Robert the Bruce's invasion of English occupied Ireland in 1315 could have created a Celtic empire to challenge English dominance of the British Isles. This two part series explores one of history's most fascinating 'what ifs'. In the first episode, Robert the Bruce's victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314 did not put an end to Scotland's fight for independence. King Robert knew that his crown was not secure so he decided to open a 'second front' against the English and invade English occupied Ireland. Robert and his brother Edward hatched an audacious plan - with the help of allies in Ulster they would unite the Scots and Irish in a powerful Celtic alliance against the English threat. In May 1315 a Scottish army landed in Ulster. The Bruce invasion looked like a great success. The Gaelic Irish, disgruntled after 150 years of English oppression, would welcome the Scots with open arms. And at first, all went well - Edward was recognised as High King of Ireland by several leading Ulster lords. A formidable leader, he won a number of significant battles and captured English strongholds. Was this the fulfilment of the widely believed prophecies of Merlin about a new King Arthur uniting the Celts?
The Bruce invasion of Ireland just happened to coincide with a major catastrophe: the Great European Famine of 1315-17. In this devastating time, thousands died of starvation and many more resorted to cannibalism. There were reports of corpses and even children being eaten as people tried desperately to survive, and the Scots themselves were badly ravaged by hunger. Robert Bruce tried to salvage the situation, arriving with reinforcements in 1317, but failed to make a decisive impact. The campaign ended ignominiously the following year when Edward was killed in the Battle of Faughart. The Bruce Invasion is one of the great 'what ifs' of history. If the Scots and Irish had succeeded in driving the English out of Ireland, they would have established a powerful Celtic alliance and England may never have become the dominant power in these islands. But they failed and 700 years on, Ireland and Scotland still live with that legacy. Scotland is still under British rule, and Ireland remains a divided country.