As the 14th century progressed, the Norman problems in Ireland continued to get worse, as the shortfall of manpower and finances meant continuing difficulties against the native Kingdoms. More and more, the Normans, now more readily identified in history as the English, found themselves having to compromise, to make alliances with the neighbouring Irish territories, taking advantage of the never ending wars between the Gaelic Kingdoms by supporting one King above another. Even with that, the Irish were enjoying a resurgence in their conflict with “the foreigners”, especially in Munster. But the Irish were never in a position to unify and threaten the position of the English who had consolidated their hold in eastern Leinster and Ulster, the areas which had soon become their main positions of control.
Worth noting in the context of increased Irish resistance to foreign armies is the growing number of foreign mercenaries fighting for Irish lords, an element that was proving vital to the containing of the Anglo-Norman position in Ireland. Mostly Scottish in origin and operating on a seasonal basis (or in exchange for land), these galloglaigh, (“young foreign soldiers”) usually anglicised as “gallowglass”, were a crucial part of the Irish war machine, and would remain so for centuries. A force multiplier that added a distinct element of spine and defensive resistance to an Irish army, the gallowglass had a presence in most of the battles of the day.
It was perhaps just as well for the English that they did not have to unduly worry about the threat from those Irish, as they had other things to worry about, namely a long drawn out conflict with the Scots, known today as the first Scottish War of Independence, the war popularised by the movie Braveheart.
In 1314 the Scottish, under Robert Bruce, had won a famous and crucial victory over the English at Bannockburn. Having thwarted another English invasion of the northern Kingdom, the Scots now turned their attention towards offence. With the Scottish lands threatened with the loss of the Isle of Man, Robert was of a mind to spread outwards to the west.
Targeting Ireland for an invasion was a natural option. It would open a second front against the English, forcing the battered armies of Edward II to be stretched to cover all of their territory along with all of the financial problems that would entail. Ireland and Scotland had plenty of cultural and societal ties, and would be sure to gain support from the locals. The invasion of Ireland would be headed by Edward Bruce, Robert’s brother.
The Bruce dynasty had received further encouragement for such an endeavour after requests from Domnall mac Brian O’ Neill, the King of Tir Eogain. His Kingdom was hard pressed on all asides thanks to the advancement of the Ulster Earldom, then under the control of Richard Og de Burgh, “the Red Earl”. He, along with his vassals and allies, requested assistance from the Scots, knowing that they had a common enemy. Naturally, O’ Neill seemed to have learned nothing about the dangers of inviting foreign fighters into Ireland.
The terms for such assistance were steep. Robert expected the Irish now allying with him to support his brother in his claim for the Kingship of Ireland, aiming to create a permanent Scottish stronghold in Ireland from which he could launch further attacks on England, through Wales. O’ Neill agreed. With such plans made, the Scots prepared their fleet for the crossing in April 1315.
In late May, they embarked, 6’000 men in all, landing between Larne and Glendrum, Antrim. The English, through intelligence gained by Richard Mortimer, had some forewarning of the landing and had prepared accordingly, marshalling an army from the Earldom of Ulster, which mixed with local Irish vassals and Lords.
The initial clash between the two forces set the tone for much of the campaign to follow, as the combined English/Irish army was defeated. As with most battles of this period the details of the fight are not recorded, only the outcome. The English were thrown back in disarray, and the Scots were able to take the town of Carrickfergus (though not its castle) shortly afterward, a beachhead established.
For Edward Bruce, a difficult task was over. A landing had been achieved, his army had been transported across the sea without difficulty, and he had beaten off the first English counter-stroke.
The King of Tir Eogain and his local vassals soon arrived to bolster Edward’s army and swear fealty to him as the new King of Ireland. Such proclamations and claims meant little though, as most of the island refused to respect it. Some Irish territories were openly allied with the English, others simply ignored the fighting as best they could and had little time for a claim to the Kingship from a Scottish pretender. What could not be disputed however was the control that Edward had been able to gain in Ulster, with the English scrambling to try and create a viable military opposition.
Edward, his army enlarged, was soon marching south, beginning the tactics of burnings and assault that would mark his time in Ireland. Rathmore, Castleroache and Dundalk were all attacked and torched by his forces, the only opposition coming from a failed ambush by some of the lords who had knelt to him previously. Another aspect of the Bruce campaign, betrayal and diplomatic counter-dealings, was already very much evident.
But it mattered little at that exact moment, given how easily Edward had penetrated into Ireland, to the extent that he was now threatening Dublin and English lands in Leinster.
By July, two separate English/Irish armies had been raised to face Edward. The Justicier Edmund Butler had marshalled an army from English holdings in Leinster and Munster but the main force was that of the Red Earl and his key Irish ally Felim Ua Conchobhar, the King of Connaught. These forces, marching closely but acting separately for reasons of personal ambition, moved northward to intercept Edward, now in Louth.
What followed was an inconclusive stand off. De Burgh made the more aggressive moves, trying to out-manoeuvre Edward’s armies and cut him off from his northern base, but Bruce refused to give battle at that time, retreating north before he was blocked off and then moving west through Armagh and into Derry with his O’ Neill allies, attacking and sacking Coleraine, destroying its bridge so that the Earl of Ulster could not easily pursue.
The two sides thus faced off across the River Bann. Edward had the advantage, his army in friendly territory, easily re-supplied, where as the English/Irish force was beginning to feel the pinch. Edmund Butler’s force had already retreated to Ormond because of his lack of supplies, and it was clear that, in such a waiting game, De Burgh could not triumph. Thus pressed, the Red Earl retreated to Antrim so he could re-supply his own force, perhaps also thinking that Bruce would not be able to continue with the campaign season on the wane.
At this moment, politics and treachery again came into play. Edward was aware that he would be hardpressed to beat De Burgh’s force as it stood, and that he would have to be weakened and beaten before another thrust southwards. He sent communications to Felim in the English camp, promising to support his position in Connacht if he would withdraw. He also sent the same message to Cathal Ua Conchobhar, a rival claimant to the throne in Connacht. Cathal struck immediately, returning home, raising a rebellion and declaring himself King. Felim had no choice but to also leave in order to defend his throne.
De Burgh’s army was gutted as a significant portion of it (including some English with lands in the area) departed westward in order to defend and fight over the lands of Connacht. In this, Edward had achieved a major victory with just a few words.
With his enemies army disintegrating, Edward took the initiative, crossed the Bann in boats, and attacked. De Burgh had no choice but to retreat from the onslaught, moving his army to the village of Connor, Antrim where, in early September, he was caught by the Scots/Irish army. The result was another decisive victory for Edward, and another disaster for the English and Anglo-allied Irish. De Burgh survived and retreated with what force he could to safer lands in Connacht, while others clamoured for refuge in Carrickfergus castle, the stronghold still holding out even then.
Edward had, in a few short months, beaten the English and their Irish allies twice, burned and sacked numerous town and villages and had shown himself able to operate with almost impunity in Ireland. The English had been beaten, their armies scattered and even their Irish allies were back fighting amongst themselves. Edward seemed to be in a prime position to wreck further chaos and havoc on Ireland, and maybe even make good on his claim to the islands throne.
How were the English so easily beaten? The same problems that had allowed the Irish to become a more dangerous threat, to challenge Norman power at Druim-Dearg years before, were only getting worse. The battle-hardened army of Edward Bruce was an equal of the English, with much experience fighting that very enemy in Scotland. His army was something that the English in Ireland were not used to facing. Further, he skilfully managed the diplomatic and political realities on the ground, gaining support where he could and sowing discord in the enemy army at crucial times.
He also made sure that he faced the Red Earl’s army when it suited him, not the other way round, dragging De Burgh’s army deep into unfriendly lands where he himself could be kept easily supplied and striking only when the enemy army was numerically weakened and demoralised. De Burgh also refused to link up with the army of Edmund Butler, a mistake borne of personal ambition. Edward Bruce, for all the negativity that Irish chroniclers attach to him for his tendency to burn and sck, had a good military mind, and his skill in battle was to be proven over and over again in the following years.
While all that was going on, the civil wars of the Irish continued, and one of the more bloody encounters of that kind in the period, happening concurrent to the Bruce campaign, will be discussed next.
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