John de Courcy was a Norman knight who arrived in Ireland in 1177. From then until his expulsion in 1204, he conquered a considerable territory, endowed religious establishments, built abbeys for both the Benedictines and the Cistercians and built strongholds at Dundrum Castle in County Down and Carrickfergus Castle in County Antrim.
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 Dún Dá Leathghlas (now Downpatrick) by surprise. After two fierce battles, in February and June 1177, de Courcy defeated the last King of Ulaid, Ruaidhrí Mac Duinnshléibhe. A.D. 1176. ” John de Courcy was opposed in his advance upon Uí Tuirtre and Fir-Lee by Cuimidhe Ó Fhloinn. In the following year having again invaded Dal-Aradia, he encountered Cuimidhe Ó Fhloinn, Lord of Uí Tuirtre and Fir-Laoi, and, having suffered a defeat, he fled wounded to Dublin.”
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 Aifric 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 Yoke 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. Andrews in the 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 Abbey, 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.
Photo: Carrickfergus Castle