One of my big interests is the story of late medieval Ireland. This is a period largely bracketed by the entry of the Anglo-Normans into Ireland around 1170, to the rise of the Tudor dynasty from the 1540s, give or take a few decades.

It fascinates me because we learned so little about this period in school. While other nations were crusading and renaissancing, discovering China, trading spices and being murdered by Mongol hordes, Irish history seemed rather muted, to say the least. The account usually goes as follows: the Normans arrived and conquered Ireland, they built lots of castles, and they eventually became as Irish as the Irish themselves. By the 1500’s English influence was reduced to a small area (The Pale) around Dublin and would have remained this way if it wasn’t for Henry VIII and his daughters and cousins casting their greedy imperial eyes on our green island.

As Irish as the Irish themselves. That single statement seems to cover an an enormous amount of time. Imagine all history since Oliver Cromwell’s arrival in Ireland being reduced to a 6 word sentence, because that’s pretty much the same length of time: 370 years.

I had questions. Precisely how did “Norman” influence get whittled back to a such small narrow area around Dublin? How exactly did the nasty English make friends with their Irish neighbours? What was with all the castles? What else happened in that time period? How can 370 years be passed by so effortlessly?

Even though I still have a lot to discover, what I have learned so far has been engrossing.

First of all, there were a number of hugely disastrous events that get less attention than they deserve in our history books. The Bruce invasion of Ireland in 1315 – an invasion by the Scots affecting great swathes of the country – was utterly devastating. To make matters worse, it coincided with by far the worst famine of the Middle Ages. Then the Black Death came along in 1349, spiriting away a huge proportion of the Irish population. Bubonic Plague was to return every 20 years or so, killing thousands of people each time.

It also appears that climate change had a big effect. The late Middle Ages marks the beginning of the period known as the Little Ice Age. Frequent bad harvests from the later 13th Century through to the 15th Century often resulted in generalised and localised famines. Ireland suffered a significant population loss, resulting in the re-growth of woodland and oak forest across many areas of the country.

The colonisation of Ireland by the Normans was complex, to say the least. The Norman Irish and the Gaelic Irish had a far more bellicose relationship with each other than it might appear. It was often a real clash of cultures, full of hatred and enmity. The Anglo-Irish divided Ireland into ‘lands of peace’, where their influence held sway, and ‘lands of war’: the marshes or borderlands where conflict with Gaelic warlords was frequent and bloody.

This picture is muddied further by the existence of clans and groupings within the Anglo community that went rogue, building fiefdoms and landholdings outside of English control and forming alliances of convenience with Gaelic lords as suited their needs. These “rebel English” were often a bigger nuisance to the English administration in Dublin than the natives themselves.

In these border areas, little progress could be made against what could often be formidable enemies. The rebel clans made copious use of Gallowglasses – foreign mercenary soldiers that neutralised the advantage that Norman armies once had over their Gaelic foes.

The Anglo-Irish also suffered from a wholesale lack of investment from the English crown, who increasingly came to see Ireland as an irritating financial burden. They had wars to fight elsewhere, particularly France; thus Ireland was an unwanted draw on the exchequer. What attempts were made to retake Irish land (and there were quite a few) were often short-lived and limited in scope.

What emerged was a war of attrition, with Crown forces pitted against Irish and rebel clans, and Anglo-Norman landowners vacating their lands due to war, famine and disease.

Despite this, many towns and coastal cities remained in English control. They were frequently harried and attacked by native and rebel forces, but still retained their colonial character, and indeed, survived well. Many of Ireland’s market towns date from this period.

The Gaelicisation of Ireland emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a result of extensive inter-marriage between Irish and Anglo-Irish families, general depopulation and abandonment of lands, and increasing neglect by the English. Events such as the Wars of the Roses in England afforded little time for Irish affairs, though interestingly, some of the great families supported both Lancaster and York, and even fought a battle in Piltown, Kilkenny under these opposing banners. Powerful dynasties emerged from this that were largely unimpeded by the increasingly powerless English administrators. These families developed their own sensibilities, borrowing from both Irish and British culture as they saw fit.

The most significant of these dynasties were the Kildare FitzGeralds, with the greatest of them all – Garret Mor FitzGerald – becoming a de-facto ruler of Ireland well into of the sixteenth century.

The “Norman” castles is an interesting one. The many tower houses that pepper the Irish landscape are often not Norman at all, but very late Medieval and Early Modern. They were often built by Gaelic chiefs, copying from more international trends. This indicates that the traffic towards Gaelicisation was not a simple one-way affair. Well-to-do Gaelic families coveted what Britain and wider Europe had to offer and in doing so became cosmopolitan and less insular.

So, it turns out that Late Medieval times were very complicated. Ireland was a broken patchwork of polities, communities, alliances and enmities, difficult to control and impossible to tame. The period was dominated by great disease and famine, which in turn broke the colonial classes. The grim choice was to retreat to the urban walled towns or to find ways to interact with the Irish enemy through marriages and alliances. Eventually, even the English themselves began to disown the colonial families, referring to them as aliens. Yet, the Anglo Irish community made a huge mark in the country, with laws, boundaries, towns and villages that persist to this day. Ultimately, it was an Anglo-Irish chieftain, Garret Mor Fitzgerald, who united the country, bequeathing to the Irish a sense of nationhood that would persist over the subsequent centuries.