So we come to the inevitable point, when this series changes from commentary on internal Irish conflicts for the most part and turns its focus on Ireland’s military relationship and history with “the foreigners” as the early sources like to call them.
Today I will talk about those opening years of Norman invasion, specifically the year 1169. Those years, for the events that took place and the characters that defined them, are crucial to the Norman conquest as a whole, not because they were able to conquer Ireland in that time, but just because they gained a foothold – and in more ways than one. The military aspects of the period are somewhat understudied, though this may have more to do with the lack of sources then anything. As such, I’m splitting this post in two.
A note on the sources: they become somewhat confused for this time period, especially on the matter of specific years in relation to events. That, and some vary in their apparent respect for the Norman presence, some not even mentioning their involvement in events. So, apologies for anything that may seem inconsistent.
Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough) was King of Leinster in the mid 12th century. The Normans were the ruling class of England and Wales to the east, with their King, Henry II, campaigning often in France to extend his holdings there. It is not to be expected that either man really knew much of the other, but their coming meeting was to prove rather important to the history of the island.
Diarmait was caught up in conflict with several other Irish Kings, most notable Tigernan Ua Ruairc of Breifne and the High-King Ruaidri O’Conchobair, better known to us by the anglicised name he has been given, Rory O’Connor. The wars between them were allegedly started over Diarmait’s seizing of Tigernan’s wife several years before. In 1166, the King of Leinster’s many enemies were completely victorious over Diarmait, and exile was the result.
As you might expect, Diarmait was not a man to take this lying down, and was probably plotting his return and triumph before he even got on the boat to leave. He found himself in England, and headed south to France, where he met with Henry II.
His proposal was simple: If Henry gave assistance or allowed Diarmait to recruit English nobles and their men as mercenaries, he would take them to Ireland, win back his Kingdom, and swear fealty to Henry in return.
Whether Diarmait was serious about this supposed loyalty or was just using Henry as a means to an end, we cannot know. Diarmait was not a man known for following his bargains sometimes, so it is certainly possible that he had no intention of ever being placed below Henry.
Henry, for his part, was busy with what he must have considered more important matters in France. But, he must have recognised the opportunity to extend his lands west, and gain a possible foothold in Ireland. Moreover, he may have perceived that, in allowing Diarmait to recruit his own nobles, he might have been able to get rid of some troublesome ones.
Thus, Henry agreed, and sent Diarmait off with all signs of royal favour and permissions, but no actual men. Diarmait travelled back to England and spent much of that year travelling around seeking help, but finding no takers for his enterprise. Diarmait was offering lands in his Kingdom when it was retaken, but it seems that few nobles were willing to take the chance of invading Ireland in return for such a prize.
Winding up in Wales, Diarmait finally struck gold. He met with a down and out nobleman, who had found himself on the wrong side of a rebellion against Henry II’s family. Having lost his lands and respect, this man was more than willing to join Diarmait in his plans to re-conquer Leinster but he had a further addendum to the land he would receive: he wanted the hand of Diarmait’s daughter. Diarmait, perhaps desperate to win the support of somebody and mindful that Ireland’s laws (unlike those of England) would protect his succession from passing to any future son-in-law, agreed.
The man Diarmait met that day has become synonymous with the early Norman and English incursion into Ireland. His name was Richard de Clare, but he has gone down in Irish history as “Strongbow”, a nickname he had inherited from his father, either from skill with the bow or a bastardisation of Striguil, a former fortress of the family. Strongbow made plans to move across the sea to Ireland, recruiting men to his cause with what little he had left. He felt it prudent to obtain Henry’s direct permission to invade Ireland: this was two years in the coming, and the wording of the license – and how far it permitted Strongbow to go – caused some problems later.
Strongbow was not the only man that Diarmait was able to recruit to his cause of course. Others included Maurice FitzGerald, Robert Fitz-Stephen and Raymond FitzGerald, various low ranking nobles and soldiers from the Welsh marches, eager to stake a claim in what might as well have been a “new world”. Their descendants would dominate Irish life for centuries.
Diarmait returned home first, absent of his new found allies, hoping to clear a way and be in place for their arrival. The various narratives become confused at this point. Some say Diarmait laid low and hid for a time, only rallying men to his cause when the first Normans arrived. Others say he seized a local Kingdom in the south of Leinster, and had to endure a stand-off with the forces of High King. In some of these sources, a very small force of Normans assists him, but he is defeated (though not driven from Ireland) again.
O’ Conchobair was still High King and still didn’t like Diarmait very much. But, as would be seen time and again over the next few years, he was distracted by events elsewhere, especially rebellion in Munster and could never finish Diarmait off completely.
Regardless of whether he was laying low or establishing a bigger presence, Diarmait still had the loyalties of some men in Leinster as was made clear when the first substantial force Normans arrived in 1169 (or 1170 according to some sources). This was in May. They were led by Robert Fitz-Stephen and landed in Bannow, Wexford, not far from Waterford. More soldiers trickled in over the next few days. If the landing was resisted, it is not noted.
The force that Normans assembled was pitifully small. In total Fitz-Stephen could call upon 360 archers, 40 Knights and 60 men-at-arms, gathered from around Norman holdings. The archers would have been Welsh, and some Flemish were also recruited. Diarmait, upon hearing of the landing, began rallying his own men, putting an additional 500 men into the army.
The combined force set off for Wexford, the nearest large town of note. Diarmait had apparently promised nearby areas of land to Norman leaders, and they must have been eager to claim them.
Before they were able to reach their goal, a skirmish was fought in or near Duncormac, a small coastal village in Wexford. This short clash has passed into history with barely a sentence in most accounts to mark it, but was the first military fight between the forces of England and Ireland in what was a new age between the two countries. The combined Norman-Irish army repulsed this attack from what were probably locals, and continued on to Wexford.
The town had not inconsiderable defences to deal with. The defenders burned the buildings outside the walls and retreated inside, and were prepared to fight for the town. The initial assault of the attackers cost them 18 soldiers for three casualties inside the town. No breach was made. Things may well have turned ill for Diarmait and his force if Wexford had not suddenly capitulated the following day, in return for the defenders lives. This was possibly as a result of clerical intervention and the defenders were persuaded to lay down arms and bring their allegiance back to Diarmait. The military know-how and strength of even a small Norman force may also have been a factor. Fitz-Stephen carried out the siege with competence and efficiency, having been more then prepared to renew the assault before the surrender came and setting in place a sound attacking posture in the form of trenches with the correct use of archers to harry defenders on walls. And he had that prepared in just a few days.
The reaction of the other Irish Kings, especially Ruaidri, is crucial. According to the sources, “they set no stock by the Flemings” indicating that they treated Diarmait’s return and his foreign mercenaries with scorn. Certainly, it was thus far a small scale military incursion, and Ruaidri, distracted by events elsewhere, may not have been too concerned with the loss of Wexford. This lack of response or fear of what the Normans represented is certainly forgivable, given its size at that time, but it was decisive. The Normans had a foot in the door. If Ruaidri had been able to gather his forces and crush Diarmait and the Normans before Wexford fell, it is possible that the resulting follow-ups from across the water may never have taken place.
With his force enlarged by the men of Wexford, Diarmait and Fitz-Stephen continued on, launching attacks and raids northwards, consolidating control of Leinster. This finally seemed to get Ruaidri’s attention. While he may have been willing to fight Diarmait, who was by no means invincible at this point, he elected instead to try diplomacy. Perhaps he too had heard of the military strength of the Normans. The resulting conference saw Diarmait restored to the Kingship of Leinster after agreeing to the dominance of Ruaidri. Fitz-Stephen was awarded lands around Wexford along with a number of other Norman nobles.
Diarmait had got what he wanted, but he was not placated at all. It would be no time at all before he broke his agreement with the High King and started making aggressive moves towards Dublin. At the same time, the man who would swing the balance of power decisively towards the Normans, Strongbow, was due for arrival.
The Normans were clearly far superior in the art of warfare then the native Irish. They had famously sounded the death-knell of the shield-wall tactics at Hastings in 1066, and Ireland’s failure to adapt to modern military techniques meant that they were easy prey even to small Norman forces.
The Normans made excellent use of combined arms tactics, utilising the best archers available to them in the form of the Welsh contingent, and matching that with their excellent cavalry and men at arms. The Normans were well used to good quality armour and helmets (unlike their opponents), and the forces that fought in Ireland were likely battle hardened already, from the numerous revolts and disputes that were constantly being fought in England, Wales or France at the time.
The Irish, on the other hand, were still focused on infantry primarily, the shield-wall, with little place for horses or missile troops. The Norman archers cannot be under-estimated in their decisive impact on affairs.
More than that, they outdid the Irish military opposition in other ways. The Normans were able to land troops in a foreign land and march them a considerable distance fast, breezing past opposition along the way. They were able to set-up an effective siege in a very short time, scaring the defenders into surrender. They were able to penetrate deep into Ireland in the aftermath, with little opposition. It was not quite like Cortez slaughtering Aztecs with gunpowder weapons, but the Normans were clearly on a different level to the opponents they faced in Ireland, in nearly everything except numbers.
Diarmait’s men would have been a force multiplier, but it seems as if the core of Norman support was crucial. The King of Leinster is often vilified in historical accounts as a Judas figure who “let” the Normans in to Ireland, but their expansion westwards was probably inevitable. Diarmait simply gave them an easy way to do it, probably in the belief that he would be able to turf them out of his re-claimed lands in his own time.
He would never get that chance. Whether he misunderstood or underestimated the resolves and cunning of Strongbow, Diarmait’s actions laid the foundation for what was to follow.
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