Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Marriage of Strongbow

In the reign of Roderick O'Conor, a certain chief of Leinster, by name Diarmid, or Dermot, carried off the wife of O'Rourke, another chief, with cattle and plunder of all kinds. Devorgil does not seem to have been unwilling to leave her husband, but a great outcry followed her so-called capture, as soon as it was known.

Diarmid was a violent man, with little care for the hurt he did to others. He had begun his reign by attacking Kildare, killing many townsmen and members of the convent, and making the abbess leave her cell to marry one of his courtiers. It was, indeed, a time of lawlessness, when might was right, and chief vied with chief in acts of cruelty. One of the kings put out the eyes of his own son, and kept him in prison after he had sworn to be at peace with him. It was so usual a custom to blind captives likely to be dangerous, "that scarcely a princely house throughout Ireland was there where some blind warrior lived not, occupying the corner of the hearth." Yet there were still many to be shocked by Diarmid's robbery from O'Rourke, and his own subjects were the first to turn against him. They ranged themselves on the side of O'Conor, King of Ireland, who was minded to answer the appeal of O'Rourke. He marched into Leinster, plundered the land where men were still faithful to Diarmid, and destroyed the palace of Fearha.

In 1166, the King of Leinster was fain to flee from Ireland and take refuge at Bristol, where his father had old friends. There had long been a traffic in slaves between Bristol and the ports of Ireland. Diarmid intended to seek the help of Henry II., King of England, on the plea that Irish soldiers had helped that monarch against the Welsh. Henry was then in Aquitaine, whence his queen had come with great possessions. He agreed to give Diarmid letters to empower the Norman nobles to take part in an adventure to Ireland, if they wished.

There were scores of idle men in England, trained only for the wars, and always eager for plunder. They had spent sad days since Henry II. came to the throne, because he refused to allow them to rob and quarrel according to their habits under a weaker king. Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, was one of these Norman barons now deploring the money they had lost since peace prevailed. He was no longer young, and sought provision for his old age, quite careless as to the means by which he might obtain it. When Diarmid approached him, he consented quickly to go to Ireland and help the ousted king against his subjects, on condition that he should marry Eva of Leinster, and have the succession to Diarmid's kingdom.

A famous Welsh family, afterwards known as the Geraldines, were bribed to help Diarmid by the promise of Wexford, though the town was in the hands of Northmen. They set out for Ireland in 1168, an historian famed as Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, accompanying the expedition, and chronicling the wonderful exploits of his family. As soon as they landed, the adventurers attacked Wexford, but did not find it an easy possession to win. They had to set fire to all the ships in the harbour before the inhabitants submitted. Giraldus records that their leader was knocked down from a wall by a blow of such might that sixteen years later all his double teeth fell out in consequence!

Diarmid rewarded his Welsh allies by the promised gift of Wexford, and then began to quarrel with them. He even told Roderick O'Conor that they should be sent back to their own country, if he might have Leinster on easy terms.

Then Strongbow arrived, a warrior to be dismissed by no treacherous excuses. He was longing to use his sword again in the old free way of the Norman barons. Being almost all that he possessed, it was doubly precious for that reason. Waterford fell before the combined assault of Diarmid and Pembroke, and in the midst of the warfare, a strange marriage was celebrated. Eva, daughter of King Diarmid, was a young and beautiful maiden. A compact united her with tears and blood to the elderly Norman baron. In triumph their chariots passed over the bodies of dead and dying men, and in triumph they began another union as ill-assorted—that of Great Britain and Ireland.

Strongbow and Diarmid had now the assembled forces of the kingdom against them. Dublin was the city which they attacked, hoping to avenge a private insult offered to the father of Diarmid, who had been buried by Northmen in the same grave with a dog. The old King of Leinster fought his last battle well—it was chiefly through his valour that the city was taken. In the following year he died, appointing Strongbow to succeed him. "Diarmid Macmurchadha, King of Leinster, by whom a trembling rod was made of Ireland—after having brought over the Saxons, after having done extensive injuries to the Irish, after plundering and burning many churches—died before the end of a year of an insufferable, unknown disease, without making a will, without penance, without the body of Christ, and without unction as his evil deeds deserved."

The native chiefs did not allow Strongbow accession to Leinster without protest, but the Norman defeated them by his daring, and then went forth to the attack of the Danish king.

Henry II. heard of his subject's success in war, and grew alarmed at the news of each fresh victory. He resolved to go to Ireland and demand homage from Strongbow in that country.

In 1171 he landed at Cork, then marched to Waterford Harbour with horsemen, archers, and great stores of weapons and provisions. Strongbow feared to oppose the king, who had ruled him firmly, and came humbly to Waterford to promise full submission. The Irish chiefs came too, except O'Neill of Ulster, and Henry became feudal lord and King of Ireland "without firing a single shot in anger, or spilling, so far as we know, a single drop of Irish or Norman blood."

At Dublin they erected a royal building in honour of the English king "of beautiful earth roofed with wattles." Henry dazzled the Irish by the splendour of his robes, and the quality of his glittering weapons. Gold and silver and scarlet and fur made them think him the greatest of monarchs. He added to this admiration by the lavish way in which he entertained all guests. Luxuries had been brought in ships to Ireland of a kind that had never been known there hitherto. The wondering chiefs learnt for the first time to eat such birds as herons, cranes, peacocks, and wild geese, finishing the repast with fruit and almonds from the East, and the noted cheese of Gloucester.

Henry also received the Irish clergy, whose simple habits formed a strange contrast to his ostentation. Gelasius, Bishop of Armagh, brought his own white cow with him, and refused any other nourishment than her milk!

In 1172, Henry had to return to England. He had made changes for the better both in the law and Church of Ireland, for he was a fine administrator, and could not endure disorder. He insisted that the Irish princes should treat him as their overlord, and allowed Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, to retain Leinster, leaving Hugh De Lacy as the First Lord-Deputy in Ireland.