out cash and the Red Cross was on hand to help the survivors who had arrived without luggage or passports.

The news of the sinking quickly headlined around the world.  Details of the attack and the fate of the survivors were followed closely.  The attack was condemned as barbarous and contrary to the laws of war.  The news created a sensation in the United States and Canada.  The finger of blame pointed firmly at Germany but Germany claimed that it did not have a submarine in the area.  Grand Admiral Raeder appeared to believe this in the absence of any confirmation from a U-Boat.  Germany issued a statement pointing to the likelihood of a mine.  The New York Times editorialised; “Now it is real.  In the first twenty four hours of general hostilities….we saw the pattern set…. Part of the ordeal will be waiting for the truth behind conflicting claims, confused reports and veils of military secrecy.”  It noted Churchill’s announcement of German culpability but also Germany’s written assurance that the ship must have struck a mine: “It would indeed have been crass stupidity for Germany on the first day of the war to engage a great neutral Power by torpedoing a ship carrying Americans, and it is equally hard to believe that a British liner under naval escort, in waters presumably well charted, should run into a British-laid mine.”

On board U-boat 30, Lemp appeared to have realised his mistake almost immediately.  He did not enter the action in the log and swore his crew to secrecy.  Escaping the anti-submarine searches, he continued his raiding.  On 11 September he torpedoed and sunk the cargo ship Blairlogie.  All thirty crew survived.  On 14 September Lemp spotted the Belfast built and registered Fanad Head.  He gave chase and seized the ship after putting a shot across its bows.  With the crew and passengers safely dispatched on life boats, Lemp took a risky course of action by pulling alongside and sending a prize crew aboard.  British destroyers and aircraft arrived and in desperate hours of attacks and evasions, crashing aircraft and blasting depth charges, U-30 finally sunk Fanad Head and escaped, heavily damaged and with two RAF crew members on board captured after they had ditched.

After a stop at Reykjavik, Lemp arrived back at Wilhemshaven on 27 September.  He confessed his unwelcome news to Admiral Doenitz.  He had sunk the Athenia, claiming that he thought it was an armed merchant ship.  Doenitz knew he had a problem and that admission of Germany’s responsibility might have the gravest of consequences.  He sent Lemp to Berlin to explain himself to Raeder.  Raeder then briefed Hitler.  In the propaganda war for world opinion in which Germany sought to paint Britain as an antagonist and to ensure that America stayed neutral, it was best to cloud culpability in confusion.  Hitler decided to continue the denial.  The log was altered and Lemp escaped a court-martial.

It hard to know what to make of Lemp’s claim.  The Kreigsmarine were well aware that shipping out of Britain had been ordered to avoid established routes. He had followed the Athenia for three hours.  He had ample time to identify the nature of the craft he was tracking.  Other U-boat captains were well aware of the rules of war under which they operated and they were in many instances commended for their gallantry is ensuring that the crews of merchant ships were seen to safety.  Lemp’s behaviour in ensuring the safety of the crews of the other ships he attacked in the following weeks observed the norms of ensuring the crews’ safety.  Perhaps he had genuinely made a mistake and only realised it when he approached the Athenia after the torpedo attack.  Then why shell it as witnesses reported?  Lemp did not survive the war to tell his version or face justice.  His death was shrouded in some mystery with claims that he was shot by a boarding party or that he committed suicide by going down with his scuttled vessel, U-110, in May 1941.

In the following weeks, Germany conquered Poland and signed the Pact of Steel with Russia.  Hitler turned his eyes to the unwelcome western front and the British Expeditionary Force in France.  If he was to expand the Third Reich eastward, he had to safeguard his rear.  British forces had to be expelled from continental Europe before he turned the full might of the Wehrmacht against the Slavs.   Yet he feared antagonising the U.S. to the point that it might abandon its neutrality.  Like the Lusitania before it, it was feared that the sinking of the SS Athenia might tilt the balance of American opinion.  Yet like the Lusitania, it was hoped that it might not.  For weeks Germany maintained its innocence, contrary to all the eye-witness evidence.

With plans afoot for a major offensive on the Western front, Hitler and Goebbels conferred; it was time for the big lie.  In a national radio broadcast on 22 October, Goebbels presented himself as the prosecuting attorney, in the description of The New York Times.  He declared that the British had sunk the Athenia on Churchill’s orders and that his silence would be his shame.  Goebbels gave a detailed account of how it was done.  A bomb on board was exploded on a radio signal from Churchill.  But it was botched and Royal Navy ships were sent to sink it.  He declared that Churchill stood condemned in the court of public opinion and that he answer the charges that Britain had been responsible, that Royal Navy destroyers had not come to the rescue of the Athenia but had fired on it and sunk it.  Goebbels asserted that German passengers had been refused boarding in Liverpool as part of the conspiracy to ensure that blame affixed to Germany.  Smoking had been banned to avoid setting off the bomb prematurely.  Churchill’s conspiracy, he explained, was designed as part of its war with Germany, to turn opinion against it and induce the U.S. to join Britain and France as an ally.  Germany, he declared, would not let the matter rest until Churchill confessed.  “Stand rascal, and answer us!” They knew it would take time: Churchill, he asserted, “belongs to that type of man who has to have his wisdom teeth knocked from his head before he will give up lying.” The broadcast was repeated on radio wavelengths, disseminated widely in a number of languages, and the ‘account’ published in Germany.

The fake news had its effect in sowing doubts. Maybe it was a Russian submarine, some speculated. As Germany claimed credit for sinking further merchant ships and tankers and as U-boat commanders who sunk the HMS Courageous and HMS Royal Oak (with combined fatalities in excess of 1,300) were treated as celebrity war heroes on return to Germany, the significance of the denial about the Athenia was lost.

It is an odd thing that getting caught out lying about a crime can be seen as a greater shame than an outright admission of a crime.  The more elaborate the deception, the more determined the incentive to avoid exposure.   For the Nazis, it seemed that to get caught out in one lie might lead logically to doubts about its whole ideology. The further removed belief is from reality, the more insistent the doctrine and the denial of inconvenient facts.  Despite all of the atrocities committed by Germany during the war, including the Holocaust, there seemed to be a particular shame attached to the sinking of the Athenia, or perhaps more accurately about the lying about it.  Germany maintained the lie even in defeat.  It was only in 1946 during the Nuremburg trials that Doenitz, faced with the testimony of a U-30 crew member who was on board when the Athenia was attacked, finally admitted the obvious truth that Germany had in fact sunk the ship, that the accusations by Goebbels to the contrary were part of an audacious bid to disseminate what today we’d call fake news.  By then of course, what constituted war crimes had taken on a whole new dimension.

At the time, the sinking of the Athenia convinced many that the war had started in earnest, that headlines about peace offerings in the weeks that followed were mere posturing.  The reports in the Irish press from Galway, like those in media around the world, were detailed and graphic, well conveying the telling dishevelment and trauma of the disembarking survivors.  War was a brutal affair not just for the military but for the innocent civilian, if anyone needed reminding.  There were to be no safe hiding places beyond the jurisdiction of the neutral state.  The rules of war did not necessarily apply and the headlines did not necessarily reflect the reality. In this, the U.S. and Ireland as neutral states shared a perspective.  The U.S. clamped down on its citizens travelling to Europe.  American liners increased fares to Europe by as much as a third.  As more ships were attacked in the Atlantic in the autumn of 1939, and more survivors were rescued and landed at Irish harbours around the coast, the Irish public could not but be aware that they lived in proximity to a deadly struggle between European superpowers.  Neutrality, fragile and all as it was, must have seemed like a good option.

The sinking of the SS Athenia is largely forgotten today.  It has not entered the popular imagination.  Maybe the fake news surrounding is a complicating factor or maybe the fact that the mystery of its fate was revealed in 1946.  Even the Lusitania retains some public fascination.  At almost 1,200 the fatalities were far higher.  Compared to that ‘only’ 98 died on the Athenia.  Questions hovered unresolved about whether in fact the Lusitania carried ammunition; unanswered questions have a long life.

Yet even the fate of the Lusitania pales beside the luminous light cast by the Titanic over the public imagination.  The Titantic’s combination of fate, coincidence, and the morality of class deciding the preponderance of fatalities mesmerises us.  We see in her a microcosm of a form of society that was doomed.  The iceberg is the metaphor for all unbidden and unforeseen calamities in the face of human fecklessness.  How fitting that her distress flares were thought to be celebrations. The random things that sank the Titanic churn in our heads – the ship’s speed, the calm waters, the lack of binoculars, and the attempt to wheel away that just magnified the damage to a fatal degree.  Change one of these things and the ship might have stayed afloat.    She was on her maiden voyage, the fresh paint still pungent.  They said it was unsinkable.  In the sinking of the Titanic, we detect the revenge of the gods.

None of this applies to the Athenia. Its story is human and venal.  There is no fate, just bad luck.  There are no gods, only one man with the power to sink a ship who opted to use that power.  Some weird confluence of impulses compelled him to a great crime.  An instinct for survival, for exculpation after the exhilaration of the act, led him to conspire with his crew to conceal it.  Perhaps he too realised that the consequences for his country might be grave if responsibility was admitted.  And while he was driven to admit what he did to his superiors, albeit he had little grounds to deny it, the system found common cause with him in maintaining the fiction.  You can sense in Goebbels’s insistent accusation against Churchill the audacity, the glee of the big lie. And you can see too that other governments and the public hesitated to apportion blame in the face of the denials and the counter accusations, even in the face of overwhelming testimony.  The power of the big lie is that it begs the question ‘what if…?’  And of course back then there was a widespread and deep faith in government.

From this perspective, the sinking of the Athenia is a more compelling tale for our times than the ineffable qualities of the Titanic.  The Athenia, not the Titanic, is the true metaphor for our time.

 

Eamonn

 

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What did the Normans Ever Do For Us?

Asked of the Romans, it could equally be asked of the Normans.  England, France and Ireland have all tended to ignore or sideline the influence of the Normans.  For all their glorious achievements the Normans loom smaller than they should in our histories.  To understand this, we need to consider how a Viking leader established mutiple dynasties that shaped European history at one of its most formative times.

Rollo the Viking may have adopted the outward form of the Franks, feudal obeisance, even Christianity but it is unlikely that he internalised much of it.  In granting him extensive lands along the Seine, the Franks had made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse, to the immense benefit of both sides.  The next generation born in Normandy would be immersed in the ways and mores of the Franks, beginning with his son and heir, William Longsword.  William would die young in an ambush but he was a devote Christian and emphatically confirmed his people’s transition from Viking to feudal aristocracy.  The duchy of Normandy would survive minorities and successfully negotiate the transition from the Carolignians to the House of Capet as the new kings of France.  Indeed, the duchy of Normandy would be the best administrated region of France and a model for the emerging nation state of both France and England.

Rollo may have hoped that he was founding a dynasty but his settlement in the Seine valley was a move wiser than he could have realised.  Though Vikings were well informed of the ebb and flow of power within Europe, no one could have grasped the immense changes underway as the Dark Ages drew to a close and a new form of polity began to emerge, the nation state.  The eleventh and twelfth centuries were profoundly formative ones.   They would define much of subsequent European history across the spectrum of politics, religion and culture.

What was the basis of this society and how did it differ from the one in which Rollo was born, raised, and in which he had risen to such prominence as a Viking?  To return to our original question, how did the Normans become so different from the Vikings they would encounter in Ireland?

Let us start with something so natural to us that we take them for granted – cities.  Notably Rollo and his kin established themselves in Rouen.  This had been a Roman city, much reduced by Viking raids until refortified and repopulated by the Frankish King Odo.  It would prosper and become the capital city of the duchy of Norman and the lynch pin of their domain.  Cities are more than just population centres or bases from which to concentrate and deploy military forces.  Cities make possible the bureaucracy of government, the collection and storage of tax revenue, the administration of criminal justice and punishment, the recording of laws, regulations, land ownership, and information about population. All of these activities require and therefore create professional classes which in turn generate and expand cities as centres of administration, trade, learning and intellectual life.  Cities make government possible, they make nation states possible.

Critically in Europe, cities were also the bureaucratic centres of the Church.  Bishops, as the princes of the Church, along with their scribes formed the civil service of the emergent nation states, notably in the Chancellery which provided the secretarial office of the king.  The Chancellor at this time took the notes, wrote the charters, issued the king’s letters and filled the key documents.  Invariably he was a bishop and did his work in Latin.  This bureaucratic drudgery was essential to the projection of power won by warrior kings in battle.  Cities were also essential to commerce and acted as accelerators of industry, technology and skills.  The tax and wealth they generated, combined with the machinery of government, allowed for the creation and maintenance of professional armies.  For the Roman Empire, cities were the pinions of civilisation.  As cities declined with the empire, Europe fell into chaos, civilisation reduced to that preserved by the great monasteris (see Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilisation).  As the cities revived, so did Europe.

Castles served a similar purpose, though they were purposefully military in intent, a way of projecting power and defending territory.  In that, they were problematic for they allowed local magnates resist central power.  Castles were in effect a measure of civil strife.  As the nation state developed, kings would over time limit and eventually eliminate castles not directly in the service of the state.

True, Vikings established their own cities and the Danes were the first to concentrate populations and establish kingships, well ahead of the Norwegians and Swedes.  But they remained primarily ports for trade and raiding, not centres of laws, taxes, and bureaucracy. In taking Rouen as their capital, Rollo and his followers were adopting a new way of holding power, grafting themselves onto a system of organisation maintained by the church that had its roots in Rome.

It may not have been clear to Rollo, but the Church itself, notably under Gregory VII, was engaged in a vast exercise of reform, a key aspect of which was to partner with secular leaders in bringing political stability from the chaos of the Dark Ages.  This was to forge an alliance of church and state that would endure into the twentieth century.  The fortunes of Norman conquerors from England to the further edges of Christendom would turn on the ebb and flow of their relationship with the Papacy for the Papacy granted legitimacy to kings and nobles.  [Note: The partnership of the kings and the Church was particularly formative for Western Europe, influencing the development of feudalism as system of contractual rights, setting a limit to the reach of the state, and inculcating a sense of the dignity inherent in all irrespective of social status however much its observation was fitful and incomplete: for more on this see Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order.]

If castles were inimical to the interest of the emergent nation states, land was the great lever in the hands of kings.  Normans might win land through the sword, but they could only hold it and pass it on if they stood in favour with the king.  The possession of land was a function of feudalism.  Rollo may have been granted the duchy of Normandy as a heritable gift but when he placed his hands within those of the king, Charles the Simple, in his act of homage, he was submitting to the king’s favour.  To break his fealty would forfeit his possessions.  Holding onto land was no longer simply a function of military might and supportive kin but a matter of politics and the assertion of legal rights within a system controlled by the state. To accept this and to assume feudal obligations meant the end of the Viking way of life, the free booting independence of traders and raiders.  Unlike the Vikings, the Normans would pay tax.

The Normans took to law and governance with surprising alacrity. They were punctilious about observance of laws and the honouring of rights.  In this they were following in the tradition of Charlemagne and in turn the Romans.  William the Conqueror deployed the power of law as an instrument of power in England.  Indeed, like the Romans before them, the Normans were great adopters of good practice.  William would use elements of Anglo-Saxon law and administration that suited his purposes, notably sheriffs and this new institution, the Exchequer, an office he would export to Normandy.  He knew too the power of information and commissioned the Domesday Book to record the details of the kingdom he had seized, the better to control it.  His great grandson and royal heir, Henry II, consciously repeated this, insisting on the establishment and fair administration of law throughout England, using it to resolve the bitter land disputes that were inevitable after the years of anarchy in bringing stability to the realm.  So successful was he in this that the capriciousness of his son, King John, led the English magnates to reign him back to the rule of law through the Magna Carta.

Holding land was essential to the Normans and their manors were organised to be as self-sufficient as possible.  As the Lord of the Manor the Norman aristocracy became a vital part of the feudal chain of organisation, owing obligations to the king just as peasants owed obligations to them, these obligations in turn were reciprocated by obligations of protection.  The Manor imitated the form of monasteries which in turn echoed that of the Roman villas.  Lords of the Manor were part of the judicial system.  They operated their own courts under public law and following local customs of tenure and did so until the 19th century.  Holding fairs, developing trade and markets, establishing towns and villages, and investing in the infrastructure of roads, bridges and harbours were all hallmarks of Norman life and colonisation.    Where we see these in Ireland they are part of our Norman heritage, alien to Gaelic Ireland.

You had of course to get land before you could hold it.  The Normans were a fecund bunch and illegitimate children were recognised, at least in the first hundred years until the Church clamped down on it.  For male offspring, the challenge was to get land. The eldest son would inherit two-thirds but the younger sons had to fend for themselves.  For most of them this meant winning land through the sword.  Sword land was recognised as a legitimate way of seizing land and it was this drive to acquire land that generated Norman expansion into England, Wales, Ireland, Italy and the Middle East.

Being a member of the landed aristocracy conferred on Normans a key advantage in battle.  It allowed young boys and men to devote their lives completely to soldiering.  From the time they could walk, they were taught to ride horses and to fight.  In an age where most soldiers were part time, earning their living as farmers or fishermen, the Normans had a clear advantage – at war, they were professionals.  Their speciality was as armoured mounted soldiers, in other words knights.  They were the armoured divisions of their day, using mobility, ruse and the shock of the well timed charged to win the field.  This advantage outweighed their often limited numbers; again and again, the fortunes of Normans turned on their martial prowess in the field and their skill as cavalry against larger odds.  (The association of cavalry and landed gentry would endure for centuries.)  They combined this with the rapid establishment of fortified bases, motte-and-bailies, which were very effective means of territorial control.

A further and critical dimension to the Normans was their Christian faith.  Most warrior casts need the assurance of a strong belief system and Normans were zealous in their religious commitment and their submission to Rome, notwithstanding the odd politick defiance, was par for the course.  It took its most obvious form in their support for the establishment of religious orders (Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries most notably) and the building of churches and Cathedrals.  Endowments and land grants were undertaken as a matter of course by Norman lords and their wives. Family members would become princes of the Church, though Rome increasingly asserted its sole right to do this. And of course Norman lords played leading roles in the first three Crusades.

All of these elements were on display when the Normans landed in Ireland and established their presence here.  As Cambro-Normans, they were well versed in fighting the native Welsh whose organisation and style of warfare was similar to the Gaelic.  All this guided the nature of the force they assembled in Wales, including of course mounted knights but also mounted Welsh bowmen, Breton allies, and Flemish mercenaries.  They numbered no more than a few hundred but were well prepared and organised.   Their alliance with MacMurrough gave them precise intelligence about the opposition they would face and the terrain in which they would be operating.  They quickly seized Waterford and Wexford, securing these as their bases and sources of resupply. Dodging the High King’s forces at Castleknock, they stole up through Wicklow and most likely approached Dublin via Rathfarnham, seizing Dublin from the Danes who uncharacteristically fled in panic.  As they pounced on Gaelic armies, they secured their holdings with motte-and-bailey fortifications, soon replaced stone towers and castles.  They established their manorial system and set about building villages, towns, ports, bridges and abbeys.  In all of this one can see the outlines of what a Roman invasion would have looked like.

There was one likely critical difference.  The Romans tended to do things completely when it came to invasion.  Their conquests of Gaul and England were complete.  The Normans in Ireland were opportunists.  Strongbow’s rapid success in Ireland was still only partial by the time Henry II arrived in 1171 with a show of force.  Yet Henry’s intention had as much to do with checking Strongbow and ensuring that Ireland would not become a rival kingdom.  Rather Ireland would be a held as a Lordship, under the suzerainty of the crown.  It was a partial conquest only that left Gaelic society in possession of much of the land and itself pretty much intact as a way of life.  The point of English policy in Ireland was to control it at minimum cost to the Exchequer.  This meant that Norman and Gaelic life would endure side by side for the following centuries.  The fortunes of the colonists who came from England and settled around Dublin and the other cities would ebb and flow, more often ebbing as the influence of the Crown shrank back to Dublin and the pale during the later Middle Ages.

Contrast the style and success in Ireland of the Normans with that for their Viking forebears.  The Vikings were raiders, initially in small groups and later in larger formations that became armies.  But their success was in surprise attacks and in the weakness of those from whom they sought to plunder.  Where they faced concerted defences and opposition, they faltered.  This was true of Western Europe under Charlemagne and it was true too in Ireland where the Vikings were confined to their city ports by the Gaelic Irish.  After the battle of Clontarf, the Gaelic did not seize Dublin but the establishment of a Danish kingdom in Ireland was checked.  Vikings prized individual martial prowess. Normans, on the other hand, prized command, discipline, and coordinated movement.  Their amour of conical helmets and chainmail were commonplace and had been so since Roman times; so was their weaponry of shields, swords and lances.  Yet combined with disciplined cavalry (aided by the stirrup which allowed them leverage the power of the lance) and a tireless inventiveness on the field, they were formidable, well capable of besting far greater forces arraigned against them.

Finally, the Normans understood the value of building alliances in the lands they conquered, following the early example of Rollo.  Through marriage – generally Norman men marrying local women – they formed alliances and secured their holdings.  A key part of the deal between Strongbow and Dermot MacMurrough was that Dermot would give his daughter in marriage to him.  Their daughter in turn was given by Henry II in marriage to William Marshall in reward for a lifetime of service.

The most successful contingent of the Normans who arrived in Ireland were not however associated with Strongbow or Marshall but rather the FitzGeralds.  It was the FitzGeralds, descendants of the fabulous Welsh Princess Nest, who over the coming generations through war and inter-marriage with the Gaelic Irish became the leading family of Ireland.  They artfully mediated relations between Ireland and the English crown for centuries, until that role was made redundant by the imperialist ambitions of the Tudors in the sixteenth century.  The 10th Earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald, was executed along with five of his uncles at Tyburn in 1538 by order of Henry VIII. It was only after the rebellion of Silken Thomas and his execution that Ireland was declared a kingdom in 1542 and ruled by the English crown.

The two and a half centuries between the founding Normandy in 911 and the arrival of the Normans in Ireland in 1169 saw an extraordinary evolution, the measure of which was evident in the rapidity with which the Vikings collapsed militarily and Viking Ireland disappeared with the arrival of Strongbow and his knights.  The critical distinction was Norman capacity for organisation, from the preparation for the campaign, its execution in the field, the manner in which they turned victories into facts on the ground, and their assiduous creation of functioning administrations.

Yet the irony of the Norman invasion of Ireland was that it came just as Norman power was fading.  Norman glory was well past its high point by then, its influence in its closing chapter as both England and France went their separate ways and Norman lords assimilated. In Ireland, much like the Vikings before them, they would enter a kind of time-warp, lingering as an anachronism until the arrival of the aggressively Protestant New English in Ireland with all their imperialist certainties and ethnic fury.

What then of Norman identity?  Why did it fade when other identities endured like the French, English, Irish and Italian?  The most obvious answer is that the Normans never founded a nation state that was purely Norman.  Moreover, one of their great strengths was adaptability to local mores the better to secure their positions.  Yet the explanation is more complex than that for it is hard to imagine either England or France without the foundations laid by the Normans as state builders – in the administrative and legal systems they developed, in the stability they brought, the trade they developed, the urban developments and centres of respite and learning in religious houses and the Church that they sponsored.

In France, Normandy remained a duchy, subservient to the Frankish king in Paris.  Notably Henry II had had a chance to challenge Louis VII, the Capetian King of France and his feudal overlord.  Yet he declined to capture Louis at the siege of Toulouse in 1159, too punctilious about his role within feudal society and the fearful of the audacity of a strike for kingship of France. Henry might be kind of England and control more than half of France but he was a vassal of the king.  In historical terms, the glory of France would not admit of a major contribution from Normans and they would remain in the nation’s narrative secondary to the Franks.

In England, the Normans were never numerous enough to impose their Anglo-French language and their spoken word retreated in favour of the emerging English language.  However much English was profoundly influenced by the Normans, the historical narrative could not admit it.  Nor could it admit the fact that the Normans built the common law system and the baronial society so fundamental to English society.  This was in part because the Normans were regarded as conquerors where, oddly enough, the Anglo-Saxons were seen as a foundational influence.  Much of this can be attributed to 19th century historians who looked to the Dark Ages for ‘racial’ origins; the English found the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans the Norse, and the Irish the Celts.  The Normans, protean and liberal (wherever they went but most decidedly in their multicultural kingdom of Sicily), didn’t fit into this dangerously romanticised search for pure antecedents.

The lack of recognition of the Norman contribution was repeated in Ireland.  This is partly too to do with the fact that they came as conquerors but assimilated into the fabric of our nation.  They merged into the local society where the cliché captured at least half a truth: they became more Irish than the Irish themselves. Their true assimilation as Irish would only really occur when they, as the Old English, opted to adhere to Catholicism in face of the Protestant Reformation and the pressure of the Tudors.  With that decision, they finally cast their lot with their Irish identity and in many ways eroded their own distinctive contribution.  It is also partly I suspect to with the fact that we find it hard to imagine what Gaelic life was life before the Normans.  How can we imagine a society that did not have all the vestiges of a state that the Normans brought with them?  We have to imagine a nation state that existed in the mind, as an intellectual feat of memory and custom.

So for complex reasons, the Normans faded as a distinct identity.  If you ever wonder what the Normans ever did for us, remember that their contribution to the development of Western Europe was both critical and enduring, even if unacknowledged.  By a strange elixir of circumstance, their Viking character grafted onto the remnants of Roman civilisation, revivifying a host of characteristics that were Roman – the centrality of cities, the devotion to the rule of law, the adoption of complex bureaucracy, the professionalization of armies, and the alliance with the Church in stabilizing Europe, the building the nation state, and the audacity of their drive to conquest.  In all of this, the Normans were the new Romans, setting in train a new age for Europe. This new age was founded on the nation states and nation states have a way of simplying their historical narratives.  In helping to create the nation state, the Normans ironically created the means of their own erosion from the record.

 

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Leinster Road Trip: Borris and St Mullins

I happened upon St. Mullins while on a day trip from Dublin.  I had a vague idea of where I was going but nothing really definite other than finding Borris House, ancestral home to the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs, descendants of the kings of Leinster (including infamously Dermot MacMurrough, he who invited in the Normans).

We found the narrow arched gateway to the demesne after a quick spin down motorway and along the kind of untroubled winding undulating country road you find in the Irish countryside.  It was a glorious sunny fresh day.  Borris House was stunning, set airily on a low bluff overlooking pastoral fields and distant mountains, mature trees standing at a respectful distance so as not to block the fine proportions of the house.  It was reminiscent of Downton Abbey, without the TV kitsch. We’ll have to come back for the tour as the house itself was closed for a private wedding.

One of the more notable occupants of the seat at Borris was Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, born with severely shorted or deformed arms and legs in 1831. His mother, Lady Kavanagh, treated him as a normal child, teaching him to write and draw with his mouth and engaging local doctors to fit him out with a wheelchair and saddle.  She did a good job as evidenced by his adventurous travels as a young man.  More than a good job in fact for she eventually cut off his income when she learned that he was being entertained by odalisques in Anatolia.

This should not have come as a surprise to her for the bold Art had been something of a local Lothario according to local legend; when he succeeded to the The MacMurrough seat back home, he assured a reluctant local bride that their offspring would be fully formed by pointing out his progeny among the local peasant population.  Such lore I learned from one of a number of plaques at the delightful cafe by the banks of the Barrow, of more anon.

Lady Kavanagh was herself an impressive woman, seizing her widowhood with gusto and sweeping off on travels to Europe with her daughter and two of her three sons when they were young teenagers.  Her appetite for adventure whetted, she made her way to Egypt and the Middle East, haggling transport from locals to bring her by boat up the Nile and by camel around the Holy Land, penetrating as far inland to reach Petra (see my blog on my own visit there here).  In fact her collection of artefacts forms the core of the National Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection today.

Maybe the spirits of Lady and Art Kavanagh still loom within Borris House for a local told me in hushed breath that the entrance hall is always markedly chilly, even on the warmest day.

Just outside Borris, we went for a walk along the Barrow Way, the river turned to a stately canal by a series of twenty three locks.  The Barrow is one of Ireland’s great river systems, second only to the Shannon.  At one end it is connected to the Grand Canal in Dublin.  At the other it connects with New Ross, joining its sister rivers the Nore and Suir, before entering the sea.  Almost 90 km of the Barrow’s length is tidal.

We resumed our travels to Graiguenamanagh to see the enormous Cistercian Abbey of Duiske there, built by the great Norman knight, William Marshall, Lord of Leinster through his marriage of Dermot MacMurrough’s granddaughter Isabel (herself daughter of Strongbow and Aoife). In fact New Ross owed its origins to Marshall when he built a bridge there and fostered his new borough as a port to serve his Leinster capital Kilkenny via the very navigable Barrow.  Duiske Abbey has had a number of restorations, more recently an oaken roof constructed using Medieval techniques.  The Abbey is swallow up by the town now but in its medieval prime Cistercian buildings and fields would have swept down to the Barrow creating a great centre of learning but also of agriculture, river management and crafts.

After an indifferent lunch which filled the stomach but not the spirits at a riverside cafe, we decided to head to St Mullins, marked in the red icons as a place of historic interest on the Ordnance Survey map.  We had seen St Mullin himself in Duiske Abbey in a lively statue complete with an ox’s head between his legs.  This bovine addition derives from his famous accomplishment of ending the Leinstermen’s tribute of ox to the High King of Ireland.  St Mullin was of royal blood, a ‘rí-deamna’ or king-in-the-making.  Not to take away from the man’s vocation but becoming a monk was a smart move in those days because it meant that your brothers were less likely to blind or even castrate you to disqualify you as competition in the vicious regnal wars that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years.

What a delight St Mullins turned out to be.  Perched on a rise in a bend in the Barrow, it comprises a cluster of early Christian ruins, including the circle of foundation stones for a round tower, and Church of Ireland chapels (one houses the interpretative centre).  It’s graveyard is home to heroes of 1798.  And beside it is a dramatic knoll, part of a man-made mote and bailey constructed by the first Normans to invade Ireland.  This mote and bailey belonged in fact to Raymond Le Gros, the pre-eminent battlefield warrior in the taking of Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin at the outset of the Norman invasion of Ireland between 1169 and 1170.

A short walk down a boreen takes you to the Barrow river itself and a cluster of buildings by the idyllic river’s edge, including the ruin of a large grain store testifying to the river port’s commercial life up to the nineteenth century. St Mullins marks the reach of the tidal portion of the river. Today St Mullins is the terminus of the Barrow walk, a 190 km meander from Dublin that can be cycled or walked. Rental cottages are available at http://www.oldgrainstorecottages.ie. People basked in the spring sunshine on outdoor tables, dining on lunch provided by the Mullicháin Cafe as a nearby cherry tree waved its blossoms gently in the air.  Now this was the place we should have had lunch! Another reason to return.

 

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Before Anglo-Irish Relations, there were Angevin-Irish Relations

Ireland’s absorption into the Angevin Empire reminds us to be careful about taking at face value Ireland’s shorthanded origin myth of eight hundred years of oppression. Our story is richer and more nuanced than that. It involves more complicated motivations than simple imperial oppression. We had more agency as well as more complicity in our fate. And our story as part of the Angevin Empire played out within the arena of European affairs whose influence on our fate has often been marginalised by the focus on our relationship with England.

The fact that Ireland’s status within the Angevin Empire is not widely recognised is certainly a reflection of the passing nature of that strange entity. This also demonstrates our fixation on the Anglo-Irish relationship and how that perspective influences our hindsight. Yet the arrival of the Normans in Ireland was very much rooted in the politics of the Angevin Empire, not of England. Angevin intrigues defined the Norman presence in Ireland, defined Angevin-Irish relations as it were.   Angevin-Irish relations set and defined the nature of the Norman presence in Ireland and its relationship with the English crown for the following four hundred years.  What then was this Angevin Empire?

The Angevin Empire stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, embracing England, Wales and a seizable chunk of what would become France. It was centred on Normandy and run by a powerful Norman lineage that ran from William the Conqueror to Richard the Lionheart and King John.

During the late 11th and throughout the 12th centuries Western Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages in the lee of the Viking raids. 1066 had been a pivotal year for England when the fortunes of war determined whether it would be consolidated as part of a Nordic entity centred on the North Sea or be taken over the Normans. William the Conqueror settled the matter at Hastings and imposed Norman rule on England and most of Wales. The Franks were emerging as a dominant political force that would eventually forge France. Surnames were coalescing into their modern forms. The Christian Church had preserved reading, writing and learning and its educated officers served as the seedbed for the bureaucracy of the emerging secular governments. Papal authority in Rome sought to centralise and bring order to Church affairs through the Gregorian reforms, pushing monasticism to the sidelines. The Church understood that its future depended on strong centralised secular government and took great pains to encourage this while preserving its own power and influence. Indeed much of European history up to the modern age would be shaped by the dynamic between the papacy and the emerging nation states. In short, this is the ur-period of modern Europe.

The Angevin Empire was a fleeting but highly consequential construct built around one of the most remarkable figures of early medieval European history, namely Henry II.  His titles included Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and king of England. He was also a vassal of the king of the Franks, Louis VII of the House of Capet. Henry’s father was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, hence the ‘Angevin’ appellation. His mother was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, King of England and son of William the Conqueror.

Henry II was then a great grandson of William, the first Norman king of England. Had his mother claimed the throne as Henry I intended, Henry himself might simply have succeeded to the English throne. However, Matilda was not a popular woman in England and women in general were not strong claimants. That left an opening for Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, to claim the kingship.

The succession dispute split the English nobles into two warring camps. Stephen had neither the support nor the acumen to impose his will on the entire country. The ensuing period of civil conflict was destructive enough to be dubbed the ‘Anarchy’ by later historians. In his mid-teens, Henry led two excursions to England in support of his mother’s claim (his father Geoffrey of Anjou remained aloof from the conflict). On his return to France, he secured his title as Duke of Normandy by paying homage to Louis VII.

Henry’s next move was a bold one. In May 1152 he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the richest, most beautiful and most charismatic women in Europe. And bold indeed it was; Eleanor had been Louis’ wife and Queen of the Franks. When she married Henry it was only two months since the annulment of her fifteen-year marriage. She was also eleven years older than Henry, with two daughters by Louis. That she had failed to produce a son convinced Louis reluctantly to agree to the annulment from a woman about whom it was said he was passionate (though she did not reciprocate by all accounts). On annulment, in secrecy and high drama, Eleanor made it to Poitiers (evading a kidnap attempt by Henry’s younger brother), for a simple marriage ceremony to Henry.

Henry had not sought Louis’ permission for the marriage as he ought to have done and while relations between the two men were patched up it was unlikely that the sting of this humiliation was ever fully drawn. Eleanor went on to produce a bevy of sons for Henry. In fact Louis and later his son Philip would play on the tensions between Henry’s sons to incite open rebellion by and among them against their father.

Entrancing as Eleanor was, Henry’s marriage made strategic sense for in gaining control of Aquitaine he not only secured about half of France but got control of the castles that could have threatened his other lands had Eleanor married someone else. The marriage made sense for Eleanor too: Henry was not only young and passionate but also one of the leading lords of Europe with a claim to the throne of the England. Unlike her colourless marriage to the increasingly ascetic Louis, her union with Henry would produce eight pregnancies and some of the most famous sons in western European history in Richard the Lion Hearted, King John and Henry the Young King.

Having established such a powerful base on the continent, Henry turned his attention to claiming the throne of England. That he did so with relative ease was due to a number of factors. The ‘anarchy’ was rapidly burning itself out with local peace deals increasingly evident on the part of financially drained and tired nobles. There was simply little appetite among the barons for a major conflict and much of the Henry’s maneuvers between the winter and summer of 1153 were skirmishes.

Secondly, the Church was keen to broker a deal and settle matter, the better to bring order to its own affairs there in consort with a stable monarch. Thirdly, Stephen’s first son died so succession from him was under doubt. Without a major battle being fought, a deal was struck to pass the throne to Henry on Stephen’s death. Stephen obliged sooner than expected, dying in October 1154. In December, accordingly, Henry and Eleanor were crowned at Westminster.

Thus was born the Angevin Empire under Henry II, a cross-channel conglomeration of domains held in the person of Henry through inheritance, marriage and artful opportunism. Henry was twenty-one years of age.

To solidify his hold on the throne, Henry invoked not only his descent from Henry I and William the Conqueror but in particular recalled Henry I’s commitment to the rule of law.  This became a consistent theme of his reign.  It also reflected Henry’s own “tidy mind”, as his biographer, W.L. Warren, described it.  For though Henry was a man of restless physical energy he was also well read and devoted to imposing law and arbitration.  He did much to lay the foundation for English common law, both through the system of travelling royal justices and new structures at the court.  He struck a careful political balance between the rights of the crown and of the barons.

Henry held his empire together through constant and astonishingly speedy travel; much listening and politicking; a knack for quickly seizing castles; and a commitment to imposing his authority through the rule of law. His court followed him and were forced to do so often at short notice and chaotically; Henry’s travels, like his intentions, were hard to predict and done at short notice. Henry kept his own counsel.

Occasionally Henry would convene a great Council to resolve matters of state. He convened one soon after his coronation at Winchester in 1155. It was there that an invasion of Ireland was discussed, the same year that the English pope Adrian IV issued Laudabiliter, the famous or infamous papal edict authorising an invasion of Ireland, its governance under Henry II, and the imposition of Gregorian reform on an Irish church stubbornly clinging to its old ways in regard to marriage, celibacy and land holding.  No copy of this document exists but it is clear that it was in Rome’s interest to extend its reforms to the Irish Church: That could only really be done on the foot of conquest by Henry.

It is difficult to say how serious were the discussions about Ireland at Winchester.  Henry’s mother reportedly counselled against it, arguing that the Irish were barbarous and immune to governance, a headache not worth the effort.  Whether such a fateful decision would have rested on her view alone is doubtful.  Conscious of the difficulties faced by the marcher lords in Wales against a nascent native rising, Henry may well have concluded that an attempt to subdue Ireland would prove both difficult and expensive.

Yet the issue of the Papal bull Laudabiliter suggests more serious intent. Had Henry solicited this one might indeed conclude he was looking for cover for an invasion of Ireland. Certainly Irish nationalists have long taken a dim view of England’s only Pope issuing such a license. To them, naturally enough, it smacked of a conspiracy by the rapacious English. Goddard Henry Orpen in his venerable Ireland under the Normans (1911), suggests that Henry’s eventual return to Ireland with a large invasion force some sixteen years later suggested the fulfilment of a long held ambition. While Irish nationalists rejected Orpen’s characterisation of Ireland as endemically anarchic and bloody before the arrival of the Normans, they embraced the idea that possession of Ireland was a prize long nursed by Henry.

This interpretation is challenged forensically and I think convincingly by Henry’s biographer W.L. Warren (Henry II, Yale English Monarchs: 1973/200). According to Warren, it seems more likely that Laudabiliter was procured by the English Church to encourage Henry to invade Ireland. For they understood that only military force could set the context for the imposition of Gregorian reforms on what they regarded as the disgrace of the Irish Church. The See of Canterbury regarded Ireland as falling within its remit and it had therefore an obligation under God to bring reform and renewal to Ireland.

Warren writes: “That Pope Adrian was ready to support such a move by Canterbury is not surprising: besides being an Englishman, he was the pope who revived the high-Gregorian programme for the reform of church government after half a century of doubt and muddle at Rome. The revolutionary effect of this programme was to dethrone monasticism as the pace-setter of Christendom and to give the bishop of Rome real powers for the direction and control of the Church’s life-powers which were to be exercised, in the first instance, through the local bishops” (pp 196-7).

Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury met with a polite rejection of this bid at Winchester, attributed by chroniclers to Matilda’s objection but in reality most likely reflecting Henry’s lack of interest. Had he been seriously interested, his mother’s objection would hardly have dissuaded him alone, much as he valued her advice.   Henry’s continental domain was far more in need of his attentions and he would in fact spend more of his life there than in England. In the following years England was left for long periods to the ministrations of Eleanor as effective regent.

Ireland next comes to Henry’s attention in 1167 when Dermot MacMurrough arrived at his peripatetic court, probably in Aquitaine. Dermot had had to search and high and low to find the busy and fleet king. In soliciting Henry’s help Dermot had nothing to lose. His enemies in Ireland had invaded this stronghold in south Leinster and forced him to flee. Sailing from Youghal, he had found shelter and support in Bristol from Robert FitzHarding, an eminent man who had sided with Matilda during the Anarchy and was a trusted mentor and friend of Henry II. At Aquitaine, Dermot made his pitch; with an Angevin army at his back he could conquer Ireland and hold it as king offering loyalty to Henry.

What Dermot got from Henry were many gifts and a letter offering permission to Norman lords to support him in his efforts in Ireland. While not exactly what he wanted, Dermot converted this eventually into Strongbow’s successful expedition to Ireland in 1170. With remarkably few men and resources, the Normans confounded the Irish with tactical speed and martial prowess, seized Leinster, captured Dublin, and put the High King’s besieging army to flight. Married to Dermot’s daughter, Strongbow was poised to become a local king in Ireland.

Quite why such few men could wreck such havoc and secure such speedy success is knotty story. Suffice to say that without centralised authority and the kind of resources that go with it (from fortified cities to bureaucracies and revenues) the Irish were uniquely vulnerable to the precise and organised application of force that was a specialty of the Normans. With their relatively primitive methods of warfare, the Irish were little match for the most formidable warriors in Europe, warriors who were moreover familiar with the tactics of Celtic societies thanks to their experiences fighting the Welsh.

The stunning and rapid success of Strongbow no doubt came as much of a surprise to Henry as to the Irish. It was undoubtedly a distraction from his main concern to hold his nascent Angevin Empire together. But he had a more immediate need to avoid being in continental Europe. He was being held accountable for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

To understand how Henry had been so instrumental in this act, one must put it in the context of Henry’s efforts to forge the Angevin Empire. Had it endured as a true empire might, Henry himself might rank more prominently in the pantheon of great European leaders.  Eventually however it would be occluded by the rise of France under Louis VII and then Philip, Henry’s rivals from the House of Capet. Henry was in fact a vassal of these kings and there is no real sign that he seriously contemplated a direct challenge.  In fact he backed down from such when he retreated from the siege of Toulouse in 1160.  Had he forced the issue and seized Toulouse, Henry’s domain would have stretched from the Scottish borders to the Mediterranean, through the most fertile and rich lands in Europe, a wedge through England and France that linked up with the ports and trade on the Mediterranean coast.  It would have represented one of the greatest trade routes with all of the taxes and impositions flooding Henry’s treasury.  With this wealth, he would have been able to mount a formidable challenge to the Capetians and their stronghold in Paris. Europe’s future had turned on Henry’s decision to respect his feudal obligations and withdraw the siege.

An unexpected consequence of Henry’s withdrawal was a breach with his Chancellor and bosom friend, Thomas Becket.  Becket, who had raised and led a large force of knights in the campaign, had urged Henry to press home his attack on Toulouse, even with Louis inside the citadel.  Louis had come to the aid of the Count of Toulouse, daring his vassal Henry to break faith with his solemn feudal oath of loyalty.  With his advice so publicly rejected, it was only a matter of time before Becket would have to quit as Henry’s chief advisor.  Yet in easing Becket out by granting him the Archbishopric of Canterbury in April 1161, Henry fashioned a rod for his own back.  Becket turned from glamorous and powerful member of the court to an ascetic religious devotee who put himself forward as a champion of the Church against the State’s incursions on their traditional rights.

Over the better part of a decade, Becket’s pointed obduracy did neither the Church nor the State any favours and Becket managed by his unrelenting defiance of Henry to upset both sides.  Evidently Beckett may have changed in appearance and commitments but one aspect of his character did not change, however much the outward form did – his pride.

It is not a recorded fact of history that Henry actually uttered the famous imprecation “who will rid me of this turbulent priest!” But whatever he said that December 1170, a group of knights took it literally as an invitation to assassination and travelled post haste to England.  Henry realised their fatal mission too late to stop them.  There were some comic-tragic scenes as the four knights waited in the Cathedral with other petitioners looking for the Archbishop’s advice and support.  Words were exchanged between the haughty Becket and the apparently hapless assassins. Becket could have disappeared into the stony labyrinth of corridors and chambers but he did not hide.  With a defiant and dramatic gesture he knelt to pray.  A sword  swung, slicing off his cranium. Another sword pinioned his brain and threw its delicate pulp to the floor.

Henry would never really escape the shadow of this murder, though the Church was not long in absolving him.  There is no doubting his remorse at the death of this friend, at the awful personal alchemy that had turned their friendship to animosity.  A papal interdict was on its way to impose a punishment on Henry. Against the backdrop of condemnation across Europe, Henry prepared to travel to Ireland and deal with Strongbow.

Henry assembled a formidable force at Pembroke. If Strongbow’s success in Ireland was a distraction, it seems in the circumstances to have been a welcome one. The outcry in Europe needed to settle down. Moreover, in going to Ireland Henry appeared to offer the kind of intervention that was essential to reforming the Irish Church. Indeed Pope Alexander III warmly welcomed Henry’s intervention there. Warren: “He wrote to the Irish bishops, to the Irish ‘kings and princes’ and to Henry himself hailing it as the will of God.” Henry’s Irish adventure was currying favour just when and from where he needed it.

By including siege equipment, Henry’s preparations signalled his real intentions. He meant to take Dublin, the castles and the ports if the Normans holding them were unwilling to hand them over to royal control. Strongbow arrived in Pembroke from Ireland and told him what he wanted to hear. He would surrender everything in return for being allowed to hold Leinster as a fief (Warren, p 200). Henry travelled to Ireland determined to ensure this outcome. He met with no opposition from either Normans or Gaels. Save for Rory O’Connor, the High King, and the kings of the north, the Irish kings, Irish clergy and Normans alike offered submission and recognition to Henry as their lord. Henry focused on imposing order on the Normans. He brought over Hugh de Lacy to control Meath and Dublin, making him effectively viceroy. Along with Dublin, Waterford and Wexford were brought under royal garrison. Strongbow was to hold Leinster as a lord.  Henry was intent on ensuring that on one Norman would emerge as a dominant force in Ireland.

Henry’s arrangements in Ireland were consistent with his policies throughout the Angevin Empire in ensuring royal control over cities, ports and castles. He had greatly reduced the number of castles held by barons in England as part of his pacification for castles represented resistance to central control. Any lord could hold land but only trusted lords could hold power. Strongbow’s old allegiance in the Anarchy still haunted and poisoned his relationship with Henry.

In terms of the Irish, Henry proceeded with very considerable delicacy. He did not demand homage but rather loyalty and tribute, an obligation that was personal and without feudal significance in terms of land tenure. Warren interprets this as a lesson from his attempt to exert control over the Welsh with as little force as possible (pp 201-202).

Thus it was that when Henry made terms with the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, in the Treaty of Windsor in 1175, Rory offered his loyalty not his homage and recognised Henry as Lord of Ireland. In not becoming a vassal of Henry, Rory was free to be High King. Henry hoped that this model would be as successful in Ireland as it had been in Wales where the native kings, having offered loyalty to the English crown, had been able to exert their dominance as local rulers over their kin.

Alas not so in Ireland; Rory was High King in name only and his lack of dominance in Munster threatened a return to the kind of free-for-all land grab that offered rich pickings for adventurous Norman lords. Henry wished to avoid this but he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. To exert full control of the situation, he would need to launch a full-scale invasion. He was not willing to undertake that expense. On the other, he was not prepared to let the Normans loose and potentially create a rival kingdom. Between these options Ireland was effectively partitioned between the lands held by the Normans and the rest of the country under the Irish kings. The Irish kings were so intent on their internal regnal wars that they were happy to engage the support of Normans in their conflicts. And the Normans were happy to do so because it provided them with opportunities to seize land, which they did frequently, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. Though distrusted by Henry, Lords like Hugh de Lacy and Strongbow, attuned to native ways, were able to balance Norman and Irish interests when discharging their duties as Henry’s viceroy but the situation was inherently unstable.

Henry’s last attempt to resolve the situation in Ireland was to end the partition by establishing an Irish kingdom under his son John. Ireland was an opportunity to help sort out Henry’s succession as between his rival sons. John arrived in 1185 and was so effective at alienating both the Normans and the Irish that he had to withdraw within nine months, just before papal approval for his reign had arrived from Rome. This failure was highly consequential for it left Ireland balanced between its Gaelic sphere and swathes of Norman domain that demanded the protection of the crown if and when threatened by the native Irish. It also left Rome unhappy for Henry had made little serious effort to reform the Irish Church.  John though kept the title of Lord of Ireland so when he became king of England in 1199, the title passed to the crown, passed down to his successors.

Warren judges that if Henry’s policy in Ireland was a failure, he is at least absolved of the charge of “acquisitive ambition”. Yet he cannot be absolved of the consequences of his intervention both in granting Dermot the original license to recruit Norman mercenaries and in his subsequent hapless attempts to manage their presence.

For the Normans in Ireland, as they famously and ruefully understood, they were English to the Irish but Irish to the English. Crown control in Ireland would be exercised as economically as possible through the kind of skilful diplomacy pioneered by Hugh de Lacy. The family that would most successfully balance the partition between Norman and Irish were the FitzGeralds, exploiting the uneasy existence of both Norman and Gaelic laws to expand their own territorial holdings. They had landed as one of the core family groups in the original invasion in 1169 and 1170. The success of the FitzGeralds over the next four hundred years would make them the most influential family in Ireland and absolve the English crown of much expense or concern about Irish matters while they held sway.

However, the limitations on the Norman presence in Ireland meant that as a group they were in turn vulnerable to absorption by the wider Gaelic society in which they operated and into which they married; becoming as was famously described ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. By the time Tudors emerged, the Normans in Ireland had become the Old English and their commitment to their Catholicism damned them in New English Protestant eyes as disloyal and treacherous as the native Irish. When the Tudors launched a major effort to conquer and colonise Ireland, the Norman Irish would suffer much as the native Gaelic did in the wars and dispossessions that ensued.

The arrival and enduring presence of the Normans in Ireland was shaped then by the politics of the Angevin Empire.  Certainly they seized vast tracks of land but given the prevalence of wars among the petty Irish kings it can hardly be said that they disturbed any kind of prevailing peace. Where Norman influence was strongest, greater peace and stability tended to prevail.  Moreover, the Normans brought much to Ireland that could not be found in a Gaelic polity that was tribal, rural, and pastoral in its makeup.  They  brought cities, towns, castles, harbours, villages, cottages, manors, markets and new farming.  They vastly boosted Irish overseas trade.  They endowed Abbeys and increased exposure to European culture at a time when Europe was undergoing something of a renaissance in learning.

Did the Normans then interrupt and effectively thwart a nascent Irish state as nationalists argued? Can the Normans be held accountable for something that did not happen?

I am not sure that they can.  There is really little evidence in Ireland of the centralising forces shaping their European neighbours.The incessant regnal wars in Ireland continued with little evolution toward a nation state that could ultimately resist the invasion of the Normans or the predations of the Tudors centuries later.  This was in no small measure due to land tenure: in feudal Europe land tenure was contingent on loyalty and this acted as a serious incentive to fulfil obligations and duties and a disincentive to rebellion.  Irish kings, whether at the local, provincial or national level, had little or no such leverage relying instead on Brehon laws and customs, enforced by hostage taking and raids.  The higher up the chain of kingship one went, the weaker the obligations became.  Another key weakness was inheritance: the failure of primogenitor to emerge as an accepted method for succession as it had done in Western Europe during the 12th century.  Absent primogenitor, succession in Ireland was determined by force, a combination of personal and military power in virtual ceaseless competition within and between extended families. And so too consequently did the practice of sibling blindings and other mutilations to reduce the competition within families, not to mention the killing of hostages.

Instructively, Brian Ború may have defeated the Danes in 1014 but Dublin stayed a Viking settlement rather than become capital of a Gaelic Irish society.  The Irish seemed as indifferent and diffident about cities in 1014 as they were in 1170 when Strongbow tenuously held Dublin. Again this points to a critical distinction between Ireland and her neighbours: the Romans never came to Ireland.  Unlike her nearest neighbours England and France, for example, Ireland had no palimpsest of urbanity and Roman laws and organisation to force the pace of centralisation and state building.

Ború’s family had quickly disintegrated as a political force after his death at the scene of battle.  In the one hundred and fifty five years between Clontarf and the arrival of the Normans, no subsequent contender for the High Kingship really came close to making that title meaningful.  Had one done so he might have quickly repulsed the small band of Normans and eliminated the need for Henry to assert Angevin control over his Norman lords in Ireland.

Even here there is room for doubt: the High King Rory O’Connor mustered a large force outside Dublin which even if not the reputed 30,000, it would have vastly outnumbered the Normans.  Yet it was put to flight by well timed sallies from three small companies of Normans and Rory slinked home westward to his Connaught fastness. As we have seen, when Henry II arrived in 1171, he was met with something like relief by the Irish who sensed an opportunity to put order on the ferocious and successful Norman adventurers that Dermot had invited into their midst.

It is still fascinating to conjecture what Ireland might have been like without the Normans and inclusion within the Angevin Empire.  Orpen offered this as a neat summary of this counter-factual fancy, the better to dispose of it: “Had Ireland been allowed to go her way unheeded by Europe, she might in time, and after much suffering, have evolved a better ordered system with some hope of progress in it, and the world might have seen a Celtic civilisation where Celtic imagination and Celtic genius, free and unfettered, would assuredly have contributed something towards the solution of human problems, which, as it is, mankind has missed forever.  But it was not to be.”

Eamonn

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