As we nervously begin to open up our economies and watch the daily count of new cases and deaths from the pandemic, I’m thinking of a summer 850 years ago which must have produced similar tensions, and doubts about the future, in three groups of people in the south east of Ireland.
The summer of 1170 was a momentous one in the history of Ireland. Three years had elapsed since Dermot McMurrough had invited Strongbow to Ireland to assist him in reclaiming his position as king of Leinster. The small force that had arrived shortly after Dermot and his family returned to Ireland had been ineffective, had even changed sides at one point, before most had returned home. Dermot had sent a renewed plea to Strongbow. Finally, on May 1st, a small force led by Raymond FitzGerald, aka Le Gros, arrived near Waterford.
A large force of locals attempted to repulse them but they cleverly sealed themselves behind a hastily constructed barrier at the narrow part of a small peninsular. They had previously rounded up a herd of cattle. By forcing the cattle, one by one, through a narrow gap in their defences they were able to send their attackers into disarray, the Norman archers picking them off individually. Sources suggest that up to 500 Irish and Norse defenders of Waterford were killed in this early engagement. Around 70 prisoners were taken as hostages. A similar number were thrown from the cliffs into the sea after having their legs broken to prevent them swimming to shore.
The defenders returned to their homes in Waterford and further afield. Le Gros and his band settled down to await the arrival of a larger force under Strongbow’s leadership.
The prospective bride
It seems likely that news of these events would have reached the McMurrough clan in their redoubt in Ferns. One can only imagine their feelings as they waited on tenterhooks for more news. There would have been work to do: hay to harvest, crops to tend, sheep to shear. I imagine Aoife and her mother gathering flower heads, seeds and berries for use in various concoctions: medicinal and for the dying of wool and fabric.
For Aoife, when Strongbow comes – if he does, and it is hard to believe that, after three years of waiting, the moment is finally at hand – when he comes it will not only mean the restoration of her family’s position of power, but marriage to this stranger, this foreigner.
What neither Aoife nor her parents could possibly know is the years of conquest and conflict that would follow.
The citizens and the invader
For the people of Waterford, unable to dislodge Le Gros and his band from their encampment on the peninsular, it must have been a time of incredible tension. Would the foreigners quietly go away? Would a larger force arrive? When? And what would such an arrival mean for their lives and livelihoods?
As the weeks passed, did Le Gros begin to wonder if he had been abandoned by Strongbow? How did he keep his men, who must have become increasingly restless at the delay, occupied? With target practice for the archers and jousts for the knights to hone their skills, no doubt.
There is no record that I have seen of the weather that summer. Were there long hot spells, enervating, making it difficult to motivate the men? Were there days when mist hung low over the hills to the north, when the furze and hawthorn dripped with moisture, making their weapons slippery to handle?
What of the prisoners and the cattle? There is no record of how many cattle they kept. They must have kept some, for sustenance. As the summer wore on the grass and other vegetation would have been destroyed. The stench would have been unbearable to our refined senses though perhaps not to twelfth century nostrils.
What conversations took place between the knights and the archers? The invaders and their prisoners? Sources state that the prisoners consisted of “the principle townsmen”. No doubt they will have attempted to parley their release. Was there communication between the prisoners and their friends and relations in Waterford? Who in Waterford took over the duties of these “principle townsmen”?
How often did either party wonder if tomorrow would be the day when everything changed? Would it be a change for better or for worse? By mid-July, the frustration and tension must have made it difficult to undertake everyday tasks in either camp. Nerves must have been stretched to breaking point. Yet they would have to endure many more such weeks of anxious waiting.
Title image of jousting knights found at April Munday’s website, A Writer’s Perspective. No original source information is provided there.