Dromoland Castle

The O’Briens had an extraordinary history stretching back to the 5th Century, Dromoland Castle was originally the ancestral home of one of the few families of Gaelic Royalty; direct descendants of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland. We first hear Of Dromoland in about 1551. There were at least three houses here, at various times, called Dromoland. They were inhabited by eight generations of the O’Brien family. According to the historian James Frost, Dromoland translates as the “Hill of Litigation.”  In 1582 Donough was hanged in Limerick on charges of rebellion. The government decided that all his property would be forfeited to the Queen. Sir George Cusack, the sheriff, took possession of Dromoland. Some years later, Turlough O’Brien killed Cusack and various O’Briens attempted to re-possess Dromoland. The fourth Earl of Thomond claimed to have sole ownership and tried to exclude Donough’s son, Conor MacDonough O’Brien. The outcome of this dispute is unclear. The O’Briens lost possession in the mid 1600s. They were uniformly denominated Kings of Thomond, until Murrogh O’Brien surrendered the sovereignty to Henry VIII. The Earls of Thomond owned: extensive estates in Counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary Carlow, Queen’s County,2 Dublin and Meath. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Earl of Thomond retained substantial interests in England and he, and his descendants after him, became absentee landlords, residing at Great Billing in Northamptonshire, England. Sir Arthur Young revealed that Henry O’Brien (An absentee landlord) was drawing £6,000 from his Irish Estates in the late 1700s. They maintained a residence in Dromoland until 1962 when due to difficult circumstances; the 16th  baron was financially compelled to sell the Castle and the remaining 375 acres.

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle and its demise:

The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of unprecedented change. It was the beginning of the modern era, and it saw a revolution in almost every aspect of European life. The century opened with the discovery of a new continent. The renaissance in Italy was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in backwaters like England (Hale – The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance). Life was largely prosperous for the average person, the economy was growing. The mechanisms of commerce, systems of international finance, ocean-going trading fleets, an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, were all building a recognizably capitalist, money-based economy. Geniuses were stepping all over each other on the street corners producing scientific innovation after innovation. Technological innovations like gunpowder were changing the nature of warfare and the military caste nature of society — the cannon probably had a great deal to do with the rise of the centralized nation state as we know it. The printing press created a media revolution. It brought ideas, partisan rhetoric, and how-to manuals to the people. Most of all, it brought the Bible, in its original tongues and in the vernacular, to the masses. A spirit of inquiry, a desire to return to first principles, was blowing through the Church, which had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millenium.

Consequently, the castles and land ownership by the Irish Clans was ephemeral with the exception of a few. The theory of a solid Irish party fighting against a solid English party was never true at any time in Ireland. It was least of all true during the Munster and Ulster rebellions, even what was professedly a war of religion during the 16th century. The country was divided by its people as well as by difference in status. By the end of the Renaissance period England had become the dominant ruling country in the world.

Blarney Castle:  Blarney Castle, the famous Blarney Stone and Blarney terrain as viewed by the visitor today: The Castle is the third to have been erected on this site. The lower walls are fifteen feet, built with an angle tower by the McCarthys of Muskerry. It was subsequently occupied at one time by Cormac McCarthy, King of Munster, who is said to have supplied four thousand men from Munster to supplement the forces of Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Legend has it that the latter king gave half of the Stone of Scone to McCarthy in gratitude. This, now known as the Blarney Stone, was incorporated in the battlements where it can now be kissed. The first building in the tenth century was a wooden structure. Around 1210 A.D. this was replaced by a stone structure which had the entrance some twenty feet above the ground on the north face. This building was demolished for foundations. In 1446 the third castle was built by Dermot McCarthy, King of Munster of which the keep still remains standing. The Earl of Leicester was commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to take possession of the castle. Whenever he endeavoured to negotiate the matter McCarthy always suggested a banquet or some other form of delay, so that when the queen asked for progress reports a long missive was sent, at the end of which the castle remained untaken. The queen was said to be so irritated that she remarked that the earl’s reports were all ‘Blarney’. The castle was besieged during the Irish Confederate Wars and was seized in 1646 by Parliamentarian forces under Lord Broghill. However after the Restoration the castle was restored to Donough MacCarty, who was made 1st Earl of Clancarty. During the Williamite War in Ireland in the 1690s, the then 4th Earl of Clancarty (also named Donough MacCarty) was captured and his lands (including Blarney Castle) were confiscated by the Williamites. The castle was sold and changed hands a number of times before being purchased in the early 1700s by Sir James St. John Jefferyes, then Governor of Cork City.Members of the Jefferyes family would later build a mansion near the keep. This house was destroyed by fire however, and in 1874 a replacement baronial mansion – known as Blarney House – was built overlooking the nearby lake. In the mid 19th Century the Jefferyes and Colthurst families were joined by marriage, and the Colthurst family still occupy the demesne. In the early 20th century when Irish estates were being bought up by the British government Sir Geo C Colhurst owned 31,260 acres of varying quality land.

Killarney Ross Castle

The castle was the chief seat of the O’Donaghue Mors, hereditary rulers of this district and descendants of the ancient kings of Munster. After the Desmond rebellion their fortified lands were acquired by the MacCarthy Mors from whom they were purchased by Sir Valentine Browne, ancestor of the Earls of Kenmare. In 1652 the castle was held by Lord Muskerry against a Cromwellian force of 1,500 foot and 700 horse soldiers, commanded by Edmond Ludlow. It fell after floating batteries were brought over land to bombard it from the lough as well as from the land. The Brownes, who retained the old faith, remained in the castle until they lost their estates in 1690 for supporting the Jacobite cause. Although their lands were recovered around 1720, they were unable to regain possession of the castle, which had been taken over as a military barracks. The Earl of Kenmare had 22,700 acres in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century.

The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of unprecedented change. It was the beginning of the modern era, and it saw a revolution in almost every aspect of European life. The century opened with the discovery of a new continent. The renaissance in Italy was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in backwaters like England (Hale – The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance). Life was largely prosperous for the average person, the economy was growing. The mechanisms of commerce, systems of international finance, ocean-going trading fleets, an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, were all building a recognizably capitalist, money-based economy. Geniuses were stepping all over each other on the street corners producing scientific innovation after innovation. Technological innovations like gunpowder were changing the nature of warfare and the military caste nature of society — the cannon probably had a great deal to do with the rise of the centralized nation state as we know it. The printing press created a media revolution. It brought ideas, partisan rhetoric, and how-to manuals to the people. Most of all, it brought the Bible, in its original tongues and in the vernacular, to the masses. A spirit of inquiry, a desire to return to first principles, was blowing through the Church, which had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millenium.


Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh was regarded by his fellow countrymen as one of the grand scalawags of the Elizabethan Age. He made a name for himself fighting the Irish at Munster; later he was introduced at court and became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Known for his wit and womanizing, Raleigh was in and out of Elizabeth’s favour. He was involved in Ireland between 1579 -1602 – took part in the suppression of the Desmond (Fitzgerald) rising. His letters prove that he was the advocate of a ruthless policy against the Irish, and did not hesitate to recommend assassination as a means of getting rid of their leaders. Got 42,000 acres on the Blackwater river valley and the towns of Youghal and Lismore.  Youghal had been a walled and very important trading town and port from the Viking Norman times.

The Rennaisance and the European Countryside

In the start of this website we spoke of Ireland beginnings and its land parting from America some 385 million years ago – see ‘Rock of the Hooves’.  Then in 1492 Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ and found America. Consequently a link was renewed not of land masses but of its peoples. Suddenly the word European became meaningful to  Renaissance scholars. In all likelihood the great majority of those who lived in Europe and could read only with difficulty, if at all, had not even heard of the word.  Likewise Ireland became known by the Venetian, Spanish and Grecian explorers who heretofore have sailed eastwards to India and China as from the 13th century. The physical nature of Europe could not be assessed until the sixteenth century.  Well organized smaller powers could still hold their own against the greatest rulers in Europe. The best example was the Swiss confederation of townsmen and free peasants. In the corners of Europe in particular, communities prospered such as the Cossacks bands of the Polish and muscovite frontiers on the steppe. Ireland was no different where Gaelic Ireland beyond the English Pale had native Irish began building castles also in their new location and recovering some of the land stolen by the Normans.

The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of unprecedented change. It was the beginning of the modern era, and it saw a revolution in almost every aspect of European life. The renaissance in Italy was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in backwaters like England (Hale – The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance). Life was largely prosperous for the average person, the economy was growing. The mechanisms of commerce, systems of international finance, ocean-going trading fleets, an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, were all building a recognizably capitalist, money-based economy. Geniuses were stepping all over each other on the street corners producing scientific innovation after innovation. Technological innovations like gunpowder were changing the nature of warfare and the military caste nature of society — the cannon probably had a great deal to do with the rise of the centralized nation state as we know it. The printing press created a media revolution. It brought ideas, partisan rhetoric, and how-to manuals to the people. Most of all, it brought the Bible, in its original tongues and in the vernacular, to the masses. A spirit of inquiry, a desire to return to first principles, was blowing through the Church, which had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millenium.

Gold silver and spices brought from India and China and traded by Merchant Princesses had drove the Renaissance. The countryside in those countries did not escape. Land had to be worked, stomachs had to be filled, rents had to be found, taxes had to be paid. Yet in all European countries most people lived on the land. The total population of France was still only 7 or 8 million in mid 15th century, while England’s population was only 5 million by the late 1500s and did not reach 8 million until 1800.  While London’s population was still only 500,000 in the 1650s’, nevertheless  it and other towns and city population expansion put pressure on the agrarian economy. The price of land rose rapidly resulting in marginal grain growing land in England being cultivated. Some peasants in England and the continent benefited greatly from the grain price and market opportunities. Those with surpluses for sale began to make profits, enabling them to consolidate their holdings and strengthen their position. The yeomen in England, coqs de village in France and Volbauer, or wealthy tenant farmers with full rights in communal resources in Germany, were all emerging as rural elites by the mid-sixteenth century.  They managed this by refusing to subdivide their properties (even where partible inheritance was the local custom) and keeping strict control over their children’s marriages. By the later sixteenth century their increased wealth was obvious. They boasted the largest, most richly decorated houses, the most servants, oxen, barns, grain, wine, and silver. Their dominant economic and social status meant they were entrusted with seigneurial tasks (like collection of dues and taxes, or acting as local administrative officials and often acted as creditors within their local community.

England was jealous of the great power of Spain, and became increasingly preoccupied with the necessity of extending her own dominion and her trade overseas. And so Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Ralph Lane were sent to our shores and the power Gaelic Irish Clansmen who had re-established themselves during the 1400s’ was once more threatened.

The Normans – Part 5 Clan Revival

By the 14th century the Norman invaders (Land-grabbers) became known as Anglo Irish. The settlers within the Pale (Dublin and it surrounds) were called English; while the descendants of de Burgo in Connaught had become Irish? – like many other lesser Norman  families. Away from the Pale they had little opportunity of surviving if they did not do so. The Fitzgeralds or Geraldines of Kildare, the Fitzgeralds of Desmond and the Butlers of Ormond were the families of power and authority.  To whom were they loyal? – the best answer was to themselves. They were not trusted by the English, they spoke Irish, intermarried with the Irish, and fostered their children with Irish families. They attended parliament but apart from that sign of obedience, they ruled their large territories like kings. Had they united, they like an O’Neill an O’Connor or an O’Brien they could have ruled the country. The late Eoin 0’Mahony (q.v.), Cork lawyer and inimitable raconteur who popularized Irish family history in his lively broadcasts from Radio Eireann, said of these Norman families: “Numerically and historically the Burkes, FitzGeralds and Butlers are the three Norman families outstanding in the moulding of the history of Ireland following the invasion of 1169. They have been remarkably consistent in producing able churchmen, soldiers and administrators”. The Normans undoubtedly came to conquer and transform, but also to adapt themselves to the country as they did in England and Sicily.

The native Irish began building castles also in their new location. The O’Sullivan and the O’Callaghan Clans were forced to uproot themselves from Cashel and go to West Cork and South Kerry in the former and North Cork in the later case. The O’Keeffes’ had to move from Glanworth – north of Fermoy up the valley of the River Bride and Blackwater to poorer quality land at Glenville, Dunbulloge, Dromagh and  Cullain ui Caoimh (Ballydesmond) in Co Cork. The McCarthy Mor had to retreat to Macroom and the lands of South West Co. Cork. The O’Mahonys went westwards where they wrestled some land off the O’Driscoll, O’Cowhigs and others. The McCarthys were associated some 50 castles, the O’Driscolls and the O’Mahonys’ both with fifteen, the O’Keeffes with ten, O’Cowhigs, Coffeys with seven, the O’Sullivans with six, and the McAuliffes with  four. Several other native Irish built castles throughout the county. The tribes continued their pastoral farming as they had done from the earliest of times. Animals and animal products, cattle and sheep, wool, tallow, hides, butter, figure as prominently in the mediaeval records as they do in the most recent times.  In the words of D.A. Chart, Esq.; M.A. Public Record Office of Ireland (1908), speaking about the period  ‘From the earliest times, Ireland has been, just as she still is, primarily a country of pasturage. The — tribes were purely pastoral in their habits, even taking the cow as their standard value. Yet cereals were raised to the extent that they varied, probably, according as the country was peaceful or the reverse. In times of disturbance no holder of land cared to give a hostage to fortune by sowing his land with corn, which could easily be burnt or destroyed by his enemies. Cattle, on the other hand, in the eyes of both the English and the Irish, had the advantage that they could, at the time of need, be driven to some hiding-place or some defensible position, where they would be secure from capture. The bawn or fortified enclosure to which cattle were driven for safety at night or in war time, is a prominent feature in most of our ancient landscape’. However this was to change over time.

Market towns were developed around the Norman occupied lands. Very early on, at least thirty -seven market towns in Co. Cork were known to the English government in Ireland. At that time they were well within the English Lordship of Ireland. These market towns were the city of Cork and the towns/villages of Carrigaline, Buttevant, Ballyhay, Midleton, Castlemartyr, Cloyne, Mogeely, Tallow(Co. Waterford), Corkbeg, Glanworth, Castleyons, Shandon, Mallow, Bridgetown, Ballynamona, Carrig, Kilworth, Mitchelstown, Ballynoe, Carrigrohane, Ballinacurra, Doneraile, Dunbullge, Innishannon, Grenagh, Ballyhooly, Kinsale, Rinronone, Ringcurran, Ovens, Castlemore, Ballinaboy, Carrigaline, and Douglas. It will be noted that these markets were located in the areas most densely settled and heavily manoralised by the Anglo Normans. This was replicated afterwards in counties Limerick and Tipperary. Political security and productivity of the soil encouraged large- scale settlement from England and Wales, and not infrequently, even further afield.  This first of the major invasions of Ireland resulted in the formation of a new set of surnames belonging to Viking Norman families. Names in this category – such as Burke, Costello, Cusack, Dalton, Dillon, Fitzgerald Keating, Nagle, Nugent, Power, Roche, Sarsfield and Walsh became numerous. To this day these names are numerous, particularly in the coastal counties of the East and south of the country. In present day Co. Wexford, native Irish names like Murphy and Kavanagh are only native Irish names in the top ten names in the county, whereas the remaining eight are Anglo Norman names Furlong, Sinnott, Stafford, Walsh, Rossiter, Devereux, Butler and Power. Tenants of the Barrymore Estate in East Co. Cork 1776, gives one also the dominating effect of Anglo Norman names in that part of Ireland. Surnames such Forrest, Cotter, Barry, Walsh, Heafe, Coppinger, and Power were in the majority of Tenants of the Estate.

Civil war broke out in England after the 100 years war with France in 1453. The Earl of Kildare and Desmond sided with Yorkists, while the Earl of Ormond sided with the Lancastrians. The Earl of Desmond defeated the Earl of Ormond at the battle of Piltown in Co. Kilkenny. For fifty years afterwards the Earl of Kildare and Desmond held control of Ireland. The Munster Gerladines turned more and more to the Irish side after the Earl was beheaded in error by the Viceroy Tiptoft in 1468. The Earl of Desmond who succeeded did not attend an Irish parliament for nearly a hundred years.  Titoft was recalled and Thomas, Earl of Kildare was created Viceroy.  He was succeeded by Gearoid Mor, Garrett the great Earl of Kildare. He was the greatest of all the Geraldines and was all but king of Ireland until his death.  He like all the Geraldines supported the Yorkists and though Henry V11, a Lancastrian was King of England, was not powerful enough to replace him. Later Henry did replace him with Poynings, who was famous for introducing Poyning’s Law of 1494.  According to this law no parliament could be assembled in Ireland without the Kings consent, and no act passed by parliament could become law unless approved of by the King and his council. Poynings, however was not a success as viceroy. Henry recalled him and once more again made Gearoid Mor viceroy. He continued as viceroy and the most powerful man in Ireland until he died in 1513.

‘Irish society, traditional kindred based society, was politically and economically inferior to feudal society, with its intensive arable farming based on manorial organisation, which Norman-English society had become long before the invasion of Ireland. Moreover, Irish economic inferiority had important military consequences also and English superiority in arms was clearly demonstrated as the invasion and conquest of Ireland progressed. Thus “the use of mailed soldiers was itself an indication of socio-economic development… We have here an unequal struggle between an industrially advanced power and a pastoral economy’. – ref: Gillingham – English Imperialism. Gaelic Ireland because of its own weakness and rivalries was never able to completely overrun the colony, even when the latter was at its weakest and subject to the greatest threat. The development of urban life was one of the colonies greatest safeguards. The town’s development and survival were particularly well placed to form bridges between Gaelic and English Ireland, not least by the way of trade.  However this was to change under the reign of the Tudors – when absentee landlords became the order of the day.  Little did the Native-Irish know of the horrific times that would follow when “see no evil, hear no evil ….” became part and parcel of some of the Landlords culture.

Some Castle Pictures and History

Johnstown Castle Estate

Johnstown Castle Estate became home to two prominent Wexford families. The first owners were the Esmondes; a Norman family who settled in the county in the 1170s. They constructed the tower houses at Johnstown and Rathlannon during the 15th or 16th century. During the Cromwellian period of 1640s the estate was confiscated and changed hands several times before being acquired by John Grogan in 1692, whose descendents remained at Johnstown up until 1945 when Maurice Victor Lakin presented Johnstown Castle estate as a gift to the Nation.

Trim Castle was used as a centre of Norman administration for the Liberty of Meath, one of the new administrative areas of Ireland created by Henry II of England and granted to Hugh de Lacy. de Lacy took possession of it in 1172. De Lacy built a huge ringwork castle defended by a stout double palisade and external ditch on top of the hill. There may also have been further defences around the cliffs fringing the high ground. Part of a stone footed timber gatehouse lies beneath the present stone gate at the west side of the castle. The ringwork was attacked and burnt by the Irish but De Lacy immediately rebuilt it in 1173. His son Walter continued rebuilding and the castle was completed c 1204. The next phase of the castle’s construction took place at the end of the 13th century, and the beginning of the 14th century.

He was sent over to Ireland as procurator-general in 1177, Richard de Clare having died shortly before. The grant of Meath was now confirmed, with the addition of Offelana, Offaly, Kildare, and Wicklow. As governor of Ireland Lacy secured Leinster and Meath, building numerous castles, while preserving the Irish in possession of their lands. He was subject to an accusation that he intended to seize the sovereignty of the island for himself. The author of the Gesta Henrici, however, says that Lacy lost his favour with Henry in consequence of complaints of his injustice by the Irish.


Dungarvan Castle – King John’s Castle is an Anglo-Norman fortification founded in 1185. It was built in a very strategic location at the mouth of the River Colligan. From here, ships could be anchored and soldiers could command the narrow strip of land to the south of the Comeragh Mountains which linked East and West Waterford.

Lismore Castle

Lismore Castle was first built by Prince John in 1185, and a round tower, dating from the 13th century still stands today. Lismore was founded by St.Carthage in 636AD and by the 8th century had become an important seat for Monastic learning. The ‘Book of Lismore’, an illuminated manuscript dating back to the 15th century, and the Lismore Crozier from 1116, were both discovered hidden within the walls of Lismore Castle in 1814, and bear testimony to Lismore’s long artistic tradition. The Castle was the birthplace of Robert Boyle, the scientist whose name lives in ”Boyle’s Law” and was owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. Visitors to the gardens can wander in the footsteps of poets such as Spencer, Thackeray and Betjeman or even the dancing feet of Fred Astaire.

Carton House

Carton House the Earl of Kildare Stronghold. During a history spanning more than eight centuries, Carton Demesne has seen many changes. The estate first came into the ownership of the FitzGerald family shortly after Maurice FitzGerald played an active role in the capture of Dublin by the Normans in 1170 and was rewarded by being appointed Lord of Maynooth, an area covering a large3 portion of Co. Kildare including townlands which include Carton. His son became Baron Offaly in 1205 and his descendant John FitzGerald, became Earl of Kildare in 1315. Under the eighth earl, the FitzGerald family reached pre-eminence as the virtual rulers of Ireland between 1477 and 1513. However, the eighth earl’s grandson, the eloquently titled Silken Thomas was executed in 1537, with his five uncles, for leading an uprising against the English. Although the FitzGeralds subsequently regained their land and titles, they did not regain their position at the English Court until the 18th century when Robert, the 19th Earl of Kildare, became a noted statesman. Carton remained in the control of the FitzGeralds until the early 1920s when the 7th Duke sold his birth right to a moneylender. Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley in order to pay off gambling debts of £67,500. He was third in line to succeed and so did not think he would ever inherit, but one of his brothers died in the war and another of a brain tumour and so Carton was lost to the FitzGeralds.

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle William the Earl Marshall built the first stone castle on the site, which was completed in 1213. This was a square-shaped castle with towers at each corner; three of these original four towers survive to this day. The Butler family bought the Castle in 1391 and lived there until 1935. They were Earls, Marquesses and Dukes of Ormonde and lived in the castle for over five hundred years. They were a remarkable family, resilient, politically astute and faithful to the crown and to Ireland as dictated by the politics of the times. These loyalties determined their fortunes and career, and so too the fortunes of their seat.

Limerick Castle

The Viking sea-king, Thormodr Helgason, built the first permanent Viking stronghold on Inis Sibhtonn (King’s Island) in 922. He used the base to raid the length of the River Shannon from Lough Derg to Lough Ree, pillaging ecclesiastical settlements. In 937 the Limerick Vikings clashed with those of Dublin on Lough Ree and were defeated. In 943 they were defeated again when the chief of the local Dalcassian clan joined with Ceallachán, king of Munster and the Limerick Vikings were forced to pay tribute to the clans. The power of the Vikings never recovered, and they reduced to the level of a minor clan, however often playing pivotal parts in the endless power struggles of the next few centuries. The arrival of the Anglo-Normans to the area in 1172 changed everything. Domhnall Mór Ó Briain burned the city to the ground in 1174 in a bid to keep it from the hands of the new invaders. After he died in 1194, the Anglo-Normans finally captured the area in 1195, under John, Lord of Ireland. In 1197, local legend claims Limerick was given its first charter and its first Mayor, Adam Sarvant. A castle, built on the orders of King John and bearing his name, was completed around 1200. Under the general peace imposed by the Norman rule, Limerick prospered as a port and trading centre. By this time the city was divided into an area became known as “English Town” on King’s Island, while another settlement, named “Irish Town” had grown on the south bank of the river.

Glanworth Castle

Glanworth Castle. Dominating the village skyline, Glanworth Castle,- North East  Co. Cork once controlled a strategic crossing point on the River Funcheon. Built by the by the Flemings on lands taken from the O’Keeffes’, later taken over by Condons in the 13th century, the castle soon passed to another Norman family, the Roches(Lord FermoY, who effectively controlled much of North East Cork between then and the 17th century. Recent conservation work by the Office of Public Works, has now rendered the complex safe and accessible to the public, preserving for us a unique record of Medieval grandeur in Ireland.

Ashford castle

In 1228, Ashford was founded by an Anglo-Norman family by the name of de Burgo, after they defeated the O’Connor Clan, natives of Connaught (also spelled Connacht), for whom the Abbey of Cong is attributed. They built several castles, but Ashford was their “principal stronghold.”

The Normans – Part 4 Legislative System

Just one hundred years after the Norman invasion, Ireland’s legal and court system was based on the Anglo Norman – England-Wales model. While the four provinces correspond to the old Gaelic or pre-Norman Kingdoms they never had much administrative significance. Ireland’s county system was based on the England’s shires and exists to this day. By the thirteenth century, Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Oriel(Louth), Tipperary and Waterford were complete shires in which itinerant justices held annual courts and the Kings officer for the county (the Shire Reeves – Sheriff) collected revenue for the King. During this (13th) century, Meath was created a separate shire while Connacht and Ulster were both regarded as shires.

The Barony was also introduced by the Anglo-Normans as a unit of Landownership being appropriate to the jurisdiction of a baron, whereas the origin of the word “county” would appear to be linked with the jurisdiction of a count. Each of the 32 counties was divided into baronies and like the counties varied greatly in size. From the sixteenth century on the barony was used as an administrative, tax and regional entity within the county. Representatives of counties and towns were elected to the parliament by 1300. During the 14th century it became increasingly the practice to summon the commons to parliament, and before the end of the century they had established the right to be present. By then parliament has assumed the representative character it was to retain right down to the present day.

The Parish is of great antiquity and essentially is an ecclesiastical territorial unit indicating the area which a clergyman had care of the spiritual needs of the community. It appears that by the time of the Norman invasion a network of parishes existed across Ireland and the Anglo Normans did little to alter the existing framework apart from rededicating churches to acknowledged saints. The extension of the Reformation and the dissolution of the Monastic orders during the 17th century tended to accompany the extension of the English rule in Ireland with the result that the existing parish framework was adopted by the Protestant churches and by the civilian authorities – hence the “civil parish”. While there are approximately 2,500 civil parishes in the country, many more Catholic religious parishes exist presently, because of new parishes being set up in expanding cities and large towns.

Townland is the smallest administrative division (as well as being one of the oldest) in the country and all the territorial divisions are collections of townlands.  The size of a townland may be regarded as a rough guide to the quality of the land as the bigger townlands are usually found in the poorer soil areas.  The average townland size in Ireland is 300 acres – approximately 121 Hectares. In mountainous areas the townlands may be as much as 2,000 acres; on the other hand in thickly-settled lowlands they are frequently less than 100 acres, and some anomalous fragments of an acre or two are designated townlands. The study of Ireland’s 65,000+ townlands(Griffith Valuation) names shows the nuances of the old Gaelic names and the attempted Anglicising of the names by English Cartographers who in the main carried out the job. The townland names, involving so many land holdings, are legal titles, and their Gaelic names, however erroneously spelt on the Ordnance Survey maps, are fossilized in their forms. Only an [Act of the Oireachtas] can alter them. A glance at any Ordnance map will reveal the strange names that Gaelic imagination contrived and English scribes corrupted. Be that as it may, most townland names can be traced back to its origins through its name.  These names were very often very descriptive of the location, its type of topography, its soil type etc. Townland names are still used as the address for all people residing outside of the cities and towns.

The Normans – Part 3 Norman Land Grant Model

From a European viewpoint the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland was seen as part of a wider movement of Western Europe colonial expansion. The invasion, conquest and settlement was part of a general expansion and colonization extending from the core areas of western Europe to the European periphery, which by that time included Ireland. A vibrant feudal, socio-economic system was at the heart of this development.  Most English historians would agree, according to H.P Wolstencroft in his book “Our Historical Heritage”, ‘was in the long run a good thing for England. They believed that Anglo-Saxon civilization was not progressing, that it was too separated from more vigorous and progressive life of the Continent, the Normans were much cleverer people at governing and that they imposed a unity on the whole country which the Anglo-Saxons, with their local jealousies, would never have attained ……In fact, the Normans seem to have inherited or absorbed that genius for government which we have seen was such a marked characteristic of the old Romans’.

Consequently England’s view of the 12th century Ireland and the other Celtic countries was influenced by being conquered by the Normans and the controlling influence brought about as a consequence.  The Irish ‘were perceived as poor and a primitive society – primitive in that they had failed to climb the ladder of evolution of human societies. Gerald of Wales writes:

Ireland is the most temperate of all countries. Snow is seldom, and lasts only for a short time. There is such a plentiful supply of rain, such an ever-present overhanging of clouds and fog that summer scarcely gives three consecutive days of really fine weather. Winds are moderate and not too strong. The winds from the west-north, north and east bring cold. The north-west and west winds are prevalent, and more frequent and stronger than other winds. They bend (in the opposite direction) almost all trees in the west that are placed in an elevated position uproot them. Ireland is a country of uneven surface and rather mountainous. The soil is soft and watery, and even at the tops of high and steep mountains there are pools and swamps. ……… There are many woods and marshes; here and there are some fine plains, but in comparison with England they are indeed small. The country enjoys the freshness and mildness of spring nearly all the year round. Consequently, the meadows are not cut for fodder, and the stalls are never built for beasts. —– ‘the land is fruitful and rich in fertility ……..it is rich in honey and milk. Ireland exports cow-hides, sheep-skins and furs. Much wine is imported. But the island is richer in pasture than in crops, and in grass rather than grain. The plains are well clothed with grass, and the hagards are bursting with straw. Only the granaries are without their wealth. The crops give great promise in the blade, even more in the straw, but less in the ear. For here the grains of wheat are shriveled and small, and can scarcely be separated from the chaff by any type of winnowing. What is born forth in the spring and is nourished in the summer and advanced, can scarcely be reaped in the harvest because of the unceasing rain. For this country more than any other suffers from storms of wind and rain’.  The above is a reasonable assessment of present day Irish climate and weather and the resultant effects on grain and grass growing. Gerald goes on to write:

‘Moreover, above all other peoples they always practice treachery. When they give their word to anyone, they do not keep it. They do not blush or fear to violate every day the bond of their pledge and oath given to others – although they are very keen that it should be observed with regard to themselves. When you have employed every safeguard and used every precaution for your own safety and security both, by means of oaths and hostages, and friendship firmly cemented, and kinds of benefits conferred, then you must especially be on your guard, because then especially their malice seeks a chance.  For they feel that because of your reliance on your safeguards you are not on the watch. Then at last they resort to the arts of evil and their accustomed weapons of deceit, so that, taking an opportunity of your feeling of security, they may be able to injure you when you do not expect it.

You must be more afraid of their wile than their war; their friendship than their fire, their honey than their hemlock; their shrewdness than their soldiery; their betrayals than their battle lines; their specious friendship than their enmity despised. For this is their principle:  “who asks of an enemy whether he employs guile or virtue?”  These are their characteristics: they are neither strong in war, nor reliable in peace’.  the native Irish as typical barbarians, whose life, lived so close to nature, promoted vigour, hardiness and courage but denied them the “arts” of civilization. Drawing upon classical ideas about progress of civilization, he speculated as to the causes of their poverty and backwardness. Unlike most people who progressed from pastoralism to agriculture to urban life, the Irish had remained wedded to pastoral pursuits of their ancestors. This accounted for their sloth and poverty … The seclusion of Ireland from the benevolent influence of more advanced societies left them hopelessly and helplessly wrapped in the cocoon of their antiquated and limited way of life.’

By contrast the Norman-English-Walsh people saw themselves, as prosperous, peaceful, law-abiding, urbanized and enterprising. These attitudes reflected another 12th-century commentator Abbot William of Malmesbury, whose system of classification of peoples ‘divided men and women into the civilized and barbarians’ on the basis of their socio-economic development. ————-Accordingly its agriculture was primitive  and pastoral; town life, trade and money were more or less absent; forms of economic exploitation were primitive.’


Such ideas could be deployed to the advantage in the process of conquest and colonization.  Thus the characterization of the invasion and conquest of Ireland: ‘as the struggle of “civilization” with “barbarism” —- was immensely satisfying to advocates of dominant life-style, who thereby assured themselves of their own superiority and of the desirability of the conquest or conversion of their rivals’.

Gerald’s writings according to F. X Martin reflect the militaristic, entrepreneurial attitudes of the class to which they belonged to – the feudal military aristocracy – and the disparaging, dismissive, even racist attitude to the Irish to be found in contemporary England in particular.

By 1350 the Anglo-Norman influence was most clearly stamped on the Irish landscape. Initially the lightly-equipped Irish soldiers could offer no resistance to the heavily-armed and well-drilled invaders, who cut through the country smelling out the better lands like well-trained truffle-hounds. The Anglo- Normans were prepared to expend capital on the organization of their manorial. The Fitzgeralds, the Butlers and the Burkes consistently searched for soils to their taste, or a strategic point worth defending; they erected an earthen mote, later replaced by a castle in places of special importance. Only the Burke advanced beyond the Shannon-river. They confined themselves mainly to Leinster and East Munster, which were to prove a centre from which Irish forces would frequently emerge to harass the farms and towns of the surrounding town-lands. The basic Anglo-Norman unit was the manor, extending perhaps to 3,000 acres and here the lord would have his home-farm or stead, often protected by a moat, containing his house and his farm-buildings, with its surrounding fields. Other large farm units would be given to supporters, linked to the lord by allegiance as well as rent, to rent-paying individual farmers, and to borough communities and burgesses, with land in common, and their own court and other privileges. The holders of these larger units came from outside Ireland. The population explosion in Western Europe and in England at the time, had brought about men anxious for tenancies of good arable land in return for payment of money in services and in kind.

Barrymore Castle Philip de Barry – the elder brother of Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) was granted lands strategically placed in between Cork City and Youghal. By 1206, a charter of King John confirms the existence of Barryscourt manor at Carrigtwohill close to the medieval settelemnt of Cloyne. It contained approximately 10,000 acres of land.


The Normans – Part 2 Monastic Support

The advent of the friars, and especially the Dominicans and Franciscans, brought a whole new world of learning to Ireland. Through the colony the medieval papacy was brought into closer contact with the Irish than ever before. Because the early upper-class settlers spoke French and were products of French-orientated civilization, they brought with them a code of chivalry and  vision of courtly love which was to leave its mark on Gaelic Literature of the period. The feudalized part of Ireland, then, the areas settled by the colonists, was part of a wider community – the feudal world of Western Europe – and was benefiting from that contact. It was a land of manors and villages with broad fields tilled in strips, a land of castles and small cottages, markets and fairs, parish churches, abbeys and friaries. Forests were cleared, more land was ploughed as new methods of agriculture was introduced. Commercial life expanded and trade boomed. New walled towns, like Athenry and Nenagh, sprang up everywhere. Old ports were developed, such as Dublin and Waterford, or new ones created like Drogheda, Galway and New Ross. By the late 13th century, the newcomers had absorbed much of O’Brien’s kingdom of Thomond, and had McCarthy control in South West Cork was reduced, and the lands parceled out to followers of Robert Fitz Stephen and Miles de Cogan. The Norman land owners strove hard to ensure that the Gaelic Irish people would remain to herd cattle and till the soil, as they had been doing under their native chieftains. Now for the first time the Neolithic (systematic) type agriculture and estate management was put into practice. Monastic orders, such the Carmelites, Agustinians, Fransciscans, built the local parish church nearby and large farm units were divided amongst supporters who were linked to the overlord through allegiance and through rent. The monastic establishments strengthened their position in the various districts that they held sway and Pope’s authority once more was at the centre of a true Irish Catholic Church – according to the Norman conquerors or a more likely reason the Norman Landlord had an institution to support him. Many of the castles in the south Co. Cork have Fitzgerald origins and commanded the principal routeways and waterways in the region. Over 400 castles were built in Co. Cork alone during that era.  By 1420, the Fitzgeralds became the Earls of Desmond. Maurice Fitzgerald is said to have been the founder of Youghal and his general strategy was to protect and consolidate the power of the Geraldines by the development of trade. The statute passed in 1464 by Thomas Fitzgerald, showed that they fully understood the importance of commerce.  “As the profit of every city and town in the land depends principally on the resort of the Irish people bringing merchandise thereunto, the people of Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Youghal may trade with the Irish in spite of statutes contrary”.

The Norman land owners were found mostly in the Midlands, the eastern Leinster counties and the valleys of eastern Munster.

By 1485 one can see from the map below that the Norman settlers owned a large portion of Munster, and Leinster and a lesser portion Connaught an insignificant portion of Ulster.

land holdings in Ireland circa 1450

The Normans – Part 1 Land Grabbers

In the 11th century surnames were introduced. It is a fact that Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a system of hereditary surnames or perhaps it would be truer to say that such a system developed spontaneously.  At any rate the Macs and the O’s were well established as such more than a century before the Cambro-Normans or, as they are more usually called, the Anglo Normans, came. It is hardly necessary to state that these prefixes denote descent, Mac (son) indicating that the surname was formed from personal names, or sometimes calling, of the father of the first man to bear that surname, while the O names are derived from grandfather or even earlier ancestor, o or ua being the Irish word for grandson, or more loosely male descendant. Prior to the introduction of surnames there was in Ireland a system of clan-names, which the use of surnames gradually rendered obsolete except as territorial designations. Groups of families, many of them descended from a common ancestor, were by collective clan-name such as Dal Cais (whence the adjective Dalcassian, Cinel Eoghain, Clann Cholgain, Corca Laidhe. The expression “tribe-names” is used by some writers in this connection, though other authorities, object to this term as misleading. In some cases the tribe-name became the surname of a leading family of the clan or tribe, but as a rule this did not happen.

By 1100AD Dublin, along with Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick had developed as a trading towns by their Viking founders, doing a large trade with Bristol and Wales, with the emphasis on shipbuilding, slaves and commerce. By the time this prosperity had been achieved the Vikings had ceased to be pagan conquerors at war with the native Gaels. They had become Christian, peaceful and permanently settled. Nevertheless they had settled mainly in the coast towns that they had founded. Similar thing happened in England, Wales and Western France.  The Normans that conquered England in 1066 came from Normandy in Northern France. However, they were originally Vikings-Plunders from Scandinavia. At the beginning of the tenth century, the French King, Charles the Simple, had given some land in the North of France to a Viking chief named Rollo. He hoped that by giving the Vikings their own land in France they would stop attacking France. The land became known as Northmannia, the land of the Northmen. It was later shortened to Normandy. The Vikings intermarried with the French and by the year 1000, they were no longer Viking pagans, but French speaking Christians. In the year 1030 a group of Normans conquered land in Italy. .  After the Battle of Hastings the Normans had taken control of England and Wales. Although the Normans are best remembered for their military achievements, they also showed remarkable skill in government. The Normans established many schools, monasteries, cathedrals and churches in both Italy and England and built many castles to defend their new land.

In Ireland by 1156 the struggle for political supremacy lay between Murtough MacLochlainn of Ailech in the northern part of Ireland – the most powerful king in Ireland and supported by MacMurrough King of Leinster, and Rory O’Connor of Connaught – supported by O’Rourkes of Breffini. The struggle swayed to and fro, from Ulster to Leinster, to Connaught to Munster, with endless campaigns, cattle-raids, burnings, and atrocities until O’Connor won out. MacMurrough was belittled and decided to look for assistance from King Henry the 11 of England. Henry was French rather than English and spent most of his time in France. He was born in Normandy, reared in France and spoke Norman French, not English. Most of his life was spent there as England was only part of his Angevin empire which embraced England, Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Poitou and Aquitaine and he had sovereign claims also over Toulouse, Wales and Scotland. Henry like other Normans of his time had perceived ideas of Ireland. He was influenced no doubt by the English Church Hierarchy after the religious See of Dublin opted to become an Irish archbishopric in 1155, spurning the ecclesiastical rule of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England.  The English Church suddenly felt that the Irish Church had strayed away from Latin Christianity.  They claimed ‘that the Irish clergy did not obey Rome and that it was allied to the Coptic Church doctrine’. This was a very suitable pretext for Henry to talk to Pope Adrian 1V. Of course Henry did not tell the Pope that he had a “land grabbing” addiction. However, this was more often than not the excuse that the Normans used for invading the many countries in Europe. The crusading ideal was still very much in vogue in mainland Europe and was sometimes invoked as a pretext for an invasion. Henry was granted a papal bull, Laudabiliter by the only English pope Adrian 1V, authorizing him to invade Ireland in order to reform the church.  And Henry 11 permitted Diamuid McMurragh, King of Leinster to invite Richard FitzGilbert de Clare better-known as Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke to Irish shores provided he (King Henry 11) was recognized as the overlord of the King of Leinster. However, F.X. Martin in his review of his Conquest questions the authenticity of some of the above. According to Martin forgery was a thriving industry in the twelfth century to possibly justify invasions or otherwise.

For an account of the Norman invasion of Ireland we are lucky in having a firsthand account by  Gerald [de Barri or Gerald of Wales] – Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-1223) was related to King Henry 11 and to many of the first Norman leaders who came to Ireland. He had spent many years in France was very aware of the Norman take over in Western France and southern Italy as well as England and Wales. Being closely related by blood or marriage to many of the first Norman leaders who came to Ireland, he gained much valuable information from them about pioneering years in the country.  He was Archdeacon of Brecon, was a medieval clergyman. It should also be noted that Philip de Barry – the elder brother of Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) was granted lands strategically placed in between Cork City and Youghal.     By 1206, a charter of King John confirms the existence of Barryscourt manor at Carrigtwohill close to the medieval settelemnt of Cloyne. It contained approximately 10,000 acres of some of the best land. His book Expugnatio Hibernica – The Conquest of Ireland – edited with translation by A.B. Scott and F.X. Martin is revealing regarding our soils and climate but biased with regards to our people. He writes:

‘Following up on his promise of aid Robert FitzStephen landed on the southern coast of County Wexford at Bannow on 1st of May 1169. They had with about 400 strong – Norman, Welsh and Flemish forces in three ships. The following day Maurice de Prendergast with a force of about 200 reinforced FitzStephen’s group. Merging with a force of near 500 Irishmen under MacMurrough, the combined army marched toward the Viking-Irish seaport of Wexford, where battle began outside the walls of the town. Encountering the Norse army —– the Viking-Irish retired within their own walls. Following assaults on the walled town, the Viking-Irish called for terms of peace which ultimately led to their recognition, once again, of Dermot as their overlord. At this time, Dermot granted lands in Wexford to Robert FitzStephen and his half-brother Maurice FitzGerald, as well as to Hervey de Monte Marisco, an uncle of Strongbow. In 1170 Waterford was captured by Strongbow (Earl of Pembroke, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare) and afterwards they routed Roderick O’Connor’s army in Dublin’.

Land Grants

Word reached Henry of the rapid success of the Normans in Ireland. It was too rapid for his liking. He knew how bold and independent these Normans barons were. He feared that Strongbow might declare himself as king. Quickly gathering a large army, he sailed from Wales landed in Waterford in October 1171. To win favour of the Irish he called a halt to the Norman conquest, he recognized Dermot McCarthy king of Munster, after Dermot promised to pay Henry tribute. From Waterford he marched to Cashel, where Donal Mor O’Brien, King of Thomond, and others submitted. To win the support of the clergy, Henry let it be known that Pope Adrian had asked him to come to Ireland to root out religious abuses. When the bishops heard this they gave him their support. While other Irish princes also submitted, Roderick O’Connor and the Northern princes did not. Henry in turn gave those that did large tracts of land in return. To curtail Strongbow who had most of Leinster, Henry made Hugh de Lacy his Deputy or viceroy as well giving him Co. Meath. Maurice Fitzgerald his uncle got most of Offaly and Naas. In 1185 Henry’s son Prince John was sent to Ireland and made further grants of lands including North Tipperary and part of Kilkenny to Theobald Walter (his butler) and for that reason that family came to be called Butlers. Later they built Kilkenny Castle and became the Earls of Ormonde. He granted William de Burgo (Burke) most of Galway.

The total conquest was almost complete within thirty years. The Munster conquest was made easier by continuing struggle between MacCarthys and the O’Briens for its domination.  By the treaty of Windsor in 1175 Rory O’Connor pledged himself to recognize Henry 11 as the overlord and to collect annual tribute for him from all parts of Ireland, while Henry agreed to accept Rory as “Ard-Ri” (High-King) of the unconquered areas. The scheme broke down for two reasons – Rory was “Ard-Ri” in name only; he found it hard to enforce authority even in his own territory in Connaught. Secondly, Henry 11 could not restrain his barons in Ireland from seizing more Irish land, and he himself made several grants of large areas without consulting Rory or the Irish kings. The Normans ended up owning all good lands in the plains, the coasts, and the riverways. They left the hill-country, the woods and the boglands to the native Irish. Henry reserved to himself Dublin and its hinterland, and the coastal land from Bray to Arklow, also Wexford, Waterford and the adjoining district as far as Dungarvan.

Despite the treaty of Windsor, to which Henry the 11 had put his name to in 1175, he began to sign away other lands which still belonged to Gaelic Irish. To himself he reserved the cities of Cork and Limerick, but the McCarthy lands from Mount Brandon in Kerry to Youghal were given to Robert FitzStephen and Milo de Cogan while the O’Brien lands ‘kingdom of Limerick’ which embraced present day North Kerry, Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary was granted to Philip the Braose. Philip de Braose junior (fl. 1172), was an Anglo-Norman noble most noted for his participation in Henry II’s conquest of Ireland. He was one of the three captains of adventurers left in charge of Wexford at Henry’s departure in 1172.He was also given the City of Limerick (‘Limericenæ videlicet regnum’).

McCarthy retained only south-west Cork and O’Sullivan the Beara Peninsula and South Kerry.  Consequently Munster became one of the most French-Norman-Viking occupied lands outside of France. The Norman advance progressed steadily in the north, west and south. By 1250, within eighty years of the invasion – three quarters of the country had been overrun by the Normans. These shrewd Anglo Norman – Land-Grabbers cherry picked the best of the land in the four provinces of Ireland and left the native Irish with the hills, mountains, the bogs and rocky lands which was mainly in the western half of the island of Ireland.