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  • Queens as Political Hostages in Pre-Norman IrelandDerbforgaill and the Three Gormlaiths1
  • Lahney Preston-Matto
AFM: The Annals of the Four Masters, ed. and trans. John O'Donovan, 2 vols., 3d ed. (Dublin: Edmund Burke, 1998); also accessed via CELT:
AI: The Annals of Inisfallen, ed. and trans. Seán Mac Airt (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1988); also accessed via CELT:
AT: The Annals of Tigernach, ed. and trans. Whitley Stokes, 2 vols. (Felinfach: Llanerch, 1993); reprint of edition published in Revue Celtique, 17 (1896), 6–33, 116–63 and 337–420; and 18 (1897), 9–59 and 150–303.
AU: The Annals of Ulster (to A.D. 1131), ed. and trans. Seán Mac Airt and Gearóid Mac Niocaill (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1983).
CS: Chronicon Scotorum: A Chronicle of Irish Affairs from the Earliest Times to AD 1135, ed. and trans. William Hennessy (1866; repr. Wiesbaden: Kraus Reprint, 1964); accessed via CELT:

Medieval Irish queens such as Derbforgaill and the three Gormlaiths achieved notoriety not through their actions, but through depictions of those actions as written by commentators, who were occasionally disinterested, but more generally extremely opinionated. Derbforgaill, wife of Tigernán Ua Ruairc, king of Bréifne, is best-remembered for having supposedly sparked the Norman invasion of Ireland, according to Anglo-Norman and later Irish sources.2 She was abducted in 1152 [End Page 141] by Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Laigin (Leinster), fourteen years prior to Mac Murchada's use of Cambro-Normans to regain Laigin. Most Anglo-Norman and later Irish sources do not refer to this as an abduction, but an elopement, and credit (or blame) the Norman invasion of Ireland to Derbforgaill, who becomes known as the "Helen of Ireland." While Derbforgaill's abduction may be the best-known one in medieval Ireland, it was apparently not an unusual practice. Three individual Irish queens named Gormlaith, spanning the ninth to the eleventh centuries, were also either abducted or threatened with abduction. Until a relatively short time ago, the three Gormlaiths were most often viewed as sovereignty goddesses, but recently scholars have done much work to reclaim them as historical personages.3 The first Gormlaith was abducted in 840 by Feidlimid mac Crimthainn, king of Cashel, in a clear bid for political power over her husband Niall Caille mac Áeda, the high king of Ireland; Niall Glúndub, son of Áed Findliath mac Néill, and later high king of Ireland, proposed to "rescue" the second Gormlaith from an abusive husband by abducting her in the early tenth century; and the third Gormlaith was probably taken from Áth Cliath (Dublin) by Máelsechnaill mac Domnaill, high king of Ireland, after her husband Amlaíb Cuarán's defeat in 979.

Derbforgaill and the three Gormlaiths have been portrayed in various literary texts as either abductees or colluders in their own physical removals; as a result, some literary critics and historians have also read them as such. I have argued elsewhere that Derbforgaill's abduction and its literary representation are two separate things; in other words, that the historical and legal events surrounding the abduction have very little in common [End Page 142] with the literature which takes those events as its focal point.4 And while recent work on the Gormlaiths proposes to distinguish these queens as historical figures rather than a particular type of literary construct—the sovereignty goddess—a similar movement to parse their reputations as abductees has not been attempted.

The literature that takes these women as its subject consistently ascribes agency to their actions, depicts them with a will to participate in (or orchestrate) their movements. This, I think, is an instance of what Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe has called "phantom agency." In her discussion of Gunhild, a silent abducted abbess from the late eleventh century,5 O'Brien O'Keeffe cites Anselm of Canterbury, who wrote two letters to Gunhild after her abduction by Count Alan Rufus, in order to present "Gunhild to herself as a woman who has chosen an inappropriate love, having abandoned her true...