Chapter Two

The internal disputes between various Irish leaders erupted spectacularly in the next stage in Irish history:  in the mid-1100’s, two competing Irish Kings, Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster and Rory O’Connor of Connacht, feuded over the high kingship of Ireland.  O’Connor won his bid for the high kingship, and MacMurrough was sent into exile.  He then sought aid from Henry II, the Angevin emperor and King of England, and invited the British Earl of Pembroke, subsequently known as Strongbow, to invade part of Ireland and help him subdue his rival. Strongbow conquered much of the east, including Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin. Henry II wanted to insure that his lords did not set up an independent, rival kingdom in Ireland; hence Henry subsequently claimed the conquered lands as English domains. When O’Connor formally submitted to Henry in 1175 (thereby becoming the last High King in Irish history), the English conquest of Ireland (and the first holding in the future British Empire) had begun.

During the next two centuries English occupation in Ireland consolidated itself, and the English married and mingled with the “native” Irish to form the Old Anglo-Irish or Old English, the elite ruling class who constituted the great earldoms of the 14th century. Though English by descent, this class soon considered itself Irish, so much so that an anxiety arose among the English about the “gaelicization” of the Anglo-Irish, resulting in the passage of the “Statutes of Kilkenny” in 1366. These statutes mandated the use of the English language, not Irish, required horses to be ridden in the English manner, set up English legal codes and traditions, and enacted other means to maintain the divide between native Irish and Anglo-Irish. Thus a distinct class division was maintained between the native Irish and their foreign, though somehow now “Irish,” rulers.

This “class” division between the elite Anglo-Irish and the native Irish became a stark religious division with the Reformation and the declaration by Henry VIII in 1534 that England would no longer acknowledge the Catholic Church.  This led to the establishing of the Church of England or Anglican Church, thereby making England a Protestant nation. The native Irish, and many of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, refused to follow this split from Rome, and so the division between Irish and English became also a division between Catholic and Protestant.

This split created turmoil in both English and Irish politics throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) restored Catholicism, and Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) then restored Protestantism.  (For the major English monarchs during the 16th-18th centuries, see “English Kings and Queens.”) Under Elizabeth’s rule, the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity were passed, making the Anglican Church the “official” Irish Church (now called “the Church of Ireland”), enforcing strict Anglican rule, and suppressing the rights and privileges of Catholics. Such policies resulted in several rebellions in the late 16th century by great Irish and Anglo-Irish aristocratic families:  the Desmond Rebellion from 1579-1583, which resulted in the destruction of the Fitzgerald earldom and the “repeopling” of nearly 575,000 acres of land in Munster by English settlers; and most prominently the rebellion of the O’Neills of Ulster, who won a great victory over the English at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598, but were decisively defeated at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Finally in 1607 the Earls of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill) and Tyrconnell (Rory O’Donnell), the last of the native Irish aristocracy–still Catholic and tied to the Irish people–fled the country for the continent. This “Flight of the Earls” or “Flight of the Irish Princes” becomes a paradigm in Irish thought for the abandonment of the country by the very leaders who needed to save it. But in the Irish cultural memory, always there would linger a hope that Ireland’s departed sons would return to defeat the invader and restore Ireland to her greatness.

Read the 17th-century lament, “After the Flight of the Earls” (New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, p.162)