The English Invasion

It was in 1171 that Henry the Second invaded Ireland.
He received approval from the newly elected English Pope, Nicholas Breakspeare, Adrian the Fourth, on the grounds that morals in Ireland had become corrupt, and religion almost extinct, and his purpose was to bring the barbarous nation within the fold of the faith and under church discipline. But if we supposed Ireland to be irreligious then, strange indeed would be the choice of an apostle in Henry, a man of vicious life, a supporter of anti-Popes, and reasonably suspected of, and all but excommunicated for, instigating the murder of the holy Thomas a Becket. Those who contend that the Bull was an English fabrication for impressing the irreligious Irish and making easy their conquest point to the fact that the most ancient copies of the document discovered lack both date and signature.
In May 1169, with a small but efficient body of thirty knights in full armour, sixty horsemen in half armour and three hundred archers, Fitz Stephen landed at Bannow, Wexford - and another Knight Maurice de Prendergast with a company of about three hundred. On receiving the news of the landing, MacMurrough raised a body of five hundred from among his Leinster subjects and joined them. And, together they marched against the Danish city of Wexford, which, after repulsing two assaults, capitulated to the strange army with its armoured horses and horsemen and its wonderfully skilled and disciplined army. MacMurrough bestowed the city upon Fitz Stephen and settled near by lands upon de Prendergast and de Mont Maurice.
The Ard Righ and princes of the other provinces looked on inactive. Every prince, occupied as usual with his own problems was not much concerned about what did not immediately affect his own territory.
Strongbow followed in a few months with two hundred knights and a thousand men and immediately took over the city of Waterford. Then they marched into Meath and Breffni laying waste as they went. Henry hearing of Strongbows successes in Ireland grew jealous and summoned Strongbow and all his subjects to return to England. Eventually Strongbow went and laid his successes before Henry. As a result Henry himself went with five hundred knights and four thousand horse and foot soldiers, and landed at Waterford. Slowly the Irish chiefs submitted. When Henry left, the Irish began to wake up to what they had done and slowly began to rise up against the enemy. Now more familiar with the Norman discipline and equipment the Irish princes set strategy against skill and discovered that the Normans were not omnipotent. O’Brien of Thomond inflicted a big defeat upon them at Thurles. Every Norman chief warred on his own account, for purpose of extending his power and possessions and of course every Irish chief and prince, when opportunity offered, warred against the invader. But such demoralisation set in, that in short time not only was Irish chief warring upon Norman baron, but Irish chief was warring with Irish chief, Norman baron warring with Norman baron, and a Norman-Irish alliance would be warring against Normans, or against Irish. Or against another combination of both. The Normans not only marked their progress by much slaughtering and many barbarities, but signalised themselves by robbing and burning churches and monasteries, and oftentimes slaughtering the inmates. They harried, robbed, ravished and destroyed wheresoever they went. And against one another, in their own feuds, they oftentimes exercised as much barbarity as against the Irish. Fearfully true is the Four Masters’ word that MacMurrough’s treacherous act "made of Ireland a trembling sod".

Trade in Mediaeval Ireland

In Spain and Portugal, the ‘noble Irish’, as they were called obtained more valuable privileges than the English. The great Italian financial houses, the bankers of Lucca, the Ricardi, the Friscobaldi, the Mozzi were active agents in Mediaeval Ireland. The wine trade, as shown by the Pipe Roll accounts and other sources was of great dimensions, with Clan and Town. Bordeaux, Dordogne, Libourne, St Emilian besides Spain, Portugal and Oporto, traded direct with the Irish ports. With France, the records of our trade go back to the days of St Patrick. Rouen was the chief port of Normandy and obtained from Henry II the ‘monopoly of Irish trade’. Bordeaux had a colony of Irish merchants - as had St Omar, Marseilles, Bayonne, St Malo, Nantes and other ports - who were importers of Irish wool skins, hides, fish, woollen cloth, fine linen, leather and corn, and they sent to Ireland their own manufacturers and products. The enterprising Flemings were stationed in many of the Irish ports. Their influence on maritime and inland trade was as beneficent here as it was in England. Irish merchants had their own settlements in all the leading ports of Flanders. Irish leather goods were renowned throughout Europe, so it is not a surprise that Irish names should figure on the Tanners Guild of Liege, then the most extensive and famous body of this craft on the Continent. Antwerp, too, had its Irish trade, linen being mentioned amongst other items. Lubeck had commercial intercourse with Ireland and Irish woollens were carried down the Rhine : Cologne being one of the marts. Through the Hansen Towns Irish commerce flowed on to Russia. Irish cloth, mantles, rugs and serges were highly esteemed in Spain and Portugal, likewise. The Irish merchants traded with the Canaries and pushed their way into the Land of the Moors. Prince Henry, the Navigator had his own agent in Galway. There is unimpeachable evidence that agriculture was skilfully and extensively pursued from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. The exportation of enormous quantities of wheat, oats, barley, rye and of other cereals and of flax, beef, mutton, and wool point to intensive land cultivation and stock raising. To a modern Irishman, the quantities of these products exported to France, Scotland, Flanders and England seem incredible.

Learning in Mediaeval Ireland

After the defeat of the Norsemen by King Brian at the Battle of Clontarf (1014) there was a flowering of the National Mind in literature. So the political freedom of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a re-birth of intellectual, as well as of agricultural and commercial activity in Ireland. It was a Golden Age of Gaelic Literature. As the wider gates of Irelands commerce opened on the South and West coasts, so her scholars, pilgrims. Clerics and craftsmen followed in the wake of her merchants, through the Gaulish seas into France and Italy. The universities of these lands knew a long succession of our brilliant scholars. In the knowledge of Astronomy mediaeval Ireland was in advance of most European lands. All the greater Lords of the Gaels and Sean Ghalls had their official astronomers. It was but natural that a nation of rovers and travellers should have maintained a sound standard of geographical learning in their schools.. In medicine, Europe could teach the Gaels but little. The King of England had not better pharmaceutical lore or more adept surgical skill at his command than the O’Briens’s in Munster or The Mac Cailin Mor in the Western Isles of Scotland. The Irish Brehon Law Code goes back to a much earlier epoch than the days of St Patrick. Its interpreters were deeply reverenced by the Irish people because of their even handed justice. There is not a single instance in recorded history of a brehon accepting a bribe. The Irish brehons were men of deep learning, of wide influence and of riches. Three signs marked their abodes, ‘wisdom, information and intellect’. In the Annals we read of many of them being professors of new and old laws, Civil and Canon Law. In history, Irelands fame stands high. She was justly styled a ‘Nation of Annalists’. Each sept, each province had its own genealogist and chronicler whose business it was to record the deeds of the clan and its princes and the deaths of its leading personages, lay and ecclesiastical. Truth and accuracy were regarded as of paramount importance. ‘To conceal the Truth of History’, ran one saying ‘is the blackest of infamies’. The scribes travelled throughout the whole country to verify their references and their facts. The Philosophy of History was unknown in those ages. The office of scribe and genealogist was usually continued in certain families, the son succeeding his father as a matter of course. The Annalists were held in the highest esteem, ranking next to the head of the clan; they fed at his table and were supported by his bounty. No important public business was conducted without their presence and their directing influence. The greater portion of the existing annals have been the resultant of the Revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Irish History