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The History of Ulster
Change and Decay


Retrogression of the Irish after the Battle of Clontarf - Lack of Patriotism - Wars of Septs - Dermot McMurrougli - Murtagfh O'Lougiilin - Battle of Ardee - Eochy MacDunlevy, King of Ulster - Roderick O'Conor and Tiernan O'Rourke - Defeat of Dermot - Death of Murtagh O'Loughlin.

We now come to a period where again the history of Ulster is the history of Ireland, where great events of national importance occur outside the province, nay, even outside the country itself.

The story of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland has often been told, and we shall not therefore dwell upon it unduly, but a recapitulation of the facts is necessary for the thorough understanding of subsequent events.

Between the date of the battle of Clontarf (1014) and the date at which we have arrived (1167) over a hundred and fifty years have passed. During that century and a half what progress can Ireland be said to have made? None! It is a lamentable fact that during that long period of time the only signs of activity displayed by the Irish were those of animosity to each other, the only movements that can be recorded are retrograde. The history of the hundred and fifty years makes even the most patriotic of Irishmen almost wish that the battle of Clontarf had been lost, and the Danes been given the ascendancy; for had the Danes won the victory, Ireland might have had a settled government, such as the Danish conquest secured for England. But the tribal character of the country prevented any cohesion amongst the people. The members of one "sept" were ever ready to take advantage of the misfortunes of those of another, and did not hesitate to invoke the aid of "strangers" to secure their own ends. Instances of both these characteristics could be given ad nauseam. Let two suffice. The battle of Clontarf being fought and won, and the dead duly buried, Donough, son of Brian, prepared to march homewards with his weary, wounded troops. Immediately on seeing his plight, two of the leaders of the men of Desmond, noting that but few members of another sept, the Dal Cais, survived, determined to take advantage of the fact, and they demanded hostages from Donough. On his refusing to give them hostages they had recourse to arms. But the Dal Cais showed such a bold front, the disabled even stuffing their wounds with moss in order to stand and face their enemies, that the men of Desmond were cowed, and desisted, and, the leaders falling out amongst themselves, the conspiracy came to naught.

If there had been the slightest vestige of even a rudimentary idea of national spirit, surely such a state of things could not have been possible! Of course it is impossible for modern man fully to comprehend the various causes which led to such a course of conduct. When it was usual or at any rate not unusual for brother to blind brother, uncle to blind nephew, and even father to blind son, in order to incapacitate a possible rival, there surely must have been some disease in the intellect of man and some strange malady deep-seated in his heart, which later generations have been unable to diagnose. The tribal system limited the vision and confined the emotions to a narrow circle. No man in Ireland in those far-off times saw farther than the confines of his own borders; patriotism meant merely the aggrandizement of his own sept.

The other notable instance of public injuries being inflicted to secure private ends is the action of Dermot McMurrough in inviting the Normans to invade Ireland in order to be avenged on Roderick O'Conor. Briefly, the story is as follows.

Dermot McMurrough was born 1110. His father, Donough McMurrough, was King of Southern Leinster, and was slain in 1115, in the battle of Dublin, by Donnell, son of Murtagh O'Brien. Donagh was succeeded by his son Enna, and when Enna died, in 1126, Dermot, who was but a youth of sixteen, became king. As such he gave hostages to Turlogh O'Conor, the Ardri, but a couple of years later he renounced his allegiance to the King of Connaught. O'Conor was during his time one of the most powerful monarchs in Ireland. He had set his heart on being acknowledged sole King of Ireland, and he adopted the arbitrary method of breaking up the provinces by waging war against them in turn, conquering them and then dividing and subdividing them, putting in creatures of his own as rulers to succeed the ones he deposed or killed. In this way he divided Meath and partitioned Munster. His greed was insatiable. Gradually he changed the whole face of the country. Dermot, who was still a youth, was very ill advised to incense a man of his immense and far-reaching powers. The result of Turlogh's being provoked was that Leinster was devastated by him, and Dermot deposed in favour of Turlogh's son Conor. . No doubt Dermot saw the error he had made, for a little later (1152) we find him in alliance with Turlogh, and re-established as King of Leinster.

A northern prince now appeared upon the scene. Murtough, son of Niall O'Loughlin, revived the claim of the North to sovereignty. He carried his argument by the force of arms, and after a series of campaigns which lasted from 1147 to 1149 Dermot McMurrough amongst others submitted. Murtough O'Louglin's power grew so rapidly that in 1152 we find him swearing friendship with Turlogh O'Conor and Dermot McMurrough. This alliance might have proved a great factor for the peace of Ireland had not a new division of Meath been made on Turlogh O'Conor's usual plan. But this division, by which the western half of the province was restored to Murrough O'Melaghlin, while his son was put over the eastern portion, did not find favour with Tiernan O'Rourke, who had benefited by previous partitions. Accordingly he rebelled against the arrangement, was defeated and deposed, and his castle, near what is now known as Dungan, was burned. Tiernan O'Rourke was "a first-class fighting man". He was always at war with the neighbouring chiefs, and he apparently seized every opportunity to take part in the quarrels of others. He seems to have been of a very bellicose nature, for, although he married Devorgil, a daughter of Murrough O'Melaghlin, he was always fighting with the O'Melaghlins and taking advantage of them whenever the opportunity offered.

In more than one of Turlogh O'Conor's hostile attacks on Leinster he was aided by Tiernan O'Rourke. As early as 1128 we frequently find them both "foray-hosting" into Okinselagh, the hereditary principality of McMurrough. Under these circumstances it is not strange that Dermot, when his old enemy O'Rourke was at his mercy, should have seized the opportunity to humiliate him in every way possible, and in addition to other acts of violence that he should carry off O'Rourke's wife, with her cattle, furniture, and other belongings. This we know was done, not alone with Devorgil's acquiescence, but with the active co-operation of her brother O'Melaghlin, who urged Dermot to this act of hostility, "for some abuses of her husband, Tiernan, done to her before".

A good deal of romance has been woven about this incident, and Devorgil has, on account of Dermot's subsequent conduct, been execrated as the woman who brought ruin on Ireland. But recent research has proved that the heroine of the story was at the time at least forty-four years of age, and that her admirer was but two years her junior. With a hero and heroine of these ripe years the finest romance falls flat, and therefore it is not surprising to find that within a year Devorgil fled from Dermot back to her husband, who evidently welcomed her return, for we hear of her four years later as benefactress of a church at Millifont, near Drogheda, O'Rourke being present at the ceremony, when she laid "three score ounces of gold, and a chalice of gold on the altar of Mary".

About this time (1156) Turlough O'Conor died, and Dermot, ever on the alert to be if possible on the winning side, threw in his lot with Murtough O'Loughlin, who was now undoubtedly the most powerful king in Ireland. A dispute had been for some time going on between O'Loughlin and Roderick O'Conor about the rulership of Meath, and O'Rourke naturally joined O'Conor in order to oppose Dermot; but O'Loughlin almost annihilated their combined forces at the battle of Ardee, in 1159, and followed up his victory so effectively that two years later O'Conor gave him hostages. Murtagh O'Loughlin thus became to all intents and purposes King of all Ireland. For some years this prince of the North maintained his supremacy, and during his sway he supported Dermot in the possession of Leinster. But in 1165 trouble again arose, and this time within the province of Ulster. The counties of Antrim and Down were united in one territory called Ulidia (later known as Ulster) of which the King was Eochy MacDunlevy, a restless being, who, unsatisfied with O'Loughlin's rule, every now and then rebelled against him and was as promptly suppressed. On this occasion, weary of the unrest displayed by the Ulidians, O'Loughlin took drastic measures: he entered Ulidia with a large army, and, having slain the majority of the more formidable of MacDunlevy's supporters, he expelled him. O'Loughlin does not appear to have been as ruthless as many of his contemporaries, for later in the same year, at the intercession of the Prince of Uriel (a territory which comprised Louth, Armagh, and Monaghan), Eochy was restored to his kingdom on giving as hostages a son of every chieftain in his territory and his own daughter to O'Loughlin. In what way Eochy again transgressed, the annals of Ulster are silent, but it is recorded that in the very next year Eochy was blinded and some of the chiefs of Ulidia were put to death by O'Loughlin "in despite of the protection of the successor of Patrick and of the staff of Jesus, and of Donough O'Carroll, King of Uriel". This high-handed as well as treacherous proceeding at once alienated Uriel as well as Ulidia, and gave Roderick O'Conor and Tiernan O'Rourke the opportunity for which they had waited for some years.

O'Conor lost no time, and, accompanied by O'Rourke, repaired to Dublin, where the Ostmen or foreigners submitted to him, and where he was duly elected king "as honourably as any King of the Gael was ever inaugurated". His next step was to win the recognition of Meath and of Uriel, from the kings of which he received hostages. He then marched on Leinster, where the sub-kings, who hated Dermot, at once submitted to him.

McMurrough, who must have "felt like the trapped beast does when he hears the trapper coming through the woods", made a frantic effort to stop O'Conor's progress at a point called Fid Dorcha (the dark wood) but failed. He then set fire to his own palace at Ferns, so that it should not fall into the hands of his enemy, and finally he appears to have pacified O'Conor by giving him four hostages. With this O'Conor appears to have been satisfied, for he returned to Connaught, leaving Dermot in possession of his hereditary principality of Okinselagh, but in no way recognizing his kingship of Leinster. In the meantime it had fared badly with Murtough O'Loughlin. For the violation of his oath to King Eochy he had been visited by the heavy displeasure of the Church, which of recent years had grown in power and had lately excommunicated Donough O'Melaghlin, King of Meath, going even to the length of banishing him for a period. The ban of the Church had its effect in the defection of O'Loughlin's own subjects the Cinel Owen who invited the King of Uriel to cross the border, which he did, accompanied by the obsequious and ubiquitous Tiernan O'Rourke. O'Loughlin, forsaken by his followers and unsupported by Dermot, was at the mercy of the intruders into his realms, and he perished at the hands of his enemies near Armagh in 1 166. As the annalists have it: "A great marvel and wonderful deed was then done; to wit, the King of Ireland to fall without battle, without contest, after his dishonouring the successor of Patrick, and the staff of Jesus, and the successor of Colum-cille, and the gospel of Martin, and many clergy besides".

Thus fell a prince of the royal house of Hy-Nial, one whom the annalists expressly styled "the King of Ireland". There is little doubt that he fell through the power of the Church, exercised on account of the gross violation of his solemn oath in putting to death men who were under "the protection of the successor of Patrick". No doubt the Church was right in thus exercising its authority and endeavouring to do all in its power to become "a stream or tendency making for righteousness" in the dealings of man with his fellow-men, dealings in which but little probity was exercised save under compulsion. But the Church appears to have nursed her hostility to O'Loughlin even after his death, for we are told "his body was carried to Armagh and buried there, in spite of the co-arb of Colum-cille with his community".

With Murtagh O'Loughlin there passed away the last Ardri of the great house of Nial.


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