On the 700th anniversary of the Scottish Invasion of Ireland

It’s become a trope that Ireland is currently into a “decade of anniversaries”. From Clontarf to the Somme to the Easter Rising, there will be many events to stir up old hatreds, giving us more excuses to pick at old scabs and point accusing fingers at each other. One anniversary that seems to be slipping by relatively unmarked is Edward Bruce’s ill-fated invasion of Ireland, which this May sees the 700th anniversary of.

Perhaps it’s because the whole episode is so messy that we don’t seem to want to remember it. It’s not as black and white as we like things to be. People we would expect to fight for one side appear to have fought for the other. “The English” seems to have typically Irish names. The Scots should have been liberators but seemed to act more like conquerors. The Irish seem to be fighting on both sides. Its all so inconvenient from our modern points of view. There’s nothing in the story we could use to batter the other side with and when we try to shoe-horn it into modern perspectives the realities keep popping out like bunions to disturb our certainties about the past.

On the other hand, it’s a fantastic tale, full of daring exploits, heroism and brutality, chivalry and it even involves a pirate. It was these elements that drew me to the conflict and why I wanted to set my medieval series of novels (Lions of the Grail and the Waste Land) during it. 
The Waste Land

As we all know from the movie Braveheart, in 1314 Mel Gibson kicked the English out of Scotland and invented freedom. Sorry I’m getting flippant. In June of 1314, after years of bitter guerrilla war, Robert Bruce won a decisive victory against the English army under Edward II at Bannockburn. What Mel forgot to tell us was the first thing the Scots did on freeing themselves was to invade Ireland. In May of 1315 they landed at Larne in County Antrim, which in those days was called “Wulfrich’s Ford” - an echo of the viking heritage of the place. As an invasion point it makes sense. The sea crossing is so narrow the other island is clearly visible to the naked eye from either shore. Larne forms a natural harbour that until recently was the main port that the ferry to and from Scotland sailed from. The army was probably carried across the sea in birlinns, a form of highland galley not unlike a viking longship. The invasion force was supposedly six thousand strong, organised into two “battles” (a medieval military formation) and consisted of hardy spearmen, veterans of Bannonckburn. It was led by Robert Bruce’s brother Edward, the Earl of Carrick. 

Their landing unleashed three years of conflict and devastation across Ireland that left it in ruins for generations. One Gaelic chronicle recounts:

“For in this Bruce's time, for three years and a half, falsehood and famine and homicide filled the country, and undoubtedly men ate each other in Ireland”

Their first target was Carrickfergus, a key strategic castle for the Norman Earldom of Ulster. Awkwardly, the owner of the castle, Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, was Robert Bruce’s father in law. I think facts like this highlight the nature of warfare in medieval times. What we see as titanic struggles between nations at the top level of society was really more akin to deadly family feuds. Much of the nobility of England, Scotland and Ireland were direct descendants of the knights who accompanied William the Conqueror across the English Channel in 1066. Nearly all of them spoke Norman French as their first language. The western edges of the British Isles aside, they were also starting to merge with the remaining Gaelic and Welsh aristocracy and the process by which fils Geralds would become FitzGeralds, De Burghs become Burkes, Le Powers become Powers and de Brus become Bruce was already underway. 
A 14th Century (possibly Gallowglass) helmet, Ulster Museum

It started out well for Edward Bruce. He annihilated the army of Ulster at the battle of Connor (now Kells in Antrim). John Barbour, the biographer of Robert Bruce, recorded the event within living memory of it happening. He paints a vivid and gruesome picture of the battle with the clash of arms, the shouts of men and the screaming of stabbed horses:

“The lords of that country [Ulster], Mandeville, Bysset, and Logan, assembled their men. De Savage also was there. Their whole gathering was well nigh twenty thousand men..Their enemies drew near to battle, and they met them without flinching. Then was to be seen a great melee. Earl Thomas and his host drove so doughtily at their foes, that in a short time a hundred were to be seen lying all bloody. The Irish horses, when they were stabbed, reared and flung, and made great room, and threw their riders. Sir Edward's company then stoutly joined the battle, and all their enemies were driven back. If a man happened to fall in that fight, it was a perilous chance if he rose again. The Scots bore themselves so boldly and well in the encounter that their foes were overwhelmed, and altogether took flight. In that battle were taken or slain the whole flower of Ulster.”

(modern English translation)

The Scots then besieged Carrickfergus castle. However, in a seemginly unbelievable lack of strategic planning, Edward Bruce had not brought any siege engines with him so all he could do was blockade the fortress and wait for starvation to force the garrison into surrender. 

Somewhat prematurely, Edward now had himself declared King of Ireland. Domnal Ui Neill (O’Neill), King of Tyrone, Bruce’s main ally throughout the invasion submitted to Edward as King along with twelve other northern Gaelic Kings. A Gaelic chronicle relates how Bruce "took the hostages and lordship of the whole province of Ulster without opposition and they consented to him being proclaimed King of Ireland and all the Gaels of Ireland.” The fact that they had to submit “hostages” is interesting and perhaps a hint at what was to come. 

Bruce’s army then pushed south, only to be ambushed outside Newry by the forces of two of those Gaelic kings who had supposedly sworn fealty to him. He defeated them, burned the de Verdun’s fortress at Castle Roche then fell upon the town of Dundalk. When they took the town, they also took several merchant ships which had arrived with a consignment of wine. Soldiers and alcohol is usually an inflammable mix and an orgy of destruction followed. They burned the town to the ground and slaughtered all the inhabitants, both Anglo-Irish and Gaelic alike. Barbour recounts how the streets were slick with the blood of the slain. This indiscriminate drunken massacre set the tone for the rest of the war and perhaps explains the reluctance of the Irish from then on to fully commit to supporting the Scottish army.

War raged up and down the island for the next three years. Even by medieval standards, the Scots behaved appallingly. They burned towns, friaries and farms, pursuing what seems to have been a scorched earth policy. The bitterness left by the indiscriminate nature of their aggression is clear in both Anglo Norman and Gaelic chronicles. Their reasoning for this strategy seems unfathomable, as it seems obvious that there should have been a lot of people in Ireland who should have welcomed them as liberators from the yoke of the English Crown, certainly enough to make victory certain. Yet the actions of the Scottish army clearly alienated them from that source of support. The Kingdon of Tyr Chonnail (modern Donegal) remained steadfastly aloof, refusing to take either side. Other Irish kings actively fought against the Scots.

Equally unclear are the motives for the invasion in the first place. On the face of it, there was much talk of a pan-Gaelic alliance and hands across the Irish sea to free cousins from oppression. “Greater and Lesser Scotia”(Scotland and Ireland) would be united under one king (Edward Bruce) and then join forces with the Welsh against the common English enemy. 

On the other hand, Robert Bruce was probably also quietly happy to have his ambitious brother out of the way and fully occupied in Ireland rather than a potential rival in his own newly won Kingdom. Edward Bruce’s own ambitions seem clear: almost as soon as he arrived in Ireland he had himself declared King. A year later he asked the Welsh Kings if they wanted him to become  Prince of Wales as well (they turned him down). Ireland had also been providing a supply of grain and warriors to the English Crown in its wars in Scotland. Despite what Mel Gibson wants us to think, while the MacCarthy’s sent a contingent of troops to fought for Bruce at Bannockburn, the majority of the Irish who took part in the Scottish Wars of Independence fought with distinction for the other side, something Bruce probably wanted to put a stop to.  

Like all wars, this long forgotten one had many acts of bravery and desperation. For most of the three years of war Edward’s army seemed unbeatable in open battle though he never seemed to be able to win complete victory. Sir Thomas de Mandeville launched a desperate seaboarne assault to try to break the siege of Carrickfergus castle. On the Scottish side Sir Neil Flemming, his small force completely outnumbered stayed in the town to fight the raiders until the rest of the Scottish army was mustered.Both men lost their lives in the street fighting. The O’Dempsey clan, supposed allies, lead Bruce’s army southward into a carefully laid ambush. They diverted a river into the Scottish camp and attacked them, drowning or killing two hundred men. The clans of the Glens of Antrim killed four hundred of the Scottish army in hit and run attacks. When faced with the approach of the Scottish army, the citizens of Dublin destroyed half their own city, tearing down all the buildings north of the river to leave no cover for the advancing enemy and using the recovered stones to shore up the city walls. The savagery of the conflict is perhaps best personified by an incident that happened in Carrickfergus in June of 1316. A year after the war began, the castle was still under siege. The starving garrison said they wanted to surrender and a Scottish delegation went to the castle gate to receive their capitulation. Instead of surrendering, the garrison rushed out, seized nine of the Scots and pulled them inside the castle. They later ate them.

Incredibly, all this happened during the one of the worst famine in European history. Sudden climate change in 1315 caused widespread crop failures across the continent and continual rain caused stored fodder to rot. The price of grain rose rapidly and people began to die in great numbers. Weakened by hunger, disease took a further toll on the population and combined with the ongoing war it must have seemed like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had come. An English poem from 1321, “on the Evil Times of Edward II”, said: 
“Whii werre and wrake in londe and manslauht is i-come,
Whii hunger and derthe on eorthe the pore hath undernome,
Whii bestes ben thus storve, whii corn hath ben so dere,

“Why war, destruction and murder has come to the land,
Why hunger and famine have seized the poor,
Why animals starve, why corn is so dear,

Danse Macabre

Forced to live off the land and feed his army by taking what little food there was from the indigenous population, this must have deepened the unpopularity of Edward Bruce’s army and led even more to the perception of them as an occupying force that one of liberation.

A BBC article on the war recently described Bruce’s Irish adventure as “Medieval Scotland’s Vietnam” and the analogy is probably a good one. Personally I believe a lot of blame lies on the shoulders of Edward Bruce himself. Although one chronicler described him as “brave as a leopard” (ironically the same animal that in his day was used as the nickname for another Edward, Edward I of England, the infamous “Longshanks”, Hammer of the Scots) from what can be discerned from the chronicles, Edward seems to have lacked all the qualities that made his brother Robert great. Vengeful, seemingly pitiless, impetuous and headstrong, these traits seems to have governed Edward’s personality. Although a successful commander of one of the battalions at Bannockburn, as a general he was was failure. Robert had to cross the Irish Sea not once but twice to bail him out of trouble. In the end, in 1317, when the famine eased he pushed for Dublin again. His brother was due to arrive again with much need re-enforcements but the Annals of Clonmacnoise record that Edward was “anxious to obtain the victory for himself”. The army of the Lordship of Ireland were waiting for him at Faughart in Louth, not far from Dundalk, the scene of his earlier crimes. Edward and the Scots charged headlong at the enemy. Tellingly, his Irish allies decided not to join him and instead stood back to watch what happened. The Scottish army was destroyed, several Scottish clan chiefs died and Edward Bruce himself was killed and dismembered, his body parts being sent to the four corners of the island for display. His former Irish allies quietly left.

The final word should probably go to the Gaelic chronicler who recorded the battle of Faughart.
“Edward de Brus, the destroyer of Ireland in general, both Galls and Gaels, was killed .... And there was not done from the beginning of the world a deed that was better for the Men of Ireland than that deed”

In a way, if the intent was to oust the English from Ireland, Bruce’s invasion partly succeeded. Within a generation the Norman Earldom of Ulster, weakened by war, famine then the Black Death, dissolved into terminal internecine struggle and collapse.

I began this by saying that this anniversary is hardly being marked. There will be one place however where it will. At the end of this month (30th and 31st may), there will be an Edward Bruce Festival in Carickfergus. The festival will take place at Carrickfergus Castle, Main Street and Marine Gardens. There will be a range of medieval events and entertainment including jousting, dramatic re-enactments, street theatre, falconry, traditional storytelling, blacksmith demonstrations, archery, medieval battle workshops and family entertainment. The Knights of Royal England (the premiere jousting company in Europe, though perhaps a strange choice for a festival commemorating a war between Ireland and Scotland :-) ) will be conducting a jousting tournament on Saturday 30th May at Marine Gardens. The organisers also have kindly let me take part and I’ll be in castle keep, on Saturday 30th. Please feel free to stop by and say hello. 


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