A Woman of the O’Briens — Part Two

Radharc O’Brien in the year 1152 was a widow with two little children. Her husband Conor had been killed in a fight with the MacCarthys, shortly before the greater battle of Moin Mhor. The power of the mighty O’Briens had been reduced since the days of Brian Boru, and they were restricted now to the northern part of divided Munster – to be called Thomond by the Normans. But Radharc was as fiercely proud as any of her male kindred, and O’Brien resurgence was a purpose close to her passionate heart.

Radharc’s ultimate aim was to have an O’Brien High King of Ireland again. For the present, she knew her clan had to break out of the little region of north Munster (Thomond) to which it was now confined, and rule the entire province once more. That meant settling accounts with the MacCarthys and breaking the power of the O’Connor High Kings. Those were big requirements.

The MacCarthys were being ruled by then by Dermod Mor na Cill Baghain, who held the port town of Cork as well as Desmond. He had been head of his clan since 1144. He still enjoyed the support of the High King, Turlogh O’Connor – or rather the High King was still pitting O’Briens and MacCarthys against each other so that neither would rival him. It was an ancient game, of course, and it wasn’t just played in Ireland.

The mighty O’Connor was ageing, though – he’d live only four more years — and a new contender had appeared in the north. Traditionally that was the centre of O’Neill power, but the new man was no O’Neill. Muirchertach mac Lochlainn, prince of Ailech and the Cenel nEogain, son of Niall mac Lochlainn, was on the road to power and nobody could ignore him. He counted even such men as Diarmait, king of Leinster, among his clients. In 1150 he had given twenty cattle and a gold ring to the abbot of Derry to enlist him as a supporter. He had successfully split the kingdom of Meath among three rival claimants, and in 1154, he hired a Norse fleet from the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to attack the fleet of the High King. The resulting naval battle saw Muirchertach’s defeat, but that he’d been able to launch it at all signified plenty. Despite losing the sea-fight, he was still able to gain the submission of the Norsemen of Dublin, and to seal the agreement he granted them, as a ceremonial gift to a new vassal, twelve hundred head of cattle. Turlogh O’Connor knew very well that gaining control of Dublin was a necessary step on the way to the High Kingship – and so did Radharc O’Brien.

Her father, Teige Glae, died in that year of 1154. He went out fighting, in one of his many affrays with the MacCarthys of south Munster. They were upstarts who had been confirmed in their lordship of that territory by the High King, in order to weaken the O’Briens, and Teige Glae had been stubbornly laying claim to the kingship of Desmond, or south Munster, since well before Radharc was born. The MacCarthys had just as consistently rejected his claim. Now they’d made their point at last with a strength that impressed even Teige Glae. They’d killed him.

He’d possessed his faults, such as being a tad treacherous; his brother Turlogh had once put him in fetters for a couple of years for intriguing with the High King, O’Connor of Connacht. Still, Radharc had loved him. She was shattered, torn by grief, and then furious. She resolved to see the MacCarthys pay — in blood, but also in the utter loss of prestige and power. Her brothers Ailill and Daui felt the same way – and she had no doubt her other brother, Muiredach, a hostage in Leinster, would too, once he was informed.

The O’Briens were no longer able to accomplish that without help. The politics of the day were too complicated to describe in a paragraph, but the great O’Connor High King had grown old and his strongest rival, Muirchertach mac Lochlainn, looked more and more certain to replace him – not least because Diarmait of Leinster had become his ally and vassal. Radharc had been to Leinster and knew Diarmait. He wouldn’t be above turning against Muirchertach and making a bid for the High Kingship on his own account.

She travelled to Leinster again. Her brother and cousins were hostages there; she always had a pretext. Other O’Briens were hostages of the O’Connor, and she didn’t forget that for a moment, but she wasn’t known as Radharc Casidhe, Radharc the Clever, for nothing. She acted as her uncle’s agent and carefully sounded Diarmait mac Murchada on the possibility of his helping the O’Briens against the MacCarthys. The implied promise was that if the MacCarthys were crushed and the O’Briens became lords paramount of all Munster again, they would support Diarmait in the future. Nothing overt was said about supporting him against Muirchertach mac Lochlainn, but not being dense, Diarmait could infer it.

He didn’t trust the O’Briens too far, naturally, but he held O’Brien hostages. Perhaps a more significant factor in considering them as allies lay in Ireland’s geography. If ever they turned against Diarmait, they’d have a hard time attacking him through the granite mountains and steep glens that separated Munster from Leinster. He wasn’t about to make foolish or premature moves against his powerful northern lord – but Radharc had given him food for serious thought. She was a glorious beauty, too. While Diarmait was no raw youngster to be melted like wax by a lovely woman, he wasn’t indifferent to that, either. He’d endured sitting in conference with much uglier schemers. Whether he committed himself or not, he would never be averse to Radharc’s coming to Ferns as an O’Brien ambassador.

At this time Geoffrey the Bastard, the renegade Norman knight who would become Radharc’s second husband, was fleeing across the breadth of England from the Earl of Essex’s revenge. (See “Cormac FitzGeoffrey’s Kin in the Crusades – Part Three”.) He was about to take service with Walter FitzRichard de Clifford in the Welsh Marches. He hadn’t the slightest notion that either Radharc or King Diarmait would be important in his future. He didn’t know that either of them existed.

Diarmait of Leinster had a strong interest in English matters. With King Stephen ailing and young Henry Plantagenet waiting to grab the succession – granted to him by the enforced Treaty of Wallingford – it appeared things might change there quickly. Henry had proved himself strong and decisive in his teens, and he wasn’t much past twenty in 1154. He had plenty of effective years left. Diarmait conceived the idea of sending the sharp-witted, observant Radharc over to England to report on how matters stood. She agreed. She didn’t speak English, but that wasn’t a real drawback. Only the common people spoke it anyway. The upper crust, knights and barons, all spoke Norman French. Radharc didn’t know that tongue beyond a few phrases, but she was fluent in Latin, the language of the Church. Bishops knew all there was to know about politics. Besides, making a pilgrimage to the famous shrine of Glastonbury was a perfect cover for such a mission. She sent word to her kinsmen in Munster, and crossed the sea.

She duly visited Glastonbury, and encountered Henry of Blois, its abbot, who was also the Bishop of Winchester. Radharc knew that enthusiasm for his beloved Glastonbury was the way to charm him, and she had brought a donation to its coffers from Leinster. He found her descriptions of religious life in Ireland fascinating, though its deviations from Roman practice appalled him. Radharc had her own opinions there, but she played the humble daughter of the Church seeking instruction, and won Henry’s approval. In fact he referred her to Theobald de Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury. She had various interviews not only with de Bec, but with his new archdeacon, a priest in his mid-thirties named Thomas a Becket.

She discovered quite a bit about the state of England on her trip through the country. The conclusion she reached was that it was a chaotic shambles in which each powerful lord did as he pleased, and that any new king who tried to impose law and order was headed for failure. Maybe this Henry Plantagenet fellow from France would wear the crown before long – but if he tried to establish real control, he wouldn’t last three years.

Radharc didn’t know Henry. She didn’t know England either. Its traditions and habits of thought were unlike Ireland’s, and the Normans had hammered it ruthlessly into the shape they wanted since their victory at Hastings. Besides, its people were so shattered and weary after twenty-odd years of bloody anarchy that they would have accepted any ruler who could bring some stability back into their lives, even a ruthless tyrant.

Radharc spent Christmas at Glastonbury Abbey again. She marveled at the tomb of King Arthur and the miraculous hawthorn on the grave of Joseph of Arimathea, that bloomed at midwinter. Then she returned to Ferns, the capital of Leinster, when spring came.

She met Geoffrey FitzWilliam, the Bastard, Norman knight and renegade, at the court of King Diarmait.

The meeting was fateful.

Geoffrey was a lawless, reckless, blond-haired devil. His early years had been spent in Sicily, a rich, sophisticated, polyglot kingdom. He’d grown up with the hatred and enmity of his legitimate half-brothers and their mother, Mildred. At fourteen he had defended his own mother on charges of sorcery and murder in a trial by combat – and won by cheating. In the ineptly led shambles of the Second Crusade, he’d sought his fortune honorably and bravely, but emerged from it with nothing. Banditry had paid him better, and he gained a fortune, but lost it again in a shipwreck, then found his mother had died of a fever in Venice. He followed a trail of ill-luck, murder and treachery from Italy to Ireland, arriving there by chance, and would have left again but that he perceived a chance of mending his fortunes in King Diarmait’s service.

Radharc Casidhe O’Brien was a spectacular beauty descended from Brian Boru. Others of her clan had been High Kings after Brian, in fact and in name, but now their power had been curtailed, and they were not even unchallenged kings of Munster. It was power Radharc meant to regain for them.

Radharc and Geoffrey were both hot-blooded. They warmed the same bed before long. In their pillow-talks she cautioned Geoffrey that the other Irish clans would never accept Diarmait as High King, and that the O’Briens were scarcely the spent force Diarmait supposed. Geoffrey didn’t believe her; he didn’t know Ireland as she did, and he still liked Diarmait’s prospects.

He’d intended to leave Ireland as soon as possible. He’d gone there as a fugitive, to escape the vengeance of Welsh chieftains whose brother he had killed, but now he saw possibilities in the place, both as King Diarmait’s henchman and Radharc’s lover. He decided to stay. Normans had conquered England, Sicily and southern Italy. Why not Ireland too? And himself as King Geoffrey the First? There were Norman adventurers available no further away than Wales …

Radharc and Geoffrey married. Not a match made in heaven, as it turned out.

The Irish politics of their day were as shifting and deceptive as cloud-shadow. Diarmait of Leinster – in the English spelling, Dermot MacMurrough – in 1156 was a lesser player in the struggle between Ruaidri (Rory) O’Connor and Muirchertach mac Lochlainn. (In English spelling, Murtough O’Loughlin.) Ruaidri O’Connor’s father Turlogh, the High King, had just died, and Diarmait of Leinster had always had an eye for the winning side. He aligned himself with Ruaidri’s rival, the formidable Muirchertach mac Lochlainn, now the most powerful king in Ireland. Mac Lochlainn and Ruadri O’Connor had a dispute, among other things, over who rightly ruled Meath. Ruaidri O’Connor of Connacht and Diarmait’s old, bitter enemy, Tiernan O’Rourke of Breifne in eastern Connacht, were allied against the mac Lochlainn and Diarmait of Leinster.

The O’Briens of Munster, through their ambassadors, and partly inspired by Radharc, had a proposition for Diarmait and Muirchertach. They would join their alliance, and fight the Connacht lords with them, if Muirchertach would prevail on the O’Briens’ rivals, the MacCarthys of Desmond (south Munster, with their principal center of power around Cork) to throw in with the O’Briens against Connacht. Radharc also stipulated that the O’Brien hostages Diarmait had held for years must be released. They were her cousins, Brian of the Mountain and Consaidhin the Gentle, and her brother Muiredach was a hostage of Diarmait’s too.

Diarmait agreed to do so – but only after the O’Briens had fought against Ruaidri O’Connor and Tiernan O’Rourke and were thus committed. That presented a problem, since there were O’Brien hostages in Connacht, too. They must either be abandoned or a raid carried out to release them. The O’Briens, fiercely exhorted by Radharc, chose the latter course. Radharc went quietly into Connacht disguised as a nun and enlisted the inside help of some disgruntled subjects of O’Connor and O’Rourke. O’Rourke in particular had subjects and neighbors who hated his guts; he was, and always had been, a brutish, bellicose character. His wife Devorgilla had left him, with Diarmait’s aid, for that very reason. He’d constantly been involved in quarrels and affrays with the mac Lochlainn sept even though they were Devorgilla’s kin.

Muirchertach mac Lochlainn helped in the matter by bringing some Norse pirates down from the Hebrides to strike Connacht’s northern coast, while the O’Briens and MacCarthys came up from the south. He’d done that before, in 1154, when Ruadri’s father, the mighty Turlogh O’Connor, had been Connacht’s king. The Hebridean Norsemen had reason to know he’d pay for their assistance as promised. They came to the party and the whole operation worked like a charm. For mac Lochlainn (or O’Loughlin) its purpose was bigger than just freeing the Connacht hostages, of course, but that too was accomplished. Ruaidri O’Connor and Tiernan O’Rourke’s noses were bloodied, figuratively, and they were made to look foolish.

Geoffrey the Bastard, Radharc’s new husband, had taken part in the expedition into Connacht. Her fellow O’Briens agreed that he’d fought well. Radharc was shortly pregnant and in time bore her third child (she’d been married before), a boy who was christened Shane. He was born in 1157.

Ruaidri O’Connor and Tiernan O’Rourke joined forces again to oppose mac Lochlainn – and his ally Diarmait of Leinster – in 1159. The mac Lochlainn met them at Ardee with the O’Briens helping. Geoffrey the Bastard was fighting in the thick of that battle also, and the Connacht war-host was nearly annihilated. Geoffrey’s reputation was growing. Two years later there was another mac Lochlainn victory over the same opponents; Ruaidri was forced to yield hostages to the mac Lochlainn and make submission. But Ruaidri and Tiernan were biding their time, with never the least intention to submit in any lasting way.

Geoffrey and Radharc by then had been married about five years. After Shane she had another child, who died in infancy. Her mother’s grief was intense, and she didn’t become pregnant again for some time – maybe even for psychosomatic reasons. Her depression caused lassitude and a loss of interest in the complex politics that so strongly affected her clan. She softened and neglected her looks. That wasn’t like Radharc O’Brien.

Her husband, a ruthless Norman adventurer, lost sympathy for Radharc after a while and took a Spanish bondwoman for his mistress. Curiously enough, that brought her out of her apathy and stimulated her to compete. She became active again, rode, swam, made the most of her amazing beauty and gave Geoffrey the Bastard back the striking, passionate woman he’d married. The Spanish girl was soon a minor interest of Geoffrey’s. Radharc didn’t forget, though, that he’d let her down, and their marriage wasn’t the same afterwards. It’s probable that Geoffrey didn’t notice.

The O’Briens renewed their efforts to bring down the MacCarthys. Radharc saw that none of the major power players in Ireland at the time wanted the O’Briens to be sole rulers of Munster again. It occurred to her, not for the first time, that a force of Norman adventurers from across the sea might make the crucial difference, and she urged her husband to go and recruit them – for her purpose. Geoffrey was closely allied with King Diarmait of Leinster, though, and while he had proposed the same course to Diarmait, his intention was to make Diarmait the High King, with Geoffrey his right hand man – and likely successor. The Norman’s money was on Diarmait and he wasn’t interested in Radharc’s suggestion.

He must have forgotten that his Irish wife had known the King of Leinster before he did.

Radharc schemed and plotted, as did Geoffrey. At cross purposes. It didn’t stop them from bouncing around in bed together on frequent occasions. Their last child was Cormac FitzGeoffrey, protagonist of “Hawks of Outremer” and “The Blood of Belshazzar,” as well as the fragment, “The Slave-Princess”. Cormac was born in 1162.

What follows is speculation, and the reader won’t find it recorded in history. Too bad. Any number of things that aren’t recorded in history, or have been dismissed as idle stories, happened nevertheless. The feud between the O’Briens and MacCarthys is fact. The situation in Wales at the time was all too factual as well. So, having issued that caution, I’ll continue.

Radharc decided to look elsewhere for allies, behind her husband’s back. If she couldn’t get Normans, well, there were the wild, rebellious Welsh who were giving the Normans so much trouble. Some of those hard-pressed chieftains might be willing to cross the sea, conquer MacCarthy lands in Desmond, and become the O’Briens’ allies. They had the advantage of being Celtic, more closely akin to Radharc and her clan than the Normans.

She crossed the sea once again, this time with her brothers, Daui and Muiredach. They were surreptitious about it, not wishing Diarmait of Leinster, or the mac Lochlainn, or for that matter Radharc’s husband, to know their purpose. It’s one of the ironies in which Irish history – and marriage! – abounds, that they went to seek allies in the kingdom of Deheubarth, in south-west Wales, and that the prince they approached was no other than Rhys ap Gruffydd – the Lord Rhys. He ought to have been a good prospect. His father had spent most of his early years as an exile in Ireland and always been most friendly to the Irish. Rhys was desperately at war with the invading Normans and knew that he might need a safe warm refuge in Ireland himself one day. The fly in the ointment – of which Radharc was ignorant, because her husband had never told her – was that Geoffrey the Bastard had killed Rhys’s brother Maredudd in Wales, about six years before.

Rhys and his kindred were ignorant of it themselves, at the time. The offer of MacCarthy lands in southern Ireland was an attractive one. The O’Briens’ plan was that the Cymry should strike from the sea against Cork while the O’Briens attacked from the north, a surprise onslaught catching the MacCarthys between two forces. From Gwynedd to Deheubarth the Welsh warriors gathered, cousins and younger sons and men made landless by the encroaching Anglo-Normans in their stark castles, a force of six hundred. The Cymry stormed ashore at Cork while the O’Briens rushed in force from the north, as arranged.

Their onslaught succeeded. That is, they went through MacCarthy lands like a plough through wet sand, and the surviving Welshmen settled on blood-soaked ground they had taken from the MacCarthys, with O’Brien support. The MacCarthys were weakened. To Radharc’s chagrin, though, the King of Desmond, Dermod na Cill Baghain MacCarthy, was not killed or disabled. He lived to fight another day, grimly determined to get back the conquered lands and quite a bit more as compensation.

Something else happened. Relatives of the slain Maredudd ap Gruffydd learned that his killer was alive in Ireland, and married to Radharc O’Brien. Word went back to Wales. As for Geoffrey, fury doesn’t describe his reaction when he learned of Radharc’s machinations and their result. As refreshing as he had found the freedom of Irish women when he first came to their country, he was still a Norman, and he reckoned his wife had overstepped the mark. By a mile.

Geoffrey left Ferns with a couple of companions, looking for Radharc. He pushed recklessly through wild country, his anger only growing with each mile he covered towards Lough Derg. He ran straight into an ambush led by two cousins of Maredudd’s. He and his companions killed several and put the rest to flight, though one of Geoffrey’s side-men died then, and the other perished later from his injuries.

Geoffrey was wounded, too. He decided that his wife must have planned the attack on him. Instead of turning back to Leinster he rode on, bloody and frenzied, to find Radharc. There was murder in his soul, and sadly, murder was what ensued. He attacked her on sight and throttled her with his hands, though she knifed him twice and gouged out his left eye before she perished. She had lived just thirty-one years.

Within the day, her brothers Ailill, Muiredach and Daui had caught Geoffrey and avenged her. Her cousins, Brian of the Mountain and Consaidhin the Gentle (who wasn’t feeling so gentle on that occasion) joined them. The story goes that they hacked Geoffrey into seventeen separate pieces and took his head back to Lough Derg, hurling the other bits to the crows as they went. When Radharc was buried they placed the head on her grave; it was like the last act of Hamlet or Macbeth.

Considering how bloody the times were, though, it seems to this writer that something no less awful would be needed to account for Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s early life and its influences. At the beginning of “Hawks of Outremer,” REH lets us know through the mind of Rupert de Vaile that “ … Cormac’s life had not been an easy one. Hated by the Irish and despised by the Normans, he had paid back contempt and ill-treatment with savage hate and ruthless vengeance.”

Why “hated by the Irish?” Merely having a Norman father wouldn’t be enough. In 1166, four years after Cormac was born, Diarmait mac Murchada of Leinster was finally driven into exile, and went to England for support. Diarmait brought an advance party of Norman adventurers to Ireland in 1167, and with their backing he recaptured Wexford. In 1170, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, whose by-name was “Strongbow,” came over in greater force, seized Waterford and Dublin, and so gained control of Ireland’s east coast. This was what Geoffrey the Bastard had strenuously argued that Diarmait should do, year after year, but it came a little late for Geoffrey to profit.

In later centuries Diarmait was hated as the man who invited the Normans to Ireland and precipitated its conquest, but the issues wouldn’t have seemed as clear-cut while Cormac Fitzgeoffrey was a child and youth. Some Irish would have been with the Normans, some against, and they’d all have hated their Irish blood-enemies more than they hated the strangers. However, if Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s father had actually murdered his O’Brien wife, a popular and valued member of the clan, it would explain why Cormac was so hated and mistreated from an early age – even by his own kinsmen. Most of all by them, in fact. Maybe in some future post I’ll go more deeply into Cormac’s early years as I suppose they might have been (with help from Al Harron’s splendid articles on the subject) but so far as his mother Radharc is concerned, here the story ends.

Read Part One