Why was Ireland invaded by the Normans?

Dermot McMurchada had become king of Leinster in 1134 under the patronage of Murtaigh MacLochlain, who was locked in a dynastic struggle with the O'Conners for the position of Ard Ri, or High King of Ireland. When his overlord died Dermot was forced to flee to England, taking with him his beautiful daughter Eva. Ireland had for centuries been gripped by a series of bloody disputes, as each local king tried to build by the sword a power base, first for a province , then to vie for control of the country. The concept of High King was more mythical than actual, and nobody succeeded in establishing a united Ireland. With no clear system of inheritance, each time a chief died, his kingdom was split into many parts, and each part started afresh to try to expand. It is interesting to note that Ireland has only ever been one country, for the period under English rule from 1603 to 1922.

Dermot met Strongbow (Richard de Clare Fitz Gilbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke) in Bristol in 1166. He offered Strongbow Eva's hand in marriage, and with it secession to the kingdom of Leinster, in return for help in regaining his kingdom. As Strongbow's pedigree was said to be longer than his purse, the lure of an Irish kingdom was attractive. Dermot then travelled to Acquitaine to obtain Henry II's approval. But Strongbow first had to raise an army, so he sent Dermot to Pembroke to await progress.

Dermot was offered lodgings by David fitz Gerald, the bishop of St Davids. Dermot and David had time on their hands for talking, and reached an agreement that David's brother Maurice and his half brother Robert fitz Stephen would join Dermot in Ireland the next spring whilst Strongbow was still gathering his army. This informal arrangement appears to have been centred on vested self interest, as they were to receive the town of Wexford plus two Cantreds (a cantred being a Barony) in return for their help.

So it came to pass that on the 1st May 1169 the first Norman force landed at Bannow near Waterford, under the command of Robert fitz Stephen, in three ships with a total of some 400 men. These comprised of 30 men at arms, 60 men in half armour and about 300 archers and foot soldiers from Wales. The Archers were mainly from the Flemish community which had settled in Pembroke. Included in the Knights was the man with whom this story is concerned, Miles fitz David, the son of the Bishop of St Davids.

They landed unopposed, and were reinforced the following day by two ships under Maurice de Prendegast with 10 men at arms and 190 archers. Then having joined up with Dermot and his Irish army of 500 men, they advanced on the Norse stronghold of Wexford, with their first battle on Irish soil being at Duncormack Ford. The Norsemen, with their armour and battle-axes, were used to being able to easily crush the native Irish. The sight of the disciplined and well armed knights and archers forced them to capitulate. The Normans then marched north and regained the kingdom of Ossery (Co Kilkenny and part of Co Leix).

Maurice de Prendegast then withdrew to Wales with his 200 men, but the Norman force was reinforced at the end of 1169 by the arrival of Maurice fitz Gerald. His two ships contained 10 men at arms, 30 mounted retainers and some 100 archers. Robert fitz Stephen, still the commander, felt confident enough to mount a raid as far away as Limerick to aid Dermot's son-in-law.

Meanwhile on 1st May 1170, Raymond le Gros landed near Waterford, at Baginburn Head, and set up fortifications in order to secure a safe beachhead for the main army under Strongbow to land later. With his small force 10 knights and 70 archers, Raymond le Gros kept an army of 3000 Norse and allied Irish, who had sallied forth from Waterford, at bay until 23rd August 1170 when Strongbow finally landed with his main force of 1600 men.

On 25th August Robert fitz Stephen and Dermot joined up with the rest of the Norman force, and Dermot finally fulfilled his promise of giving his daughter to Strongbow as a wife. Miles fitz David, who had followed Robert fitz Stephen throughout his campaign must have witnessed the marriage of Strongbow to Eva at Waterford. A ceremony that took place with the town devastated and burning around then, and amid the bodies of the dead and dying.

The Norman army marched north and took Dublin, but the Norse and Irish fought back,recapturing Waterford and Wexford. The Normans held Dublin with a small force of 600 men. They were blockaded by 30 Norse ships at sea, and by land by an Irish army of 30000 men under the High King, O'Conner. Eventually they burst out of the siege and defeated the Irish at Finglas in September 1171.

The swashbuckling phase was now drawing to a close. Dermot had died, and Strongbow had inherited his Kingdom of Leinster. But the whole of the early Norman force in Ireland was viewed with suspicion by Henry II, who now hurried to Ireland. Henry had been given, soon after his accession in 1155, a papal grant from the English pope Hadrian IV authorising him to take over Ireland in order to "proclaim the truth of the Christian religion to the rude and ignorant people". But it was perhaps really his understanding of his Barons and their early success in Ireland that led Henry to personally intervene in Ireland. He landed on 17th October 1171 at Waterford with 500 knights and 4000 archers, plus a large quantity of siege equipment aimed more at Strongbow's castles, should he choose not to bow to the king's authority, than against any native Irish stronghold.

Henry II was determined to prevent any independent kingdom arising, and there is also suspicion that he was attempting to divert attention from the murder of Thomas a Becket in December 1170. The view of Maurice fitz Gerald, recorded at the time, sums up contemporary thought. "Though English to the Irish, we are Irish to the English". The king indeed brought new men with him, and was suspicious of the early invaders. He confirmed Strongbow to Leinster, perhaps because he had little choice, but everything else went to the new men. Most of the original force, Robert fitz Stephen, Meiler fitz Henry, Miles fitz David were placed in Dublin as garrison. But Strongbow did grant them land when he sub-divided Leinster. It was then that Miles fitz David became Baron of Iverk in the very south of Co Kilkenny.

Henry II left Ireland without conquering much of the country. That task was left to the Normans who remained. He did make his youngest son John, Lord of Ireland in 1185. The three elder sons of Henry II were to become respectively King of England (with Normandy and Anjou), Lord of Aquitaine and Lord of Brittany. John did not expect to become king of England, but his elder brothers all died, and when John became King in 1199, the Lordship of Ireland became almost accidentally attached to the English crown.

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