Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Can a Wrong Once Done Ever Be Undone?" Ireland's Helen of Troy

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Can a Wrong Once Done Ever Be Undone?" Ireland's Helen of Troy

Article excerpt

O'Roric, prince ofMeath, have gone on an expedition into a distant quarter, left his wife [Dervorgilla] ...ina certain island in Meath during his absence-, and she, who had long entertained a passion for Dermitius, took advantage of the absence of her husband, and allowed herself to be ravished, not against her will. As the nature of women is fickle and given to change, she thus became the prey of her spoiler by her own contrivance. For as Mark Anthony and Troy are witnesses, almost all the greatest evils in the world have arisen from women.

- Giraldus Cambrensis, The History of the Conquest of Ireland (1189)

The story has gone abroad, through one Giraldus Cambrensis, that my wickedness, like that of fair Helen of Greece, wrecked the nation, and I have been made to bear the burden of the downfall of my country and the dishonor of my good name.

- Anna C. Scanlan, Dervorgilla; or, The Downfall of Ireland (1895)

My curse upon all that brought in the Gall,

Upon Diarmuid's call, and on Dervorgilla.

- Lady Gregory, Dervorgilla (1907)

Drunk and sitting on a barstool, ranting to all who will listen, James Joyces citizen in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses (1922) offers the following explanation for Ireland's colonial condition and the subsequent centuries of violence, oppression, a lost language, emigration, and famine: "The adulteress and her paramour brought the Saxon robbers here. . . . A dishonoured wife, says the citizen, that s what s the cause of all our misfortunes" (Joyce 1986, 266). The dishonored wife and the adulteress referenced here is Dervorgilla, a twelfth-century queen whose personal narrative of seduction and abduction had, during her own lifetime, become fused with Ireland's national narrative of ruin. Writers as diverse as U.S. president John Quincy Adams and Nobel laureate W. B. Yeats offered later versions of Dervorgilla's role in Ireland's colonial subjugation. Regularly vilified in historical and literary narratives, Dervorgilla became known as "Erins Helen," Irelands own Helen of Troy. The continuous circulation and retelling of her story ensured that centuries of colonial oppression became traceable to this "dishonoured wife."

The citizens explanation refers to the seduction or abduction (depending on the version) of the married Dervorgilla by Diarmuid Mac Murrough, king of the Irish province of Leinster. In the first book of his twelfth-century The History of the Conquest of Ireland (repeatedly quoted by the writers who return to the narrative of Dervorgilla centuries later) Giraldus Cambrensis writes:

[Diarmuid s] youth and inexperience in government led him to become the oppressor of the nobility, and to impose a cruel and intolerable tyranny on the chiefs of the land. This brought him into trouble, and it was not the only one; for O'Roric, prince of Meath, having gone on an expedition into a distant quarter, left his wife [Dervorgilla] ... in a certain island in Meath during his absence; and she, who had long entertained a passion for [Diarmuid], took advantage of the absence of her husband, and allowed herself to be ravished, not against her will. As the nature of women is fickle and given to change, she thus became the prey of her spoiler by her own contrivance. For as Mark Anthony and Troy are witnesses, almost all the greatest evils in the world have arisen from women. (Cambrensis 1905, 184)

In retaliation for this great shame, O'Rourke gathered forces against Diarmuid, and within a year, in 1 153, Dervorgilla was recovered. As might be expected, tension and conflict continued between the two men. In 1167, fourteen years after the abduction, Diarmuid s many enemies and former allies turned against him, and he was driven out of his capital city, Ferns. Cambrensis writes of the exiled Diarmuid s decision to seek aid from King Henry II, the decision that, combined with his abduction of Dervorgilla, would be read as the origin story for the English involvement in Ireland. …

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