So, we’re going back in time a bit. My earlier editions of Ireland’s Wars were more threadbare and looser than the later editions, due to a mixture of numerically inferior sources and my own need to still form a proper approach to the topic, something I think I have achieved a greater hold on in the last year or so. As a result, many of the earliest entries are not as good as they could have been, and cover very large periods of time.
But now I’m going to give things another shot, and I’m going to do so in the evident gap between the “accession” of Richard de Clare – aka “Strongbow” – to the Kingship of Leinster in 1171, and the Battle of the Curragh in 1234.
First, a basic summation of the way things stood in Ireland during 1171. Strongbow had claimed the Leinster crown following the death of Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough), but while many historians like to trace the great dominance of this new colony in Ireland from this point, in truth Strongbow and his compatriots were still in a very precarious position. Many of Mac Murchada’s underlings and subordinates had no intention of recognising Strongbow’s dubious claim to the position of power he wanted, still following the native Irish tradition of tanistry succession, backing one of Diarmait’s son, Domhnall, for the position. Few other Irish rulers throughout the country were willing to recognise or tolerate Strongbow’s grab for higher power. And, while it has become traditional to imagine that the death of Diarmait delivered most of Leinster into Strongbow’s hands, the truth was that his holdings were very limited, little more than the towns of Dublin, Wexford and Waterford, with whatever land was around them.
But Strongbow had his advantages. The armed forces he could call upon were small, but of a better quality than the Irish they faced. Those Irish remained as divided and prone to internal division as ever. And, if worst came to worst, Strongbow could also expect (he would have hoped anyway) more support, reinforcements and supply from over the Irish Sea, where many in Wales and beyond were starting to take a much keener interest in Irish affairs than they had before, seeing opportunities for land and power.
One man taken an opposite opinion was Henry II, the King of England, whose begrudging approval had allowed Strongbow’s entire expedition to take place. Now, he saw a rival where he had previously seen just a low ranking noble, and the news of de Clare claiming a crown must have alarmed him. It did not take long for Henry to issue a proclamation barring further resupply and reinforcements to Ireland, and he further ordered his subjects in the country to return home.
Such an edict had the potential to wreck the hard fought for position in Ireland, and Strongbow was desperate to avoid heading home, for the moment anyway. Sending one of his trusted men, Raymond De Gros, back home to plead the colonist’s case to Henry, he remained in Dublin, set on maintaining the position he had fought and politicked hard to gain. He still had some common sense though, and his messages to Henry insisted that the rule of Irish lands under his power would fall to Henry as his liege.
While all of that was being decided, there were still military matters to take care of in Ireland. The first direct threat to Strongbow’s rule came not from the Irish or the English, but from much further afield in the form of a Scandinavian attack. This was led by Ascall mac Ragnaill, called Hasculf in some accounts, a Norse-Gaelic noble who had previously held the Kingship of Dublin before being driven out by Strongbow and Diarmait in 1170. Having retreated to the “northern isles” – probably the Orkney’s – he had assembled a fleet of ships and an army of Norsemen from home and the isles to made a desperate bid to regain his former Kingdom. Some sources make the difficult to believe claim that Ascall had 20’000 men, almost certainly a vast exaggeration. Many have also taken note of a figure fighting for Ascall, “John the Wode” or “John the Mad”, claimed to be high ranking Norse nobility and a fearsome warrior.
The attempt on Dublin was a failure. Ascall landed on the banks of the Liffey successfully and was able to enact a partial blockade of Dublin, focusing on its eastern defences. But the defenders inside the town were not easily cowed, and even absent the talismanic figure of Strongbow – away in the south on other matters – they still resisted the attack strongly. Led by the appointed governor of the town, Miles de Cogan, and along with his brother Richard, they absorbed a fierce Norse attack led by John the Mad, with Miles’ knights holding him off long enough for Richard and a cavalry force to circle behind the enemy from the western gate of Dublin and surprise them. In the fighting that followed, John retreated, and Miles sallied out and attacked the Norse-Gaels, killing thousands (including John), putting the majority to flight and capturing Ascall alive. Refusing to recant his claim on Dublin, he too was killed. His death could well be seen as a decisive blow against the lingering remains of Norse rule in parts of Ireland, now supplanted by a new invader.
It was a crucial victory for these men, maintaining their control of Dublin and demonstrating, once again, the superior martial capabilities that would soon see them advancing all across Ireland. But having passed this difficult test of their acumen, they were almost immediately faced with another, and greater too. Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), the nominal High King of Ireland and long time enemy of Diarmait, was not ignorant of the potential setbacks he could suffer as a result of this foreign invasion, and was determined to try and snuff it out. It took time to arrange a grand coalition of various Irish nobles and lesser Kings, along with support from the men ruling the various isles of the Irish Sea and beyond, with Ruaidrí wanting to approach Dublin with a combination of assault from both land and sea.
With an alliance that included the likes Tigernán Ua Ruairc (Tiernan O’Rourke) of Briefne and Murchard Ua Cerbaill (Murrogh O’Carroll) of Oriel, Ruaidrí’s army reached a considerable size, and had many boats with which to also use in the planned assault, blocking the mouth of the Liffey so that no aid could come to Dublin from that direction. Soon, this Irish force had set a guard all the Dublin gates, leaving the defenders, now including a returned Strongbow, trapped inside.
Things turned in the Irish direction quickly, with Dublin suffering a lack of food, and its forces unwilling to risk an engagement, apparently being far outnumbered. Strongbow requested negotiations, but they came to nought: an alleged suggestion that he could remain King of Leinster under Ruaidrí’s overlordship was denied.
At some point (the dates for these events are not very clear) Strongbow received word that a compatriot, Robert FitzStephen, was also under siege in a half constructed castle in Wexford. FitzStephen had led the very first incursion into Ireland two years previously, but was now helpless in the face of a local uprising, presumably backed by Ruaidrí.
Despairing of the situation in Dublin, and wanting to save his friend, Strongbow decided that he and his men would attempt an ambitious and dangerous sortie, using most of what force remained to them. The returned Raymond de Gros, Miles de Cogan and Strongbow himself would lead the various battles, followed by an infantry reserve of maybe 600 men.
The result was a spectacular success for them (perhaps too spectacular, though I take most of my info from Irish sources). The besieging Irish were unprepared for the ferocity of the assault, and were not expecting to fight any kind of battle at the time. Before any kind of order could be established, the charging knights had cut through most of the initial ranks of the Irish, and the rest were sent fleeing headlong, including Ruaidrí, who would never quite recover from the ignominy of this defeat, retreating all the way back to his main holdings west of the Shannon. Dublin was saved again, from a numerically superior enemy again, and Norman fighting skill and martial talent proving the difference again.
Strongbow rushed south to try and save FitzStephen, but, delayed by clashes with Irish in Idrone (Carlow), was too late: he had already surrendered, perhaps due to a false report that Dublin had fallen. FitzStephen would remain a prisoner for a while, with many of his attendants were butchered. The men who had taken the castle were unable to stand up to the forces Strongbow brought, setting fire to Wexford and fleeing before he could enact any kind of vengeance.
There was one last threat to Dublin to mention, from the Briefne King, Tigernán Ua Ruairc, who took the opportunity of Strongbow’s absence to launch his own personal attack. Miles, left in charge of Dublin again, repulsed him, and Tigernán’s son was killed into the bargain. It was the last time Dublin would be seriously threatened for a while.
This sequence of events illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of this colonial position in Ireland vividly enough. Though small in number and in holdings, Strongbow’s forces clearly had superior fighting skill, overturning situations where they were heavily outnumbered time and again. Their cavalry was excellent, and when they had the time to make defensive fortifications, they were difficult to breach. The frequently divided Irish could only attack them piecemeal, and were usually distracted by threats from other Irish Kingdoms anyway. Of course, the isolated nature of their positions also left them vulnerable, as FitzStephen’s situation showed, and any kind of coordinated assault on their territory would prove very difficult to deal with. As it was, Strongbow and his men held on during 1171, a crucial period, as it was at that point that they could have been thrown out of Ireland with greater ease than at any time that followed.
Strongbow, after some brief campaigning to shore up the frontiers of the lands he claimed, was compelled to sail home briefly and offer total submission to Henry, whose plans for an expedition to Ireland were far advanced. A workable deal was eventually made between them: Strongbow retained most of the land in Leinster that he claimed, but gave up Dublin, Wexford and Waterford to the King’s personal authority. Strongbow also regained his family estates in Wales, which had been stripped from him at Henry’s order some time previously.
Before too long, Strongbow would accompany Henry personally, as Ireland played host to the English monarchy for the first time.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.