Hugh De Lacy

DIED A. D. 1186

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

THE reader is already aware that, on the 14th October, 1172, king Henry landed at Waterford with a train of four hundred knights. Among these was Hugh de Lacy, a Norman by descent, and high in the favour and confidence of the king.

In his arrangements for the purpose of counterbalancing the rising power of Strongbow, we have mentioned already that Henry raised several of his knights into power and possession: amongst these De Lacy was the foremost. The grant of Meath, and the government of Dublin, conjointly with Maurice Fitz-Gerald and Robert Fitz-Stephen, laid, on broad foundations, the long-continued power and importance of his family.

He was immediately after left chief governor of Ireland; and during the season of his administration, had the adventure with O'Ruark,[1] prince of Brefni, which we have now to record.

Outraged by the infidelity of his wife, and the libertinism of the prince of Leinster, as already recorded in the memoir of Macmurragh, which commences the present series; compelled also to this course by the necessity of his position, in the very centre of the seat of a conflict for territory which lasted through the remainder of his life; O'Ruark was a party in every contest and confederacy by which the English might be unfixed from their acquisitions.

Although the province of Meath had been granted to De Lacy, yet, by virtue of arrangements made by Roderic, O'Ruark was still allowed to retain possession of the eastern territory of this province. Unsatisfied with a portion of his ancient possessions, and apprehending, not without reason, the effect of further encroachment, he repaired to Dublin and demanded redress from De Lacy. A conference ensued, which led to no accommodation. Another meeting was appointed, which was to take place on the hill of Tara. This was in accordance with the ancient custom of Ireland, by which differences between chiefs were to be settled by a meeting in some place distant from the dwelling of both, where neither might have any advantage of force; and on some open hill, where the danger of treachery might be more easily guarded against.

Cambrensis and, after him, most of our authorities mention, that the night before this conference was to take place, Griffith, the brother to Raymond le Gros, had a dream, in which he thought he saw a flock of wild boars rushing upon De Lacy and his uncle Maurice Fitz-Gerald; and that one more fierce and monstrous than the others was about to kill them, when he saved them by slaying the monster. Alarmed by this dream, which was the natural result of the workings of an apprehensive understanding, excited by the interest of the occasion, and the restless alertness of youth, Griffith the next morning would have dissuaded the English chiefs from the meeting. De Lacy was not to be deterred by a dream, although the issue which it seemed to forebode was always the highly probable end of such meetings. Griffith, however, was not so easily dispossessed of the apprehension thus awakened in his mind. He selected seven associates, all distinguished for valour, and repairing to the place of meeting, he approached the spot where the conference was to be held, as near as the arrangements of the parties would admit of; and while the conference went on uninterruptedly, they rode about the field affecting to engage in chivalric exercises. For a little while all went on with temper, although without any approach to amicable agreement, between O'Ruark on one part, and De Lacy with Maurice Fitz-Gerald on the other. Suddenly O'Ruark, under some pretext, retired some way from where they stood, and, when at a safe distance, made a signal. It was instantly answered by the sudden appearance of an armed party who came rapidly up the hill. They were already upon the English lords, before the attention of Griffith's party was caught by their appearance: De Lacy and Maurice had therefore to fight for their lives.

So rapid was their approach that De Lacy, whose back was turned, was taken by surprise. Maurice Fitz-Gerald saw his danger, drew his sword, and called out to warn him; but O'Ruark, whose party had in the meantime surrounded them, rushing at De Lacy, attempted to strike him with his battle-axe before he could put himself in a posture of defence; the blow was fortunately warded off by his interpreter, whom it laid on the ground. De Lacy was twice struck down, but a stroke which would have ended his life was warded off by Fitz-Gerald, whom the chance of the struggle brought near. A few seconds were enough for this rapid and violent action; another instant might have been fatal; but Griffith and his gallant party were now on the spot, and the assailants were endeavouring to escape. O'Ruark ran towards his horse, which stood close by where he had left it on first alighting to the conference; he was just in the act of mounting, when the spear of Griffith passed through his body. His party was then attacked and put to flight with some slaughter. His death removed a serious obstacle to the ambition of De Lacy. This incident occurred in 1173.

De Lacy married a daughter of Roderic O'Conor, king of Connaught, the effect of which was to cause his recall in 1180. His government had, however, given satisfaction. He had preserved order, and materially strengthened the English settlement. He had by this time also built many well-situated castles; castle Dermot, Leighlin, Leix, Delvin, Carlow, Tullaghphelim, and Kilkay.

In three months after, therefore, he was restored, and, as well as we can collect, continued till 1184. He was during this time as active and efficient as at first, and raised forts as numerous in Leinster as before in Meath. He employed the bravest adventurers, where their valour and activity might be as a safeguard to the bordering settlements, and administered justice impartially and mildly. The natural effect of such conduct was, to raise his authority in the country; his rivals, taking the usual advantage of this, again contrived to rouse the jealousy of Henry, and in 1184 he was displaced, and De Braosa sent in his room. It was during this interval that the romantic career of John de Courcy commenced under the auspices of De Lacy, to whose government his military prowess was an efficient support.

De Braosa's misconduct soon awakened Henry to a sense of the impolicy and injustice of the change which had superseded the vigour and experience of Hugh de Lacy; and he would have been once more reinstated, but a fatal and atrocious outrage deprived the king of his services. The impolicy of De Braosa had involved the settlement in commotion; incursions into Meath had done considerable mischief within the territories of De Lacy; and he was himself, with his characteristic ardour, engaged in repairing his forts. It was his custom to superintend, and occasionally to take part in the work, a practice explained by the rough and manly habits of his age, when all sorts of physical exertion were familiar in the highest rank. One of the forts he was thus engaged with was founded on the site of an ancient abbey at Dorrowe, or Derwath. The respectable prejudices of the people were shocked by the profanation of a site, rendered sacred in their eyes by the recollections it bore. This feeling fermented among a multitude, until it awakened the fanaticism of one among the workmen; excited to a high degree by this insane affection, he resolved on the murder of the knight. For this purpose he concealed a battle-axe under the ample folds of his mantle, and when De Lacy stooped down, either in explaining his orders, or to make some exertion, he seized the occasion, and with a blow struck off his head.


[1] There is some difference among historians as to the identity of the native chief concerned in this adventure. Cox names O'Meloghlin—but we have relied on the judgment of Leland.