The victory of Thurles, in the year 1174, was the next important military event, as we have seen, after the raising of the second siege of Dublin, in the first campaign of Earl Richard. It seems irreconcilable, with the consequences of that victory, that Ambassadors from Roderick should be found at the Court of Henry II. before the close of the following year: but events personal to both sovereigns will sufficiently explain the apparent anomaly.
The campaign of 1174, so unfavourable to Henry's subjects in Ireland, had been most fortunate for his arms in Normandy. His rebellious sons, after severe defeats, submitted, and did him homage; the King of France had gladly accepted his terms of peace; the King of Scotland, while in duress, had rendered him fealty as his liege man; and Queen Eleanor, having fallen into his power, was a prisoner for life. Tried by a similar unnatural conspiracy in his own family, Roderick O'Conor had been less fortunate in coercing them into obedience. His eldest son, Murray, claimed, according to ancient custom, that his father should resign in his favour the patrimonial Province, contenting himself with the higher rank of King of Ireland. But Roderick well understood that in his days, with a new and most formidable enemy established in the old Danish strongholds, with the Constitution torn to shreds by the war of succession, his only real power was over his patrimony; he refused, therefore, the unreasonable request, and thus converted some of his own children into enemies. Nor were there wanting Princes, themselves fathers, who abetted this household treason, as the Kings of France and Scotland had done among the sons of Henry II. Soon after the battle of Thurles, the recovery of Limerick, and the taking of Kilkenny, Donald More O'Brien, lending himself to this odious intrigue, was overpowered and deposed by Roderick, but the year next succeeding having made submission he was restored by the same hand which had cast him down. It was, therefore, while harassed by the open rebellion of his eldest son, and while Henry was rejoicing in his late success, that Roderick despatched to the Court of Windsor Catholicus, Archbishop of Tuam, Concors, Abbot of St. Brendan's, and Laurence, Archbishop of Dublin, whose is styled in these proceedings, "Chancellor of the Irish King," to negotiate an alliance with Henry, which would leave him free to combat against his domestic enemies. An extraordinary treaty, agreed upon at Windsor, about the feast of Michaelmas, 1175, recognized Roderick's sovereignty over Ireland, the cantreds and cities actually possessed by the subjects of Henry excepted; it subinfeudated his authority to that of Henry, after the manner lately adopted towards William, King of Scotland; the payment of a merchantable hide of every tenth hide of cattle was agreed upon as an annual tribute, while the minor chiefs were to acknowledge their dependence by annual presents of hawks and hounds. This treaty, which proceeded on the wild assumption that the feudal system was of force among the free clans of Erin, was probably the basis of Henry's grant of the Lordship of Ireland to his son, John Lackland, a few years later; it was solemnly approved by a special Council, or Parliament, and signed by the representatives of both parties.
Among the signers we find the name of the Archbishop of Dublin, who, while in England, narrowly escaped martyrdom from the hands of a maniac, while celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Thomas. Four years afterwards, this celebrated ecclesiastic attended at Rome, with Catholicus of Tuam, and the Prelates of Lismore, Limerick, Waterford, and Killaloe, the third general council of Lateran, where they were received with all honour by Pope Alexander III. From Rome he returned with legantine powers which he used with great energy during the year 1180. In the autumn of that year, he was entrusted with the delivery to Henry II. of the son of Roderick O'Conor, as a pledge for the fulfilment of the treaty of Windsor, and with other diplomatic functions. On reaching England, he found the king had gone to France, and following him thither, he was seized with illness as he approached the Monastery of Eu, and with a prophetic foretaste of death, he exclaimed as he came in sight of the towers of the Convent, "Here shall I make my resting-place." The Abbot Osbert and the monks of the Order of St. Victor received him tenderly, and watched his couch for the few days he yet lingered. Anxious to fulfil his mission, he despatched David, tutor of the son of Roderick, with messages to Henry, and awaited his return with anxiety. David brought him a satisfactory response from the English King, and the last anxiety only remained. In death, as in life, his thoughts were with his country. "Ah, foolish and insensible people!" he exclaimed in his latest hours, "what will become of you? Who will relieve your miseries? Who will heal you?" When recommended to make his last will, he answered, with apostolic simplicity--"God knows, out of all my revenues, I have not a single coin to bequeath." And thus on the 11th day of November, 1180, in the 48th year of his age, under the shelter of a Norman roof, surrounded by Norman mourners, the Gaelic statesman-saint departed out of this life, bequeathing --one more canonized memory to Ireland and to Rome.
The prospects of his native land were, at that moment, of a cast which might well disturb the death-bed of the sainted Laurence. Fitz-Aldelm, advanced to the command at Dublin in 1177, had shown no great capacity for following up the conquest. But there was one among his followers who, unaffected by his sluggish example, and undeterred by his jealous interference, resolved to push the outposts of his race into the heart of Ulster. This was John de Courcy, Baron of Stoke Courcy, in Somersetshire, a cavalier of fabulous physical strength, romantic courage, and royal descent. When he declared his settled purpose to be the invasion of Ulster, he found many spirits as discontented with Fitz-Aldelm's inaction as himself ready to follow his banner. His inseparable brother-in-arms, Sir Almaric of St. Laurence, his relative, Jourdain de Courcy, Sir Robert de la Poer, Sir Geoffrey and Walter de Marisco, and other Knights to the number of twenty, and five hundred men at arms, marched with him out of Dublin. Hardly had they got beyond sight of the city, when they were attacked by a native force, near Howth, where Saint Laurence laid in victory the foundation of that title still possessed by his posterity. On the fifth day, they came by surprise upon the famous ecclesiastical city of Downpatrick, one of the first objects of their adventure. An ancient prophecy had foretold that the place would be taken by a chief with birds upon his shield, the bearings of de Courcy, mounted on a white horse, which de Courcy happened to ride. Thus the terrors of superstition were added to the terrors of surprise, and the town being entirely open, the Normans had only to dash into the midst of its inhabitants. But the free clansmen of Ulidia, though surprised, were not intimidated. Under their lord Rory, son of Dunlevy, they rallied to expel the invader. Cardinal Vivian, the Papal Legate, who had just arrived from Man and Scotland, on the neighbouring coast, proffered his mediation, and besought de Courcy to withdraw from Down. His advice was peremptorily rejected, and then he exhorted the Ulidians to fight bravely for their rights. Five several battles are enumerated as being fought, in this and the following year, between de Courcy and the men of Down, Louth, and Antrim, sometimes with success, at others without it, always with heavy loss and obstinate resistance.
The barony of Lecale, in which Downpatrick stands, is almost a peninsula, and the barony of the Ardes on the opposite shore of Strangford Lough is nearly insulated by Belfast Lough, the Channel, and the tides of Strangford. With the active co-operation from the sea of Godred, King of Man, (whose daughter Africa he had married), de Courcy's hold on that coast became an exceedingly strong one. A ditch and a few towers would as effectually enclose Lecale and the Ardes from any landward attack, as if they were a couple of well-walled cities. Hence, long after "the Pale" ceased to extend beyond the Boyne, and while the mountain passes from Meath into Ulster were all in native hands, these two baronies continued to be succoured and strengthened by sea, and retained as English possessions. Reinforced from Dublin and from Man after their first success, de Courcy's companions stuck to their castle-building about the shores of Strangford Lough, while he himself made incursions into the interior, by land or by sea, fighting a brisk succession of engagements at Newry, in Antrim, at Coleraine, and on the eastern shore of Lough Foyle.
At the time these operations were going forward in Ulster, Milo de Cogan quitted Dublin on a somewhat similar expedition. We have already said that Murray, eldest son of Roderick, had claimed, according to ancient usage, the O'Conor patrimony, his father being Ard-Righ; and had his claim refused. He now entered into a secret engagement with de Cogan, whose force is stated by Giraldus at 500 men-at-arms, and by the Irish annalists as "a great army." With the smaller force he left Dublin, but marching through Meath, was joined at Trim by men from the garrisons de Lacy had planted in East-Meath. So accompanied, de Cogan advanced on Roscommon, where he was received by the son of Roderick during the absence of the Ard-Righ on a visitation among the glens of Connemara. After three days spent in Roscommon, these allies marched across the plain of Connaught, directed their course on Tuam, burning as they went Elphin, Roskeen, and many other churches. The western clansmen everywhere fell back before them, driving off their herds and destroying whatever they could not remove. At Tuam they found themselves in the midst of a solitude without food or forage, with an eager enemy swarming from the west and the south to surround them. They at once decided to retreat, and no time was to be lost, as the Kern were already at their heels. From Tuam to Athleague, and from Athleague to their castles in East-Meath, fled the remnant of de Cogan's inglorious expedition. Murray O'Conor being taken prisoner by his own kinsmen, his eyes were plucked out as the punishment of his treason, and Conor Moinmoy, the joint-victor with Donald O'Brien over Strongbow at Thurles, became the Roydamna or successor of his father.
But fresh dissensions soon broke out between the sons and grandsons of Roderick, and the sons of his brother Thurlogh, in one of whose deadly conflicts sixteen Princes of the Sil-Murray fell. Both sides looked beyond Connaught for help; one drew friends from the northern O'Neills, another relied on the aid of O'Brien. Conor Moinmoy, in the year 1186, according to most Irish accounts, banished his father into Munster, but at the intercession of the Sil-Murray, his own clan allowed him again to return, and assigned him a single cantred of land for his subsistence. From this date we may count the unhappy Roderick's retirement from the world.
Near the junction of Lough Corrib with Lough Mask, on the boundary line between Mayo and Galway, stands the ruins of the once populous monastery and village of Cong. The first Christian kings of Connaught had founded the monastery, or enabled St. Fechin to do so by their generous donations. The father of Roderick had enriched its shrine by the gift of a particle of the true Cross, reverently enshrined in a reliquary, the workmanship of which still excites the admiration of the antiquaries. Here Roderick retired in the 70th year of his age, and for twelve years thereafter--until the 29th day of November, 1198, here he wept and prayed, and withered away. Dead to the world, as the world to him, the opening of a new grave in the royal corner at Clonmacnoise was the last incident connected with his name, which reminded Connaught that it had lost its once prosperous Prince, and Ireland, that she had seen her last Ard-Righ, according to the ancient Milesian Constitution. Powerful Princes of his own and other houses the land was destined to know for many generations, before its sovereignty was merged in that of England, but none fully entitled to claim the high-sounding, but often fallacious title, of Monarch of all Ireland.
The public character of Roderick O'Conor has been hardly dealt with by most modern writers. He was not, like his father, like Murkertach O'Brien, Malachy II., Brian, Murkertach of the leathern cloaks, or Malachy I., eminent as a lawgiver, a soldier, or a popular leader. He does not appear to have inspired love, or awe, or reverence, into those of his own household and patrimony, not to speak of his distant cotemporaries. He was probably a man of secondary qualities, engulfed in a crisis of the first importance. But that he is fairly chargeable with the success of the invaders--or that there was any very overwhelming success to be charged up to the time of his enforced retirement from the world--we have failed to discover. From Dermid's return until his retreat to Cong, seventeen years had passed away. Seventeen campaigns, more or less energetic and systematic, the Normans had fought. Munster was still in 1185--when John Lackland made his memorable exit and entrance on the scene--almost wholly in the hands of the ancient clans. Connaught was as yet without a single Norman garrison. Hugh de Lacy returning to the government of Dublin, in 1179, on Fitz-Aldelm's recall, was more than half Hibernicized by marriage with one of Roderick's daughters, and the Norman tide stood still in Meath. Several strong fortresses were indeed erected in Desmond and Leinster, by John Lackland and by de Courcy, in his newly won northern territory. Ardfinan, Lismore, Leighlin, Carlow, Castledermot, Leix, Delvin, Kilkay, Maynooth and Trim, were fortified; but considering who the Anglo-Normans were, and what they had done elsewhere, even these very considerable successes may be correctly accounted for without overcharging the memory of Roderick with folly and incapacity. That he was personally brave has not been questioned. That he was politic--or at least capable of conceiving the politic views of such a statesman as St. Laurence O'Toole, we may infer from the rank of Chancellor which he conferred, and the other negotiations which he entrusted to that great man. That he maintained his self-respect as a sovereign, both in abstaining from visiting Henry II. under pretence of hospitality at Dublin, and throughout all his difficult diplomacy with the Normans, we are free to conclude. With the Normans for foes--with a decayed and obsolete national constitution to patch up--with nominal subordinates more powerful than himself--with rebellion staring him in the face out of the eyes of his own children--Roderick O'Conor had no ordinary part to play in history. The fierce family pride of our fathers and the vices of their political system are to be deplored and avoided; let us not make the last of their national kings the scape-goat for all his cotemporaries and all his predecessors.