Hugh de Lacy, restored to the supreme authority on the recall of Fitz-Aldelm in 1179, began to conceive hopes, as Strongbow had done, of carving out for himself a new kingdom. After the assassination of O'Ruarc already related, he assumed without further parley the titles of Lord of Meath and Breffni. To these titles, he added that of Oriel or Louth, but his real strength lay in Meath, where his power was enhanced by a politic second marriage with Rose, daughter of O'Conor. Among the Irish he now began to be known as King of the foreigners, and some such assumption of royal authority caused his recall for a few months in the year 1180, and his substitution by de Courcy and Philip de Broasa, in 1184. But his great qualities caused his restoration a third time to the rank of Justiciary for Henry, or Deputy for John, whose title of "Lord of Ireland" was bestowed by his father, at a Parliament held at Oxford, in 1177.
This founder of the Irish de Lacys is described by Giraldus, who knew him personally, as a man of Gallic sobriety, ambitious, avaricious, and lustful, of small stature, and deformed shape, with repulsive features, and dark, deep-set eyes. By the Irish of the midland districts he was bitterly detested as a sacrilegious spoiler of their churches and monasteries, and the most powerful among their invaders. The murder of O'Ruarc, whose title of Breffni he had usurped, was attributed to a deep-laid design; he certainly shared the odium with the advantage that ensued from it. Nor was his own end unlike that of his rival. Among other sites for castles, he had chosen the foundations of the ancient and much venerated monastery of Durrow, planted by Columbcille, seven centuries before, in the midst of the fertile region watered by the Brosna. This act of profanity was fated to be his last, for, while personally superintending the work, O'Meyey, a young man of good birth, and foster-brother to a neighbouring chief of Teffia, known as Sionnach, or "the Fox," struck off his head with a single blow of his axe and escaped into the neighbouring forest of Kilclare during the confusion which ensued. De Lacy left issue--two sons, Hugh and Walter, by his first wife, and a third, William Gorm, by his second--of whom, and of their posterity, we shall have many occasions to make mention.
In one of the intervals of de Lacy's disfavour, Prince John, surnamed Sans-terre, or "lack-land," was sent over by his father to strengthen the English interest in Ireland. He arrived in Waterford, accompanied by a fleet of sixty ships, on the last of March, 1185, and remained in the country till the following November. If anything could excuse the levity, folly and misconduct of the Prince on this expedition, it would be his youth;--he was then only eighteen. But Henry had taken every precaution to ensure success to his favourite son. He was preceded into Ireland by Archbishop Cuming, the English successor of St. Laurence; the learned Glanville was his legal adviser; John de Courcy was his lieutenant, and the eloquent, but passionate and partial Giraldus Cambrensis, his chaplain and tutor. He had, however, other companions more congenial to his age and temper, young noblemen as froward and as extravagant as himself; yet, as he surpassed them all in birth and rank, so he did in wickedness and cruelty of disposition. For age he had no reverence, for virtue no esteem, neither truth towards man, nor decency towards woman. On his arrival at Waterford, the new Archbishop of Dublin, John de Courcy, and the principal Norman nobles, hastened to receive him. With them came also certain Leinster chiefs, desiring to live at peace with the new Galls. When, according to the custom of the country, the chiefs advanced to give John the kiss of peace, their venerable age was made a mockery by the young Prince, who met their proffered salutations by plucking at their beards. This appears to have been as deadly an insult to the Irish as it is to the Asiatics, and the deeply offended guests instantly quitted Waterford. Other follies and excesses rapidly transpired, and the native nobles began to discover that a royal army encumbered, rather than led by such a Prince, was not likely to prove itself invincible. In an idle parade from the Suir to the Liffey, from the Liffey to the Boyne, and in issuing orders for the erection of castles, (some of which are still correctly and others erroneously called King John's Castles,) the campaign months of the year were wasted by the King of England's son. One of these castles, to which most importance was attached, Ardfinan on the Suir, was no sooner built than taken by Donald More O'Brien, on midsummer day, when four knights and its other defenders were slain. Another was rising at Lismore, on the Blackwater, under the guardianship of Robert Barry, one of the brood of Nesta, when it was attacked and Barry slain. Other knights and castellans were equally unfortunate; Raymond Fitz-Hugh fell at Leighlin, another Raymond in Idrone, and Roger le Poer in Ossory. In Desmond, Cormac McCarthy besieged Theobald, ancestor of the Butlers in Cork, but this brave Prince --the worthy compeer of O'Brien--was cut off "in a parlee by them of Cork." The Clan-Colman, or O'Melaghlins, had risen in West-Meath to reclaim their own, when Henry, not an hour too soon, recalled his reckless son, and entrusted, for the last time, the command to Hugh de Lacy, whose fate has been already related.
In the fluctuations of the power of the invaders after the death of de Lacy, and during the next reign in England, one steadfast name appears foremost among the adventurers --that of the gallant giant, de Courcy, the conqueror of the Ards of Down. Not only in prowess, but also in piety, he was the model of all the knighthood of his time. We are told that he always carried about his person a copy of the prophecies attributed to Columbcille, and when, in the year 1186, the relics of the three great saints, whose dust sanctifies Downpatrick, were supposed to be discovered by the Bishop of Down in a dream, he caused them to be translated to the altar-side with all suitable reverence. Yet all his devotions and pilgrimages did not prevent him from pushing on the work of conquest whenever occasion offered. His plantation in Down had time to take root from the unexpected death of Donald, Prince of Aileach, in an encounter with the garrison of one of the new castles, near Newry. (A.D. 1188.) The same year he took up the enterprise against Connaught, in which Milo de Cogan had so signally failed, and from which even de Lacy had, for reasons of his own, refrained. The feuds of the O'Conor family were again the pretext and the ground of hope with the invaders, but Donald More O'Brien, victorious on the Suir and the Shannon, carried his strong succours to Conor Moinmoy on the banks of the Suca, near the present Ballinasloe, and both powers combined marched against de Courcy. Unprepared for this junction, the Norman retreated towards Sligo, and had reached Ballysadare, when Flaherty, Lord of Tyrconnell (Donegal), came against them from the opposite point, and thus placed between two fires, they were forced to fly through the rugged passes of the Curlieu mountains, skirmishing as they went. The only incidents which signalized this campaign on their side was the burning of Ballysadare and the plunder of Armagh; to the Irish it was creditable for the combinations it occasioned. It is cheering in the annals of those desultory wars to find a national advantage gained by the joint action of a Munster, a Connaught, and an Ulster force.
The promise of national unity held out by the alliance of O'Brien and O'Conor, in the years 1188-'89, had been followed up by the adhesion of the lords of Breffni, Ulidia, or Down, the chiefs of the Clan-Colman, and McCarthy, Prince of Desmond. But the assassination of Conor Moinmoy, by the partizans of his cousins, extinguished the hopes of the country, and the peace of his own province. The old family feuds broke out with new fury. In vain the aged Roderick emerged from his convent, and sought with feeble hand to curb the fiery passions of his tribe; in vain the Archbishops of Armagh and of Tuam interposed their spiritual authority, A series of fratricidal contests, for which history has no memory and no heart, were fought out between the warring branches of the family during the last ten years of the century, until by virtue of the strong-arm, Cathal Crovdearg, son of Turlogh More, and younger brother of Roderick, assumed the sovereignty of Connaught about the year 1200.
In the twelve years which intervened between the death of Moinmoy and the establishment of the power of Cathal Crovdearg O'Conor, the Normans had repeated opportunities for intervention in the affairs of Connaught. William de Burgh, a powerful Baron of the family of Fitz-Aldelm, the former Lord Justice, sided with the opponents of Cathal, while de Courcy, and subsequently the younger de Lacy, fought on his side. Once at least these restless Barons changed allies, and fought as desperately against their former candidate for the succession as they had before fought for him. In one of these engagements, the date assigned to which is the year 1190, Sir Armoric St. Laurence, founder of the Howth family, at the head of a numerous division, is said to have been cut off with all his troop. But the fortune of war frequently shifted during the contest. In the year 1199, Cathal Crovdearg, with his allies de Lacy and de Courcy, was utterly defeated at Kilmacduagh, in the present county of Galway, and were it not that the rival O'Conor was sorely defeated, and trodden to death in the route which ensued, three years later, Connaught might never have known the vigorous administration of her "red-handed" hero.
The early career of this able and now triumphant Prince, as preserved to us by history and tradition, is full of romantic incidents. He is said to have been born out of wedlock, and that his mother, while pregnant of him, was subject to all the cruel persecutions and magical torments the jealous wife of his father could invent. No sooner was he born than he became an object of hatred to the Queen, so that mother and child, after being concealed for three years in the sanctuaries of Connaught, had to fly for their lives into Leinster. In this exile, though early informed of his origin, he was brought up among the labourers in the field, and was actually engaged, sickle in hand, cutting the harvest, when a travelling Bollscaire, or newsman from the west, related the events which enabled him to return to his native province. "Farewell sickle," he exclaimed, casting it from him --"now for the sword." Hence "Cathal's farewell to the rye" was long a proverbial expression for any sudden change of purpose or of condition. Fortune seems to have favoured him in most of his undertakings. In a storm upon Lough Ree, when a whole fleet foundered and its warrior crew perished, he was one of seven who were saved. Though in some of his early battles unsuccessful, he always recovered his ground, kept up his alliances, and returned to the contest. After the death of the celebrated Donald More O'Brien (A.D. 1194), he may certainly be considered the first soldier and first diplomatist among the Irish. Nor was his lot cast on more favoured days, nor was he pitted against less able men than those with whom the brave King of Munster--the stoutest defender of his fatherland--had so honourably striven. Fortunate it was for the renown of the Gael, that as one star of the race set over Thomond, another of equal brilliancy rose to guide them in the west.
With the end of the century, the career of Cathal's allies, de Courcy and de Burgh, may be almost said to have ended. The obituary of the latter bears the date of 1204. He had obtained large grants from King John of lands in Connaught--if he could conquer them--which his vigorous descendants, the Burkes of Clanrickarde, did their best to accomplish. De Courcy, warring with the sons of de Lacy, and seeking refuge among the clansmen of Tyrone, disappears from the stage of Irish affairs. He is said to have passed on to England, and ended his days in prison, a victim to the caprice or jealousy of King John. Many tales are--told of his matchless intrepidity. His indirect descendants, the Barons of Kinsale, claim the right to wear their hats before the King in consequence of one of these legends, which represents him as the champion Knight of England, taken from, a dungeon to uphold her honour against a French challenger. Other tales as ill authenticated are founded on his career, which, however, in its literal truth, is unexcelled for hardihood and adventure, except, perhaps, by the cotemporaneous story of the lion-hearted Richard, whom he closely resembled. The title of Earl of Ulster, created for de Courcy in 1181, was transferred in 1205, by royal patent, to Walter de Lacy, whose only daughter Maud brought it in the year 1264 to Walter de Burgh, lord of Connaught, from whose fourth female descendant it passed in 1354, by her marriage with Lionel, Duke of Clarence, into the royal family of England.