Dermot MacMurrough

MacMurrough, Dermot, King of Leinster, was born in 1090. His family had given rulers to the province for some time previous to the Anglo-Norman invasion.

In early times they held court at Dinnrigh, on the Barrow, and at Naas in Kildare. Afterwards they had castles at Ferns, which was their capital, at Old Ross in Wexford, and at Ballymoon, near Carlow.

The Annals of the Four Masters tell of constant differences between Dermot and his feudatory chiefs, and of the plundering expeditions in which he engaged in different parts of the country, often in alliance with the Northmen.

In 1153 he carried off Dervorgilla, daughter of O’Melaghlin, and wife of O’Ruark, prince of Breffny. The transaction cannot have had much of the romance usually associated with the idea of an elopement. She was forty-four years of age, and did not leave her lord without carrying off her cattle and furniture.

This was fifteen years before Dermot sought Anglo-Norman assistance, so that the invasion can scarcely be attributable to the elopement.

O’Ruark sought the assistance of Turlough O’Conor, then nominal Monarch of Ireland, who was glad of the opportunity of lending aid against Dermot, who had supported the rival house of O’Neill. He ravaged Dermot’s territories, and compelled the return of Dervorgilla.

Upon O’Conor’s death in 1156, Dermot was one of the first to acknowledge the supremacy of Murtough O’Lochlainn, an O’Neill, who reigned ten years, and who established Dermot in all his possessions.

O’Lochlainn was slain at the battle of Leiter-Luin (in the barony of the upper Fews, County of Armagh), whereupon Roderic O’Conor assumed the sovereignty; and one of his first acts was to deprive Dermot of his crown.

Dermot was evidently a man of singular determination, and not wanting in resource. It had probably reached his ears that King Henry II. of England had received a grant of Ireland from one Pope, and had it confirmed by another, and that he but waited an opportunity to assert his title. He therefore astutely determined to seek an interview, and perform homage, in the hope of regaining his kingdom of Leinster.

How he fared cannot be better told than in Keating’s words:

“Diarmaid then proceeded to the Second Henry, King of Saxon-land, who was then in France, and when he arrived in this King’s presence, he was received with a welcome, and with a very great display of friendship. And when he had explained the object of his visit to his host, the latter furnished him with kindly letters to bring him to the land of the Saxons. In these he gave him permission to enlist every one of the Saxons which might be willing to go with him to Ireland, and thus aid in recovering the sovereignty of his own country.

Upon receiving these, Diarmaid bid farewell to that King, and set out for the country of the Saxons. When he arrived there he caused the letters of Henry to be read publicly at Bristol, and at the same time made a proclamation in which he promised large rewards to all persons who would aid him in the recovery of his territories. It was there that he met Richard FitzGilbert, Earl of Strigul, with whom he made the following compact, to wit: Diarmaid promised to give his own daughter Aeifi [Eva] to this Earl as his wife: and with her he promised him the inheritance of Leinster after his own death. The Earl bound himself upon his part to follow the exiled prince into Ireland, and there to assist him in recovering his lost principality.”

On his return through Wales he visited Rhys-ap-Griffen, who was induced to liberate Robert FitzStephen, his prisoner, “upon the express condition that he should follow MacMurcadha into Ireland in the course of the summer ensuing. To Robert, Diarmaid promised to grant Loch Garman [Wexford] and the two cantreds of land that lay next thereto, as a reward for his agreeing to come to his assistance.”

Some doubt exists as to whether Dermot sought Henry II. in the summer of 1167 or of 1168.

In view of the dealings he was likely to have with the Anglo-Normans, he prudently attached to his service as his secretary Maurice Regan, probably an Irishman who had resided for a considerable time in England.

Keating’s statement that Dermot on his return proceeded secretly to Ferns, “and placed himself under the protection of the clergy and brotherhood of that monastery, and there dwelt in sadness and obscurity for a short time, until the summer had set in,” does not agree with the tolerably well-ascertained fact that before FitzStephen’s arrival in the spring of 1169, Dermot had regained possession of at least a portion of his kingdom.

After the advent of the different bands of Anglo-Normans in 1169 and 1170, he was little more than a cypher, and any events in which he was engaged are more properly related in the notices of Robert FitzStephen, Maurice FitzGerald, Strongbow, and their fellows.

According to promise, he gave his daughter Eva in marriage to Earl Strongbow at Waterford shortly after his landing in 1170.

Dermot lived little more than a year after this. His death in 1171 (aged about 81) is thus noticed by the Four Masters:

“Diarmaid MacMurchadha, King of Leinster, by whom a trembly sod was made of all Ireland—after having brought over the Saxons, after having done extensive injuries to the Irish, after plundering and burning many churches, as Ceanannus, Cluain Iraird, etc.—died … of an insufferable and unknown disease; for he became putrid while living, through the miracle of God, Colum-Cille, and Finnen, and the other saints of Ireland, whose churches he had profaned and burned some time before; and he died at Fearnamor [Ferns], without making a will, without penance, without the body of Christ, without unction, as his evil deeds deserved.”

Cambrensis sketches his appearance and character:

“Dermidius was tall in stature, and of large proportions, and, being a great warrior and valiant in his nation, his voice had become hoarse by constantly shouting and raising his war-cry in battle. Bent more on inspiring fear than love, he oppressed his nobles, though he advanced the lowly. A tyrant to his own people, he was hated by strangers; his hand was against every man, and the hand of every man against him.”

The same writer admits that the invaders encountered “no dastards, but valiant men who stood well to the defence of their country, and manfully resisted their enemies.”

Dervorgilla spent much of her later life in religious exercises, and part of her substance in endowing churches. She survived until 1193, when she died at Mellifont Abbey, County of Meath, which she had enriched with many presents.

Although Dermot’s kingdom nominally passed into Earl Strongbow’s family after his decease, much of it appears to have been soon again occupied by the MacMurroughs, by whom it was held in almost undisputed sway for several centuries.


135. Four Masters, Annals of the: Translated by Owen Connellan. Dublin, 1846.