John de Courcy

Anglo-Norman soldier-adventurer who conquered eastern Ulster

Born around AD 1150, John de Courcy was a minor member of a Somerset family with important connections in the north of England. Described by the chronicler Gerald of Wales as ‘fair-haired and tall with bony and sinewy limbs’ and possessing ‘immense bodily strength’, de Courcy served Henry II in England and France before coming to Ireland in 1176.

De Courcy launched his attack on the kingdom of Ulidia in early 1176, marching rapidly through Meath with a force of 22 knights, 300 other Anglo-Norman troops and perhaps as many Irish fighting men. Gerald of Wales calls him impetuous, but the alliances formed for this and later campaigns show careful planning and shrewd local knowledge.

Ulidia was riven by internal warfare. Within three or four years de Courcy had 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.

As well as building castles like those at Carrickfergus and Dundrum, de Courcy founded or refounded a number of monastic sites, such as Inch and Grey Abbey, many of which had strong Cumbrian links. He also encouraged the cult of Saint Patrick. Appointed Justiciar of Ireland in 1185, de Courcy expanded his territories as far north and west as Coleraine and raided as far as Inishowen in 1199.

A powerful individual, who developed his own coinage at Carrickfergus and Downpatrick, de Courcy posed a challenge to royal authority in Ireland and to other Anglo-Norman powers. Offered safe conduct to leave Ireland in 1202, he was finally expelled by his rivals the de Lacy family in 1203. Ironically, he returned as a member of King John’s expedition, which expelled the de Lacys in their turn.

De Courcy seems to have died, perhaps in exile, in France around 1219.

Further reading:
Anglo-Norman Ireland (1972) by M Dooley; Anglo-Norman Ulster: The History and Archaeology of an Irish Barony 1177-1400 (1980) by TE McNeill; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by Kate Newmann; ‘The First Ulster Plantation: John de Courcy and the Men of Cumbria’ by S Duffy, in Colony and Frontier in Medieval Ireland (1995) edited by T Barry, R Frame and K Simms; A New History of Ireland Vol. II: Medieval Ireland 1169-1534 (1998) edited by SJ Connolly.