A Casual Historie and Commentarie Regarding the Irish Atrocities and Religious Astonishments, Part I: Clontarf to Baginbun

A Casual Historie and Commentarie Regarding the Irish Atrocities and Religious Astonishments, Part I: Clontarf to Baginbun

© 2004 by Patrick O’Neil

The death of Brian Boru at Clontarf in 1014, combined with the adulterous antics of a minor Irish Chieftan, marked the end of prospects for an independent Irish nation. The resulting conflicts and vulnerability invited opportunistic intervention from abroad. It was a predictable pattern, perhaps even inevitable.

The history of conflict in Ireland extends back into the murky and mythical past of the Celtic tribes, far beyond the relatively recent coherence of ecclesiastical records. The various tribes and clans saw themselves more as independent entities, occasionally joining together in greater or smaller units for the sake of resisting invasion or resolving profound questions about who owned the ugliest bull in the neighborhood and other equally urgent concerns.

They saw themselves as unified only in the sense of a common right to occupy national space. To an extent, this vague concept of nation made them both tolerant of foreign culture and vulnerable to organized assault, but for thousands of years, the tribal Irish culture successfully resisted or assimilated invaders, or both.

In 1014, invading Norse and renegade Celts landed at Clontarf, north of Dublin, intent on the subjugation of the Irish clans. They were met and defeated by the forces of the warrior King, Brian Boru, then aged 71. The invasion force that arrived in a hundred ships withdrew in ten, the last time that Ireland could have been considered a united, independent nation.

The story of Brian Boru is a story of intense ambition. Hyperbolically reported to have personally killed “a hundred men in a day,” Boru was neither totally diplomatic, nor totally a nice guy, but he was an effective leader who organized united opposition to the Norse invasion. In a pattern that has come to seem almost inevitable for the Irish, however, through treachery, fortune, or both, the battle deprived the victors of their reigning monarch and insured that there would be no orderly continuation of a national government.

Depending on the account, a force of Norse warriors, either escaping from the battle or following directions from an Irish traitor, discovered the elderly King Brian with a small unit of bodyguards behind the battle lines, The axes of the attacking Norse struck down the High King of the Irish. The killers were quickly overtaken, and by one account, the man whose hand brought down the King of Ireland was tied to a tree with his own intestines for execution, but the damage was done.

For better or worse, the independent Celtic tribes never achieved more than a fragile unity. Despite the victory of the combined Irish forces at Clontarf, the death of Brian brought about internal conflicts between competing Irish leaders.   Even in defeat, the Norse thus insured that the Irish would remain vulnerable to attack for at least the following 1000 years.

In historical terms, the attack was not long in coming. Following Clontarf, the Irish Chieftans enjoyed the freedom to squabble among themselves while squandering the opportunity to prepare for the inevitable. England and the European nations that later became players in the pageant of Irish domination were engaged with their own conflicts. That would not last.

In 1167, the chickens came home to roost by way of Dermot McMurrough, an ambitious minor chieftan and self-styled “King” of Leinster. Mcmurrough got involved with the wife of a neighboring chieftan, Tirnan O’Rourke. Whether by force or cooperation is not clear, but by one means or another, the lady ended up in the company of McMurrough while husband Tirnan was out of town on a pilgrimage.

Dermo relinquished the prize, but Tirnan took it rather personally. Eventually he got an army together and gave Dermot the option to hit the road or join his ancestors. Discretion being the better part of valor, and the lady possibly not being supportive, Dermot took the opportunity for travel abroad.

Dermot was not highly popular in Ireland anyway. There was little prospect of making a comeback without some independent backing, so he appealed to the English King, Henry II, for assistance in return for allegiance. In and of itself, this was not something that alarmed the Irish. It was common practice to go around making temporary arrangements for allies in all kinds of disputes. That was nothing new. It was also common for the Irish to be too preoccupied with their own affairs to predict the potential long-term effects of English intervention, and there was some justification for that attitude also. On the whole, invaders had been either repulsed or assimilated, or both, and the threat was not a serious historical precedent.

King Henry, however, saw some possibilities in an Irish connection. At the time, he was busy arguing with Louis about Normandy and didn’t have resources to mess with the Irish. He did, however, grant Dermot permission to market his cause in the English kingdom. Dermot made connections with an enterprising soldier of fortune cooling his heels in Wales after some bad press, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, also known by the World Warfare Association trade name of “Strongbow.”

Strongbow was a vicious and opportunistic entrepreneur on the down side of an economic bad streak, and needed little encouragement to go adventuring over the Irish Sea. According to legend, he hacked his own son to death for retreat from battle. Whether the legend was more than marketing hype is another fair question, but the legend certainly reflects the popular conception of Strongbow.

He was not a man of niceties. While he seems to have had a reputation as a shrewd and courageous warrior, his aggressiveness and occasional lapses of diplomacy had earned him King Henry’s disapproval. He hesitated to immediately involve himself personally in the Dermot McMurrough enterprise without express royal authorization, but he quickly assembled a force of several hundred well-armed knights, cavalry and archers to undertake an expedition on his behalf while he waited for the royal thumbs-up that would come a few months later. Thus accompanied, Dermot returned to wreak his revenge on the uncooperative Irish chieftans.

Strongbow could have cared less about Dermot McMurrough’s domestic difficulties. Like King Henry, he saw opportunity in Ireland. It was nothing personal against Ireland. It could have as easily have been Scotland or France.   He just wanted an empire. He was a bit over the hill and politically maladjusted to challenge any national entities, but he had a personal army and the killer instinct. All he needed for a token empire was an inside track and royal approval. Dermot McMurrough provided both.

The decisive landing took place in May of 1169, at Bannow in Wexford at the mouth of a little stream. The name of the stream was Baginbun, inspiring the paradoxical rhyme that subsequently served as one of many epitaphs for independent Ireland.

At the stream of Baginbun

Ireland was lost and won.

Word of Strongbow’s landing got around and the Irish, primarily from around Wexford, raised a somewhat casual forces in opposition. There is some possibility that, in accordance with a long pattern of deceptive negotiations, the invaders offered the opposing Irish the opportunity to join the enterprise in return for a share of the proceeds, another common practice that would have seemed normal at the time.

Either in surrender or as a gesture of cooperation, part of the Irish force relinquished their weapons. The Strongbow response was to break their arms and legs and throw the unfortunate victims off the cliffs at Dunmore.

This amiable gesture made an impression on some of the Irish Chieftans. They should probably have recognized the intent represented in the incident, but in fact they continued to look for opportunities to promote their own interests by way of cooperation with the prevailing force. None of them had the independent capability of opposing the English, yet they were persistently suspicious of their neighbors and jealous of any apparent benefit bestowed by the invader. In many cases they were willing to yield for whatever immediate profit might be achieved. They did not see this as disloyal. They saw it as a kind of competition among themselves.

In 1171, King Henry became concerned by the extent of Strongbow’s Irish success. Ordering Strongbow back to England for an accounting and pledge of loyalty, Henry then prepared his own expedition and set out to throw his weight around in Ireland.

The Strongbow invasion established patterns that have characterized the subsequent history of relations with the English. The English repeatedly engaged in predatory occupations of territory. Deception and brutality were typical of these invasions. The Irish have done their part by failing to establish or maintain consistent objectives. Call it a lack of unity, failure of leadership, or indecisiveness, the results have proven a persistent obstacle to establishing independence.

The legendary inability of the Irish to support common objectives has been exceeded only by the consequences. Perhaps the ancient Celtic admiration for individual valor, self-reliance, and personal perfection required of leaders has achieved the curiously ironic result of impeding defense against a crafty, morally flexible, and organizationally adept enemy. Regardless of the morality of historical events, no culture in history has exceeded the ability of the Anglo-Saxon/Norman to organize and adapt for the domination and exploitation of other groups, talents that continued to distinguish the development of numerous colonial enterprises long after the English nation had relinquished direct colonial control.