Diarmait MacMurchada (also known as Dermot MacMurrough) is a name perennially linked to treason in Ireland – although it’s a bit rich considering the propensity of medieval Irish kings to betray almost any agreement made in good faith! But what blackens MacMurchada’s name for most Irish people was his decision to seek aid from King Henry II of England to recover his Kingdom of Leinster, particularly his direct patrimony of Ui Cinnsealagh (the area now covered by the dioceses of Leighlin and Ferns – essentially Counties Carlow and Wexford). But most people in Ireland interpret this to mean that MacMurchada brought the English into Ireland in 1169, and so began eight centuries of trouble here. In reality Ireland was politically troubled before the events of 1169 – and there was no guarantee that this would end any time soon. Modern Irish historians now recognize that Mac Murchada was doing exactly what any Irish king might attempt – seek help to regain his kingdom and get revenge on his enemies. An Anglo-Norman takeover of Ireland was almost certainly not on the agenda. It is likely that Mac Murchada behaved like any modern politician and lied about some things. Besides, Henry owed Mac Murchada, for the King of England had hired mercenaries from MacMurchada to put down rebellion in Wales.
But what has an exiled king from County Wexford got to do with South East Cork? Well, MacMurchada may have sailed from the mouth of the Dissour River (just north of Ballymacoda) to seek aid from King Henry II! I came across this when looking for something else…..and, as you can imagine, my jaw dropped. Ballymacoda is a long way from South Wexford – and was an even longer journey in the middle of the twelfth century! I’d better give a short synopsis of the events leading up to this departure.
Diarmait Mac Murchada was born around 1110 as the son of Donnchad Mac Murchada, King of Leinster. Diarmait was descended from Brian Boru through his father’s grandmother. When Diarmait was about five, his father was killed by his own cousin, Sitric Silkbeard, King of Dublin (he was an Irish Viking, to put it crudely). Donnchad was buried in a grave with a dead dog for company – an insult the Mac Murchadas never forgave. This incident gives you a flavour of Irish politics at the time.
On the death of his brother, Diarmait unexpectedly became King of Leinster. He seems to have been a somewhat schizophrenic ruler. On the one hand he gave generously to the church, supporting reforms and founding new monasteries and nunneries (ironically, this seems to have been a speciality of his). However Diarmait was also seen by many as a ruthless tyrant – although this seems to have been the norm at the time. Gerald de Barri (better known as Giraldus Cambrensis) who visited Ireland in 1185 to discover what his cousins the Barrys were up to wrote of Diarmait that he preferred to be feared rather than loved and that he didn’t respect his noblemen, preferring to promote men of low birth (presumably on merit). ‘He was a tyrant to his own subjects……his hand was against every man, and every man’s hand was against him.’ And so it turned out, for Diarmait had abducted, Dervogilla, the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke (perhaps with the woman’s connivance). O’Rourke was the King of Breffny (in modern Sligo and Leitrim) and he appealed to his overlord and ally Rory O’Connor, King of Connacht and High King of Ireland, who led an attack on Diarmait that did such huge damage in Leinster that his own people seem to have revolted against Diarmait. Indeed so endangered was his life, that Diarmait had to flee disguised as a monk. He took ship to Bristol to seek out King Henry in 1166.
But where exactly did Diarmait find his ship? Prompted by a recent visit to Youghal, Goddard Orpen, a wonderful historian of medieval Ireland, suggested in a note published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1903 that Diarmait took ship from a place called Corkeran. He based this idea on lines from a poem composed in Norman French shortly after the events of the so-called ‘Norman invasion of Ireland. The poem called The Song of Dermot and the Earl tells us that:
‘Quant fut li reis exule, A Korkeran (est) eschippe, A Corceran en mer entra, Awelaf Okinead od se mena.’
When the king was exiled, to Corceran he escaped, at Corceran he entered the sea, Olaf O’Cineadha gave him aid’ (my translation)
Orpen identifies the place called Korkeran/Corceran as Gort Corceran which is located just east of Ladysbridge, north of the road to Ballymacoda. There is an error in Orpen’s account – he says it is near the mouth of the Dissour River – true, but it is actually on the Womanagh River, which flows into the Dissour just a short distance to the north. Perhaps Olaf O’Cineadha was living in Gort Corceran and he arranged the ship. This man’s Norse-Irish name is interesting and suggests strong intermarriage over the generations between the various Norse settlers in Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Cork with the native Irish. Given that one of the parishes in the city of Waterford was named for St Olaf – it’s possible that Olaf O’Cineadha had connections there. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the two men knew each other – did Olaf supply ships to take Diarmait’s men to Wales to assist Henry II some years earlier?
It has to be admitted that Orpen’s suggestion was greeted with horror by William Henry Grattan Flood in 1904. (Pity the poor man. With that moniker, he had a lot to live up to – named for two celebrated eighteenth century Irish parliamentarians Henry Grattan and Henry Flood!) Grattan Flood insisted that Diarmait left from County Wexford – specifically from Corkerry near New Ross, on the banks of the Barrow in County Wexford. On the surface this looks good – it was in Diarmait’s home territory. But it also entailed a long trip down the River Barrow passing Waterford – a place with no love to Diarmait.
Orpen’s response is firm – he quotes the Song of Dermot and the Earl to say that MacMurchada was driven out by his own people, a detail supported by other evidence from the time. Diarmait was so hounded by his enemies that he had to disguise himself as a monk in order to escape – it suggests the man had a serious popularity deficit, as we would say today. To get a flavour of the vicious nature of Irish politics at the time consider a detail revealed by Dagmar O’Riain-Raedel. She recounts the horrific tale of two rival Irish kings being finally persuaded by the Bishop of Lismore to make a solemn peace with oaths sworn on relics in the cathedral of Lismore. The two rivals duly obliged the bishop. But as soon as they stepped outside the door of the cathedral, having sworn their solemn oaths, one man promptly buried his battle axe in the head of the other. So much for a binding oath to keep the peace in twelfth century Ireland! At least the murderer had the courtesy to wait until he was outside the church before doing the dastardly deed – unlike the Anglo-French knights who murdered Archbishop Thomas Beckett in Canterbury a decade or so later! (Sadly twenty-first century Ireland got a taste of this twelfth century behaviour during the week when gunmen killed a wedding guest the door of a church in Enniskillen as he was about to attend the nuptials – tradition can be wonderful, but some traditions deserve to be firmly consigned to the dustbin of history.) The brutal murder at Lismore suggests that Diarmait Mac Murchada was in very real personal danger of assassination or murder. Hence his flight from Ui Cinnsealagh. According to Orpen, the nearest point where Diarmait could have safely taken ship for England was in East Cork, specifically Youghal (which probably didn’t exist as a town at the time), or Imokilly barony in East Cork. The townland of Gort Corceran is near the middle of Imokilly – and Orpen had already noted the name and location on the Ordnance Survey map of the area.
However there are a couple of details that neither Orpen nor Grattan Flood addressed. The Dissour empties into Youghal Bay, as does the River Blackwater. The Blackwater leads to Lismore, site of the monastic foundation of St Carthage and a place with a long continental connection, as well as being the site of that vicious axe-job! At the time, the Bishop of Lismore was Gilla Crist Ua Connairche, called Christianus in Latin. He was also the Papal Legate in Ireland, so much business pertaining to the Irish church was conducted by shipping passengers, pilgrims and messages from Youghal Bay. As a king with an interest in church reform, Diarmait might have been given a warm welcome by the clergy of the area – including the Papal Legate and the Bishop of Cloyne. Indeed, Diarmait’s flight may have been assisted by churchmen – which very likely explains the monkish disguise he adopted. Also, it should be noted that Gort Corceran is just a few miles from Cloyne.
To make matters even more interesting, the Dissour river flows through Killeagh, just north of Gort Corceran – and Killeagh was originally the cell or monastery of St Ia (NOT St Abban!). St Ia gives her name to St Ives in Cornwall as well as sites in Brittany – suggesting a long history of communication between Killeagh area and foreign shores. In addition it seems that the first two bishops of the restored diocese of Cloyne may have come from the Irish monastery in Regensburg in Germany. With these overseas connections, the idea of Diarmait Mac Murchada taking ship from Youghal Bay, even from the mouth of the Dissour, makes sense. The idea is reinforced by the fact that the Anglo-Normans later founded an important manor and castle at Inchiquin – right on the banks of the Dissour. This allowed them to get supplies directly from England if required. If the bishop of Cloyne was involved in Mac Murchada’s flight, it is possible that Diarmait might have embarked from Ballycotton – a settlement controlled directly by the bishop and a significant harbour at the time (see my previous previous post on Ballycotton).
I suspect the jury is still out on Orpen’s suggestion – but it is worth further investigation. Recently, I met Paul Mac Cotter, who wrote the History of the Medieval Diocese of Cloyne, and he said that there were many connections between Wexford, especially south Wexford, and Imokilly in the thirteenth century, shortly after the Anglo Normans settled the place. Perhaps these connections went back to Diarmait Mac Murchada in 1166!
One thing is clear though – without Diarmait’s trip to see Henry II there would be no FitzGeralds, Butlers, Burkes, FitzMaurices, Supples, Cods, Roches or even Harpurs in Ireland! I’ll update you if I get further information that can shed light in favour of, or against, Orpen’s idea.
There is a delightful irony in the fact that William Henry Grattan Flood was born not far from the Dissour River – in Lismore actually. He even spent much of his life in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, as a church organist – right in the heart of Diarmait Mac Murchada’s home territory! This is the man who preserved and published the Wexford Carol – the finest of the native Irish Christmas carols! For that alone we can happily forgive him for his peeved response to Orpen’s suggestion about Diarmait’ Mac Murchada’s flight from Ireland.