Roderic O'Connor, King of Connaught

DIED A. D. 1198.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

THE often-slighted memory of the last of Ireland's monarchs demands the tribute of a memorial from the justice of the impartial historian. It is difficult to do historic justice to the memory of a name which has been the subject of unwarranted reproach or slight, according to the patriotism or the bigotry of different writers, whose disrespectful comments are not borne out by the facts they state. To these statements we have no objection to offer; but when, in the course of these memoirs, they have come before us in the order of narration, we have been so free as to divest them of the tone of misrepresentation, from which even Leland--who sat down to the undertaking of Irish history in the most historical spirit--is not free. The ruling national spirit of our age is faction, to which we might apply all that Scott says of a softer passion:

"In peace it tunes the shepherd's reed, In war it mounts the warrior's steed."

In peace or war, amity or opposition, praise or condemnation, party spirit is diffused through all the functions of society. Few speakers or writers seem to have retained the clearness of vision which can see the actions of men otherwise than through the medium of that system of politics with which the mind is jaundiced in the heat of party: a mist of liberalism, or of toryism, sits like an atmosphere round every alert and intelligent actor and thinker; and nothing is looked on but as it seems to bear relation to the creed of either party. If any one have the fortune (or misfortune) to have preserved that intellectual indifference which seldom, perhaps, belongs to the highest order of minds; there is still the fear of opinion, and the respect for individuals, to draw the judgment aside, and to draw from fear the concession to which opinion gives no sanction--a weakness the more dangerous, because there is no modern history, and least of all our own, in which a rigidly impartial writer can avoid alternately drawing down the reprehension of either party; nor can any one, with perfect impunity, pretend to redeem historical composition from some of the worst defects of an electioneering pamphlet. There is yet, in the history of the period to which Roderic belongs, an error still more prejudicial, founded on the same principle in human nature.

Dr Leland, after some comments on the subject of the following memoir, in which we can hardly believe him to have been quite sincere, adds a reflection, which contains the true answer to all such strictures on the lives of ancient men. "It would be rash to form the severest opinion of this [the military] part of his conduct, as we are not distinctly informed of the obstacles and difficulties he had to encounter. The Irish annalists who record his actions were little acquainted with intrigues of policy or faction, and little attentive to their operations. They confine themselves to the plain exposition of events; tell us of an insurrection, a victory, or a retreat; but never think of developing the secret causes that produced or influenced these events."[1] But in addition to this fair admission, there is a weightier and more applicable truth, from its nature less popular, yet not less to be admitted by every candid mind. It is this--that the progress of historical events, and the changes of circumstances in the social state, develop and mature new feelings, which in their accumulated effects at remote intervals, amount to a serious difference in the moral nature of the men of different periods. The social state, with all its divisions of sect and civil feud, is now so far cemented into one, that a moral impulse can be made to vibrate through all its arteries, and awaken the in-tensest national sympathy, on any subject that can be extricated from exclusive locality. Certain opinions have grown into feelings of human nature, and have taken such deep root in the mind, that it has ceased to have the power of dismissing them, even when they are not applicable. Among these is the strong impression of sect, faction, country, and common cause, which are principles developed, not only by civilization, and by reflection or moral culture, but by even those accidental circumstances which may happen to diffuse a sense of common interest, or class relation, or in any way create a community. They who look on the past, as most will, only through the medium of the present; who see their own impressions reflected upon the obscure distance of antiquity, and mistake them for the mind of the remote rude ancestors of the land; must find a very pardonable difficulty in realizing to themselves the fact, that in the period of king Roderic, there was no community, no national cause, no patriotism, in the operative social elements of Ireland. Such notions belonged to poetry, or figured in the periods of rhetoric, and were perhaps recognised as fine sayings by the hearers, and meant for nothing more by the speakers. But they had no foundation in the actual state of things. The common complaints of the people had not yet been taught to offer themselves, in one voice, to a common government. National questions had not suggested national individuality, nor a recognised common interest cemented the hostile and restless strife of petty kings into a country's cause. "We know," continues Leland, "that Roderic led great armies against Dermod and his English allies; but they were collected by inferior chiefs, many of whom hated and envied him. They were not implicitly obedient to their monarch; they were not paid; they were not obliged to keep the field; and were ready to desert him on the most critical emergency, if the appointed period of their service should then happen to expire."[2] Such was the stale of Roderic's power over a force composed of separate leaders, mutually at strife amongst themselves, and only to be leagued in resistance to himself. The people they severally led, had no notion of any country but their district, or of any cause but the interest of the petty toparch who ruled them with an iron rule of life and death. They had neither property or freedom, or (be it frankly said) national existence. Nor was there any reason distinctly in their apprehensions, why the Dane or the Saxon, should be more to be resisted, than the hereditary faction of the neighbouring district. Their very annalists, who must have had more expanded views, exhibit but a doubtful glimmer of any higher sentiment.

In this state of opinion, which also may serve to explain in part why the conquest of Ireland was not completed by Henry, the fair observer will see ample vindication of the alleged remissness of O'Connor against the unfounded reflections of some of our historians, and the angry opprobriousness of others. Of the civil leaders of that stormy period, Roderic alone seems, by the ample extent of his interests, to have been led to views beyond his age and national state.

Another general observation must have presented itself to any indifferent reader of the various accounts of sieges and fights, which we have had occasion to notice, that no difference of numerical force was sufficient to ensure the result of a battle to the Irish leader. In their notices of these engagements, all the writers state clearly, yet with a seeming unconsciousness, the true causes of any slight check which the invaders appear to have received in their earliest encounters with the native force. The well-laid ambush, the unsteady and yielding footing of the morass, the mazy and uncertain perplexity of thickets, the crowded and confused outlets of towns: all these afforded to a brave and active population, slightly armed and accustomed to desultory warfare, advantages sufficient against the arms and discipline of their enemy. In not one instance, does there occur the slightest incident to favour the supposition, that in a pitched battle on open and firm ground, any superiority of numbers that could be brought to bear, would have been enough to secure a victory such as the interests of Roderic would require. If we make a supposition, taking our standard from the most decided event we can fairly assume--the slaughter of the company of Armoric de St. Lawrence--it will still appear, that two hundred men were sufficient for the slaughter of a thousand of the native force, when surrounded, fighting singly, and at all imaginable disadvantage. Had the two hundred been a thousand, they would, on the same assumption, have slain five thousand of their antagonists: but the same assumption would not in this case be admissible. For the power of a company increases by a law different from that of numerical increase: no imaginable number could stand ten minutes against a thousand men killing at the same rate. At that time the most decided resistance was from a force far more advanced in arms than the native Irish--the Danes had built, inhabited, and defended the principal towns. In the long interval between this period and the battle of Clontarf, their progress in civilization, and in the various arts of peace and war, had made a considerable progress; while the natives had been either stationary or retrogressive--the pastoral habits of the country not being favourable to advance. Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Downpatrick, Limerick, were Danish; wherever a stand was made, which exhibited a possibility of success, or approach toward the balanced contest of civilized warfare, the Danes were more or less the chief parties in the conflict. But there was no such approximation to equality; and however the party historian, anxious to flatter an amiable national pride, may gloss over facts, it must , have soon become apparent to those whose fortunes hung trembling on the scale, how slight were their chances. The appearance of their formidable preponderance of numbers may have imparted a momentary fear to the Normans: for such is the irresistible impression which connects the idea of power with multitude. And this impression too, must have been aggravated by the calamities of a protracted warfare; decline of health and numbers, with an exhausting penury of food, during a siege in which the combined power of the nation was at length brought to bear, and all seemed to desert the hardy little band of adventurers but their own indomitable and resistless energy. But a single charge, a slight reverse, against which disciplined habits would have rallied, or even sincere good-will to the cause among the leaders, repaired--at once dissipated the cumbrous and imposing, but really impotent, leaguer; and left the abandoned monarch to save himself for better days, if such might be in store for his hapless country.

Such is a cursory retrospect of the combination of efficient causes which controlled one, who, so far from being properly the subject of imputed censure, was the last and firmest among those on whom fell the duty of resistance in that dark day of Ireland. He had been distinguished as an enterprising and successful leader, under those circumstances of equal trial which have always been the ground for the fair estimate of character: from this may be safely inferred, that had equal arms, discipline, and field tactics, placed him on the level of a possible resistance, the same conspicuous qualities must have been as apparent. On the other hand, a new combination of circumstances arose, such as to afford no presumption which could satisfy any one but one hurried on by an enthusiastic fancy in the calculation of success; and the accumulation of uncandid "ifs" is loosely arrayed to throw an undeserved slight on the monument of a brave but unfortunate hero, who was not only the last who stood forward in the breach of ruin, but when all had yielded, and every hope was past, alone preserved his sceptre, and transmitted to his province the power to be still formidable amid the ruins of the land.

Roderic O'Connor was the son of Tirlogh, already mentioned, (p. 238.) He was bom about the year 1116. On the death of his father, in 1166, he succeeded to the kingdom of Connaught; and on the death of Murtagh O'Lochlin, the monarchy reverted to his family, and he was recognised as king of Connaught and monarch of Ireland, 1166, at the mature age of fifty; and "with great pomp and splendour was proclaimed king in Dublin."[3] In the next year, from the same valuable authority, we learn that a great meeting was called by him at Athboy: "to it went the nobles of Leth Chuin, both clergy and laity, and the nobles of the Danes of Dublin, thither went the comarba of St Patrick, Cadhla O'Duffay archbishop of Connaught, Lawrence O'Toole archbishop of Leinster, Tiernan O'Rourke lord of Brefny, Donchad O'Carrol lord of Oriel, and the son of Dunslery O'Heochadha king of Ulidia, Dermot O'Melachlin king of Temor, and Reginald lord of the Danes of Dublin." The whole amounted to 19,000 horsemen.........

"At this assembly many good laws were enacted." His accession to power was, as has been related in our notice of Dermod M'Murragh, attended by the commencement of the misfortunes of that unworthy prince, which led to the expulsion from his throne, and the hapless resource by which he repaired his broken fortunes. The fallen O'Rourke was raised from a state of humiliation and a miserable subjection to the insults of a tyrant who hated him, because he had injured him, by the powerful weight of the hereditary friendship of O'Conor. And in redressing the injuries of his friendly tributary, Roderic was not inattentive to the interests of his own kingdom. Constantly in the field, he left no interval of peaceful neglect for the turbulent insubordination of his restless tributaries, or the ambition of his rivals: but pursued a course of active, firm, and judicious policy in the field, and wise and beneficent civil administration and legislative enactment, which secured him the respect of the great body of the chiefs and clergy. Without reaching an elevation of principle--a moderation or clemency altogether beyond his time and country--without being free from the vindictive ferocity, or the arbitrary rule of a barbaric prince; he was all that posterity can claim from the virtue and knowledge of his age. But his character was soon to be put to a test, to which none could have submitted without a soil--the power of a civilized people,

"An old and haughty nation, proud in arms,"

and to leave a history obscured by circumstances beyond his control, to the prejudice and the exasperated nationality of after times.

In the year 1171, "a battle was fought in Dublin between Miles De Cogan, and Asgall, son of Reginald king of the Danes of Dublin; many fell on both sides, both of the English archers and of the Danes, among whom was Asgall himself, and Houn, a Dane from the Orkney isles. Roderic O'Conor, Tiernan O'Rourke, and Murchad O'Carrol, marched with an army to Dublin to besiege the city, then in the possession of earl Strongbow and Miles de Cogan. They remained there for a fortnight, during which time many fierce engagements took place between them."[4] A siege of Dublin, garrisoned by superior forces, was at the time as desperate and dangerous an undertaking as can well be conceived. Roderic, after the repeated trials of the force mentioned in the annals, must have begun to perceive the inadequacy of his present preparation. He pursued the step most likely to lead to advantage, in distracting the attention and cutting off the resources of the enemy. He marched into the country of Dermod for the purpose of carrying off and burning the corn of the English. His force soon melted away. Feeling that they were unequally matched against superior advantages, and depressed in spirit by the appearance of continued danger and toil without any personal interest, they demanded their dismission on the expiration of the term for which they were bound to serve. O'Connor had no choice but to lead away the small residuary force which he could command, in order to return afresh when a competent army could be raised. Shortly after this he raised a sufficient force to march against Leinster, for the purpose of cutting off the resources of the invaders; which he did to an extent that was soon after sensibly felt by them, when besieged in Dublin. By the patriotic efforts of the venerable archbishop O'Toole, he was again enabled to take the field, and the English were shut up in Dublin by the greatest force which it had hitherto been found practicable to collect. Strongbow nearly reduced by famine, and daunted by the appearance of an overwhelming power, proposed terms which would have raised the power of Roderic on a firmer basis than the Irish throne had ever yet attained. But by the communion of a more advanced wisdom in the person of his friend and counsellor O'Toole, and also in the natural course of experience, Roderic had acquired higher and more patriotic views than had hitherto influenced any Irish prince. He repelled the offer with a stern reply; and chose to abide by his advantage. But his ardour carried him away from the path of prudence. He forgot the frail and evanescent material of the army he led. He did not calculate on the experience of their coldness to a cause, in which they only saw the interests of two rival chiefs or leaders concerned. Strong persuasion had worked their spirit to a certain point of union, but it fell short of the resolution required to face an enemy whom they had begun to deem irresistible. A well-timed sally ended all illusion.

Henry landed in Ireland, with a force which set resistance at scorn. The chiefs showed their true view of the expedient course by coming in unhesitatingly with submission. One only held aloof--one only showed a front of defiance, against which Henry, having doubtless the best information, did not think it wise to cope. One chief treated with Henry as a king, extorted and maintained his title and his sovereign power by treaty, and, in fact, handed it down to his sons. And this was Roderic. But this was not all; as a sovereign he retained the sword, and while there was the slightest ray of hope, he never forgot resistance to the spoiler. His enemies enlarged the basis of their power; but meanwhile, the Irish were advancing in military discipline, for which their aptitude was, as it is now, very remarkable. In 1176, the Four Masters inform us "The Earl Strongbow marched his forces to plunder Munster, and Roderic O'Connor, king of Connaught, hastened to make resistance. When the English heard intelligence of Roderic's approach to give them battle, they invited the foreigners of Dublin to their assistance, who with all possible speed marched to Thurles, where they were met by Donal O'Brien at the head of the Dalcassians, by a battalion from West Connaught, and by a numerous and select army of the Clanmurry under Roderic. A furious engagement ensued in which the English were at last defeated."[5]

Shortly after, conceiving that the time was at length arrived for the expulsion of the English, Roderic led a force into Meath, levelled the forts of De Lacy, and wasted to the gates of Dublin. On this we extract a few lines from Mr Moore's learned and eloquent work, both as suitable to our view, and because it exhibits strongly the manner in which the patriotic ardour of the historian leads him to overlook the inconsistent language which attacks the conduct of this monarch for not performing confessed impossibilities. Having mentioned the seeming emergency of the position of Strongbow, he proceeds: "But added to the total want in Roderic himself of the qualities fitted for so trying a juncture, the very nature of the force under his command completely disqualified it for regular or protracted warfare; an Irish army being, in those times, little better than a rude tumultuous assemblage, brought together by the impulse of passion or the prospect of plunder, and, as soon as sated or thwarted in its immediate object, dispersing as loosely and again as lawlessly as it had assembled." Now, if it be considered, that no inference can he brought to justify the depreciating view which so many able writers have concurred in forming of Roderic, unless from his failure to effect the object of his wishes with a force confessedly inadequate--it looks a little like wandering into a circle of a very vicious kind, to attribute any failure to the defects of his own character. The conduct of Roderic was throughout enforced by the most rigid necessity; and as it is hardly to be expected that he should have entered into the whole poetry of modern patriotic antiquarians, so it could still less be demanded that, with his tumultuary assemblage, disaffected leaders, imperfect command, and formidable enemy, he should be able to enact the summary exploits, which are so easy to the rapid and decisive quill of his critics.

After long grappling with adverse fortune, in his fifty-ninth year, convinced that he had nothing to depend on for resistance, and not actuated by "a desperate spirit of patriotism" [which alone] "might have urged him still to persevere;" Roderic showing a sagacity, as clear as his protracted resistance with inadequate materials had shown a heroism, wisely and considerately resolved to preserve his province from ravage, by a dignified submission on a most favourable treaty. With this view he sent Lawrence, whose instrumentality of itself carries with it approbation, to negotiate with Henry. A council was summoned by Henry to meet Lawrence, with the archbishop of Tuam and the abbot of St Brendan's, who were Roderic's ambassadors. By the terms of the treaty settled at this convention, it was agreed, "That the king of England concedes to the aforesaid Roderic, his liege man, the kingdom of Connaught, so long as he shall faithfully serve him, that he shall be king under him, prepared to render him service as his vassal. And that he may hold his kingdom Sts well and peacefully as before the coming of the king of England into Ireland, on the condition of paying him tribute. He was also to have the whole of the land and its inhabitants under him, on condition that they should faithfully pay tribute to the king of England; and that they should hold their rights on peaceably, so long as they re-mained faithful to the king of England, paying him tribute and all other rights through the hands of the king of Connaught--saving in all things the rights of the king of England and his." This treaty, of which we have loosely paraphrased the first article, consists of four. The second stipulates, that if any of the Irish chiefs should be rebels against the king of England, or withhold their tribute, the king of Connaught should compel or remove them; or if unable to do so, that in such case he should have assistance from the king of England's constable. In the same article it is stipulated, that the king of Connaught was to pay one hide out of every tenth head of cattle slaughtered. The third article exempts, from the force of the previous articles, certain towns and districts already held by or under the king of England by his barons. And by the fourth and last it was provided, that those who had fled from the territories under the king's barons, were at liberty to return, under the same conditions of tribute or service to which they had been formerly subject, &c. &c.[6] The importance of this treaty, as it affects the subject of this memoir, is, that it strongly manifests the respect paid to his vigour of character by the sagacious Henry, who was not a person likely to yield a hair's-breadth of sovereignty which he could easily secure or retain. He was, it is true, deeply involved in the troubles of domestic faction and rebellion, and could not have personally pursued the conquest of Ireland to its completion. And his distrust of his barons was so easily awakened, that it is probable, he thought it safer to compromise with the Irish monarch, and keep up the countercheck of a native power against their ambition, than to allow any deputed government to raise itself into an independent form and force, in the absence of opposition, and from the growing resources of the whole united power of the country. This may undoubtedly take something from the force of any inference favourable to our view of Roderic; yet it still exhibits the result of a persevering resistance, crowned with substantial success, where every other power and authority was compelled to yield. Something was conceded and something trusted, to one who alone never, from the beginning of the contest to the end, laid down his arms or gave up the cause, till he was left alone--till by late experience he ascertained that he had no adequate means of resistance, and that his tributaries were not to be depended on in the field--till they of his own household were leagued against him; and until it became more respectable, as well as considerate to his province, to secure an honourable and nearly equal treaty, than to keep up a discreditable and unprincipled war, of which one result alone seemed probable--the depopulation of his provincial realm. From this, there is nothing recorded worthy of further commemoration, in the life of a monarch whose firm and vigorous, as well as sagacious policy both as king and leader,--until the setting in of a new order of events baffled and set at nought alike the virtues and resources of his country,--might have helped the impartial historian to form a truer and kinder estimate of his conduct under trials, against which he had no effectual strength but that perseverance against hope, and under continual failure, for which his conduct is distinguished. He could not have concentrated the selfish, lukewarm, contentious, and disaffected chiefs at Ferns or in Dublin, into a compact, disciplined body of patriots, of which they had not one amongst them. One mistake he made. He did not, in the clash of petty oppositions and through the dust of the restless factions of his country, discern in its proper character and real magnitude, the new danger that was come upon the kingdom; he did not see that it was time to abandon old rival-ship, and to adopt a course of conciliation and combination, to give even the remotest prospect of resistance to the universal invader; instead of this he looked on the new foe, as simply one among the turbulent elements in the cauldron of perpetual feud, nor did he discern his error until the contest had assumed strength, and an extensive system of preparatory measures was impracticable. Again, he did not yield in time: an earlier submission would have saved much. But we will not extend these useless reflections. He felt and acted, not according to the feelings and opinions of modern patriots, yet very much in the same general temper; engrossed by the game of circumscribed passions and policies of the moment, he could not enlarge his comprehension at once, to the compass of another spirit and another order of events.

Roderic, at an advanced age, worn out with the labours and vexations of a long life embittered by the ingratitude and turbulence of his children, retired into the monastery of Cong, where he lived in peaceful obscurity for twelve years, till 1198, when he died at the age of about eighty-two.

The character of Roderic has been summed with historic impartiality by a descendant of his blood: "In his youth, Roderic had failings, which were under little control from their neighbouring good qualities. Arrogant, precipitate and voluptuous; the ductility of his temper served only to put his passions under the directions of bad men, while its audaciousness rendered him less accessible to those who would give those passions a good tendency, or would have rescued him from their evil consequences. His father Turloch the Great, endeavoured to break this bold spirit, by ordering him at several times to be put under confinement. He bore this indignity, in the first trials, with the ignoble fortitude which flows from resentment: in the second, reflection came to his aid, and grafted that virtue upon a better stock; which engaged him to be wholly reconciled to his father, and forget the over-rigorous severity of his last imprisonment. Bred up in the camp, almost from his infancy, he became an expert warrior; and although licentious in private life, yet he never devoted to pleasures those hours which required his activity in the field or his presence in the council. In a more advanced stage of life his capacity opened, and gave the lead to his better qualities, in most instances of his conduct. Affable, generous, sincere; he retained a great number of friends, and be had the consolation of being served faithfully by the worthiest among them, when every other good fortune deserted him. Years and experience took their proper effect on him; and the rectitude of his measures had a greater share than fortune in raising him above all his fellow-countrymen in the public esteem, when the throne became vacant upon the fall of his predecessor in the battle of Litterhim.

The crazy civil constitution, of which he got the administration, created many avowed as well as secret enemies. The former he reduced by policy and by force of arms. But external circumstances rendered their subjection precarious. He had to deal with powerful subjects, who had themselves interests heavier than either good faith or public interest. To the usual motives of faction, the same external pressure made their personal interests paramount, and the bond of allegiance was at no time more than force could maintain.


[1] Leland, i. 165.

[2] Leland, i. 165.

[3] Annals, translated for the Dublin Penny Journal, by J. O'Donovan. 

[4] Annals of the Four Masters by J. O'Donovan.--Ib.

[5] Annals of Four Masters.

[6] Cox. Hibernia Anglicana.