Early Norman Ireland

Over the period leading up to arrival of the Normans in the 12th century,Ireland was growing in confidence and its kings were growing in ambition.  There is little doubt that, had the Normans not arrived when they did, Ireland would probably have evolved of its own accord into a European-style kingdom, but to speculate on that is futile, because the Normans did arrive and when they came here, they changed everything.

Strictly speaking, the Normans didn’t ‘invade’ Ireland – they were invited in by an extremely ambitious and astute Irish King, Diarmaid McMurrough.   Diarmaid imported an army of Norman adventurers to help him in his campaign against the High King but when Diarmaid died shortly afterwards in 1171, his Norman allies chose not to go home. Their leader, Strongbow, had ambitions to become King of Leinster and a new phase in Ireland’s history had begun.

The first force of Normans arrived in Ireland in 1167, followed by the main force of knights and men-at-arms in 1169.  They quickly established themselves in Leinster and began to fortify their new lands.  They were expert castle builders.  The first castles built by the Normans in Ireland were of timber and earth, but were often rendered and painted white with lime to make them look more impressive.   These early Norman castles followed a very similar pattern: a circular mound of earth was raised, called a ‘motte’,  and on this was built a strong wooden tower and other defences; below this was an area  called the ‘bailey’, enclosed by a bank of earth with a timber palisade on top.


The construction of the early castle here in the Heritage Park is lime-whitened just as it would have been 800 years ago and is now used for archery, spear-throwing and medieval-combat training, as well as housing the largest simulated excavation in Ireland which is used by schools and universities, as well as for corporate team-building.




The other type of fortification built by the Normans in this early period was the ‘ringwork castle’.  This was not unlike the Irish ringfort  and consisted of a circular bank-and-ditch of earth, topped by a palisade.  Beside our reconstructed castle is the actual remains of a real ringwork castle built by the first Norman invaders.  It was built by Robert Fitzstephen over the winter of 1169 and 1170, following the Norman capture of the town of Wexford. In 1171 the citizens of Wexford rose up against their conquerors and attacked Fitzstephen on this spot.   Fitzstephen was taken by surprise, hopelessly outnumbered and despite a courageous defence the fort fell to the attackers.   Norman accounts insist that they were tricked by the Wexford men into believing that their armies in Dublin had been destroyed and that the Norman cause was lost.  While untrue, this story seems to have persuaded the fort’s garrison to surrender.


In the mid-1980s a series of excavations were carried out on this spot to learn more about this important site. These revealed that the original ditch was cut out of the living rock and was 7m wide and 2m deep. Within the fort, the archaeologists found animal and fish bones, oysters, whelks, as well as pottery from France and England.  Two silver pennies from the time of Henry III of England(1247-1272) were also found, and are now on display in the Visitor Centre.  Evidence of a more military character turned up too in the form of a battle axe, a stirrup, horse-shoes and nails – telling evidence of the presence of Norman knights on this very spot.