On the eve of the Norman Invasion, Ireland was divided into several rival kingdoms fighting a bloody and ruthless struggle to dominate the island. Much of this struggle is covered in the early episodes of my podcast series on the Norman Invasion.
While most of the ancient boundaries of these kingdoms no longer exist, this map illustrates what Ireland looked like around 1170. While it is not exhaustive its does give a good picture of the major players competing for dominance. There is a brief history of the various kingdoms below.
Kings and ruling families.
Connacht – While there were several families competing for the kingship by the 1120s the O’Connors had seen off their main rivals the O’Flahertys. After the collapse of O’Neill power in 1166 (check out the Norman Invasion part I) Rory O’Connor was unquestionably the most powerful king in Ireland.
Breifne – Known as the rough third of Connacht, under the stewardship of Tiernan O’Rourke it had become an independent power in its own right. Tiernan was assassinated at the Hill of Ward (check out this show for more information) in 1172 and a major power struggle erupted. More to follow on this in upcoming shows.
O’Neills of western Ulster. This is not strictly speaking the correct term, The O’Neill kingdom was a federation of several kingdoms ruled by the Cenel Eoghain sept. Leadership within Cenel Eoghain was fought out between the McLochlainns and the O’Neills both descended from an ancestral patriarch Niall of the Black Knee (d.919).
Meath – Once the powerful Southern O”Neill Kingdom, by 1170 it was ruled by the descendents of the last Southern O’Neill high-king Maelseachnaill II (d. 1020). The kingdom was a state of collapse by the time the Normans invaded.
Airgialla – Its ruling family the O’Carrols were very distantly related to the O’Neills. They were traditionally vassals of their much stronger relations but by 1170 had orientated themselves to the more powerful force of the O’Connors in Connacht. Armagh the biggest inland settlement in Ireland was within its boundaries.
Ossory This small but strategically very important kingdom was sandwiched between Munster and Leinster. Ruled by the McGiolla Phadraig or FitzPatrick family they were a very important player in the run up to the Norman invasion and were among the first attacked when the Normans landed. It is preserved today in the diocese of Ossory a religious boundary.
Leinster – Ruled by the McMurroughs for about a century until 1171 when the kingdom passed into the hands of Strongbow who became the Lord of Leinster. It was the first major Norman conquest in Ireland.
Thomond - From the words Tuadh Mumhan in Irish meaning north Munster, this kingdom had been carved out by Brian Boru and his decedents in the late 10th century. The ruling O’Brien family took their name from Brian. In 1170 they were ruled by Domnal O’Brien who was married to Stongbows sisiter-in-law.
Desmond – coming from the Irish Deis Mumhan meaning South Munster it was ruled by the McCarthy family. Their extended family had once been the Eoganacht kings of all Munster prior to the emergence of the O’Briens in Thomond.