The next group of settlers to arrive on our shores were the Anglo-Normans – descendents of Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic Vikings who in the early decades of the 10th century settled in the lower valley of the River Seine around what is now the city of Rouen in northern France. From there they expanded westwards and within a generation had established themselves as a political power with an aristocracy who embraced with enthusiasm the feudal system of knights and chivalry, then a feature of medieval European society. From their newly created Duchy of Normandy they moved further afield – their most successful campaign was the defeat of the Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which gave them control of England and Wales. It was Norman settlers from Wales who invaded Ireland a century later, thus profoundly changing the course of Irish history.
Reefert church, Glendalough, traditional burial place of Laurence O’Toole’s family
At this juncture in Irish history we meet the celebrated churchman, Laurence O’Toole (Lorcan Ua Tuathail), the first Irish Archbishop of Dublin, elected in 1162 ten years after the creation of the See of Dublin – it would be three centuries before another Irishman took his place.
Laurence O’Toole straddles the period between the waning power of the Vikings in Ireland and the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. He was born near Castledermot in 1128, the son of Muirchertach O’Toole whose father was a local king under Dermot Mac Murrough, king of Leinster, and his family, according to tradition, are buried at Reefert Church in Glendalough. As a young boy Laurence was kept hostage by Dermot Mac Murrough, afterwards his brother-in-law and the person immediately responsible for the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. It is said it was the harsh conditions he endured at this time which led him to become a monk at Glendalough where he was appointed abbot at the age of twenty-five. A reformer – like St Malachy before him – he tried to marry the best of Celtic spirituality with that of the European monastic orders, like the Cistercians and the Augustians then flourishing in Europe. Also like Malachy, he favoured the reformed Augustian order known as Arroasian, which emphasised a strict monastic rule, and which he introduced to Glendalough (associated with St Saviour’s Church). Furthermore, on his appointment as Archbishop of Dublin he established the order as part of the Chapter of Christ Church cathedral. Although his family connection with Dermot Mac Murrough may have been a factor in Laurence’s elevation to high office, it does not take from the fact that he was a good pastor and well-fitted to the position. He had a reputation for holiness, returning to pray in a hermit’s cell in Glendalough for extended periods, and was also noted for his concern for the poor under his care.
The story of Laurence O’Toole is intrinsically entwined with that of the Anglo-Norman invasion. When in 1170 the invaders marched on Dublin, it was Laurence O’Toole who was sent out by the Vikings and chief merchants of the town to negotiate with them. Four years later, he was one of the witnesses to the Treaty of Windsor drawn up by the Anglo-Norman King Henry II and Rory O’Connor, King of Connaught, which attempted to reach an agreement between the natives and the new settlers. When the treaty proved unsuccessful he continued to seek a resolution and died in Normandy in 1180 while on a mission to the court of Henry attempting to reconcile the Irish, the Vikings of Dublin and the new arrivals. His position as an intermediary between the old order and the new is depicted in Daniel Maclise’s painting, held in the National Gallery in Dublin, showing him officiating at the marriage of his niece Aoife to the leader of the invaders, the Earl of Pembroke, Richard de Clare or Strongbow. Today, Laurence O’Toole is the revered patron saint of both the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland Archdioceses of Dublin.
Marraige of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise, National Gallery, Dublin
It can be argued that the Anglo-Normans would have invaded the country without the invitation of Dermot Mac Murrough, king of Leinster; with their penchant for expansion, the surprise is they hadn’t come earlier. Moreover their king, Henry II, encouraged by the English-born Pope Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspear originally from the monastic community of St Albans, north of London), made it his mission to bring the church in Ireland into line with the Roman system and at the same time to reform and civilise the Irish as a whole. But despite all this, Henry appeared in no hurry to invade Ireland not even when approached by Dermot, who sought assistance in his dispute with Ruairi O’Connor, high king of Ireland and his ally, Tiernan O’Rourke of Breifne. This was not the first time an Irish king sought help from across the Irish Channel in what was essentially a local quarrel: the Irish Sea provided easy access to the west coast of Britain thus creating links between the two islands, and mutual aid was often sought and given by leaders on both sides. For example, Dermot’s great-grandfather had given military aid to the Saxon King Harold and later Harold’s sons took refuge in Dublin from William the Conqueror where they were given a fleet of 52 ships with which to attack Bristol. The connection continued after the Norman conquest of Britain and it was to his friend, Robert fitz Harding, Lord of Bristol, that Dermot went following his defeat by Ruairi O’Connor – and as historian James Lyndon points out, it was probably fitz Harding, to whom Henry II was indebted, who suggested to Dermot to make a direct appeal to the king at Aquitaine for help to regain the kingship of Leinster. Henry did not at first respond to Dermot’s request but some of his Welsh barons answered the call and an initial invading force landed at Bannow, Co Wexford, in May 1169. These first Anglo-Normans were all members of, or related through marriage to the Geraldine family who later played such a significant role in Irish history. In the first year the invaders were relatively small in number, nine ships in all amounting to no more than a few hundred men, and met with only limited success. The following year a more powerful force arrived, a thousand men and two hundred armoured knights with war horses, under the command of the Earl of Pembroke, or Strongbow as he was more usually known as. Lured by the promise of the kingship of Leinster and marriage to Dermot’s daughter, Aoife, Strongbow left nothing to chance and borrowed heavily from money-lenders to finance the invasion. His army comprised two main elements – longbows ensuring that the archers need not come into close contact with the enemy, and mounted knights, the equivalent of modern tanks – and together they made up the most formidable fighting machine in western Europe at the time.
Leinster was soon under their command, Waterford was then taken and it was there that Strongbow married Aoife. The invaders now set their sights on the strategic town of Dublin and in September 1170, led by Strongbow and Dermot Mac Murrough, the army began their march northwards. Ruairi O’Connor amassed a large force at present-day Clondalkin to defend the south-western approach to Dublin, thinking, no doubt, that the invaders would come along the western fringe of the Wicklow mountains. Aided by Dermot’s knowledge of the terrain, however, the Anglo-Normans took the high-level route through Glendalough and the mountain pass of The Sallygap to arrive at present-day Rathfarnham, thus avoiding Ruairi and his army. The Viking defenders of Dublin realising they were outnumbered sent Laurence O’Toole to negotiate with Dermot and Strongbow. But as they talked, two of the Anglo-Norman barons, Raymond le Gros and Milo de Cogan, breached the walls and overran the town. The king of the Vikings, Asculf MacTorcaill, and the leading Dublin merchants had only time to reach their boats to seek refuge in the Orkney Islands from where the following year they made a failed attempt to regain Dublin.
Henry II, alarmed by the successes of his Welsh barons and fearing they might declare a separate kingdom, arrived in Ireland in 1171 to establish his authority. He retained as royal demesnes the towns of Waterford and Wexford and large swathes of land in between, to which in time he added Dublin and much of east Wicklow as far as Arklow. Dublin was granted a charter and Strongbow was confirmed as lord of Leinster.
One of Henry’s first actions on arriving in Ireland was to convene a synod at Cashel, which passed decrees on a number of issues relating to the Irish church, issues that had also been a concern for earlier church reformers in Ireland – confirmation of clerical privileges, payment of tithe, administration of the sacraments and conduct of the clergy. The synod was supported by most of the leading clerics in the country, who also gave their allegiance to Henry as lord of Ireland.
Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis), who chronicled the invasion from the Anglo-Norman point of view, related that it was Henry’s intention ‘to fortify with castles, settle in peace and stability, and altogether to mould to his own design ... his Irish dominion’. Henry, however, had to leave the country abruptly in 1172 to attend to more pressing problems in Normandy, but before leaving he granted the ‘fief’ of Meath, which stretched from the Shannon to the mouth of the Boyne, to his close friend, Hugh de Lacy – it was likely that he did so to curb the ambitions of Strongbow.
Baltinglass Abbey, a Cistercian monastery built by Diarmait Mac Murchada
Consolidation and Settlement
Many of the first generation Anglo-Normans, like Strongbow, married Irish wives – for instance, Hugh de Lacy married the daughter of Ruairi O’Connor – and their children spoke Irish as their first language. But this did not prevent the new arrivals hankering after more land: they were quick to take advantage of the volatile nature of Irish politics at the time with Irish chiefs constantly engaged in dynastic warfare. Indeed both Irish and Anglo-Normans could be found fighting on the same side depending on the politics of a particular dispute.
In 1185 King Henry’s son, Prince John, arrived to claim the lordship of Ireland granted to him by his father some years earlier. He remained eight months and through grants of lands to his followers he extended the area under the control of the Anglo-Normans. Measures were taken to secure their new acquisitions: John, for example, when he succeeded his father as king built Dublin Castle which in time became the centre point as well as the symbol of English administration in Ireland. He extended English law to Ireland which was enforced through a system of courts and judges. He also established a council that allowed the king and his officials to consult with the greater tenants and which later evolved into a parliament.
To secure their position, the Anglo-Normans built motte and bailey fortifications – a motte was a raised earthwork on which they initially erected a wooden keep, while the bailey was an adjoining courtyard surrounded by a protective ditch. This type of structure was relatively easy to erect and provided temporary protection as they moved into unconquered areas. In west Wicklow, for example, the impressive ringworks at Rathturtle and the mottes at Donard and Hollywood are examples of the type of fortifications the Anglo-Normans built to defend their newly acquired lands. As the invaders settled they replaced the wooden structures with massive stone castles, as for example can be seen in Trim or Ferns.
Although the Irish were not necessarily excluded from conquered areas, the Anglo-Normans enticed English tenants to settle in Ireland by giving them better conditions and privileges than they had back home. Many of these settled on the better lands in Leinster and Munster but some initially went as far as Erris in Mayo and Dingle in Kerry. The Anglo-Normans also introduced new farming methods: land was cleared, drained and ploughed for cereal production, the number of cattle was increased by using hay as winter fodder and sheep numbers were also increased in response to a demand for wool in Europe. The infrastructure of the country was upgraded: rivers were made more navigable, roads improved, bridges built and fairs and markets created. The increased trade resulted in the development of market towns, such as Naas, Kilkenny and New Ross.
The Anglo-Normans saw themselves as deeply Christian with a particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin and they encouraged religious orders such as the Cistercians, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans from England and Wales as well as mainland Europe to settle in the country. Baltinglass Abbey, although built by Dermot Mac Murrough, 20 years before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, is a fine example of a Cistercian foundation and exemplifies the type of monasticism they favoured.
By the middle of the13th century, most of the good land of the country was occupied by the Anglo-Normans and only the western areas in general were held by the Irish. Land under the control of the Anglo-Normans became known as terra pacis (land of peace), that still held by the Irish was known as terra guerre (land of war), while frontier areas where the land was contested were known as the Marches. But these boundaries were never stable and this was particularly so following a hardening of Gaelic resistance which saw a shrinkage of the area held by the Anglo-Normans; in the late 1250s the O’Donnells halted a Geraldine expansion into the Northwest of the country, while in 1261 the MacCarthys won a decisive battle at Callan, near Kenmare, thus securing for themselves supremacy in south Kerry for the remainder of the Middle Ages. An equally important battle in 1270 at Áth in Chip, near Carrick-on-Shannon, was fought by Aedh O’Connor, who using a mercenary force of Scottish gallowglasses proved that the Irish were finding an answer to Anglo-Norman supremacy. The Black Death in the 1340s impacted severely on the towns and further decreased the influence of the Anglo-Normans. And so it was that the invasion was never fully a conquest, the English kings being either too preoccupied with wars in France or dynastic struggles at home to bother about the neighbouring island. In Ireland, the native and colonists in time more or less learned to live together and terra pacis or the land of peace was in general confined to the Pale, an area surrounding Dublin which remained particularly loyal to the English administration.
The Blessington area, as we shall see, while initially granted to the invaders, was not held by them permanently and indeed for the greater part of the Medieval period it was within the Marches and so experienced skirmishes and raids as the Wicklow O’Byrnes and O’Tooles harried the people of the Pale.
Anglo-Norman holy water font outside St Brigid’s Church, Manor Kilbride
Anglo-Norman Influence in the Blessington Area
A number of sites in the area are associated with the Anglo-Normans: a church called Villa Reysin was situated at Athdown, close to the upper reaches of the Liffey. Today, the only reminder of this church is a graveyard or ‘relig’, a circular enclosure in the bend of the river. A short distance away overlooking the Liffey the remains of an Anglo-Norman motte was visible until recently, an indication that the network of tracks that converged and crossed the river at this point was of importance at this time. These tracks linked ancient Celtic church sites, for example, a tract from the monastery at Kilmosantan in Glenasmole may have forked at Athdown, with one road passing through Ballylow to Glenbride near Granabeg and on towards Glendalough while the other led towards Kilteel via Oldcourt and Crosscoolharour.
In Manor Kilbride, the original wooden church was replaced some time before 1250 by a simple rectangular stone building, situated at the highest point of the old section of the present graveyard. A few cut stones lying on the ground nearby, one which has been identified as part of the east window of the church and a holy water font, presently outside St Brigid’s Church in Manor Kilbride, are all that remain to recall its existence. In time the church at Manor Kilbride and that at Villa Reysin at Athdown became part of the Anglo-Norman foundation at Kilteel across the present-day county boundary with Kildare. This latter foundation, belonging to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem or the Knights Hospitallers, was established around 1220 on an earlier Christian site. The Knights were a military monastic order originally set up to care for pilgrims to the Holy Land and later to defend it against the Turks. The amalgamation of the medieval churches at Villa Reysin and Manor Kilbride with the Knights Hospitallers in Kilteel is important as it established parochial links between the two areas which lasted until the end of the 19th century – Kilteel, Eadestown and Rathmore were part of Blessington parish until 1884.
The most pertinent influence, however, of the Anglo-Normans on the Blessington area is not to be found in ruined sites in the landscape but in the person who succeeded Laurence O’Toole as Archbishop of Dublin, namely John Comyn. His appointment resulted from one of the feudal privileges and customs introduced to the country by the Anglo-Normans, namely, the right of the English monarch to have a major influence in the nomination of bishops to vacant sees. The death of Laurence O’Toole therefore set the scene for the emergence of a new era of English intervention in ecclesiastic affairs in Ireland . This was particularly so in the Archdiocese of Dublin and in the centuries up to the Reformation, all clerics elected as Archbishops were English born and bred and the authority they held was as much civil as it was spiritual. And thus it was that in 1180, Henry II’s secretary, John Comyn, was appointed to the See of Dublin. Already a deacon, he was ordained priest and then bishop by no less a person than Pope Lucius III.
Ruined Tower at Burgage
John Comyn came to Ireland three years after his appointment with a brief to prepare for the arrival of Prince John, who, as we have seen, had been granted the Lordship of Ireland. John was generous to Comyn granting him tracts of land in Swords and just outside the city walls in Dublin, as well as in west Wicklow. In Swords, Comyn built an impressive castle while outside the city walls he selected a site for a new church, which he dedicated to St Patrick and which was later to become St Patrick’s Cathedral. Nearby he built for himself and his successors an episcopal residence known as the Palace of St Sepulchre, now the site of Kevin Street Garda Station.
More pertinent to the history of the parish of Blessington are the lands which were granted to Archbishop Comyn in west Wicklow. These included much of the present-day barony of Talbotstown Lower – the lands surrounding Donard and Hollywood as well as an area known as Coillach, which comprised Kilbride, Blessington, Boystown and part of Burgage. Comyn, however, did not hold on to these lands himself but gave them to relatives: the lands at Donard and Hollywood he gave to his nephews, Jordan and Geoffrey de Marisco, and the land at Coillach he gave to another nephew, Gilbert Comyn. Gilbert’s association with the Blessington area is reflected in the name of a medieval church, Capella de Villa Cumyn, which was situated most likely in Scurlock’s Grave Yard in Crosscoolharbour. All traces of this building, however, have long since gone. The grant to Gilbert included ‘the mill of Donnaghimelach’ and so it appears that the early Christian site at Domhnach Imelach was included in his legacy. Later, in the Anglo-Norman period, a small borough or town was created there and its name changed to Burgage. Much of this site has been submerged by Poulaphuca Reservoir, created when the waters of the Liffey and Kings Rivers were dammed in the late 1930s and all that remains is a ruined tower on the banks of the lake. The borough itself did not flourish and was in decline by 1326. What has survived, however, is the most abiding memorial to Gilbert Comyn, that is the name he gave to the area, Villa Cumin, later, Commenston and which in turn gives us the Irish form for Blessington, namely Baile Coimín.
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© Kathy Trant, January 2014