The English continued to expand in 1178, heedless of any previous agreements made with Rory O’Connor or any other major Irish figure, but they were not invincible. The colonial advance was less a tidal wave and more a lengthy erosion, with plenty of setbacks in between moments of success. The Irish had learned some things about fighting the Anglo-Normans, and the Anglo-Normans were getting very stretched.
In the north, John de Courcy had been able to carve out a substantial niche for himself in the region synonymous with County Down today, but still faced heavy pressures. Supplies were not guaranteed from the area that would become the Pale, so other alternative had to be found. Raiding for cattle in the area of Louth, he and his men were attacked while camping near the Newry River, by forces from both Oriel and Ulaid. The defeat was stinging – the Irish claim several hundred casualties – and he was further repulsed while engaged in more cattle raiding in Antrim. But the English control of Down remained intact, albeit a control that was struggling to expand. The constant wars between the Irish – in 1178, the Irish of Ulster are recorded as fighting with the Irish of central Leinster for a time – helped to insure that de Courcy was not in too much danger of a total defeat, a situation mirrored in plenty of other places, such as in north Munster, where Irish elements from Thomond and Desmond continued a low intensity but weakening struggle, even while their territories were being siphoned off by the new arrivals.
By 1179, Henry II had tired of the unpopularity of Fitzaldhelm, his chosen man to lead the Irish administration, and replaced him with Hugh de Lacy, the Lord of Meath. De Lacy was fighting a continual border war with the Irish who had previously controlled Meath, one of the most valuable areas of land in the country, and his new position of authority aided him in continuing that fight, with the constant building of forts and castles to shore up English control and offer greater resistance to Irish raids. De Lacy’s position of Lord of Meath, governor of Dublin Castle and now essentially governor of the English position in Ireland generally, has led him to essentially be marked as the first proper Viceroy of Ireland, a role that would eventually become the more well defined Lord Deputyship/Lieutenancy.
It was not an easy road for him though: holding such a position in Ireland involved amassing power, and thus jealousies. When de Lacy married a daughter of Rory O’Connor – another attempt to improve the fractious relationship between the Irish and the English we can presume – he did so without seeking any kind of permission from Henry. As with Strongbow, the English King suspected an imminent grab for sovereign power in Ireland, and de Lacy was ordered to give up his position and return to England. But the manner in which de Lacy did so – immediately and without any fuss – engendered him back into Henry’s good graces, and he was soon returned back to his role in Dublin, albeit now in a joint capacity with Hubert Walter, the Bishop of Salisbury, essentially fulfilling a overwatch role on behalf of the monarchy.
De Lacy oversaw continuing trouble in the Munster area, where the English were trying to break out of the coastal region they were hitherto pegged back to. Milo de Cogan was at the forefront of this effort, but in 1182 he was killed in an ambush (or by foul play) while travelling from Cork to Waterford. His death came at a bad time, as numerous Irish chieftains and their forces made a concerted effort to retake the town of Cork from the English. The town was hard pressed for a time, before reinforcements led by Raymond de Gros arrived by sea from Wexford, ending the siege and preserving the English garrison in Cork. The loss of de Cogan was hard, but additional English troops and colonists were soon being sent to the area.
There was better news for the English to the west, where an ageing Rory O’Connor choose to retire and leave his Kingdom in the hands of his son, Conor. He was a giant of his age, the last of the High Kings, and perhaps was one of the only men in Ireland who stood a chance of inflicting any kind of decisive defeat on the colonising English. But his hands were tied by the numerous problems of his position and it is unrealistic to think that, given the reality of Ireland at the time, he could really have done more than he actually did. He would spend the rest of his life a subordinate to his son, still involved in conflicts with other Irish Kingdoms, but never again regaining his larger prominence.
1185 saw the pattern continue, of gradual English expansion and occasional Irish resistance. Anglo-Norma territories in Cork, Desmond and Down were relatively stable, and Henry was able to enact greater taxation on these areas, along with the coordinated raids that kept harassing Irish lands in the border lands. But 1185 is more notable for the expedition of John, Henry’s youngest legitimate son, who had previously been granted the “Lordship of Ireland”, though attempts for this to become a royal title had to be curtailed.
John, aged 19 at the time, arrived in Waterford, with 400 soldiers and a retinue of courtiers. Just what his exact goal in Ireland was is unclear, though there are some indications that Henry expected him to exert enough control and to push the Irish back enough that Ireland could yet become his Kingdom. But this was not to be so.
John is a tricky figure to approach in history, as the writing and accounts of him that still exist are remarkably negative, to the point of clear bias. Even today, he seems popularly to be best known as the incompetent enemy of Robin Hood, who was a tyrant to his people and was forced to sign over greater rights to his subordinates at the point of a sword. That was all ahead of him of course, but even at this eagerly point in his life, the negative appraisal of him is clear, in Irish sources anyway, with the young Prince depicted as vain, foolish, prone to indulge in vice and quick to give ill-advised insults to the native Irish: a famous story exists that claims that John and his friends were so amazed by the appearance of Irish chieftains who greeted him at Waterford that they made jokes and “plucked their beards”. Whether this is true or not, John’s time in Ireland was not marked by harmony between the natives and the colonists.
In truth, John’s approach in Ireland was to combat two potential enemies. He travelled, much like his father had, from Waterford to Dublin by a circuitous route, ordering the construction of castles wherever he went, most notably in Tipperary and Kilkenny, to increase the protection of the new colonists. But at the same time he was suspicious of the power of the local Anglo-Norman elite, and the likelihood of them rebelling against his and his father’s authority. It frequently came back to Hugh de Lacy, whom some contemporary commenter’s continued to insist sought a crowd for himself, probably the Kingship of Meath. John aimed to provide greater lands and powers for those nobles whose loyalties were more assured, like the Walters, soon to become the Butlers.
John’s efforts to deal with both problems were seriously hampered. The forces of Thomond undertook several deadly raids during the time period, most notably one that captured the newly built castle at Ardfinnan, Tipperary, making a mockery of the protection John was trying to create. In the Pale, John was undermined and made to feel threatened by the power of de Lacy, or at least so John would claim later. Much less sympathetic sources claim that John and his courtiers abandoned themselves to drink and vice in the capital until, out of money, he came home and blamed it all on de Lacy. John would be back, but his first expedition to Ireland was a damp squib of an affair.
Neither John nor his father had to worry about de Lacy much longer though. In 1186, while inspecting the construction of a castle in Offaly, he was attacked and killed by an Irish assassin, apparently taking the opportunity to kill an enemy when he happened to stumble across him unguarded. De Lacy’s loss would not have unduly troubled Henry or the remaining powerhouses in Dublin.
So, as Ireland entered the waning years of Henry II’s reign, much the same situation remained: the English were expanding, with difficulty, and the Irish were constantly reacting to this, rather than taking any firm initiative of their own. It was simply too much to expect even the larger Irish Kingdoms to launch substantial assaults into English held lands, given the propensity of their fellow Irish to take advantage of the distraction, not to mention the constant amount of low level raiding that also had to be contended with. The Irish could repulse the English, even defeat them militarily on the field of battle at times, but had no means by which to defeat them utterly. At best, the Irish could look forward to a stalemate between east and west, with the north and the south of Ireland the true areas to be keenly contested.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.