Red Eva

1166. The Kingdom of Leinster, South-East Ireland

A red glow began in the blackness of night. The smell of smoke strengthening on the air. Flames crackled in thatch on the huts. Horses whinnied, cattle lowed and their hooves started to move on the track, gathering pace. A woman screamed, struggling, her angry, terrified face briefly lit by fire, falling out of view. 

There was a fight: broadswords swinging against farm implements, pitchforks.

‘The baby -!’ A cry of anguish was cut short.

The dawn’s rain put out the fires and by then the raiders were long gone. Dermot McMurrough, King of Leinster, led a few horsemen along a forest trail. The distant fire had been reported by a hill-farmer. Dismounting in the village they saw there was nothing they could do. The huts were burned to ruins and there was an eerie silence. Behind a rough stone wall, men, women and children lay slaughtered in the cowfield.

Among the dead, a hand moved. Dermot went to kneel at the villager’s side.

’They’ve destroyed it all.’ The old man, sooty, bloodstained, was the only one alive. ‘They drove the cattle away.’

‘Who?’ Dermot felt he knew the answer. ‘Who did this?’

‘O’Rourke’s men.’ The dying man’s head drooped to one side. ‘Breffney O’Rourke.’ 

‘And how many men?’ whispered Dermot. Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breifne, was Dermot’s oldest enemy.

He did not get an answer.

‘We sent you men…we sent what was due to you, and you did not save us.’ The villager closed his eyes and was still.

Dermot stood up again. Behind him his men stood motionless holding their horses. He looked ahead of him across the valley, across the misty river, across the acres of forests. Beyond the horizon was the kingdom of Breifne where Tiernan O’Rourke was guarding his prizes.

‘Revenge.’ In Dermot’s mouth it was a quiet remark, a matter of fact. But his heart was boiling over with hatred.

They rode back to Ferns in silence, but Dermot’s thoughts clamoured in his head. Once the horses were stabled he paced in his great hall, addressing his men. He was in a passion; their faces were like lead.

‘Send to Forth, to Wexford, to the High Kinsella -’

‘But my lord -’

He would not be told.

‘Get the men! We are but fifty strong here. And there is the household to mind.’

Before they could move a heavy hand struck the oaken gates. The sound resonated through the house. In the solar, his daughter Eva, sitting reluctantly sewing with her mother Mór, startled. Without even feeling it the needle slipped into her finger pulp and a drop of blood appeared. She put her sewing aside and went out of the room.

‘Eva-’ Mór’s voice rose anxiously as the knocking resounded again, but her daughter was walking along the passageway. Ahead of her armed men rushed to defend the gates.

‘ I come from the High King of Ireland,’ the messenger cried. The men fell back and the messenger was admitted, surrendering his sword and shield.

As he was conducted down the stone passageway Eva followed behind.

‘So…’ Dermot faced him, feet planted apart, hands on hips.

The messenger flung back his cloak.The insignia of the high king’s household gleamed on his breastplate.

‘Ruairi O’Connor is anointed High King of Ireland on the Hill of Tara. The Kings of Breifne, Meath and Ulster and the Vikings of Dublin have pledged allegiance. And your son is a captive in Ossory.’

‘Enda a prisoner!’ Eva moved to her father’s side. Her stepbrother was a daredevil, headstrong like his father. It was grievous to think of him helpless in the hands of the King of Ossory.

‘The O’Connor,’ growled Dermot.  ‘The O’Rourke. They’re all against me.’

 ‘Dermot, King of Leinster,’ continued the messenger as though he had not heard. ‘The High King orders you into exile.’

‘Exile!’ Dermot spat the word out.

‘For the unlawful abduction of the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breifne.’ 

It was no more than an excuse, dredged up from ten years ago, and they all knew it.

‘Derval O’Rourke? She’s not even here. Search my house!’

‘You lured her away from her husband and held her hostage.’

Dermot spluttered out that Derval had come of her own will to escape her monstrous husband, that she was a free woman and was long gone to Clonmacnoise.

But the messenger shook his head.

‘She has not been returned to her husband. Nor has the compensation been paid to O’Rourke.’ Dermot had been fined a hundred ounces of gold, and required to return her cattle.

‘ If she wants to go to him, let her!’ snapped Dermot. He had started to pace again.

The messenger spread his hands in a slow shrug.

‘As you have not paid the dues, the High King decrees-’

Dermot’s face grew red.

‘Dues? Decrees? By what right?’ He stopped pacing and clenched his fists.

‘By the might of O’Rourke and a force of three hundred men. He is near to Carlow. The King of Meath is coming and the Vikings of Dublin are ready to stand at their side. Ossory is against you. Even your own men of Leinster will support you no longer.’

‘Let them come,’ roared Dermot, ‘I will fight them to the death!’

The messenger did not flinch and continued in a cold clear voice that made Aoife shiver.

‘If you do not obey then the King of Ossory, will himself put out your son’s eyes. You should not have allowed Prince Enda to raid his lands.’

Dermot’s own eyes stared as though boring a hole in the messenger’s head.

Grey clouds were reflected in the waves and a cold wind whipped up white crests across the bay. Seagulls shrieked, wheeling overhead, then skimming over the water. The boats were ready and it was time to leave the shores of Ireland.

‘Sweet Mother of God.’ Mór, standing with her cloak around little Conor, looked out at the unwelcoming sea and crossed herself.

‘Mountains of Leinster.’ Dermot lingered on the shore looking back at the land. ‘The people of Leinster. The Kingdom of Leinster.’

Eva turned away from her mother, the wind flinging her red hair into her eyes, stinging tears from them as she followed her father’s gaze. Beyond the edge of the shingle a bank of yellow gorse bloomed at the edge of the woods. The trees swayed in the wind.

Dermot shook his fist at them.

‘O’Rourke! May it be the Kingdom that kills you!’

He was still muttering of revenge as he turned towards the water, his heavy hand coming to rest on Eva’s shoulder.

Eva scowled, her own heart full of revenge, remembering that big hand swinging his sword as he taught her to thrust and parry, as Conor watched.

‘See that?’ he would say, always trying to get Conor to take an interest. ‘Watch your sister.’

But Conor, his mother’s son, was more interested in his prayer books.

It was time to embark; Mór came to her husband’s side.

‘ I have gold enough, I will pay,’ he told her. ‘I will not spare a single coin. I will pay for an army. I will pay the priests to pray for our victory.’

‘How will you find them?’ Mór sighed wearily. ‘We have lost our land. Our gold will not last forever.’

‘I will go to England, I will go to France, I will go to King Henry. I will come back in strength.’ 

Our house and our camp are burned by O’Rourke, your own subjects have turned against you. To what will we return?

The fires of destruction still burned in Dermot’s voice as he replied:

‘You will have a new house, built of white bone. You will have the whole of Ireland – watered by the blood of the O’Rourkes and the O’Connors and the Vikings of Dublin. And I will have revenge. Revenge!’

‘Revenge,’ repeated Eva.

Their paths were the paths of exile: Dermot sought King Henry II through England and France, finally being admitted to the court at Clécy.

It was time to go to his audience with the king. Dermot briefly embraced Mór. Sun slanting through the small window of their room at the inn illuminated the lines of care around her eyes and mouth.

‘You’re still angry with me.’ He dropped his arms to his sides.

‘If you had only paid the dues,’ she said for the twentieth time. ‘We would not have to be here.’

The same arguments, over and again.

‘A hundred ounces of gold! Do you think that would have satisfied them?’

‘You might have negotiated peace.’

Dermot turned from her and walked to the window, inhaling the stable odour that rose from the inn yard.

‘O’Rourke does not want peace. He wants blood.’ Had he not been blunt enough about this already? ‘If he had gold he would want flesh.  Cattle flesh. Human flesh. Do you want your children to be taken as hostages too? Is not the loss of Enda enough? What if your own precious little Conor were to grow up a slave?’

Mór would never be convinced.

‘But by bringing foreigners you will bring a greater evil to Ireland. Do you think that they do not want the gold, the blood, the flesh?’

For centuries to come, the Irish would wish that argument had been heard.

A herald’s trumpet echoed amongst the stone arches and silk banners in the castle of Clécy. King Henry sat in state, his knights ranked on either side, his priests robed in white.

‘May the Almighty God guard you and save you, your Majesty.’ Dermot bowed deeply.

The Norman king, his face severe, inclined his head very slightly in return.

‘Go on.’

Dermot had prepared his speech; he sensed that he had little time to make an impression.

‘May it please you that he also give you the heart and courage and will to avenge my misfortune that my own people have brought upon me.’

The king made a small noise: a sneer combined with a grunt. 

‘Hear, noble King Henry, of one born in Ireland a lord, a king, yet cast out of my own kingdom.’ Dermot knelt. There was a pause. Was it possible for him to bend closer to the regal foot? ’Here in the presence of the barons of your empire, your barons and your earls, I swear to you that if you only help me, I shall be your liege-man all the days of my life. 

Henry regarded his own fingernails. 

‘We will help you.’

Dermot seized and kissed the be-jewelled hand.

‘Help me to regain what is rightfully mine and I shall acknowledge you as sire and lord.’

The hand was withdrawn with a cold smile. 

‘Go back to England. You may raise whatever army will follow you. You have my permission.’

In the castle grounds Eva walked at a brisk pace, her body rebelling against these days of idleness. She longed to be on her horse again, galloping along the shore or over the heather clad hills of her homeland. But her sharp ears focused on footfalls behind her. Two pairs of feet, heavy feet, drawing closer, even as she increased her pace.

Glancing over her shoulder she was certain the men meant her harm. They were not her father’s men, nor were they of the Norman Court. She stopped and turned, her hands going reflexively to the sword hilt beneath her cloak. As the men came on she grasped the hilt with both hands and raised the broadsword high.

One man hesitated, the other grinned and advanced, drawing his own sword, and evidently willing to call her bluff. Did he really believe she was not ready to strike? Whether his aim was her purse or her honour would never be known, for as he came into range she brought her sword whistling down between his head and his shoulder, and heard it thud into his flesh and the crack of splintering bone. Now the second man was upon her and she was tugging her sword to free it from the inert body beneath her. 

But before she could raise it the second man slumped forward, his sword falling from his hand, and a huge black arrow sticking up from his back.

Eva looked up at the castle walls. A Norman knight was watching her from the battlements with a bow in his hand and arrows in a quiver on his back. 

She took a long breath in and out, and, resting on her sword, admired the bow. It was of a style that she had not seen before. He was a tall man and the top of it was higher than his head.

‘What is that?’

‘A longbow. Would you care to try?’

In the castle courtyard she gripped the longbow. She had been well trained by her father but it still took all her strength to curve the wood and tension the string. The arrow itself was heavy and seemed the size of a small spear.

Her first shot clattered to the ground, far short of the target. He returned the arrow to her and stooped down to better position her feet with his hands. Then those same hands, in supple leather gloves, closed over her own as she tensed the bow, to show her how to aim the arrow.

The arrow hissed through the air to the target.

With a smile the knight took back the longbow and they walked back across the castle yard to the entrance archway.

She asked him his name.

‘Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke. And you?’ He had the brown eyes and dark hair of the Normans.

‘Eva of Leinster.’

‘The princess?’ He raised an eyebrow.

At the arch she stopped to correct him. 

‘The former princess.’

‘The future queen?’ He bowed.

‘Perhaps. We are leaving for England. My father has King Henry’s permission to raise an army.’

De Clare let out a chuckle.

‘Why does he need an army when he has a daughter like you?’

But Eva did not smile.

‘You do not know my father’s ambition. Nor mine. We’ll win back Leinster. Then we shall be avenged upon our enemies. Only through revenge can we find peace.’ Turning away, she walked back towards the inn.

© 2021

Author’s note: ‘Red Eva’ – For those unfamiliar with Irish history.

County Wexford, where I live, abounds in links to the dramatic and violent history of the Anglo-Norman invasion. In the 12th century, in a bad case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, Dermot McMurrough, the exiled King of Leinster, reconquered his lands and avenged himself on his enemies with the help of the Anglo-Normans. In doing so he married his daughter Aoife (Eva – the ‘A’ and ‘o’ are silent) to Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (‘Strongbow’ – he was never called that in his lifetime), the leader of the invasion force. Richard de Clare’s victory was followed by an invasion by his King Henry II. Subsequent invasions over the centuries led to increasing British dominion over Ireland culminating in the 1800 Act of Union.

In the famous 19th century painting The marriage of Aoife and Strongbow (link) by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, Aoife is depicted as a modest, submissive bride. Yet history tells us that ‘Red Eva’ led troops into battle, and that under Brehon (traditional Irish) law, a woman could not be married against her will. I see Aoife not as a blushing Victorian miss but as a tough athletic woman, physically the equal of modern elite sportswomen, her father’s daughter and fired up by his ideas of revenge. At the same time her mother’s shrewdness led her to make a marriage that was politically expedient as well as desirable. She would have been more than a match for Richard de Clare.

Aoife, a descendant perhaps of the legendary Queen Maebh, belongs to the same fearless Irish sisterhood as Grainne (Grace) O’Malley and Countess Constance Markievicz. Her bloodline flowed in the monarchies of Britain and Europe. Primary source accounts of her era include The Annals of Tigernach and The Song of Dermot and the Earl and can be found on CELT, the on-line resource hosted by University College Cork.