John De Courcy - Early Career in Ireland

Early Career in Ireland

John de Courcy, of Stoke Courcy, in Somerset, came to Ireland around the year 1175 as part of the saxon invading forces, brought in as mercenaries working for Dermot MacMurrough, the ousted King of Leinster, to help him regain his position as King. De Courcy's great-grandfather, Richard de Curci came to England with William the Conqueror and is named in the Domesday Book. His grandfather, William de Curci I, married Emma of Falaise. His father, William de Curci II, married Amice, of Brittany, and died about 1155, leaving the family estates in Somerset and elsewhere in England to his son, William de Curci III, John's elder brother.

John was very ambitious and wanted lands for himself. He decided to invade the north of Ireland which was controlled by the Irish clans. In early January 1177 he assembled a small army of 22 Knights and 300 foot soldiers and marched north, at the rate of thirty miles a day, skirted the back of the Mourne Mountains and took the town of Dun de Lethglas (later Downpatrick) by surprise. After two fierce battles, in February and June 1177, de Courcy defeated the last King of Ulaid, Ruaidrí Mac Duinn Sléibe.

He did all this without King Henry II's permission.

After conquering eastern Ulster he established his caput at Carrickfergus, where he built an impressive stone castle. He married Affreca, daughter of Godred II Olafsson, King of Mann. It is likely that the marriage, as in the case of many kings and those aspiring to be kings in those days, was political, to seal an alliance with her father who paid homage to the King of Norway. De Courcy and Affreca had no children. She built a monastery at Greyabbey dedicated to Saint Mary of The Yolk of God. She is buried there and her effigy, in stone, can still be seen.

In 1183, de Courcy provided for the establishment of a priory at the cathedral of Down with generous endowments to the Benedictines from Chester in England (free from all subjugation to Chester Cathedral). This building was destroyed by an earthquake in 1245. He also created a cell for Benedictines at St. Andres in Ards (Black Abbey) for the houses of Stoke Courcy in Somerset and Lonlay in France, which was near Inishargy, Kircubbin, in present-day County Down. The early Irish monastery of Nendrum was given to the Benedictine house of St Bees in Cumberland in order that they might also establish a cell. His wife, Affreca, founded the Cistercian monastery of Grey, Co. Down, as a daughter house of Holm Cultram (Cumberland) in 1193.

He also made incursions into the west in order to increase his territory and lordship. In 1188 he invaded Connacht, but was repulsed and the next year he plundered Armagh.

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