The Royal Irish Academy/Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann champions research. We identify and recognise Ireland’s world class researchers. We support scholarship and promote awareness of how science and the humanities enrich our lives and benefit society. We believe that good research needs to be promoted, sustained and communicated. The Academy is run by a Council of its members. Membership is by election and considered the highest academic honour in Ireland.

Read more about the RIA

DIB entry of the day: Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair

03 May 2019

Today's entry is Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (d. 1198), overking of Connacht and high-king of Ireland, written by Ailbhe Mac Shamhráin.

To mark the 850th anniversary of the beginning of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland we are publishing the DIB biographies of some key figures associated with this pivotal event in Irish history. We have previously published the biography of Richard de Clare, or Strongbow, by David Beresford, and that of his wife Aífe (Aoife, Eva) by Maire Therese Flanagan.

Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (d. 1198), overking of Connacht and high-king of Ireland, belonged to the dynasty of Síl Muiredaig, and was a son of Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair  (d. 1156), who reigned as high-king prior to his death. His mother was Caillech Dé, daughter of Ua hEidin, sub-king of Uí Fhiachrach. He had at least one full-sister, Mór, who married Tairdelbach Ua Briain (d. 1167); as a result of his father's several marriages and liaisons he had at least a dozen half-brothers and several half-sisters. The most distinguished of his siblings were Conchobar (d. 1144) and Cathal Crobderg Ua Conchobair; the former briefly held the kingship of Dublin and of Mide; the latter was overking of Connacht. Other brothers included Domnall Midech (d. 1176), Áed, Brian Bréifnech, Brian Luignech (d. 1181), Muirchertach (d. 1212), and Máel-Ísu (d. 1223), abbot of Roscommon.

Like his father, Ruaidrí had several wives and partners in the course of his adult life. His wives included Tailtiu, daughter of Muirchertach Ua Máelshechlainn king of Mide, and Dubchoblaig, daughter of Máel-Sechlainn Ua Máelruanaid. He had a large number of sons, among whom were Conchobar Máenmaige Ua Conchobair, Tairdelbach (d. 1234), Áed (d. 1233), Muirchertach, Ruaidrí, and perhaps also Conchobar ‘ua nDiarmata’ (d. 1189), who might otherwise have been a foster-son. He also had several daughters, one of whom married the Cenél Conaill dynast Flaithbertach Ua Máeldoraid, while another became the wife of the Anglo-Norman adventurer Hugh de Lacy, earl of Meath.

While still a very young man, Ruaidrí became active in dynastic politics, and in 1136 supported some of his older siblings in a revolt against their father. His brother Áed was blinded for his part in the affair, and Ruaidrí was imprisoned. He apparently had the backing of senior Connacht clergy, some of whom fasted against the king to secure his release, but to little avail. Eventually he was released and, when his father died early in 1156, succeeded to the overkingship of Connacht. Shortly after his accession, he moved against three of his half-brothers, whom he clearly distrusted: Brian Bréifnech was blinded, while Brian Luignech and Muirchertach were imprisoned.

Having thus secured his position within his own province, Ruaidrí turned his attention to the neighbouring overkingdoms of Munster and Mide. He took hostages from Tairdelbach Ua Briain and, in the winter of 1156, ravaged Tethbae and the western reaches of Mide (Co. Westmeath). The following year, when Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn of Cenél nÉogain, the leading claimant to the high-kingship, was campaigning in the south, Ruaidrí invaded Tír nÉogain and plundered the country as far as Cianachta. Moving his forces by boat down the Shannon, he partitioned Munster between Ua Briain and Mac Carthaig. In 1158 he harried the Munster–Leinster borderlands and took spoils from Osraige and Loígis, but a subsequent expedition into Mide resulted in heavy losses. He returned the following year to wreak revenge on Ua Máelshechlainn of Mide. With support from Tigernán Ua Ruairc, king of Bréifne, and from the local dynasty of Conmaicne, he pushed into Mide. Having suffered heavy casualties in bridging the Shannon at Athlone, he drove on as far as Ardee, Co. Louth, where he encountered Mac Lochlainn's army. His forces were routed, and were pursued back into Connacht by the northerners, who ravaged his base-kingdom.

Despite this setback, Ruaidrí was ready in 1160 to reassert his sway over western Mide and northern Munster. Presumably, the rígdál (royal meeting) at Assaroe that year, between Ruaidrí and Mac Lochlainn, established their respective spheres of influence, but it also highlighted the superior position of the latter. When Ruaidrí took the hostages of the north Leinster dynasties of Uí Fháeláin and Uí Fhailge in 1161, he gave a quota to Mac Lochlainn, perhaps as a token of submission. The following year he received a tribute from Mide, and in 1165 he invaded Munster and took the hostages of Desmond.

Ruaidrí took full advantage of the fall of Mac Lochlainn in 1166, and was quick to stake his claim to the high-kingship. He marched northwards, and took hostages from Cenél Conaill and from Donnchad Ua Cerbaill, king of Airgialla. In asserting supremacy over the northern rulers, and even over those of Munster and Leinster, he was following the example of previous claimants to the high-kingship, but his choice of Dublin as the site for his inauguration was unprecedented. The grandeur of the occasion was matched by the ostentatiousness of his tuarastal (royal stipend) of 4,000 cattle paid to the Hiberno-Scandinavian ruler of Dublin, Asgall son of Ragnall. Like others before him, Ruaidrí recognised the political and strategic importance of Dublin – previously dominated by the Leinster overking Diarmait Mac Murchada – and of its links with the Western Isles of Scotland. Nor did he lose sight of the traditional symbolism associated with high-kingship; in 1168 he celebrated the Óenach Tailten (fair of Tailtiu; Teltown, Co. Meath), long regarded as a prerogative of the kings of Tara. Accounts of this, the last occasion on which the óenach was held, also flatter Ruaidrí, claiming that the horses of those who attended were corralled from Tailtiu as far as Mullach Aiti – from Teltown to the Hill of Lloyd, Co. Meath.

His dealings with the church likewise reflect grand ambition. In 1167 he was the dominant secular power at the important synod of Athboy; other kings present included Ua Ruairc and Ua Cerbaill, while the leading churchmen were Lorcán Ua Tuathail, the reforming archbishop of Dublin, and Cadla Ua Dubthaig, archbishop of Tuam. His dynastic interest was represented by the ecclesiastical family of Ua Dubthaig, which had long monopolised the diocese of Elphin and now controlled the archbishopric. Ruaidrí's endowment of the lectorship of Armagh in 1169, with a stipend of ten cattle a year, is significant for at least two reasons. It indicates a relationship with the primatial see which culminated c.1180 in the appointment of his nephew, Tommaltach son of Áed Ua Conchobair, as archbishop. Besides, the terms of the endowment stipulated that the school should assume responsibility for teaching the scholars of Ireland and Scotland – which follows an earlier ordinance, issued at the synod of Clane, that no one was to be appointed to a lectorship unless he was an alumnus of Armagh. In effect, Ruaidrí was promoting Armagh as the leading academical institution of Ireland. A less dramatic gesture for the benefit of the church was his patronage of the shrine of St Manchán, the wood and copper case of which was covered in gold foil at his expense.

Such displays of power and wealth notwithstanding, Ruaidrí's effectiveness as overking outside of Connacht has been seriously questioned. His weakness in the face of external challenge, it is argued, is illustrated by his relationship firstly with the Uí Chennselaig overking of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, and subsequently with King Henry II. It was Ruaidrí's adherent, Ua Ruairc, who exploited a revolt within Leinster in 1166 and drove Mac Murchada from his kingship. When Mac Murchada returned to Uí Chennselaig the following year with a handful of Anglo-Norman retainers, Ruaidrí skirmished with him at Kellistown, Co. Wexford, but then made terms, allowing him to resume his regional kingship on payment of hostages. Apparently believing that Leinster had been pacified, Ruaidrí busied himself in Munster and Mide. His attempts to partition Munster between Domnall Mór Ua Briain and Mac Carthaig foundered with the revolt of Domnall Mór; his fleet then harried the Dál Cais realms but with inconclusive results. He also repartitioned Mide between two Ua Máelshechlainn candidates, leaving the north-eastern sector to Ua Ruairc, but the political situation in the province remained volatile.

In 1169 Ruaidrí hosted into Leinster following an incursion into Osraige by Mac Murchada, who had received a fresh influx of Anglo-Norman auxiliaries. Having failed to turn the foreigners against Mac Murchada, Ruaidrí pursued him into Dubthír (Duffry), a heavily forested area adjacent to the Blackstairs Mountains. He engaged in a series of manoeuvres, but stopped short of committing his forces to battle. Then, for the second time, he agreed terms with Mac Murchada whereby he recognised the latter as provincial king, on condition that he send back the Anglo-Normans once Leinster had been subdued and that he yielded hostages, including his young son, Conchobar. Within a year, Ruaidrí faced another challenge from Mac Murchada, who was threatening to re-establish his former dominance over Dublin. Having received an appeal for help from Asgall, Ruaidrí positioned his army at Clondalkin to block the main approach towards the town from the south-west. On learning, however, that Mac Murchada and the Anglo-Normans, now commanded by the earl Strongbow (Richard de Clare), had crossed the mountains from the south and had taken the town by a ruse, he broke camp and returned to Connacht, again without risking combat. Only when Mac Murchada and Domnall Bregach Ua Máelshechlainn intervened in Mide, and Ua Ruairc pressed Ruaidrí to respond, did he take action: he executed the Leinster hostages, including Diarmait's young son Conchobar and his grandson, the son of Domnall Cáemánach Mac Murchada.

Even after Mac Murchada's death (May 1171), Ruaidrí appeared lethargic and indecisive when challenged by others, especially the Anglo-Norman adventurers who, that summer, asserted their sway over Leinster and laid claim to Mide. When the men of south Munster sought to free Waterford from Strongbow's control, Ruaidrí baulked at intervening because the way was blocked by Ua Briain, who was married to a daughter of Mac Murchada and who, in the early stages, sided with the Anglo-Normans. That same autumn, when Ruaidrí eventually moved against Strongbow, his forces blockaded Dublin. The Irish annals relate that he left the siege to campaign in Leinster. Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), however, claims that he remained in position, but fled ignominiously when the Anglo-Normans (having first engaged Archbishop Ua Tuathail to negotiate on their behalf) breached his lines and attacked his camp at Castleknock. Apparently, he did not come to Dublin in the winter of 1171 to submit to King Henry, but Gerald insists that he met the English envoys Hugh de Lacy and William fitz Audelin on the banks of the Shannon and tendered his submission to them. As noted above, one of his daughters married de Lacy.

Ruaidrí was again slow to react in 1173 when – Strongbow and other Anglo-Norman lords having been summoned to aid King Henry in France – the Irish dynasts of the south revolted against English lordship, although he did, apparently, plunder Mide. The following year, his forces in Munster, under the command of his son Conchobar Máenmaige, assisted Ua Briain (who by this time had turned against his former English allies) to defeat the English at the battle of Thurles. He did not make any capital out of this victory, however. Instead he sent (October 1175) a delegation that included the archbishops Cadla Ua Dubthaig and Lorcán Ua Tuathail to negotiate terms with King Henry. The outcome was a short-lived agreement known as the ‘treaty of Windsor’. Ruaidrí agreed to accept the reality of English control over Leinster and Mide; to recognise King Henry as his overlord; and to pay a substantial tribute; in return, he would be recognised by King Henry as high-king of the Irish and was to have his support in restraining the English adventurers.

Presumably, Ruaidrí regarded the Windsor agreement as a reasonable compromise: while subservient to King Henry, he would maintain his lordship of Munster and of the northern provinces; and he would be safe from further English encroachment into his realms. For King Henry, it meant that the initial conquests in eastern and south-eastern Ireland could be consolidated without major threat, while the rest of Ireland was held by a client king who, it was felt, would not oppose the English venture. The difficulty, however, was that in the absence of any satisfactory mechanism for upholding the agreement, neither Ruaidrí nor King Henry could prevent it from unravelling within a year of its negotiation. Ruaidrí seems to have been powerless to control the situation, as colonial interests sought to expand into Munster and Ua Briain retaliated, while Mac Lochlainn, king of the Northern Uí Néill, pushed into Mide, causing the colonists there to yield ground.

The high-king's apparent inability to restrain his vassals provided convenient justification for those who sought to disregard the treaty and expand the colony, especially when the new viceroy, fitz Audelin, insisted that former vassals of Strongbow (d. May 1176) transfer their allegiance directly to King Henry. Ruaidrí's lack of response when the adventurer John de Courcy launched an invasion of Ulaid (February 1177) perhaps indicates a tacit acknowledgement on his part that the region, in any event, lay beyond his control. His ineffectiveness in dealing with these crises prompted King Henry to abandon the Windsor agreement, which to all intents and purposes he did at the council of Oxford (May 1177); speculative grants of the Munster kingdoms were made to English vassals, while the young Prince John was chosen to be lord of Ireland. The years 1177–8 have been viewed as a time of consolidation for the English colony.

Even as the sphere of his authority contracted, Ruaidrí continued trying to secure his rights under the terms of the Windsor agreement. It appeared to him that the appointment of Lorcán Ua Tuathail as papal legate, following the Lateran council of 1179, provided a fresh opportunity in this regard. Lorcán, whose new office afforded him added protection against the designs of the English crown, was prevailed on to consecrate Ruaidrí's nephew Tommaltach to the archbishopric of Armagh in 1180. Subsequently, Ruaidrí engaged Lorcán as his special emissary in dealings with King Henry. It was on an embassy concerning the affairs of the high-king, perhaps pledging his good faith regarding payment of an overdue tribute, that the archbishop sailed to England in late autumn 1180, accompanied by one of the younger Ua Conchobair sons. His death in Normandy, where he had travelled to catch up with King Henry, and his succession by an English churchman of the latter's choice, was doubtless a major setback for Ruaidrí.

Even within his own provincial kingdom, Ruaidrí's fortunes could justifiably be described as mixed. In June 1177 one of his sons, Muirchertach, led an English expeditionary force under Miles de Cogan into Connacht, where they caused widespread destruction before being defeated and driven out. Ruaidrí subsequently blinded Muirchertach in revenge. Later (1180), a revolt against his suzerainty by the local rulers of Uí Maine (east Co. Galway) was suppressed by his son Conchobar Máenmaige. Nevertheless, tiring of the struggle to maintain his position, Ruaidrí abdicated in 1183, leaving the provincial overkingship to Conchobar. It may have been Conchobar's rejection of the terms agreed at Windsor that prompted Ruaidrí to attempt a political comeback in 1185. For a time he managed, with the help of Domnall Mór Ua Briain, to maintain sway over western Connacht. As Cathal Crobderg and others joined the fray, however, his conflict with Conchobar escalated into the ‘war of the rígdamnae’ (those eligible for the kingship). He was driven from Connacht in 1186, the same year in which his son-in-law de Lacy, earl of Meath and former viceroy of King Henry, was killed at Durrow. Later, Ruaidrí was allowed to return and settle on some of the Ua Conchobair lands.

The ageing Ruaidrí made a final bid to regain his kingship in 1189 when Conchobar Máenmaige fell in battle. He came to Roscommon, received hostages and appealed to the northern rulers (including his son-in-law Ua Máeldoraid, king of Cenél Conaill) and to the English of Meath for support. His call, it seems, produced no immediate response and he was again driven from Connacht by his younger half-brother Cathal Crobderg, who took the provincial kingship. Returning from exile for a second time, he entered religious retirement at Cong, Co. Galway, where he died in 1198 aged almost certainly over 80. He was buried at Cong, but in 1207 was reinterred at Clonmacnoise, to the north of the high altar.

Although he managed to preserve the integrity of Connacht, Ruaidrí has been widely viewed by historians as a failure. His indecisiveness, firstly in relation to Mac Murchada and later the Anglo-Norman adventurers, allowed the relatively minor English intervention in Ireland to result in the conquest of the greater part of the country. His half-brother Cathal Crobderg, although expelled from 1200 to 1202 by his grandnephew Cathal Carrach, reigned over Connacht till his death in 1224. Ruaidrí's sons Tairdelbach and Áed then contested the provincial kingship with the sons of Cathal Crobderg, and Connacht was pulled asunder in a three-cornered war involving these parties and Richard de Burgo (d. 1243), to whom King Henry III had made a grant of the province. When hostilities finally ceased in 1233, Fedlimid son of Cathal was left to rule a rump kingdom, consisting only of the cantreds that had been exempted from King Henry III's grant to de Burgo. Ruaidrí's immediate family did not feature prominently afterwards; the last mentioned in the record is his grandson Brian, son of Tairdelbach, who died at Abbey Knockmoy in 1267. Later kings of the Irish of Connacht descended from Cathal Crobderg.

AU; ALC; AFM; DNB; Bk Leinster, i, 192; vi, 1489; M. C. Dobbs, ‘The Ban-Shenchus’, Rev. Celt., xlviii (1931), 234; A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin (ed. and trans.), Giraldus Cambrensis: Expugnatio Hibernica, the conquest of Ireland (1978), 25, 41, 43, 51, 53, 69, 79, 83, 95, 139, 163, 183, 237; Ó Corráin, Ire. before Normans, 163–8; NHI, ii, chs 1–5; Ó Cróinín, Early med. Ire., 282, 283–4, 265, 289; H. Perros, ‘Connacht and the Anglo-Normans, 1170–1224’, T. Barry, R. Frame, and A. Simms (ed.), Colony and frontier, 117–23, 125–6; Duffy, Ire. in mid. ages, 54–5, 58, 62–71, 76, 77, 86–93, 101, 102; E. O'Byrne, War, politics and the Irish of Leinster, 1156–1606 (2003), 6–12, 15–16, 18–19, 36, 38, 39, 40; E. O'Byrne, ‘Ruaidri Ua Conchobair’, S. Duffy (ed.), Medieval Ireland: an encyclopedia (2005), 466–71; ODNB

Image, courtesy of the RIA Library, is from the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1170 (AFM C iii 3 f.520r)

'Robert Fitz Stephen and Richard, son of Gilbert, i.e. Earl Strongbow, came from England into Ireland with a numerous force, and many knights and archers, in the army of Mac Murchadha, to contest Leinster for him, and to disturb the Irish of Ireland in general; and Mac Murchadha gave his daughter to the Earl Strongbow for coming into his army.'

© 2019 Cambridge University Press and Royal Irish Academy. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. Learn more about DIB copyright and permissions.

Stay up to date with the Royal Irish Academy newsletter

Sign up now