Dermot MacMurragh

Ireland 1160
Petty kingdoms of Ireland, 1160

Dermot MacMurrough — medieval king in Ireland who ruled from his seat in Ferns (1126–1171) the petty kingdom of Leinster, i.e. the counties of south-east Ireland. Ousted from his kingdom in 1166, he sought military assistance across the sea from King Henry II of England. In return, MacMurrough swore fealty to the English king as his vassal. Henry duly sent troops to Ireland, and MacMurrough's territory was regained for him.

Ever since, in part or entirely, the English monarchs have ruled over Ireland.

Character — The chronicler Gerald of Wales, a near contemporary, describes him thus:

Dermot MacMurrough
Dermot MacMurrough, manuscript illustration, 12th century
"A man who liked better to be feared by all than loved by any ... A tyrant to his own subjects, he was hated by strangers; his hand was against every man, and every man's hand against him."

And thus the Gaelic Annals record his obituary:

"Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, King of Leinster, by whom a trembling 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, &c. – died before the end of a year after this plundering, 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.
MacLise, Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow
"Abduction of Dervogilla" from The Ros Tapestry, contemp

Women — MacMurrough's perfidy was accompanied by more earthy imperfections. He commenced his career "by carrying off the Abbess of Kildare from her cloister, killing 170 of the people of Kildare, who interfered to prevent this wanton and sacrilegious outrage."

It seems he had a partiality for unavailable women. The reason he lost his kingdom in the first place was over an infatuation with the wife of a rival. Dervorgilla, red-headed queen of Breifni, caught his fancy: MacMurrough abducted her. Her husband, the king of Breifni, invaded Leinster; and MacMurrough took flight to Bristol in England.

In Irish his name is Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, but he is better known as Diarmaid na nGall or "Dermot of the Foreigners".

MacLise, Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow
Daniel MacLise, "Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow", 1854
The picture hangs in the Westminster House of Commons

Daughter — As part of his "deal" with the Anglo-Norman invaders, MacMurrough gave his daughter, Aoife, in marriage to Strongbow, leader of the Norman troops:

"The English Earl, a widower, and long past the prime of manhood, was wedded to the fair young Celtic maiden; and the marriage procession passed lightly over the bleeding bodies of the dying and the dead. Thus commenced the union between Great Britain and Ireland: must those nuptials be for ever celebrated in tears and blood?"

Aoife became "Countess of Ireland". Her daughter, Isabel married William Marshall, "the greatest knight that ever lived" and hero of the Magna Carta. Through this line (and thus from MacMurrough himself) are descended the Bruces of Scotland, the House of Stewart, the House of Hanover, and the current British royals, the House of Windsor.

Later Reputation — Since the 1800s and the rise of nationalism, Dermot MacMurrough has been portrayed as a traitor, the arch-villain of Irish history. Mary Frances Cusack, in her Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868, introduces him thus: "Dermod Mac Murrough, the infamous King of Leinster, now appears for the first time in the history of that country which he mainly contributed to bring under the English yoke." Later she reports his death: "The author of so many miseries, and the object of so much just reprobation, died at Ferns, on the 4th of May. His miserable end was naturally considered a judgement for his evil life."

Stuart, Adams portrait
Gilbert Stuart, "Portrait of John Quincy Adams", 1818

Over time, the fame of his perfidy spread. The American President, John Quincy Adams, found leisure in his busy career to compose four cantos on Dermot Mac Morrogh, Or The Conquest Of Ireland, in which he exhorts the "brave sons of Erin" to "give your Dermot's name to deathless song" —

For, oh! if ever on the roll of Time
Since man has on this blessed planet dwelt,
A soul existed saturate with crime,
Or the deep curse of after ages felt;
Yours was his country, Erin was his clime;
Nor yet, has justice with his name been dealt.

The name MacMurrough resonates to this day. When in 2005 President Bush's Irish ancestry was announced, the Guardian newspaper in Britain ran a headline "Scion of traitors and warlords": Bush it turned out was descended from Dermot MacMurrough, "reviled in history books as the man who sold Ireland for personal gain".