The story of Dermot MacMurrough during the Norman conquest of Ireland resembles a soap opera, pitting the wily, deceitful villain (Dermot) against the well meaning but hapless incompetent (Tiernan O'Rourke).
MacMurrough and O'Rourke were mortal enemies. The antagonism between them dated to 1152, when O'Rourke had been humiliated by MacMurrough's abduction of O'Rourke's wife, Dervorgilla. But MacMurrough may not have been as culpable as it seemed.
According to Irish folklore, it was Dervorgilla herself, then aged 44, who arranged the abduction, with MacMurrough,
aged 42, simply going along. Nevertheless, MacMurrough was hardly an innocent bystander, having eagerly accepted the invitation, and having staged a
realistic abduction, with horsemen and screaming victim. O'Rourke recovered Dervorgilla the following year (1153), but he never got the revenge he
The subsequent hostilities between O'Rourke and MacMurrough were played out in the context of a larger battle between Rory O'Connor and Murtaugh MacLochlain for the high kingship of Ireland. O'Rourke was allied with O'Connor, the eventual winner, while MacMurrough supported, and more importantly was protected by, MacLochlain.
In 1166, finally, after a 10 year war, O'Connor defeated MacLochlain once and for all. O'Connor was magnanimous in victory. He reduced MacLochlain's petit-kingdom to a small area, and took hostages, but otherwise permitted him to live out his reign.
O'Rourke had no intention of extending similar generosity to MacMurrough. He got his revenge later that same year when MacLochlain (MacMurrough's long time protector) died, and O'Rourke, along with several cohorts, forced MacMurrough to flee Ireland.
But MacMurrough quickly regrouped. He sought help from Henry II, the aforementioned Norman ruler of the Angevin empire. To Henry, MacMurrough represented opportunity knocking. Henry had no enthusiasm for personally leading an expedition to Ireland but he had nothing to lose by encouraging MacMurrough. Thus Henry issued an open letter to his subjects, authorizing them to render military assistance to MacMurrough.
MacMurrough then contacted one of the great Norman leaders in Wales, the legendary "Strongbow". Initially, Strongbow was reluctant, but then MacMurrough offered Strongbow his eldest daughter, Aoife (Eva), in marriage, together with the right to succeed MacMurrough as king of Leinster. Finally, Strongbow agreed to lead an army into Ireland to restore MacMurrough to power.
With Strongbow on his side, MacMurrough then was also able to recruit a number of Norman and Flemish knights whose names now are common in Ireland: FitzHenry, Carew, FitzGerald, Barry, Prendergast, Fleming, Roche, Cheevers, Synott.
The impatient MacMurrough returned to Ireland with a handful of Normans in 1167, but O'Connor and O'Rourke soon forced him to submit. Always the master of deceit, MacMurrough even paid O'Rourke one hundred ounces of gold as reparation for abducting Dervorgilla. But MacMurrough was not discouraged. He knew that help was on the way.
The first Norman troop ships, about 600 in number, landed at Bannow Bay early in May 1169. MacMurrough and several hundred of his men promptly joined the Normans, and together they marched on
Wexford. The Viking inhabitants directly confronted the invaders, expecting to find a rag-tag outfit of enthusiastic but poorly armed Irishmen. Instead they discovered a fully armed and disciplined professional army, ready for the kill. The Vikings were driven back into Wexford, and next day the town was forced to surrender.
Strongbow himself now set sail for Ireland. His advance guard, ten knights and seventy archers, was led by a magnificent young soldier-warrior from the FitzGerald family, Raymond Carew, commonly called 'le Gros' ('the Fat'). Le Gros landed north of Waterford and quickly built earthen ramparts which remain even today. Almost immediately, an opposition army -- several thousand Vikings and Gaelic-Irish from Waterford and the surrounding areas -- attacked le Gros and his contingent of eighty Norman and Fleming soldiers.;
Incredibly, le Gros and his vastly outnumbered troops prevailed. Behind the ramparts, le Gros had concealed a herd of cattle, which he suddenly stampeded into the oncoming troops, trampling the front rank of the attackers. In all the confusion, le Gros and his force routed the remaining natives, seventy of whom were captured alive. As a message to Waterford, the prisoners' limbs were broken, their heads severed, and their bodies thrown over the cliffs.
Now Strongbow and his army of about two hundred knights and a thousand other troops joined le Gros, and two days later, they attacked Waterford. Twice the Normans were beaten off, but eventually le Gros breached the walls at a weak point, and captured Waterford.
Now MacMurrough's daughter, Aoife, came to Waterford, where she married Strongbow. A celebrated fresco in the British House of Commons depicts the wedding ceremony occurring at the close of the battle, against a background of burning buildings and dead Irishmen. The fresco is a classic example of artistic license, since Aoife did not arrive until several days after the battle. But the artist captured brilliantly the essential elements of the pact which MacMurrough had made with Strongbow two years earlier in Wales.
Strongbow and MacMurrough now set their sights on taking Dublin, which was a semi-independent Viking kingdom. With the wily MacMurrough leading the way, the Normans evaded an ambush laid by O'Connor and O'Rourke and arrived unscathed at the city walls. The Vikings were inclined to surrender, but while negotiations were still ongoing, le Gros and Milo de Cogan led their troops through a breach in the city walls and routed the city's ineffectual defenders. Asgall, the Viking-Irish King of Dublin, managed to escape with some of his Viking followers. As they sailed away, Asgall vowed to return and retake Dublin.
MacMurrough became deathly ill in April 1171, and while Strongbow was visiting him, Asgall, who had been forced to flee only nine months earlier, made good on his vow to return. He brought with him a fleet of ships carrying about a thousand Vikings, who mounted a fierce assault on Strongbow's Dublin. But even without Strongbow to lead them, the Normans prevailed. Asgall, who was taken prisoner, was tried, convicted and beheaded in the hall of what formerly had been his own palace in Dublin.
Upon MacMurrough's death, Strongbow returned to Dublin, only to be confronted by a revolt of the Leinster tribes, who were challenging Strongbow's right to succeed MacMurrough as King of Leinster. The revolt nominally was led by Murtaugh MacMurrough, Dermot MacMurrough's nephew and heir, who claimed that succession should be determined by Irish (Brehon) law, not his uncle's agreement with Strongbow.
Significantly, Murtaugh had military support from the Ard Ri, Rory O'Connor, along with widespread support from the other Gaelic lords. The Gaelic plan was to lay siege to Dublin and to starve the Normans into surrender. But after two months, complacency set in, which gave the Normans their opportunity.
Strongbow, le Gros, and Milo de Cogan, each with a contingent of 200 men, snuck out of the city, circled around behind O'Connor, and mounted a surprise attack. The daring initiative succeeded beyond all expectations, decimating O'Connor's army and terminating the siege. The victory established once and for all the Norman's military supremacy over both Viking and Gaelic Irish.
Nominally, Strongbow and his Norman troops were acting on behalf of Henry II, but Henry suspected -- with good reason -- that Strongbow planned to establish an independent kingdom in Ireland. But Henry wanted Ireland to become part of his Angevin empire, with the Normans serving as feudal underlords. To squelch any contrary plans Strongbow might have, Henry promptly
travelled to Ireland, bringing with him 4,000 well armed troops as a show of force. The visit was an enormous success. Without a drop of blood being shed, Strongbow and the other Norman warriors capitulated and paid homage to Henry, as did virtually everyone else of importance, the Normans, the Irish, the Vikings, even the bishops. Ireland was now part of Henry's Angevin empire.