Ireland’s Wars: Castles And Crusades

As Henry II’s days wound down, the Anglo-Norman position in Ireland faced some setbacks. In the north, in 1188, forces loyal to John de Courcy suffered a repulse from the leaders of Aileach in Tyrone, a Gaelic Kingdom in the Donegal region, that was, in reality, on its last legs and soon to be swallowed up by other rivals. The death of Aileach’s leader in the battle probably precipitated this and encouraged de Courcy in his ambitions. Despite the fact that the Irish annalists declare the fight with Aileach to have been a “bloody slaughter” for the English, in the same year they were pushing through Ulster and then down into Connacht, trying to take advantage of a sudden Irish weakness.

They were forced back though, by a quickly assembled coalition of Irish chieftains, led by Connor, the new head of the O’Connor clan in Connacht, and including contingents from Thomond, which was considered among the more powerful Irish states left. De Courcy balked from engaging this army of Irish and turned back north, only to be faced head on by forces from Tyrconnell coming from the other direction. The result was a haphazard retreat east, through the Curlew Mountains and into Leinster, with the Anglo-Norman suffering repeated rearguard attacks as they did so. In the end, this campaign achieved little and demonstrated the limitations of the colonists – and the potential strength of the Irish, if they could stop squabbling amongst themselves.

For example of that, the Kingdom of Connacht collapsed into factional fighting in 1189, when Connor unexpectedly died. Various rival claimants to this most distinguished of Irish thrones popped up, which even included the retired Rory O’Connor for a time. The crown of Connacht eventually went to Rory’s brother, Cathal, but the in-fighting that went into winning it left the west of Ireland divided and weakened, at a time when a united front had a decent chance of pushing back against the English. In the east there was a succession of changes in the Viceroy position and the various others, as numerous nobles jockeyed for power and newly arriving colonists sought more land, denoting a period of political instability. In the south, an attempt to strike at Thomond directly failed, with fights at Killaloe and Thurles going against the Anglo-Normans, and the Thomond leader, Donnell O’Brien, proving himself a capable enemy. Again, his unexpected death in 1194 removed a troublesome thorn from the English side, and they were soon expanding in that region again, with more castles popping up in the region of Tipperary.

Castles are important for understanding the spread of the Normans and the power they were able to win and hold, in an environment that had seen vast fluctuations for a very long time. When I use the words ”erect castles” in these entries, I mean different things. At their most basic, the Anglo-Normans would construct motte and bailey castles in territories they had just conquered. These consisted of the motte, an artificial mound with an enclosed keep on the top, and the bailey down below, an enclosed courtyard with a palisade wall and maybe a ditch for additional protection. Many times, the entire construction would be made of wood, the entire thing thrown up as fast as possible to allow for an immediate stronghold in a newly conquered area, the equivalent of later forts constructed in the 17th century. Later, when Anglo-Norman rule in the area was solidified, more long lasting structures could be created, made of stone, which could range in size from full castles (like those that exist today in Dublin and Limerick) to tower houses designed to watch over a crucial point, like a stretch of coastline or a river crossing.

The Anglo-Normans were synonymous with their castles. These fortifications and the vast spread of them helped to ensure Norman domination over England in the aftermath of the 1066 invasion, to the extent that native English writers often refer to the Normans as “castlemen”. In Ireland, the spread of Norman control and the difficulty of the Irish in removing them – despite all of the “great slaughters” the chroniclers love to talk about – comes from the same issue. The Irish had never faced fortifications like those the Anglo-Normans built, and while they were able to successfully attack and destroy a good number of them on the frontiers, it was usually down to surprise and superior numbers. When the Anglo-Normans had enough defenders, they were difficult to root out, even from the mostly wooden defences of a motte and bailey castle. Like the forts built by Mountjoy later in the Nine Years War, castles provided shelter for troops on the march, centres of authority for local governors, places of tax collection for the crown and added sheer presence to the colonial expansion, reminding natives of the kind of power the newly arrived conquerors could construct and project.

In 1189 Henry II died, in the middle of trying to put down another rebellion of his progeny. Ironically, the very child he was fighting, his oldest surviving legitimate son, then became King of England. Richard, known even today by his epithet “Coeur de Lion” or “the Lionheart” was a warrior through and through, who spent the vast majority of his adult life on military campaigns. In the course of his ten year reign, he might have spent little more than six months in England, spending the rest of his time fighting numerous wars in France, Italy, Cyprus and, most famously, in the Holy Land as one of the key leaders of the Third Crusade.

As such, Richard’s time as King had little direct impact on Ireland, the administration of England and the surrounding territories falling to others during his time on the throne. Richard treated these lands mostly as a source of tax revenue rather than his sovereign Kingdom, and was happy to sell off high offices to fund his wars, and leave true power in the hands of a few trusted subordinates which, after a period of recrimination and suspicion, eventually included his younger brother John, who still retained the title “Lord of Ireland”.

The ascension of Richard I allows for a discussion on the Crusades and how they effected Ireland. Urban II’s call to arms in 1095, the exhortation for the peoples of Christendom to retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the “infidel” Muslims, is one of the Middle Ages’ defining moments, and ushered in a period of military religious fervour that can be hard to understand today. The Crusading spirit swept through Europe in the aftermath of Urban’s “Deus Vult” cry, and in nearly every Christian Kingdom, people “took the cross”, from the lowliest peasant to the highest sovereign. Thousands upon thousands of European Catholics marched east repeatedly in the decades and centuries following Urban’s first call, in a succession of military campaigns against a variety of Muslim states and Kingdoms. Their initial success and eventually failure provide us with arguably the most well known aspect of the Middle Ages military history.

But what of Ireland and the Crusades? As I said, the spirit of taking the cross swept throughout Europe, and England was no exception. But it appears that Ireland was. There are no records of vast amounts of young Irish men swearing to a Papal banner and heading east, no strong evidence of Irish chieftains and King’s deciding to seek divine favour by retaking Jerusalem. Just what records of Irish involvement in the Crusades do exist and why was the participation of this Christian island so negligible?

The Irish records are very sparse. There are a couple of entries that mention figures being “crossed” – that is, having taken crusading vows – but no info on their specific accomplishments (in many cases, they’re listed as having died long before they could go to the Holy Land). Both the Annals of Tigernach and the Chronicon Scotorum share a similar entry for the year 1147, which states that there occurred “An assembly of great armies by the Christians to Jerusalem to expel the power of the Jews”. This coincides with the years of the Second Crusade, which took place between 1145 and 1149, and some distinct anti-Semitism that accompanied it. Neither source actually says that the Irish took part in this crusade, simply notes the “assembly of great armies” though it would be odd for them to mention it if it did not affect Ireland in some way. Then again, no Irish source notes Urban II’s speech in 1095, the capture of Jerusalem by Crusaders in 1099 or the recapture of the same city by Saladin in 1187, major events of European history at the time.

In European records we might find a few titbits, albeit of a somewhat dubious nature. Ekkehard of Aura, a chronicler and visitor to the Holy Land, writing around 1115, lists “Hibernia”, the Latin word for Ireland, among a list of nations that fought in the First Crusade. Fulcher of Chatres, a veteran of the First Crusade of 1099, lists the “Scothi” among the peoples who fought in the Holy Land, the term having a double meaning at the time, referring to both the Scottish and the Irish, its origins being from the Roman era descriptions of the Gaels. Neither of these two references (or possible references) to Ireland is terribly convincing, and could well be an exaggeration on the part of the author, trying to give a sense of a vast European unity in the great religious endeavour of the Crusades.

Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, writing in the 1230’s, gives an account of the Third Crusade that says “With Richard (the First) came one king of Ireland and one of Wales and the Count of Holland…”, but offers no further details. It’s possible that Richard was accompanied by an Irish noble certainly, but the lack of additional information, again, encourages some scepticism in the modern reader.

The 13th century work Libellus de Fundatione Consecrati Sancti Petr references Irish involvement in the following manner: “There were certain powerful counts from Ireland signed with the Cross and prepared to make their pilgrimage towards Rome and Jerusalem…”. The account goes on to describe these men as followers of King Conchubhar Ua Briain, a leader of Thomond. There is evidence for some Links between the writers of this text (the “Schottenkongregation”) and Munster, but the work itself is not considered greatly reliable as a historical source, tending to mix fact with fiction liberally enough.

So, why? There are many reasons. First and foremost, Ireland was on the periphery of Europe, in a way that is not really understandable today. News, from Rome and beyond, could take weeks or months to make it to Ireland, which might explain why the Irish annals fail to mention the momentous events listed above. The crusading spirit might simply never have reached Ireland in the same way that it did the rest of Europe, with the clergy and their message being more present and more powerfully directed in the “civilised” portions of the continent, which Ireland was not popularly seen as joining yet. It was still the frontier, even for the Anglo Normans who were just a boat ride over the sea. It would not be until much later that we find records of Papal missives directed at Ireland seeking crusading support, and with no real evidence of the call being answered substantially.

And though still a Catholic land that might have been receptive to the cause of the Crusades, there were other factors that would have prevented a march east. Such an endeavour required significant wealth, to outfit troops, transport them to the other side of the world and to keep them maintained and supplied in the process. Few Irish chieftains would have had the means to do so, independently at any rate. The lack of a coinage system in most of Ireland would have been a decisive barrier. You couldn’t finance a crusade solely with cattle.

And there was the issue of political stability. Again and again in the history of the Crusades, you’ll find leading figures of the day promise to go crusading and never head off, so wrapped up in the internal issues of their lands, or concerned about the threat from without. One of the only reasons that Richard I was able to go on his famous mission was because the King of France agreed to go with him at the same time, thereby deflecting the possibility of France taking advantage of Richard’s absence. But even that sort of thing didn’t stop the problem, as rebellious minded people at home could also decide to stake a claim to power with others absent, as happened with Richard through his brother John.

Take those requirements of political stability, and apply them to Ireland, and me might begin to understand why there was no great participation in the Crusades. As I have mentioned time and again, Ireland was a land divided into numerous territories and Kingdoms, all in a constant state of belligerence with one or all of their neighbours, a situation that proved to be the key Irish weakness in facing the Anglo-Norman invasion. How could the King of Connacht go on a Crusade, when Thomond, Tyrconnell and the Maguires could all decide to attack his own lands while he was on the other side of Europe? When sons could decide to stake a claim for the throne themselves? And as time moved on, there was the issue of the Anglo-Normans to face as well. There was too much uncertainty, and too little trust (for good reason), for Irish leaders to absent themselves from home for any time between two or five years.

For all those reasons, Irish participation in the Crusades was low, perhaps not through lack of fervour, but more likely because of simple practical realities: poor communication with the rest of Europe, the availability of the necessary finances and the lack of stability at home.

So, the new King of England went off on his crusade, leaving all of the affairs for home in the hands of other men. It was those men who would be leading English affairs in Ireland as things moved forward.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Castles And Crusades

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Anarchy Under John | Never Felt Better

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