29th August: the marriage of Aiofe and Strongbow. In this edited extract from Strongbow’s Wife Aiofe contemplates the horrors perpetrated in Waterford in the preceding days.
I thought that a night’s sleep would help prepare me for what the next day would bring. How foolish I was! It was impossible to sleep. Three summers had passed since I last saw my husband-to-be. Whenever I recalled those days spent at Striguil it was the hunting parties that crowded my mind; the days spent with De Clare’s sister Basilia, the thrill of sending a great bird into the sky and the joy I experienced when the bird returned and settled on my gloved hand bearing some small animal in its strong beak. It was the waiting, the anticipation between the flight and the return that filled me with dread then. What if the bird chose freedom and failed to return? There was never any doubt that the bird would come to harm, it was far too powerful. But once set free to hunt down its prey, why would it choose to return to my hand?
Since receiving the news [of Strongbow’s arrival] there had been no time to think.
Now, at last, alone in my tent, a terrifying variety of scenarios pursued each other across my mind. Uppermost among them was one that resulted from the shocking facts I had learned as we prepared our camp the previous evening. At first I had not fully realised the significance of the Norman’s taking of Waterford. For certain I ought to have done for I had seen often enough the strong defences that the Norsemen had constructed around the city. It would have taken a mighty force to destroy those walls and defeat the defenders.
But I gave no thought to how such a feat might have been accomplished or what the consequence might be. It was enough that the city was once again in the control of my father’s allies. Only as the men were erecting our tents beside the river did I begin to suspect what might have taken place within those walls in the days before our departure from Ferns.
A gentle breeze was blowing from the west and on it was carried the smell of decaying seaweed lying in the mud revealed by the retreating tide. I wrinkled my nose at this as I had done so many times before. But there was something else in the symphony of odours reaching my nostrils. Something else that I’d smelled many times before: when a dead animal was left too long where it had fallen and the weather was hot and humid as indeed it was that late August evening.
I determined to seek out Maurice Regan. He had witnessed the taking of the city. Could he confirm that what I had deduced from the stench was true? He had never been one to hide the truth from me. This time it took longer than usual and I had to use all my womanly charms to wheedle it from him. But what he so reluctantly told me was infinitely worse than I had dared to imagine. People had been slaughtered in their hundreds; women and children as well as fighting men. Bodies were piled in the streets leading to Reginald’s Tower.
I was horrified. These were Father’s former friends, mercilessly cut down by men under the command of the man I was to marry. I decided at once that I could not do it. I went to my father and told him I would not marry such a man. I vented my anger at his having kept the terrible news from me. “Did you suppose I would not discover the truth?” I asked. “No amount of cleaning up and disposal of bodies could hide the reality of the evil this man perpetrated against our own people. I will not do it. I cannot.”
Father had acted contrite. He assured me he had only been trying to protect me, not de Clare. And it was, he said, not de Clare who was responsible but his lieutenant, a man called Raymond. Father sought to excuse him, saying he was a young man driven by ambition and fear of what would happen if he did not take the initiative.
Father said that hostages had been taken and he promised to release them. Furthermore, he said, he would ensure that in future de Clare and his henchmen remained under his direct control. My marriage to de Clare would help guarantee that. If I were to fail in my duty to fulfil the promise Father had made to de Clare, who knew what further horrors the foreigners might wreak upon the Irish. “We can ill afford to have such men as enemies,” he said in a final effort at persuasion.
I could see the logic of Father’s assertion but it only added to the burden of responsibility that now lay upon my shoulders.
The discussion had gone on long after the sun dropped below the hills behind the city. Maurice and Mother had joined in. The show of strength in Waterford would make it easier to take Dublin, Maurice asserted. O’Connor and O’Rourke would choose to treat rather than fight when faced with the evident strength of our new allies. I did not capitulate then, merely said I would sleep on it. But in reality, sleeping on it meant a night of wakeful mental turmoil.
I confess that at times during that long night I felt a frisson of fascination at the thought of being physically close to such a powerful man. Moments later I was repulsed by the thought of the horrors for which he was ultimately responsible. Would not a truly powerful man have done more to restrain the perpetrators of such vile deeds? A memory entered my mind of a man whose full lips made him appear almost feminine but whose table manners were brutish. I had been intrigued by the contradictions of the man even at that first meeting, I now realised.
I thought again about the long wait for him to deliver on his promise, the way my father had found it necessary to beg him to come to Ireland. Was his reluctance to come another illustration of the contradictions in his character? Torn between loyalty to his king and a desire to gain new lands and influence; between the desire to honour a promise and the dangers he saw in the enterprise? Was he, perhaps, a coward hiding behind the swagger of a younger man who cared nothing for the lives of those he saw as ignorant savages?
I wondered if I would have the courage to stand up to such a man. For it would surely take courage to do as my father wanted and marry this stranger; but if I did not, what then might be the fate of our people?