Ten Greatest Irish Lovers

Tristan and Iseult

The original star-crossed lovers.  Iseult was an Irish princess, betrothed at birth to the already aged King Mark of Cornwall.  Once Iseult reached marriageable age (14 years in old Irish society) Mark sent his nephew Tristan to Ireland to bring her to him. She fell in love with the young man, and persuaded Tristan to set aside family duty and allegiance to his king, to elope with her.  They escaped across Ireland, taking refuge in mountains and forests, pursued by an enraged King Mark.  Ultimately Mark had his revenge, and killed Tristan with a poisoned lance.  In despair, Iseult killed herself over her dead lover’s body.

The love-triangle of Iseult, Tristan and King Mark, has inspired artists for a millennium.  Mallory based his tale of Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, who loved Sir Lancelot on this story, and Wagner wrote an opera “Tristan and Isolde.”

The Dublin village of Chapelizod (seípeal Iseult) is said to take its name from Iseult’s burial place.

Oisín and Niamh

Oisín, a young hero of the Fianna, gave up everything – his family, friends and country – to be the lover of Niamh “of the golden hair.”  He went with her to the land of Tír na nÓg, the land of perpetual youth in the western seas (the Atlantic).  For three years they lived happily, until Oisín overcome by home-sickness, decided to visit Ireland.  Niamh, a daughter of the sea-god, lent him her horse that could travel over the waves, but warned him on pain of death not to dismount and set foot on Irish soil.

What Oisín didn’t realise was that three years in Tír na nÓg were the equivalent of 300 years in real time.  When he arrived in Ireland Oisín found his family and friends long dead, and his father’s house in ruins.  In sorrow he turned his horse back towards the sea, but stopped to help some men clearing stones from a field.  He leaned from the saddle to scoop up a boulder, and fell to the ground as his stirrup broke.  The young hero aged 300 years in an instant.  As an old man Oisín could no longer return to Tír na nÓg, and so he lost the woman that he had given up everything for.

Strongbow and Aoife

In August 1170 Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, popularly known as ‘Strongbow’ married Aoife, daughter of Dermot MacMurrough king of Leinster.

MacMurrough had invited in Strongbow and his men to try and reconquer his lost kingdom of Leinster.  As part of the deal, MacMurrough agreed to let Strongbow marry his daughter Aoife, so that Strongbow became his heir, and was next in line to inherit Leinster through marriage.

As such it wasn’t a love match, but sealed a political and military alliance that was to change the course of Irish history.
The army of Anglo-Norman mercenaries quickly realised that Ireland was theirs for the taking, and the events that followed became known to us as the Anglo-Norman invasion.

John Sely, Bishop of Down and Lettice Thomas

A lesser known story, but remarkable nonetheless. John Sely, the Bishop of Down, was threatened with excommunication in 1434 by Archbishop Swain if he did not cast off his mistress, a married woman by the name of Lettice Thomas. Sely had been publicly living in his castle at Kilclief, County Down with Thomas and despite the promise of excommunication, continued to do so for a further seven years. In 1441 the archbishop finally managed to remove Sely from his position. Nothing is known of what happened to Sely and Thomas afterwards.

Daniel O’Connell and the Women of Ireland

Daniel O’Connell married for love against the wishes of his rich uncle, who wanted him to make a marriage alliance based on wealth and social status.  This rich uncle held the purse-strings, and had raised Daniel as his heir.  He subsequently withheld part of the inheritance because of the marriage.  O’Connell and his wife kept a strong bond for the rest of their lives, but throughout his political career there were continuous rumours of O’Connell’s infidelities.  Some historians have ascribed this to the fact that traditionally in Ireland, virility was understood as the mark of a heroic man, so that O’Connell’s supporters were simply lionising him.  A more recent biography found that while there was a lot of evidence about O’Connell’s adultery, it was inconclusive.

A popular ballad summed up Daniel O’Connell’s reputation as the father of a slew of illegitimate children.  The song takes the form of a discussion between an old woman and a tinker who meet on the side of the road:

It’s that damnable rogue of a Daniel O’Connell,
He’s now making children in Dublin by steam.”

“Oh, children, aroo,” replied the old woman.
“ainm an diabhal! [by the devil!], is he crazy at last?
Is there sign of a war or a sudden rebellion
Or what is the reason he wants them so fast?”

Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea

Charles Stewart Parnell first met Katherine O’Shea, wife of his fellow Irish MP, Captain William O’Shea at a political dinner in July 1880.  Recent research by Paul Bew has suggested that Katherine at first flirted with Parnell with her husband’s connivance, in an attempt to try and further O’Shea’s career.  However, Parnell was serious in his pursuit, and Charles and Kitty fell in love.  They had three children, the first of whom was born while Charles was still imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol.  In response O’Shea challenged Parnell to a duel, then in 1889 petitioned for divorce naming Parnell as co-respondent.  Parnell, eager to marry Kitty did not contest the divorce, although it contravened Victorian notions of respectability.  Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, refused to accept Parnell as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which led to a split in the party and to Parnell’s political demise.

In June 1891 Charles Parnell married Kitty O’Shea at a Brighton registry office.  The strain of the previous years affected his health, and less than four months later he suffered a heart attack and died in his wife’s arms.

Image courtesy of the British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan

Michael Collins met Kitty Kiernan in May 1917 at her family’s hotel, the Greville Arms Hotel in Granard, Co. Longford.  Collins initially fell for an older Kiernan sister, Helen, but on learning she was engaged turned his attentions to Kitty.  A love triangle between Collins, Kiernan and Harry Boland developed.  The couple wrote frequent letters to each other – over three hundred between late 1921 and his death in August 1922.  The couple became engaged and a wedding date was set for November 1922.  It was not to be.  Michael Collins was assassinated on August 22 1922 and Kitty was left heartbroken.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

Not many couples can claim that the anniversary of their first date is celebrated all over the world.  James Joyce first met Nora Barnacle on 10 June 1904 while she was working as a waitress in Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, but they did not ‘step out’ together until 16 June 1904, the date later chosen by Joyce for the action of his novel Ulysses, now celebrated as Bloomsday.

Joyce and Nora eloped to Europe later in 1904, but didn’t marry until 1931.  On the day before their marriage in London, Joyce joked that to confuse the newshounds “the bride would be dressed as a lifeguard while the groom would wear green satin and a white veil and carry an orange umbrella.”

Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir

Dublin’s first openly gay couple, who founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1928.  Their personal and theatrical partnership continued for more than 30 years, and they helped both the young Orson Welles and James Mason at the start of their acting careers.  Edwards and MacLiammoir were known to friend and foe alike as ‘sodom and begorrah’.

Your Ancestor?

Sometimes the most romantic stories can be found within our own family history – do your ancestors deserve a place in the top ten? Let us know your story.


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