UA CONCHOBAIR, TAIRRDELBACH (1088-1156) (Medieval Ireland)

Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair, son of Ruaidn Ua Conchobair (d. 1118), king of Connacht, and Mor (d. 1088), daughter of Tairrdelbach Ua Briain (d. 1086), high king of Ireland. Tairrdelbach’s early life was troubled. According to the Annals of Tigernach, Tairrdelbach’s mother died the year he was born, suggesting his birth was arduous, and in 1092 his father Ruaidn was blinded by Flaithbertach Ua Flaithbertaig (blinded, in turn, in 1098). Thereafter Connacht fell largely under the sway of Tairrdelbach’s maternal uncle Muirchertach Ua Briain (d. 1119), high king of Ireland. Ua Briain possibly took Tairrdelbach into his household to groom him for the day when he would be king of Connacht. In 1106, that day came when Ua Briain replaced Domnall Ua Conchobair (d. 1118), Tairrdelbach’s elder half-brother, with his protege.

Tairrdelbach carefully maintained his alliance with Ua Briain, sending troops to aid the high king against the U Ruairc of Breifne in 1109. But he was also determined to defend his kingdom against predators such as Domnall Mac Lochlainn (d. 1121), king of the north of Ireland. In 1110, Mac Lochlainn attacked Connacht, carrying captives and cattle back to Ulster. The raid rattled Tairrdelbach, leading him to attack Conmaicne and Breifne with mixed fortunes. He beat the former at Mag nA^ but the latter defeated his troops at Mag Brenair. During 1111, he raided north, plundering Termonn Dabeoc in Tfr Conaill and ravaged Fermanagh to Lough Erne. By 1114, Tairrdelbach was undisputed master of Connacht, having banished Domnall into Munster as well as expelling the Conmaicne from Mag nAL Recognition came in a prestigious marriage to his second wife Orlaith (d. 1115), daughter of Murchad Ua Maelsechlainn of Mide (d. 1152), sometime enemy of Ua Briain. After Ua Briain fell ill in 1114, Toirdelbach’s greater ambitions became evident. He turned to Ua Briain’s enemies, reaching an agreement with Mac Lochlainn and Ua Maelsechlainn. Pooling their forces, they attacked Munster, forcing the U Bhriain to sue for peace. Such was Tairrdelbach’s new strength that in 1115 he gave the kingship of Thomond to Domnall son of Tadg Ua Briain. The latter proved no puppet and revolted against Connacht, prompting an outraged Tairrdelbach to devastate Thomond and dispatch his former protege.

During 1115, Tairrdelbach’s rule led to great disquiet among some of his own vassals, leading to an unsuccessful attempt to kill him at Ath bo. Moreover, the death of his wife Orlaith that year ended Tairrdelbach’s Ua Maelsechlainn alliance, granting him a pretext to attack Mide (Meath), inflicting defeat on Domnall Ua Fergail’s fleet before forcing Ua Maelsechlainn’s submission. At the close of 1115, Tairrdelbach gave thanks, bestowing gifts of a drinking horn inlaid with gold and a golden cup and patina for a chalice upon the monastery of Clonmacnoise. He then married the Connacht noblewoman Caillech De, daughter of Ua hEidin, mother of Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (d. 1198). Their union was brief as Tairrdelbach soon married Mor (d. 1122), daughter of Mac Lochlainn. Throughout 1116 and 1117, Tairrdelbach was opposed on the political front by Diarmait Ua Briain (d. 1118). But during 1118 Tairrdelbach, Ua Maelsechlainn, and Aed Ua Ruairc (sl. 1122) joined a recovered Muirchertach Ua Briain to attack Tadg Mac Carthaig of Desmond (d. 1124). However, they turned on Ua Briain at Glanmire near Cork, allying with Mac Carthaig to depose the high king for good. Tairrdelbach then broke Ua Briain’s hold over Leinster, Osraige, and Ostman Dublin, expelling Domnall Ua Briain (d. 1135) from that city. And he even invaded Thomond itself, demolishing the Ua Briain fortress at Kincora, hurling it into the Shannon. During 1119, Tairrdelbach demonstrated his power, compelling Leinster, Osraige, and Ostman Dublin to campaign against the Ui Bhriain. But his exiling of Ua Maelsechlainn to Ulster in 1120 and his celebration of Oenach Tailten ("the fair of Teltown"), an act proclaiming his highkingship, attracted Mac Lochlainn’s unwelcome attentions. Mac Lochlainn reinstated Ua Maelsechlainn in Mide, compelling Tairrdelbach to back off and make "false peace" with them at Athlone. Luck, though, was on Tairrdelbach’s side, for Mac Lochlainn died during 1121, leaving him the most powerful man in Ireland. And he made the most of it, subduing Munster, causing "the people to cry aloud."

In 1122, the Munster question was briefly settled when Tadg Mac Carthaig submitted. As his political fortunes soared, Tairrdelbach suffered a blow when his fourth wife Mor died that year. Despite his grief, Tairrdelbach did not remain single, taking a fifth wife in Tailltin (d. 1128), daughter of Ua Maelsechlainn. Moreover, he threw himself into his campaigns with zest, capturing Tairrdelbach Ua Briain (d. 1167), forcing the submission of Enna Mac Murchada of Leinster (d. 1126), and probing the north to Lough Erne. Although primarily a soldier king, Tairrdelbach pragmatically cultivated church support through generous patronage. In 1123, he capitalized upon the visitation of a relic of the true cross to Ireland, enshrining a piece of it at Roscommon and commissioned the later processional Cross of Cong to hold it. Indeed, Tairrdelbach displayed traits of contemporary European kings, making land grants to both clerical and lay supporters, levying taxation, and possibly issuing a form of coinage. He was also a builder, erecting abbeys, as well as improving his communication and defensive abilities by building bridges and Irish castles.

In 1123, the Munster problem reappeared with Cormac Mac Carthaig (sl. 1138) determined to fight. Although Tairrdelbach forced the Munstermen to submit, they rose up again during 1124. The Munster troubles then spread to Leinster and the midlands, culminating in an alliance between Munster, Mide, Osraige, the Conmaicne, and Leinster. While Tairrdel-bach routed the Conmaicne, Desmond, Leinster, and Mide invaded west Mide and moved to attack him at Athlone. Contemptuously, the high king executed the hostages of Desmond, causing the alliance to splinter for fear of more executions. Tairrdelbach now taught his enemies a lesson, beginning with Mide in 1124. In 1125 he took the hostages of Osraige, and forced the submission of Tigernan Ua Ruairc of Breifne (sl. 1172) and banished Ua Maelsechlainn to the north. In spite of considerable opposition and the loss of his bridges at Athlone and Ath Croich, he divided Ua Maelsechlainn’s kingdom among three family rivals and Ua Ruairc, before confirming the Leinster kingship of Enna Mac Murchada (d. 1126). Tairrdelbach’s dominance was such that the Annals of Tigernach record in 1126 that he assumed the Leinster kingship after the death of Mac Murchada and installed his son Conchobar (sl. 1144) as king of Dublin. He then routed Mac Carthaig, Osraige, and the Meic Murchada of Ui Chennselaig before transferring the Leinster kingship to Conchobar.

In 1127, he proved his superiority over the Mun-stermen, routing their armies and fleets before dividing the province. But while Tairrdelbach was in Munster, the Leinstermen and the Dublin Ostmen deposed Conchobar as king of Leinster and Dublin. This brought Tairrdelbach back into Leinster, but even he was forced to concede that Conchobar was unsuitable as provincial king, turning instead to Domnall Mac Faelain of Ui Faelain (sl. 1141). Again he gave thanks for his success, granting lands to the archiepiscopal see of Tuam (though it did not obtain metropolitan status until 1152). After the death of Tailltin in 1128, Tairrdelbach married Mac Lochlainn’s daughter, Derbforgaill (d. 1151). In Leinster there was trouble, leading to Tairrdelbach’s campaign against the Meic Murchada of Ui Chennselaig. Before the end of the year Tairrdelbach again forced Munster to sue for peace and devastated Tir Conaill in 1130, leading to a truce with Conchobar Mac Lochlainn (sl. 1136).

Munster remained tempestuous. And the tide was turning. After defeating Desmond during 1131, Tairrdelbach was confronted by the armies of Munster and the north. While Tairrdelbach dealt masterfully with them, defeating the Ulstermen first before scattering the Munster army, their audacity was unsettling. The year 1132 proved that Tairrdelbach was just not strong enough to defeat his rivals decisively. The year began well with victories over Munster and a fresh division of Mide, but the balance tipped against him when Ua Ruairc and the Conmaicne joined Conchobar Ua Briain of Thomond (d. 1142). A Munster fleet burnt Galway, and Ua Briain and Mac Carthaig were to sack Tairrdelbach’s capital at Dunmore in 1133, while Ua Maelsechlainn destroyed his bridge at Athlone, compelling him to conclude a year’s peace with Ua Briain. For all his brilliance, Tairrdelbach was on the ropes when his enemies closed for the kill in 1134, leading him to finally acknowledge reality and dispatch Bishop Muiredach Ua Dubthaig (d. 1150) to Mac Carthaig to sue for peace. Tairrdelbach’s defeat encouraged Ua Ruairc, the Conmaicne, and Ua Briain to test the territorial integrity of Connacht in 1135, fanning also the ambitions of some sons. During 1136, an ill Tairrdelbach arrested his son Ruaidrf Ua Conchobair (d. 1198) and authorized his intended heir Conchobar to blind another son, Aed Ua Conchobair. However, Connacht’s fortunes remained in the doldrums. During 1137, Connacht was "laid waste from Assaroe to the Shannon and to Echtach of Munster." The first sign of a Connacht recovery came after Mac Carthaig’s killing, as evidenced by Tairrdelbach’s Mide campaign of 1138. During 1139, he worked hard to revitalize his forces, employing them to improve Connacht’s natural defenses by diverting the Suck to form a flood plain. He also dealt with rebels, blinding Donnchad Ua Maelruanaid of Mag Luirg (d. 1144).

The clearest sign of Tairrdelbach’s return to form came in 1140. Then Archbishop Gilla mac Liag (Gelasius) of Armagh (d. 1173) visited Connacht and received tribute as primate of all Ireland. Reinvigorated, Tairrdelbach then made a false peace with Ua Maelsechlainn and threw a new bridge over the Shannon at Athlone. He swept into the Mide subkingdom of Tethbae, plundering it mercilessly. Not content with that, he banished Ua Maelsechlainn. Although 1141 began badly with Ua Briain burning much of west Connacht, Tairrdelbach recovered and consolidated his midland hegemony through the restoration of Ua Maelsechlainn to Mide and the taking of Ua Ruairc’s hostages. Ua Briain’s death in 1142 bolstered Tairrdelbach’s fortunes, allowing him again to claim the high kingship. In 1143, he consolidated his resurgent power by defeating Tairrdelbach Ua Briain of Thomond at Roevehagh and exiling Ua Maelsechlainn to Munster. To emphasize his resurgence, Tairrdelbach granted new lands to the church, but controversially replaced Ua Maelsechlainn as king of Mide with his heir Conchobar. On the home front, Tairrdelbach faced considerable pressure from Bishop Muiredach Ua Dubthaig about his continued imprisonment of his son Ruaidrf. Although Tairrdelbach promised to release Ruaidrf, the assassination of Conchobar in Mide during 1144 forced him to do it earlier than expected. In Mide he hunted the assassins down, and divided that kingdom before making peace with Tairrdelbach Ua Briain, whereupon he proceeded to subdue Leinster.

Peace was short-lived as Mide again rebelled in 1145, leading Tairrdelbach to dispatch his trusted son Domnall Midech Ua Conchobair (d. 1176) to subdue it. Anxiously, Tairrdelbach Ua Briain watched as Connacht tightened its grip upon the Shannon and the adjoining midlands. Ua Briain then challenged Connacht’s over-lordship in the midlands, but was forced to retreat and content himself with a raid into Connacht. More seriously, Ua Briain gathered a combined Munster and Ostman fleet to break Connacht’s grip on the Shannon. But Tairrdelbach hit first, sinking Ua Briain’s fleet at the mouth of the Shannon, ensuring Connacht’s dominance into 1146 despite the emergence of an alliance between Mide, Munster, Ua Ruairc, and the Conmaicne. Even though Tairrdelbach easily defeated Munster, Ua Ruairc’s defection was embarrassing as it stoked trouble in Mide, contributing to Domnall Midech’s defeat in Tethbae during 1147. Tairrdelbach attempted to make peace with Ua Ruairc during 1148, but failed due to the determination of Domnall Ua Fergail to kill the Breifne king. But in 1149 a bigger threat emerged to Connacht in the person of Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn (sl. 1166).

The aging Tairrdelbach reluctantly recognized Mac Lochlainn’s dominance in 1150, sending him hostages. Even so he was still a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, plundering Munster that year. Early in 1151, Tairrdelbach welcomed Archbishop Gilla of Armagh to Connacht, presenting him with a golden ring. But it was on the battlefield that Tairrdelbach had his greatest success in 1151. Ua Briain invaded Desmond, forcing Diarmait Mac Carthaig (sl. 1185) to ask Tairrdelbach for help. Secretly, Tairrdelbach and Diarmait Mac Murchada of Leinster (d. 1171) marched into Desmond and met Mac Carthaig before tracking Ua Briain. Using mist as cover, Tairrdelbach attacked Ua Briain’s rearguard, throwing his army into confusion. The annals record that 7,000 men fell and Ua Briain fled. Even though this victory must have been the pinnacle of Tairrdelbach’s military career, Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn invaded Connacht through the Curlew Mountains. Prudently, the old king decided not to risk all on a wager of battle and gave Mac Lochlainn hostages. Tairrdelbach’s long marriage to Derbforgaill, daughter of Mac Lochlainn, ended with her death on pilgrimage to Armagh that year, prompting him to wed Dubchoblach, daughter of Ua Maelruanaid (d. 1168).

Yet Tairrdelbach remained supreme over much of southern Ireland. In 1152, he met Mac Lochlainn again near Ballyshannon and renewed their peace. But peace was the last thing on his mind, for he banished Ua Briain into the north before dividing Munster again. With Mac Murchada, he evened scores with Ua Ruairc, briefly giving his kingdom to a rival before restoring him. In 1153, he compelled Mac Murchada to return Ua Ruairc’s wife before marching against Ua Briain. But his banishment of Ua Briain to the north brought Mac Lochlainn south. On the approach of the northern army into Mide, Tairrdelbach ordered the retreat to Connacht, but Mac Lochlainn mauled the rearguard under Ruaidri. Tairrdelbach’s reluctance to challenge Mac Lochlainn may have been due to poor health, as the annals record a serious illness late that year. In 1154, he recovered enough to resume sparring with his northern rival, joining his fleet to plunder Tir Conaill and Inishowen, enjoying a major naval victory over Mac Lochlainn’s hired Hebridean fleets. On land, Mac Lochlainn was stronger, invading east Connacht that year. And to Tairrdelbach’s chagrin, he divided Mide in 1155 despite Ruaidri’s resistance. During early 1156 Tairrdelbach obtained some redress, undermining Mac Lochlainn’s support in southern Ireland. Then Ua Briain submitted and Ua Ruairc agreed to a peace until May. The old man did not get the chance to break the peace, as this great king died aged 68 at his capital of Dunmore and was buried beside the altar in the church of Clonmacnoise. During Tairrdelbach’s life, he married seven times, fathering a recorded three daughters and ten sons. He was survived by his seventh wife Dubchoblach and was succeeded as king of Connacht by his son Ruaidri.

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