The early Anglo-Norman settlers in Ireland seemed English to the Irish and Irish to the English: centuries later their predicament remained unresolved and the colonial community continued to grapple with the difficulties of maintaining satisfactory relations with a mother country that went on changing.
In the early days of the first English colony in Ireland, outside Dublin in 1170, Maurice Fitzgerald rallied his men with these words:
'Just as we are English to the Irish, so we are Irish to the English.'
Some of the settlers and soldiers were English, of course, but others were Norman, Welsh and Flemish. They had a great deal more in common with one another than they had with the native Irish: they shared the same legal principles, economic practices, property laws and social conventions, and they acknowledged a common political authority, but they were culturally disparate nonetheless, and their experiences in Ireland were not such as to unify them.
Settlement was fragmented. There was dense colonisation around the points of disembarkation, at Dublin and the south-east. From there, the settlers radiated out, along the river valleys and the low ground to the south, the west and the north-east, thinning out along the lines of advance, not over-running the Irish, but displacing them and pushing them aside. They settled the fertile ground, staying below the 200-metre line (above sea-level) everywhere, and controlling the river system which was the key to the command of communications. The pattern that emerged was made up of a colonial heartland in Leinster, which came to be known as the Pale, and which was connected with numerous and extensive clusters of outlying settlements scattered among the Irish.
As time went on, however, the Irish recovered ground, notably in the early fourteenth century. In the midlands as well as further afield, they over-ran the weaker settlements and flowed around the stronger ones, breaking the lines of communication and isolating the colonies both from one another and from the heartland. That Gaelic resurgence was short-lived. Tensions diminished after the visitation of plague known as the Black Death struck in the middle of the fourteenth century and sharply reduced the population, leaving plenty of resources for the survivors and removing any need to fight for them. For the remainder of the medieval period, colonist and native each had room to expand within their own areas, but the geography of colonial Ireland remained as it had been when the Black Death came - dispersed and disconnected.
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