What Happened To the Normans? 1185 – 1260

What happened next?

The Normans brought widespread coinage and tried to bring a centralised system of justice with local and royal courts. The Brehon laws continued to be used across the majority of the country, particularly because the Irish were excluded from the benefits of Norman law. As such, the Normans then had to decide to either be swallowed by the culture of the Irish or keep them completely at arms length. Those that got involved with the Irish locals became nearly indistinguishable from them. This was a serious problem for the Normans, not helped by Henry II who seemed completely disinterested.

When Henry II left Ireland, he didn’t leave any plans with the people he put in charge. He set up his man, Hugh de Lacy, as a counter weight to Strongbow in the East. Henry still didn’t like Strongbow and there was a feeling that he could throw his lot in with the Irish if it suited him to. So Hugh de Lacy was appointed first governer and guardian of Dublin and, despite the fact that the Irish didn’t follow feudal law (again, Brehon law was the system used here), he began to expect tribute from the kings that had submitted to him. This led to war almost immediately after Henry left.


Ruaidhrí continued to be a thorn in Henry’s side, not submitting to the Normans in Ireland. In 1175 negotiations were held, run largely by Bishop Laurence O’ Toole (the same guy that mediated between Ruaidhrí and Diarmuid MacMurchadha), in an attempt to come to terms. Both parties came away from it thinking they owned Ireland so it was pointless. Two years later, Henry granted large new territories in Leinster and Munster to Norman barons and knights. The problem was, still, that these Normans were being assimilated into Irish culture and lifestyles. As each new wave of Normans came in, they were shocked and angered by the level of integration that had gone on by the previous Normans. Irish language, culture, dress and Brehon laws had been adopted.

It came to a stale-mate when Henry’s son, Prince John, visited Ireland in 1185 to deliver charters and to drive a further wedge between the English and the Irish. It worked. He ridiculed Irish kings that had come to pay homage to him and drove that wedge deep. And if he didn’t like the Irish, he didn’t like the Normans that had invaded either. To him, they were just as bad now. He went home with a view to introduce new blood to the invasion when he became King.

Why were the subsequent manoeuvres carried out by the Normans in Ireland unsuccessful in bringing Norman rule to the island?

One thing the later generations of the Norman invaders didn’t have was the huge stockpile of Norman settlers to take with them from their homeland when they invaded new territories. Their fathers had taken farmers, craft workers, priests and labourers from their homeland in Britain. It allowed them to set up a little England and not rely so heavily on the local population. But the second section of the invasion, whereby they pushed out of their strongholds from the East and into the West, was undertaken by the sons of these first settlers. Men who had grown up in Ireland.

Now, these men didn’t have the same access to the number of Norman settlers their fathers had. Why exactly they didn’t, we’re not sure. Maybe Ireland wasn’t the desired destination it used to be. Maybe the extent to which the families had cut ties with England meant they could no longer press-gang tenants into coming to Ireland. We’re not totally sure on this point but, no matter what the cause, the result was that the subsequent invasions didn’t carry the same transforming power as the first invasion and was only superficial. The same level of colonization was not taking place and this meant it wasn’t going to work.

But surely the Normans were superior in warfare, couldn’t they deal with the local armies?

Of course they could. That was their strong point. But the problem for the Norman invasion is that when the next generation came of age and wanted to go out and carve land for themselves, the lands of Irish kings weren’t always the best choice. For example!

John de Courcy took Ulster in 1177 and he was actually well liked by the Irish because he had ties in Cumbria – an area with close links to the North-East of Ireland. He ruled for 27 years before he was toppled in 1204. But he was not toppled by an Irishman.

Hugh de Lacy, whom Henry II had put in power as a counter-weight to Strongbow, had children. When Hugh de Lacy II, his younger son, came of age, his prospects weren’t very good. His older brother, Walter, was going to ascend to his father’s titles. So Hugh had to make his own name. A generation ago he would have been able to pick a crumbling Irish kingdom and take the land, but all the weaker kingdoms had already been overrun. Any other such kingdoms were either too strong or weren’t worth the trouble as the lands in the West weren’t as worthy of the effort. And so, his eyes came to rest on the dwindling strength of the Norman in the north – John de Courcy.

And so there was the first clash of Norman steel against Norman steel in Ireland. John de Courcy appealed to King John over the attack but the king sided with de Lacy II and granted him the title Earl of Ulster (King John later revoked the title he had bestowed and took Ulster for himself). This gave the go ahead for other nobles to do the same. And it continued. Jostling began to take place between the descendants of the original invaders. They became their own worst enemies and ultimately led themselves to their own downfall as they gave breathing space to the Irish kings, and the Irish used it to stage a recovery.

Hugh de Lacy’s Coat of Arms. Possibly the most exciting Coat of Arms ever created.

So the Irish came back at them after this?

Yes, that’s what I said. Hugh de Lacy II wasn’t happy when King John took Ulster off him so when King John died, de Lacy II went to take it back in 1223-4. And he did this with a very important person by his side. Enter Áed Méith Ua Néill. The Ua Néills (cousins of the Meic Lochlainn family which had ruled Ulster in the 11th and 12th centuries) were about to become and remain for the rest of the middle ages, the most powerful kings in Ireland.

Ua Néill and de Lacy II waged a war against the Ulster Normans that forced them to give Hugh back his earldom. Now, things were not perfect for the Ua Néills once de Lacy was in power, for he had a close ally in Maurice FitzGerald, the baron of Offaly. FitzGerald used his powers as justiciar of Ireland (an administrator of justice) to the max and from 1232 to 1245 he advanced the territorial interests of the Norman barons of Ireland. He pushed into Galway and Mayo and de Lacy granted him a large chunk of modern day Co. Sligo. Then he gave him a huge section of Tír Conaill – pretty much modern day Co. Donegal.

Now, for the majority of the cases of these lands being taken it was from the enemies of the Ua Néills, so they didn’t raise any objections. But the fact of the matter was, they were being surrounded and eventually, they would fall prey to the same expansionism. And sure enough, when Áed Méith Ua Néill died in 1230, de Lacy and Maurice encouraged a succession dispute among the Ua Néill family and the Meic Lochlainns, to try and weaken their hold on the land. Their encouragement climaxed when they decided to just go ahead and invade Tír Eógain and installed a candidate of their own choice – Brian Ua Néill.

Well. Unfortunately for the Normans, Brian wasn’t a puppet and launched a lengthy campaign against the settlers in the North. He allied himself with Máel Sechnaill Ua Domnaill of Tír Conaill and they did wreck together. As such, expansion slackened. Máel Sechnaill was eventually killed in battle against Maurice FitzGerald and, interestingly, a body was found that is believed to be belonging to a member of Clan Donald of Scotland. This makes it one of the earliest instances of help being brought in from the Hebridean mercenaries in post invasion Ireland.

Tír Conaill

After Maurice died in 1257, Ua Domnaill’s descendant, Gofraid, destroyed Sligo and Maurice’s castle at Beleek. This ended the Norman expansion into the North West.

Was that it? Expansion into the North stopped everything?

No, of course not. So much more happened and the Ua Néills were just getting started. Remember Ruaidhrí King of Connacht and former High King? Well he had kids too and one of them decided to try and use the special status his family held with the Norman government to secure the throne of Connacht for his son. His name was Cathal Crobderg and his son’s name was Áed. Cathal secured a charter for the lands in Connacht but the charter did as much bad as it did good. It didn’t specify Áed specifically, rather the vague terms that the lands would pass to Cathal’s “heir”. This secured nothing – and now he was paying rent on land his family owned by right. Also, the charter stated that he would hold the lands for as long as he remained “loyal”. This is ambiguous as hell because according to which standards is he checked to be still loyal? Unsurprisingly, when he died, there was a succession dispute.

When Cathal died the land went into arrears and Áed didn’t entertain the Norman’s written claim to his land. A new charter was issued to Richard de Burgh, granting Connacht to him. Áed responded by burning the royal castle at Athlone. Richard de Burgh and the Dublin government went about carving up Connacht then. It was eventually Feidlim, another of Cathal’s sons, that ascended to the throne. To placate him, Dublin leased out the five cantreds (large sections of land) which the king had retained of Connacht (part of Co. Roscommon). But Connacht, as a whole, belonged to Richard de Burgh.

Feidlim spent most of his career trying to show his good faith to the Norman crown but throughout his life, more and more land slipped through his fingers. This treatment was not lost on his son, also named Áed. The annals describe Áed as ‘a king who inflicted great defeats on the foreigners, and pulled down their palaces and castles.’ He was inspiration for others as rebellions started forming around the country, from Connacht to Munster. The sons of kings showed great unrest and sought to rid themselves of the newcomers and take back their lands. In 1255, Áed formed an official alliance with Brian Ua Néill of Tír Eógain.

The two cleared Bréifne with ease and Brian wanted to annex the former kingdom of Ulster and he had Áed’s backing. A meeting took place between the two of them and Tadc Ua Briain, king of Thomand. Tadc and Áed were willing to abandon their own ancestral claims in order for Brian to take High Kingship and revive it after 75 years in absence. The plan never came off as Tadc died prematurely in 1259 and the following year when Áed and Brian attacked Downpatrick, Brian lost his life. A testament to how important he was was the fact that his head was cut from his body and sent to the King of England after the battle.

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