Edward the Bruce King of Ireland d. 1318


In the middle of the 12th Century Ireland was caught in a time of weakness, as there was no current High King. The chieftains were fighting among themselves for power and one in particular, Diarmuid (Dermot) MacMurrough (d. May 1, 1171), had hopes of the High Kingship of Ireland himself.

Dermot MacMurrough was the Irish King of Leinster who succeeded his father Eanna's throne in 1126. MacMurrough faced many rivals for the throne and he settled his problems by killing or blinding the 17 Chieftans in Northern Leinster who disputed his kingship. In 1153 MacMurrough abducted the wife of Tiernan O'Ruark, king of Breifne (what we know today as the modern counties of Leitrim and Cavan). Within a year, MacMurrough was attacked and the stolen wife returned but his powerful northern allies prevented the punishment he so deserved.

After thirteen years of bitter feuding, MacMurrough was expelled from his kingdom by Roderic (Rory O'Connor), high king of Ireland. MacMurrough fled to England and immediately went to King Henry II who granted permission for the exiled ruler to enlist the aid of several Anglo-Norman lords, in particular Richard de Clare (b. c. 1130 d. April 20, 1176, Dublin, Ire.) who is also known by the name Strongbow.

Little did Dermot MacMurrough realize that by enlisting the help of the Anglo-Normans to settle an internal dispute he would lead the English right into the conquest of Ireland itself.

Initially, the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland was viewed in terms of assistance to an exiled ruler. But MacMurrough's continued requests for help and his own greed brought more and more foreign troops to Ireland. Upon MacMurrough's death in May, 1171, Strongbow took charge of all the conquered lands and laid these at the feet of the English King, Henry II.

Strongbow's easy victories emboldened Henry to lead his own invasion of Ireland in October 1171. English superiority was readily apparent and Ireland's Princes and Kings quickly swore fealty to their new ruler.

Although the Gaels were scattered and without leadership they never really capitulated. And even though the invaders quickly dotted the landscape with castle after castle, in 1258 the greatest Irish Clans remaining elected Brian O'Neill as their High King in an attempt to unite the country. But the Irish forces were weak compared to the Anglo-Normans and were quickly defeated in the disastrous Battle of Downpatrick in 1260. The Irish fought in fine linen and fell like wheat in front of the invaders who fought in a mass of iron and in organized groups on horseback. Their new High King was killed and their hopes, while not dashed, waned considerably.

In 1263, the Irish tried again and the offer of High Kingship went to King Haakon IV (b. 1204) of Norway. King Haakon brought the gall-oglach into the fray. The gall-oglach (gallowglass) were a combination of Scot and Viking who lived on the western islands of Scotland under Norse control. They were huge men for the time, heavily armed, mail armored, battle-axe-swinging harvesters of death.

Sensing an opportunity, the Scotts took advantage of the Gallowglass' absence and recovered the territory in the islands. King Haakon tried, but failed to recoup his loss and later died of his injuries in the Orkney Islands in December 1263 before he could formally accept the Irish Crown. Now without a home, the gallowglass stayed in Ireland and began turning the tide in favor of the Irish.

Although the small numbers of gallowglass prevented a swift Irish victory, Anglo-Norman power faded in Ireland. Over the span of the next fifty years, more and more of the country fell back into the hands of the Gaels. Impatient, Donal O'Neill and the other Lords invited Edward Bruce to Ireland in 1315.

Edward was the brother of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. Together they had successfully defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and attained Independence for Scotland. In 1315 Edward was the Earl of Carrick, in Galloway, Scotland, and had thousands of unemployed soldiers in his domain. His ambitions needed an outlet, and another fight against the English seemed like the thing to do. Edward accepted, and on May 25th 1315 landed at Larne Harbor with the largest force to ever hit the island. Six thousand battle-hardened veterans clad in mail offloaded from the ships. Large numbers of light Irish infantry soon joined them and the Battles began in earnest.

The Gael alliance was almost unstoppable and started to reel off a string of victories. For this, Edward was well received and after almost a year he was crowned King of Erin (Ireland) at Dundalk on May Day, 1316. He soon had almost all of Northern Ireland in his grasp, and in September his brother Robert arrived to help him. They took most of the midlands of the Island but failed in taking Dublin, as they had no siege engines. Meanwhile, the beginning of a general famine was making it difficult to provide for his soldiers in the field. After going back to Ulster early in the year of 1317, Robert the Bruce returned to Scotland and the management of his kingdom with a promise of supplies and more men.

Little happened the next year, as the general famine prevented much fighting by the participants. Of notable exception was a battle at Disert O'Dea near Ennis, where the O'Brien's recovered their Kingship. But this was soon to change, as Edward Bruce had lost momentum and an army led by John de Birmingham was marching against him in the late summer of 1318.

Birmingham's forces were vastly superior to those of Edward Bruce, but he was emboldened by his string of victories and sallied forth against the menace. His force of Scots, Irish and Meath rebels met the army on October 14th, 1318 and were soundly defeated. Edward himself was slain after a gallant stand, his remaining Scots returning home however they could. Edward's allies were left leaderless and suffered greatly after this defeat. Thus, the English Lordship of Ireland was restored.

Whether or not a Scottish feudal monarchy in Ireland instead of an English one would have bettered things is not known. But the rampant pillaging of Middle Ireland by Bruce's Army most certainly caused a severe famine for over three years.

History is written by the victors, they say, so it is likely that Edward probably would have been judged differently had he been victorious in Ireland. Historian Edmund Curtiss, in his book, A History of Ireland, mentions Bruce being described as a "destroyer of Ireland in general, both of English and of Gael". … Well, as far as this writer is concerned, at least Edward was Gael.

by BW and MJ, January, 2000

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