Ireland’s Wars: Strongbow Arrives

Diarmait and Ruaidri had come to an agreement at Ferns, but by all accounts this deal was breached very quickly. Diarmait had no intention of laying low and being happy with his holding in Leinster: he wanted more and may even have been eyeing the High Kingship for himself. With more Normans arriving to the south, in the form of two ships under Maurice FitzGerald, Diarmait was confident enough to move on Dublin.

Dublin was still its own separate Kingdom, ruled over by the Norse-Gael nobles, the remnants of the Viking settlers mixed with the native population. Dublin was growing larger and larger all the time and was a prosperous coastal town. A tempting target, in other words, and Ruaidri, as ever, was distracted by events elsewhere in Ireland. Diarmait marched his combined Irish/Norman force north and soon stood outside the walls of the city, the defenders few in number. With Diarmait’s victory seemingly inevitable in the event of fighting, and possibly with the rumours of Wexford and Norman skill in sieges  the inhabitants were brought to the table, apparently paying off Diarmait. From the sources, it seems the King of Leinster did not enter the town, at least not in a violent fashion, and Dublin was left nominally independent. Diarmait was soon lending support to a Munster rebellion against Ruaidri as well as sending letters back to Wales, looking for Strongbow’s arrival.

Strongbow was playing for time, seeking permission from his own King to depart and gathering strength. Henry’s permission was long in the coming and very debatable when it did come, Henry mindful of allowing Barons he was on poor terms with the authority to carve out their own Kingdom. It was this haziness that allowed him to later mount a military expedition to Ireland of his own.

Strongbow sent Raymond de Gros to prepare for his own arrival, and his friend arrived in Ireland in early May 1170, landing near Baginbun, Waterford. He had only a small force of men with him and his objective was to secure a landing for the more substantial forces to follow. He apparently built a small fort to resist attack, which came from an Irish army sent from Waterford. These attacks were repulsed. The attackers suffered heavy casualties, a possible testament to de Gros’ defensive skills, with Gerald of Wales claiming that he blunted an assault by driving a herd of cattle into the attackers lines.

Raymond held out for a few months until August, when Strongbow finally arrived in Ireland, with a force of perhaps a thousand men. They immediately turned their attention to Waterford. Not content with a siege plan, Strongbow moved to assault within a day of his arrival. Two attacks were beaten back by the defenders before a third found a breach, and the town was soon in Norman hands.

Diarmait had heard of Strongbow’s arrival and rushed southwards with his forces. He arrived the day after the fall of Waterford. We may imagine his possible surprise at the speed of the Norman advance, or maybe he expected it. The sources are somewhat muddled on the conduct of Norman troops towards Waterford. It is likely that a typical massacre occurred, but it is indicated by some that Diarmait interceded upon his arrival. He had his daughter with him, promised to Strongbow, and is unlikely to have wanted the nuptials to take place upon a sea of blood.

The marriage took place shortly afterward, Dairmait likely eager to bind Strongbow and his Normans to him and Strongbow eager to have his claim on Diarmait’s lands (in his eyes) solidified. This marriage, the union of Ireland and Norman England, was crucial to all that followed.

War with Ruaidri was now inevitable, with the High King massing his forces. Dublin had, due to the approach of Ruaidri armies, rebelled against Diarmait again. Both Diarmait and Strongbow saw the prize that was Dublin and moved their combined forces northward to take it. The Normans cleverly avoided the guarded roads through Leinster’s wooded regions, taking paths through nominally more hilly and mountainous terrain instead. Soon, Diarmait and Strongbow’s army were at the gates of Dublin again.

What happened next is, as typical, muddled. Diarmait and Strongbow took the town for sure, and violently. The Normans are credited with its capture, attacking the city from two directions, forcing the breach and enacting a slaughter of the inhabitants. Raymand de Gros is especially noted as finding an entrance, the military talisman to Strongbow’s political icon. But many sources also mention an element of divine retribution taking its toll on the defenders, of Dublin being set alight by lightning during the attack. These sources may exaggerate in order to discredit the rulers of Dublin, condemned for their previous dealings with Diarmait and lack of resistance, as they may have been brokering a second agreement with Diarmait at the time.

The Norman/Irish forces had achieved great things, and the war between Diarmait and Ruaidri turned bitter. Ruaidri had hostages of Diarmait’s from the agreement at Ferns: these, including one of Diarmait’s sons, were now killed.

The war continued, but Diarmait did not have long left. He died in 1171, of “an insufferable and unknown disease” while continuing his campaigns against Ruaidri. After his death, Strongbow, through his marriage to Aoife, claimed the Kingship of Leinster.

It was the stroke that he had been preparing for, which had probably been in his mind when he first met Diarmait in Wales. Suddenly, the Normans were no longer just foreign fighters and mercenaries, interfering on the side of an Irish King in one of his squabbles as the Vikings so often had. Now, they had a hand on an Irish Kingdom, not one of their own establishment. Strongbow’s claim was not legal under Irish law of course, but it didn’t really matter.

A Norman – an English – noble had a claim through marriage on a substantial part of Irish soil, on the allegiance of a number of soldiers. He had the military forces of the Normans at his beck and call and held several towns throughout Leinster. The Normans presence, a settled presence, in Ireland was now a reality beyond land grabbing at the point of a sword.

The Norman situation was not airtight of course. Their forces were small, many in Leinster had no respect for Strongbow’s claim, Ruaidri still had massive forces to be arrayed against the ”invaders” and across the water, Henry II looked on at the developments with anger and concern. Strongbow would have to fight for his title and position again and again in the coming years. He would actually die in the process of expanding that Irish realm, but only after gifting it to Henry.

But he was there and so were the Normans, with granted lands, military know how and the back-up of manpower from England and Wales.

If the second part of the initial invasion tells us anything about the Normans, it is just to emphasise their military skill when compared with their Irish counterparts. Strongbow and his forces seized numerous Irish towns with breathtaking speed, outfighting large forces constantly. They were adept at attacking fast and gaining victory quickly. They were good at marching fast and outmanoeuvring the enemy. Their cavalry and missile troops were things that the Irish had difficulty dealing with.

The Normans lacked the strength to take over Ireland at the time, but they were strong enough to take their limited aims and keep them. Ruaidri would not be able to dislodge the Normans completely and neither would his successors. Their military skill and level of competence had stagnated in the constant infighting on the island over the previous centuries, and they were easy prey for the men who had conquered all of England and Wales, and were pushing further into France.

The Normans, through the military skill of their commanders and the acquiescence of Diarmait in their arrival, were in Ireland to stay.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Strongbow Arrives

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Roses At Piltown | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Battle Of The Curragh | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Strongbow Holds On | Never Felt Better

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