By Jack Holland
I was amused to see about a week ago a report from the New York Times’ Ireland correspondent James Clarity about the Irish Troubles which mentioned Strongbow’s invasion. Now tell me this: is there another contemporary political struggle in the world today about which if one were writing a report it would be appropriate to mention an event in 1169?
The event was the invasion of Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow, who dispatched a force of some 600 knights, foot soldiers and archers into Bannow Bay, in southeastern Ireland. It arrived in May, and Strongbow himself followed three months later.
My amusement stems from the fact that Strongbow’s invasion is frequently portrayed as the start of the war between England and Ireland and the beginning of the sorry tale which has dominated Ireland’s history and continues to do so, even as we approach the beginning of the next millennium.
However, things are not really so straightforward – in history they rarely are.
Strongbow, as his real name testifies, had no English blood in him. He was a French-speaking Norman, part of a warlike people who had a hundred years earlier subjugated England and killed its king. The reigning monarch, King Henry the Second, who authorized the invasion, was French, lived most of his life in France, and undertook the task of bringing the Irish to heel in order to please the pope. It would be interesting to know how many people in the invasion force even spoke English – or the version of Anglo-Saxon that would become English in the coming centuries. Their names suggest that few did, certainly not as a first language. Among them were Prendergast, Fleming, Roche, Cheevers, and Synott, names which indicate French, Fleming and Welsh origin. Later, they would become part of Irish history.
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As another indication of the complexity of the situation back in 1169, the first troops who opposed Strongbow’s forces were a group of Norsemen who were occupying the town of Wexford. The Norsemen were amazed when they realized that this was no ordinary gathering of Celtic warriors swinging axes and broadswords. They were driven back into the town and soon surrendered.
We now must consider the fact that the first people to fight for Irish freedom were not even Irish, but Vikings. Yet their names do not appear on any republican roll of honor that I know of.
Of course, the name that definitely does appear on the Irish Roll of Dishonor is that of Dermot MacMurrough, the man who appealed to Henry the Second to invade Ireland and restore him to his kingdom from which he had been ousted in 1166. Dermot is cast as the scoundrel who opened the door to Ireland’s conquest, hence his everlasting infamy in the annals of Irish nationalism. However, as early as 1155 the king had already contemplated the invasion on behalf of the pope, and would no doubt have carried it through, Dermot MacMurrough or no Dermot MacMurrough.
1,091 years earlier, MacMurrough had been very nearly preceded by another Irish chieftain who sought help from the Roman governor of Britain, Julius Gn’ous Agricola. The unnamed chieftain from Ulster offered to guide the Roman fleet into the safest harbors of the northeast in return for a promise that he be restored to his kingdom. Agricola was preparing to launch an invasion when the emperor Domitian intervened and blocked his proconsul’s plans.
If the invasion had gone ahead, there is no doubt as to what the result would have been – Rome’s legions were almost unbeatable in the field of battle. But just think of the long-term consequences. For a start, we would have to begin our history of the troubles in A.D. 78. (It boggles the mind to consider how much longer all those tomes about Northern Ireland would be. Bowyer Bell’s