A Woman of the O’Briens — Part One

Some might say that the mother of Robert E. Howard’s angry outlaw Crusader, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, had been slighted in the two complete stories told about him. She’s merely described as “a woman of the O’Briens.” True, little is told of his father, Geoffrey the Bastard, but at least we’re given his name and told that he carried the blood, “it is said,” of William the Conqueror. We know the names of Cormac’s two brothers and how they died. Shane was apparently Cormac’s full brother, because he had, REH tells us through Cormac’s mouth, “Fitzgeoffrey blood.” (Al Harron pointed this out in his post for The Cimmerian blog, “Calavaria ad Victoriam: A Look at Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part Three.” It was posted on July 11, 2009. Thanks, Al.)

Shane was killed by a Norse sea-king making a raid into Munster. Cormac’s other brother, Donal, may be a half-brother, no son of Geoffrey the bastard’s; we’re not told. We are informed that an O’Donnell chief ate his heart after a battle at Coolmanagh. That’s in County Carlow, a few miles west of Hacketstown. Since there was a feud between Cormac and Donal, it’s possible, Cormac admits, that he might have killed his brother if someone else had not – “but for all that I burned the O’Donnell in his own castle.” He swiftly avenged Shane’s death, too, by killing the finely accoutered Norseman. Cormac reminisces to Rupert de Vaile that the sea-king “ … was a fine sight in his coat of mail with silvered scales. His silvered helmet was strong too – ax, helmet and skull shattered together.”

(In passing, this occurred at the end of the twelfth century, when the Viking Age proper had passed; but that never stopped Norse pirates from raiding and plundering. Neither did the Christian religion that was now official in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Many chiefs and most peasants were still heathen, no matter what the kings decreed. As REH wrote, “… from Norway and the Orkneys the still half-pagan Vikings ravaged all impartially.”)

About the mother of Cormac, Shane and presumably Donal, hardly anything is said. She’s passed over in one line and not even named. Possibly that complete anonymity should be fixed, even if it has to be done out of the imagination.

In a previous post or two I’ve posited that her name was Radharc O’Brien. It would be inappropriate to think she was anything but a descendant of REH’s character Turlogh Dubh O’Brien, grandson of the great Brian Boru. He fought at Clontarf in 1014, aged about nineteen. (Turlogh Dubh fought, that is, not Brian Boru. Brian was past seventy by then.)

Well, Turlogh was outlawed from his clan on false charges, due to “the jealousy of a cousin and the spite of a woman,” as all strong fans of REH’s writing know. I’ve averred here and there that the historical king of Munster who reigned until his death in 1086, and was also named Turlogh O’Brien, was Turlogh Dubh’s son, born in 1023 or 1024 – not 1009 as is usually stated. I’ve also chosen to suppose that Turlogh Dubh, the outlaw, and his namesake son, born to a Turgaslav woman in Russia (there were quite a few Turlogh O’Brien’s in the clan’s history) were combined into one person by legend and popular memory. The younger Turlogh became King of Munster and married three times.

King Turlogh’s known wives, the ones who provided him with children, were Dubchoblaig of ui Cheinnselaig and Derbforgaill of Osraige. (He had a third wife too. She was Gormlaith of ui Fogarta. But her children haven’t been recorded in the annals. Maybe she didn’t have any.) Dubchoblaig’s offspring included a son named Diarmait, who ruled Waterford and raided Wales as a youth of about twenty. He was nothing but trouble to his greater half-brother Murtogh. Murtogh O’Brien succeeded his father as King of Munster in 1086 and later declared himself the High King of Ireland. He died in 1119. Their complicated family tree – in part, and as I picture it – looked like this:

King Turlogh O’Brien of Munster (Born 1023 or 1024 – Died 1086)

Married:

       (1) Dubchoblaig of ui Cheinnselaig (Born 1029 – Died 1094)

    [Son: Diarmait O’Brien (Circa 1060 -1118)]

Married:

(2) Derbforgaill of Osraige (Born 1034 – Died 1071)

[Sons: (Diarmait’s half-brothers) Teige O’Brien and Murtogh O’Brien]

In 1114, Murtogh O’Brien became desperately ill. His half-brother Diarmait (a son of Dubchoblaig) seized his chance to depose Murtogh and take the Munster crown. He banished his half-brother. Possibly this gave Murtogh such deep offense that he recovered his health through sheer anger – long enough to attack Diarmait, capture him, and regain control of Munster, anyway. But then he retired to a monastery at Lismore in 1116 and died three years later.

Radharc O’Brien, mother of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, descended from Diarmait. (She was his granddaughter.) Diarmait, despite his brother Murtogh’s illness, died the year before him, in 1118. But he’d married a woman called Mor ua Conchobar and fathered four sons, along with unknown daughters. The sons were yet another Turlogh – Turlogh mac Diarmait O’Brien – Conchobar na Catharach, Teige Glae, and Donnachad. Teige Glae O’Brien is the brother of interest here, since he fathered Radharc.

Caveat to the reader: Radharc O’Brien, whose by-name was Radharc Casidhe (Clever), is fictional. Her mother was Daimhin O’Brien, a distant cousin of Teige Glae’s, and Daimhin is fictional too, but Teige Glae and his brothers really lived. Daimhin – this writer proposes — descended from King Brian Boru’s sixth son Domnall, a son (probably) of Brian’s second wife, Echrad of the Ui Aeda Odba. Radharc was thus an O’Brien on both sides of her lineage.

If her family tree is complicated, the political situation when she was born seems more so. Briefly, her great ancestor Brian Boru (Brian of the Tributes) had been High King of Ireland and fought the Danish invaders to a gory pyrrhic victory at Clontarf in 1014. His descendants the O’Briens were dominant until roughly 1125. The situation changed when Turlogh O’Connor of Connacht (not to be confused with any of the numerous Turlogh O’Briens) decided he would become dominant instead. In 1118, aided by the king of Meath and Tiernan O’Rourke of Briefne, he led a host into Munster and ravaged the province. To reduce O’Brien power he used the old “divide and conquer” technique. He awarded North Munster (which the Normans would later call Thomond) to the sons of Diarmait O’Brien. South Munster (Desmond) he gave to their rivals the MacCarthys. It seemed certain to O’Connor that, both clans being Irish, they would be too busy fighting each other to give him trouble. He was wrong. Conchobar na Catharach O’Brien, son of Diarmait, made an alliance with Cormac MacCarthy of Desmond and tried to kill his overlord and patron, Turlogh O’Connor.

They didn’t succeed. And Cormac MacCarthy, who must have forgotten to watch his back, was murdered by Conchobar na Catharach’s brother. This set a pattern for the future. O’Briens and MacCarthys might be rivals and mistrust each other – war against and murder each other inveterately – but in spite of it they would sometimes join together against the men of Connacht.

King Turlogh O’Connor decided he’d have to teach the O’Briens a sharper lesson. He’d defeated them, but in stubborn ingratitude they refused to concede it and went on resisting. Beginning in 1121, O’Connor ravaged Munster three years running and left seventy churches burned-out ruins.

Diarmait O’Brien’s son, Conchobar na Catharach O’Brien, succeeded his father as king in 1118 or 1119. It was during Conchobar’s reign that Radharc was born (1132). Not King Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster who ruled in the time of the hero Cuchulain and Queen Medb; that was centuries before. This Conchobar was a different fellow.

Radharc means “vision.” It’s a hard name to match up to. She managed, though, without effort, being one of those girls who from the beginning are too lovely for their own good – or anyone else’s – like Deirdre. She was her father’s treasure. Her earliest memory was of being held in front of him on his horse while he rode fast and hard and she shrieked with delight. Radharc didn’t scare easily. When little she was as wild and unkempt as she was pretty. She played with her three brothers more often than with other girls. In order, her parents’ five children were Ailill (born 1126), Muiredach (1128), her sister Eithne (1129), Radharc herself, and her younger brother Daui (1134).

Her parents’ home was a big sprawling rath on the eastern shore of Lough Derg, a long narrow body of water between North Riding, Tipperary and County Clare, with the river Shannon flowing into the north end and out the south end towards the Shannon estuary. At the lough’s southern end stood Killaloe, site of a greatly revered church supposed to have been founded by Saint Molua the Leper in the sixth century. Radharc’s uncle, King Conchobar na Catharach, died there on pilgrimage in 1142, when she was ten.

Another uncle of hers, Turlogh, became king of North Munster after him. This latest Turlogh O’Brien (who ruled North Munster from 1142 till 1167) had a certain amount of trouble with his living brothers. He suspected Radharc’s father of intriguing with the High King, Turlogh O’Connor, and for safety kept Teige Glae in fetters for two years. Radharc was fifteen when he was released. This was kindly treatment for twelfth-century Ireland; the standard way of dealing with brothers, sons or nephews whose loyalty you doubted was killing or blinding.

A fast-growing girl, Radharc now looked like a full-figured eighteen. Holy abbots had been heard to express blasphemous admiration when they saw her sashay along. She was black-haired, blue-eyed and active, her glands included, and she became close to a pair of her kinsmen, the brothers Conor and Lugaid O’Brien. Just as she was a granddaughter of Diarmait mac Turlogh O’Brien, they were the grandsons of Diarmait’s half-brother Murtogh. Radharc was thus their third cousin … or third half-cousin.

Conor and Lugaid, by the way, really lived and are known to history. At least their names are. I’ve had difficulty learning much more about them. What follows, though, is speculation and invention about their relations with Radharc, who, to beat the drum, is fictional.

They both wanted to marry her. Gossip averred that she had tried them both out in the hay and couldn’t decide between them. They were both good lovers, evidently, young, tall, strong and brave, and it was a difficult call. Then she discovered the pair tossing dice for her, and took offense. That, she ruled, was an insultingly trivial way to settle the matter, but swords, on the other hand, were too extreme. She proposed they hold a hurley match, each leading a side, winner to wed Radharc. They agreed that was fair.

Hurley was a game almost as violent as war. Like hockey, it was played with sticks and a ball, but with fewer rules than the modern game. Instead of scoring goals, you had to cover distance with the ball against the other team’s opposition. Many didn’t succeed alive.

It was Conor who won. His cheering team carried him off the field shoulder-high, with a broken arm and a grin, while Lugaid lay unconscious on the muddy turf. Conor and Radharc were married at Killaloe in 1149. Ten months later she bore a boy, Donal.

In the meantime her uncle Turlogh had made a fierce incursion into southern Connacht, to exact payment from High King Turlogh O’Connor for what he’d done to Munster. Her father Teige Glae supported him with followers and fighting, to show loyal; he’d had all the time in shackles he wanted. They destroyed O’Connor’s stronghold at Galway and returned to Munster with a few thousand head of stolen cattle. Cattle-raiding was reckoned fine manly sport rather than a crime, as it had been in the days of Cuchulainn and Queen Medb – the latter also a Connacht ruler.

Then, in 1150, Radharc’s uncle invaded Brega (essentially Meath, southern Louth, and Dublin Fingal). At this distance it looks as though he was making a desperate effort to restore O’Brien power and regain the high kingship for his clan before it was too late. No-one could realistically hold the high kingship of Ireland any longer unless he first held Dublin – and the way to Dublin from Munster lay through Brega. King Turlogh of Munster had prepared well, and made sure his battle-host was well supplied, but what he couldn’t do was launch his assault with the strength and resources his clan had possessed in earlier times. He did prevail in Brega – for the time being – but the question was whether he could sustain it.

Turlogh O’Brien had more family troubles to plague him as the year 1151 opened. His wife Mor was the daughter of the High King. That meant that his son Murtogh was also the grandson of his greatest enemy. At their instigation, no doubt, Murtogh tried to depose his father. Radharc’s father Teige Glae captured the young man and handed him over to Turlogh O’Brien, who, as he’d once done with Teige himself, put Murtogh in shackles.

(Teige evidently didn’t like Murtogh, and it’s certain that Radharc did not. She had declared in public that he wasn’t worthy to empty slop buckets for either her husband Conor or her brother-in-law Lugaid. Perhaps Murtogh had wanted to enjoy Radharc’s favors, and failed where they succeeded.)

Since Murtogh, his grandson, had bungled the overthrow of the O’Brien, Turlogh O’Connor sent his son Ruaidri at the head of a considerable force to achieve it. The MacCarthys of South Munster burst into the O’Brien lands as well, roaring their battle-chants, craving redress in blood for old grudges like the murder of Cormac MacCarthy – and urged by the High King’s messengers, we may suppose. The O’Briens under Turlogh were again prepared, Teige Glae again supported his brother – though perhaps he was merely waiting for a better chance to betray him — and the MacCarthys were beaten. The brothers Conor and Lugaid, though, did not see them withdraw. They sprawled dead on the ground. Radharc, with an infant son, was widowed at twenty.

A larger battle ensued, and Radharc didn’t learn that the brothers were dead until afterwards. The MacCarthys, who had retreated south across Moin Mhor, sent swift riders to Connacht and Leinster for help. Ruaidri O’Connor with his father’s army answered the call, and Tiernan O’Rourke of Breifne accompanied him. Tiernan was another of those who changed sides fairly often; since 1148 he had broken with the High King and carried out raid after ferocious raid into Connacht. Now he marched with the High King’s host once more. Perhaps he hoped to return to the O’Connor’s good graces thereby. Perhaps he just thought it would be fun to plunder O’Brien lands.

The King of Leinster, Diarmait mac Murchada, took part in the same campaign. His motives were probably to oblige the High King and clip the wings of the O’Briens. They couldn’t have included a liking for Tiernan O’Rourke, who had once ravaged Leinster in his characteristically brutal fashion. In fact Diarmait had marked the O’Rourke for his future attention – but it wasn’t a practical prospect just then.

The Battle of Moin Mhor followed. There has been disagreement about the site of the battle, some saying it occurred near Emly Parish in Tipperary. It actually seems to have occurred just outside a pass through the Nagles Mountains, on the southern side of the Blackwater River, between Mallow and Fermoy. That’s in County Cork, not Tipperary.

The MacCarthys from South Munster rushed to avenge their recent thrashing, and older combats. Lacking big enough numbers, they would have been trounced again, but now they were joined to the Leinster and Connacht forces. It was an outstandingly bloody affair, in which some seven thousand men were killed altogether. The O’Briens were defeated. Their power was restricted after that to North Munster, and the MacCarthys were confirmed in their lordship of South Munster.

By then Radharc had heard that her husband and brother-in-law were slain. Before long she also found that she was pregnant again. Well, Radharc lived in a time when women were often widowed early. It was never surprising when that happened, or when yet-unborn babies were left fatherless. She keened and grieved, then thought about her children, about their future and her clan’s future – which amounted to the same thing.

The O’Briens had met disaster, but they could come back to strength and regain their former power. There could yet be a reckoning with Tiernan O’Rourke, the MacCarthys, and with the High King himself. Turlogh O’Connor was nearing sixty-five. Who among his many sons he’d name to succeed him was problematic, but by 1152 Ruaidri looked the most likely, in spite of having rebelled against his father in the past. O’Connor was being challenged for the High Kingship by Muirchertach mac Lochlainn, who three years before had finally become strong enough to attempt it. Muirchertach had been deposed as King of Cenel nEogain in 1143 and restored in 1145. By 1150 he had attained the power to partition the province of Mide (Meath) between three rulers to suit himself. Perhaps Ruaidri would never be High King, even if his father did choose him as a successor.

The King of Leinster’s star was rising, too. Radharc knew his history. (See “Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s Kin in the Crusades – Part Four.”) Diarmait of Leinster plainly wanted to be High King, and he had old scores to settle with Tiernan O’Rourke of Breifne. Radharc had dynastic intrigue in her blood and these shifting, violent patterns at her fingertips. She had cursed Diarmait when he came against her folk in concert with the others, but he nevertheless might fight a campaign with the O’Briens someday, if he saw advantage to himself. He might form an alliance with Muirchertach mac Lochlainn, too. One thing any crafty and ambitious man must do in the volatile political air of Ireland was consider all his options. Another was to watch his relatives. And his back.

In the meantime, as one of the victors of Moin Mhor, Diarmait had taken O’Brien hostages back to his capital of Ferns. Radharc’s brother Muiredach was one of them, as were her cousins, Brian of the Mountain and Consaidhin the Gentle, who would later become Bishop of Killaloe – two of her uncle Turlogh’s five sons. Turlogh O’Connor, the High King (repeat; he shouldn’t be confused with any of the numerous Turlogh O’Briens) also held O’Brien hostages to ensure the clan’s discreet behavior. In Ireland it was standard practice, though the kinsmen of hostages often ignored their welfare and rebelled or attacked anyway.

Radharc’s second child was a daughter. She named her Muadhnat (pronounced, roughly, Muana.) When the girl was six months old Radharc journeyed to Ferns to see her cousins, taking the baby and toddling Donal along. Her father Teige Glae led the party, with fighting men of the clan for an escort, and Radharc had instructions from her uncle Turlogh to report on whatever passed between Teige Glae and the king of Leinster. Playing the sweet nursing mother bringing gifts and greetings to her kinsmen, Radharc also played the spy quite adroitly.

Brian and Consaidhin gave her their views of events in Leinster. (Her brother Muiredach did too, but he wasn’t as sharp or subtle an observer as his cousins, particularly Consaidhin. She discovered to her regret that her father and King Diarmait were hatching schemes of which her uncle Turlogh would not have approved. That naturally meant that the longer Brian and Consaidhin, Turlogh’s sons, were held in Leinster, the safer Teige Glae would be. His brother had already held him in fetters once for intriguing with the High King, O’Connor of Connacht. Radharc was torn. She didn’t want her cousins silenced permanently, which her father and the King of Leinster might decide to do. Nevertheless, Teige Glae was her father and she loved him despite his faults.

She didn’t betray him, but she did take back a perceptive report on Diarmait of Leinster’s court and the foreign liaisons he was fostering. His alliance with Norman adventurers from Wales still lay in the future – but French and Spanish traders, and one Polish exile, were guests in Leinster during Radharc’s visit. So were messengers from the King of Cenel nEogain, Muirchertach mac Lochlainn. That, to Radharc, was interesting – and to her uncle Turlogh as well.

The man who would be her next husband, the “renegade Norman knight” Geoffrey the Bastard, who had fought through the Second Crusade, was then (in the summer of 1152) crossing the Channel from Normandy to England. He saw opportunities there. A hellish two decades of anarchy and civil war had ravaged England, with no end yet visible. Bandits and outlaw nobles could do as they pleased. Sides could be changed rapidly, and were. (See “Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s Kin in the Crusades – Part Three.”) Oh, the end would come, and soon, when Henry Plantagenet took the English throne as Henry II, but nobody knew that. When he entered England, Geoffrey had taken the first step on his fated path to Ireland, but he hadn’t the faintest inkling of that, either.

Read Part Two