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The History of Ulster
King John in Ulster


The Earl of Ulster's Predatory Expeditions King John's Second Visit to Ireland Pursues De Lacy into Ulster Seizes Castles at Carlingford and Carrickfergus Aedh O'Neill aids the King- Gradual Blending of "Englishry" and "Irishry" John de Gray, the Justiciar, invades Ulster Repelled by O'Neill The Scottish Colony in Ulster Death of John.

In one respect the English settlers in Ireland may be said to have become more Irish than the Irish themselves, and that was in their pugnacity. The Irish were not the only people who quarrelled amongst themselves at this period, for the great barons, from the newly created Earl of Ulster down, were constantly at war with each other. Judged by present day standards, one would have imagined that, no matter how badly those under him behaved, the Viceroy, at any rate, would be an upholder of law and order. This was not so. In the autumn of 1208 Hugh de Lacy appears to have been Chief Governor of Ireland, and yet we find him at war with the English of Munster, and engaged in a battle fought at Thurles in which his losses are recorded as being very heavy. From many sources we learn that Hugh de Lacy and his half-brother Walter were continually raiding and plundering, and that in consequence of their conduct "all Leinster and Munster were brought to utter destruction".

This state of affairs in Ireland roused the ire of King John, who determined to pay a second visit to the island. For this visit he had a double motive. One, to see for himself how matters stood in Ireland, the other to revenge himself on William de Braose, a baron who had fled to Ireland to escape the King's wrath. De Braose had failed to give hostages when demanded, and his wife had, in the presence of the
King's messengers, given as her reason for not delivering up her son as hostage, that she believed her children would not be safe in the King's hands, inasmuch as he had murdered his nephew Arthur. Such a statement must undoubtedly have aroused John's vindictiveness, and when he heard that William de Braose was harboured by Hugh and Walter de Lacy his wrath knew no bounds.

John landed on 2Oth June, 1210, at Waterford. Here he was joined by the Justiciar, John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich, and a body of Irish troops. He advanced by easy stages to Dublin, where he arrived on the 28th June, and possibly next day gave audience to some barons of Meath who came to plead with the king on behalf of Walter de Lacy. They prayed His Majesty to dissociate him from his brother Hugh, and offered on his behalf complete submission, and besought the King's forgiveness. John, however, was inflexible, and the intercession was of no avail.

With the King was John de Courcy, who, no doubt, was not sorry to see the treacherous De Lacys suffering for their misdeeds. The King pursued Hugh de Lacy northwards, for on the 8th of July we find him at Dundalk. Here his forces were augmented by the enrolment of 400 soldiers who had deserted Hugh de Lacy, and were eager to join the royal troops. De Lacy, "when he found that the King was going north, set fire to his own castles in Dundalk and to those which had been erected by the men of Uriel. He himself fled to Carrickfergus, leaving the chief of his people burning and destroying the castles of the country." The King now went to Carlingford and seized the castle, which belonged to Hugh de Lacy.

From Carrickfergus De Lacy appears to have entered the district in County Down called Lecale, which was very difficult to enter save by a narrow and tortuous passage through the mountains of Mourne. The termination of this defile was guarded by the castle of Dundrum, a magnificent pile then known as the castle of Rath. Here De Lacy considered himself impregnable. But John constructed a bridge of boats across the narrow straits at this point, and sending one-half of his troops across the bridge to advance round the mountains towards the castle, went himself with the other half by sea. De Lacy, seeing himself in danger of being surrounded and his retreat cut off, fled without offering any resistance, leaving the King to include Dundrum in the list of the royal castles.

June the i6th found John at Carrickfergus, which was Hugh de Lacy's strongest castle, and in it the few followers who had remained faithful to him were gathered making active preparations for a siege. But the King's forces soon reduced them to obedience and the castle surrendered, some thirty knights being taken prisoners. Hugh de Lacy and William de Braose, who was with him, however, did not await John's arrival, but escaped in a boat to Scotland. The wife of William de Braose and his two sons were among the fugitives, but were captured by Duncan of Carrick, one of the Galloways of the Scottish settlement in Ulster. When news of this capture reached John he sent John de Courcy for the captives, who were thrown into prison, and on very good evidence we learn that they were starved to death by the King's orders.

John stayed at Carrickfergus from the igth to 28th of July. He fortified and repaired the various castles he had taken from Hugh de Lacy, and sent a force to seize the castle of Antrim. He also gave instructions to De Gray for the building of two galleys to be used on Lough Neagh.

The King now turned southwards, having secured to the crown the Lordship of Ulster by seizing the principal castles and other strongholds. He had achieved his desire to crush William de Braose and the De Lacys, and confiscate their lands. It is true he had not received homage from the princes of Ulster, but this lack of a proper spirit of submission on their part does not appear to have troubled him. The kings of the south and west at his command assisted him in the taking of Carrickfergus, but Aedh O'Neill, the most powerful prince in Ulster, after aiding him in expelling De Lacy, returned home without giving hostages to the King.

John returned to England after a sojourn of sixty-six days, in which he displayed an activity worthy of his father, who was noted for the celerity of his movements. While in Ireland he took some steps to secure the observance of English laws and customs. The administration of the justice of the Crown had been of no avail in the lands of the ruling nobles; these were scenes of lawlessness and bloodshed. There was, as we have seen, no effective central government, and nothing like a nation. As Froude remarked: " Ireland was a theatre for a universal scramble of selfishness, and the invaders caught the national contagion, and became, as the phrase went, ipsis Hibernis Hiberniores" . Strange as it may appear, the glamour of the Celtic disposition cast a subtle spell over their conquerors, whether Danish or Norman, and so deep and far-reaching were its effects that the Government, becoming alarmed, passed statute after statute, forbidding the "Englishry" of Ireland to use the Irish language, or intermarry with Irish families, or copy Irish habits. Severe penalties, fines, forfeitures, and even capital punishment were threatened for such offences; but all in vain. The character of Hugh de Lacy the younger may have largely been due to the fact that his mother was a daughter of Roderick O'Conor. That such an alliance as this marriage of the elder De Lacy was displeasing to King Henry is proved by the fact that the King, on hearing of it, immediately took from him the custody of Dublin.

But these changes, involving the gradual adoption by the "Foreigners", as the Anglo-Normans were called, of Irish customs and of Irish dress, were like all steps in social development, of very slow growth. The change was first discernible in the people of the south and the west, where the once haughty Norman barons "flung away their very knightly names to assume a barbarous equivalent", and by degrees their children lost the commanding features of their northern extraction and became, in look, in dress, in language, and in disposition, indistinguishable from the Celts their fathers had subdued. No doubt this was due in a large measure to children of Norman parents being nursed by Irish foster-mothers, and thus imbibing from their infancy the sentiments of the country in which they were born.

This evolution in the national character greatly helped the realization of the aim that John de Gray, the Justiciar, had in view, of converting the independent Irish kings into feudal chiefs holding their several tribe-lands directly from the crown. Fight amongst themselves as they might, the Irish now seldom rebelled against the authority of the King of England ; and if a tribe became recalcitrant, it proved easier to secure submission by permitting their neighbours to attack them, thus weakening both tribes, than to organize an expedition against them. As the Irish had on many occasions heretofore called on the English to aid them in attempts to conquer their fellow-countrymen, or to be defended from their incursions, so now the Anglo-Normans scattered through the island called on the native tribes with which they were most closely associated for help in any emergency. Thus John when in Ireland secured the services of the most powerful chief in Ulster, Aedh O'Neill, to assist him in expelling Hugh de Lacy; but O'Neill, having done what was required of him, departed without giving hostages to the King.

De Gray, who was called "the Foreign Bishop", proved though a churchman, not alone an able statesman, but also a keen-sighted military strategist. Bent on bringing all Ireland into subjection, he now set himself, no doubt with John's approval, to subdue Ulster. Having secured the allegiance of the Kings of Connaught and of Thomond, he marched north at the head of a large army, and erected a strong castle at Clones (1211), with the object "of taking possession of the North of Erinn", and with the view, no doubt, of establishing a base for action against the chiefs of the province. From Clones, De Gray made an attempt to enter Tirowen, but was driven back and defeated with heavy loss by Aedh O'Neill.

The example of the Viceroy was followed, possibly with his connivance, by the Scots of Galloway, who forced their way as far as Derry, and despoiled Innishowen, the peninsula between Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, which was for centuries debatable land between Cinel Owen and the Cinel Connel. In this the Scots of Galloway were aided by the timely arrival of the Earl of Athol and a fleet of seventy-six ships, so that the incursion was evidently as carefully considered as it was skilfully carried out.

There is little doubt that these expeditions were undertaken with the approval, if not the formal sanction, of the King's representative in Ireland. The capture of the wife of De Braose by Duncan of Carrick, one of the Scots of Galloway, had led to Duncan being rewarded by a grant of lands in Antrim. Duncan's nephew, Alan FitzRoland, Earl of Galloway, who accompanied John's army in Ireland, was recompensed for his services by large grants of land in Ulster, and in 1212 De Gray met Duncan of Carrick as the representative of FitzRonald, and assigned to him, on behalf of the King, the whole north-east of Ulster from the River Foyle to the Glynns of Antrim.

As the Scots grew in power they became increasingly menacing to the peace of the province. That they were encouraged by the Crown to weaken the powers of the Irish is almost certain. Their expeditions against the native princes were nearly always followed by rewards in the shape of grants of territory. In recognition of one of these predatory incursions into Deny the Earl of Athol was granted a portion of land which belonged to O'Neill, and in 1214, after a petty chieftain of the district had been killed, his lands were given to the Earl, who appears to have been able to do pretty well as he liked, for he razed the town of Coleraine in order to build a strong castle, his possession of which, when built, being confirmed to him by John in a charter dated 27th June, 1215. The Earl of Galloway also had his possessions confirmed on the same day. From this it will be seen that the Scottish element in Ulster has existed for centuries. The Scots, being very numerous in the north-east of Ireland, formed a huge clan which in time became as bellicose and unruly as the native princes with whom they were continually at war had been.

O'Neill meanwhile proved unsubduable. Not satisfied with presenting an undaunted front to all encroachments on his territories, he carried war into his enemies' lands, burning Coleraine castle in 1213, and in the following year "dealt a red slaughter" on the foreigners in Ulster. Aedh O'Neill was in fact never subdued. Though his life was a perpetual warfare, and though during his thirty years' reign he was perpetually harassed by enemies from within and from without, by not alone the English but by the Irish and by the Scots, he remained independent, and was to the last "a king who gave neither pledge nor hostage to Foreigner nor Gael".

John died in October, 1216. During the last year of his reign he made a large number of grants to towns and individuals in Ireland, whether to secure their loyalty or to obtain money it is difficult to state. Walter de Lacy, in consideration of a fine of 4000 marks, had restored to him his lands and castles in Ulster, and many of those who had been taken prisoners in the castle of Carrickfergus were restored to liberty and given back their lands on payment of certain fines. Thus, no matter what John's conduct in England may have been, he appears at last to have shown a desire to do justice, though somewhat tardy justice, to his subjects in Ireland.


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