Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The 850th anniversary of the Norman Invasion of Ireland

by Ruadh Butler

On this day, May 1st, 850 years ago, just as evening began to fall, three ships made land at a small island on an insignificant estuary on Ireland’s southern coast.

To the casual observer, the three vessels would’ve looked little different to the longships used by the descendants of Danish and Norse Vikings who had settled in Ireland three centuries before. They probably looked much like the ships often used by merchants crossing the Irish Sea between the big towns of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, Bristol, Chester and Gloucester.

The strange attire and the numerous languages spoken by those in the ships might’ve confused the locals, though there is no doubt that any native Gael who laid eyes on the small fleet would’ve been wary. They would’ve recognised a warband as soon as they saw it. Would they have known that this was an army of Cambro-Norman invaders at Bannow Bay that May evening? And could they ever have imagined that within a few months those 400 people aboard the ships would’ve helped conquer a fifth of their country?

So how the blazes did they manage it?

A few days after landing, the Norman commander, Robert FitzStephen, led his small army eastwards from Bannow and clashed in his first skirmish in Ireland at Duncormick. Who he fought, what tactics he employed, or how the battle came about, we simply don’t know, but we do know that FitzStephen’s small force swept aside his enemy.

FitzStephen had been promised lordship over the Viking town of Wexford by an exiled King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait Mac Murchada), in return for helping him win back his throne. And in early May 1169 he launched his attempt to claim it. Three attacks were launched with ladders on the walls and three assaults were repulsed by the besieged Ostmen (‘East Men’ – the descendants of the Norse and Danish Vikings) at the cost of eighteen men. Thankfully, a bevy of bishops were on hand and they convinced the Ostmen that only worse was to follow and encouraged them to surrender to King Dermot. From a miserable prisoner in Wales, FitzStephen had, almost overnight, become lord of over 200,000 acres and began parcelling it out to his followers.

Robert FitzStephen
The first invader of Ireland, Robert FitzStephen
from the 1185 book, Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldis Cambrensis

In addition to around 500 Gaelic warriors armed with spears, axes and throwing darts, the core of FitzStephen’s army was made up of just 50 heavy cavalrymen who would be today recognised as knights. Drawn principally from FitzStephen’s extended family, they were armoured in mail and had the distinctive spangenhelm and kite-shield. Their main weapon was a lance while a sword was merely their primary sidearm. Another 150 of his army were ‘half-armoured’ horsemen. Presumably made up of esquires (apprentice knights) and pages, they were most usually employed on scouting missions. The remaining 200 warriors in the Norman army were archers and crossbowmen. Drawn from the Welsh, Cornish and Flemish peoples of western Britain, they would play a critical role in the success of the Norman enterprise in Ireland.

On Leinster’s western border was the Kingdom of Ossory and any man wishing to be recognised as King of Leinster had to secure the submission of their neighbour. Three weeks after the fall of Wexford, FitzStephen led his army (now bolstered by a thousand Norse infantry) and Dermot’s 500 warriors over the Blackstairs Mountains and into modern day Counties Carlow and Kilkenny. Marching through the Gap of Gowran, they were faced by King of Ossory’s 5,000-strong army behind trenches and a palisade. Numerous assaults finally saw FitzStephen carry the day with the Ossorians fleeing back towards the lowlands. Sweeping up booty as they went, Dermot and FitzStephen moved north, hoping to take the Pass of Slieve Margy (near modern Leighlinbridge) back towards friendly territory. However, the King of Ossory was not finished and used his superior knowledge of the terrain to track the retreating invaders with his remaining 2,000 warriors. Obviously aware of his history, one Flemish cavalry commander, Maurice de Prendergast, used the age-old tactic of the feigned retreat to draw out the enemy and then turned to cut them down in the open ground.

The Normans followed up this victory with Invasion of Kildare and Wicklow, conducting a campaign that would become known as the chevauchée in later centuries, before a second Raid on Ossory culminated in a three-day Battle at Freshford. Again, FitzStephen’s Normans proved the decisive troops on the field, successfully storming the Ossorian lines and using their archers with devastating results.

With winter almost upon them and with it the end of the fighting season, the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, at last recognised the threat posed by Dermot and FitzStephen. Raising all the other great kings and their armies, Rory pushed south towards Dermot’s capital at Ferns (modern County Wexford). But he arrived to find Ferns deserted. FitzStephen was ready and had prepared for a Stand-off at Dubh-Tir.

When he heard of Rory’s advance, FitzStephen knew that he had no hope of overcoming the disparity in numbers in open warfare. Instead he had ordered his army into the wilderness in the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains (presumably near Mount Leinster), a region then known as Dubh-Tir, the dark country. Forested and mountainous, filled with bogs and uncharted rivers, FitzStephen began felling trees to build fences in defensible positions, carving paths into the wood to force the enemy to meet him in places he was prepared to defend.

High King Rory had never seen anything like FitzStephen’s defences in Dubh-Tir and immediately decided upon another tactic, trying to convince both the Norman commander and Dermot to betray his ally.

In the end it was Rory who blinked first, opening peace negotiations with his enemies and coming to a settlement whereby Dermot would submit to the High King’s rule in return for recognition as King of Leinster. Finally, four years after being exiled from his throne, he was back in power of his tribal homeland.

Amongst Dermot’s promises was that he would remain within the bounds of his kingdom and not make war upon his neighbours. As sureties for this good behaviour, his son, Conor, grandson Donal, and his foster-brother’s son, were handed over to Rory. There was another secret clause to the peace treaty between the two kings: Dermot promised to bring no more foreigners to Ireland and, furthermore, to eject FitzStephen and his men once Leinster had been pacified.

Once agreed, Rory withdrew from Dubh-Tir with all his troops, allowing Dermot to return to Ferns to muse on his campaign of 1170. FitzStephen journeyed back to his newly won lands at Wexford where, just before the turn of New Year, he was joined by reinforcements under his elder brother, Maurice FitzGerald. Together, they built the first castle in Ireland, a small timber stockade on a high bluff above the River Slaney at modern Ferrycarrig, just two miles from Wexford’s walls. From there, they aimed to control the town and any shipping hoping to move inland. From there, they hoped that they would conquer a kingdom of their own.

Baginbun Point, where the second landing of Normans would
occur in 1170, lies on the other side of the estuary from Bannow


Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland, Lord of the Sea Castle and The Earl Strongbow. The series tells the story of the 12th century invasion of Ireland by Norman knights from Wales. Catch up with Ruadh on his website, on Facebook, or find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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1 comment:

  1. It seems over time many could conquer Ireland, but in the end none could keep it, but its own


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