Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Art Macmorrogh, King of Leinster

The English rulers in succession to Lionel, Duke of Clarence, were as foolish and oppressive as that ill-fated prince. They seem to have seldom paid any debts they made in Ireland. Sir Thomas Rokeby is praised for "beating the Irish well" in his time as Lord-Deputy, and also for paying his way honestly. "I will," he says, "use wooden platters and spoons, but give gold and silver for my food and clothes, and for the men in my pay."

In 1375, Art Macmorrogh was elected King of Leinster, promising "to splaye his banner within two miles of Dublin, and after to invade the whole land." He carried out his threat so valiantly that even the Dublin Council had to pay him Black Rent as the price of peace. So woeful a story was told by the Irish settlers, who fled to England, that King Richard II. declared he would crush this rebel himself.

The king landed at Waterford in 1394 with the largest army that had ever come to Ireland. As soon as Art Macmorrogh heard of this arrival, he attacked New Ross, an English settlement, burned its houses and castles, and carried away gold, silver and hostages. The King's fine army performed nothing worthy of its size, and its divisions were easily defeated by the native chiefs. Richard gave up the hope of victory and tried to please his Irish subjects by knighting O'Neill, O'Conor, Macmorrogh and O'Brien, the descendants of four royal races in Ireland.

After a visit of nine months the king decided to return home, leaving his cousin, Roger Mortimer, to be deputy. As soon as he departed, the chiefs, who had sworn loyalty to him, rebelled and slew the deputy with a great number of English settlers at Kells, 1397.

Richard, in wrath at this insult, determined to avenge the death of his cousin. He gathered another large army and a vast store of provisions. He also took with him to Ireland the Crown Jewels and a precious flask of oil, said to have been sent down from heaven to Archbishop Becket as he prayed at the shrine of Columbkille.

Richard, landing at Waterford, marched straight to the Wicklow mountains, where Macmorrogh was in ambush. He ordered his men to cut down the wood, in which the Leinster chief was hidden, but the royal army was foiled for eleven days in their attack. Parties sent out to forage were stopped, and the English began to know starvation. When supplies were brought to Waterford, the soldiers rushed into the sea, "as if it were straw." They opened the casks of wine at once, and no less than a thousand of them were seen drunk at one time. Next day, they marched towards Dublin, constantly harassed by the Irish in the rear.

Macmorrogh at last offered to come to terms with the English leader, and came to a conference riding without saddle "a horse that had cost him four hundred cows." The two parties could not arrange matters, for Macmorrogh had married an Anglo-Norman heiress, and wanted his wife's lands, while the English were not disposed to agree to his possession of them.

Richard II. was angry at the failure of negotiations and still resolved to have the life of the rebellious Macmorrogh. He never carried out his resolve, for he reached Dublin to hear that his own kingdom was lost. During his absence, one of his subjects had been crowned king as Henry IV. These two rash expeditions to Ireland had indeed cost Richard his throne. He was taken prisoner as soon as he arrived in England, and only now enjoys the fame of being the last English king for three hundred years to cross the Channel on a royal visit.

After the fallen king's departure from Ireland, Art Macmorrogh became a still greater danger to the English government. He managed to become owner of his wife's lands, and though he was defeated once by the Lord-Deputy, Sir Stephen Scroope, he gained two signal victories over the people of Wexford before his death in 1417. It was thought that Macmorrogh died from poison, administered by an enemy, after a common practice of the times. He was one of Ireland's most heroic defenders and enjoyed the glory of complete success in his determined stand against submission to the English yoke.