outstanding figure of 11th century Ireland, who brought the hitherto
relatively unimportant Uí Cheinnsealaigh to dominate Leinster and was
effectively the most powerful figure in Ireland of his time, was
Diarmuid Mac Maol na mBó, grandfather of Diarmuid Mac Murchadha.
This leads into one of the most important and controversial periods in
Irish history, involving the role played by Diarmuid Mac Murchadha in
the arrival of the Normans in Ireland. This episode has, more than most
others in Irish history, generally been subjected to oversimplification
and inaccuracies. The very complex background, as well as the
personalities involved and their motivations need to be carefully
analysed in order to have a full appreciation of this momentous event in
needs to appreciate:
-Firstly, the existence of prior Norman ambitions to conquer Ireland:
the Normans had planned their invasion of Ireland well before 1169, but
had postponed it until then.
Secondly, the role of the Papacy in a European Dimension: as a
counterweight to the threat posed by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to
the Italian States, the Papacy followed a political strategy of
maintaining alliances with the Normans. In turn, the Normans made the
use of diplomatic overtures to the then English-born Pope to give their
invasion plans a cloak of religious respectability. Likewise, the See of
Canterbury, having already ordained some Norse bishops of Dublin but
having had this procedure interrupted, had designs on obtaining control
over the Irish Church.
Thirdly, the absence of a strong internal power : the domestic Irish
political scene had been unstable since the death of Brian Boru, with
internecine strife as various clans competed for local and provincial
power and for the High Kingship. Local interests prevailed over
everything else. This situation both provided the initial impetus for
the Norman invasion and obviously made the country vulnerable to a
Incidentally, it is as well to point out that as a result of the course
of history, few Irish families are without some small modicum of Norman
Tumultuous Period Following 1014
Brian Boru’s career had demonstrated that the stranglehold of the Uí
Néill on the High Kingship could be broken, but his clan were not strong
enough to maintain its hold on it after his death. The country
subsequently entered into a period of political instability, with a
number of chieftains vying for the High Kingship but rarely able to
command overall support. This was a tumultuous period of wars and
rapidly changing alliances, in the absence of a strong central power.
After Brian’s death, the Southern Uí Néill of Meath again resumed the
High Kingship, but on the death of their king (Mael Seachnal) in 1022,
the title was again in contention.
Death in battle while leading their armies from the front was a regular
hazard for Irish chieftains. Moreover, the death of a chieftain in
battle often triggered a disengagement and a retreat by the dead
must also be borne in mind that this was a very violent and cruel era
all over Europe, with horrendous deeds perpetrated by those in pursuit
of land and power. Territories were forcibly seized and massacres
carried out without religious or other qualms, rivals were ruthlessly
eliminated and hostages were murdered in retaliation for broken pledges.
is against this background that we observe the emergence of the
ancestral Uí Cheinnsealaigh dynasty.
Diarmuid Mac Maol na mBó
most of the middle years of the 11th century the leading contender for
the High Kingship (“High King with opposition”) was Diarmaid Mac Maol na
mBó, of the Uí Cheinnsealaigh line. He not alone involved himself in
Irish affairs but also of those of the Isle of Man and Wales. In 1052 he
was the first Irish king to assume the kingship of Dublin, which from
then on outshone Tara as the seat of royal power.
Donnchadh Ó Corráin (Journal of Old Wexford Society, Vol. 4) has pointed
out, he spearheaded the rise of the Uí Cheinnsealaigh from a relatively
unimportant South Leinster tribe to the Kingship of Leinster. Prior to
that, the dynastic families (Uí Dhúnlainge) of North Leinster (Uí
Mhuireadaigh or O’Tooles, Uí Fhaeláin or O’Byrnes, Uí Dhúnchada or Mac
Giollamacolmógs) had ruled the kingdom. These were all descendants of
Murchadh Mac Brain (d. 727). However, during the later Norse war period
the power of the North Leinster families began to decline, aggravated by
internecine quarrels. Their hold over Leinster was broken by Donnchadh
Mac Giolla Phádraig of Osraí, who became King of Leinster in 1037. A
subsequent recovery by the O’Tooles ( Murchadh Mac Dúnlaing King of
Leinster 1040-42) was only temporary.
Having removed a rival by blinding him, Diarmaid Mac Maol na mBó
established himself as King of Uí Cheinnsealaigh by 1036. He then
created an alliance with the powerful Mac Giolla Phádraig of Osraí and
plundered and burned Viking Waterford. His expansion into the Kildare
lands of the O’Tooles was temporarily checked when Murchadh Mac Dúnlaing
defeated the Uí Cheinnsealaigh in 1041, killing Diarmuid’s brother Dónal
Remar and, in alliance with the O’Brien claimant to the High Kingship,
Mac Dúnlaing then invaded Uí Cheinnsealaigh and burned Ferns.
the following year (1042) Diarmuid, with the assistance of Mac Giolla
Phádraig, retaliated and defeated and killed Mac Dúnlaing in battle.
This destroyed for ever the O’Toole hegemony in Leinster and until his
death in battle in 1072 against Meath, Mac Maol na mBó remained king of
Leinster. Moreover, his descendants retained this Kingship until
Diarmuid Mac Murrough’s death in 1171.
defiance of the O’ Brien claimant to the High Kingship (Mac Briain),
Diarmuid began to interfere in the the Mael Seachlann (or O’Maolachlann)
Kingdom of Meath and in 1052 made himself master of Norse Dublin and its
environs, while continuing his attempted expansion into the Kingdom of
death of Mac Giolla Phádraig , his Osraí ally, in 1055 left Diarmuid in
a position of supreme power in Leinster and allowed him to concentrate
his attention on imterprovincial politics.
Munster, Donnchadh Mac Briain, the claimant to the High Kingship, was
faced with both internal and external enemies. Mac Maol na mBó with his
protégé Turlough o’Brien, invaded Munster, seized Limerick and defeated
Donnchadh Mac Briain at Sliabh gCrot in 1058. This placed Diarmuid in a
position of unrivalled power and influence. His chief enemy Mac Briain
was so weakened that he submitted to O’Connor of Connacht in an
unsuccessful attempt to split his alliance with Mac Maol na mBó.
Subsequently, Turlough O’Brien, with Mac Maol na mBó’s support,
definitively defeated Mac Briain at the battle of Es Móingeláin in 1063
and assumed the kingship of Munster. North Leinstermen had fought for
the defeated Mac Briain, indicating that they recognised that Mac Maol
na mBó had become too powerful to be overthrown by their own resources.
Murchadh his son
Diarmuid’s son Murchadh was his able lieutenant, who controlled Leinster
for him while his father’s attention was occupied by inter-provincial
matters, especially those in Munster. Murchadh was especially involved
in raiding the Kingdom of Meath, although not always successfully, since
in 1059 Murchadh suffered a defeat by the Meathmen.
While Diarmuid concentrated his energies on subduing Munster, Murchadh
reigned as King of Dublin and in 1061 led an expedition to the Isle of
Man where he defeated its King, Ragnal.
Turlough O’Brien, new King of Munster, was both vigorous and astute and
allied himself with Mac Maol na mBó. They both went into battle against
their former ally, Aodh O’Connor King of Connacht, who was weakened by
having to fend off a number of enemies, including the Mac Lochlainns in
1067, O’Connor had to face an invasion from Mac Maol na mBó, Mac Giolla
Phádraig of Ossory and O’Brien from the south, while the O’Ruaircs of
Breffni attacked from the east. O’Connor was defeated and slain and
O’Ruairc assumed the kingship of Connacht. Turlough O’Brien did not
challenge for the High Kingship at this time and decided to remain in
is of interest that subsequent to the Battle of Hastings, two or three
of Harold’s sons who survived fled to their father's old ally and were
received for a period of time in Dublin. They subsequently took ship to
Denmark. A "standard" of the Saxon King referred to as in Diarmuid’s
possession almost certainly came from Diarmuid’s earlier connection with
Harold, an indication of the close links between South Leinster and
Britain at the time.
Death of Diarmuid
However, Diarmuid lost both of his sons (Murchadh and Gluniarn) in
battle against the Meathmen in 1069 and he himself subsequently also
fell in battle in 1072 at Odba against the Meathmen, with both his
Leinster and Ostmen allies suffering heavy losses. His protégé Turlough
O’Brien subsequently became High King.
a combination of political astuteness and military prowess Mac Maol na
mBó rose from being king of the relatively small south Leinster Uí
Cheinnsealaigh to becoming King of Leinster, the most powerful king in
the southern part of Ireland and effectively, a contestant for the High
Kingship. He had asserted his authority over the Norse of Dublin, placed
a protégé of his own on the throne of Munster and had overcome the king
of Connacht. He is historically regarded as being the “king maker” of
the period and “High King with Opposition” . Overseas, he was also
allied with King Harold of England and there are indications that he had
planned to undertake military operations with him. Harold’s sons sought
refuge with Mac Maol na mBó after their defeat at the Battle of
Subsequent to Mac Maol na mBó’s death, his allies the O’Briens (Turlough
1072-86 and Muircheartach 1086-1119) claimed the High Kingship. Power
then shifted to the O’Connors of Connacht, with a very able Turlough
O’Connor being replaced on his death in 1156 by the king of the Northern
Uí Néill, Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn.
This was very significant as Muircheartach became a close ally of
Diarmuid McMurrough and it was on Mac Lochlainn’s death in 1166 that
Rory O’Connor, son of Turlough but a person of vacillating character and
much less able ruler, came to power. He was an enemy of Diarmuid and his
accession eventually led to Diarmuid’s expulsion, with well known
The Background to the Coming of the Normans
Origin of the Normans
Normans were the descendants of Vikings who had settled in France around
the mouth of the Seine and carved out the dukedom of Normandy for
themselves. They were quite a remarkable bunch who left a major impact
on European, and even world, history. They had much in common with the
later Spanish Conquistadores in Latin America, rapacious and undaunted
by obstacles in their drive to acquire territory for themselves. In many
cases also, these Norman adventurers were landless men with little to
lose, often younger sons who needed to carve out wealth for themselves
because of primogeniture laws. They were tough, utterly ruthless,
merciless soldiers, using the latest military techniques. Their
obstinacy often enabled them to pull victory from the jaws of defeat,
when their opponents were relaxing in the assurance of having beaten
them. To achieve their ends they were willing to use every stratagem
available to them. They also intermarried with the natives, whenever
this was advantageous. One commentator (J.C.Walsh in “The Lament for
John Mac Walter Walsh”, Kelmscott Press) said of them “ These men had no
scruple whatsoever about taking what belonged to others, with whatever
incidental slaughter was involved in the process”.
martial prowess of the Normans may be gauged from the fact that by 1100,
they controlled not only England but also Sicily, and Southern Italy,
and they subsequently formed the backbone of the Crusades and the
establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
example of their incredible fierceness and disregard for odds against
them is illustrated in “A Short History of Venice “ by John Julius
Norwich,( Penguin). In 1084 Norman ruler of Sicily Robert de Hautville
(known as “Guiscard “ - the crafty) the former penniless brigand had
both the Eastern and Western Emperors on the run before him and the
greatest of all medieval Popes in his power”. His boundless ambition is
evident from the fact that even before he had consolidated fully his
hold on Sicily, he was planning to conquer Constantinople. He had to
interrupt his first march on Constantinople to return to the assistance
of Pope who was besieged by Emperor Henry IV in 1084. At age 68 Guiscard
returned to his campaign in the East. Following two major naval defeats
by the Venetian allies of Constantinople off Corfu, the Venetians sent
back their fastest boats to Venice to announce victory. Sensing a moment
of opportunity, Robert suddenly launched everything he had, caught the
Venetians totally unawares, sank their fleet, leaving some 13 000
Venetians dead and taking many prisoners. Ironically, his progress
towards Constantinople was only finally halted when he and many of his
men succumbed to typhoid fever.
1066, William of Normandy (historically known as “William the Bastard”,
due to his birth circumstances- see, “Europe, a History”, by Norman
Davies, Pimlico ) invented a claim on the English throne and gathered an
invasion force from France. Significantly, the then Pope gave his
support for what was an invasion of very doubtful legal basis. From
Rome’s point of view this was a move to build up supporters independent
of the Empire, from William’s point of view it was a means of persuading
his men to fight. The English King Harold hurried south from defeating a
force under Harold of Norway in the north of England and, though
confident of success, he was unluckily struck and killed by an arrow at
the battle of Hastings. With his death, his Anglo-Saxon troops
disintegrated and the Normans took over his kingdom.
Norman knights and their Flemish, French and Breton mercenaries quickly
divided the lands of the defeated Anglo-Saxons among themselves and they
subsequently expanded westwards into Celtic Wales to carve out estates
there, where they met some stiffer resistance than in England.
Long Term Norman Preparations for an Invasion of Ireland
William the Conqueror is reputed to have considered an invasion of
Ireland subsequent to conquering England, but his attention was
distracted by events back in France. It is clear, in any event, that the
Norman conquest of Ireland had been well “programmed” in 1155 by King
Henry II, but was postponed at the time due to the opposition of his
mother, Queen Matilda.
lend a veneer of “legality” to an invasion of Ireland the Normans had
lobbied the then English Pope, Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakespeare) to
obtain his “permission” to intervene in Ireland, supposedly to assist
ecclesiastical reform of Irish church affairs.
Mysterious Papal Bull “Laudabiliter”
pursuit of their projected invasion of Ireland the Normans had already
sent John of Salisbury, later Bishop of Chartres to lobby Pope Adrian IV
in 1155. John of Salisbury then mendaciously claimed that Pope Adrian
had granted Henry II sovereignty of the Island of Ireland via a bull
known as Laudabiliter.
his “The Norman Invasion of Ireland ” (Anvil Press), Richard Roche
quotes John of Salisbury as follows:
was at my request that he (Adrian IV) granted to the illustrious king of
the English, Henry II, the hereditary possession of Ireland as his still
extant letters attest; for all these islands are reputed to belong by a
long-established right to the Church of Rome, to which they were granted
by Constantine, who established and endowed it”…
one wonders under what pretext the Pope in Rome could take it on himself
to grant the sovereignty of an island which he had absolutely nothing to
do with in a temporal sense to a foreign monarch.
There are in fact a number of relevant elements which supply the answer.
Firstly, the Latin Text of the aforementioned bull does not grant Henry
sovereignty over Ireland. All it does is permit him “ to enter that
island and do therein what tends to the honour of God and the salvation
of the people” i.e. with the objective of putting the Irish church in
order. Pope Adrian IV accepted biased and inaccurate information about
the state of the Irish church supplied to him by the Norman delegation.
We will return below to the state of the Irish church at the time.
Secondly, the Pope assumes that he has sovereignty over “the Island” on
the basis of a document which refers to the Roman Emperor Constantine
having given the “Islands” as a gift to the Papacy. Since the Romans
never set foot in Ireland this seems rather hollow. Moreover, the
Catholic Encylopedia points out that the document on which the “Donation
of Constantine” is based is a proven forgery, dating from between 750
and 850. The objective of the forgery was to pretend that the Emperor
Constantine had shared temporal sovereignty with the Papacy prior to his
departure from Rome to Constantinople. This was an attempt to shore up
the temporal claims of the Papacy. The forgery in fact only made a broad
reference to Italy and the western regions. The reference to “the
islands” in the extant copy of the bull is even more vague and has even
less justification, given that there was never Roman sovereignty over
Thirdly, the fact that no original copy of the bull has been found in
the Vatican archives, and that the Normans only referred to it twenty
years later, has caused historians to be rather cautious about the
bull’s authenticity in the first place (see results of Duggan research
Finally, the fact that Pope Adrian IV was an Englishman, a personal
friend of Henry II and, as we shall see, beholden to the Normans for
their support against the Emperor Frederick, would hardly make for
objectivity on his part.
following extract from an article by Conor Kostick in History Ireland,
vol. 13, No. 3, May/June 2005, Pp. 7-8, records a new and sceptical
interpretatation of both Laudabiliter and a supposed Innocent III letter
by Professor Anne Duggan:
“Professor Duggan argues that there seems to be something wrong with the
order of the paragraphs of Laudabiliter as it appears in Gerald's (Cambrensis)
chronicle. In the second paragraph is a legalistic assertion of papal
rights over all islands, and in the third a reference to a request of
Henry II for sanction to invade Ireland. These appear to be the wrong
way around: a papal letter would normally make reference to the petition
before its exposition of the grounds on which the judgement is made.
is known that Gerald of Wales was not averse to forgery. In his same
account of the conquest of Ireland there is a letter, allegedly from
Alexander III, which nobody seriously believes to be authentic as it
breaks several rules of protocol and does not match the diction of the
papal curia. Yet Professor Duggan does not go so far as to argue that
Laudabiliter is a similar out and out concoction since there is
independent evidence that Pope Adrian IV did send some missive to the
king of England on the subject of Ireland. John of Salisbury wrote that
in 1155 he secured the grant of Ireland to the English king and got an
emerald ring From the pope for the investiture of Ireland. The reference
to the ring is so specific, and it has been established that John was in
the company of the pope at the time, even eating from the same table,
that it is clear that he returned with something. But, argues Professor
Duggan, this document was not the letter as it appears in Gerald's
account, and nor was it so suitable to the purposes of the king of
England that it should be preserved in the royal records.
rearranging the order of the paragraphs of the letter in a more
conventional manner, Professor Duggan showed that the effect of the
letter is no longer a positive endorsement of the invasion of Ireland.
The illusion that the pope is strongly favour of the invasion
disappears, and now reads as a more cautious statement that fits very
closely with a known letter of Adrian IV, advising the kings of France
and England not to go forward with a planned crusade to Spain unless
they consulted the 'princes, churches and people of the region'-
Professor Duggan summarized thus the position of Pope Adrian IV in the
proposed establishment of a lordship in Ireland:
think he had extremely cold feet. He could not simply say "no" to Henry'
II, the most powerful prince in Europe, and alienate him unnecessarily.
But he undermined the idea by insisting on the consent of the Irish.' “
Papacy, Normans and European Politics
link between the Papacy and the Normans undoubtedly emerged from the
mutual benefit which each side considered was to be derived from it. In
fact, the story started out badly when the then penniless Norman
brigands arrived in Calabria in 1017 in the Southern part of Italy. They
were opposed by the Papacy but defeated a numerically superior Papal
army in 1051 and held the Pope (Leo IX) prisoner for 9 months. However,
Rome later reversed its hostile stance towards the Normans and formed an
alliances with them. In 1061, Robert de Hautville (known as Guiscard,
the “crafty”, the 4th of Tancred d’Hautville’s 12 sons) was invested by
Pope Nicholas II with the Duchies of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, the
latter still in Saracen and Byzantine hands. Some 13 years later the
Normans had taken Palermo and after 20 years of fighting controlled the
entire island and had driven the Byzantines from their last stronghold
in Bari in Southern Italy. The fact that the Normans undertook to pay
the Papacy a substantial annual tribute, based on the number of
ploughlands conquered was not unlikely to have had an influence on the
Pope’s decision to grant the investiture.
Guiscard had not totally conquered Sicily when he took off to conquer
the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. Within a few weeks all Illyria
and Kastoria in Macedonia had submitted to him. He would probably have
reached Constantinople were it not for an urgent appeal in 1084 for help
from Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) who had been besieged in Castel Sant’
Angelo by the Emperor Henry IV. Guiscard rescued him and then returned
to Greece, where he achieved the last gasp victory over the combined
Greek and Venetian fleets referred to above, before falling victim to
Before the Norman conquest of Sicily was complete, the Papacy decided to
back another Norman adventurer and sent William of Normandy (known as
the Bastard) the banner of St.Peter to bless his expedition against
England. From William’s point of view this was a means of persuading his
troops to fight, but he subsequently repudiated a deal (as in the case
of Sicily) to provide an annual payment to the Papacy in return.
Papal link with the Normans continued when the very powerful 32 year old
Emperor Frederick Barbarossa decided that he would dominate the Italian
States in the old Roman Imperial style. In Spring 1155 Frederick
journeyed to Rome to meet the newly elected Adrian IV and succeeded in
insulting both Adrian and the Roman Senate. Frederick had himself
crowned Roman emperor and was immediately engulfed in a Roman uprising
which resulted in many casualties.
1156 Pope Adrian and William of Sicily signed a mutual defence treaty at
Benevento, which provided the nucleus for the Lombard League among the
northern city states. The cities undertook to have no dealings with
Frederick, while the Pope undertook to excommunicate Frederick. On
Adrian’s death shortly afterwards, Frederick tried unsuccessfully to
nominate his own candidate in opposition to the newly elected Pope
Alexander III (Cardinal Roland of Siena). In July 1167 Alexander III was
besieged by Barbarossa but his army was decimated by pestilence and he
had to withdraw. It was not until 1177 that a reconciliation was
established by the Treaty of Venice.
is against this tumultuous background that Adrian IV’s Laudabiliter bull
(which now appears to have been mendaciously misrepresented), and
subsequent letter of support for Henry’s actions in Ireland from
Alexander III (which many now hold may have been forged), have to be
interpreted. The fact that this bull was only publicly resurrected at a
suitable moment, 20 years later in 1175, indicates its opportunistic
nature and certainly casts doubt on its intrinsic value (See below the
should also be pointed out that Henry II undertook in 1172 to pay
Peter’s Pence for Ireland to the pope, which might be deemed a cynical
attempt at bribery, especially as the blame for murder of Thomas A
Beckett hung over Henry at that time.
Situation of the Irish Church
pretext used by the Normans in dealing with the Papacy was that the
Irish Church had needed reform. But was such reform necessary ?
Brian Ó Cuív (”the Course of Irish History –Ireland in the eleventh and
twelfth centuries“, Mercier Press for RTE) states “…between the
introduction of Christianity in the fifth century and the time of Brian
Boru , the Church in Ireland had for the most part met the needs of the
Irish people. Though in communion with Rome, it was to a large extent
self-governing, self-renewing and when the circumstances required it
self-reforming. When we come to the eleventh century we find that many
of the old monasteries founded by the early saints and their followers
were still in existence and flourishing and that they were spread
throughout the country……Moreover, the Schottenkloster or Irish
monasteries of Ratisbon, Wurzburg, Mainz and other places in Germany
remind us that even in the eleventh century Ireland was still sending
missionaries sons abroad….”
Viking raids had undoubtedly caused upheaval and certain laxity had
crept into religious practices, but reform came when needed. As Ó Cuív
puts it, “Through renewed contacts with Western Europe, established by
the latest wave of Irish missionaries, and also through Irish pilgrims
who made their way to Rome, Irishmen at home became aware of the vast
church reform which was taking place on the Continent. The fact that the
Norse towns had become Christianised and from the early eleventh century
looked to Canterbury for consecration was an important factor”.
Synod of Cashel in 1111 was the culmination of a series of reforms and
St.Malachy following his travels to Rome and contacts with St. Bernard
of Clairvaux introduced the Cistercians, starting at Mellifont in 1142.
Following the Synod of Kells, “ in 1152 the Papal Legate (Cardinal
Paparo) could report to the Pope that the Church in Ireland had now the
basic organisation to look after the basic care of its flock. The
reports which led to Pope Adrian’s strange grant to Henry II three years
later were either deliberately false or based on a mistaken view of the
true state of affairs in Ireland”.
Diarmuid Mac Murchadha (McMurrough), King of Leinster.
version states that Diarmuid McMurrough’s father, Donnchadh, king of Uí
Cheinnsealaigh, was killed in battle in Dublin against an alliance of
the O’Briens of Thomond and the Norse of Dublin in 1115. Another version
related by Cambrensis states that he was treacherously assassinated by
the Norse of Dublin and a dog buried with his body, to show contempt
for, and to dishonour, him.
Diarmuid was therefore born into an era of turmoil, treachery and
violence, which undoubtedly left its mark on him.
Diarmuid’s elder brother Eanna succeeded him and upon Eanna’s death in
1126, Diarmuid succeeded to the kingship supposedly at the age of 16
years. There is, however, some disagreement over Dermot’s age. At his
death in 1171, he is generally thought to have been in his mid-60s, but
one source puts him as older.
There are only two contemporary, or near contemporary. accounts of
Diarmuid and of the invasion, both of them Norman sources. Gerald de
Barri (Giraldus Cambrensis), was a grandson of the famous Welsh Princess
Nesta and therefore related to many of the leading invaders. Despite his
pride in his Welsh ancestry, he was hostile to the Irish and many of his
comments (in “Expugnatio Hibernica”) were coloured by this prejudice and
rancour. The second source is an intriguing one, written in verse in Old
French (“The Song of Dermot and the Earl”). It is dated by scholars as
from around 1220, and seems to be the work of a Norman monk, but there
is a feeling it may have been based on an account by Diarmuid’s
secretary, Morice O’Regan.
what can we learn of Diarmuid from historical accounts in general ?
Unfortunately, because of the hostile bias in most of these
commentaries, they have to be treated with reserve.
Cambrensis describes Diarmuid as:
“tall of stature and stout of build. A man of warlike spirit and a brave
one in his own nation with a hoarse voice from frequent shouting in the
din of battle. One who preferred to be feared rather than loved, who was
obnoxious to his own people and an object of hatred to strangers. His
hand was against every man and every man’s hand against his.”
Worse was to come much later in the “Annals of the Four Masters”
(1632-36), which tended to put a patriotic gloss on its commentaries:
“His character is drawn by various writers in the darkest colours; he
was rapacious, fierce, cruel, vindictive and of violent passions: though
to gain popularity he endeavoured to conciliate the lower classes of
people. It appears that he was a man of great stature and strength of
body and possessed of much of personal bravery.”
least Diarmuid is seen by both accounts as brave and courageous, if
perhaps impulsive and not one to easily forget a wrong or forgive an
enemy. For the rest, from the extant records of their deeds, he was at
least no worse than the other Irish chieftains or Normans of his time
and, moreover, it seems that he was genuinely highly regarded by many of
main reason for his vilification in the annals is that he invited the
Normans into Ireland. For this he went down in history as Diarmuid na
nGall ( “of the Foreigners”), while his brother Murchadh became Murchadh
na nGael (“of the Irish” ).
Roche comments “For a man reputedly so savage and irreligious Diarmuid
was a munificent patron of the Church and the arts. He founded the
Cistercian monastery at Baltinglass, the convent of St. Mary de Hogges
near Dublin and endowed the priory of All Hallows, where Trinity College
now stands, endowing with lands at Baldoyle. In 1161 he founded the
Augustinian monastery at Ferns, where he took refuge when Rory O’Connor
invaded in 1166, having burnt his own house prior to that”. Throughout
his career he remained on good terms with the clergy.
most important contribution to the arts was to have the “Book of
Diarmuid’s chief wife was Mór, daughter of Murtough O’Toole King of Uí
Mhuireadhaigh (South Co.Kildare) and the sister of St. Lorcan O’Toole,
who became archbishop of Dublin in 1162, with Diarmuid’s assistance.
There are references to 6 children, of whom three were boys. One of
them, Dónal, was fostered by a successor to St. Caomhán at Kilcavan, in
north Wexford. He subsequently was known by the adjectival nickname
derived from St.Caomhãn. Eanna, became the ancestor of the Kinsellas and
the third brother Conor was initially blinded and subsequently murdered,
while being kept as hostage by High King Ruairí Ó Connor in 1170.
the girls, Aoife was given in marriage to Strongbow, Urlacam became the
wife of Dónal O’Brien of Thomond and Dervorgilla, who may well have been
his daughter by the famous Dervorgilla, was married to chieftain south
west of Dublin named Dónal MacGiollacolmóg.
From the middle of the fifth to the middle of the eleventh century, the
Kings of Leinster (comprising Wexford and parts of Kildare, Carlow and
Wicklow)¸nearly always belonged to the northern clans located around the
Curragh of Kildare. As a result, whenever any of the Uí Cheannsealaigh
claimed the Kingship of Leinster, they were often opposed by the Ossory
and North Leinster clans. The possession of Tara, a kingdom which had
been carved out in the first century by Tuathal Teachtmhar (who had
imposed a contentious cattle tribute - Bórumha - on the Leinstermen,
which was not abolished until 680 ) was a bone of contention between
Leinster, Meath and also Connacht. This was a period of violence,
turmoil and confusion, quarrels between rulers and changing alliances,
battles, violent deaths and mutilation (often by blinding) of rivals. In
this it was not very different from much of Europe at that period.
Upon the death of Dermuid’s brother Eanna in 1126, Turlough Mór
O’Connor, King of Connacht, deposed Diarmuid as King of Leinster and
Dublin and set up his own son , Conor O’Connor instead. The Leinstermen
revolted and Conor O’Connor was deposed, but the North Leinstermen were
eventually obliged to yield and accept another Turlough O’Connor
Control over the midlands and West Leinster was a particularly important
issue for all concerned since this was the key to movement throughout
Ireland. Dermot regarded West Leinster as traditionally under Uí
Because Diarmuid continued in opposition, Turlough O’Connor, aided by
the bellicose, one-eyed Tiarnan O’Rourke, chief of Breffni (modern Co.
Longford and part of Leitrim) invaded Uí Cheinnsealaigh in 1128.
Considerable damage was caused in Uí Cheinnsealaigh lands notably to
cattle. O’Rourke, was largely held responsible for much of this
destruction. The stage was therefore set for continuing enmity between
McMurrough and O’Rourke.
Despite this setback, Diarmuid’s power increased and in 1137 he was able
to lay siege to the Norse of Waterford, with the assistance of a fleet
of 200 ships of the Dublin and Wexford Norse, and to exact hostages. He
subsequently made a treaty of mutual support with O’ Maolachlann of
Meath, on condition that he be allowed control over the Uí Faoláin and
Offaly territories. Diarmuid’s growing power was demonstrated by the
fact that in 1138 a triple alliance of O’Connor, O’Rourke and O’Carroll
(Offaly) had a standoff with O’Maolachlann and Dermuid, but hesitated to
attack them and went away.
tribes of North Leinster, showed their resentment for the McMurrough
overlordship, but his brother Murchadh, acting on Dermuid’s behalf,
removed the opposition by blinding or killing them.
growing power of McMurrough provoked other provincial kings. In 1141,
the O’Briens of Thomond raided Connacht and proceeded on to Leinster and
Turlough O’Connor of Connacht was meanwhile making overtures on the High
Kingship. He made O’Maolachlann prisoner and divided his kingdom of
Meath (following the death of his own son Conor) between O’Rourke and
Mac Murrough, which was by definition an unstable situation.
Then a new contender for the High Kingship, Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn
appeared from the North, representing the Northern Uí Néill claims to
the overlordship of Ireland, which he achieved in 1150 and making a
royal visit to Meath.
1152, Turlough O’Connor and Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn called a truce
and another division of Meath occurred with Mac Murrough again receiving
a share. Upon refusing to accept this division, O’Rourke was defeated by
a powerful alliance of O’Connor, Mac Lochlainn and Mac Murrough. It was
on this occasion that the famous Dervorgilla episode occurred.
Dervorgilla episode (1152)
Dervorgilla was a powerful princess whose family was of higher standing
than that of Tiernan O'Rourke. O'Rourke was never more than the ruler of
Breifne, a sub-kingdom within Connacht, while Dervorgilla was the
daughter of the king of Meath. Thus, she was a royal wife of high
standing, and obviously a woman with her own mind. O'Rourke was a
constant danger to Meath, and it was a considered a defensively
advantageous move to marry her to O'Rourke. In practice, given
O’Rourke’s bellicose and unscrupulous nature, it didn't work and
O'Rourke carried on ravaging Meath whenever it suited him.
Abbé MacGeoghegan, writing in Paris in his 1758 history states that
Dervorgilla had been married to O’Rourke against her will and “had
indulged a secret passion for Dermot…who paid addresses to her before
her marriage”. If this is accurate, Dervorgilla was just returning to
her first love.
love affair between Dervorgilla and Dermot MacMurrough had therefore
been on-going for at least 25 years, which under Brehon laws was
apparently not illegal, as long as it did not impact negatively upon the
honour value of O'Rourke. When Dervorgilla decided she was going to
leave O'Rourke for cruelty, she was acting within her legal right, and
according to her divorce or separation property rights, she was entitled
to take what she brought to the marriage, plus the product of her
efforts during the marriage. Accordingly she arranged her departure and
gathered her cattle while her brother was convincing Dermot to come and
escort her to Ferns. The annals fail to emphasize that this action was
initiated by Dervorgilla, with the encouragement and assistance of her
Projecting modern day values into past events clearly distort the story.
The annals also fail to mention that Tiernan O'Rourke had five wives.
O'Rourke was annoyed at the damage to his honour, not grieving over the
loss of his wife. There is even a theory that Dervorgilla was removed
for her safety, with the consent of her own family (Arthur Ua Cleirigh
in his “the History of Ireland”, quoted by Roche). In any event, the
fact that Dermot came to Breifne and escorted Dervorgilla to Ferns made
him a party to the damaging action. If Dervorgilla had simply left
O'Rourke as an injured wife, and put herself under the protection of her
father or another kinsman, there would have been no damage inflicted on
issue then was that Dermot owed O’Rourke honour price damages, which
Dermot refused to pay. Dermot's argument was that he did not initiate
the action and therefore was not liable for damage payments. However,
Dervorgilla moved into Dermot's household with his three other wives,
and stayed there for over a year. In fact it appears very likely that
she was the mother of Dermot's second youngest daughter, also named
Dervorgilla, who was born about the same time as Aoife, and shortly
before Dervorgilla was retrieved in 1153 by Turlough O'Connor, with whom
O'Rourke had in the meantime made peace.
should be understood that in 12th century Ireland, marriage was not a
church function, but only a traditional social contract or agreement
between parties with individual rights regulated under Brehon Law.
Divorce had no moral or religious implications. And Dervorgilla had no
moral, or legal, obligation to return to live with O'Rourke if she chose
not to. A later attempt was made to have a Christian cleansing of the
story with Dervorgilla doing penance in a convent for the last 30 years
of year life. This particular gloss is inaccurate. Firstly, it is not
certain that Dervorgilla actually returned to the one-eyed O’Rourke.
Secondly, she re-emerges in the annals 1154, as well as local records,
at functions. In 1157 Dervorgilla endowed the Cistercian Abbey of
Mellifont near Drogheda, giving 60 ozs. of gold, a golden chalice and
altar cloths. In 1167she built the church of the nuns at Clonmacnoise
and only finally retired to Mellifont in 1186 to die at 85 years in
Whatever uncertainty there is about whether or not she returned to
Breifne from Ferns, it is clear is that Dermot refused initially pay the
damages which O'Rourke demanded. O’Rourke was therefore shamed in the
eyes of the men of Erin. O'Rourke, who by then was around 60 years, was
not one to forget such a slight.
Despite the gloss placed on the incident by later commentaries,
Dervorgilla did not act immorally under the Brehon Laws and there was
nothing for her to atone for. The real disagreement with Dermot was over
legal damages and the reason the Dervorgilla escapade became such an
issue was that Dermot continued his refusal to pay the damages. When
Dermot returned in 1169, the overriding condition imposed was that he
pay the damages to O'Rourke, which he did, so as to buy time.
When Turlough O’Connor died in 1156 and was succeeded by his son Rory,
there was a reshuffling of alliances among the principal Irish
chieftains, with Diarmuid Mac Murrough lining up with Muircheartach Mac
Lochlann and Rory O’Connor renewing an alliance with Tiarnan O’Rourke.
Mac Murrough gave hostages to Mac Lochlann and received the entire
province of Leinster in return.
a major battle at Ardee in 1159, Mac Lochlann routed O’Connor and
asserted his authority of virtually all Ireland. In 1161 a renewed
attempt by O’Connor and O’Rourke to invade Meath was checked by Mac
Lochlann and they were forced to submit and give hostages.
Diarmuid was now in undisputed control of all Leinster and in 1162 a
Synod was held at Clane under his protection and patronage, which
abolished the hereditary succession to the see of Armagh (some of the
occupants having been laymen). Dermot was now held in high regard by
both clergy and laity.
Also in 1162 Diarrmuid’s brother-in-law, St. Lawrence O’Toole was
consecrated Bishop of Dublin and Archbishop of Leinster. It is likely
that Diarmuid’s influence with MacLochlann, the Archbishop of Armagh,
and the Norse of Dublin was an important factor in this.
However, with the death in battle in 1166 of Diarmuid’s close ally, the
Northern Uí Néill High King Muircheartch MacLochlainn, Diarmuid was
faced with a coalition of enemies, Rory O’Connor, Tiarnan O’Ruairc and
O’ Maolachlann, who marched on Dublin and O’Connor had himself crowned
High King there. In particular, O’Connor wanted to control West Leinster
because of its strategic geographical importance, which immediately put
him on a collision course with Diarmuid, who had traditionally claimed
it as part of his territory.
Initially, after a first incursion into South Leinster, O’Connor allowed
Diarmuid to keep Uí Cheinnsealaigh while depriving him of his kingship
of Leinster, but subsequently O Ruairc , aided by the Norse of Dublin
and O’Maolachlann of Meath, led a second expedition against him and Uí
Cheinnsealaigh was divided between Mac Giolla Phádraig of Ossory and
Dermot’s own brother Murchadh, who by this stage had become estranged
from Diarmuid. Diarmuid apparently burned his own castle at Ferns to
deprive the invaders of the possibility of plundering it.
Diarmuid’ s Flight to Meet Henry II
Deserted by his allies, Diarmuid set sail for Bristol in August 1166
with some 65 followers, including his beautiful daughter, Aoife.
Historians have remarked that “had Diarmuid not been expelled or had he
never invoked Norman aid, we must rest assured that the ultimate result
would not have been very different”. Ireland had already for a century
been threatened by the powerful monarchy of Norman England, and still
more immediately by the neighbouring aggressive Norman baronial race.
The fall of Celtic Wales had heralded the fall of Celtic Ireland. By
1100 most of Wales had been brought under Norman domination, this being
achieved partly by intermarriage with the Welsh.
must also be borne in mind that close trading, and even clan, links
existed between the Uí Cheinnsealaigh and the inhabitants of Wales. Also
Norse fleets from Dublin had intervened in Welsh affairs, which could
not have been without Diarmuid’s permission. Finally Diarmuid had
contacts with the Normans via the Augustinian monks. Contacts with
Ireland were therefore regular and events there were therefore probably
well known on the other side of the water.
Diarmuid set off to find the peripatetic Henry II, which was not easy as
he had gone to France. However, he finally caught up with him in
Acquitaine, where Henry was sorting out some trouble with his own
subjects there. In return for a letter giving him permission to recruit
Norman colonists in Wales to assist him in regaining his kingdom of
Leinster, Dermot swore fealty to Henry. Armed with this letter Dermot
returned to Wales. He had, however, difficulty in obtaining recruits
until he came to Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (known as Strongbow,
a widower in his 50s). Strongbow, a direct descendant of Richard I of
Normandy, was in fact not in good standing with Henry II as he had
earlier supported a rival to Henry. As a consequence he had forfeited
his estates in Wales and was down on his luck, which provided the
incentive for the Irish adventure. However, Diarmuid obtained his
support only after promising Strongbow his daughter Aoife in marriage,
with the prospect of succeeding to the Kingship of Leinster after
Diarmuid’s death. Diarmuid also obtained the release of Robert
FitzStephen (son of a Welsh princess) who was held hostage by the Welsh
prince of South Wales called Rhys ap Gruffudd. With these two well known
men on his side Diarmuid was able to drum up support by promising a
grant of Wexford and surrounding land to the other land-hungry Normans
and Flemish settlers.
Diarmuid slipped back to Ferns in August 1167, where his son Dónal
Caomhánach, ancestor of the C/Kavanaghs had been looking after his
interests, and he was well received by the local people. Apparently a
small reconnaissance group of Normans had accompanied Diarmuid back and
he re-established himself Uí Cheinnsealaigh. However, when Diarmuid
tried to re-assert his control over Leinster, O’Connor and O’Rourke
marched against him and defeated him in battle south of Carlow town. 25
of Dermot’s men were killed in this encounter and Dermot was forced to
give hostages to O’Connor and to pay O’Rourke the honour price of 100
ozs. of gold in reparation for the Dervorgilla episode.
Dermuid was, however, merely buying time until his Norman allies
Early Norman Invaders
Descendants of the Welsh Princess Nesta
the early invaders into Ireland, some of the more important were at
least half Welsh as a result of the Normans’ intermarriage strategy. Of
outstanding importance were the half brothers Maurice FitzGerald ,
Robert FitzStephen and Meiler and Robert FitzHenry. These were all sons
of a Welsh princess called Nesta and the three Barry brothers (one of
whom was Giraldus Cambrensis) were her grandsons as was Raymond Le Gros
FitzGerald. Nesta was a daughter of Rhys ap Tewder Mawr, the last
independent prince of South Wales, who had fought against the Normans
She had been taken hostage by the Normans and the FitzHenrys were the
outcome of Henry II making her his mistress, while she mothered a
numerous family with other Norman knights. Her descendants, including a
William FitzGerald and granddaughter Nesta were also intermarried with
Strongbow’s family. Nesta’s later Norman-Irish descendants included the
FitzGeralds of Kildare and Desmond, the Fitzmaurices, the Carews and
Graces (from Le Gros).
names of other early Norman and Flemish invaders still prominent today
in the areas in which they made their first incursions e.g. Normans such
as Talbot, Devereux, Rochfort , Power, Furlong, Roche, Keating, Walsh
and Flemish names such as Fleming, Prendergast, Cheevers, Sinnott,
May 1169 some 390 Norman allies arrived from Wales at Bannow Bay. Dónal
Caomhánach came to meet them and Dermot hastily got together some 500
men. A further 200 men under Maurice de Prendergast arrived shortly
afterwards at Bannow Bay. In an initial encounter, an assault on the
town of Wexford was decisively repulsed and but the Norsemen
subsequently entered into peace negotiations through the intermediation
of clergy and agreed to acknowledge Dermot’s overlordship and to back
his bid to regain control of Leinster. Dermot granted Wexford and the
baronies of Bargy and Forth to various Norman knights. Dermot then
marched on Ossory ( Kilkenny and part of Laois) which had been part of
his former territory and where his eldest son Eanna had been taken
captive and blinded by Mac Giolla Phádraig.
forces of Dónal Mac Giolla Phádraig initially put up stout resistance in
rough terrain, but the Normans finally drove them into open ground and
cut down many of them. A drawn out three day period of skirmishes ensued
before the Normans finally stormed hastily constructed Ossory defences
at Freshford. Dermot and his allies then went on to ravage the lands of
this point Maurice de Prendergast fell out with Diarmuid and took off
with 200 of his men to return home. Despite being blocked at Wexford
port, he returned, entered into a temporary alliance with Mac Giolla
Phádraig (though this was one of mutual suspicion) and eventually
shipped back to Wales with his men. At this stage Mac Giolla Phádraig
decided that further resistance was useless and he made a submission to
FitzStephen, who insisted that Dermot be recognised as King of Leinster
now the vacillating Rory O’Connor became sufficiently alarmed to gather
a large army and move to Leinster. Mac Morrough retreated in to a
forested area where O’Connor did not dare to pursue him. Peace
negotiations were carried out via the clergy and a Treaty was signed
whereby O’Connor was recognised as High King and Diarmuid as King of
Leinster. Dermot gave his son Conor as hostage and there appears to have
been an arrangement whereby this son would marry O’Connor’s daughter.
There was a secret clause by which Dermot undertook to send back the
Normans and not to bring over more, which it is doubtful if had any
intention of honouring. Moreover, the Normans had by now gone on an
independent course and FitzStephen who had already begun fortifying his
new territories and had no intention of abandoning his prize.
Military Superiority of Norman Armies
Normans had battle-hardened, armoured and disciplined armies, as opposed
to the loosely organised Irish, when they invaded. Their initial impact
on the war scene must have been, in modern terms, somewhat like armoured
tanks against infantry.
Irish armies at the time often lacked a clear military strategy and,
however brave, they were very vulnerable in open ground to charges by
hardened Norman soldiers with their Flemish mercenaries, protected by
armour and, in addition, using Welsh archers with crossbows who could
pick off the Irish at a distance .
one poem lamenting a Gaelic defeat in Ulster in 1260 of Brian O’Neill,
the last claimant to the High Kingship, put it:
“Unequal they went to the battle
foreigners and the Gaels of Tara
Fine linen shirts on the race of Conn
foreigners one mass of iron”.
difficult or wooded territory, however, the Irish were often able to
hold their own, using traditional tactics, and indeed were more
frequently victorious than is often realised. It was when the Normans
lured them to battle to open territory that the Irish were at a clear
objectives of the two sides also differed. The Irish were accustomed to
raiding and when they won a battle, they subsequently retired to their
own territory. When the Normans won a battle their objective was to
colonise and hold onto the territory the conquered. They immediately set
about building castles which would enable them to hold on to their gains
and to set about colonising it.
die was cast shortly afterwards when Maurice FitzGerald landed towards
the end of 1169 with major reinforcements. Diarmuid then appears to have
marched on Dublin, where the Norse King Mac Torcaill submitted to him
and sent a Norman force to Limerick to assist his son-in-law Dónal
O’Brien, who was in dispute with O’Connor. As Diarmuid’s ambitions
increased and he began to eye the High Kingship, he requested additional
Norman assistance from Strongbow.
This time Strongbow reacted and a small advance party under Raymond Le
Gros FizGerald de Carew, another grandson of Nesta, arrived in May 1170
at Baginbun, not far from Waterford. Le Gros immediately began to
fortify his position but it had attracted the attention of the Norse of
Waterford who arrived with a large force of combined Norse and Irish.
Though the position of the small Norman force was desperate, they
managed to disperse the attackers by disrupting them with a herd of
cattle they had collected and took some 70 prisoners. Then occurred a
most shameful episode. Against the protests of Le Gros, Hervey de
Marisco had all these prisoners massacred.
August 1170 Strongbow arrived with some 1 200 soldiers, having taken the
precaution of getting Henry II’s permission. He then moved on to attack
the Norse town of Waterford which had also numerous Irish defenders
under O’Faolain of the Decies. Two attacks were repulsed but a weak
point in the walls was spotted and forced and the citizens slaughtered.
Two Norse leaders called Sitric were executed after being made prisoner,
but Mac Murrough arriving later saved O’Faolain and another Norse leader
There amidst the slaughter the wedding of Strongbow and the beautiful
Aoife was celebrated.
Then a race for Dublin occurred, with O’Connor mustering a huge army
(the figure mentioned of 30 000 is probably a gross exaggeration) and
the Norman-Leinster army slipping through mountain passes to reach it
first with about 5 500 men. Mac Torcaill with his chief men sailed away
to the Orkneys vowing to return to avenge their expulsion. O’Connor
retreated and Diarmuid ravaged Breifne and Meath.
this stage O’Connor retaliated by murdering the Mac Murrough hostages,
Diarmuid’s son Conor, his grandson (Dónal’s son) and the son of a foster
The Death of Diarmuid and its Aftermath
Diarmuid having revenged himself on his O Ruairc, O Connor and Norse
enemies (but not having achieved his dream of achieving the High
Kingship) and by then in his mid 60s (or perhaps older if one account is
to be credited), retired to Ferns in failing health, where he died in
May 1171, no doubt grieving for his son Conor, described as “one of the
fairest youths in Erin”.
What can be said of Diarmuid’s Actions ?
drastic solution to the desperate situation he was in, beset by enemies
and deserted by friends, and even his brother, in this tumultuous
period, undoubtedly gave the Normans an unexpected opportunity to
initiate their planned conquest of Ireland. In Diarmuid’s eyes it was no
doubt meant to be a localised solution, a means by which he could
introduce a superior military force to help regain his territories, the
Kingship of Leinster and possibly even the High Kingship, as his
grandfather had done. He no doubt felt that he could buy off most of the
landless Normans by granting them the Norse territories of Wexford,
Forth, Bargy and Shelmalier, which he really did not control anyway.
Strongbow was to be promised the Kingship of Leinster after his death,
something Dermot certainly knew he could not deliver under Irish law and
which in any event would be a question to be settled after he was gone.
reckoned without the tenacity, rapacity and colonising drive of the
Normans. It has often been pointed out that although Dermot’s actions
gave the Normans a bridgehead in Ireland, a Norman invasion had long
been planned and would have happened in any event. Diarmuid’s actions
merely accelerated it.
a postscript, historians have made two important comments which are in
the realms of “might have beens”
Firstly, if Diarmuid had lived long enough to fulfil his ambition of
following in (his grandafther’s) Mac Maol na mBó’s footsteps and
becoming High King, while imposing central control over the squabbling
chieftains, he as Francis Byrne in his “Irish Kings and High Kings”
(Four courts Press) has remarked “might yet have been revered as the
founder of a national monarchy”;
Secondly, it has also been said that it was a pity that the first
Normans were not strong enough to conquer the country and carve out a
Norman-Irish kingdom which would have been independent of England.
Certainly this was in the minds of Strongbow, FitzGerald and FitzStephen
and feared by Henry II. Whether such an independent kingdom would have
survived in the face of the neighbouring English kingdom is another
Siege of Dublin
Upon Diarmuid’s death, the accession of Strongbow to the throne of
Leinster created consternation among the Irish. Although Dónal
Caomhánach still remained on Strongbow’s side many of his Uí
Cheannseallaigh kinsmen joined in the revolt.
Strongbow now found himself in a serious situation, faced with a new
united Irish army under O’Connor, while at the same time, FitzStephen
was besieged by the Norse of Wexford at Ferrycarrig Castle and Waterford
had been recaptured by Dermuid Mac Carthy of Desmond. Moreover, Henry
II, who greatly mistrusted Strongbow and his allies “sat on the fence”
and even refused to let assistance through from England.
Then Mac Torcaill, Norse King of Dublin returned with a fleet from the
Orkneys and attacked the city gates without waiting for O’Connor’s army.
However, Norman cavalry under de Cogan slipped out an attacked them from
behind. The Norse broke, fled and many were cut down before they reached
their ships. Mac Torcaill was captured and beheaded.
Meanwhile, O’Connor’s main army arrived and camped at Castleknock ,
while his other allies spread out in various directions. Archbishop
Laurence O’Toole (whose sympathies now lay with O’Connor) had sent for
help to the Isle of Man and a fleet under the King of Man, Gottfred
appeared in response.
Within Dublin, food supplies were running short and Strongbow sent for
Archbishop O’Toole to negotiate. O’Connor, sure of his vast numerical
superiority, would leave Strongbow in possession only of Norse Dublin,
Waterford and Wexford. The Normans then decided on a desperate sally
against the main (Castleknock) encampment. The High King, in his
overconfidence, had unwisely allowed his forces to become separated,
some had departed on foraging expeditions while others were detailed to
guard mountain passes or had already left. Three detachments of 200 men
(including Dónal Caomhánach) sallied out and burst into the unsuspecting
O’Connor forces at Castleknock. Rory, who, according to one account, had
been bathing in the river, with many of his men, barely escaped, with
150 of his men being killed. The main Irish army folded up and left and
the other separated contingents did likewise.
O’Connor simply withdrew, recognised Henry II as overlord by the Treaty
of Windsor in 1175 and was in turn recognised as High King over the
unconquered part of Ireland. He died at Cong in 1198, having retired
some time previously.
Strongbow then swung southwards and re-occupied Wexford and Waterford.
Following this he invaded Ossory and during a peace negotiation tried to
have Mac Giolla Phádraig murdered, but was prevented by the chivalrous
Maurice de Prendergast, who had previously been briefly Mac Giolla
Phádraig’s ally. Around this time Murchadh Mac Murchadha came to terms
with Strongbow. He was granted Uí Cheinnsealaigh while Dónal was granted
jurisdiction over the Irish of the Province of Leinster.
With Strongbow now “on a victory roll”, Henry II became anxious, fearing
that he and his knights might carve out an independent kingdom, which
was indeed what they would have wished. He decided to come to Ireland to
get matters under control. There was also a subsidiary reason for a
visit. Henry had been blamed for instigating the murder of Thomas A
Beckett at end-1170 and wanted to curry favour with Rome by supposedly
setting the Irish Church in order.
9. The Visit of Henry II in 1172 and Foundations for English Rule
Henry II landed in Waterford from Milford Haven in October 1172 with an
army of 500 knights and 4 000 men at arms and archers.
astute statesmanship and conciliatory gestures, the cunning Henry
managed to receive the submission of both the Irish chiefs and his
untrustworthy Norman barons, without any fighting.
Henry cleverly adopted the role of protector of the Irish chieftains
from marauding Norman barons and also persuaded the clergy of papal
approval for his visit. This enabled him to achieve his objectives
without having to do battle. He did a circuit receiving the submission
of Irish chieftains, except for the northern Uí Néill. The local bishops
thought that recognising Henry as overlord would help reformation of the
Irish church and they urged the chieftains to submit. The chieftains
promised fealty, gave hostages, agreed to pay an annual tribute no
heavier than previously and received their traditional territories back.
They did not consider their submissions to be of great importance at the
time. However, unperceived by them, an administrative apparatus was put
in place which could later be used to deprive them of their territories.
Henry presided over a Synod at Cashel which gave the already far
advanced process of Church reform and move towards control from Rome
some impetus. However, the mysterious Laudabiliter bull was suspiciously
not referred to, though it may have been hinted at in private.
annual tribute paid to the Pope (Peter’s Pence) from England was also
extended to Ireland.
Henry departed again in April 1172, to the disquieting news that Papal
legates were seeking reparation for Beckett’s murder and also that his
own son Henry had been stirring up revolt. Although he confirmed
Strongbow as King of Leinster, granted the Kingdom of Meath the Hugh de
Lacy and made him his Justiciar (King’s representative) as well as
constable of Dublin. The “race of Nesta”, regarded with suspicion, were
placed in garrisons under the control of de Lacy.
Lacy’s grant of Meath brought him into conflict wit the bellicose
O’Rourke. A peace meeting was arranged between the two and O’Rourke was
treacherously murdered by de Lacy with the help of one of O’Rourke’s own
kinsmen. Am adjoining chieftain, Donal O’Farrell was next eliminated.
Also in 1172 Murchadh na nGael Mac Murragh, Dermot’s brother was
assassinated by “the hands of the English”, thus removing an Irish
claimant to the Kingship of Leinster.
Lacy then proceeded to colonise Meath. As in most other cases, it was
the native chiefs and their retainers who suffered territorial loss and
its attendant income. By and large, most of the common people remained
on to till the soil and herd the cattle: they could do little else. De
Lacy, who had married Rose O’Connor, Rory’s daughter, was killed by an
Irish worker in 1186 during the construction of a castle.
Strongbow marched into Munster to crush another rebellion. His
plundering of the ecclesiastical centre at Lismore alienated a hithero
ally, Dónal O’Brien of Thomond. Then Strongbow was unexpectedly defeated
by an Irish alliance at Thurles. He subsequently disappeared from the
scene and died in Dublin in 1176 “of an ulcer in the foot”. A son by
Aoife had died in infancy, but he had a daughter Isabella, who later
married William Le Mareschal , earl Marshall of Ireland , who thus came
into Strongbow’s possessions in Leinster as well as the Earldom of
Pembroke in Wales.
Dónal was a natural son of Diarmuid, who was fostered as a youth, as was
the custom of the time, by followers of St.Caomhán (either by an
associated lay family or by monks) at the monastery in Kilcavan close to
Ferns, in North Co. Wexford. It was due to this background that he was
given the nickname “Caomhánach” and he became the ancestor of the
present day C/Kavanagh lineage. It was, incidentally, from his brother
Eanna Cinseallach that the present day Kinsellas are descended. Dónal
was Dermuid’s loyal right hand, handling his affairs while he was in
exile and campaigning for him when he returned from exile. Dónal was
proclaimed King of Leinster by the Mac Murchadha clan in 1172, after
Dermot’s death. When Dónal finally realised that the Normans were not
going to return home but were intent on colonising Leinster, he went
over to Rory O’Connor’s side. He subsequently bested Strongbow in a
number of skirmishes. As indicated above, his uncle Murchadh na nGael
had been eliminated by the Normans in 1172 to eliminate him as a
claimant to the Kingship of Leinster.
league with Rory O’Connor, Dónal set out to form alliances with a view
to launching a major attack on the Norman invaders. He was by now
clearly identified by the Normans as an enemy, as seen from the “Song of
Dermot and the Earl”. Though the annals have differing versions of
where, and at whose hands, he met his end, it is clear that he was
treacherously slain in 1175 by persons in the pay of the Normans, so as
to remove him as a threat. The Four Masters claim that he died at the
hands of the O’Nolans of Forth, while another annalist claims that his
death was at the hands of the UÍ Nialláin in the Midlands.
Norman claim was that since Dónal was deemed “illegitimate” under Norman
law (a concept, which as we have seen earlier, was alien to the Brehon
laws) the line of transmission of the Kingship of Leinster was to be via
Aoife Mac Murrough and Strongbow. However, this had no standing in Irish
eyes. Firstly, under Irish custom the chieftains and kings had to be
elected by their clan. Secondly, transmission via the female line was
not an option under Brehon Law. Thirdly, as Richard Roche points out,
there is no way of knowing whether Aoife was any more “legitimate” in
Norman terms than Dónal was.
1190 most of the original Norman invaders had died, many without male
heirs. This resulted in a new wave of Norman settlers appearing.
St.Laurence O’Toole had taken the Irish side and given an account of the
Norman invasion which greatly displeased Henry. St. Lawrence later went
to seek a reconciliation with Henry but was struck down by a fever and
died Eu in Normandy in 1186. He was canonised in 1226.
During the turbulent years of the eleventh century, Diarmuid Mac Maol na
mBó, grandfather of Diarmuid Mac Murrough, was the driving force behind
the emergence of the Uí Cheinnsealaigh from relatively obscurity
Mac Maol na mBó rose to be King of Leinster and was one of the most
powerful figures in Irish history at that time, becoming High King with
opposition. He controlled Dublin and his influence extended even to the
Isle of Man and Wales. It appears that he had even formed a military
alliance with Harold, Saxon King of England
Although Diarmuid Mac Murrough’s brother- in- law was St. Lawrence
O’Toole, and Diarmuid maintained very good relations with the church,
Diarmuid himself was not exactly a candidate for sainthood
However, it has to be borne in mind that Diarmuid grew up in a
particularly violent and disturbed era, in which there was no effective
central power and rivals for kingship were often disposed of by
mutilation or murder. It is generally agreed that Diarmuid was no
crueler than the other chieftains of that time and he was well regarded
by many of his contemporaries
The Dervorgilla episode has been very distorted by subsequent writers
who either did not understand the Brehon system or deliberately
distorted the story for religious or nationalistic reasons
Diarmuid’s long running feud with Tiarnan O’Rourke and the High King
Rory O’Connor was to prove his undoing and to set the course for his own
defeat and expulsion
Deserted by his allies and assailed on all sides by enemies the
pugnacious Diarmuid , as a last resort,sought foreign help to regain his
Kingdom of Leinster
The rapacious Normans, of Scandinavian origin and settled in France,
having conquered England and made major inroads into Wales, had already
detailed plans prepared for an invasion of Ireland by 1155. Historians
generally agree that sooner or later they would have invaded Ireland,
which was very vulnerable to an organized invasion
Diarmuid unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box; even though Diarmuid’s
objective was to get Norman assistance in regaining his territories and
in revenging himself on his enemies, the Normans’ rapacious instincts
were not to be satisfied by Diarmuid’s local land grants in Leinster,
nor even the prospect of the kingship of Leinster
Norman guile extended to trying to seek Papal approval for an invasion
as far back as 1155, since the Papacy at the time wanted Norman support
against the Holy Roman Emperor, who was threatening Northern Italy and
Rome. The mysterious Laudabiliter bull purported to have been issued by
Pope Adrian IV (the only English Pope) is shrouded in mystery and its
claim to Papal sovereignty over “the Islands” was in any event based on
a document (Donatian Constantin) which was proven to be forged. At least
some later indications of Papal approval for Henry II’s actions also
some to have been forgeries.
Undoubtedly Diarmuid and his Irish allies envisaged that the bulk of the
Normans would return to Wales once the core task of regaining Leinster
(and possibly the High Kingship) had been achieved; in this they greatly
underestimated the Norman guile and rapacity
The leading figures among the first group of invaders were mainly blood
relatives, descendants of a famous Welsh princess called Nesta and they
were intermarried with their leader, Strongbow’s, family
The descendants of these early Normans were to play major roles in later
Although they could give a good account of themselves in broken
territory, the Irish armies had initially no answer to the superior
Norman technology in open battle, with their body armour, and their
deadly Welsh crossbowmen, who could pick off the Irish at a distance
Moreover, the Normans were efficient colonists, who after they had won a
battle, proceeded – unlike the Irish – to seize the adjoining lands and
to build fortifications so as to enable them to hold on to the territory
Henry II arrived over in 1172 with a powerful army primarily to curb
what he perceived to be the possibility of Strongbow creating a kingdom
in Ireland independent of him. He obtained the submission of many of the
important Irish chieftains, helped by his persuasion of the local clergy
that he had Papal backing and of the chieftains that he would protect
them from the rapacious Norman barons
However, after Henry’s departure, the Norman barons continued to expand
their territories at the expense of the native chieftains
After Diarmuid’s death the Normans eliminated the two main contenders
for the Kingship of Leinster, Diarmuid’s brother Murchadh and his son
comment has been made that if Dermot McMurrough had lived long enough to
achieve his dream of emulating his grandfather, Mac Maol na mBó, and had
succeeded in imposing a central power capable of controlling the mayhem
which existed among the Irish chieftains, he would have been among the
most revered of Irish kings. This, however, was not to be.
Cathal Cavanagh - Clann Member