Pre Norman Gaelic society was a clan or family based system with a precarious balance of competing power centred on a tribal aristocracy of kings and under kings.
Land was ruled by the king, but owned by the tribal group collectively, with less powerful kings paying tribute to their overlords in grain and cattle. It was an agricultural economy based on a form of ‘transhumance’, namely the movement of the tribe’s herds from winter to summer pastures, known as ‘booleying’.
The Ulaidh peoples were organised into three major kingdoms, the Dal Fiatach, the Dal Riata, the Ui Eachach and the Cruithne, or ‘Cruthin’,
Dal nAraide. Other kingdoms or tribal groups vying for power in pre Norman Ulster included the Ui Neill ruling family of the Connachta people, who had pushed up from
Connacht into the territories now known as Donegal and Tyrone.
The Ui Neill defeated the Ulaidh at the battle of Moira in AD637, but no one group ever succeeded in establishing unchallenged authority over the region.
Armagh was a centre of religious authority and the largest urban centre in pre Norman Ireland. However, after two centuries of inter-tribal conflict and repeated Norse and Danish raids, the political prestige evidenced by the complex of structures still visible at nearby Navan Fort, declined.
Norman forces, commanded by Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, ‘Strongbow’, arrived in Wexford in 1169 at the invasion of Dermot MacMurrough, king of
Leinster. Drawn by promises of land and with the 1154 Papal bull Laudabiliter authorising English rule in Ireland, the small Norman force rapidly established control of southern and eastern
By 1171, Henry II came in person to accept the submission of almost all the Irish kings.
John de Courcy launched his attack on
Ulster in early 1177, marching rapidly through Meath with a force of 22 knights, 300 Anglo-Norman troops and perhaps as many fighting Irish men. The chronicler Gerald of Wales describes him as impetuous, but the alliances formed for this and for later campaigns, show careful planning and shrewd local knowledge.
Ulster was riven by internal warfare. Within three to four years, de Courcy consolidated his control over a substantial area, comprising eastern Antrim, the Ards and southern and eastern Down. A strategic marriage to Affreca, daughter of the king of Man and the Isles, reinforced his power, while a programme of castle building established Anglo-Norman authority in this ‘frontier’ region.
The Anglo-Norman Earldom of Ulster, centred around the massive fortress of Carrickfergus, consisted of five ‘bailiwicks’ or counties, Antrim, Carrickfergus, the Ards, Blathewyc (centred around the town of Newtownards) and Lecale. While the Anglo-Norman lords derived authority from the Earl, the majority of the population of the earldom remained Gaelic Irish, most of them ‘betaghs’ holding land in return for unpaid work on their masters’ lands.
Anglo-Norman power in Ireland began to recede following the 1315 Scots invasion of
Ulster, led by Edward Bruce. Famine, war and plague then saw Anglo-Norman authority withdraw inside the territories of the Pale.
The Gaelic resurgence that followed was strongest in Ulster, leaving the north of
Ireland the most Gaelic region in the country by the sixteenth century.
The Elizabethan Wars
Shane O’Neill attempted to seize power in 1559, but after
Elizabeth refused to acknowledge him as Earl of Tyrone, he raided the south and west from his Tyrone heartlands. O'Neill was declared a traitor, but could not be defeated by military might. By 1562, O’Neill was in
London for peace talks, but continued his assaults on his neighbours and rivals in Fermanagh and Tirconnel (Donegal). In 1565, O'Neill attacked the Scots MacDonnell forces in the Glens of Antrim. His brutal victory left him the most powerful figure in the north.
To counteract this challenge to English authority and security,
Elizabeth’s lord deputy, Henry Sidney, marched north from the Pale in 1566. Sidney and his allies defeated O'Neill on the river Swilly the following year. O'Neill retreated to the uncertain protection of the MacDonnells in the Glens, where he was betrayed and brutally murdered and his severed head sent to
Sidney promoted the idea of colonisation in Antrim and Down, but this served only to alienate the Clandeboye O’Neills and to drive their leader, Sir Brian MacPhelim O’Neill, to rebellion.
The first Earl of Essex, Walter Devereux, launched a northern campaign in 1573. He moved against the new Earl of Tyrone, Turlough Luineach O’Neill and betrayed and murdered Brian MacPhelim O’Neill.
In 1575, he attacked Sorley Boy MacDonnell in the Glens and massacred hundreds of his people on
Island. MacDonnell sacked Carrickfergus castle in revenge for Rathlin and Essex returned to
Dublin, where he died in 1576. Brutal fighting continued until 1586, when the MacDonnell’s rights in the Glens were finally recognised by the crown.
The English educated Hugh O’Neill was declared Earl of Tyrone in 1585. He appeared to be a loyal client of the English crown in
Ulster. However, Tyrone attacked and defeated English forces near Clontibret in 1595, raised huge levies of troops from all sections of Gaelic society and painstakingly constructed the most united and disciplined alliance the English had yet faced in
The warfare that followed Tyrone’s rebellion was to devastate the north. John Chichester recaptured Carrickfergus castle from the Clandeboye O’Neills in 1597, but was killed by the Antrim MacDonnells nearby. Tyrone, with his allies the MacDonnells, O’Donnells and Maguires, roundly defeated an English army at the
Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598.
Elizabeth dispatched Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, whose expedition ended in a truce with Tyrone. Essex’s replacement, Charles Blount, (Lord Mountjoy), with commanders Henry Docwra at Derry and Arthur Chichester at Carrickfergus, launched a five year war of attrition, which broke the power of the Gaelic lords and reduced much of Ulster to a depopulated wasteland.
The O’Neill’s of Ulster (1907) by Thomas Mathews; Gerald of
Wales (1982) by Robert Bartlett; Belfast: An Illustrated History (1983) by Jonathan Bardon.