Derbforgaill

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For other people named Derbforgaill, see Derbforgaill (given name)

Dearbhfhorghaill (older spelling: Derbforgaill) (1108–1193), anglicized as Derval, was a daughter of Murchad Ua Maeleachlainn, king of Meath, and of his wife Mor (died 1137), daughter of Muirchertach Ua Briain. She is famously known as the "Helen of Ireland" as her abduction from her husband Tigernán Ua Ruairc by Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, in 1152 played some part in bringing the Anglo-Normans to Irish shores, although this is a role that has often been greatly exaggerated and often misinterpreted.

Unusually for a woman of her time, she is mentioned no less than five times in contemporary annals: her abduction by Diarmait in 1152 (Annals of Clonmacnoise), (although by the end of the next year she had left Leinster and returned to her family's lands in Meath, possibly after negotiations with her father's family); her donation to the Cistercian abbey of Mellifont of altar cloths, a gold chalice, and 60 ounces of gold during the consecration ceremony in 1157 (Annals of the Four Masters); her completion of the Nuns' Church at Clonmacnoise in 1167 (Annals of the Four Masters); her retirement to Clonmacnoise in 1186 (Annals of Ulster, Annals of Loch Ce); and her death in Clonmacnoise in 1193 (Annals of Ulster, Annals of the Four Masters).

Tigernán Ua Ruairc had three children, Melaghlin (died 1162), Aed, described as crown prince of Breifne, killed by the Anglo-Normans (died 1171) and Dowchawley (died 1171), wife to Ruaidri Ua Conchobair, high king of Ireland, but whether or not Derbforgaill was their mother is less certain.

The abduction episode of 1152 has been variously interpreted. It seems that Derbforgaill went willingly, and that she took her cattle and chattels with her, all at the persuasion of her younger brother Maeleachlainn. It has been suggested that this was an attempt on the part of her paternal family, the royal family of Meath, to forge a new alliance through marriage, with Diarmait Mac Murchada. Formalising treaties through marriage seems to have been standard practice in twelfth-century Ireland, witness Diarmait Mac Murchada's betrothal of his daughter Aoife to Strongbow, while in 1165 the king of Uladh's daughter was taken hostage by the high king presumably just to prevent her father from using her to cement a new alliance.

Most historians are agreed that there was no romance involved, and that dynastic politics were at the base of the dispute. However, it does seem that Tigernán held the grudge, insisting on claiming legal compensation of 100 ounces of gold from Diarmait in 1167, which was enforced by Ruaidri Ua Conchobair.

Sources[edit]

  • Annals of Clonmacnoise, translated by Connell MacGeoghegan (1627), ed. Denis Murphy (1896). The Annals of Clonmacnoise. Dublin: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. s.a. 1152, 1167. 
  • Flanagan, Marie-Therese, Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship, Oxford, 1989.
  • Ni Ghradaigh, Jenifer, ' 'But what exactly did she give?' Derbforgaill and the Nuns' Church', in Clonmacnoise Studies II, ed. H. King, Dublin, 2003, pp.175-207.