Nesta’s Relentless Brood: deleted chapter

The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow.
The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow. Source Wikimedia Commons.

When Dermot brought Strongbow and Nesta’s Normans to Ireland

What Dermot may have had in mind, and indeed what he may have discussed with his friend Robert FitzHarding, was the solution arrived at in Scotland when modernisers under Malcolm Canmore’s sons won out with help from Norman England. Not only did they employ the military prowess of the Normans, but invited them to settle in the southern half of the country, and with their help, King David had established a stable Scottish dynasty.1

[there follows a rough draft of what was to be a chapter in my work-in-progress, now deleted. I’m publishing it here in case it’s of interest to anyone. Re-blogged from Slimming from the BeachClick to enlarge image.
The action, as it were, takes place in the mid-12th century.]

Another model with which Dermot would have been familiar was the relative co-existence of the Welsh Princes and the Norman Marcher barons, independent but giving fealty to Henry II. Aware as he was of the economic price of war, it is thought that Henry was conducive to the idea of a commonwealth with its economic benefits and with himself at its head – the forerunner, one might say, of the British Commonwealth.

Whatever Dermot’s other plans, he had to find Henry, and Henry was busy in his French dominions. MacMurrough had set out from Ireland in August; he stayed with FitzHarding until late autumn and caught up with Henry in Aquitaine, the Duchy of his estranged wife, Eleanor, in the New Year of 1167.

He swore fealty as his liegeman.

The term ‘liegeman’ meant that Dermot had sworn to become Henry’s vassal, with feudal obligations of fidelity in a military, political and social sense to Henry as his lord. This also meant that Henry was obliged to come to his aid in time of danger, but for the moment, at least, Dermot only received permission to approach any of Henry’s liegemen – his vassals – for support. It was the first and last time he laid eyes on the English King.

Dermot may have been disappointed that he did not receive Henry’s direct involvement, but he returned to Bristol and FitzHarding. Initially he had difficulty inspiring any interest in his venture, despite Henry’s endorsement. Eventually, probably on the recommendation of FitzHarding, he crossed the Severn to South Wales, where he met one Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, known to history as Strongbow.

Strongbow had backed the wrong contender for the English throne, and Henry deprived him of the earldom of Pembroke when he came to power. He was at this time a widower, in his mid-fifties, and open to redeeming his fortunes, but he drove a hard bargain which was not sealed until Dermot offered his young daughter Aoife in marriage, which meant, in Strongbow’s eyes at least, that he would inherit the province of Leinster on Dermot’s death. That this was impossible under Irish law, other than by force, was evidently not discussed.

MacMurrough’s next stop was the court of the man recognized by the Welsh as their king, Rhys ap Gruffyd – son, as his name suggests, of the long-lived Gruffydd ap Cynan, who, according to one biography, had two Irish half-brothers who were kings of the Ulaid, but had otherwise strong connections with the O’Briens. So he was a distant kinsman of Dermot.

Rhys was the nephew of perhaps the most remarkable woman of Welsh history, the prodigious Nesta, daughter of King Rhys ap Tewdwr, and mother and grandmother of several of the eventual invaders of Ireland, essentially making it a Welsh-Norman, or Cambro-Norman, invasion.

Her first marriage was to Gerald of Windsor, by whom she had one daughter, Angharrat, and three sons, William, Maurice, and David FitzGerald, fitz being a corruption of the French fils, meaning son. She and her children were abducted, possibly with her connivance, by a Welsh chieftain, afterwards killed by her husband in a skirmish. Later she had three more children, before being held as hostage by Henry I. She became his mistress, giving him a son, the first of the FitzHenrys, who in turn fathered Meiler and Robert FitzHenry, who were both to join Dermot’s forces. Another grandson who joined the adventure was Raymond le Gros, founder of the Redmond family in Ireland. Her son by her second marriage to the Constable of Cardigan was Robert FitzStephen.2

It was this Robert FitzStephen, cousin and captive of Rhys ap Gruffyd, that Dermot wanted to meet. Rhys had imprisoned him because of his loyalty to Henry II, and now the bargain was that he would release him if he joined Dermot’s expedition. He agreed.

The first group to accompany Dermot in August 1167 was a small group of Welsh, Flemings and Normans, under Richard FitzGodebert de la Roche.3

So began what can best be described as a dance of wits between Dermot, the High King and O’Rourke. Dermot’s first stratagem was to disappear into the Augustinian cloister in Ferns until the following Spring. How the international force which had accompanied him fared, or what they made of this, we don’t know. Neither do we know how this initial expedition was funded, and indeed the delay of a full expedition was most likely due to financial difficulties.

As soon as Dermot emerged from the cloister, word reached O’Connor, and Dermot submitted to overwhelming force again – although O’Rourke’s men broke ranks and attacked Dermot’s lines, killing 200, including the son of the Welsh king.4 But a settlement was made, hostages were given, and O’Rourke had the satisfaction of seeing O’Connor finally compelling MacMurrough to pay him 100 ounces of gold for his loss of face at Dervogilla’s abduction. Once again they returned to the west.

The Annals mention a very curious incident which occurred soon after Dermot’s return. Ua Dhuibhne, of the Cenél nEoghain – that is, of the late King Muirchertach MacLochlainn’s people – is described as a gillie, or servant of Donnchadh Ua Cerbhaill, ruler of Airgailla. It is hard to escape the suspicion that Ua Dhuibhne was taken as a slave after MacLochlain’s downfall. In any event, on finding the king drunk, he took advantage of the fact and killed him with a battle-axe, the favourite weapon of the Irish soldier.5

Meanwhile, Dermot discovered that his son Énna, kept as a hostage by Ossory, had been blinded on news of his return. Naturally enraged, he sent his secretary Maurice Regan to Wales to hasten reinforcements.
Robert FitzStephen and Maurice FitzGerald eventually solved their financial problems with loans from Josce, a Jewish financier in Gloucester, and a significant force under Robert FitzStephen arrived in Bannow Bay, south Wexford, in 1169. FitzStephen was the uncle of the historian of the invasion, Gerald de Barri, better known as Gerald Cambrensis, whose brother Robert was the first of the Barrys in Ireland. They were joined the next day by Maurice de Prendergast, a Pembrokeshire Fleming who brought two ship-loads of men-at-arms, and most significantly, archers. They took Wexford town and MacMurrough granted it to FitzStephen and his half-brother Maurice FitzGerald.6

Once again the dance with O’Connor began, but this time, seeing the formidable Norman force behind MacMurrough, O’Connor decided to negotiate. The intermediary was the Wexford prelate Joseph Ua hÁeda.7 In the event, MacMurrough made another submission, and in return O’Connor allowed him the kingship of Leinster, on the condition that he send back his mercenaries once it had been secured. He even offered his daughter in marriage should he stick to the bargain, despite the fact that Dermot was already married – yet another instance of how women were used in politics. MacMurrough agreed, probably in bad faith, but fatefully, O’Connor took MacMurrough’s youngest son, Conchbhar, his grandson Domhnaill, and the son of his belovéd foster brother, as hostages.8

Dermot had regained his kingdom, but the Normans kept coming. Raymond Le Gros, the founder of the Redmond family in Ireland, arrived in May 1170 at Baginbun, Co Wexford. Then, at last, the main driving force of the invasion, and the man to whom MacMurrough had made the most significant promise, arrived in August 1170, with as many as 200 knights and a thousand troops. They took Waterford, and Strongbow married MacMurrough’s teenage daughter, Aoife, or Eva, in the city, and as they had agreed, became heir to Leinster.
Like FitzStephen and Maurice Fitzgerald, Strongbow had raised the money for this substantial expedition with Josce of Gloucester.9 Henry was furious. Josce had already been fined £5 by the sheriff of his county for having lent money to those who against the King’s prohibition went over to Ireland.10 The prohibition was odd, given Henry’s promise to Dermot.

It was only a matter of time before they took Dublin and alarmed O’Connor into another confrontation. He marched to Dublin and besieged them for two months before the Normans took the Irish by surprise and routed them. It is thought that O’Connor was bathing in the Liffey when the attack came.

Within months, practically the eastern half of Ireland was in Norman hands. Dermot was on the verge of supremacy, or so he must have thought, but one last tragedy awaited him. O’Connor had his hostages killed – Dermot’s son, grandson, and his foster brother O’Kelly’s son – and delivered to him. He left the field and retired to Ferns, and died a few months later in May 1171. He was 61.

Henry II had a superb spy network,11 but in this instance it was probably superfluous. However he heard about it, he came to Ireland to curb his barons, particularly Strongbow, and received submission from the Irish kings and chiefs wherever his route took him. This wasn’t as significant as it seems; it was par for the course wherever a stronger king was present, be he Irish or foreign.

What was significant was the clash and mutual incomprehension of cultures. As we have seen with Rory O’Connor and Dermot MacMurrough, an Irish king conquered and then withdrew once he had submission and hostages to ensure the submission, plus whatever plunder, usually cattle, possibly slaves, they could bring with them. The Normans, on the other hand, consolidated their gains, largely by building castles, and later towns.

Rory O’Connor did not submit, but in 1175, he agreed the treaty of Windsor with Henry, wherein O’Connor was recognized as King of all Ireland except Leinster, Meath and the city and hinterland of Waterford. In return he was to collect a tribute of every tenth merchantable hide from slaughtered beasts, and to compel any Irish who had abandoned the annexed areas to return and pay tribute, or give their services in return for the use of lands. The mediator was MacMurrough’s brother-in-law, Archbishop Lawrence O’Toole.12

Within a few years, the Normans had broken the bargain. In despair, his own people against him, Rory retired to Cong Abbey in 118313 and died in 119814 O’Rourke was already dead, treacherously killed by the Norman baron de Lacey and one of his own kinsman during a parley. He was beheaded, his head raised over the entrance to the fort of Dublin, his body hung upside down nearby.15

Thus began the long involvement of the English crown in Ireland.



*First published on the web on Slimming for the Beach, 27 September, 2010

  1. W.L. Warren, The Interpretation of Twelfth-century Irish History, Historical Studies VII, ed J.C. Beckett, London, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969, p9. []
  2. Nicholas Furlong, Diarmait, King of Leinster, 115/116 []
  3. Richard Roche, The Norman Invasion of Ireland, pp100/101. Because his family castle in Pembrokeshire was built on a rock, they took the name de la Roche, from the French word for rock. []
  4. Furlong, Diarmait, King of Leinster, p121 []
  5. Annals of Ulster, 1168; Annals of the Four Masters, 1168 []
  6. Seán Duffy, The Concise History of Ireland, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 2000, p67 []
  7. Furlong, Diarmait King of Leinster, p138. []
  8. ibid []
  9. The Jewish Enclyclopedia []
  10. L. Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, Irish University Press, Shannon, 1972, p 4 []
  11. J.O Preswich, Millitary Intelligence under the Norman and Angevin Kings, in Law and Government in Medieval England and Normandy, eds Garnett & Hudson, Cambridge University Press, 1994 []
  12. later St Lawrence O’Toole []
  13. Katherine Simms. Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, p. 60 []
  14. The Norman Invasion of Ireland. p 182 []
  15. The Annals of Ulster; quoted in The Norman Invasion of Ireland, p196 []