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Medieval Irish

Historical Overview Section

Having been conquered in the early medieval period by the Normans and their knights, the later medieval period saw Irish armies change tactics to deal with the increasingly common charging armoured knights. They started to rely on raids against resources, and surprise attacks. This stretched resources of the Normans, reduced their number of trained knights, and often resulted in the chieftains regaining territory. Secondly a lack of direction from both Henry III and his successor, Edward I (who were more concerned with events in England, Wales, Scotland and their continental domains) meant that the Norman colonists in Ireland were to a large extent deprived of (financial) support from the English monarchy. This limited the ability to hold territory. Furthermore, the Norman's position deteriorated due to divisions within their own ranks. These caused outright war between leading Hiberno-Norman lords such as the de Burghs, Fitzgeralds, Butlers and de Berminghams. Finally, the division of estates among heirs split Norman lordships into smaller, less formidable units – the most damaging being that of the Marshalls of Leinster, which split a large single lordship into five.

Politics and events in Gaelic Ireland served to draw the settlers deeper into the orbit of the Irish, which on occasion had the effect of allying them with one or more native rulers against other Normans. Hiberno-Norman Ireland was deeply shaken by three events of the 14th century.

The first was the invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce of Scotland who, in 1315, rallied many of the Irish lords against the English presence in Ireland. Although Bruce was eventually defeated in Ireland at the Battle of Faughart, near Dundalk, his troops caused a great deal of destruction, especially in the densely settled area around Dublin. In this chaotic situation, local Irish lords won back large amounts of land that their families had lost since the conquest and held them after the war was over. A few English partisans like Gilbert de la Roche turned against the English king and sided with Bruce, largely because of personal quarrels with the English monarchy.
The second was the murder of William Donn de Burgh, 3rd Earl of Ulster, in June 1333. This resulted in his lands being split in three among his relations, with the ones in Connacht swiftly rebelling against the Crown and openly siding with the Irish. This meant that virtually all of Ireland west of the Shannon was lost to the Hiberno-Normans. It would be well over two hundred years before the Burkes, as they were now called, were again allied with the Dublin administration.

The Black Death rapidly spread along the major European sea and land trade routes. It reached Ireland in 1348 and decimated the Hiberno-Norman urban settlementsThe third calamity for the medieval English presence in Ireland was the Black Death, which arrived in Ireland in 1348. Because most of the English and Norman inhabitants of Ireland lived in towns and villages, the plague hit them far harder than it did the native Irish, who lived in more dispersed rural settlements. A celebrated account from a monastery in Cill Chainnigh (Kilkenny) chronicles the plague as the beginning of the extinction of humanity and the end of the world. The plague was a catastrophe for the English habitations around the country and, after it had passed, Gaelic Irish language and customs came to dominate the country again. The English-controlled area shrunk back to the Pale, a fortified area around Dublin.
Additional causes of the Gaelic revival were political and personal grievances against the Hiberno-Normans, but especially impatience with procrastination and the very real horrors that successive famines had brought. Pushed away from the fertile areas, the Irish were forced to eke out a subsistence living on marginal lands, which left them with no safety net during bad harvest years (such as 1271 and 1277) or in a year of famine (virtually the entire period of 1311–1319).

Outside the Pale, the Hiberno-Norman lords adopted the Irish language and customs, becoming known as the Old English, and in the words of a contemporary English commentator, became "more Irish than the Irish themselves." Over the following centuries they sided with the indigenous Irish in political and military conflicts with England and generally stayed Catholic after the Reformation. The authorities in the Pale grew so worried about the "Gaelicisation" of Ireland that, in 1367 at a parliament in Kilkenny, they passed special legislation (known as the Statutes of Kilkenny) banning those of English descent from speaking the Irish language, wearing Irish clothes or inter-marrying with the Irish. Since the government in Dublin had little real authority, however, the Statutes did not have much effect.

Throughout the 15th century, these trends proceeded apace and central government authority steadily diminished. The monarchy of England was itself thrown into turmoil during the Wars of the Roses, and as a result English involvement in Ireland was greatly reduced. Successive kings of England delegated their constitutional authority over the lordship to the powerful Fitzgerald earls of Kildare, who held the balance of power by means of military force and widespread alliances with lords and clans. This in effect made the English Crown even more remote to the realities of Irish politics. At the same time, local Gaelic and Gaelicised lords expanded their powers at the expense of the central government in Dublin, creating a polity quite alien to English ways and which was not overthrown until the successful conclusion of the Tudor reconquest.

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