Before the 5th century, Ireland was virtually unknown, except as a wilderness island too far away and consequently a dangerous target for ambitious figures during the last years of Roman Europe. But it was a fine refuge for storm-bound refugees, and the Norsemen could build a secure base here from which to sally in search of a bloody encounter with the Saxons of England. Both Dublin and Limerick were founded by the Vikings.
Within five centuries Ireland was split into five miniature kingdoms – Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connaught and Meath; north, south, south-west, west, and east respectively. The King in each had to spend all or most of his time defending his kingdom against the other four, as well as attempting to subdue the warring families within it. Ireland there by the twelfth century was a simmering pot of unfriendliness and murderous political tendencies.
This century also saw the inevitable arrival on Irish shores of Norman influence. Norman knights had fought in Wales, where the princes took their wars seriously. These Normans were quite a different breed from the Irish; it must be admitted that they were equally bloodthirsty, but infinitely more disciplined, able to plan military raids, and employ strategic methods to maintain whatever advantage they gained. But then, the history of beautiful and tragic Ireland came under the domination of the English; indeed Ireland was occupied by the English for the next eight hundred years: it was never a happy occupation.
The story features an English-born Pope (the only one), an excommunicated King and a murdered archbishop: for twenty-five years the Church had been astonished and angered by the defiance of their priests in Ireland. It is said that Rome felt particularly helpless in the case of Ireland. Then in 1154 an Englishman called Breakspear became Pope Adrian IV. He published a Bull called Laudabiliter giving papal authority to the new English monarch, Henry II to rule Ireland in the name of the Pope. This was all very well but in order to make it real Henry would have to conquer Ireland first. Henry, a highly intelligent Angevin king, did not find this notion popular, certainly not inspiring, but then in 1170 he clashed with his own Archbishop of Canterbury Becket, who was then murdered, some said at the instigation of the king. One of the results of this, the greatest tragic drama of the twelfth century, was that the Pope promptly damned and excommunicated Henry.
The King decided to do penance for the assassination, first by having himself scourged by priests at Canterbury, and then by launching a crusade against rebellious Ireland using the old papal Bull as a pretext. In 1171 Henry II landed in Ireland and claimed he was its king, authorised by the most holy of documents – Laudabiliter. This was the beginning of a series of tragedies which would, as the centuries passed, darken Irish and English history right up to the present day.
(Note: this post owes a great deal to the historian Christopher Lee of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, particularly for his illuminating book The Dynasties published 2002)