Marking the Norman invasion of Ireland: 850 years and counting . . .

Invasion on May 1st, 1169, constituted one of the most significant events in Irish history

  • On May 1st, 1169 the deposed King of Leinster Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait Mac Murchada) landed at Bannow Bay in Co Wexford with a group of mercenary soldiers to reclaim his throne. It was the start of what has become known as the "800 years of oppression" and counting. It's now 850 years.
  • MacMurrough was a nasty piece of work. His father was murdered by his enemies and buried with a dead dog – a singular insult at the time. MacMurrough spent his life avenging his father's death.
  • He is said to have abducted a wife of one of his rivals and held her captive for years. He carried off, according to contemporary accounts, "the Abbess of Kildare from her cloister, killing 170 of the people of Kildare, who interfered to prevent this wanton and sacrilegious outrage".
  • Ironically, given the legacy of the Penal Laws, the invasion of Ireland was sanctioned by the Pope. Adrian IV was the first and only English pontiff. In 1155 he granted King Henry II the right to invade Ireland to put manners on the wayward Irish church.
  • MacMurrough was suitably obsequious in invoking the support of Henry II, then the most powerful monarch in Europe, to get his kingdom back. "Henceforth, all the days of my life, on condition that you be my helper so that I do not lose everything, you, I shall acknowledge, as sire and lord."
  • Henry agreed to allow the invasion of Ireland on condition that some of his ambitious knights would be granted lands in the country.
  • The 1169 invasion found the native Irish hopelessly unprepared. They threw stones at the invading Norman knights who were covered head to foot in chain mail. The Normans captured the port of Waterford in short order.
  • Two years after the initial invasion, Henry, the great grandson of William the Conqueror, landed in Waterford with a large army, thus becoming the first King of England to claim jurisdiction over Ireland.
  • He was congratulated by Alexander III, the successor to Adrian IV, for putting manners on the "barbarous nation" of Ireland.
  • The most famous invading knight was Richard de Clare aka Strongbow. MacMurrough gave his daughter Aoife's hand in marriage to Strongbow with a promise that he would take over his kingdom when he died. The marriage happened in 1170 and inspired one of Ireland's most famous and best-loved paintings, The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow, by the artist Daniel Maclise. Local historians in Wexford claim former US president George W Bush and his father are related to Strongbow.
  • MacMurrough died in 1171 at the ripe old age, for the time, of 61. In the annals of nationalist history, MacMurrough immediately became a hate figure and a symbol of perfidy. The Gaelic annals reserved for him perhaps the most damning obituary in the long history of Ireland.
  • "Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, King of Leinster, after having brought over the Saxons, after having done extensive injuries to the Irish, after plundering and burning many churches, died before the end of a year of an insufferable and unknown disease. He died at Fearnamor [Ferns], without making a will, without penance, without the body of Christ, without unction, as his evil deeds deserved".
  • Though Ireland had a high king at the time of the Norman invasions, it was hardly a united kingdom. Individual kings clung jealously to their power and fought with each other all the time. When the Normans invaded, instead of resisting, many of them submitted to Henry II in the hope of holding on to their lands. They also expected that Henry would bring order to Ireland.
  • Henry II held a banquet to celebrate his conquest. The dish of the day was roast crane.
  • What did the Normans ever do for us? The Normans introduced the English language to Ireland, common law, which eventually supplanted Brehon law, parliamentary systems and they built imposing castles across the land most notably King John's Castle in Limerick, Trim Castle and Carrickfergus Castle.
  • They bequeathed dozens of surnames, which are recognisably Irish, but whose origins are Norman – Butler, Lynch, Power, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, Fitzmaurice, Tobin, Redmond, Shefflin.
  • They divided fields into hedges and started the process of making county boundaries.

Trinity College Dublin's Department of History will host the National Conference on the history of the invasion. Invasion 1169 runs from Thursday, May 2nd to Saturday May 4th, is open to the public and free of charge.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times