Ireland is known as the Land of Saints and Scholars, as the Emerald Isle, as the Old Sod … . For all its faults, it is the only place in Europe that has never invaded a neighboring or distant land militarily. That doesn’t mean that the Irish weren’t always making war on one other. Still, Ireland itself has been invaded multiple times. But by whom and why? Mystère.
Part I: From Romans to Normans
First we must discuss the invasion that failed to take place, invasion by the Romans. Julius Caesar invaded Britain (Britannia to the Romans, Land of the Celts) not once but twice (55 B.C. and 54 B.C). However, though the last Roman legion didn’t leave Britain until 404 A.D., the Romans never undertook an invasion of Ireland. Why not? Mystère. Well, their name for it, Hibernia, meant “land of winter” which was perhaps reason enough to stay away; cf. the verb “hibernate.” This meant that at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland had not been Romanized and Hellenized the way Gaul and other Celtic lands west of the Rhine or south of the Danube had been.
The first invasion from the East was by Christian missionaries from Britain who came with the purpose of converting the Irish – no mystery there – and by the mid 4th century, the Church had a foothold in Ireland. A major contribution of the Church was the introduction of Latin, the lingua franca of Europe, and even Greek, tools which would at last bring the literature and learning of the Greco-Roman world to Ireland.
In fact, a notable figure in Church History emerged at this time: Pelagius hailed from Ireland (what St. Jerome thought) or Britain (what others think); he was very well educated in both Latin and Greek and, around 350 A.D., went off to Rome to ply the trade of theologian. Pelagius opposed St. Augustine and his grim views on the fall of mankind and predestination (cf. Calvin); instead Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin and preached the need for the individual freely to find his own way to God and salvation – quite a modern viewpoint, really. Unfortunately, Augustine won out and became a saint and a city in Florida, while Pelagius was branded a heretic. However, Pelagius’ writings continued to be cited in the Irish Church during the Middle Ages, which points to a spirit of independence and which raises questions about the Church’s orthodoxy during that period.
In the 5th century, Rome took an interest in Ireland and a Gaul named Palladius was sent by the pope to be the first bishop of the Irish in 431. Patricius, a Brittano-Roman, the man known to us as St. Patrick, was sent the following year. It is tempting to think (and some do) that Palladius and Patricius were sent to combat the Pelagian heresy and shore up orthodoxy in the Irish church, an issue that will come up yet again. Though this version of events does detract some from the glory of St. Patrick, it in no way suggests that he did not drive the snakes out of Ireland.
While the rest of Europe including Britain was plunged into the dark ages and subject to barbarian invasions, the relatively peaceful land of Ireland became a center of monasticism and learning.
By the year 800, however, Viking invaders began to arrive on Irish shores. One of their goals was to plunder monasteries, something they proved uncommonly skilled at; another more constructive goal was to set up settlements in Ireland. They founded towns that still bear Nordic names, such as Wexford and Waterford of crystal fame. These groups eventually merged with the native population and are known to historians as the Norse-Irish. In fact, some classic Irish surnames trace back to the Viking invasions, e.g. MacAulife (Son of Olaf) and MacManus (Son of Magnus).
The year 1066 is remembered for the Norman invasion of England under William of Normandy (Nick Brimble in The Conquerors TV series). The year 1171 is remembered for the Norman invasion of Ireland under Henry II (Peter O’Toole in both The Lion in Winter and Becket). The Normans declared Ireland to be under the rule of the English king, established a feudal system of fiefdoms, built castles, signed treaties, broke treaties, etc. Actually, Henry II already ruled over vast holdings; as Roi d’Angleterre, Duc d’Anjou and Duc de Normandie, he inherited Britain and large areas in France. And then thanks to his marriage to the most powerful woman in Europe, Elėanor d’Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter, Pamela Brown in Becket), his domains were expanded to include southwestern France. All this was called the Empire Angevin. So, land rich already, why did Henry need to launch this invasion? Mystère.
For one thing, Henry was instructed by Pope Adrian IV by means of a formal papal edict Laudabiliter to invade and govern Ireland; the goal was to re-enforce papal authority over the too autonomous Irish Church (nothing new there). Adrian was the only Englishman ever to be Supreme Pontiff ; his being English does suggest that his motives in this affair were “complex.” For another thing, the deposed King of the Irish Province of Leinster, Dairmait Mac Murchada, had come to England in 1166 to seek Henry’s help in winning back his realm and, surely, solidarity among kings was motivation enough! Perhaps though, it was simply to give Henry’s barons more land to lord over – remember it was his son King John, who would be forced to sign the Magna Carta by angry barons at Runnymede in 1215. In any case, by the late 15th century the area under English control was the region around Dublin known as the English Pale. The term pale is derived from an old French word for pike and basically means a stockade; by extension it means any defended delimited area. The expression “beyond the pale” comes from the fact that it was dangerous for the English to venture beyond that area.
Interestingly, a side-effect of the Norman invasions of Ireland was the spread of the patronymic “Fitz” which derives from the French “fils de” meaning “son of” or “Mac” in Gaelic. Thus we have the Irish names FitzGerald, FitzSimmons, FitzPatrick, etc. (The name FitzRoy, meaning “natural son of the king,” is not Irish as such but rather Anglo-Norman in origin.
One more thing: in the 14th century, there was the brief and unsuccessful incursion into Ireland by Edward, the brother of Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfayden in Braveheart, Sandy Welch in The Bruce). This was a Scottish attempt to create a second front in their own struggle against the Anglo-Normans by attacking the English Pale.