Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Edward Bruce, King of Ireland

The Norman nobles left by Henry II. in Ireland, added nothing to the peace of that kingdom. The Lord-Deputy never had a very large army to help him in the task of keeping order, and the barons were nearly as indifferent to his authority as to that of the king "across the water." The native chiefs continued to fight each other, the barons had fierce quarrels too, and the invaders lived like men in an enemy's territory, trying to win new lands and plundering without shame.

King John came in haste to quell his subjects of Ireland. Though he only stayed sixty days he acted so vigorously that even the Norman barons submitted for the time, and several Irish chiefs paid homage. At the close of John's reign, the same chiefs made some sort of stand for their rights, and in the reign of Henry III. there was a general revolt against English government. At the same time, civil war raged in Ireland, the War of Meath, the War of Kildare, and the struggle for the throne of Connacht.

A warrior from Scotland, also asserting independence, received a warm welcome when he landed at Larne in 1315 (A.D.) with a band of fighting men. Perhaps he was inspired by his brother Robert's glorious victory of Bannockburn, or perhaps he was jealous of such sovereignty, and desired a kingdom of his own. He found many allies at once among the northern Irish, who looked upon the Scotch as neighbours. With these friends he plundered Ulster, burning and destroying so wastefully that even food was spoilt, while people starved all through the country. He moved southwards to attack Dundalk, the principal garrison of the English, who assembled in force to defend it. A party sent out to reconnoitre brought back the news that the Scots would be but "half a dinner to them." The Scots were never served as a banquet, for they stormed the town with vigour, displaying all their banners, and then were able to feast victorious on the wine and victual that their foes left in their stampede from Dundalk.

After this success, Edward Bruce was crowned King of Ireland without unnecessary ceremony. He defeated an army raised by Richard De Burgo, the Red Earl of Ulster, at the battle of Connor, and marching into Meath routed an English army at Kells. In 1316 he gained a victory over the army of the Lord-Deputy at Ardscull.

The Irish could not unite against their conquerors, and were uncertain allies to Edward Bruce. Joined by the O'Briens of Thomond, he marched to Athenry, where the English crossbows did fatal damage in 1316.

As Bruce laid siege to Carrickfergus for the second time, his brother Robert arrived and found the English reduced to eating hides, and even the bodies of the Scots they had made prisoners. The brave garrison were at last forced to surrender on condition that their lives should be spared.

Early in the spring of 1317, the two brothers set out for Dublin, destroying as they went all that came their way. The citizens were bold in the defence of this city under the mayor, Robert Nottingham, who had held office seventeen times. The Earl of Ulster was father-in-law to Robert Bruce, and the citizens made him a hostage for the safety of Dublin. This ruse was successful—the Scots army turned aside.

After Robert Bruce returned to his own kingdom, the final battle was fought near Dundalk between King Edward and Sir John Bermingham, the English leader. The Bishop of Armagh blessed the enterprise of the English army before they met the foe. The death of Edward decided the conflict, which raged fiercely. He was slain by Maupas, a knight, after a struggle at close quarters. Maupas paid with his own life, and was found on the body of the king.

Edward Bruce's head, salted and placed with other heads in a chest, was set before the King of England at a royal banquet. The "dainty dish" caused the monarch little emotion, for he watched complacently the horrified rush of Scottish ambassadors from the table, and expressed himself "right glad to be rid of a felon foe." He rewarded Bermingham with the earldom of Louth and the kingdom of Ardee, rejoicing that the battle of Dundalk had made an end of Scottish rule in Ireland.

The Irish people were left to carry on resistance to English oppression in their own way, yet the late disasters had done much to limit the English rule. Bruce had been a friend of O'Neill, chief of the northern Irish, and had helped him to keep up the customs of "gossipred" and "fosterage," which were against the laws of the new rulers. The English gradually lost all hold on Ulster, and year by year their power diminished as the settlers began to intermarry with the natives, and made common cause with them. Some of the greatest English nobles took Irish names, and declared themselves independent of England. Only the Pale or district round Dublin remained faithful to recent conquests, and had to pay Black Rent to Irish chiefs on the borders for their own defence.

In 1361, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, came on a visit to Ireland. He thought all the trouble was caused by the busy intercourse of native and settler, and determined to stop it by law. The statute of Kilkenny, passed in 1367, forbade intermarriage, fosterage, and gossipred. It was against the law henceforward to use, the Irish dress or language, to ride a horse without a saddle, or adopt any other Irish custom. Nobody was to entertain in his house bards, pipers story-tellers or mowers, because they were often spies on the English. The old Brehon laws were to pass out of use, and English must be spoken even by those who did not know it!

Lionel's rule was a failure, and his want of sympathy with the Irish made him unable to go through with his reforms. They became mere forms disregarded by the Irish nation as they grew more and more beyond control.