IN 1155, NEARLY A CENTURY after his great-grandfather William “conquered” England, Henry II was given permission by the pope to invade Ireland. Pope Adrian IV, the only Englishman ever to wear the ring of St. Peter (a fact that has not gone uncommented upon down the centuries), decried the sad moral state that the island and the local church had fallen into since the days of glory after St. Patrick converted the pagans to Christianity in the fifth century. Henry, preoccupied by wars in France and unrest at home, chose not to get involved in any new conflicts. So Ireland—in effect—came to him in the person of Dermot MacMurrough (or Diarmait Mac Murchada), the deposed king of Leinster.

There are several versions of the story of how Dermot lost his throne. The romantic one—favored by those who like to find parallels between the conquest of Ireland and the Trojan War—says that his troubles began when he abducted the beautiful wife of Tiernan O’Rourke (or Tigernan Ua Ruaric), the king of Breifne. The more prosaic version simply has him running afoul of the powerful high king, Rory O’Connor (or Ruaidri Ua Conchobair). In any case, he fled Ireland in 1166 to ask Henry to help him win back his crown. The king refused but gave him permission to raise, or hire, mercenaries. Dermot headed for south Wales, where he promised his kingdom and his daughter to the earl of Pembroke (Richard de Clare, often called Strongbow), who eventually began to organize the local Welsh-Normans—the FitzStephens, the FitzGeralds, the FitzHenrys, the de Barrys, all blood relations of Rhys ap Tewdwr, of the royal house that would become the Tudors—into an invasion army. With their large warhorses and heavy armor, they probably looked a good deal like their Norman ancestors who defeated King Harold at Hastings in 1066.

Dermot slipped back into Ireland, and after a long wait the first invasion forces led by Robert FitzStephen landed on the coast between Waterford and Wexford in May 1169. Strongbow himself arrived a year later, and his marriage to Dermot’s daughter was said to have taken place on a battlefield so fresh that the hem of the bride’s gown became stained with blood. The invaders soon held the land from Waterford to Dublin, and when Dermot died in 1171, Strongbow proclaimed himself king of Leinster.

All this may have been more than what Henry had in mind when he gave Dermot permission to hire mercenaries, although some historians have argued that the king’s show of displeasure was an act since his Welshmen had succeeded in winning Ireland without tapping into the royal treasury. In any case, Henry himself arrived in Cork with his army in October 1172 to reprimand those who had exceeded their authority and to accept both their fealty and the fealty of the defeated Irish kings. Only Rory O’Connor refused to join with the other kings in bowing before Henry, but he later made a separate peace, one that still recognized him as high king of all the lands in Ireland outside the English-controlled areas in Dublin, Leinster, and Munster.

Meeting between Dermot MacMurrough and Henry II, c. 1172.

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