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Tuesday 20 February 2018

The English Pale in Ireland

However at this point of maximum power the invaders held no more than two thirds of the island and during the 14th and 15th centuries their control steadily weakened until the English crown only effectively controlled the four eastern counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin and Kildare, the area defined in 1495 as the Pale.This was the term used to mean the area around Dublin, ‘

In May 1169 the Anglo Norman invasion of Ireland began when a small force of soldiers, under the command of Robert FitzStephen, landed at Bannow Bay, Co Wexford. During the next 70 years the Normans attempted to conquer the island and their territorial expansion can be said to have reached its peak in the conquest of Connaught, which was completed in 1235.

However at this point of maximum power the invaders held no more than two thirds of the island and during the 14th and 15th centuries their control steadily weakened until the English crown only effectively controlled the four eastern counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin and Kildare, the area defined in 1495 as the Pale.

This was the term used to mean the area around Dublin, ‘the four obedient shires’, directly subject to the Dublin government, which was in turn subordinate to English rule. Here the English resolved to keep one last precarious foothold, or beachhead, in Ireland. The boundary of the Pale started south of Dundalk, near Blackrock, Co Louth and using the River Fane, moved inland to encompass Ardee, then out to the sea near Bray, Co Wicklow.

At the end of the 15th century, the Pale was ordered by Parliament sitting at Drogheda to be bounded by a ditch. This ‘Pale Ditch’ like its earlier prototype, the Black Pigs Dyke, was never intended to be manned or defended continuously, wether in space or in time. These running entrenchments were designed as boundaries and as obstacles to pillaging raids, hindering the driving away of cattle spoil, until the raiders could be overtaken by forces sufficient to cope with them.

A known section of the Pale ditch can be seen at Syddan, Co Meath, south west of Ardee, Co Louth. A mile of the bank can be here traced running in a straight line, with one obtuse bend, and it is crossed twice by the road from Drumcondra to Mountain House Cross Roads. Locally known as the ‘double ditch’ it is to a large extent, intact. The base of this ditch is from 10 to 12 ft, not including dykes each side and it has a strong well set hedge each side. The bank on top is 7 or 8 feet. The average height would be five feet over the level of the adjoining land. It divided two distinct estates in the older days and is in fact still looked upon locally as a district division.

It is somewhat curious that this section of the ditch, at Syddan, is not towards Ardee, but in a SE NW direction. But no doubt, the rampart changed direction fairly often to take advantage of the nature of the ground, and to make use of rivers or marshy ground in order to save labour and continuous excavation.

Outside the Pale the native Irish lived in rural settlements which were presumably a combination of dispersed farmsteads and they constantly showed hostility to these English settlers, who built castles and tower houses to defend their conquered territory. Some tower houses in Meath were used for this purpose.

In 1430 a grant of £10 was offered by King Henry VI to anyone who would build ‘a castle or tower sufficiently embattled and fortified’ – according to certain dimensions, in the Pale, within the next ten years. The dimensions were given as a minimum of 29 feet in length, 16 feet in breadth and 40ft in height. This was an attempt to reinforce the English territory. (Termonfeckin Tower House, north of the village, overlooking the Feighan valley is a fine example). This ordinance was originally to have lasted for six years, but it must have had more response than anticipated, for in 1449, a limit was put on the number of castles to be built.

The term Pale was used normally up to Henry VIII’s reign, who succeeded to the throne of England in 1509 and became king of Ireland in 1541. The term was then dropped as the English gradually extended to cover all Ireland. The dictionary definition of pale is, pointed piece of wood for fence etc, stake boundary. ‘Beyond the Pale’ or ‘Outside the Pale’ – which is still used in the spoken word today – was ‘outside the bounds of civilised behaviour’.



The English never succeeded in over running what are now counties Armagh and Tyrone. Therefore, the county Louth part of the Archdiocese, was in English hands throughout the later Middle Ages, the church there was known (in Latin) as ‘ecclesia inter Anglious’ that is ‘the Church among the English’ while the rest of the diocese beyond their grasp was ‘inter Hibernicos’, that is ‘among the Irish’. The Archbishops were with few exceptions, English or Anglo-Irish, and therefore resided ‘inter Anglious’ on their manors at Termonfeckin and Dromiskin, rarely venturing as far north as their cathedral city, and using instead St Peter’s Church in Drogheda (top of Peter St), for all intents and purposes a Pro-Cathedral since the diocese was then split in two.

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