John has a uniquely important place in Irish history. The youngest of the five sons of Henry II, the king under whom Ireland was invaded by the Normans in 1169, John was selected in 1177 to be King of Ireland. There was no coronation because the pope, who had ultimate authority over such things, refused to sanction the appointment. Instead, John was declared Lord of Ireland, and in that capacity he came here twice, first in 1185 and again in 1210. The first trip was an unmitigated disaster, as he alienated both other Normans and the native Irish. Ironically, when a new pope was elected shortly afterwards and supported making John the king of Ireland, John’s own father had decided against it. By the time of the second trip, John had replaced his father as King of England and claimed ownership of Ireland by virtue of that. His second trip started impressively, and Irish kings paid homage to him. He quickly alienated the same parties as previously, but not before he had effected profound changes in the landscape and settlement of Ireland, and in church affairs in Ireland. By the time he died six years later, Ireland was one of many reasons why he was regarded then, and is still regarded today, as a failed king.
1916 marks the beginning of the end of a long and difficult history between Ireland and England/Britain. King John sits at the start of that period. Medieval historians are agreed that no English king is as important in Irish history as John.
Tadhg O’Keefe is the chair of a small steering committee of academics organising a major conference in September 2016 to remember King John on the 800th anniversary of his death, and to reassess his place in Irish and European history. Given that Ireland was so important to him, and him to it, and given also the commemorations of 1916, this major one-off conference should be held in Ireland.