Dermot MacMurrough

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Dermot MacMurrough.

Diarmaid Mac Murchadha (later known as Diarmaid na nGall or "Dermot of the Foreigners"), anglicized as Dermot MacMurrough (1110 - May 1, 1171) was a King of Leinster in Ireland. Ousted as King of Leinster in 1166, he sought military assistance from King Henry II of England to retake his kingdom. In return, MacMurrough pledged an Oath of Allegiance to Henry, who sent troops in support. As a further thanks for his reinstatement, MacMurrough's daughter Aoife was married to Richard de Clare, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke and a Cambro-Norman lord, known as "Strongbow." Henry II then mounted a larger second invasion in 1171 to ensure his control over Strongbow, since which parts or all of Ireland has been ruled or reigned over by the English, until independence in 1922. It was Henry VIII (1491-1547) who first appropriated the title "King of Ireland" for the English monarchy.

What followed, Ireland's history of oppression under British rule, is an example of how one comparatively minor act, whether innocent or otherwise, can have very negative consequences over many centuries. Another result of MacMurrough's actions was the suppression of Ireland's distinctive Celtic Christian tradition. MacMurrough changed the course of a nation's history. He may not have known that his request for help would impact Ireland as it did, yet according to tradition, Henry had obtained the Papal Bull authorizing his "overlordship" of Ireland as early as 1155.[1] Perhaps, before a nation's leader forms an alliance with another nation's leader, they should learn more about their ambitions before seeking help. If MacMurrough had known about the Papal Bull, or sent agents to gather intelligence, events may have unfolded differently. Celtic Christianity might have continued to flourish. John Quincy Adams suggested that it was unbridled ambition that drove MacMurrough to seek Henry's aid.[2] In this view, MacMurrough shares some of the blame for Ireland's subsequent experience of subjection to British rule.

Early life and family

Mac Murchadha was born in 1110, a son of Donnchadh, King of Leinster and Dublin; he was a descendant of Brian Boru. His father was killed in battle in 1115, by Dublin Vikings and was buried, in Dublin, along with the body of a dog—this was considered a huge insult.

Mac Murchada had two wives (as allowed under the Brehon Laws),[3] the first of whom, Mór Uí Thuathail, was mother of Aoife of Leinster and Conchobhar Mac Murchadha. By Sadhbh of Uí Fhaoláin, he had a daughter named Órlaith who married Domhnall Mór, King of Munster. He had two legitimate sons, Domhnall Caomhánach (died 1175) and Éanna Ceannsealach (blinded 1169).

King of Leinster

Flag of Leinster.

After the death of his older brother, Mac Murchadha unexpectedly became King of Leinster. This was opposed by the then High King of Ireland, Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair who feared (rightly so) that Mac Murchadha would become a rival. Toirdelbach sent one of his allied Kings, the belligerent Tigernán Ua Ruairc (Tiernan O'Rourke) to conquer Leinster and oust the young Mac Murchadha. Ua Ruairc went on a brutal campaign slaughtering the livestock of Leinster and thereby trying to starve the province's residents. Mac Murchadha was ousted from his throne, but was able to regain it with the help of Leinster clans in 1132. Afterwards followed two decades of an uneasy peace between Ua Conchobhair and Diarmaid. In 1152, he even assisted the High King to raid the land of Ua Ruairc who had by then become a renegade.

Mac Murchada also is said to have "abducted" Ua Ruairc's wife Dearbhforghaill along with all her furniture and goods, with the aid of Dearbhforghaill's brother, a future pretender to the kingship of Meath. It was said that Dearbhforghaill was not exactly an unwilling prisoner and she remained in Ferns with MacMurrough, in comfort, for a number of years. Her advanced age indicates that she may have been a refugee or a hostage. Whatever the reality, the "abduction" was given as a further reason for enmity between the two kings.

After the death of the famous High King Brian Boru in 1014, Ireland was at almost constant civil war for two centuries. After the fall of the O'Brien family (Brian Boru's descendants) from the Irish throne, the various families which ruled Ireland's four provinces were constantly fighting with one another for control of all of Ireland. At that time, Ireland was like a federal kingdom, with five provinces (Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught along with Meath, which was the seat of the High King) each ruled by kings who were all supposed to be loyal to the High King of Ireland.

Church builder

As king of Leinster, in 1140-70 Dermot commissioned Irish Romanesque churches and abbeys at:

  • Baltinglass—a Cistercian abbey (1148)
  • Glendalough
  • Ferns (his capital—St Mary's Abbey Augustinian Order)
  • Killeshin

He sponsored convents (nunneries) at Dublin (St Mary's, 1146), and in c.1151, two more at Aghade, County Carlow and at Killculliheen in County Kilkenny.

He also sponsored the successful career of churchman St Lawrence O'Toole (Lorcan Ua Tuathail). He married O'Toole's half-sister Mor in 1153, and presided at the synod of Clane in 1161, when O'Toole was installed as archbishop of Dublin.

Exile and return

In 1166, Ireland's new High King and Mac Murchadha's only ally Muircheartach Ua Lochlainn had fallen, and a large coalition led by Tighearnán Ua Ruairc (Mac Murchadha's arch enemy) marched on Leinster. Ua Ruairc and his allies took Leinster with ease, and Mac Murchadha and his wife barely escaped with their lives. Mac Murchadha fled to Wales and from there to England and France, in order to have King Henry II's consent to be allowed recruit soldiers to bring back to Ireland and reclaim his kingship. On returning to Wales, Robert Fitzstephen helped him organize a mercenary army of Norman and Welsh soldiers, including Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, alias Strongbow

In his absence Ruaidhrí Ua Conchobhair (son of Mac Murchadha's former enemy, High King Toirdhealbhach) had become the new High King of Ireland. Mac Murchadha planned not only to retake Leinster, but to oust the Uí Conchobhair clan and become the High King of Ireland himself. He quickly retook Dublin, Ossory and the former Viking settlement of Waterford, and within a short time had all of Leinster in his control again. He then marched on Tara (then Ireland's capital) to oust Ruaidhrí. Mac Murchadha gambled that Ruaidhrí would not hurt the Leinster hostages which he had (including Mac Murchadha's eldest son, Conchobhar Mac Murchadha). However, Ua Ruairc forced his hand and they were all killed.

Diarmaid's army then lost the battle. He sent word to Wales and pleaded with Strongbow to come to Ireland as soon as possible. Strongbow's small force landed in Wexford with Welsh and Norman cavalry and took over both Waterford and Wexford. They then took Dublin. MacMurrough was devastated after the death of his son, Domhnall, retreated to Ferns and died a few months later.

Strongbow married Dermot's daughter Aoife of Leinster in 1170, as she was a great heiress, and as a result much of his (and his followers') land was granted to him under the Irish Brehon law, and later reconfirmed under Norman law. The marriage was imagined and painted in the Romantic style in 1854, by Daniel Maclise.

Henry II and the Papal Bull

Henry had designs on Ireland even before MacMurrough approached him for help. The Pope at the time was an Englishman, Adrian IV. In 1155, in return for Henry's pledge of loyalty to the Papacy, Adrian issues Laudabiliter, which ceded Ireland to England provided that Henry brought the Church in Ireland into conformity with the Catholic Church. The Church in Ireland vaguely recognized the authority of the Pope but was in many respects independent and practiced an alternative form of Christianity known as Celtic. One of the problems of reconstructing a picture of what Celtic Christianity was like is that "people read back into Celtic Christianity what they want to see in contemporary Christianity."[4] However, it is widely believed that priests could marry, that some women served as priests, that bishops no fixed seats and that monasteries included a mix of celibate and married members under the spiritual guidance of the Abbot. Abbots, not bishops, exercised the greater authority. A reverence for nature permeated the form of the faith. Easter was celebrated on a different date and monks shaved the tonsure from ear to ear, not across the crown. The Pope wanted to bring the Irish church into conformity. He as did Henry regarded Ireland as a largely pagan place. Henry was charged with taming Ireland. The Bull was renewed by Pope Alexander III in 1171, and approved by a Synod of Irish bishops.

After Strongbow's successful invasion, Henry II mounted a second and larger invasion in 1171, to ensure his control over his Norman subjects, which succeeded. He then accepted the submission of the Irish kings in Dublin. He added "Lord of Ireland" to his many other titles.

Death and descendants

Ua Conchobhair was soon ousted, first as High King and eventually as King of Connaught. Attempting to regain his provincial kingdom, he turned to the English as Mac Murchadha had before him. The Lordship directly controlled a small territory in Ireland surrounding the cities of Dublin and Waterford, while the rest of Ireland was divided between Norman and Welsh barons. The 1174 Treaty of Windsor, brokered by St Lawrence O'Toole with Henry II, formalized the submission of the Gaelic clans that remained in local control, like the Uí Conchobhair who retained Connacht and the Uí Néill who retained most of Ulster.

Dermot's descendants continued to rule parts of Leinster until the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland in the 1500s under Henry VIII, the first English King to claim the title "King of Ireland," rather than the Lordship of Ireland. Today they live on with the surname "MacMurrough Kavanagh" at Borris in Co. Carlow and at Maresfield, East Sussex, being one of the few surviving "Chiefs of the name."


The subject of much literature, United States President John Quincy Adams wrote a poetical work on his story. He wanted the citizens of the U.S. to learn a lesson about "devotion to their country" by "pointing the finger of scorn at the example six hundred years since exhibited, of a country sold to a foreign invader by the joint agency of violated marriage vows, unprincipled ambition and religious imposture."[5]

Later reputation

In Irish history books written after 1800 in the age of nationalism, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha was often seen as a traitor even though he almost certainly did not intend to betray his country.

Gerald of Wales, a Cambro-Norman historian who visited Ireland and whose uncles and cousins were prominent soldiers in the army of Strongbow, said of Mac Murchadha:

Now Dermot was a man tall of stature and stout of frame; a soldier whose heart was in the fray, and held valiant among his own nation. From often shouting his battle-cry his voice had become hoarse. A man who liked better to be feared by all than loved by any. One who would oppress his greater vassals, while he raised to high station men of lowly birth. A tyrant to his own subjects, he was hated by strangers; his hand was against every man, and every man's hand against him.[6]

Impact on Ireland

MacMurrough may not have anticipated that his request for help in gaining the High kingship would result in Henry claiming Ireland for himself, although according to tradition, the Papal Bull authorizing Henry's "overlordship" dated from 1155, eleven years before his request for help. He may share some guilt for Ireland's subsequent history by not finding out more about Henry's ambitions. Adams suggests, too, that it was MacMurrough's unbridled ambition that drove him to seek Henry's help. "Ambition," wrote Adams, "is a never ending passion," a "virtue" or a "vice" depending on the "object of the man's pursuit."[7] What may or may not have been an innocent act had very negative consequences over many centuries, in this instance leading to a people's oppression and the denial of their freedom. In the years that followed, the English gradually extended their rule over the whole island. Territory over which English rule was not yet established was known as "beyond the pale." Irish who lived beyond the pale were "forbidden from marrying anyone of English descent." Those of English descent were forbidden from "wearing Irish clothes or from learning the Irish language."[8] In this way, the suppression of Celtic and of Irish culture began. The British privileged English settlers over native Irish. English settlers and their descendants ruler; the Irish labored in the fields and served the English elite. Following England's conversion to Protestantism, Irish Catholics suffered from legal restrictions. Protestants were encouraged to settle on Ireland. Catholics were prohibited from buying land, which meant that the land they did own was usually sub-divided among their heirs. This resulted in smaller and smaller holdings producing insufficient food.[9] Later, this led to famine and mass starvation. Many Scottish Protestants settled in the North of Ireland, which caused the Partition of Ireland in 1921. As Britain—after many anti-British rebellions—finally granted home rule to Ireland, Northern Protestants refused to be part of a Catholic majority state. Forming a minority in the North, the "partition" solution was applied, similar to the solution later applied to Hindu-Muslim tension in India (in 1947).


  1. Library Ireland, Pope Adrian's Bull Laudabiliter and Note Upon It. Retrieved September 24, 2008.
  2. Adams, Burke, Fitzpatrick, and Hamilton (2005), page xiii.
  3. Loretta Wilson, Brehon Laws, Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area. Retrieved September 24, 2008.
  4. Bennett (2008), 50.
  5. Adams, Burke, Fitzpatrick, and Hamilton (2005), xiii-xiv.
  6. Hackett (1922), 69.
  7. Adams, Burke, Fitzpatrick, and Hamilton (2005), 78.
  8. Bennett (2008), 52.
  9. Bennett (2008), 54.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adams, John Quincy, Martin J. Burke, Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, and Olivia Hamilton. Dermot MacMorrogh, or, The Conquest of Ireland: An Historical Tale of the Twelfth Century in Four Cantos. Dublin, IE: Maunsel & Co., 2005. ISBN 978-1930901377
  • Bennett, Clinton. In Search of Solutions: The Problem of Religion and Conflict. London: Equinox Pub., 2008. ISBN 978-1845532390
  • Cunningham, Bernadette. O'Donnell Histories: Donegal and the Annals of the Four Masters. Rathmullan, IE: Rathmullan and District Local History Society, 2007. ISBN 0954088840
  • Hackett, Francis. The Story of the Irish Nation. New York: The Century co., 1922.
  • O'Byrne, Emmett. War, Politics, and the Irish of Leinster, 1156-1606. Dublin: Four Courts, 2003. ISBN 978-1851826902


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