Power and Abuse: The Irish Struggle (Part I)
Updated: Mar 13
“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” ~ Edmund Burke, Irish Statesman
The struggle of Éire (or Ireland in Gaelic) and England unfolded over the centuries. England (later, Great Britain) grew in power and might and could not contain itself when it came to their neighbors across the Irish Sea. Like other parts of the world, the English rulers exerted their power and oftentimes - misery - over the Emerald Isle for a long time. The culmination was a landmass separated into two Irelands - one is an independent Republic and the other is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The following are a few significant stories and events that will provide some perspective of the early Irish-English struggles and that led to the present-day Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Part I ~ 1166 to 1603 A.D.
King Henry II & Strongbow
King Henry II of England (House of Plantagenet/Angevin) reigned in the mid-12th century. He had trade interests in Ireland and allied with the Irish King Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster. (Ireland had several city-states during this period with separate rulers.) At the time of Henry’s Irish Sea interests, he was also in the process of conquering Wales. In 1166-67, Henry gave Dermot permission to recruit mercenaries from among Henry’s subjects to remove disgruntled Anglo-Saxon knights from Wales. Henry’s plan was to remove the knights away from Wales to give himself a better position to acquire Welsh lands. One of Dermot’s recruits was a man by the name of Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, Lord of Striguil, also known as “Strongbow.” Henry gave his subject Strongbow permission to go to Ireland with Dermot. Dermot made Strongbow his heir through marriage to Dermot’s daughter (Hayes & Jones, 1990). The marriage of Strongbow and Dermot’s daughter commenced the Anglo-Norman infiltration of Ireland.
After Strongbow’s arrival in Ireland in 1170, he immediately took control of Waterford and Dublin. Henry became increasingly concerned with Strongbow's interests in the Irish Sea and the fact that Strongbow was a descendant of William the Conqueror (King of England in the 11th century). Consequently, Strongbow’s power in Ireland and his claim to the English throne concerned Henry. In response, Henry closed all English ports to Ireland and recalled all his subjects. Failure of subjects to return would result in the seizure of their lands by Henry. Strongbow stayed in Ireland and Henry seized his lands. However, Strongbow sent emissaries to England to plead with the King. Consequently, Henry returned lands back to Strongbow in return for Strongbow's limited power in Ireland (Hayes & Jones, 1990).
In 1171, King Dermot died, and Strongbow assumed his place as King of Leinster. Prior to this, in 1170, the Anglo-Normans were gaining strongholds in Ireland and subdued the high King Rory O’Connor (King of Connaught). After King Dermot’s death, King Rory led forces to weaken the Anglo-Norman conquests and strength by taking back Dublin. Strongbow was unable to obtain reinforcements from Henry to subdue Rory. The only other alternative for Strongbow was to commence diplomatic relations with Rory. Negotiations between Rory and Strongbow failed. The result was a surprise attack by the Anglo-Normans on Rory, which forced Rory and his soldiers to break apart (Hayes & Jones, 1990).
After news of the Anglo-Norman victories under Strongbow in Ireland, Henry wanted to meet with Strongbow. Upon Henry’s arrival to Ireland, he took control of Dublin to ensure that Strongbow could not take independent control of Ireland. Henry subsequently took control of Waterford and Wexford to ensure easy access between Ireland, England, and Wales (Hayes & Jones, 1990). The control of Ireland by Henry was almost seamless and non-violent. Almost all the southern kingdoms of Ireland and some in Ulster surrendered to the King of England. This surrender was mostly due to the earlier defeat of King Rory (though not a total defeat) by the Anglo-Normans and the lack of an alternative high king in Ireland to either take control or to continue fighting the Anglo-Normans. Following this peaceful surrender amongst the Irish to the English, Henry expanded his control over Irish ports and his access to Wales by placing loyalists to Henry in charge of these important ports (Hayes & Jones, 1990).
In response to increasing discord and disorganization by the Anglo-Normans in Ireland, Henry entered a treaty with Rory (Treaty of Windsor) in 1175. The gist of this treaty was to give Henry dominion over the Anglo-Norman controlled areas of Ireland and tributes to Henry by all of Ireland in exchange for recognition that Rory would rule over the Gaelic Irish areas. The Treaty was a failure from the beginning. Rory did not have the support from the Gaelic people, or their leaders and Henry was not capable of resisting incursions from his own subjects, the Anglo-Normans (Hayes & Jones, 1990). In truth, Ireland's many principalities were at odds and there was no chance at this time for recognition of two Irelands: one ruled by the high king and another ruled by the King of England.
One year after the Treaty of Windsor, Strongbow died. Consequently, the Anglo-Normans in Ireland became more loyal to Henry. Henry was now able to consolidate more power in Ireland by placing loyalists in charge of the major cities again. These cities included Leinster, Dublin, and Ulster. In 1177, Henry took the additional step of placing his nine-year-old son, John, as Lord of Ireland. Henry also gained control of Limerick and Cork. As the years went on and as John became of age, he attempted to become King of Ireland, but failed due to maneuverings by the Anglo-Norman lords. Other events in Europe also turned Henry’s attention away from Ireland and his earlier ambitions there became less of a priority (Hayes & Jones, 1990).
King Henry II of England started the English influence over the principalities and ports of Ireland. Early on, he was more interested in his Welsh influence and found an opportunity in Ireland to exile Anglo-Norman subjects away from Wales, so he could exert that influence in Wales. As a result, the Anglo-Normans became more powerful in Ireland, which was a threat to the English. Alternatively, the Irish remained peaceful over these various takeovers, but the opportunity for more power in Ireland emerged and Henry seized on that. As a result of the decreased importance of Ireland to England, Ireland remained quiet throughout the Middle Ages and until the 16th century, when another King Henry exerted his power and influence over the Emerald Isle.
In the 15th century, the House of Plantagenet still ruled England as they did during the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 12th century. To be more specific, King Henry VI was an offshoot of the Plantagenet called the Lancastrians (House of Lancaster). There was a rival offshoot called the House of York. In 1464, war broke (part of a series of conflicts called 'War of Roses' between Lancaster and York) out on the British Isle for none other than the claim to the throne. Edward IV's (York) army captured, and imprisoned Henry VI in the Tower of London and Edward ascended to the English throne. Additional problems ensued that temporarily restored Henry VI to the throne. Henry's reign did not last long, and he returned to the Tower of London and died by execution. Edward IV regained the throne until his death in 1483. Upon Edward’s death, his brother Richard III assumed the throne. Richard alienated those loyal to the House of York and they turned favor to Henry Tudor (future King Henry VII). Henry’s army fought Richard’s at Bosworth Field in 1485, where Henry's army killed Richard. Consequently, the Tudor Dynasty commenced with King Henry VII (The Triumph of Edward IV).
During the War of Roses, the Kildares who were prominent Irish leaders allied themselves with the House of York. After Henry VII’s victory over Richard III, Henry did not pursue the Kildare as enemies (History - The Road to Northern Ireland, 1167 to 1921 2007). Despite his previous alliances, the Eighth Earl of Kildare was loyal to Henry VII and acted as his representative in Ireland. He also married an Englishwoman and obtained property in England. Henry VII died in 1509 and his son, Henry VIII became King. There was no activity in Ireland worth mentioning on the part of Henry VIII until after 1518 when Henry started to take on more policy issues and became more interested in Irish affairs (Quinn, 1961).
In 1520 and 1521, King Henry VIII and his advisors sought to take back their dominions in Ireland and sent the Duke of Surrey with a few hundred troops. Surrey and the King’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, had high political ambitions and sought for a full conquest of Ireland. However, Henry was reluctant for such a feat. After some back-and-forth, the response from the King was for Surrey to find an amicable solution with the Irish for the King to maintain his dominions there. Surrey finally responded that if he could not have a full conquest, then he wanted to return to England. The King eventually relieved Surrey of his authority in Ireland in late 1521 without a conquest and with insignificant military action for the King’s earlier demands. The King’s motivations were not altruistic or with the intention of peace with the Irish. It came down to money and the need for military power, soldiers, and time spent in Ireland. To King Henry VIII, the expense of war was not worth it as there were other matters and interests in Europe that required Henry’s attention (Quinn, 1961).
Not much occurred between England and Ireland following the non-conquest of the early 1520s. This changed in the mid-1530s following the English Reformation when the Church of England broke from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1537, the Irish Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This Act closely followed the English law of the same name. The Irish Act of Supremacy stated that the English King (at the time, Henry VIII) was supreme over the Church of Ireland. Unlike what occurred in England, most monasteries in Ireland remained intact, and the liturgy did not change. Consequently, the King of England was not concerned about forcing the mostly Roman Catholic Irish people to change their allegiance to the Pope or their Catholic faith (Church of Ireland 2013).
Despite Henry’s lack of push for the Church of England supremacy in Ireland, the 10th Earl of Kildare, Thomas FitzGerald in a departure from his grandfather (the 8th Earl of Kildare), did push back against the Tudor King. This pushback may have been in response to his father’s (Gerald, the 9th Earl of Kildare) death in the Tower of London. Gerald’s exact crime is unknown, except that there was speculation that he opposed Henry VIII’s rule over the Church of Ireland (Bohm, 2020).
Thomas FitzGerald started to show his aggressions against the King of England through his actions in Dublin. For example, he killed the Archbishop of Dublin, who opposed Thomas' father, Gerald. Moreover, Thomas chased many of the English out of Dublin. One of the most “egregious” actions of Thomas was his alliance with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and their negotiations for 12,000 soldiers in exchange for the Irish invasion of England. This never occurred, but resulted in Thomas making enemies in Dublin who were loyal to the King. Henry discovered FitzGerald’s motivations. This discovery led to Thomas’ capture and charge of treason. Moreover, the English captured and sent 75 of Thomas’ allies, including family members to the Tower of London. On February 3, 1537, the English executed them. This awful event put shock waves into Ireland as the Tudor King killed one of the most renowned Earls and once allies of the Tudor dynasty. This resulted in Henry’s declaration as King of Ireland in 1542 (Bohm, 2020).
Much like her father, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I also had her issues with Irish pushback against England. As the English Monarch in 1587, she made an Irishman named Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. He was loyal to the English as he fought with them and their interests against his countrymen. O’Neill built alliances within and outside of Ireland, amassed wealth and built up his military and arms (Dorney, 2019). Through all this and his political prowess, especially in the northern territories of Ulster, O’Neill established himself as a powerful leader in Ireland, if not the most powerful in the late 16th century.
Dorney explains that “by the early 1590’s, northern Connacht and the southern rim of Ulster was engulfed by Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam’s ‘reforming’ agents who applied the ‘composition’ formula that had been hammered out in Munster and southern Connacht” (Dorney, 2019). This “composition formula” meant that the English were starting to take over these areas of the northern part of Ireland. By 1591, there was an English Sheriff placed in Monaghan (Dorney, 2019). At this point, Queen Elizabeth started to govern Ireland. Elizabeth killed those who resisted, mainly the Irish who had occupied the land.
As tensions rose in the northern parts of Ireland, war ensued in 1593 among the English, O’Neill and other Irish lords who ruled the area. This war lasted nine years. However, the result of The Nine Years War would change Ireland for 400 years. Hugh O’Neill joined with other allies in the Ulster area to attack English fortifications. They went on to defeat the English in Monaghan and Clontibret. In 1598, the Ulster militants under O’Neill took out the English at Limerick and Munster, which were other strategic areas (Dorney, 2011).
The war may have started due to English infiltration into certain areas and taking on public positions. As the war went on, the English Crown started to tax the Irish and deny them certain civil liberties, such as the ability to practice the Catholic faith (Dorney, 2019). This issue infuriated the Irish lords, such as O’Neill and other fighters. The Irish fought for their own ability to govern, the preservation of their leadership and in effect, their independence. Despite some of the Irish advances earlier in the war and arrival of a Spanish fleet, the tide turned against the Irish in 1601.
The Battle of Kinsale in 1601 commenced with an unexpected number of Spanish troops, in a place that was not ideal as an adequate position or climate for warfare (Kinsale is a southern coast town in County Cork) and without the full support of the Papacy. One of the most immediate issues on the Spanish arrival at Kinsale was the strategic position of the English in Cork that easily entrapped the Spanish (McGurk, 2001). Additional fighting continued through the latter part of 1601, but the pressure, casualties, and captures were too much for the Irish and Spanish to handle. As a result, many fled to Spain or went back to Ulster to protect their properties (Dorney, 2019). What they discovered upon their return to Ulster was famine because of England’s scorched earth policy to win the war (Tenace, 2019).
Queen Elizabeth and thus, the House of Tudor, died on March 24, 1603. The English captured Hugh O’Neill on March 30, 1603. Eventually, the English pardoned O'Neill and permitted him to return to Ulster but stripped him of his title of Earl of Tyrone. In turn, O’Neill promised loyalty to the English Crown. The defeat of the Irish essentially eroded and ended the Gaelic culture and created opportunities for the English to make Ireland more English and Protestant (Dorney, 2019).
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Attribution: Bob Collowan, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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Attribution: Sonse, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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