PLATFORM: 850 years of oppression?

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2019), Platform, Volume 27

An introduction to this special issue marking the 850th anniversary of the Anglo-Norman (recte English?) invasion of Ireland.

By Seán Duffy

In a radio discussion that aired in 2016 to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, a group of historians were asked whether the latter was the most important event in Irish history. The majority agreed that it was. But let’s think about that for a moment. The 1916 Proclamation declared that Ireland ‘summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom’. The freedom sought was ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies’, but Ireland—the signatories declared—had seen a ‘long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government’.

The 1916 Rising, therefore, was not so much an action as a reaction on the part of the rebels, a reaction to the foreign usurpation they identified. And, as students of Irish history, they believed that they were but the latest in a long line of those opposed to it: ‘In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty’. Every generation since when? Though unstated, it is clear that they meant every generation since English rule was established in Ireland after 1169. Hence, though they rejected both his objective and his method, the 1916 leaders accepted Daniel O’Connell’s diagnosis of Ireland’s English problem: as the tenants’ rights activist Sharman Crawford put it in the House of Commons after O’Connell’s death, ‘that history of 700 years of English oppression in Ireland, which the late Mr O’Connell had often most forcibly brought under their notice’.

O’Connell’s maths were a bit off. He was tracing the start of Ireland’s woes back to the invasion that began at Bannow Bay, Co. Wexford, in 1169, which would not reach the seven centuries milestone until more than twenty years after the Liberator’s demise, and which, on or about 1 May 2019, reached another significant milestone, its 850th anniversary. The point, however, is that to understand O’Connell’s diagnosis of what Disraeli had recently dubbed the ‘Irish Question’, and to understand the motivations and objectives of the 1916 rebels, we must understand the phenomenon against which they believed themselves to be reacting—Ireland’s complicated connection with England, which had provided the central dynamic of Irish history over the course of the preceding three-quarters of a millennium.

The fact is that this Anglo-Irish complication is ultimately traceable to the events of 1169, although some seem reluctant to acknowledge that. This may be because of a perception that Ireland was not conquered in 1169, that it was only conquered after the Nine Years War waged by O’Neill and O’Donnell had ended in defeat at Kinsale in 1601, to be followed by the Plantation of Ulster and then the Cromwellian and later confiscations: this was a real conquest, the feeling goes, to which 1169 cannot compare and to which (one could be forgiven for concluding from the work of some writers) it was only loosely connected.

The 1169 invasion is instead frequently painted as a benign affair. The late F.X. Martin refused even to call it an invasion, though he could find no alternative other than the ‘coming’ of the newcomers, men who ‘came, not to destroy Gaelic culture, but to settle in the country’. This is a manifestation of that questionable belief that the descendants of the 1169 invaders, in becoming (as the cliché had it) ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, had come over to the side of the angels. It is why Peadar Kearney’s The Soldier’s Song (which, as Amhrán na bhFiann, was adopted as our national anthem) concludes with the lines

Sons of the Gael! Men of the Pale!

The long-watched day is breaking …

See in the east a silv’ry glow

Out yonder waits the Saxon foe

So chant a soldier’s song.

Here, the men of the Pale, the last bastion of the 1169 invaders, are depicted as the good guys, aligning with the Gael against their common Saxon enemy, just as school textbooks from the nineteenth century onwards assigned a place in the pantheon of Irish nationalist heroes to members of the great Geraldine dynasty—the likes of Gearóid Mór, Silken Thomas and Lord Edward FitzGerald, all descended from Maurice fitz Gerald, one of the 1169 leaders—and many’s the GAA club around the country rejoices in the name ‘The Geraldines’. Admittedly, of course, these medieval invaders of Ireland picked up something of a ‘Get out of jail free’ card because, arriving long before the Reformation had even been thought of, they could not be considered agents of enforced conversion to Protestantism, as were their Tudor and later successors.

Over the years, too, we have neutralised, if not decontaminated, the 1169 invaders through our terminology. We call them ‘Normans’ (although many had never set foot in Normandy), a term that became fashionable only in the nineteenth century through the popularity of works like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). Or we do what all jargon-makers do when they want to make something sound complicated: we hyphenate, so that they become ‘Anglo-Normans’ or ‘Cambro-Normans’ (since some came via Wales) or ‘Anglo-French’.

The truth, however, is that those who began conquering and colonising in Ireland in 1169 were none of these and did not believe themselves in need of hyphenation. They called themselves—surprise, surprise!—English. The Irish called them—surprise, surprise!—English. Within a couple of years they were followed to Ireland by their lord and king, Henry II, who was king of the English. Henry arrived in Ireland in the winter of 1171–2 at the head of the largest and best-equipped army the country had ever seen and claimed Ireland as his own. When he commissioned Giraldus Cambrensis to write a history of English successes in Ireland it was called Expugnatio Hibernica, ‘The Conquest of Ireland’, because that is what Henry thought he had achieved. And when he died in 1189 his obituarists lauded him as an emperor greater even than those of ancient Rome because he succeeded where the Romans themselves had failed—he conquered Ireland.

Now, we all know that that conquest was not a great success. Not all of the Irish accepted Henry and his successors as their lord, and at no point in the Middle Ages did the English settlers in Ireland and the Dublin-based English colonial government manage to bring the conquest to completion. On the contrary, it underwent a long and gradual decline as the Middle Ages wore on. Nevertheless, even in the sixteenth century the descendants of the 1169 invaders were still English, albeit ‘Old English’ to distinguish them from the ‘New English’ settlers sent to help finish off the conquest. Hugh O’Neill’s Nine Years War was, in most respects (the added post-Reformation religious complication aside), a war against the Tudor attempt to complete the medieval conquest. And, that conquest complete, the Plantation of Ulster, the Cromwellian and Restoration land settlements, the terms imposed under the Treaty of Limerick at the end of the Williamite War and the Penal Laws against Roman Catholics that followed were all efforts to ensure that the conquest could never be undone.

To be clear, that conquest did not begin with William of Orange. It did not begin with Oliver Cromwell. It did not even begin with Thomas Cromwell. It began exactly 850 years ago, about 1 May 1169, when a small group of adventurers put ashore on the south Wexford coast. And whatever their mixed ancestry—Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Flemish—all defined themselves as English because they were subjects of the king of England.

Above: Strongbow’s knights, as depicted in the watercolour version of Daniel McLise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife—‘All came to Ireland by invitation, and yet what followed was a full-blown invasion’. (National Gallery of Ireland)

All came to Ireland by invitation, and yet what followed was a full-blown invasion. All had joined the service of Diarmait Mac Murchada, who was king of Uí Chennselaig (comprising much of the modern counties Wexford and Carlow) and claimed to be overking of all Leinster. Mac Murchada had been ousted from the overkingship in 1166, fled abroad, sought out the king of England, Henry II, and swore an oath of fealty to him. He was now entitled to Henry’s protection, and through him was able to recruit allies among Henry’s subjects. There was, however, a quid pro quo: Mac Murchada, in swearing fealty, was now Henry’s man. He would hold his kingship of Henry, and would do so only as long as he remained loyal. England’s king now had a significant stake in Ireland.

And when Mac Murchada’s new allies landed in Ireland in 1169, they were not hired mercenaries. Mac Murchada granted them extensive lands, to hold in perpetuity in return for providing him with military service. Indeed, he went one step further. As is well known, not long before his death in 1171 Mac Murchada gave his daughter Aífe in marriage to an English earl, the man known as Strongbow, and the latter thereby claimed to be heir to the kingship of Leinster. He overran Ireland’s two largest cities, Dublin and Waterford, butchering and banishing their inhabitants, and acting for all the world like a king in Ireland.

The outcome was Henry II’s triumphal expedition in the winter of 1171–2, when he overawed, and accepted the submissions of, many of the Irish kings, granted away to English favourites of his own extensive Irish lands—including the great kingdom of Meath—and implicitly embraced Ireland as a lordship that would be permanently attached to the English crown. When we consider why it is that the kingdom over which his successor Queen Elizabeth II reigns is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we must be careful to trace its roots back to their origin, and we must therefore become attuned to the significance of those remarkable events that took place 850 years ago this year—the English invasion of 1169.

Seán Duffy is Professor of Medieval Irish and Insular History in Trinity College Dublin.


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