The history of medieval Ireland cannot be understood without some knowledge of the historical and social background. Also many concepts familiar to readers in Ireland are not familiar to readers in other countries. Therefore I have supposed that many readers will be coming to the subject for the first time. I trust that those who are already familiar with the subject will not regard me as condescending. Everyone has to start at some point. It should be remembered that records were kept and history written about the activities of the chiefs and noblemen. Little was written about ordinary people who formed the vast bulk of the population. We have to find what we can about them indirectly, for example from records of harvests kept on big estates.
All of western civilization is derived from what happened in the various lands and regions in Western Europe after the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. Numerous warrior families poured across the old frontiers of the Empire and adapted themselves to the Roman way of life. Usually they adopted the Latin language, though in England they did not. As the political and military power of Rome declined another power developed, that of the Christian Church based on Rome. It kept literacy and the art of writing alive. The various post-Roman states were ruled by kings who depended on the Christian clergy for much of their administration, and indeed for their defence. This however led to prolonged disputes as to the limits of the authority of the religious and secular powers. These states were then subjected to prolonged attacks by pagan peoples like the Vikings and Huns from the north the south and the east. They gradually reorganised themselves to beat off the invaders. Central to this organisation was the castle and the mounted knight. The whole structure of society was re-formed on the basis of supporting these. At the same time there were attempts to get the clergy to lead lives different from those of knights and more in keeping with their religious vocation. The invaders were driven off. Those to the north and east accepted Christianity and developed their states on the latest western European lines. Only in the south, in Spain and Africa did the threat remain.
England, a former province of the Roman Empire was taken over by various Germanic-speaking families called Angles and Saxons and they at an early date, accepted Christianity. England suffered very heavily from the raiders from the north, the Vikings, but early in the 10th century succeeded in forming a unified kingdom and controlling the Vikings. In the 11th century the Anglo-Saxon rulers were overthrown by Normans from Normandy who introduced the feudal system of government which had grown up on the Continent.
Ireland, though never a part of the Roman Empire, had accepted Christian missionaries in the 5th century and became a Christian country. It too suffered from the Viking invasions, and succeeded largely in overcoming them. Many of the Vikings remained in Ireland and brought many innovations to Ireland. As an island beyond an island Ireland was usually the last to keep up with developments. The Irish clergy began to try to adapt themselves to the standards of the new reform in Church affairs on the Continent. There was a fresh irruption into Irish affairs when some of the Norman king of England’s subjects were invited to take part in a struggle between Irish chiefs and were promised grants of land in Ireland. This would effectively have removed them from the authority of their feudal overlord, so he too went to Ireland to assert his authority over them. He received a general assent from the Norman knights, the Gaelic chiefs and the Irish bishops that he would be their feudal overlord and then departed. That might have been the end of the matter. For various reasons it became necessary to send more knights to Ireland to maintain the peace and to assert the king’s authority. The knights for their part began to deve