As the 13th century went on, the Normans still looked like the power destined to rule over all of Ireland. Militarily strong, expanding their controlled lands, facing a divided and martially inferior foe, the Norman colonists were in the ascendant as more and more noble titles were carved out of seized territory in Leinster, Ulster and Munster. But as the 1250’s rolled around, some hidden weaknesses in the Norman machine began to become evident.
They were beginning to get overstretched, having difficulty maintaining their new lands from the east coast ports to the stronghold of Limerick on the other side of the country. A sheer lack of Norman nobles made their position precarious in places. Castles, as the Normans had taken to building all around the land they occupied, were less imposing if the walls were defended only by a small number of trained soldiers.
Worse perhaps, was a serious lack of direction from the ruling class back home, Henry III more interested in conflict and expansion elsewhere, especially in continental Europe, then taking care of things in Ireland. This manifested itself in a serious financial shortfall for the colonists at times, a problem that was only going to get worse. With no interest from the monarchy in Ireland, the influx of economic aid from the noble elite in England was sorely lacking.
Moreover, Norman inheritance issues were beginning to bite in areas, as seized lands became divided between numerous sons in the event of some lords deaths. Norman/English inheritance law would prove to a boon in years to come, compared to their Irish counter-parts anyway, but at that exact time it was not. The most notable case was the lordship of Leinster itself, that established by Strongbow. He had been succeeded by his son-in-law William Marshall, who in turn was succeeded in turn by his five sons – including Richard Marshall of the previous series entry – who all died childless. The result was the splitting of William’s lands between the husbands of his daughters.
Such laws of inheritance were designed to try and avoid civil strife over land, and while they have achieved this, they left the Norman position in Ireland divided and weaker as a result. The splitting of Leinster occurred in the late 1240’s, at a time when things began to turn against the Normans in Ireland.
The native Irish were beginning to see the folly of their ways. They knew now that they did not have the skill or strength to stand against the Normans in the field. Norman mounted knights, Norman archers, Norman armour were all far better than anything the Irish could throw against them.
As such, the tactics began to change. Raids became the common type of warfare against “the foreigners”, with the targets being those of economic rather than military value. Surprise attacks were the order of the day, hitting the enemy fast when he was at his weakest, then retreating to more defensible positions in the west. The Normans, at that time, lacked the manpower to go on further offensives to the west, especially across the Shannon River, and it was in these areas especially that the native Irish maintained their own strength and power.
They still warred amongst themselves of course, constantly, the divided Irish Kingdoms often the greatest ally the Normans could have asked for. So consumed with their never ending wars with each other were the Irish that they could never combine against the Normans. Ireland had not had a High King since the early days of the Norman incursion. But, things were about to change.
Throughout the 1250’s, Irish Kings and lords exerted a greater amount of attacks on the Normans, leading to the Battle of Credan, north of Sligo, where the Kingdom of Tyrconnell (based around modern Donegal) took a Norman army under Maurice FitzGerald (the same one who ambushed Richard Marshall) in 1257. The Annals of the Four Masters claims Godfrey, the Tyrconnell King, was “defending his lands” and the location of the battle does indicate it was a Norman offensive.
The battle was apparently a defeat for the Normans, who were driven out of Connacht in the aftermath. Credan was a bloody affair: “A desperate and furious battle was fought between them: bodies were mangled, heroes were disabled, and the senses were stunned on both sides” where FitzGerald and Godfrey allegedly faced each other directly, both inflicting wounds that would kill the other in time, FitzGerald before Godfrey.
This episode, however it came about, signals a period of retreat for the Normans. They held Limerick in the south, but were taking a battering from the royal family of Thomond in that area, Tadhg O’Brien, son of the King of Thomond, doing much of the damage there. In Connacht itself, Aodh O’ Connor (Hugh in some sources) expanded his father’s Kingdom to the north-east by taking the land of Briefne. Also, Brian O’Neill, the King of Tyr Eoghain, had begun substantial raids into the Normans lands to the east of his Kingdom. The Earldom of Ulster was undergoing a period of poor administration after the death of its founder Hugh de Lacy in 1243, and much of it was easy pickings for Brian, one of the more notable military leaders among the Irish at the time, and he had already attacked and destroyed a number of Norman fortifications earlier in the decade.
The description of this fighting from the sources is vague, but involves a great deal of burnings and very little mention of actual battle. The indication is that the Irish were very selectively choosing their targets, towns and crops, and that the Normans had little response.
Brian fought a war with the aforementioned Godfrey after Credan, thinking him weak, but was defeated for his trouble at the River Suleach in 1258. Though it was considered quite a bad defeat, Godfey finally expired after this battle, and Brian was still considered the foremost power in the area, able to make demands of Tyrconnell in the aftermath that were seriously considered (the implication I suppose, is that the Tyrconnell victory was a fluke or a pyrrhic one, with Brian still having strength to continue his wars if he so choose). The fighting between the two would continue for a while.
Brian had larger ideas then taking Tyrconnell though. He could plainly see what was happening elsewhere in Ireland and in 1258, he met with Aodh of Connacht and Tadhg of Thomond in a meeting at Beelick, Fermanagh. The three made an alliance, a common cause to attack the Normans colonists, and Brian was chosen to be their leader, assuming the mantle of High King, the first in over a century.
Unfortunately for this triple-alliance, Tadhg was not long for this world, dying the following year of causes unrecorded. The other two forged on with their endeavour, laying their plans for 1260 (the exact year is claimed differently in some sources).
Perhaps they judged the time was ripe for such expansion, the Normans taking a bit of a beating on all fronts and no longer making many offensive moves. Brian may also have simply decided to switch his forces from west to east with the aim of improving his own lot, having marched successfully against the Normans before.
The target was, as usual for Brian, Ulster, the old Kingdom of Ulaid (now Antrim). The combined forces of Brian and Aodh marched into what is now County Down where they met a Norman force. The Normans, for their part, had some foreknowledge of the impending attack and had prepared accordingly, raising an army under the command of Stephen de Longspee (or possibly it was the current justiciar of Ireland, a little known individual called James de Audley). The two forces clashed at the Battle of Druim-Dearg, near Downpatrick.
The events of the battle itself are not recorded in detail. Some sources mention that the battle was fought in “the streets of Down”. Such urban warfare is not outside the realms of possibility, but such fighting between two armies was relatively rare for the period.
What is known is that the result was a decisive victory for the Normans, who killed over 350 of the Irish, which included Brian O’Neill and a host of other native nobles. Special note is given in the sources to the deaths of many “O’Cahan “ (O’Kane) chiefs in the battle. All indications are that the battle ended in a spectacularly one sided manner and the Irish were forced to retreat back into their own lands. Brian’s head was sent to Henry III.
The battle is an example of the dangers of over-confidence. The Irish were apparently on a roll but Brian took that a step too far, reverting back to the failed tactics of meeting the Normans in an equal footing. The Norman military, while short on men and cash strapped, was still more than capable of defeating the Irish on the field of battle. The tactics of surprise attacks, raids, targeting crops and lightly held fortresses would have better served Brian, but he seemingly had higher objectives in mind. He did try and undo one of the great Irish weaknesses in his diplomatic manoeuvring, but he failed to guard against the threat to his west from Tyrconnell, who continued to war with him even while he was gathering his forces for the attack on the Normans. The loss of possible Thomond support with the death of Tadhg was also crucial. Of course, this period also demonstrates that the Irish were able to attack – and destroy – Norman fortifications when conditions were right. They were no longer easy prey.
The Normans may have been thrown back from their advances across the Shannon and may have been stuck defending what they had thus far gained, but at that time, they were not in any danger of total defeat.
The Normans were still in plenty of trouble of course. Though they had defeated Brian’s plans and killed another potential uniter of their enemies, the Irish were still nursing their own strength and the Normans lacked the power to subjugate them completely. Both sides on the island were now in a strange sort of stalemate, neither being able to completely beat the other.
But worse was to come for the Normans over the following years.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.