Ireland’s Wars: Connacht Wars

Henry III was just a child when he became the ruler of England in 1216 and, as we might remember from my previous entry on Richard II, “woe to the land where a boy is King”. But young Henry, who would become know for his great piety in time, would actually prove many doubters wrong.

Of course, Henry was too young to rule his lands as his own man upon the death of his father. A man to govern the Kingdom for him, as a regent, was required, and the chosen one was William Marshal (technically “William the Marshall”), the Earl of Pembroke, one of the most famous knights of the Kingdom, who had served numerous Kings before Henry. If his title sounds familiar, its because of the strong Irish connection in his life: William was the son-in-law of Strongbow, and had inherited his title as well as substantial lands in the Leinster region of Dublin after marrying his daughter Isabel.

Marshall was a well respected political and military figure, and it wasn’t long until the Barons Wars had been brought to a conclusion, largely thanks to his actions. A compromise agreement letting Henry take the throne proper while the provisions of the Magna Carta were upheld was reached, and the famous documents provisions were even extended to the English settlers in Ireland. Even the pro-Irish annals speak of Marshall in glowing terms, as a man who seemed ready to govern Ireland with a greater amount of justice and fairness than others had in the past.

This included the the forgiveness of the de Lacy family, who returned from their relatively short exile at the hands of John. They were soon expanding outward in Ireland again, and it wasn’t very long, ironically, before they were encroaching on lands that William Marshall claimed himself. The elder William died in 1221, succeeded by his son and namesake, and some serious violence appears to have erupted in Meath between this new Marshall and the returning de Lacy’s, with native irish getting involved, particularly the O’Neills on the side of the de Lacy’s. Things did settle down in time, but not before some lives were lost and castles burnt.

Despite this terrible infighting, the English position in Ireland was actually improving a fair bit, with the major Irish Kingdom of Thomond essentially undergoing an early form of “Surrender and Regrant” in the early 1220’s and Henry’s new administration preparing to bring about the colonisation of Connacht, once the sometimes ally, sometimes enemy figure of Cathal Crovderg was out of the picture. The English were already at the gates after taking over the positions at Limerick and Connacht, but now wanted to push on and grab more land west of the Shannon.

When Crovderg did die in 1224, the usual happened. His succession was disputed between numerous relatives, leaving the entire western Kingdom vulnerable for a crucial period. William Marshall, the new one, was ordered to head into Connacht and seize it for transference to its new, English decided, overlord, the de Burgh family, more commonly recognised today as the Burkes.

The result was a war that left Connacht wrecked in a manner that it would struggle to recover from for some time. Marshall assembled a large force of men with which to pacify the western Kingdom, and backed them up with auxiliary units from various allied Irish Kingdoms, many of which wanted a piece of Connacht if it was to be had. The result was that when the attack took place, Connacht could expect t be assailed from multiple avenues, and all while its leadership were fighting each other.

When the invasion did come, just as the usual inheritance fighting was at its peak, it met little resistance. Attaching to the cause of one of the claimants, Cathal’s son Hugh, Marshall’s army ranged throughout the north of Connacht for some time, while elements from Thomond invaded the south. The fighting went on for over a year with a few gaps for peace in-between, and the destructive side effects, mostly due to the lack of a productive harvest, were devastating for the local peasantry.

The war is the major talking point of Irish chronicles for most of this period, because of the way it dominated the lives and affairs of all of the neighbouring Kingdoms. Connacht’s size made it an immense prize, and the confluence of various native Irish claimants and one very important English one made the war additionally complex. For a time it seemed as if Hugh could forge ahead as his father had done, but he could never reign peacefully for too long, before uprisings and attempted usurpations sent him scampering back across the Shannon seeking more English support.

That support would come, but Marshall and others were always keenly aware of the necessity to keep edging the de Burghs more and more into the picture. By the end of the 1220’s many in Connacht were treating Richard, the head of the de Burgh family, at the time as the monarch of the land, even if it was a title he never claimed in reality. De Burgh played a very patient game and was able to increase his power gradually, frequently backing a native claimant to the land to rule as a puppet in his stead. Keeping the infighting going worked in the English favour, as it always had done.

The next few years passed with a succession of deaths, betrayals, family squabbles and invasions, that bear little going into detail, so rapidly do figures arrive and depart the scene. Hugh died while seeking refuge after another usurpation, and the multitude of others who tried to succeed him failed to find any kind of lasting foothold, unless they could be propped up by the de Burghs or Marshall’s.

Which, following the passing of the second William and his succession by his eldest brother, Richard, brings us all the way back to this entry in this series. Ireland is a land divided between east and west, with an expanding amount of land either controlled directly by English colonists or by native Irish Kingdoms that are, more and more, reliant on English support in order to survive. It is in Ulster now, not Connacht or Munster, where the strongest resistance to English advancement is to be found, and even that will not last much longer. Still, that advance is not an unstoppable or an inevitable thing, even with the more firm hands of men like Henry III or his eventual successor Edward I in charge. The colonies will still have their political disputes – as the Battle of the Curragh will make clear – their internecine wars and the gradual merging of their culture with that of the locals to form the “Old English” community to deal with.

But, for now, I can saw that Ireland’s Wars has bridged its most considerable gap. To come soon will be a jump forward to the aftermath of the Eleven Year Wars and the beginning of a new round of conflict in Ireland. Until then.

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

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