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Chapter 1- History

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – Stave #2

Chapter 1 – History

It took three years – and the offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage – for Dermot McMurrough to persuade Strongbow to come to Ireland. Once there, his success was a source of worry for Henry II. Henry ordered him to return and ordered ships’ captains to remain in port, preventing supplies from reaching the Island. When that failed he determined to come to Ireland in person. With him were 400 ships carrying Enormous quantities of wheat and oats … with a supply of hand-mills for milling flour while on the move. Beans, salt, cheese and a vast amount of bacon … Cloth in large quantities was supplied for the troops … coarse grey woollen cloth suitable for the dampness of an Irish winter. But the king was expected to dress in better finery … 25 ells of scarlet cloth, 26 ells of green, 12 pieces of silk cloth, 2 skins of mountain cats and 5 otter skins. There was also an enormous quantity of timber and nails as well as axes spades and pickaxes … in great numbers.¹

He arrived in Waterford on around the 17th or 18th of October 1171. With him came around 500 knights and 4,000 others, mostly archers. As things turned out not an arrow was fired. The size of the force was sufficient to intimidate the majority of Irish kings who submitted to Henry, as he progressed around the country, without a fight. Perhaps they trusted him to restrain Strongbow and leave them to look after their own affairs in his name. More probably they did what they had always done in their disputes with each other – made promises they had no intention of keeping.

Certainly, Strongbow’s wings were clipped. When Henry returned to England at Easter 1072, he appointed Hugh DeLacy to the governorship of Ireland. Garrisons were established under the command of various of the knights who had accompanied the king. These men took land from its native Irish owners, in the name of the king. However, in 1173, Strongbow, DeLacy and the rest were called to France to help Henry put down a rebellion led by his wife and sons. Not surprisingly, the Irish took advantage of the situation and re-occupied the stolen lands.

Henry reacted by appointing Strongbow as his commander in Ireland, with Raymond FitzGerald (aka Le Gros) as his lieutenant. Fitzgerald was the man who had master-minded the massacre of the citizens of Waterford days before Strongbow’s first arrival and marriage to McMurough’s daughter. The stage was set for the the kind of retribution that would be repeated time and again over succeeding centuries.

Neither the Irish, nor the descendants of the original Norman occupation force, were ever allowed to get on with running their own affairs. Violent disputes continued on mainland Britain and these frequently spilled over into Ireland. In the 14th century, for example, the brother of a Scottish king, himself a descendant of one of the Norman nobles who accompanied Duke William’s invasion of England, conducted a devastating campaign in Ireland in the midst of a famine.

Several accounts of this Scottish invasion and famine refer to people turning to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to overcome their hunger. The Anals of Conaught, for example, say of this period that for three years and a half, falsehood and famine and homicide filled the country, and undoubtedly men ate each other in Ireland.²

As was to happen in the nineteenth century, grains were imported from Ireland to England. On this occasion it was to supply troops fighting the Scots. There were other forms of assistance provided from the Anglo-Norman colony to their cousins in England. Historians have suggested that the most likely reason for Edward Bruce’s Irish expedition was to prevent this trade. It is also the case that his invasion was supported by a significant contingent of native Irish. Together the Scots and Irish hoped to defeat the Anglo-Normans once and for all.

Whatever his motives, the campaign proved to be a disaster for Bruce’s army and his Irish Allies. The decisive battle took place near Athenry in August 1316. A force of some 8,000 Irish, led by Felim O’Connor, were defeated by a smaller force led by William ‘Liath’ DeBurg. It was to prove to be the final victory for the Anglo-Normans. Up to that point they had controlled only the part of Ireland East of the Shannon, whilst the Irish maintained power in the West. Now the Connaught Irish were fatally weakened.

The famine that coincided with Bruce’s campaign was caused by a sequence of very wet summers which destroyed crops, not only in Ireland but across the British Isles and much of Europe. It prevented the English from invading Scotland on this occasion, suggesting that Bruce need not have bothered. Instead the famine devastated his army. One account, from a Dublin chronicler, suggests that the Anglo-Irish occupiers of a garrison at Carrickfergus killed and ate some of their Scottish prisoners.

If the second battle of Athenry, as it came to be known because there had been an earlier, though less bloody, battle in the same vicinity, resulted in defeat for the Irish, it was certainly not a victory for the English. Already many of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland were beginning to think of themselves as Irish. The Butlers, Fitzgeralds and Burkes raised their own armed forces, enforced their own law, and adopted Gaelic language and culture. By the middle of the 16th Century many of them were as much opposed to rule from London as were the native Irish, many of whom had re-taken large areas of land previously held by authority of the English crown, particularly in the north and midlands.

English rule was reduced to an area covered by a radius of some 50 kilometres from Dublin, called ‘The Pale’. The Fitzgeralds led several rebellions against English rule, one of which ended with yet another famine, this time instigated as a deliberate policy by the English who destroyed crops. The poet, Edmund Spenser, who served in the English army at the bloody siege of Smerwick and received lands in County Cork for his trouble, later wrote a pamphlet advocating the widespread adoption of such a policy. He included a description of what he had seen in the aftermath of the campaign:

Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spake like ghostes, crying out of theire graves; they did eate of the carrions, happye wheare they could find them, yea, and one another soone after, in soe much as the verye carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves; and if they found a plott of water-cresses or shamrockes, theyr they flocked as to a feast… in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast: yett sure in all that warr, there perished not manye by the sworde, but all by the extreamytie of famine … they themselves had wrought”3

The solution adopted, first by Queen Mary and then by her half sister Queen Elizabeth, was ‘Plantation’, the confiscation of lands and their reallocation to supposedly loyal English and Scottish families.

Spenser’s pamphlet was not published until some years after his death. It describes a proposed system of governance based on that already in force in England but with one crucial difference: the posting of troops in every administrative centre. It may well be that he was describing what he had seen, for that is more or less what happened.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the English were as disenchanted with the monarchy as were the Irish. Unfortunately the regime that came to power briefly, following the execution of King Charles I, was of no benefit to Ireland. Indeed, Oliver Cromwell instigated a campaign of terror across the island. Many Irish landowners had joined with Royalists in a plan to invade England and restore Charles to the throne. In response, a Parliamentarian army landed in Ireland. The ensuing war produced many atrocities on both sides but it was the civilian population that suffered most.

Once again a policy of destruction of crops was carried out, leading to famine. An outbreak of bubunic plague added to the misery of the people. Estimates of the loss of life during the period 1649-53 vary. There is no doubt that upwards of 300,000 died out of a prewar population of 1.4 million. At least 50,000 prisoners of war were sent to semi-slavery in the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Land was confiscated and re-settled by English Parliamentarian war veterans and the English merchants who had financed the campaign. Many Irish fighting men left to join the French or Spanish armies.

After the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, about a third of the confiscated lands were returned to their original owners. The relationship between king and parliament had undergone a fundamental change as a result of the Civil War and Charles II needed to keep his old enemies on side. When he died, trouble brewed once again in England over who should succeed him. And once again Ireland became embroiled, causing great suffering to the ordinary people and deepening the rift between long established residents and new arrivals.

[This is a deliberately brief summary of the Cromwellian campaign, its background and aftermath. Because of the strongly religious elements that underpinned it, a more detailed account will be provided in chapter 2.]

There is one final episode that sets the scene for the events of 1845-51. Throughout the eighteenth century England was involved in wars with France and Spain. It was also a period of revolutions, in France and in America, in particular. Many in Ireland were inspired to seek the establishment of an independent republic and to do so with the assistance of England’s enemy, France. A group called The United Irishmen, formed in 1791 and driven underground three years later when the government discovered they were negotiating with the French, continued to plot and plan. In December 1796 a French fleet carrying 14,000 troops arrived off the south coast of Ireland. Rough seas prevented its landing.

The government responded by infiltrating the organisation with spies and informants and strengthening its defences against a possible further French invasion. The United Irishmen showed their hand by seizing mail coaches leaving Dublin on the night of 25/26 May 1798. Rebel groups around the country went into action but were easily defeated by superior government forces, except in Wexford. The final battle took place at Vinegar Hill, outside Enniscorthy, on June 21st. As so often in the past, there were many atrocities committed on both sides but the rebellion was firmly put down. An 1100 strong French force landed in County Mayo in August and took Castlebar but surrendered shortly afterward. The French were treated as prisoners of war but those Irish who had supported them were massacred. Between 10,000 and 25,000 rebels lost their lives in the 1798 rebellion. The government in London, believing that failings in its Dublin outpost had contributed to the rebellion, decided that Ireland should become an integral part of a new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, governed directly from London.


  1. English pipe rolls, quoted by James Lydon in The Lordsip of Ireland in the Middle Ages, Gill and McMillan, Mar.1972.
  2. Annals of Connaught quoted by Adrian Martyn in One King to Rule them All – Edward Bruce and the Battle of Athenry 1316 at The Irish Story (on-line publication)
  3. A View of the present State of Ireland, Edmund Spencer, 1596

Continue to Chapter 2

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