Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Song of Dermot and the Earl

The Song of Dermot and the Earl

The story of the invasion of England in 1066, by William the Conquerer is graphically told in the Tapestry of Bayeux. Just over a century later (1169), the descendants of the soldiers from Normandy who marched with William, made their first landfall on the neighbouring island of Ireland. They also had conquest on their minds. Their story is told in a long narrative called “The Song of Dermot and the Earl” written in French by an unknown author. (It complements another version written by a cleric called Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), who accompanied King Henry II in 1171 during the first ever visit of a foreign monarch to Ireland).  The Song was translated into English and published by Goddard Henry Orpen in 1899; and is the definitive record of the Norman invasion and conquest of Irish territory in the second half of the 12th century.
The complete French and corresponding English versions can be found and read on website. This publication also includes a graphical family tree of the leadership of the invasion (Ref – The Song of Dermot and the Earl from the Carew manuscript No 596)

As with the Bayeux tapestry, the narrative is rather biased and written from the invaders’ perspective, many of whom hailed from the Welsh marchlands, and could trace their ancestry to the Welsh Princess Nesta (1085 – 1136).  She was a notable beauty of her day, and was sister of Gruffuyd, the unconquered Prince of Wales, on whose head King Henry I had set "a mountain of gold". She was mother to numerous sons and daughters by various fathers (husbands as well as lovers, one of whom was King Henry himself. Nesta’s sons and grandsons went on to feature prominently in the initial invasion force that landed at Bannow Strand in Wexford, Ireland in May 1169.  Among the surnames represented in that group were Fitzgerald, FitzMaurice, FitzWilliam, FitzStephen, deBarry, names that went on to figure in a future Irish aristocracy. No wonder Nesta became known as “the mother of the Invasion of Ireland”. The invasion actually served as a useful outlet for an energetic and restive group of knights and barons from the Welsh marchlands who had a history of being hard to control, and were not overly loyal to the Plantaganet monarchy.

The two heroes of the ‘Song of Dermot and the Earl’ and Dermot MacMurrough (the ‘rich king’ of Leinster); and Richard deClare (Earl of Pembroke); nicknamed “Strongbow”.

Dermot MacMurrough is the man blamed for inviting the first Norman invaders to Ireland to help him win back the kingdom of Leinster, from which he had recently been expelled by the Irish Ard-Rí (High King) Rory O’Connor and his ally Tiernan O’Rourke. The Song is sympathetic to Dermot as indicated by reference to him:
“About King Dermot I will tell you; In Ireland, at this day,
There was no more worthy king: 
Very rich and powerful he was;
He loved the generous, he hated the mean”.

The native Irish perspective:
By contrast, the Gaelic Irish view of Dermot is not at all flattering as described in the Annals of the Four Masters, written during the 16th century.
"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 (Kells), Cluain Iraird (Clonard), died of an insufferable and unknown disease; for he became putrid while living, through the miracle of God, Columcille and Finian, 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."
These surely are not the most Christian sentiments as articulated by the monk scribes.
The Annals of Tigernach further describes Dermot as
“the disturber and the destroyer of Banba” (Banba is an old name for Ireland)

In truth, the altercation between Dermot and the Ard-Rí in the late 1160’s was just another of the endless wars, raids and skirmishes of tribal kings and chieftains that were endemic in Ireland since earliest history. What marked this particular altercation from all others was the fact that Dermot fled overseas to the court of King Henry II in Aquitaine to seek his help and was given the King’s blessing to look for whatever manpower he required from among his subjects.

The Song of Dermot and the Earl – an objective chronicle?
The Song's view of the native Irish chiefs, kings and people, especially those who resisted the invaders is largely negative, to say the least, and certainly far from objective. It is as if the invaders seemed to fully expect the Irish to simply roll over and acquiesce to foreign interlopers who were aggressively intruding into their territories and way of life. Interestingly, those few Gaelic chieftains who formed alliances with and helped the invaders were deemed “wise”, “loyal” and “brave”; while those who resisted were considered “treacherous” and “traitors”. 
In propaganda terms, the native kings and chieftains were at serious disadvantage.  The author (as well as Giraldus) were better positioned to get their message across, in contrast to the perceived Gaelic “enemies” who were portrayed as being “uncivilized” and much less worthy. Even the Church of the day had a jaundiced view of certain aspects of the Celtic Church, something which Henry II had been commissioned by Pope Adrian IV (who was also an Englishman) to resolve; once he had conquered the island.
Note - It has to be remembered that like most European countries in the Middle Ages, Ireland did not have a national sense of itself. Irish nationalism would take centuries of occupation and outside exploitation to evolve. Lack of cohesion among the Irish therefore allowed the relatively better focused and single-minded invaders to exploit tribal and regional disputes as they went through the countryside. They had nothing to lose (except their lives, which they were determined and eminently able to preserve); and everything to gain (land and titles); all with the blessing of their King. 
In this and subsequent incursions into Irish territories, the Normans were helped in no small measure; by their superior arms and armour. The Norman way of fighting was something completely new in Ireland. Every armoured soldier was almost impregnable to lightly armed and armoured soldiers. This was especially true when fighting on open ground, which forced the Irish to increasingly resort to guerilla tactics – something the Normans considered “unchivalrous” (= “treacherous”). 

An interesting insight into the fighting
The invading soldiers brought with them a number of camp followers including one called Alice of Abergavenny, who accompanied her beau to Bannow. This man was killed in one of the earlier skirmishes, leaving Alice bereft and quite angry with those responsible for killing him. Part of her “revenge therapy” was to be allowed to behead 70 unfortunate enemy soldiers who had been captured in the same battle. (Tough ladies, those ladies from the Welsh marchlands! The Geneva convention for prisoners did not apply as far as the “noble knights” or their ladies {wenches} were concerned!)
“Of the Irish there were taken, quite as many as seventy.
But the noble knights had them beheaded.
To a wench they gave an axe of tempered steel,
And she beheaded them all and threw their bodies over the cliff,
Because she had that day lost her lover in the combat.
Alice of Abergavenny was her name, who served the Irish thus”.

The arrival of ‘Strongbow’ – his capture of Waterford; his marriage to Aoife
Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow after the capture of Waterford
The narrative describes the arrival of Earl Richard (Strongbow) and his role in the taking of the town of Waterford which had been established by Danish seafarers as a trading outpost on the south coast of Ireland two centuries before. After this important victory, Dermot was happy to give his daughter Aoife to the earl as a bride. The marriage took place in Waterford amid scenes of death and destruction arising from the attack and subsequent slaughter of Waterford citizens after Strongbow’s forces broke into the city. The marriage of the Earl and Aoife was part of the bargain made to persuade Strongbow to help Dermot win back his kingdom; that and the promise of making his son-in-law heir to his title after his death.  Of course Dermot had no right to do this as under existing Irish law, by which the succession should be decided by an election confined to designated members of the MacMurrough clan.

“When the earl by his power had taken the city,
The earl immediately sent word to King Dermot by messenger
That he had come to Waterford and had won the city;
That the rich king should come to him and should bring his English. 

King Dermot speedily came there, be sure, right royally.

The king in his company brought there many of his barons,
And his daughter he brought there; To the noble earl he gave her.
The earl honourably wedded her in the presence of the people.
King Dermot then gave to the earl, who was so renowned,
Leinster he gave to him with his daughter, whom he so much loved;
Provided only that he should have the lordship of Leinster during his life”.

King Henry II visits his new lordship
Later in the narrative is described the visit of King Henry to Ireland during the winter of 1171’72, when he effectively gave the invasion permanence. It unashamedly targeted the complete conquest of what he now considered his new kingdom; totally setting at nought the ancient rights of indigenous kings and chieftains, even the Ard-Rí himself. In doing this he was following a precedent set by his ancestor, William the Conquerer after the battle of Hastings, a century earlier in England. His actions also helped establish the model for creating future colonies all over the world, which while they purported to “civilize” benighted and wayward peoples, was really more interested in rewarding and enriching the invading colonists, as well as the mother country. 

Before the feast of St. Martin King Henry at length came to Ireland.
With the king there crossed over vassals of good kindred.
William the son of Audeline
came with him on this occasion,
Also Humphrey de Bohun, and the baron Hugh de Lacy.
With the king himself there came the son of Bernard,
Robert, I trow; a renowned baron came, Bertram de Verdun he was called;
Earls and barons of great worth came in numbers with Henry”.

Fixing conquests already made
During those winter months while he held court in Dublin, Henry confirmed his ownership of all the lands and cities that had already been conquered by the invading knight adventurers. He had brought with him Sir Hugh deLacy and made him Constable of the city of Dublin, to be henceforth considered the capital city of Ireland.

“Then the king summoned Hugh de Lacy, first of all,
And his earls and his vassals and his free-born barons.

The rich king then gave the custody of the city of Dublin 

And of the castle and the keep to the baron Hugh de Lacy,
And Waterford, on the other hand, to the baron Robert the son of Bernard.
The son of Stephen at this juncture was left at Dublin,
And Meiler the son of Henry and Miles the son of David;
With Hugh these were left by the command of King Henry”.

Directing the next phase – the conquest of Meath and Ulster
Having already fixed the conquered territories and cities of his new kingdom, Henry immediately turned his attention to the territories that had yet to be conquered.

“To Hugh de Lacy he granted all Meath in fee.
Meath the warrior granted for fifty knights
Whose service the baron should let him have whenever he should have need of it.
To one John he granted Ulster, if he could conquer it by force;
John de Courcy was his name, who afterwards suffered many a trouble there”.

The King obviously had high regard for Hugh deLacy and deCourcy as people who could push the boundaries of the conquest further. Armed with Royal authority both of these worthies spent the next few years making good on Henry’s grants.

“Of Hugh de Lacy I shall tell you,
How he enfeoffed his barons, Knights, serjeants, and retainers.
Castle Knock, in the first place, he gave to Hugh Tyrrell, whom he loved so much; 

And Castle Brack, according to the writing, to baron William le Petit, 

Magheradernon likewise and the land of Rathkenny;
The cantred of Ardnorcher then to Meiler, who was of great worth,
gave Hugh de Lacy to the good Meiler Fitz Henry; 

To Gilbert de Nangle, moreover, he gave the whole of Morgallion; 

To Jocelin he gave the Navan, and the land of Ardbraccan, 

(The one was son, the other father, according to the statement of the mother); 

To Richard Tuite likewise he gave a rich fief;
Rathwire he gave moreover to the baron Robert de Lacy; 

To Richard de la Chapelle he gave good and fine land; 

To Geoffrey de Constantine Kilbixi near to Rathconarty; 

And Skreen he then gave by charter to Adam de Phepoe he gave it; 

To Gilbert de Nugent, and likewise to William de Musset,
He gave lands and honours, in the presence of barons and vavassours; 

And to the baron Hugh de Hussey he then gave fair lands; 

To Adam Dullard likewise the land of 'Rathenuarthi'. 

To one Thomas de Craville he gave in heritage Emlagh Beccon
In quiet enjoyment, at the north east of Kells,
Laraghcalyn likewise, and Shanonagh, according to the people,
Gave Hugh de Lacy, know in sooth, to this Thomas. 

Crandone then to a baron, Richard the Fleming was his name.
Twenty fiefs he gave him of a truth, if the geste does not deceive you. 

A fortress this man erected in order to harass his enemies,
Knights and a goodly force he kept there, Archers, serjeants,
Likewise, in order to destroy his enemies; 

Siege of Dublin
Despite making his own submission to Henry and concluding the Treaty of Windsor in 1172, which should have guaranteed his position in the new scheme of things; the Ard-Rí was enraged to learn that his territories in Meath had been almost casually granted to deLacy.  This determined him to resist. Rory managed, with great difficulty, to cobble a temporary alliance of chieftains to initiate a siege of Dublin which, while it did come close to dislodging the invaders; failed due to lack of cohesion on the Irish side, coupled with remarkable determination and daring from the desperate defenders, who succeeded in breaking out and scattering their protagonists.

The Irish resistance
The narrative tells that deLacy (in Meath) and deCourcey (in Ulster); did not have everything their own way, as the native Irish resisted their planned systematic takeover of their lands. Their growing resistance meant that the conquest of Ireland was not completed as it ground to a halt during the 14th century.

“Often he brought them from bad to worse.
But afterwards there came against him O'Carroll, who was king of Oriel,
And the rebel MacDunlevy of the region of Ulster; 

O'Rourke was there, also, and the king Melaghlin.
Full twenty thousand at this time of the Irish came upon them.
Very fiercely they attacked them, 

And the barons defended themselves so long as they could have.
Defence in the fortress; 

But the Irish from all sides hurled their javelins and their darts.

The fortress indeed they destroyed and slew the garrison within;
But many were previously slain of the Irish of the northern districts. 

In such manner, know ye all, was the country planted with castles and with cities,
With keeps and with strongholds.
Thus well rooted were the noble renowned vassals”.

In reality, the conquest was not completed and ended in a kind of stalemate that resulted in Norman lords and Gaelic chieftains coexisting in dynamic tension with each other for over four centuries. It can be speculated that this gave Ireland the worst of both worlds, which prevented it from developing into a post feudal nation, as happened elsewhere in Europe.  
Tomb of Strongbow in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin

Posted by Arthur Russell, author of ‘Morgallion’; a novel set in early 14th century Ireland, in countryside which is at the interface of Gaelic and English control.
The book is available in paperback and kindle. (more information on; also on Facebook and Twitter).  


  1. Interesting to consider the effects of events on subsequent history. And perhaps the way current perceptions (eg nationalism) are endlessly fed by interpretation. Despite cautionary note here the writer perpetuates the 'tut tut' view of the invasion...
    Same happens in Wales - 'the terrible English....'

    1. I tried not to perpetuate "tut, tut", except insofar as the narrative portrays Gaelic opposition to the invasion as somehow traitorous. Could anything else but opposition have been expected? (Despite the fact that the invasion claimed to have Church and Papal sanction in the form of Bull 'Laudabiliter'; the authenticity of which is now disputed by some).
      The point at the end of the post was to suggest that if the invasion had either completely failed and been repulsed; or had been completely successful; subsequent political development in Ireland might have been a little more "ordered" and a lot less traumatic - with beneficial results for both islands. Just another unanswerable "What If".

  2. I didn't know Gerald of Wales was the author of the song of Dermot and The Earl? Do you have the provenance handy please - that's very intereting.

  3. I stand totally corrected. The Author of the Song of Dermot and the Earl is unknown. It along with the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis, written from the invaders' perspective; give broadly complementary accounts of the progress and conduct of the invasion.
    I will endeavor to correct any misapprehensions created in a future post.
    Thanks for your comment.

  4. I have made some adjustments to the post which I trust puts the record straight.
    Thanks again

  5. :-) I'm reasonably familiar with Gerald so it did slightly take me aback, but then you never know with him! Enjoyed the post thanks!

  6. Thank you for your positive words hajjandumrah


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