Seán Ó Hoireabhárd Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar on his work on the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

This blog comes from one of our current PhD students, Seán Ó Hoireabhárd, who has completed both his undergraduate and MA studies with us in the Department of History. Here he reveals more about his research on the impact of the English invasion on the Irish provincial kingdoms, which is funded by the Irish Research Council 

I received an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship in 2017, and I began my research in October the same year. Dr Colmán Etchingham is my thesis supervisor. I had previously worked under the supervision of Dr Etchingham in 2015-16 for the thesis element of an MA in Irish History, and my PhD thesis follows on from and expands on that project.

Seán Ó Hoireabhárd Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar

I research political developments in Ireland in the medieval period, particularly c. 1100-1250 but occasionally over a longer period where particular issues require it. My approach varies from previous scholars in several important ways. First, the time period considered has been chosen so as to bridge a traditional demarcation in the historiography. In the past, historians have generally chosen to study Ireland either before or after the Anglo-Norman (or English) invasion of 1167/9. With the invasion, a new people came to Ireland with their own behaviours, customs, and laws. Their arrival presents historians with the opportunity and challenge of new and different types of source material. A history that transcends the invasion must integrate that new material into a coherent analysis and narrative.

The second major difference between my thesis and other related works is a focus on the Gaelic Irish kingdoms. There were quite a few provincial or semi-provincial kingdoms in twelfth century Ireland, varying depending their fortunes, but usually amounting to nine: Meath, Leinster, Osraige, Bréifne, Connacht, Munster, Ulaid, Airgíalla, and the Northern Uí Néill. Far more has been written concerning the early Anglo-Norman lordship in Ireland than the late pre-invasion kingdoms. By necessity, some commentary on the Gaelic kingdoms is often provided as an introduction to the invasion, but this is always relatively shallow. It is also characteristic of existing works to ignore the development of surviving Gaelic Irish kingdoms after the establishment of the Anglo-Norman lordship in Ireland, and so there remains much work to be done in this area.

In the course of this research, it is my aim to discover the impact of the Anglo-Norman invasion on the Irish kingdoms. In order to do this, the trajectory of these kingdoms over the course of the twelfth century before the invasion must first be examined. In other words, changes in their composition, interactions, or in the way they operated internally can only be observed with reference to the norms before the invasion. No such examination has ever been published, and so while this may seem to be a preliminary element to examination of the impact of the invasion, it is itself a field of study with a great deal of potential. For this reason, the background to the invasion extends back to the beginning of the twelfth century at the least.

The Keep of Trim Castle – the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland, built in the early stages of the invasion. Photo by author

The central event around which this thesis is based is the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. Famously, a king of Leinster called Diarmait Mac Murchada (usually Anglicised Dermot Mac Murrough) fled from his enemies and sought the help of the king of England Henry II in 1166. The ire of his enemies had been stirred, at least in part, by his abduction of one of their wives, a woman called Derbforgaill, many years before. The death of Mac Murchada’s main ally in Ireland was the more immediate cause of the move against him. In any case, Henry II received him at his court on continental Europe, and granted him permission to recruit mercenaries to aid a return to Ireland. Slowly at first, but later with more success, Mac Murchada convinced Anglo-Norman adventurers to help his recover his kingdom. In the return for the help of one such man, Richard de Clare (who is generally called Strongbow), Diarmait promised away succession to his kingdom after his own death.

Over the course of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Anglo-Normans established control over more and more territory in Ireland. Several of the provincial kingdoms mentioned above were conquered outright and became lordships and earldoms loyal to the kings of England. In the early days Leinster, Meath, and Ulaid met this fate. Later, in the 1230s, Connacht was similarly overcome. Other kingdoms had different experiences. Some territory was lost in both north and south Munster, but Gaelic lordships also survived there. In Bréifne, internal division led to the partition of the province, but neither part was conquered by Anglo-Normans despite an attempt. The Northern Uí Néill suffered similarly from internal division, but again conquest was avoided. The question of why Ireland’s provincial kingdoms had such different experiences of the Anglo-Norman invasion is a central concern of my thesis.

As well as being one of the most important events in Irish history, if not the most important, this topic is also a controversial one. The Anglo-Norman invasion established a connection between Ireland and England that has lasted down to the present day, and that has affected every period of Irish history since. Perhaps as a result, this period has often caused disputes. Many of the terms used to describe people and events are debated by historians. Whether or not the arrival of the Anglo-Normans can be called an invasion (since they were invited in the first instance), and whether the invaders are better termed Normans, Anglo-Normans, or simply English are just two of the questions that demand attention before wider issues can be addressed. On the Irish side, the kingship of Ireland has proven a contentious matter in the past.

One of the greatest challenges I face in this project is an organisational one: the question of how best to arrange the research into individual chapters. There is also a question of what to exclude from the project. Even in PhD thesis there is not sufficient scope to deal with nine kingdoms individually in the proper depth. The study of individual kingdoms must also be balanced with the consideration of thematic issues that concerned most or all areas of Ireland.

A depiction of Irish axemen from the works of an Anglo-Norman scholar, Giraldus Cambrensis. Image from Wikimedia Commons here:,_folio_28r).jpg

I also face linguistic challenges in this project. Though most of the relevant source material has been translated into English, some is only available in the original language. Further, the discussion of some issues depends on the translation of certain terms, so familiarity with the source language is essential. The additional languages required for this project are Old Irish and Latin. I have a background in Modern Irish, and have undertaken study of Old Irish this academic year. I plan to study Latin in the same manner next year. In linguistic matters, and in many other issues, my supervisor Dr Etchingham is an invaluable aid to the development of research questions within the project. Both he and other members of the History Department at Maynooth University have greatly contributed to the development of my thesis.

My research so far has yielded some interesting findings and potential areas for further investigation. I believe some at least of these will change the way twelfth and thirteenth century Irish history is approached. The project is in an early stage as yet, however. All going according to plan, I will submit my thesis in 2021.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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