Dublin has a way of telling the tales of Ireland’s transfer of power. Its prime location for a trade market is undeniable; it was this strength that made it one of the most vied after ports in all of Western Europe for hundreds of years. After its founding by the Vikings, and subsequent loss and regain, Dublin would go through many historic shifts of power. Following the Battle of Clontarf, and the supposed end of the Vikings, Sitric Silkbeard, the half Irish half Viking, remained in control of Dublin for twenty years. But this short peaceful coexistence—in typical early Irish fashion—didn’t last. By the 11th century, Irish Chieftains were back at it again, with a long string of bloody battles for High King, following the rulebook change forged by Brian Boru, that allowed any king with ambition to shoot their shot at the position. Although very meritocratic of them, the violence would continue on high for 150 years. The power shifts never seemed to end in Gaelic Ireland. It was this shaky ground that led one of Ireland’s own to seek help elsewhere. This is the story of King Diarmaid, and his English invitation.
By the mid-twelfth century, there were four identifiable families ruling the four provinces of Ireland: the O’Neill’s in Ulster, the O’Connors in Connaught, the O’Brien’s in Munster, and the MacMurrough’s in Leinster. King Diarmaid mac Murchada (anglicised Dermot MacMurrough), was the leader of his tribe in Leinster at this time. The new O’Connor leadership, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (anglicised Rory O’Connor), had similar sights on Ireland as the late Brian Boru did, hoping to become its emperor. He led battles into the neighboring northern territory of Munster, and was successful in seizing territory from the O’Briens; Boru’s tribe would never be able to fulfill or protect their land and power after Brian and his main heir passed in the Battle of Clontarf. However, Dermot was able to sustain Rory’s encroaching threat because of his tribe’s alliance with the O’Neills in the north.
Rory and Dermot were similar in many ways, both leaders with great ambitious that wanted Ireland for themselves. But Dermot led ruthlessly, and often used fear as a tactic. By 1141, he had killed or blinded 17 of his rivals; but the most relevant dispute of his life would come later when he and the King of Bréifne, (Breffney) Tiernan O’Rourke, would go toe to toe. A misinformed and often quoted part of this story is the abduction of Tiernan’s wife, Devorgilla. Although this event is attributed as the reason that Dermot is exiled, it’s not true. In fact, this happened fifteen years before he left Ireland, and the ‘abduction’ was more of a safe haven offer. Devorgilla’s brother asked Dermot to take her to his home to ensure her safety, as there was an incoming army on its way to the O’Rourke territory. That is exactly what he did: took her and kept her safe. But knowing that the current play for power by all the kings was sticky and uncertain. He decided to keep Devorgilla for a little longer and use her as a political upper hand. From the Annals, we only know that Dermot gave Devorgilla to the O’Connors, and then Tiernan O’Rouke went and gave hostages for her to be returned to him. That was the end of that.
Fifteen years later, the story finds its footing again in truth. Dermot’s stronghold over Leinster became a storm when the O’Neill leader was assassinated. With the fall of their most important ally, Rory O’Connor and Tiernan O’Rourke sealed their own alliance to insure their ability to remove Dermot from his kingship, and take his lands. At this time, Rory O’Connor assumed the high kingship. O’Connor and O’Rourke didn’t stutter in leading attacks into Ulster and Leinster. In a short time, they conquered, and even took Dublin. When Rory found Dermot, instead of punishing him in the way Dermot would have—by blinding or killing him—he merely banished him. O’Connor proved himself to be a different kind of leader than Dermot, but that decision would ultimately come back to haunt him. In 1167, Dermot MacMurrough packed his bags and headed east, looking for help elsewhere to regain his kingdom and take vengeance on those that pushed him out.
Dermot may have been exiled, but his ambitions remained in tact. He wanted his kingdom back, and he knew he needed an army to do so. He sought help at the highest calibre, seeking council with The King of England, Henry II. He did not ask the King for personal help per se, but he asked his permission to use his mercenaries and round an army. In return? MacMurrough promises his undying loyalty to those that help him. The king allows him to petition the Anglo-Norman lords. Dermot manages to round up an army, and has the support of a very important figure: Richard de Clare, or as we know him ‘Strongbow.’ Clare agrees to lead an army and help Dermot get his land back. And they do exactly that.
MacMurrough went first with an army to try to get his lands back, but O’Rourke and O’Connor march against him. They go back and forth for nearly two years before Strongbow officially arrives with an army in 1170. His success is why we know his name. Once he came, Dermot’s luck turned right around. They took back Waterford, and within a month, they take back Dublin too. Dermot promises Strongbow that because of his help, he is next in line as King of Leinster. To seal this promise, he marries his own daughter Aoife to Strongbow. A year later, Dermot dies of old age and Strongbow becomes the next official King of Leinster, making the Normans the main power over the east of Ireland. With this sudden skyrocket to power, King Henry II looks on a bit nervously at the Norman’s conquering of the nearby island, and goes to ensure he is to thank for the triumph.
The King sailed over to Ireland in 1171, with a fleet of 400 ships and an army to remind the Normans, and now the neighboring Irishman, of who’s boss. Strongbow had no interest in taking on King Henry, he just wanted to remain in his cosy kingship of Leinster. He pledged his allegiance to the King, and the King allowed Strongbow to remain in his lands. In the rest of Ireland, O’Connor thought the Kings arrival signaled an ally against Strongbow. But instead, O’Connor realized he was out of his league, and the two came to agreements over who ruled what. A few years later in 1175, the Treaty of Windsor was put into place. This said that all Norman territory was now officially under King Henry’s rule. Rory O’Connor did keep his land but he had to pay a fee to the King to keep it. Oh, and pledge his allegiance to the crown. Henry began sending military leaders to Ireland and giving them land under the premise that they enforce the contract. Slowly but surely, these Norman leaders started expanding their land and pushing the Irish out of power. By the 13th century, they had control over most of Ireland.
It always appears that when looking at the transfer of powers in Gaelic history, the most powerful of the time can always be tracked back to who has Dublin. Strongbow, and his allegiance to King Henry, kept Dublin in his terrain. This event and time period marked Rory O’Connor as the last high king Ireland would ever see. The next few centuries would see the slow, steady, and complete conquer of all of Ireland, and bring us warriors that would fight against it like Grace O’Malley and rebellions that hoped to return Ireland to its Gaelic families.
Today you can visit Strongbow’s grave in Christ Church Cathedral, across from the Dublinia Viking Museum in Dublin and learn more about this moment in history in Ireland with their audio guided tours.