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Authors: David W. McCullough

Wars of the Irish Kings

BOOK: Wars of the Irish Kings


Think on Death
Point No-Point

People, Books & Book People
Brooklyn … and How It Got That Way

Great Detectives
American Childhoods
City Sleuths and Tough Guys
Chronicles of the Barbarians

For Meghan Elizabeth Sheridan
and Darian O’Brien Cork


Three people played key roles in the creation of this book. In the beginning there was Leslie Pockell, and at the end there were Kathleen Kiernan and Benjamin Hallman. I am also most appreciative of the thoughtful advice of Katharine Simms, professor of medieval history at Trinity College, Dublin, and of Catherine McKenna, professor of medieval studies at the New York University Graduate Program. Their kind generosity, of course, should not be thought to include their imprimatur. Finally there are the libraries. This book could not have existed without them: the New York Public Library, the Hastings-on-Hudson Library, and the Westchester County Library System in the United States, and the National Library of Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy, and the Royal Antiquarian Society, all in Dublin. And before them, there were all those people whose names we don’t know or have barely heard, who for one reason or another chose to write down or preserve what they believed—or hoped—was the history of their land.






The Second Battle of Moytura

The Cattle Raid of Cooley: Cuchulain

The Palace of the Quicken Trees: Finn MacCool

The Frenzy of Sweeney



Brief Sketches of Three Irish Kings by Geoffrey Keating

The Annals of the Four Masters: Ninth- and Tenth-Century Entries



The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill: The Early Viking Raids

The Freeing of Cellachain, King of Munster



Njal’s Saga: A Viking Account

The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill: An Irish Account



The Normans Arrive, 1169 by Gerald of Wales

The Song of Dermot and the Earl: Another Version of the Invasion

Henry II Comes to Ireland by Gerald of Wales



The Book of Howth: The Northern Conquest Begins, 1177



Edward Bruce Invades Ireland by John Barbour

Ireland During the Bruce Invasion From Holinshed’s Chronicles of Ireland



The Triumphs of Thurlough: The Battle of Dysert O’Dea by John mac Rory MacGrath



The Book of Howth: Battle of Knockdoe



The Annals of the Four Masters: The Battles of Clontibret and Yellow Ford

O’Neill’s Victories
by Philip O’Sullivan Beare

The Papers of Sir John Harington: Essex and Elizabeth



The Annals of the Four Masters: O’Donnell and O’Neill Head South to Kinsale

An Englishman’s Siege and Battle Diary
by Fynes Moryson

The Annals of the Four Masters: The Battle of Kinsale, An Irish View







The battalions then made a stout, furious, barbarous, smashing onset on each other. But, alas! these were the faces of foes in battle-field, and not the faces of friends at a feast. And each party of them remembered their ancient animosities towards each other, and each party of them attacked the other. And it will be one of the wonders of the day of judgment to relate the description of this tremendous onset. And there arose a wild, impetuous, precipitate, furious, dark, frightful, voracious, merciless, combative, contentious vulture, screaming and fluttering over their heads. And there arose also the satyrs, and the idiots, and the maniacs of the valleys, and the witches, and the goblins, and the ancient birds, and the destroying demons of the air and of the firmament, and the feeble demoniac phantom host; and they were screaming and comparing the valour and combat of both parties.

The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill,
    twelfth century


thousand or so years between the mythical legends of Ireland’s origins and the disastrous battle at Kinsale in 1601, it seems downright shortsighted that people pick out a few years in the twentieth century and call them “The Troubles.” Offhand, it looks as though there was nothing but trouble from the very beginning.

It all began—so we’re told in
Lebor Gabala (The Book of Invasions)—
during the lifetime of the biblical Abraham, 310 years after Noah’s flood. Ireland had been peacefully invaded by a leader named Partholon. The rivers and lakes had been created. The first natural death and burial had taken place, and the first incident of adultery was just about to happen, when Ireland witnessed its first battle. Partholon’s men took on the Fomoire (who may have been monsters from the sea) on a field near Dublin Bay.
The Book of Invasions
tells us that the enemy was men with “single noble legs and single full hands,” that there were three hundred of them, that their leader’s mother had four eyes on her back, and that they were “cut down in a week.” But, unfortunately, the book doesn’t tell how an army of one-armed, one-legged men actually fought. It must have involved a good deal of hopping around.

The Partholonians were the first of a series of invaders, each of which brought something to the island (everyone’s favorite conqueror seems to be the Tuatha De Danann, from the Greek isles, who brought magic and the arts), and each is defeated in turn until the arrival of Miles Hispaniae (his name means “the soldier from Spain”) and his followers, who are the forebears of the Irish. Or so the story goes.

One of the remarkable things about Ireland is that very early in its history decisions were made in monasteries all over the island to record stories like these about its history and what was thought to be its history. Later, in the twelfth century, these earlier records and memories of the oral tradition of storytelling were used to create books meant to be read—and this is both unusual and important—by laymen as well as monks and
priests. These early scribe-historians created a literature shaped by political propaganda, family pride, a bit (but not much) of religiosity, and the love of a good story that glorified, romanticized, or simply recorded the past. At the very beginning of Irish history, it would seem, there was already nostalgia for an earlier time. There was a strong sense that current events could be justified—or explained—by knowledge of past events.

Another wave of historical interest came in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth century, amid an awakened sense of nationalism, those ancient documents—still amazingly preserved—were rediscovered and translated into English.

The earliest tales, although not the first written, were about the mythical conquests that created Ireland. They combined references to events in the Old Testament and Greek mythology with ancient Irish gods and heroes (who seem cut from the same cloth), and actual historical events. Take, for instance, two battles fought during the De Danann conquest on different parts of the plain—called Moytura (Mag Tured)—outside Sligo. The first battle was probably based on a historical event. The second, which we are told took place at the time of the Trojan War, probably was not. Gods stroll around quite casually, and one of them—known for his gluttony and love of porridge—is used for comic relief. There is a hero who cannot be voted king because he lost an arm in battle and kings must be physically intact, but then a magical craftsman makes him a silver arm, which, not surprisingly, turns into a real arm. And that may be a way of explaining through myth how one ancient, maimed chieftain got around the rules of kingship.

Long after the waves of invasions covered in
Lebor Gabala
, two great figures emerge in early literature: Cuchulain and Finn MacCool. Cuchulain is the hero of Ulster, who has two fathers, the king of Cooley and the god Lug. The entire Ulster Cycle of stories is built around him, the most famous being the
Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
, which is usually pointed out as the finest example of early Irish literature. In spite of his great deeds (the Irish Hercules is an overused phrase), there is often a tinge of sadness about Cuchulain, and his frequent rages make him appear to be more than a little insane.

Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cuimhaill) appears later in Irish mythical history, and with his loyal knights, the Fenians (the legends about him are called the Fenian Cycle), he often resembles an Irish King Arthur. Finn and his entire court became extremely popular with artists and composers in the nineteenth century. It seems likely that Sir William Wilde, a society eye surgeon in Dublin as well as an amateur archaeologist, and his wife, who wrote romantically nationalist poems under the name Speranza, probably
named their younger son after Finn’s brave and handsome grandson with the decidedly un-Irish-sounding name of Oscar.

The “real” history during this time was being recorded by annalists, monks who compiled year-by-year records of what they thought to be important, including the death of kings, local battles, rumors of trouble elsewhere, ecclesiastical appointments, weather reports, and amazing happenings such as a mermaid washing ashore. The earliest histories were based on these annals as have most medieval histories of Ireland ever since. Later, compilations of annals, from individual monasteries were made to create annals of provinces and the country as a whole. The most important of these was a mammoth work called
Annals of the Four Masters
, compiled in the early seventeenth century by a group of Donegal Franciscans.

The earliest histories, such as the one written in Irish by Geoffrey Keating at the beginning of the seventeenth century, were a liberal mixture of the annals and material from the myths presented as fact. Keating, for example, includes Partholon’s first battle but never says how many limbs the Fomoire had. As Irish history progresses from local squabbles, through the real invasions of Vikings, English, and Scots, to the rise of truly national leaders such as Brian Boru (an upstart king from nowhere) and Hugh O’Neill (who had the most distinguished name in Ireland), more and more hands became involved in the writing of history. But two themes persist. One is the coming and going of kings. The other is war.

The saints aside, Ireland’s earliest visitors from abroad were military men who seemed to be confused by the number of kings they encountered and by the curious way the Irish fought their battles. The two oddities were, in fact, connected.

From its earliest days Ireland was divided into four tidy quarters, the provinces—moving clockwise—of Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. There was a single high king
(ard ri)
of all Ireland who ruled from the sacred hill of Tara, sacred to both pagans and Christians, but more often than not it was an empty title. A few high kings such as Rory O’Connor (Ruaidri O’Conchobhair), who ruled at the time of the English invasion in 1170, were powerful leaders, but the
ard ri
’s influence was more mystical, even religious, than political or military. In time the title would become just another glittering adornment of the O’Neill family. Below the high king, each province had its king, and below each of them were dozens of lesser kings. As the Norman author of the
Song of Dermot
and the Earl
observes, there were as many kings in Ireland as there were counts in other lands. It is partly a semantic problem—the word
does not in fact mean “king”—but king was what they were called, and between the fifth and twelfth centuries there could have been as many as 150 of them, great and small, ruling at a time.

And none of them, great or small, inherited his crown outright.

Each Irish king was chosen or approved by the nobles of his kingdom.
is probably too democratic a word for it, and as a matter of practice sons did tend to follow their fathers onto the throne. But it did not have to be that way. Any man who was a son, grandson, or great-grandson of a king could become king if he had the support of the men—frequently his relatives—who were his rivals for office. This constant search for a constituency was the primary cause of most of the small Irish wars, not, as was traditionally the case in Europe, a king’s desire for more land to rule. Besides battles, other ways of winning support included bribery and marriage, which partially explains the elaborate medieval rituals of gift giving and the fact that so many Irish battles seem to have been between sons and fathers-in-law or brother-in-law against brother-in-law. By its very nature it was an unstable system that discouraged central government.

In fact, land in pre-twelfth-century Ireland had little political value. Although there were rich plains, it was not a farming culture but a decentralized grazing one in which wealth was measured in cattle. There were no cities, and the kingdoms, which rarely had roads or clearly defined boundaries, were separated by dense forests and bogs, which were more of a deterrent to travel (or easy military movement) than the mountains. A reading of the sometimes-cryptic early annals suggests an endless series of battles and cattle raids. To be glib, early medieval Ireland sounds like a somewhat crazed Wisconsin, in which every dairy farm is an armed camp at perpetual war with its neighbors, and every farmer claims he is a king.

Ireland was also seriously underpopulated. Scholars have estimated that there were only about half a million people on the entire island. Military activity was costly both in actual expense and in time taken away from earning a living. For in spite of what sounds like constant combat, there was no military class in Ireland, no standing armies always at the ready. When a king needed an army, he called up a “hosting,” a temporary draft, during which his subjects dropped what they were doing and turned out armed and ready to fight or threaten. It was a system that discouraged long military campaigns in favor of single—often indecisive—battles.

Just as there were hints of democracy in the selection of kings, there was a suggestion of a citizen army here that was unknown in feudal Europe. Although these conscripts were not paid until the late sixteenth
century (unlike the hired mercenaries brought over from Scotland), hostings were so expensive they rarely lasted for more than a few months. Unfortunately, one way of saving money and time was to not fight an enemy’s army directly but to try to weaken him by pillaging his land, burning the homes and barns of his people, kidnapping their daughters and young men of fighting age, and making off with the cattle, if only to hold the cows hostage for ransom.

Which brings us to the Irish fighting style, a style that seemed to change little in the six hundred years after the first millennium. Mobility was the key. They never wore armor (except leather vests) even after it had been introduced to the island by the Vikings and the English. They carried small, round shields, swords, spears, and sharp, deadly darts. Horses, when they used them, were small and fast, unlike the massive warhorses of Europe.

Their tactics confused outsiders as much as the American colonists’ tactics later confused the English and later still the Vietcong the Americans. The Tudor poet Edmund Spenser, an Englishman who parlayed a bureaucratic government job in Dublin into an Irish estate (and a loathing of the Irish), wrote the following in his
A View of the State of Ireland

It is well known that [the Irishman] is a flying enemy, hiding himself in woods and bogs from whence he will not draw forth [except] into some straight passage and perilous ford, where he knows the army must need pass, there will he lie in wait, and, if he find advantage fit, will dangerously hazard the troubled soldier. Therefore, to seek him out that still flitteth and follow him that can hardly be found [would be] vain and bootless; but I would divide my men in garrison upon his country in such places as I think must most annoy him.

Which pretty much sums up the English policy in Ireland for hundreds of years.

According to Katharine Simms, an Irish medievalist, two quotations epitomize the situation. The first is from the fourteenth-century French writer Jean Froissart: “It is hard to find a way of making war on the Irish effectively for, unless they choose, there is no one there to fight and there are no towns to be found.” The second is a paraphrase of something an Irish king says in the fourteenth-century Scottish poem “The Bruce” by John Barbour: “Our custom is to pursue and fight and fight when retreating, and not to stand in hand-to-hand conflict until the other side is defeated.”

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