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Ireland - 


The Anglo-Norman invasion.

Before the arrival of Henry II in Ireland (October 1171), Anglo-Norman adventurers--including Richard de Clare, earl of Pembroke, subsequently known as Strongbow, invited by Dermot MacMurrough, a king of Leinster who had been expelled by the high king, Rory O'Connor (Roderic)--had conquered a substantial part of eastern Ireland, including the kingdom of Leinster, the towns of Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin, and part of the kingdom of Meath. Partly to avert any chance of Ireland's becoming a rival Norman state, Henry took action to impose his rule there. He granted Leinster to de Clare and Meath to Hugh de Lacy, who had gone to Ireland in the king's army; but he kept the chief towns in his own hands, exacted forms of submission from the Irish kings, and secured from a church synod recognition of his overlordship. During subsequent years the Anglo-Norman sphere in Ireland was extended; and, while all the Irish kings, except in the northwest, agreed to recognize his supremacy, Henry was obliged to acquiesce in the establishment of new Norman lordships in Ulster under John de Courci and in Munster under de Cogan, de Braose, and others. By the Treaty of Windsor (1175), O'Connor, the high king, accepted Henry as his overlord and restricted his own style to that of king of Connaught. But he was permitted to exercise some vague authority over the other Irish kings and was charged with collecting from them tribute to be paid to Henry. This arrangement was unsuccessful, for thereafter O'Connor encountered opposition even in his own province, and he was ultimately obliged to abdicate.

King John, who visited Ireland in 1210, established there a civil government independent of the feudal lords, and during the 13th century it became more fully organized. An Irish exchequer had been set up in 1200, and a chancery followed in 1232. The country was divided into counties for administrative purposes, English law was introduced, and serious attempts were made to reduce the feudal liberties of the Anglo-Norman baronage. (Counties were civil administration districts, whereas liberties were lands held in the personal control of aristocratic families and the church.) Parliament started in Ireland, as in England; in 1297 the peers and prelates were joined by representatives of counties, and in 1300 the towns also sent members. But these represented the Anglo-Irish only; the native Irish, to some extent resurgent in Ulster under the O'Neills and O'Donnells and in southwest Munster under the MacCarthys, were aloof and unrepresented.

The 14th and 15th centuries.

A brief threat to English control of Ireland, made by Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert I of Scotland, ended when Bruce was killed in battle at Faughart near Dundalk (1318). English control was reasserted and strengthened by the creation of three new Anglo-Irish earldoms: that of Kildare, given to the head of the Leinster Fitzgeralds; that of Desmond, given to the head of the Munster Fitzgeralds; and that of Ormonde, given to the head of the Butlers, who held lands around Tipperary. But the increased power and lands of the Anglo-Irish brought about an inevitable reaction; and during the remainder of the 14th century there was a remarkable revival of Irish political power, which was matched by a flowering of Irish language, law, and civilization. The Gaels recovered large parts of Ulster, the midlands, Connaught, and Leinster, while the Anglo-Irish became increasingly Irish, marrying Irish women and often adopting Gaelic customs.

The English government, which in any case, because of its aim to curtail feudal privileges, was always to some extent opposed by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, made an effort to restore control but achieved little more than a definition of the status quo. Edward III's son, Lionel, duke of Clarence, as viceroy from 1361 to 1367, passed in the Irish Parliament the Statute of Kilkenny (1366), which listed the "obedient" (English-controlled) lands as Louth, Meath, Trim, Dublin, Carlow, Kildare, Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford, and Tipperary. Intermarriage or alliances with the Irish were forbidden. The independent Irish outside the Pale (the area of English control) were regarded as enemies and were assumed to possess their lands only by usurpation. In practice they were feared, and their attacks were often bought off by almost regular payments. Visits by King Richard II in 1394-95 and 1399 achieved nothing. During the first half of the 15th century Ireland was, in effect, ruled by the three great earls--of Desmond, Ormonde, and Kildare--who combined to dominate the Dublin government. Desmond had sway in Counties Limerick, Cork, Kerry, and Waterford; Ormonde in Tipperary and Kilkenny; and Kildare in Leinster. Although both the Gaels and the Anglo-Irish had supported the Yorkist side in the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkist king Edward IV found them no less easy to subjugate than had his Lancastrian predecessors. Succeeding (1468) in bringing about the attainder and execution for treason of Thomas, earl of Desmond, he was nevertheless obliged to yield to aristocratic power in Ireland. The earls of Kildare, who thereafter bore the title of lord deputy (for the English princes who were lords lieutenant), were in effect the actual rulers of Ireland until well into the 16th century.

The Kildare ascendancy.

The substitution (1485) of Tudor for Yorkist rule in England had no apparent effect in Ireland, where the ascendancy of the Fitzgerald earls of Kildare, established when Thomas, 7th earl, was created lord deputy in 1471, had passed (1477) to his son Garret Mór (Great Gerald). The fiction of the king's power was preserved by appointing an absentee lieutenant, for whom Kildare acted as deputy; in practice, any real power was exercised largely through dynastic alliances with the chief Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords. Opposition to Kildare was negligible so long as the king was unable to maintain a permanent power to which his opponents might turn; an attempt to displace him was made when Kildare gave support (1487) to Lambert Simnel, a pretender to the English throne. After the advent of a more dangerous pretender, Perkin Warbeck, it was decided (1494) to remove Kildare and rule through an Englishman, Sir Edward Poynings. Poynings subdued Kildare, but he could not reconquer the northern Gaelic Irish. At Drogheda (1494-95) he induced a Parliament to pass an act that came to be known as "Poynings' Law"; it subjected the meetings and legislative drafts of the Irish Parliament to the control of the English king and council. But Poynings' administrative expenses were too great, and Henry VII decided in 1496 to restore Kildare.

On Kildare's death (1513) the deputyship passed to his son Garret Óg (Young Gerald), 9th earl of Kildare, who continued, though less impressively, to dominate the country. But James, 10th earl of Desmond, intrigued with the emperor Charles V; and Henry VIII became convinced that Kildare had lost the power to keep Ireland neutral. Therefore, when the divorce (1533) of Catherine of Aragon made the danger of imperial intervention particularly acute, the king summoned Kildare to England (1534). There were thereafter no Irish-born viceroys for more than a century.

The Reformation period.

Rumours that Kildare had been executed precipitated the rebellion of Kildare's son, Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly, called Silken Thomas. The rebellion facilitated the transition to the new system. Silken Thomas had opposed Henry VIII's breach with Rome; his execution (1537) caused a revival of the power of the Butlers of Ormonde; Piers Butler, earl of Ossory, helped to secure the enactment of the royal (instead of papal) ecclesiastical supremacy by the Dublin Parliament of 1536-37. As a further step in shedding papal authority, in 1541 a complaisant Parliament recognized Henry VIII as king of Ireland (his predecessors had held the title of Lord of Ireland). Confiscation of monastic property, as well as the lands of the rebels, met most of the costs of the expanded administration. This loss of land inevitably drove the religious orders and the Anglo-Irish into the arms of the Gaelic Irish, thus weakening the old ethnic rivalries of medieval Ireland. (see also Index: Butler family)

Sir Anthony St. Leger, lord deputy in 1540-48 and again in 1550-56, then began a conciliatory policy by which outstanding lords were persuaded, in order to gain new titles and grants of lands, to renounce the pope and recognize the king's ecclesiastical supremacy. This policy, however, required a steady series of efficient governors and disciplined administrators; in fact, neither in Tudor nor in Stuart times did the English succeed in converting elective chiefs into hereditary nobles holding offices delegated by the crown. Moreover, even those who had recently submitted were often condemned for religious conservatism and deprived of their lands. St. Leger's personal success was all the more remarkable because the first Jesuit mission to Ireland arrived in the north in 1542.

Under Edward VI (1547-53) the Dublin authorities carried out a forward policy in religion as well as in politics, but Protestantism got no support except from English officials. The official restoration of Roman Catholicism under Queen Mary (1553-58) revealed the strength of resentment in Ireland against Protestantism. As in England, the papal jurisdiction was restored, but otherwise the Tudor regulations of authority were observed. The pope was induced to recognize the conversion of the Tudor Irish lordship into a kingdom. Finally, Mary gave statutory approval for the plantation, or resettlement of Irish lands by Englishmen, of Leix, Offaly, and other Irish lordships of the central plain. Her viceroy was Thomas Radcliffe, earl of Sussex, lord deputy (1556-59), who was soon, as lord lieutenant (1559-66) for Elizabeth I, to restore the state's authority over the church.

Ireland under Elizabeth I.

The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, enforcing the Anglican church settlement, were passed in Ireland in 1560, but fear of driving the inhabitants of the Pale into alliance with the Gaelic Irish (and perhaps with the Spanish) made the government lenient in enforcing the terms of the acts. Political affairs continued to preoccupy the administrators, so that the new Protestant church was unequipped to resist the forces of the Counter-Reformation. This was inevitable in an Ireland only superficially conformed to royal obedience; but the seriousness of the situation was shown by the three great rebellions of the reign, those of Shane O'Neill (1559), of the Fitzgeralds of Desmond (1568-83), and of O'Neill (Tyrone) and O'Donnell (1594-1603). (see also Index: Uniformity, Acts of, Protestantism)

The Shane O'Neill rebellion.

The first of these rebellions, that of Shane O'Neill, fully exposed the weakness and later the folly of the government. O'Neill's father, Conn the Lame (Conn Bacach), who as the "O'Neill" was head of a whole network of clans, had been made earl of Tyrone in 1541, the succession rights of his illegitimate son Feardorchadh (Matthew) being recognized. Shane, younger but the eldest legitimate son, was nevertheless elected O'Neill on his father's death (1559), and soon afterward Feardorchadh was killed. O'Neill then took the field against the Dublin government, demanding recognition according to the laws of primogeniture, and he insisted that neither of Feardorchadh's sons, Brian and Hugh, had claims to the earldom. Elizabeth invited O'Neill to London to negotiate, but the opportunity for a statesmanlike settlement was lost. O'Neill was to be "captain of Tyrone" and was encouraged to expel from Antrim the MacDonnell (MacDonald or MacConnell) migrants from Scotland. Returning to Ireland in May 1562, O'Neill routed the MacDonnells, as well as the loyal O'Donnells of the northwest, and attempted to secure support from Scotland and France. Eventually the government was saved from a serious situation only through the defeat of O'Neill by the O'Donnells and his murder in 1567 by the MacDonnells. (see also Index: O'Neill family)

The lands of the O'Neills and even of loyal Gaelic lords were declared forfeit in 1569, and, in a wave of enthusiasm for colonization, various questionable adventurers were permitted to attempt substantial plantations in Munster, Leinster, and Ulster. The folly of this policy was seen when the government, despite its having declared the position of "O'Neill" extinguished, yet allowed the O'Neills to elect Shane's cousin, Turloch Luineach, as their chief. Butlers and Munster Fitzgeralds also combined forcibly to resist the plantations. The only gleam of statesmanship shown in these years by Henry Sidney, lord deputy (1565-71, 1575-78), was that he managed to avoid a major combination against the government's religious policy. The Butlers were induced to submit, the planters were given only limited support, and a head-on collision with Turloch Luineach was averted. When the Ulster plantation plans could not be carried out against Irish resistance, the queen wisely decided that they should be dropped. The pardon of the Butlers pacified Leinster, and, although in Munster the earl of Desmond's cousin James Fitzgerald, called "Fitzmaurice," attempted to make the war one of religion, he, too, was eventually pardoned. (see also Index: Butler family)

The Desmond rebellion.

Despite his pardon, Fitzmaurice in 1575 fled to the Continent, returning to Ireland in 1579 with papal approval for a Roman Catholic crusade against Queen Elizabeth. Although neither France nor Spain supported it and Fitzmaurice was surprised and killed in August 1579, the government was extremely apprehensive. Gerald Fitzgerald, 14th earl of Desmond, then assumed direction of the enterprise. As a military commander he was wholly deficient, and his mediocrity may well have kept outstanding figures in the north and west out of the movement. The rebels were defeated, and in November 1580 a force of Italians and Spaniards was massacred at Dún an Óir ("Golden Fort"), Smerwick Harbour, County Kerry.

The end of the Desmond rebellion gave the government the opportunity to confiscate more than 300,000 acres (100,000 hectares) in Munster and initiate more stringent proceedings against Roman Catholics. But the plantation was not a success. A more statesmanlike attitude was displayed in regard to Connaught land titles. When Sir John Perrot was lord deputy (1584-88), a number of agreements were made with individual landowners and chieftains, by which their titles were officially recognized in return for fixed regular payments. This was a step in the process of converting a great part of the country to English tenures. Perrot was less successful in handling the 1585-86 Parliament, in which the government's anti-Catholic program was defeated by the opposition.

The Tyrone rebellion.

The origins of the third rebellion, the O'Neill (Tyrone) war, remain in doubt. Both Hugh Roe O'Donnell and Hugh, younger son of Feardorchadh O'Neill, for whom the earldom of Tyrone had been revived in 1585 and who had had himself elected O'Neill on Turloch Luineach's death in 1595, certainly resented the extension of the royal administration, but the religious issue was probably more important. For a generation, exiled Roman Catholics had been trained as missionaries in the continental colleges of the Counter-Reformation, and the majority of those who returned to Ireland concluded that Catholicism could survive there only if Elizabeth were defeated. The outbreak of hostilities in Ulster in 1594 was at first confined to the northwest, where O'Donnell and Maguire, lord of Fermanagh, tried to drive out the English troops. The intervention of Hugh O'Neill was expected, if not inevitable. His participation with his brother-in-law O'Donnell proved decisive in the north and west, and the English were defeated both in Ulster and in Connaught. A more intimidating combination thus threatened Dublin than even in Shane O'Neill's time. Even in the Pale, arbitrary exactions and exclusion from offices won Hugh much sympathy, and it was said that he knew of Dublin Castle decisions before they were known in the city. Resentful of O'Neill's alleged ingratitude, Elizabeth became impatient of negotiations with him and finally sent Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, to Ireland (1599) to subdue him. But Essex lost his reputation by his inglorious progress through the country and by the speed with which he returned to England after a private conversation with O'Neill. Before Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, arrived (1600) to replace Essex, the Irish leaders had gained the qualified support of Pope Clement VIII and of King Philip III of Spain. But Philip could afford to send only a minimal force to aid the Irish rebels. Its leader, Juan del Aguila, occupied Kinsale and was besieged (1601) by Mountjoy. O'Neill marched south to relieve Aguila, but a rash attempt to surprise the English lines by night proved disastrous (Dec. 24, 1601); the Irish were defeated and the Spaniards surrounded. O'Neill held out in Ulster for more than a year but finally submitted a few days after the queen's death (March 1603).

Viewed generally, Elizabeth's Irish policy had the distinction of having reduced the country to obedience for the first time since the invasion of Henry II. But the cost was a serious one. The loyalty of the Irish was perennially strained over the religious issue, so that further rebellion was almost inevitable and virtually predictable in 1640 when the English government was embarrassed by the Second Bishops' War with Scotland. Economically, the towns and the countryside were needlessly exploited by the new administrators and planters, while the queen's expenditure was substantially increased. Commitments in Ireland were at least partly responsible for the poverty of the crown, which was to become a serious factor in precipitating its 17th-century conflict with Parliament.

To cite this page:
"Ireland: History: FIRST CENTURIES OF ENGLISH RULE (C. 1166-C. 1600)" Britannica Online.
[Accessed 24 September 1998].

Grave of Edward Bruce Edward Bruce Headstone