In a way, this book on Strongbow has been a lifetime in the making. I grew up in Chester, a town in the UK that in medieval times had a very strong connection to Dublin. My dad was a tour guide in Chester and being from Dublin, really explored that connection in depth. Our house had three or four shelves of academic books about the medieval period. And as kids, my brother Gavin and I would love to play in the ruins of the castles we were taken to on outings.
My raw enthusiasm for the subject was channeled in a more scholarly direction by my attending Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate and a postgraduate in Medieval history. TCD had – and despite suffering from the impact of austerity policies, to a large extent still has – a real concentration of expertise in the period (Strongbow came to Ireland in 1170). I’m thinking of Katharine Simms, Terry Barry and Sean Duffy in particular, but also I.S. Robinson, who helped me considerably with my reading of Gerald of Wales, our main source for these events.
The book took solid form thanks to a remarkable stroke of luck. In the summer of 2010 I was writer-in-residence at Farmleigh, for my fiction writing. But there Julia Cummins, the librarian, knowing my interest in medieval history, showed me a Latin manuscript, a copy of the Topographia Hibernica by Gerald of Wales. Feeling like a character in a Dan Brown novel, I examined the document with growing excitement. It turned out that this was a version of the Topographia unknown to modern scholarship, due to the fact it ‘disappeared’ from view in 1969, into the private collection of Benjamin Guinness.
Marsh’s Library, which assumed responsibility for the Farmleigh Library in 2009, awarded me a fellowship in 2011 to work on the manuscript and this was really useful for getting to grips with Gerald of Wales.
Having said all this, I don’t want to give the impression that Strongbow is a book written for academics. It isn’t. Here, I’m writing for everyone interested in the story of Strongbow’s involvement in Irish affairs and while my narrative relates to the information we have from historical and archaeological sources, I didn’t want to fill the text with endless qualifications and justifications. For those who want that extra depth, I make suggestions for further reading in an afterword.
With Strongbow, I was trying to write the kind of history I love to read when I’m not seeking a specialist piece of research. I’ve tried to do justice to the passions and violence of the era and the qualities of the main personalities. In particular, I read Diarmait Mac Murchada’s feud with Tigernán Ua Ruairc of Bréifne as being so bitter that Mac Murchada is a kind of Captain Ahab figure, willing to set aside all the usual norms of the Irish aristocracy in pursuit of vengeance.
One last point worth stating is that the book does not take the usual view that the arrival of Strongbow’s army represented a clash of two rival ethnicities, the Saxon and the Celt, not least because Strongbow’s knights saw themselves as ‘Franks’ and spoke a variant of Norman French. Rather, Strongbow deals with what lay beneath the personal dramas, the clash of two differing social systems.