King, Murtagh (Ó Cionga, Muircheartach) (c.1562–c.1639), translator of the Old Testament into Irish, was a member of a learned family of scribes and poets in the Irish midlands. The Ó Cionga family were traditionally associated with Fox's Country, in the barony of Kilcoursey, Co. Offaly. They were poets, and they also featured as drafters and witnesses of legal documents for the Fox and Mageoghegan families. It is uncertain whether the ‘Murtagh O Kinge’ of Kilcolly, and ‘Murtho O King’ of Fox's Country, whose name occurs in late Elizabethan fiants, can be identified as the same person (Fiants, 6488, 6726), but it is possible. In the 1610s King served as ‘agent and receiver of rents to the old Lord Lambert’ on lands near Athlone, Co. Westmeath, and was asked to be a witness to legal proceedings involving the dowager Lady Lambert in the late 1630s (Shuckburgh, Two biographies, 345).
Murtagh King ‘had a good estate in the King's County’, according to the Rev. Alexander Clogie (1614–98), who visited him there (ibid., 132). It is very likely that he was among the native grantees who received land in the plantation of that area c.1620 (McCaughey, Dr Bedell and Mr King, 39–40). In 1626 he complained of being disturbed in the lands he held by patent, and the commissioners on Irish plantations were ordered to secure him quiet possession of his lands (CSPI, 1625–32, no. 358).
It is because of his scholarly association, late in life, with William Bedell (qv), provost of TCD and later bishop of Kilmore, that Murtagh King came to prominence. Though not university educated, he was employed from 1627 to teach Irish to William Bedell and to students for the Church of Ireland ministry in TCD. As part of this role, he became involved in translating the psalms into Irish, work he shared with James Nangle (Séamus de Nógla). This undertaking was necessary because the psalms had been omitted from the 1608 Irish translation of the Book of Common Prayer. When Bedell was appointed bishop of Kilmore (1629) it appears that King soon followed him there. Bedell's biographers disagree about the date of King's conversion to protestantism, but agree that the influence of the bishop of Kilmore was significant. King was ordained deacon on 23 September 1632, collated to the vicarage of Kilmore on 29 September 1632, and ordained priest on 22 September 1633 (Leslie, ‘Succession lists’). King was then reputedly about 70 years old. Bedell's primary objective in appointing him to a benefice was to provide him with an income while he was engaged on translating the Old Testament and Apocrypha into Irish. King was selected as Irish translator because he was ‘fully master of that language, both in prose and meeter, by the testimony and approbation of all that knew him’ (Shuckburgh, Two biographies, 132). On the instructions of Bedell, and working from the English-language King James text of 1611, King prepared a ‘plain Irish’ translation of the Old Testament. He continued to have the assistance of James Nangle, but King was the principal translator. His work was then revised, in consultation with William Bedell, by reference to the Hebrew text, the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and Giovanni Diodati's Italian translation.
The Old Testament translation was not published in King's lifetime, but seventeenth-century fair copies of parts of his work survive in manuscript form in Marsh's Library, Dublin (MS Z4.2.3a, 3b) and Cambridge University Library (MS Dd.IX.7). The translation was revised and prepared for publication by Andrew Sall (qv), Aodh Ó Raghallaigh, and others in the early 1680s. While other scholars had some editorial input, it was essentially King's translation that was printed in London in 1685, under the title Leabhuir na Seintiomna ar na ttarruing go Gaidhlig tre chúram & dhúthracht an Doctúir Uilliam Bedel/The Books of the Old Testament translated into Irish by the care and diligence of Doctor William Bedel. His translations of the Apocrypha were published in 1971.
In the late 1630s William Bayly petitioned the lord deputy, Thomas Wentworth (qv), challenging King's appointment to his benefice in the parish of Templeport. He succeeded in having King removed on 15 June 1638 and was then appointed to the benefice himself, despite Bedell's opposition. King's advanced age was one issue, but more serious was his general unsuitability to be a minister of the Church of Ireland. Bayly's accusations, brought before the English privy council, included the assertion that King attended mass, and allowed his family to attend mass, and that he administered baptism and holy communion in an inappropriate manner (CSPI, 1633–47, 205–6). By the end of his life it was clearly being implied that he continued to practise catholicism and conformed to the Church of Ireland against his conscience. King was imprisoned for contempt of court in 1638 in connection with Bayly's accusations, but William Bedell strenuously defended ‘the man who translated God's word into Irish’ (CSPI 1633–47, 205), insisting that he was a much more competent man than he was represented to be, and deserved better treatment. Bedell was concerned that the reputation of the Old Testament translation would suffer because of attacks on King's character, and admitted in December 1638 that ‘touching Mr King, it fell out as I feared, that his worke would suffer with him’ (Shuckburgh, Two biographies, 349). King was still alive in late December 1638 but died shortly afterwards. The names of his children are not known, but his wife, Margery King, was ‘a papist and his children popishly educated’. William Bedell observed that when King was first ordained, Margery ‘came to church in my view sundry weekes; now is revolted and his greatest crosse’ (Shuckburgh, Two biographies, 342). Margery King brought a complaint before the synod of Kilmore in September 1638 regarding Bayly's violent behaviour towards the family, driving off some of their cattle and mares, despite being resisted by herself and her servants (CSPI, 1633–47, 204). In the controversy initiated by Bayly, Bedell advised Wentworth not to listen to King's detractors, but to take heed of the views of the lord primate, James Ussher (qv), the bishop of Meath, Anthony Martin (d. 1650), and Sir James Ware (qv), all of whom had known King for many years, and could vouch for him (Shuckburgh, Two biographies, 142).