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Updated on March 1, 2013


Coimhthioch is the Irish word for foreigner, and sadly, invasion and conquest by outsiders would play an ever increasing role in Ireland’s history for over 1000 years. First to arrive were the Vikings in the 8th century A.D. These fierce Nordic raiders were initially interested only in plundering and looting the rich monasteries and castles. Eventually, some liked the Emerald Isle so much they decided to stay permanently. Viking settlements popped up at Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick, among others. Nordic influence would permeate into Celtic culture and the interlopers intermarried with the local populace. From their coastal towns, the Vikings staged raids into the interior of the island to pillage villages.

An interesting sidebar to the Irish-Viking saga is the story of St. Brendan the Navigator. Archaeology has definitively established that the Vikings reached North America some 5 centuries before Columbus, around 1000 A.D. According to Irish lore, Brendan got there even earlier. He sailed west from Ireland during the 6th century in search of Tir Na Nog, Land of the Forever Young, a hold-over from the druid past, a place beyond the horizon where departed souls lived in eternal bliss. While Tir Na Nog proved elusive, Brendan supposedly hit mainland North America. The United States should replace Columbus Day with a holiday for St. Brendan the Navigator.

The breaking of the Viking hold on parts of Erin is said to have occurred at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 A.D., near Dublin. The last high king of Ireland, Brian Boru, led the Irish forces to victory, but died in the process. The fighting, in actuality, resulted from internal Irish intrigue, as Brian’s stepson attempted to seize power with Viking help. Many saw Clontarf as the final passing of a Celtic golden age:

Oh, where Kincora! Is Brian the Great?

And where is the beauty that once was thine?

Oh, where are the princes and nobles that sate

At the feast in thy halls and drank the red wine?

-Macliag- 11th century

In many ways the belief was not unjustified as the next intruder came knocking less than two hundred years after Clontarf, and laid a heavy hand on the Emerald Isle for over 700 years. This Coimhthioch were the Sasanach, or English.

In-fighting among the Irish, which helped bring about Brian Boru’s demise, also brought the English to Ireland’s shores. MacMurrough, a Leinster chieftain, enlisted the aid of Earl Richard DeClare, an English lord known to history as Strongbow, in 1169, to re-claim the kingdom his enemies had driven him from. MacMurrough and Strongbow were successful in their quest, but the English were like the house guests who never leave, because they never did.

Already the curse is upon her

And strangers her valleys profane

They come to divide- to dishonor

And tyrants they long will remain

-Thomas Moore

Two years after the arrival of Strongbow, in 1171, King Henry II of England invaded the Emerald Isle. He had gotten Pope Adrian (by coincidence the only English pope in history) to issue a papal bull, giving him permission to conquer Ireland on religious grounds (seems the Irish were straying from the true faith- somewhat ironic considering what King Henry VIII would do 300 years later.) Henry’s army took control of the area around Dublin.

At first, the English were confined to the region near Dublin, which became known as the Pale. Slowly and inexorably, however, the Sasanach pushed outward, seizing more land as they went. Along with the confiscation came draconian laws intended to subjugate the native people and deprive them of their rights, and eventually their language, culture, and religion. The most notorious of these were the Statues of Kilkenny in 1367, which stripped the Irish of their legal standing, including the right to sue or bear witness in court against an English person. The statutes also aimed at ending the disdainful habit of English settlers marrying native Irish. Mixed marriages were outlawed, and unions between original inhabitants were no longer legally recognized. The first English colonists had become so integrated into Celtic life, they were just as Irish, if not more so, than the native people. They became known as the “Old English”, to distinguish them from the “New English” who arrived several centuries later. The native Irish did not take their oppression lying down, as the following poem written in protest of the Statues of Kilkenny indicates:

I would not give my Irish wife for all the dames in Saxon land

I would not give my Irish wife for the Queen of France’s hand

For she to me is dearer than castles strong or lands, or life

An outlaw- so I’m near her, to love till death,

My Irish wife

The struggle for the Irish, native or not, against their English invaders would grow ever harsher, as religious hatred was stirred into the mix for real this time.


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