Life continued in Ireland, but the balance of power was changing.
The Irish were in resurgence, having adopted new military techniques, strategy, equipment. The Kingdoms in Munster, large parts of Connaught and Ulster were either unaffected by Anglo-Norman encroachment or were strong enough to defend themselves.
The English had Dublin, the immediate surrounding area, and a good percentage of Leinster in their sway. Parts of Connacht and Ulster were still loyal to the monarchy of Edward III.
But it was, for a large part, an illusion. The Anglo-Normans were chronically underfunded in Ireland and the disasters of the previous few years had severely reduced their operating capacity. There was a distinct lack of direction from home, with Edward more concerned with warfare against Scotland and France then the military situation in Ireland. More and more of the Anglo-Normans lords were simply paying lip-service to the English crown, content to rule themselves and their lands like their own private Kingdom, often marrying into local Irish nobility. The phrase “more Irish then the Irish themselves” and “Old English” can start to be applied to this general time period, as the Norman settlers, especially those in the west and north, began to take on Irish customs and culture, losing the very things that made them “foreigners”.
The years and decades after the final defeat of Edward Bruce were marked by more and more setbacks for the English. In 1329, a Norman lord named Thomas de Botiller led an army against the MacGeoghegan clan of Westmeath, for reasons that were unrecorded. The two forces classed at Ardnocher, today the village of Horseslip. De Botiller was the attacker but was undone. The result was a catastrophic defeat for the Normans, with more scores of nobles killed. Sources differ on casualties, with wide ranging claims between 140 to over 3’000. It was another bad defeat to a foe that they had previously been able to walk all over.
Worse was to come. The Anglo-Norman position across the Shannon and in Ulster was largely secured on the de Burgh family, that of the “Red Earl”, Richard de Burgh, who had fought against Edward Bruce at Connor. Richard had been, more or less, the most powerful man in Ireland, connected to most other Norman houses on the island through marriage. His death in 1326 precipitated a serious crisis in the Norman territory.
The Earldom of Ulster passed to his 14 year old grandson William. William was, probably due to his age, unsuited to the task of administering such a large territory. It was a confluence of disaster: A young, inexperienced ruler, with little money and not enough men, enemies on all sides.
William is not noted for his peacemaking, and clashed with his own relatives frequently. One of these, his cousin Walter, essentially made a grab for all of the de Burgh lands in Connacht but was defeated and captured in 1332. Locked up by the young Earl in Inishowen, Walter subsequently starved to death. This act seems to have stirred up the most discontent with William’s regime, and while travelling to Carrickfergus in June 1333, he was assassinated by several of his own tenants near Belfast. He was only 20.
William’s only heir was his daughter, Elizabeth, but she was just two when she came into the possession of her father’s estate. She was taken by her mother, Matilda, to England, never to return. Matilda simply didn’t see the situation for the de Burgh’s in Ireland as safe enough for her daughter. She was probably right.
Regardless, Elizabeth’s absence meant that there was no singular individual in Ireland with a clear enough claim to take over the whole Earldom. What resulted was several years of civil war within the de Burgh clan, based primarily in Connacht.
Three prominent members of the de Burgh family claimed the lordship of Connacht. They were Edmund de Burgh of Castleconnell, Limerick who was William’s uncle and nominal patriarch of the family, Edmund Albanach de Burgh of north Connacht, was a cousin of William and Edmund of Castleconnell (and brother to the murdered Walter) and Uilleag de Burgh who was head of an illegitimate branch of the de Burgh’s in south Connacht. Before too long, fighting had broken out between them.
The actual nature of this war eludes us, not being recorded in great detail. Neither of these men likely had a great deal of force to back him up, given the situation in Ireland at the time and the fighting between them would probably have taken the form of raids of a small scale nature with a naval element also being involved.
The only concrete military details are a description of “the entire west of Connacht” being “desolated” by Edmund Burke, probably Edmund Albanach, in 1335.
In 1338, Edmund of Castleconnell was captured and killed by Edmund Albanach at Lough Mask, County Mayo. The Limerick based de Burgh was taken by surprise while visiting a monastery, in a small raid led by Albanach himself. Such tactics probably defined this civil conflict. Where succession was the prize, targeting the head of your rival’s family was the way to go. Edmund of Castleconnell was survived by his sons, who managed to stabilise the situation in their own lands.
By the end of 1338, the war simmered down, but the damage done had been immense. The de Burgh family was split into several pieces, along with their lands. The three combatants essentially formed their own self-governing territories based off their home bases in Castleconnell, south Galway and North Galway/Mayo. New names sprang up for these new families, as “Burke” became prevalent for the first time. In Castelconnell, the Burke’s of Clanwilliam established themselves, Edmund Albanach took the title of Mac William Iochtar, while Uilleag’s portion became that of the “Clanricarde”. The newly formed lands essentially seceded from the English Kingdom and would remain self-governing and independent – and as time progressed, more and more Irish in name and nature – for the next several centuries.
The Irish took the rest. While the de Burgh fought amongst each other, their lands in Ulster fell back into the hands of the native Irish, from Tir Eoghain and the like. The Earldom of Ulster was essentially destroyed and the O’Neill’s were on the rise again in the north. The same could be said for large parts of Connacht too, those parts that the rival factions of the de Burgh’s were not able to secure, which were taken over by the native Irish in the form of the Kingdom of Connacht under Turlough O’ Connor.
The de Burgh/Burke civil war was an utter catastrophe for the Anglo-Normans, who in a matter of a few years had seen large holdings loyal to Edward III either turn away from England or fall back into the hands of the native Irish. More and more the Anglo-Normans were on the retreat and it was not too long before the only part of the island that really fell under their remit – modern day County Dublin, parts of east Meath, Kildare, Wicklow – was getting fortified at its borders against attack from outside. “The Pale” (from the Latin palus, “stake” as in a fence), as the area became known as from the mid 14th century, was surrounded by varying Earldoms who professed loyalty and friendship without total obedience and native Irish Kingdoms both hostile and indifferent. It would be the state of affairs in Ireland for a long time to come.
But much worse than that was about to take place. The Anglo-Normans had been pushed back by the resurgent Irish, by defecting nobles, by foreign invasion, by famine. Any attempt to change this situation in the 1340’s and beyond came to a total halt due to the appearance of a devastating disease sweeping across Europe from the east.
The Norman collapse in Ireland is often put down to five disasters: First, the famine of 1315-18. Second, the Bruce invasion. Third, the de Burgh/Burke civil war. Fourth the beginning of greater conflict in France, the start of the Hundred Years War. And fifth, the most devastating, the arrival of the Black Death, the Plagues which killed so many at the time.
It would be several decades before the English were able to exert military authority in Ireland again.
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