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The History of Ulster
The Earldom of Ulster


FitzAudelin appointed Procurator - Arrival of John de Courcy - He enters Ulster and takes Downpatrick - Defeats MacDunlevy, King of Ulster - Battle of Down - Prince John visits Ireland - His Mission a Failure - De Courcy's Doings in Ulster - His Lands confiscated - Hugh de Lacy created Earl of Ulster.

On the death of Strongbow, Raymond assumed the position of procurator in Ireland until the King's will should be known. Henry, always of a very jealous disposition, and suspicious of his barons lest by any chance they should grow too great to be subdued, had never trusted Raymond. Le Gros was of a frank and free nature, liberal and honest, but he had enemies who were envious of his success and seized every opportunity to traduce him. Under these circumstances it is not strange that Henry, on learning of Strongbow's death, and distrusting Raymond, should send William FitzAudelin (who had held office previously in 1173) to be procurator instead of Raymond, with instructions to seize for the King all the castles belonging to the Earl in Leinster.

Raymond, on FitzAudelin being appointed Viceroy, was deprived of all authority, civil or military, and retired to his estates in Wexford, where he died in 1182.

With FitzAudelin came Miles de Cogan and Robert FitzStephen, who had accompanied Henry when he left Ireland, and had no doubt done good service for the King in France and in England. They were now to reap their reward in Ireland. With them came John de Courcy, who now first set foot on Irish soil.

FitzAudelin was descended from a half-brother of William the Conqueror, and was therefore connected with Henry, who appears to have placed great confidence in him, and given him several offices under the crown. Giraldus describes him as "a man full of guile, bland and deceitful, much given to wine and women covetous of money and ambitious of Court favour". He was an over-cautious man, and damped the ardour of such enterprising spirits as Raymond and FitzStephen, and in the end his viceroyalty was not a success, and he was recalled (1178).

Of those who chafed under FitzAudelin's rule John de Courcy was the most notable. He was a tall, fair man, muscular, of great strength and remarkable daring. He possessed the qualities of a soldier rather than of a commander, for he was so keen a combatant that he forgot the aplomb of the general, and plunged impetuously into the thick of the fight. Such a man was not likely to long remain quiescent. King Henry, whose ebullience often cost him dear (witness his unguarded exclamation which resulted in the murder of Becket), had said to De Courcy, as he had already said to Strongbow half-jestingly, that he might take Ulster if he could. With a lively recollection of this utterance De Courcy prepared to carry it into effect. Gathering round him some of the more adventurous spirits in the garrison of Dublin, he, with a little band of 22 men-at-arms and about 500 others, and gathering as he went malcontents of all kinds, boldly advanced into Ulster, where hitherto the arms of the English had not penetrated. Marching rapidly through Drogheda and Dundalk, he took by surprise the city of Downpatrick, which was then the chief seat of the Kings of Ulidia. The resistance of the Ulster men could not but be feeble, and the King of the district, named Rory MacDunlevy, precipitously fled, only to return at the head of an army of 10,000 men.

A peaceable settlement was attempted by Cardinal Vivian, who happened to be in Downpatrick on his way to Dublin. He had come from Rome as papal legate, and he endeavoured to get the opposing forces to come to terms by offering, on the part of the Ulster chiefs, to acknowledge the sovereignty of King Henry and pay him tribute if De Courcy would withdraw his men and return to Dublin. His efforts, however, were fruitless, and, seeing that war was inevitable, he is said to have urged the Irish to fight for their country.

In a week MacDunlevy returned with his huge army, determined to win his own again. De Courcy is said to have had only 700 men. They met on the low-lying district north of the city, which at the time consisted of swampy ground. Here a battle ensued in which the deadly crossbows did their work so effectively that De Courcy, notwithstanding the great odds, won a decisive victory. This victory he followed up later in a battle fought on the 24th of June, also at Down. On this occasion Rory MacDunlevy was not alone. As King of the Ulidians he was supported by Melaghlin O'Neill, King of the Cinel Owen. The Church was represented on the battle-field by the Archbishop of Armagh and a large number of the clergy, including the Bishop of Down, who displayed numerous relics in the hope of securing success. The result of this encounter is variously estimated at from 500 to 1500 men killed. "The Archbishop of Armagh, the Bishop of Down, and all the clergy were taken prisoners, and the English secured the croziers of St. Comgall and St. Dachiarog, the 'Book of Armagh', and a bell called 'Ceolan an Tighearna'. The bishops were later set at liberty, and the 'Book of Armagh' was restored, with
the bell, but they killed all the inferior clergy, and kept the other noble relics."

A third engagement took place in 1178 at Fir-Li, a tribal district on the Bann, in the north of Antrim. De Courcy was raiding cattle, when he was set upon by O'Flynn, the chief of the territory he was plundering, in a narrow pass, and barely escaped with his life, his troops being cut down by the Irish in such numbers that it was said there were but eleven survivors. Later, at Newry, De Courcy met the combined forces of O'Carroll of Uriel and Rory MacDunlevy, and sustained a loss of nearly 500 men.

Knowing the superstitious nature of the Irish, De Courcy spread abroad a legend to the effect that a prophecy of Merlin was fulfilled in his advent. The prediction was supposed to be to the effect that Ulster would be conquered by a white knight mounted on a white charger, and having on his shield graven figures of birds. He took care in dress and accoutrements to pose as the white knight, and thus gained credence for the tale, which, in addition to a prophecy of St. Columba that a needy and broken man, a stranger from a far country, should come to Down with a small following and possess himself of-the city, had its weight in a credulous age, and no doubt in some measure furthered his claim to be heavensent. As the news of his exploits spread he was reinforced from Dublin by large numbers of adventurers sick of FitzAudelin's pacific rule.

While De Courcy from his stronghold in Downpatrick carried war into the surrounding districts, the Ulster princes continued to fight amongst themselves as if there were no enemy in their midst. The various septs were much weak- ened by this state of constant warfare, and thereby laid themselves open to become an easy prey to De Courcy, who lost no opportunity to widen his borders; accordingly we find a new English settlement near Derry, and mote castles (wooden towers erected on artificial mounds of earth) dotted all over the adjacent country.

In 1180 De Courcy strengthened his position by marrying Affreca, daughter of Gottred, King of Man. By this alliance he gained a powerful friend in Gottred, and was enabled to keep open communication by sea with Dublin, and also with England, a fact which proved of incalculable advantage to him in later years.

The hostile spirit of the various Irish tribes towards each other continued without any abatement. Thus we find, in 1181, the Cinel Connel engaged in a sanguinary struggle with the kingdom of Connaught, in which "were killed sixteen sons of kings of Connaught, and stark slaughter of Connaught besides". Even the presence of their common enemy did not serve to animate the princes of Ulster to combine and sink their differences, for the Cinel Owen in this very same year (1181), under their king, Donnell O'Loughlin, "gained a battle over the Ulidians, and over Ui Tuirtri, and over Fir-Li around Rory MacDunlevy and Cumee O'Flynn". Both these chiefs had been De Courcy's most formidable opponents; therefore, by their action, the Cinel Owen were actively assisting the invader. The result of this and subsequent raids into Ulidia by the Cinel Owen, in which they "took many thousands of cows", is seen in the significant fact that the Ulidians, unable to cope with their neighbours, appealed to De Courcy to help them, and when Donnell O'Loughlin made his next raid, in 1182, he was met and defeated by De Courcy's troops.

Little by little the superior arms and strong government of De Courcy made an impression on the people, who gradually settled down, more or less contentedly, under his protection. Recognizing the civilizing power of the Church, John de Courcy did much for the spiritual advancement of his subjects; for such, remembering his unlimited jurisdiction, we may call them. He reigned supreme in the territory he had won, and was not in any way interfered with by either King or Viceroy. In his relations with the Church he was princely in his munificence, as a long list of his gifts to the See of Down proves. He introduced Benedictine monks into Down, and granted large tracts of land to others, besides endowing religious houses of various kinds.

In 1184 Henry carried out a design he long had contemplated, by carrying into effect the appointment of his son John as Lord of Ireland. There is even evidence that at one time Henry thought of having John crowned King of Ireland. This idea, however, luckily came to nothing; but at the Council of Oxford, in May, 1177, John, then a boy of ten, had been, with the authority of the Pope, constituted "Dominus Hiberniae", and as such all those to whom grants of land were made had done homage to him and taken the oath of fealty.

Laurence OToole, the archbishop, had died in 1180, and had been succeeded by John Comyn, and now (1184) Henry once more recalled Hugh de Lacy, and appointed Philip of Worcester as procurator. In the following year Philip invaded Armagh, and exacted a heavy tribute from the clergy. What the object of this expedition may have been is uncertain, but the Annals of Ulster record that "Philip of Worcester, accompanied by the Foreigners of Erin, remained at Armagh for six days in the middle of Lent".

John landed in Waterford on 24th April, 1185, having with him 300 knights and a large force of men-at-arms. Immediately on his arrival the Irish chiefs in the neighbourhood came to welcome and pay homage to him. Instead of behaving with becoming dignity, John appears to have derided his Irish subjects, and it is said that their beards were rudely pulled in ridicule by the clean-shaven Norman members of his retinue. The Irish, ever proud and sensitive, withdrew in anger at this treatment, and carried their grievances to the kings of the south and west of Ireland, with the result that John's visit to Ireland proved a disastrous failure. He returned to England on I7th December, having, in the short period of eight months, undone all that King Henry had by his admirable diplomacy succeeded in doing.

Henry, no doubt recognizing the failure of John's mission to Ireland, and possibly dreading an outbreak of hostilities as a result of his son's flippant treatment of the Irish chiefs, bethought him of John de Courcy, and forthwith appointed him Justiciar. De Courcy accordingly transferred the scene of his activities from Downpatrick to Dublin. His followers in Ulster, however, continued as belligerent as ever, and we read of raids into Tirowen (1188), followed by a battle in which O'Loughlin was slain, and in 1189 of an engagement between the English, who had entered Fermanagh, and O'Carroll of Uriel and O'Mahony, Lord of Fermanagh, in which the latter was killed and the English were victorious.

In 1189 Henry II died. He was succeeded by his son, Richard Cceur de Lion, who paid no attention to his Irish dominions, and but little to his possessions in either England or Normandy, but sought a wider field for his activities in the Third Crusade. While Richard was abroad, John reigned at home, and one of his first acts was to supersede De Courcy and appoint Hugh de Lacy, a son of the first Viceroy, to take his place. De Courcy retired to Downpatrick, and in the very year of his retirement, for some inexplicable reason, plundered Tirowen and, in the following year, Armagh.

The history of Ulster for the next fifteen years is little more than the record of De Courcy's doings. Ever ambitious, he never ceased in his endeavours to extend his borders. Two of his chief opponents, O'Carroll of Uriel and Cumee O'Flynn, were removed, the former by a violent, the latter by a natural death. Life to De Courcy was a perpetual warfare. The years 1197 to 1199 were spent by him in unending conflict with the Irish and in building castles to hold them in check. In 1197 his brother, Jordan de Courcy, was killed by an Irishman of his household, and this piece of treachery seems to have embittered John. He avenged his brother's death on some of the petty chiefs, and gave large tracts of their land to a Scotsman named Duncan Galloway, who aided him. There was, it appears, a Scottish settlement near Coleraine, where large grants were made later by King John to the Scots of Galloway.

John de Courcy's independent rule in Ulster seems to have roused the envy of Hugh de Lacy, who appears to have misrepresented him to John as being engaged "in destroying the King's land in Ireland". It is possible that De Courcy refused to pay homage to John, and claimed his holding in Ulster as an independent kingdom. Whatever his offence may have been, John de Courcy was treacherously arrested by De Lacy in 1201, and was to have been delivered up to the King, but that his followers obtained his release by undertaking not to plunder the De Lacy lands in future. De Courcy seems from this time to have been a marked man. We read of his getting safe-conducts to and from the King's Court "to treat of peace". These he seems to have ignored. Two years later De Lacy came north and defeated him in a battle at Downpatrick, and banished him from Ulster. On the 3ist of August, 1204, he was summoned to appear before King John, "as he had sworn and given hostages to do", and in default his lands were to be confiscated. As De Courcy ignored this mandate, Hugh de Lacy again repaired to Ulster, and after a struggle took De Courcy prisoner. He was again set at liberty on condition that he went to the Holy Land; but he did not go. Finally the King's patience was exhausted, and on the 2Qth of May, 1205, he granted to Hugh de Lacy all the land of Ulster, to hold of the King in fee. John at the same time created De Lacy Earl of Ulster.


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