Irish History – an Englishman’s Perspective


Why do I feel a little ‘guilty’ about being English while dwelling, for the moment, in Ireland?

This morning I shared a car ride with a friend – Irish – so I started off our conversation by voicing this feeling and pointing out my ignorance of Irish History, having learned nothing about it during my education years. The ensuing journey then consisted of me listening to an erudite and most entertaining blow-by-blow account… Remember Aenghus, the Red Bard? It was as though he was sitting in the car with me, recounting the history lessons of his seven year apprenticeship in the Bardic School at Dumnea.

Round towers helped to defend against Danish raids

Round towers helped to defend against Danish raids

My personal induction began with the Danes. I hadn’t understood, before, that there had been a ‘special relationship’ between Ireland and Denmark, based on trade and education. This had started in the so called Dark Ages and flourished until the time of the High King Brian Boru (c941 – 1014). I already knew about him – in connection with a harp: the Brian Boru Harp sits in Trinity College, Dublin, along with the Book of Kells. Oh – and a traditional tune: Brian Boru’s March. The relationship became an invasion, and the Danes were despatched by a rare coming together – under Brian Boru – of tribal kingdoms, who afterwards reverted to their more usual squabbles.

Now we come to the time of the Normans – well established in England by the 12th Century – and the only English Pope: Adrian IV – who in 1155 issued a Papal Bull to Henry II of England giving him authority to invade Ireland in order to rein in the dissident church there, who were not toeing the line with Rome on a number of matters. This coincided with a feud between a petty King of Connacht – Tiernan O’Rourke – and Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster. O’Rourke’s wife Derbforghaill was abducted by MacMurrough (but evidently at her own instigation, and during which, while being carried off, she provided realistic and convincing screams). MacMurrough had to flee to Wales from where he beseeched the English King to mobilise the Bull and invade Ireland. This actually suited Henry’s empire building ambitions quite well and he dispatched Strongbow (no – not the cider but the Earl of Pembroke, Richard de Clare) and the result of all this was that the Normans arrived in Ireland – where their descendants have caused disruption ever since. Of course – it’s by no means that simple, and this strand of the story will have to be amplified in a future post….

kilcoe2Confused? Well – I haven’t even mentioned Cromwell or William of Orange yet! But perhaps that’s better left until another time… And where does West Cork fit into this jigsaw puzzle? It seems that it was so far away from Dublin and Cork that it didn’t feel the ripples of what was going on for a long time, and local politics were largely sorted out between the O’Driscolls and the O’Mahonys (descended directly from Brian Boru) who built a line of castles along the coast and did very nicely out of charging dues from the Spanish and Portuguese fishermen who reaped an abundant harvest from the seas of those days. And – perhaps surprisingly – the clans built up a reputation for scholarship and knowledge of the arts and sciences. Just around the corner from Ard Glas is an actively disintegrating stone ruin, a single teetering wall: this was the home of the famous ‘Scholar Prince’ Finian O’Mahon, Chief of Rosbrin who lived in the late 15th Century and who was described then as one of the most learned men of his time – not just in Ireland but Europe and beyond. Across the water and central to our view is Kilcoe Castle – formerly an O’Driscoll stronghold: some years ago it was superbly restored and is now the home of actor Jeremy Irons. In order to prevent the ingress of damp (which seems to have been an essential feature of castle life in the Middle Ages), he has treated the walls with an external render which glows yellow, orange and gold as the sun moves round. It is visually prominent in the land and seascape, and this was no doubt an essential element of all the castles in those days when Kings and clansmen had to project their status in order to shore up their often precarious positions in society.

7 thoughts

  1. Hi Robert, I enjoyed starting my day with such a good read, cup of coffee in hand! Doug and I loved the course we followed last year on the Vikings so it was fun to revisit the Irish connection.


  2. You must have taken notes to remember all those details.
    Can’t wait to hear the Irish view on Cromwell as I have been reading Antonio Fraser’s wonderful biography of the man.


  3. I loved this informative and entertaining post. More like this please!
    Weren’t the normans french? In which case we can all feel a little less guilty…


  4. Robert, we loved this account of Irish history. This is sure much, much more that we knew and are finding it very interesting! Can’t wait to see what comes next. I have Irish roots on my dad’s side going back to County Cork and to one of the many members of a Kennedy clan.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.