Born in 1128, St Laurence O’Toole is widely regarded as being one of the most colourful saints in Ireland. As a boy, he spent two years as hostage of King Dermot McMurrough, the man who brought the Normans to Ireland. Upon his release, he entered the monastery at Glendalough, becoming abbot at the age of twenty-five.
He was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1162 and played a key role during the Norman invasion. The title of ‘the man in the middle’ comes from his position of mediator – as archbishop, he was called on by both sides.
He died in France in 1180, and much of what we now know about his life comes from accounts recorded by the French monks at Eu. They questioned the Irish pilgrims that arrived in France to visit his tomb, and wrote to Ireland for details of his life, virtues and the miracles attributed to him. This information was compiled and sent to Rome, leading to his canonisation in 1225. Accounts of his life commissioned by the monks were also widely circulated throughout Europe.
The following is taken from The Man in the Middle by Desmond Forristal, originally published in 1988 and re-issued in 2013 to celebrate the Year of Faith. Drawing on much of the information recorded by the monks at Eu, this extract describes the time Laurence spent as a hostage of Dermot McMurrough:
Laurence was just ten years old when he found himself caught up in the brutal world of Irish politics. Hy Murray [the district ruled by his father] was regarded as part of the province of Leinster, which at that time was ruled by King Dermot McMurrough, the man who will be remembered forever for having brought the English into Ireland. Dermot was still a comparatively young man, about twenty-eight years of age, but he had ruled Leinster since the age of sixteen and had already earned a reputation throughout Ireland for violence and treachery.
Dermot was an intensely ambitious man, who was determined sooner or later to make himself High King of Ireland. He was quite prepared to fight every king in the country if that was the only way to reach the crown. But before he could attack the high king and the other provincial kings, he had to make sure of the support of the chieftains of his own province of Leinster. In keeping with his character, he treated them as enemies to be terrorised rather than as friends to be won.
So it came about that Maurice O’Toole received a demand from Dermot to send one of his sons to him as a hostage. If he failed to do this, Dermot threatened to attack and lay waste the territory of Hy Murray. Maurice had little choice but to obey. He decided to send Laurence, the youngest of his four sons.
A hostage was a pledge for the good behaviour of whoever he represented. If Maurice acted in any way against Dermot’s interest, he knew that his son would be made to suffer by being killed or mutilated. A very frequent way of taking revenge on hostages was by putting out their eyes, a barbarous practice that was widespread not only in Ireland but throughout Europe.
It must have been with a heavy heart that Maurice saw his young son leaving Castledermot for the court of the King of Leinster. The boy himself must have been even more downcast at leaving his home for such an uncertain future. Though he did not know it, he would never live in Castledermot again. There were, however, a few grains of comfort in the situation. One was that Maurice had no intention of doing anything hostile to Dermot and so there was no reason why any harm should come to his son. The other was that Laurence, as the son of a king, was entitled to live in the royal residence and to be treated with the same respect as one of Dermot’s own sons.
However, Dermot had other plans for him. In defiance of all laws and customs, he ordered Laurence to be sent in chains to a remote and rocky area and to be kept there under strict surveillance. Here he found himself living in conditions worse than those of the poorest peasants, ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed. One of the old writers describes him in these words:
The noble youth had the spirit of a man in the body of a boy. But after spending some time there and suffering the scarcity of food, the biting cold of the strong north wind, and various forms of ill-treatment, this pleasing and good-looking boy was reduced to a sad bodily condition, starving, emaciated, his skin covered with sores.
Presumably there were some men assigned to the duty of guarding him and making sure that he did not escape. The local stories also mentioned a woman, who was among those looking after him and who was gradually won over by his gentleness and innocence. She was the only one among those around him who showed any compassion or affection for the boy.
Maurice O’Toole soon became aware of the fact that his son was not living in the royal residence or receiving the treatment that was his due. He may not have known exactly where he was or what was happening to him, but he must have had a good idea that things were not going well. There was little he could do to help. If he attempted any kind of rescue operation, he knew the boy would probably be killed or blinded before the rescuers could reach him. But he never gave up hope that some turn of events would enable him to get the upper hand over Dermot and bring his son home again.
Two years passed before an opportunity presented itself. By great good fortune, he managed to take a group of Dermot’s soldiers by surprise and to capture twelve of them. He sent word to Dermot that he had twelve of his men in his power and that he would put all of them to death unless Laurence was set free at once and allowed to return home.
Dermot finally yielded and agreed to the exchange, and Laurence’s two-year ordeal came to an end. According to local tradition, Laurence’s joy at leaving the Glen of Imaal was not shared by the woman who had been looking after him. It is said that she was so heartbroken that she used to climb the trees and watch the paths across the mountains, in the hope that she would see him coming back again. Some of the old people could even remember a few lines of the lament she is supposed to have sung as she mourned for her lost little saint.