VI.
JOHN DE COURCY AND THE CONQUEST OF ULSTER

INTRODUCTION

THE WORDS THAT USUALLY FOLLOW the name John de Courcy (died c. 1219) are “conqueror of Ulster.” Gerald of Wales describes him this way:

John was fair-haired and tall, with bony and sinewy limbs. His frame was lanky, and he had a very strong physique, immense bodily strength and an extraordinarily bold temperament …. He was so eager for battle and so headstrong that, whenever he was put in command of troops, he often abandoned the self-control required of a leader, laying aside the role as commander and assuming that of an ordinary soldier, so that when his troops were wavering he would rush impetuously among the leading ranks, and one got the impression that he had thrown away the chance of victory in his eagerness to win ….

He took as his lawful wife the daughter of Guthred king of [the Isle of] Man, … and fortified all parts of Ulaid [Counties Down and Antrim] with castles built in suitable places, not without a great deal of toil, short rations and endurance of many dangers, settled it and established conditions of the utmost peace and stability.

De Courcy landed at Wexford in 1176. After the conquest, he moved north with the troops to Dublin, where, according to most reports, he was so disgusted by the corrupt practices of the occupation government that he picked out a small but elite force and headed north into Ulaid, where he defeated the last of the ancient Ulster kings, Mac Duinn Suibne. As conqueror, he had the reputation of being far more interested in the native culture than most of the invaders. He was especially fascinated by the local saints, St. Patrick in particular, and Gerald of Wales even reports that John carried with him a book of prophecies written in Irish that he seemed to be able to read.

Often using the title princeps (prince), he ruled Ulster as a semi independent state until 1244, enjoying more support from the Irish than was usual for an Englishman. And when he was overthrown, it was not by the Irish but by a rival Norman, a member of the de Lacy family, who coveted his lands.

In the entry from The Book of Howth that follows, readers may find English being used in a most unfamiliar way. The grammar may seem strange, and the spelling of proper names is inconsistent even within paragraphs. But the account has the raw power of folk art with sentences such as: “Both through the battle of Irishmen he went and returned again and again, making lanes through them so many that his few men that he had might easily pass through and through.”

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