The Kings of Ireland

In the early Middle Ages the island of Ireland was divided into over 200 kingdoms or tuatha, most of them being extremely small.  Of these the major players in the game of kingship became Ulster in the north, Connaught in the west, Munster in the south-west and Leinster in the south-east.  Sandwiched between them was the kingdom of Meath with Breifne and Oriel north of it.  Finally, around the south coast were the Viking settlements of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick.  From these disparate kingdoms various personalities rose and fell and during their time they all vied to be king of Ireland, or High King as it was known.  Later in the nineteenth century the idea of Tara being the capital of Ireland was invented.  In reality power was personal and each king generally enforced his own rule from scratch within the wider family base of kingship.  This meant that anyone with a great grandfather who had been king could throw his hat into the ring and attempt to make himself king in turn.  There was little or no thought of primogeniture until the coming of Henry II in 1171.

During the early period there can be little doubt that the native princes of Ireland,
from at least the early twelfth century onwards, constructed fortifications that mimicked the buildings constructed in England, Scotland and Wales.  The first native castle recorded as being built was at Athlone in 1124 with others soon following, particularly Galway in 1129.  Others most likely existed further east, like Dunamase, but no chronicle records were kept of them other than possibly Ferns castle under Dermot MacMurrough (d.1171).  With the Angevin invasions under Henry II (1154-89), Ireland was slowly divided into lordships protected by castles like Cahir, Carrickfergus, Dundrum, Glanworth, Maynooth and Trim.  As this happened the Irish kings were pushed back generally to the west.  This process continued into the mid thirteenth century with the conquest of much of Connaught being undertaken and castle built at place like Bunratty and Roscommon.  The major castles of Ireland were mostly built in this era of conquest which came to an end during the reign of Henry III (1216-72).  After this there was a gradual resurgence of native power which swept away many of the ‘English' lordships, transforming them back into largely Gaelic lands, even if some of the lords were descendants of ‘Norman' stock.  By the fifteenth century English royal authority was compressed into the area around the Pale of Dublin.  During this period many tower keeps like Blarney, or tower houses like Ross, were built due to the lawlessness and turbulence of the land.  These in many ways emulated the great keeps of the eleventh and twelfth century in Britain.  The dire political situation was reversed by Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and her Stuart successors, only with much bloodshed.  The long and hard fought 11 years war of the Confederation (1641-53) finally sealed this victory, although the Williamite wars at the end of the seventeenth century (1689-91) shook Ireland again.  Below are some of the major kings of Ireland.

Kings of Munster

Brian Boru (976-1014)
Brian was one of 12 alleged sons of King Cennetig MacLorcain of Thomond (d.951) in Northern Munster.  His elder brother, Mathgamain (d.976), expanded their father's kingdom by annexing Cashel to their realm in 964 and becoming king of all Munster.  Earlier Brian had been educated at Innisfallen monastery, near Ross castle, until 951.  It took Brian 20 years of warfare to be recognised as overlord of Leth Moga - the southern half of Ireland, viz. Munster and Leinster, while Maelsechnaill MacDomnaill (d.1022) was recognised as king of Leth Cuinn - the northern half, viz Ulster and Connaught.  After the division of Ireland into north and south in 997, Brian was finally acknowledged as high king of Ireland at Athlone in 1002, although he still frequently had to campaign against the O'Neills in Ulster and the Vikings of Dublin in Leinster.  Eventually in 1014, Brian's armies confronted the Leinstermen and the Dubliners at the battle of Clontarf on 23 April.  Brian and his eldest son were killed in the battle, but his forces proved victorious.  His death ended the fledging unity of Ireland.  Brian's body was taken to Swords for the wake and then Armagh, where he is said to be buried in the north wall of the cathedral.

Turlough (Tairrdelbach) O'Brian (1064-86)
Turlough was grandson to Brian Boru by his son Domnal who died in 1011.  In 1058 Turlough drove his uncle, Donnchadh O'Brian (d.1064), from Limerick which was burned.  After the death of Dermot MacMail O'Cheinnselaig in 1072, he controlled the southern half of Ireland, Leth Moga - viz. Munster and Leinster.  He died after a long illness in 1086.

Muirchertach O'Brian (1086-1119)
Muirchertach first came to notice in 1075 when his father, High King Turlough O'Brian (d.1086), made him governor of Dublin.  He succeeded his father to the kingship in 1086.  In 1089 he found his fleet cut off in Connaught when the king of Meath blocked the River Shannon at Clonmacnoise, forcing Muirchertach to abandon his ships and retire on Athlone.  In 1093 he was reconciled with his brother, Dermot (d.1118), at Cashel.  In 1098, Muirchertach, in control of the Isle of Man, sent a fleet to help Gruffydd ap Cynan (d.1137) and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn (d.1111) in their defence of Mon.  However, the fleet was bought off by the Normans and they subsequently transported the 2 earls and their army to Aberlleiniog to defeat the Welsh.  The fleet was later punished by Muirchertach for their treachery.  In 1101 Muirchertach declared himself high king of Ireland and gave Cashel to the church, presiding over the synod held there the same year.  The next year, 1102, Earl Arnulf Belleme of Pembroke made an alliance with Muirchertach who sent a fleet to aid their rebellion against Henry I (1100-35).  With the fall of Arundel, Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury castles the Belleme rebellion ended and Muirchertach expelled the Normans who had fled to him while reopening relations with Henry I

In 1105 Muirchertach was in contact with King Edgar of Scotland (d.1107), receiving a camel from him as a gift.  In 1114, O'Brian fell victim to a wasting disease that allowed his brother, Dermot (d.1118), to steal his throne, but he recovered his kingship in 1115.  Despite this, his powers were failing and he went into retirement and died at Lismore in 1119.

Kings of Desmond

Tadgh MacCarthy (1118-1124)
Tadgh was the grandson of King Carthach of Cashel (d.1045) who became the recognised king of Desmond (southern Munster) in 1118 by the treaty of Glanmire which also granted northern Munster or Thomond to the sons of Dermot O'Brian (d.1118).  In 1123 Tadgh fell ill and his younger brother Cormac took over the kingdom.  Tadgh died the next year after making penance at Cashel

Cormac MacCarthy (1123-38)
Cormac was an aggressive king and in 1125 he seized Limerick from the O'Brians of Thomond.  During the ensuing counterattack he was defeated and in early 1127 was dissiesed to become a monk at Lismore, his younger brother, Donnchad MacCarthy (d.1143), replacing him and submitting to O'Connor after a brief siege of Cork in February 1127.  Cormac soon returned to his throne and in 1134 founded a church at Cashel which is now reputed by historians, but refuted by archaeology, to be the building called Cormac's chapel on the Rock.  In 1138 he was treacherously killed by his son in law, Torlough O'Brian (d.1167) and Donnchad and then his children resumed the throne until 1166. 

Dermot Mor MacCarthy (1166-85)
The son and heir of Cormac (d.1138) submitted to Henry II at Waterford in 1171, only to be dispossessed
in 1176 by his own son, Cormac Liathanach, who was himself killed the same year.  Dermot then lived on until 1185 when he was killed by the English of Cork, presumably during Prince John's expedition into Munster.  Dermot was succeeded by his next 2 sons in turn, Domnall MacCarthy (1185-1206) and Fingen (1206-07).  The throne then passed to Domnall's sons in turn, Dermot (1207-29), Cormac (1229-47) and Domnall (1247-52).  Two of this Domnall's sons then succeeded to the throne in turn, Finghin (d.1261) and Cormac (d.1262).  They were responsible for the defeat and death of John Fitz Thomas and his son Maurice at the battle of Callann in 1261. 

Kings of Connaught

Turlough O'Connor (1106-56)
Turlough was the nephew of Muirchertach O'Brian (d.1119) through his sister, Mor O'Brian (d.1088).  He rebelled against Muirchertach in 1118, helping force his uncle into retirement.  In 1120 Turlough met with Domnall MacLochlainn (d.1121) and agreed the ‘false peace' of Athlone.  In 1124 Turlough founded a fort at Dun Gaillimhe which eventually grew into Galway castle and city, while in 1129 he is said to have built Athlone castle in stone.  He is also reputed to have built Dunmore (as his capital) and Ballinasloe castles as well as refounding Cong abbey around 1135.  By 1150 his power was failing and he gave hostages to Muirchertach MacLochlainn (d.1166).

Rory (Ruaidri) O'Connor (1156-98)
Younger son and eventual heir of Turlough (d.1156).  Rory began his life in opposition to his father, but through the early deaths of his elder brothers, he eventually succeeded him.  In 1155 he burned and demolished the castle of Cuileanntrach in Meath - possibly now Cullendragh on Lough Sheelin.  On the death of his enemy, the High King Muirchertach MacLochlainn in 1166, Rory rode into Dublin to be inaugurated as high king.  He then expelled Dermot MacMurrough (d.1171) from Leinster which eventually brought about the Norman invasion.  To counter this Rory united the military strength of most of Ireland and counterattacked the invaders, besieging Dublin in 1171.  However, Earl Richard Clare (d.1176) broke the siege of Dublin with a sally which forced Rory back, leaving the invaders to complete the conquest of southern Leinster and eastern Munster.  In 1175 Rory went to England and made the treaty of Windsor with King Henry II (1154-89) in the hope of ending the strife that gripped Ireland.  The agreement meant that Rory became underking to Henry II and that the other Irish kings should hold of Rory.  Thus in theory, the reinstated high king would hold all Ireland outside of Leinster, Meath, Dublin and the land in Munster conquered by the Normans from Waterford to Dungarvan, under the powerful auspices of King Henry II.  The peace attempt proved unsuccessful and new attacks were made on Munster and Ulster by 1177.  Eventually Rory resigned his kingship in 1183, despite this he twice returned to rule briefly before dying in 1198.

Connor Maenmaige O'Connor (1183-89)
The son of Rory, he ruled Connaught from 1183 to 1189.  In 1184 Connor and Melaghlin Beg attacked and destroyed castles in the Norman held lands ‘slaying many of the English'.  In 1187 the 2 kings demolished Kildare castle and killed 2 knights.  O'Connor was slain by his own men in 1189, his father Rory, once more being recalled to be king of Connaught.

Cathal Carrach O'Connor (1189-1202)
The son of Connor Maenmaige, he killed his father's killer in 1189, becoming king of Connaught in the process after his grandfather, Rory (d.1198), stepped down again.  Cathal was then himself slain at the battle of Corr Sliaib in 1202 by Cathal Crobdearg O'Connor (d.1224).

Cathal Crobderg O'Connor (1189-1224)
Cathal was the youngest son of King Turlough O'Connor (d.1156), supposedly being born in 1153.  As such he was most likely half-brother to King Rory (d.1198).  He became king of Connaught in 1189, but was at war with his half grand nephew, Cathal Carrach O'Connor (d.1202), the son of the previous king, Connor Maenmaige O'Connor (d.1189).  Eventually Crobderg killed Cathal Carrach in 1202.  In 1210 Crobderg joined King John in attacking the Lacys, but gained that king's distrust when he refused to place his son, Aedh O'Connor (d.1228), in John's power.  Crobderg died in 1224 after asking King Henry III (1216-72) that his son and heir, Aedh, should be granted all Connaught, including that part of Breifne held by William Gorm Lacy (d.1233).

Aedh O'Connor (1224-28)
Succeeding his father, Cathal Crobdearg O'Connor, in 1224, he immediately faced challenges for the throne of Connaught and sought Norman aid at Athlone to regain his lands.  After a subsequent campaign in 1225 Aedh gave hostages to the Normans in 1226.  In 1227 he was summoned to Dublin, but was lucky to escape with his life with the aid of Earl William Marshall (d.1231).  Consequently he sacked Athlone in revenge and killed its constable while freeing the hostages held there.  In 1228 he was killed by a carpenter, allegedly working for the Lacys, at the court of Geoffrey Marisco which may have been at Adare castle.

Kings of Ulster

Domnal MacLochlainn (1083-1121)
Domnal became king of Ailech in the Northern Ui Neill in 1083 and was often at war with Muirchertach O'Brian (d.1119) from 1088 onwards.  Domnal became High King of Ireland, but never without opposition.  In 1120 Domnal met Turlough O'Connor (d.1156) and agreed the ‘false peace' of Athlone, before dying the next year.

Muirchertach MacLochlainn (1156-66)
By taking hostages from Turlough O'Connor (d.1156), Muirchertach is said to have succeeded him as high king in 1156.  He was assassinated by his own men in 1166 after he had violated his oath not to harm his hostages.

King of Breifne

Tiernan O'Rourke (1124-72)
Tiernan was the last king of Breifne and was instrumental in bringing the Normans to Ireland due to his role in the expulsion of Dermot MacMurrough (d.1171) from Leinster.  In 1152 his wife, Devorgilla (d.1193) was abducted with her cattle and material wealth by their neighbour, King Dermot MacMurrough.  Although she returned to her husband in 1153, possibly after giving birth to a daughter, Devorgilla MacMurrough, Tiernan was intent upon vengeance upon Dermot.  This finally resulted in Dermot's expulsion from Ireland in 1166.  Tiernan took part in the disastrous siege of Dublin with Rory O'Connor (d.1198) and surrendered to Henry II (1154-89) in 1171.  He was killed in 1172 after a failed parley with Hugh Lacy (d.1186) and Maurice Fitz Gerald (d.1176), allegedly after he tried to kill them.

King of Leinster

Dermot MacMurrough (1126-71)
Dermot succeeded his brother, Enna, in 1126, but was not secure on his throne until 1141 when he killed or blinded 17 rebel chieftains in North Leinster.  During this early period Dermot founded 2 abbeys, Baltinglass (1148) and St Mary's abbey in Ferns.  He is also supposed to have carried out work at Glendalough and Killeshin where an inscription near the door reads ORAIT DO DIARMAIT RI LAGEN, ‘Pray for King Diarmait of Leinster'.  He also supported various nunneries, namely St Mary's at Dublin in 1146, as well as Aghade, County Carlow and Kilcullihen near Waterford, both in 1151.

In 1152, when Muirchertach MacLochlainn (d.1166) invaded and divided Meath, King Dermot abducted Devorgilla (d.1193), the daughter of Murchad O'Maelseachlainn and wife of Tiernan O'Rourke (d.1172) and took her to his castle of Dunamase.  This eventually led to Dermot's exile in 1166.  Way before this in 1157, Dermot submitted to King Muirchetach MacLochlainn (d.1166) and consequently was driven from his lands by the next high king, Rory O'Connor (d.1198) in alliance with Tiernan O'Rourke.  Dermot at first stayed in Bristol with his trading contact, Robert Fitz Harding (d.1170) of Berkeley castle.  He then found King Henry II in Gascony and paid him homage, accepting in return a letter patent granting him permission to recruit soldiers to re-establish himself in Leinster as Henry's man.  Returning to South Wales he acquired the services of Robert Fitz Stephen (d.1183), a grandson of King Rhys ap Tewdwr (d.1093), Maurice Fitz Gerald (d.1176) Robert's half brother, Robert Barry (d.1182), Maurice's nephew and Maurice Prendergast, who came over to Ireland join him at different times.

In May 1169, Dermot and his adventurers took Wexford before meeting with Rory O'Connor (d.1198) at Ferns.  There Dermot agreed to only conquer Leinster and be content with that.  However, reinforcements under Maurice Fitz Gerald (d.1176) landed in May 1170 and with Dermot took Dublin.  Later Raymond le Gros (d.1185/03) and Earl Richard Clare of Pembroke (d.1176) arrived, Earl Richard marrying Dermot's daughter, Aoife (d.1189/1204), at the recently seized Waterford.  She was apparently to spend much of her widowhood at Goodrich castle.

Dermot died about the beginning of May 1171 and was buried in Ferns cathedral graveyard.  Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223) stated of him:

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.


Copyright©2022 Paul Martin Remfry

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