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The Vikings In Ireland


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The history of the Viking period, which began in the eighth century and lasted for about four hundred years, reads like a fairy tale. There were two impelling motives which led to the emigration of the Vikings, or "men of the bays," for such is the meaning of the name by which they have made themselves famous. These were the inadequate economic resources of their country, due to over-population, and a desire to seek warmer and more fruitful lands. Coupled with this was a spirit of adventure.

At first the Vikings confined themselves to their native fjörds whence, in their long open boats, they would dart out and pounce upon some passing vessel. But they soon extended the field of their operations and undertook edpeditions to more remote and less known regions, which they laid waste and plundered. Piracy in those days was not regarded as an ignoble profession. About the year 850, they made their way over the stormy North sea to Iceland where, intrepid sailors as they were, they learned that Irish monks had been there before them. Thence they sailed to Greenland, to Vinland the Good and even reached the coasts of North America. In the east and south, they were no less enterprising and successful.

In the tenth century we find these adventurous sea-rovers making permanent settlements on the continent of Europe. Bands of them sailed down the coast and forced the king of France to yield to them the fair province ever afterward known by their name, the Duchy of Normandy. More of them went up the Rhine, the Loire, and the Gironde, and fought the Moors on the banks of the Guadalquivir. Others of them pushed on past the Pillars of Hercules into the Mediterranean and built a powerful kingdom in Italy. Still others even found their way to Greece and the Black Sea. They planted colonies on the coast of Prussia, rounded the North Cape and discovered a route by water to the White Sea. By way of the Dnieper, the Dniester, the Volga and the northern stretches of the Dvina, their enterprising hucksters and freebooters penetrated into the interior of Russia, and in the year 862 laid the foundations, at Novgorod, of the kingdom out of which has grown the modern Russia. Still more of them sailed down the Volga to the Caspian and, by the Dnieper, entered the Bosphorous and nearly succeeded in capturing the capital of the Sultan.

At the other extreme end of Europe more than half of Britain was already in their power. The kingdom of Alfred the Great was threatened and shaken to its founda-tion and the outlying islands were entirely occupied by them. They placed a Danish sovereign on the throne of England. Indeed at one time, that is about the middle of the ninth century, it looked as if the Vikings were on the point of becoming masters of the greater part of northern and western Europe. But their victorious career was stopped for all time and the western world saved from becoming Norse by the final defeat which they met with in Ireland.

Intercourse between the northern lands and Ireland must have begun at a very early date. It was only a few days' journey and, as the Viking vessels were galleys propelled by oars as well as by sails, they were independent of the weather. The Irish traded and married with them a century before the invasion. Even in the old Irish epic of the heroic period, there is mention of warriors from Norway, "the Northern Way," and of Irish chieftains who were levying tribute on the Shetlands, the Orkneys, and the Faroes. The first acceptedly correct information of the Norsemen in "the Isles of the Foreigners," as the western islands were called, dates from the early part of the seventh century. In the year 617 they burned the cloister of Eig, slew the Abbot Donnan and fifty-two of his companions and, using the western islands as stepping stones, they robbed and ravaged their way down as far as the Isle of Man. It was perhaps in the same year that they laid waste Tory Island off the coast of Donegal. These attacks lasted some four or five years, and were followed by more than a century and a half of peace, during which the Norse and Irish mingled and settled down on friendly terms.

In the year 794 occurred the first powerful Norse attacks in Irish waters, when the sea-robbers landed on Rechru, now Lambay, off Howth, which they devastated, and some other small islands north of Dublin, and simultaneously they launched attacks at such distant points as the Isle of skye and Glamorganshire in South Wales. These Vikings had no difficulty in landing, plundering, and getting away to their ships, but they brought away what was still more valuable to those who followed them in their profession, namely, tales of bright green fields, of rich fertile soil, in a word, a land that was well worth fighting for. Such reports brought Vikings in more frequent bands and in greater and greater numbers to Ireland. As yet, however, they were only reconnoitering parties who confined themselves to the islands and forelands and did not interfere with the internal affairs of the country. Sometimes they showed poor judgment in choosing their points of attack, as in the year 823 when they scaled the almost inaccessible Scelic Michil (the Skelligs), far out in the Atlantic, and carried off the hermit Etgal, perhaps in spite of finding no treasure on that barren, wind-swept rock. During the next wo or three years, among other misdeeds, they burned Bangor, an easy prey because of its proximity to the sea, murdered its monks and scholars and violated the sanctuary

At the confluence of the Liffey and a small stream called the Poddle, was a village which the Irish had founded at least two centuries earlier and which they called, and still call, Ath Cliath, "the Ford of the Hurdles." It was also named Dubhlinn, "Blackpool," from the dark color of the water under the bog. The Norsemen were struck by the excellent location of the village and, consequently, about the year 837, they threw up a strong earthen fort on the hill where now stands the Castle, and for nearly two hundred years Dublin remained an exclusively Norwegian or Danish city and the capital and headquarters of the Vikings in western Europe. The Irish, however, still regarded Armagh as their national capital.

When, about the year 832, the Norse felt ready to make their first great attack on Ireland in force, they had the advantage of having as their leader one of the most extraordinary and capable figures in Nordic history. This was the most famous Norwegian warrior Tuirgeis. Tuirgeis, like most of his race who came after him, was filled with ambition to establish a great pagan empire and to make himself lord of Ireland, as his countrymen had made themselves masters of England and Normandy. He came with a great fleet of 120 ships, which held some ten thousand or twelve thousand picked men, and which he divided into two divisions. One squadron of sixty ships entered the Liffey, while Tuirgeis himself with the other sailed up the Boyne. From these points small bands of invaders entered into the interior of the country, carrying their boats overland with them when necessary, spread here and there and made the first permanent Norse settle-ments in Ireland. Tuirgeis took his operations to the north. He pitched his head-quarters at the southern extremity of Lough Ree, near where Athlone now stands, and there threw up earthworks along the upper courses of the Shannon and a line of forts across the country from Carlingford Bay to Connacht. He even got some support from the Irish and for a time it looked as if the whole northern portion of the island might speedily fall under his sway.

His design included the supplanting of Christianity by the heathenism of his own country. With that end in view he took possession, some years previously, of Armagh, Ireland's Holy City, which contained the staff which Christ himself was said to have given to St. Patrick, and where the Abbot, who was regarded as the spiritual head of Ireland, resided. Tuirgeis drove away "the Follower of St. Patrick," converted the church into a pagan temple and made himself high priest of the new religion. As if that sacrilege was not sufficient to arouse the special anger of the Irish, he is said to have enthroned his wife Otta upon the high altar of the principal church at Clonmacnois, the next most holy place in Ireland, situated on the eastern bank of the Shannon in the midst of the meadows. From that sacred seat Otta, who seems to have been a sibyl as well as a priestess, delivered oracles in magic strains to the people.

These things took place in or about the year 845, and for some years all the foreigners in Ireland recognized Tuirgeis as their soverign, although it could hardly be said that he had founded a kingdom. His ablest opponent among the native chieftains was Niall, provincial king of Ulster. Shortly afterwards, or about the year 845, he was, somehow, taken prisoner by Maelsechlainn (Malachy) king of Meath, and drowned in Loch Owel, either as a criminal or by the miracles of the saints or, according to the legends, through a strategem of Maelsechlainn's daughter who, accompanied by fifteen young Irish warriors disguised as maidens, kept tryst with him, and fifteen of his captains. After his death, the Norsemen abandoned their settlements on Lough Ree, moved up the Shannon and fought their way along the rivers and lakes to the Sligo coast where a fleet had assembled to carry them home.

Thereafter the tide of victory turned for a while in favor of the Irish, and a new epoch began in the history of the Scandinavian invasion of Ireland. Hitherto the Vikings, like their great leader Tuirgeis, were all of Norwegian stock, but with a few Danes and Swedes among them. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, however, the Danes, a people of distinct origin who at that time were ravaging the southern and western coasts of England, took the lead in Viking activites. They were better organized than the Norse and had a more centralised government, and they could always fall back on their kingdom in Northumbria, with its capital at York. They were jealous of the successes which the Norwegians had met with in Ireland and they soon proceeded to deprive them of the fruits of their victories, so that it was not primarily owing to a desire to attack the Irish but purely by accident that the Danes came to Ireland and made it the battleground on which to settle their differences with their cousins from Norway. In the words of the annalist (874), "they disturbed Ireland between them" At first the Irish called all these northern raiders indiscriminately Genti, "the heathen," or Gaill "the strangers," or Lochlannaigh. Later, however, when Irish writers felt the need of making a clear distinction between the two waves of invasion, they either limited the name Lochlannaigh to the Norwegians and applied the name Danair to the Danes or, more commonly, they called the Vikings of Norwegian descent white heathens, which those of Danish descent they called black heathens. This was not due to the color of the hair or complexion, for the overwhelming mass of the foreigners, whether Norwegians or Danes, must have been all fair and ruddy. It is to be found only in the fact that the Danes were clad in body armour. The Irish themselves fought in their orginary dress and mantles, except in combats of special danger when they donned breastplates and aprons of leather. They used light javelins for throwing and longer and stouter spears for thrusting, and swords, and carried a shield of wicker-work to defend the body. The first comers among the Norwegians likewise wore only a tunic of leather, but the Danes wore dark metal coats of mail, helmets and vizors, and were partial to the battle-axe. As they were the first mail-clad warriors the Irish had ever seen, it is no wonder if they seemed to them to be "dark blue" or blue green," as they called them. They are many references in the old Irish chronicles and sagas to the mail-clad armour and battle-axes of the foreigners and to the black ships in which they came to Ireland. "For the bodies and skins and hearts of the bright champions of Munster were quickly pierced through the fine linen garments, and their very sharp blades took no effect." This advantage which the Danes possessed helps to explain the successes which they met in the early years of their invasions. But the Irish soon learned in the hard school of experience how to imitate the superior weapons, armour and science of warfare of the enemy.

The year 847 marks the first sudden descent of the Danes, "in seven score ships," upon the eastern shores of Ireland. They at once proceeded to attack the Norwegians and to contest the possession of the coast settlements with them. In that year the Norwegian chieftain Earl Tomar was slain in the battle of Sciath-Nechtin. In 1850 the "Blacks" seized and plundered Dublin and in the following year they defeated the "Whites" decisively at Carlingford Lough. The battle was a fierce one and is said to have continued three days and three nights. At first the Norwegians were successful, but finally the Danes, it is said, by calling upon St. Patrick for help, were victorious. After the battle they remembered their promise and sent a huge vat filled with silver and gold to the shrine of the Apostle. Maelsechlainn (Malachy) I, who was king of Ireland at that time, dispatched an embassy to the victors. Five thousand Norwegians with their kings lay dead on the field. The messengers arrived just as the Danes were preparing their evening meal. They had their kettles set up on stakes driven into the bodies of the slain and the corpses crackled with heat. The Irish envoys expressed their horror at the awful sight and reproached the Danes for their barbarity, but the Danes replied that the Norwegians would have treated them in the same manner had they won the battle.

The next year (852), the Norwegians rallied, and a new warlord arrived to take command over them. This was Olafr enn hviti, "Olaf the White," as he is known in Icelandic history, or Amhlaobh, in the Irish records, a man of royal descent and belonging to the same race as the famous Tuirgeis. In the following year (853) he and his countryman Ivar assumed joint kingship over the foreigners in Ireland and set up their capital at Dublin. From there the Norwegians gradually gained ground and established vassal states and a string of trading posts and stations for their fleets along the coast. Many of these settlements bear Scandinavian names from fjörds, Strangford and Carlingford, in the north and Wexford and Waterford in the south, for example. The last of these towns was originally called Port Lairge (Portlaw) by the Irish, but the foreigners renamed it Vedrafjördhr, "Weatherhaven."

The most important artery reaching into the heart of Ireland is the River Shannon. On its banks the Vikings, who were most probably Danes, founded and fortified, in the second half of the ninth century, a city which they called Limerick, "Limerick of the mighty ships," as one of the old chroniclers calls it. The city flourished and exerted an influence over all Munster. There was close connection between it and the distant Hebrides, and it was not long before it became a dangerous rival even of the Norwegian kingdom at Dublin, and for a long time there was enmity between them. The two parties engaged in raidings and hostings, just like the native clansmen. Now one side and now the other invited the Irish to help them, and Irish chieftains in turn, in their internecine wars, sought the aid of the foreigners. The first Irish king who is said to have made such an alliance was Aed Finnliath, father of Niall Glundubh, king of Ulster in the middle of the ninth century. But, indeed, from the time of the first coming of the Northmen to their final defeat, there probably never was a war in which they and the Irish were not, to some degree, banded together.

Irish literature of a thousand years ago is obsessed with the spectre of the Norse occupation of Ireland and, if we are to believe the native annalists, a night of misery had really settled down on the country with the coming of the Vikings. On the occasion of a raid, villages were burned and sacked and there was wholesale slaughter and enslavement of men, women, and children. The foreign soldiers were billeted on the Irish farmers and a heavy tax was laid upon all the people. In default of paying the tax, "nose-money" (a custom which they had brought from their own country), that is, the loss of the nose, was exacted. In the words of one of the old chroniclers, "even though a man had but one cow, he might not milk it for a child one night old, nor for a sick person, but he had to keep it for the tax collector and the foreign soldiers."

There were no walled towns in those days in Ireland and but few and scattered villages. The population of the country was comparatively sparse. Life, except at the courts of the chiefs, was simple and primitive. The people were mostly engaged in cattle raising, and their wealth consisted chiefly of flocks and herds and wearing apparel. The nation was broken up into numerous clans, which of course stood in the way of national union.

By the end of the ninth century there were frequent alliances by marriage between the two peoples. According to legendary history, such marriages had taken place as early as the second century. Naturally the annalists tell of such marriages only in the case of Irish ladies of high degree and Viking chieftains but they must have been even more common among the people. The first historical instance of such marriages was that of Iarnkne to Muirgel, daughter of Maelsechlainn (Malachy) I, Emperor of Ireland about the middle of the ninth century. About the same time Amhlaobh, son of the king of Norway, married the daughter of Aed mac Neill. It scarcely ever appears that the wishes of the ladies most concerned were con-sulted and, as an old Irish poet remarks, "by no means was it happy for them." Some of these women settled down with their husbands in Ireland. Others followed them to Norway or Iceland, and many other Irish women, even of the highest class of society, were carried away as slaves. Thus, inter-marriage and the adoption of Christianity by the majority of the Norsemen, were strong helps toward the assimilation of the invader.

Another help was the custom of fosterage, in vogue among both peoples, in which Irish children were sometimes adopted even into families of their country's enemies. Some of these children, who had been adopted at the most impression-able age, forsook the nationality and religion of their parents and embraced that of their fosterers. These apostate Irish, together with companies of mixed Irish and foreigners and Gaelic speaking Norsemen from the Hebrides and other western islands, became bandits, scourged the country and plundered the Irish and Norse indiscriminately. The Chronicles call them Gaill-Gaedhel, "the foreign Irish," but the people knew them as "the sons of death," because of their ferociousness. They were especially numerous and active about the middle of the ninth century and their most conspicuous leader was Caitill Finn, "Ketil the White," a man of Norse descent. Finally the Irish chieftains and the Norwegian kings of Dublin joined forces to destroy them and, in the year 857, Ketil was killed by king Amblaobh of Dublin, who commanded a troop of independent Norsement in the south of Ireland.

As in some other countries, France, for example, up to the ninth century, the warrior-churchman was a conspicuous figure in Ireland in the ninth-tenth centuries. The most celebrated of all the priest-warriors was the Abbot-Archbishop Cormac mac Cuilennain, who reigned as king of Munster from 901-908. He was also an accomplished scribe and scholar. Besides his native Gaelic he knew Latin, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and some Greek and Hebrew, and he compiled the Psalter of Cashel and the Sanas Cormaic, "Cormac's Glossary," the very first comparative vernacular dictionary in any language in modern Europe. In the words of an old annalist, "he was the most learned of all who came or shall come of the men of Erin forever." Cormac was a man of peace and would, no doubt, have preferred to devote himself to the quiet pursuits of the student but, unfortunately for himself, he followed the advice of his turbulent and warlike counsellor, Flaithbhertach (Flaherty), Abbot of Scattery island in the Shannon, who instigated the king to go to war with the men of Leinster. A pitched battle was fought in the year 908 at Belach Mugna (Ballaghmoon), in Kildare, a couple of miles north of Carlow. It was a hopeless attack for the men of Munster and ended in their complete rout and destruction. Clergy and laity were slaughtered without distinction. Cormac himself was thrown from his horse which slipped on the blood-soaked ground and his neck broken. The enemy thrust spears into his body and cut off his head. And thus, in the words of the Four Masters, fell "the bishop, the father confessor, the renowned illustrious doctor, king of Cashel, king of Iarumha; O God! Alas for Cormac!"

A son of the romantic Gormaith-who had been betrothed to Cormac before he became a religious - was Muirchertach (Murtogh) a soldier of the first rank and heir to the throne of Ireland. He seems to have sworn to avenge his father's death, and from 918 to 943 he carried on the war victoriously against the Danes of Dublin and attacked their oversea settlements in the Hebrides and on the north coast of Scotland. In the depth of the winter of 941, when he was least expected by his enemies, he made a hostage-levying circuit of Ireland at the head of a thousand picked men whom he had clad in leather cloaks, whence he is known as "Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks." He, too, was finally defeated by the foreigners.

During the first half of the tenth century the Danes gained possession of large parts of the interior of the country. In 914 strong reinforcements arrived at Water-ford. They again sailed up the Shannon in a great fleet and into Lough Ree where they plundered the island and burned Clonmacnois. Their leader this time was Tomrair, king, or son of the king, of Denmark who, in the words of the annalist, under the year 922, is reported to have gone "to hell with his pains, as he deserved." By the middle of the century, however, fortune again turned in favor of the Irish. They had learned how to build warships and to employ naval tactics after the manner of the Northmen. The most celebrated of the naval battles in which they engaged is connected with the name of Cellachan of Cashel, who began to reign in 934 and who won back Cashel and most of Munster from the Danes. He was afterwards taken prisoner but was rescued in the course of the famous sea fight, which took place in 950-51 in the bay of Dundalk, the foreigners being under the command of Sitric, who was drowned in the battle. After the fight, Cellachan entered Dublin, collected great stores of cattle, gold, silver and other treasures, burned the town and departed.

The most famous hero of the Danish period in Ireland and one of the most famous in all Irish history was the celebrated Brian mac Cenneidigh, son of Kennedy, chief of Thomond, including the eastern portion of the present county of Clare, and hereditary ruler of North Munster. He was born probably about the year 941 and is known to history as Brian Boru, which he took from the name of the town of Borime, near Killaloe, on the right bank of the Shannon. He was the youngest of twelve brothers, all of whom fell in battle, except Marcan who was a religious and head of the clergy of Munster, and Anluan who died of a severe illness.

Brian's eldest brother was Mathghamhain (Mahon) who succeeded his father, and in 968 became king of Munster. Mahon was engaged almost constantly in war with the Danes and with the Leinstermen who, as a rule, were in alliance with them, "for there were many Gael who stood by him (Sitric of Limerick), not so much through love of him as through hatred of the Dal Cais (the Dalcassians, the family to which Kennedy belonged)." In 959 Mahon and the Munstermen plundered Clonmacnois. In 965 they destroyed Limerick, and in 968 they fought a decisive battle with the Irish-Norse of Sulchoid, about two and a half miles north-west of Tipperary. The battle lasted from sunrise till midday and ended in the complete rout of the allies. The prisoners were then collected on the hill of Saingel, near Limerick, and "every one that was fit for war was put to death and every one that was fit for a slave was enslaved." In 976 Mahon was betrayed, some say by an Irish prince, and treacherously put to death by his Norse and Irish enemies. Brian, then thirty-five years of age, became king of Munster and took quick vengeance on the assassins. In three years' time he was the undisputed king of the southern half of Ireland.

In 980 Maelsechlainn (Malachy) II, surnamed Mor, "the Great," king of Meath, became emperor of Ireland, and in the same year he won a victory over the Danes at the battle of Tara. Somewhere about that time Brian became the bitter rival of Malachy and made up his mind to dispute the throne with him. In 985, with a great fleet, he sailed up the Shannon to Lough Ree, raided Meath, and did great damage to Connacht. For a few years there was show of friendhip between the two kings, and in 998 they came to an understanding and made a truce according to which, on certain conditions, Malachy was limited as sole sovereign of the northern, and Brian, of the southern half, of Ireland. Thereupon the Leinstermen allied themselves with the Dublin Danes and revolted. Brian and Malachy united their forces, "to the great joy of the Irish," as the Four Masters say and, in 999, defeated them "with red slaughter" at Glenmama, near Dunlavin, County Wicklow. Seven thousand Danes are said to have fallen in the battle. The Irish then marched to Dublin which they sacked of its accumulated treasures, ravaged Leinster and expelled King Sitric, with whom Brian himself was afterwards to make peace and alliance.

The two Irish kings soon quarreled again, and in the year 1002, Malachy, finding that there was defection in his ranks, was compelled to resign his supremacy to the superior force of Brian and to step down to the position of a provincial king. The fact is Brian violated the treaty. As Tighernach, the annalist, says, this was the first "treacherous turning of Brian against Malachy."

Both Malachy and Brian were extraordinary men and it would seem as if Ireland was not big enough for both of them. Of the two, Malachy played the nobler part. He was generous, whole-hearted, and loyal to his promises, and Brian's superior in unselfish patriotism and in readiness to sacrifice personal pride and personal rights to the welfare and interests of his country. On the other hand, Brian was the more forceful, energetic and capable. He was clearly a usurper and filled with ambition. Yet had he not done what he did which, after all, is condoned by modern statescraft and was no more treacherous than what has happened hundreds of times in the history of other countries, Malachy or some other rival would undoubtedly have attempted to overreach him. Had he begun his career at an earlier age and had he not had to contend with foreign invasion, he would no doubt have succeeded in welding the Irish clans into a strongly centralized and compact empire. That design probably never entered into his calculations. As it was, he did achieve that result to a certain extend and his reign was remarkably successful, prosperous and happy......

Brian even attempted to extend his power beyond the limits of Ireland. In the year 1005 he fitted out a fleet manned by Norsemen from Dublin, Waterford and Wexford and Irish and pillaged the shores and levied tribute on the inhabitants of northern and western Britain. He did not extirpate the Danes who were domiciled in Ireland or banish them from the kingdom, but treated them with the utmost leniency, and recognized the element of strength they would add to promote commerce and develop the resources of the country. In return for the Dublin Danes binding themselves to follow him in his wars, he was obligated to guarantee them and the other foreigners possession of their territory in Ireland.

In furtherance of his Danish policy or of his personal ambition, Brian found it to his interest to bind this peace by ties of marriage even with those who so lately were his bitterest enemies. A few months after Glenmama he gave his own daughter by his first wife in marriage to Sigtryggr (Sitric), his former opponent and king of Dublin, while he himself, Brian, married as his second wife, Sitric's mother, Gormlaith, a beautiful, powerful and intriguing Irish woman. Like her namesake, the gentle and unfortunate poet-Queen who lived sixty years before her, Gormlaith had a stormy life and her marriage to Brian was her third matrimonial venture. She was first married to Malachy the Great, then to Olafr kvaran (Amhalaobh "the Shoe"), Danish king of Dublin (celebrated in the history of England), by whom she had a son, the Sitric mentioned above; and finally she was married to Brian Boru, and was prepared to marry, if one can speak of these connections as legal matrimony, for the fourth time, as we shall see later. In the words of the sagaman, "Gormlaith was the fairest of all women, and best gifted in everything that was not in her own power, but it was the talk of men that she did all things ill over which she had any power."

It was through Gormlaith's machinations and deadly hatred that Brian lost his life, and the last act in the long Dano-Irish drama was effected. A series of petty family quarrels precipitated the denoument. One day, it was in the year 1013, the Leinster prince Maolmordha (Molloy), who was Gormlaith's brother and conse-quently Brian's brother-in-law, and in alliance with the Dublin Danes, was bringing three large pine masts for shipping, probably as a tribute, to Brian at Kinkora. As his men were climing a boggy hill near Roscrea a quarrel broke out between them and other clansmen, and Maolmordha, giving a hand to support one of the masts, tore a silver button from a tunic which Brian had given him. On arriving at Kincora he asked his sister to mend the tunic for him, but instead she threw it into the fire, saying he ought to be ashamed to accept any gift from Brian and thus admit his subjection to him, an indignity, she said, which neither his father nor grandfather would ever have suffered. The taunt left a rankling wound in the heart of Maolmordha. On another day Maolmordha, looking on while Brian's eldest son, Murchadh (Morrough) and his cousin Conang were playing chess at Kincora, suggested a move which lost Murchadh the game. Then Murchadh angrily exclaimed, "That was like the advice you gave the Danes which lost them the battle of Glenmama" - to which Maolmordha replied, "Yes, and I will give them advice again, and this time they will not be defeated."

One word led to another, and the men parted in anger. When Brian heard of the altercation, he sent a man posthaste after Maolmordha with gifts to appease him and to invite him back to Kincora. The messenger overtook him on the bridge of Killaloe, but Maolmordha broke the man's head and kept on his way till he reached home where he made it known to his people the great insult he had received from Brian's son. He then joined forces with O'Neill, O'Ruarc, Sitric of Dublin and others and attacked Brian's ally, Malachy, near Sord (Swords) a few miles north of Dublin, and defeated him. Malachy appealed to Brian to come to his aid, but Brian was short of supplies and could furnish no assistance.

In the meantime Brian had put away Gormlaith, who was then free to vent all her spleen on him. She was especially anxious to win the help of Sigurd, Earl of the Orkneys. Sigurd, who was Irish on his mother's side, promised to come provided, in case of success, he should be king of Ireland and have the hand of Gormlaith. For he had ambition to establish a Danish dynasty similar to the one which his countrymen, Svein, and his son, Cnut, had shortly before founded in England. Though his mother wove for him a "raven banner" with mighty spells which was to bring victory to the host before whom it was flown but death to the man who bore it, it was against his own forebodings and those of his men that Sigurd was induced to take part in the expedition.

Sitric next sought help from two Viking brothers who lived on the west coast of the Isle of Man. Ospak was a heathen and Brodar had been a Christian but apostatized, and was regarded as a kind of magician. He was a very tall man with long black hair which he wore tucked in under his belt, and he was clad in a coat of mail "which no steel could bite." He too stipulated that he would come with twenty ships provided he should wed Gormlaith and become king of Ireland. As Sitric was under instructions to get help at any price, he made no scruple to accept the terms on condition that the agreement was to be kept secret. Ospak, who was dissatisfied with the arrangement, escaped from his brother during the night with his ten ships, sailed round Ireland and up the Shannon where he joined Brian and became his ally.

By Palm Sunday in the year 1014, a great host of the massed forces of the Norse-lands assembled on the shore of Clontarf, a few miles north of Dublin. It consisted of 1,000 mail-clad Norsemen under Brodar, Vikings from Normandy, Flanders, England and Cornwall and, above all, fierce fighting men from the Orkneys, Shet-lands, Hebrides, and other islands off the west coast of Scotland, all picked men and most conspicuous for valor of the men of the time. With them also were the men of their race who had settled in and around Dublin, and the Ui Cinnselaigh (Kinsellas) from Wexford and the men of Leinster. These latter were under the command of their King Maolmordha. On the side of Brian and Ireland, were, besides his own people from Munster, the men of Connacht and Meath and the Christianized Norsemen. He also had an auxiliary force from Scotland under Domhnall, Great Steward of Mar, but he got no help from Ulster.

In spite of his seventy-three years of age, Brian wished to lead his army in person, but his advisers persuaded him to retire to a tent not far from the field and there to await the issue. The real commander of the Irish forces was Brian's son, Murchady, a captain of outstanding ability, who stationed himself with a select corps of troops from Desmond and Thomond facing Brodar's mail-clad warriors.

On the night before the battle, the Norse said, their old god of war, Woden himself, rode up through the dusk on a dapple grey horse, halberd in hand, to take counsel with his champions; and there were other portents. Brian was unwilling to fight on Good Friday, but it had been prophesied to the Danes that if the battle was fought on that day Brian would certainly be slain, but if they fought on any other day, all would fall who were against him. So they forced the battle on Good Friday, which fell that year on April 23. The combat began at sunrise, when the tide was full and raged till sunset. This celebrated battle is known as the Battle of Brian, or the Battle of the Weir of Clontarf. But, as a matter of fact, the scene of the battle was not at Clontarf at all, but near Clonliffe, between the Liffey and the Tolka, in what are now the outlying districts of Dublin north of the Liffey. In those days the tide flowed over the plain now occupied by Merrion Square, College Green and up to the very walls of the Castle. The Norse battleline extended roughly from the Four Courts, Rutland Square and Montjoy Square. It was a faulty position, for all retreat was cut off by Tomar's Wood, a part of which is the Phoenix Park, stretching from Drumcondra toward the Liffey. The Irish lay to the north, their right flank at Drum-condra and the left in Clontarf. Both armies are estimated at about 20,000 men, but the Danes were the better armed, many of them being clad in shirts of mail, while most of the Irish fought in tunics. Before the battle, Brian is said to have mounted his charger and, with a golden-hilted sword in one hand and a crucifix in the other, urged on his men to meet the enemy.

Sitric does not appear to have taken part in the battle, but to have held the garrison in reserve behind the walls on the hill of the city where the Danish women, among them Brian's daughter, looked on from the battlements; and it appeared to them "that not more numerous would be the sheaves floating over a great company reaping a field of oats, even though two or three battalions were working at it, than the hair flying with the wind from them, cut away by heavy gleaming axes and by bright flaming swords."

At the first onset, Brian's men came in contact with the mail-clad men in the Danish center and were cut to pieces. But the enemy[s success was not lasting, and toward evening the efforts of the Irish were crowned with success and the day was saved by the arrival of Malachy's men who were fresh and unwearied.

Part of the enemy fled to their ships at Clontarf, but the returning tide had carried away the boats and prevented the escape of most of them. Great numbers were drowned in the sea and heaps of them lay dead on the ground. Four thousand of them are said to have fallen on Brian's side and 7,000 on his opponent's. Both parties lost most of the leaders, including the brave Earl Sigurd.

During the battle Brian was guarded in his tent at Magduma, near Tomar's Wood, by a "fence of shields," or "skjaldborg," as the Danes called it, composed of chosen warriors who surrounded him with their shields locked together. The king is said to have knelt on a cushion with his psalmbook open before him. News was falsely brought to him that his son had fallen. Then a spy or traitor in the Irish camp, said to be Tadhg O Ceallaigh (O'Kelly) king of Ui Maine (Hy-many, countries Galway and Roscommon), who afterwards fell in the battle, pointed out Brian's position to Brodar. The guard was overcome and, according to one account, Brian took his sword, slew the Norse invader and then killed himself; but the Norse account is that Brian was slain by a blow from Brodar who was slain in turn by an unknown hand.

It was a costly victory for the Irish; the king himself, the heir-apparent (his brave son Murchadh), and his heir (Turlough), all fell in battle. The bodies of the two former were brought to Armagh and interred honorably in a tomb near the sanctuary of Saint Patrick. On the conclusion of the battle the troops disbanded, each clan going to its own territory, and Donchadh, Brian's son, who had been away on a foraging expedition and had taken no part in the battle, took command.

But the days of Ireland's glory were departed. In the words of his eulogist, "Brian was the last man in Erin who was a match for a hundred. He was the last man who killed a hundred in one day. His was the last step that true valor ever took in Erin!" He was a soverign of whom any nation might justly be proud and one of the world's greatest monarchs. Had he or his family lived, the chance is that with the prestige of his name and the great victory at Clontarf, they would have founded an hereditary monarch which would have put an end to disunion and demoralization and provided one of the strongest bulwarks against the Norman invasion which was soon to fall upon the country.

But his death and that of his eldest son brought about the displacement of the Dalcassians and the restoration of Malachy to the throne. In the year after Clontarf, 1015, Malachy led an army against Dublin and suppressed the last attempts of the foreigners. He reined eight years and died in 1022. Brave, magnanimous, and inspired by a lofty patriotism and chivalry, he was the last Irish king to reign without opposition.

After him, as a result of Brian's unfortunate violation of the law of the realm, there were few Irish kings who had not to fight for the throne instead of being chosen to it according to custom. Frequently two or more claimants assumed the title at the same time and desolated and distracted the country. These men, who are known for the most part as "kings with opposition," because they were unable to secure general obedience to their administration of affairs, were weaker than their predecessors and their worthless and futile careers only emphasize the greatness of Brian and Malachy. For twnety years after Malachy's death, the chief govern-ment was vested in the hands of two men, neither of whom was a king, one being Cuan O Lochan, the King's chief poet, and the other a religious of Lismore named Corcran.

The battle of the Weir of Clontarf was one of the decisive battles of history, for it not only warded off Danish rule from Ireland, but it probably even altered the whole subsequent history of Europe. Had the Danes been victorious and gotten possession of Ireland, they would doubtless have founded there a kingdom which would have been the greatest step toward the formation of a far-flung northern empire, with its center at London. For three centuries they strove desperately for possession of the prize, but they were unable to accomplish in those three hundred years in Ireland as much as they had accomplished in one year in northern France and in England.

After Clontarf the Danes who were left in Ireland settled down and became as Irish as the Irish themselves, but nearly 100 years after the battle the foreigners made a final attempt to get control of Ireland. In the year 1089 the famous Norwegian king Magnus Barelegs, so-called because he dressed in the Irish fashion, who fills a large place in the romantic history of the period, came to Ireland with a mighty force. He had conquered the Hebrides and Man and had already made many visits to Ireland, and was more than half Irish in feeling and culture. He used Irish in his poems and was in love, as he says, with "the Irish girl whom I love better than myself." According to the Manx Chronicle, he sent his shoes to Muirchertach, Emperor of Ireland, and ordered him to wear them on his shoulders on Christmas Day in the presence of his ambassador, as a token of submission, and Muir-chertach obeyed the command. Other old chronicles say that Magnus married Muirchertach's daughter and that afterwards he sent her back to her father. When he was killed in battle in Ulster, in the year 1103, he left a son, afterwards king Harald Gille, who was born either in Ireland or in the Hebrides, of an Irish mother.

The Viking age was by no means a starless night in Ireland, nor was society so horribly disorganized as is generally believed. It was a period marked by the lives of Irish chiefs of outstanding ability, of some of the greatest figures in Nordic history, and of women of unusual personality. Even in those days of terror and danger from foreign invasion, when an enemy fleet stood in every port and soldiers were encamped in many parts of the country, Ireland was still in the full current of European life. Though internecine feuds and battles with the Danes took up much of the chieftains' time, other things besides spears and swords were exchanged between the Irish and the invader. In no other land in which these two peoples of such different culture came together did each learn so much from the other as in Ireland. In matters of agriculture and cattle raising the Irish were the teachers of the Norsemen, but in other purely material pursuits the civilization of the Norse was superior to that of the Irish. Though by the middle of the seventh century, in the pre-Viking period, Ireland had made considerable progress in the art of ship construction, it was above all from the hardy sailors of the north that they learned to build and sail great ships and to organize fleets, to use iron armor, to fight on horseback and no longer from chariots or on foot, to build stone forts and bridges, and to live in fortified cities surrounded by walls. By the middle of the tenth century, Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, all Viking establishments, were strong-walled places.

Nor were the Vikings mere sea robbers; they were merchants as well. Since they controlled the seas, for a long time all trade and shipping between Limerick and other Irish ports and the west of France and Spain was in their hands. They exported Ireland's products and imported all that Ireland wanted, as wheat, wine, costly silks, and fine leather, and they helped to introduce foreign fasions into Ireland. The first Irish coins that were struck in Ireland were minted by Norse kings who held court in Dublin; they have been found in Norway and elsewhere, and point to the trade carried on between the two countries. The Irish probably also adopted the northern system of weights and measures.

How much Irish society and domestic life were influenced by Norse occupation is seen in the Irish language itself, in which there is scarcely a word meaning a large ship or its parts or markets or trade that is not borrowed from the Norse, if it is not from the Latin. Even the name by which, in English, we call Erin, is from the Old Norse Iraland, and the English names of three of the present-day provinces, Munster, Leinster and Ulster, have a Norse termination, stadr, "place," added to the Gaelic stem. Donegal (Dun na Gall), "the Fort of the Foreigners," got its name from a fort built by the Vikings. But these are the exceptions. There are scarcely more than a dozen Norse place names on the whole map of Ireland and these are mostly on or near the sea coast, while there are over a thousand in the middle and northern England. This is one of the surest signs that there was no real conquest or occupation of the country. The Norse and the Irish had to understand each other to some appreciable extent, and it was the language of the invader that gave way to that of the invaded.

As a result of intermarriage, there was an exchange of Irish and Scandinavian personal names, and such typical Irish names as Cormac, Patrick, Dubthach (Duffy), are found in Norse sagas. The children of these marriages were called Mael-Muire, Gilla Patraic, and other Christian names, On the other hand, some Norse personal names such as Somhairle (MacSorley), Raghnall (MacRanald), Amhlaobh (MacAuliffe), Dubhghall (Doyle), Maghnus (MacManus), Iomhar (MacIvors), have become popular and important surnames.

Though the Viking invasions checked the normal development of Irish civilization, undid what the efforts of successive centuries had realized, and gave Ireland such a shock that learning scarcely every fully recovered from it, a brilliant intellectual life prevailed during that period and, in all the things that pertained to the mind, the Irish were far superior to their invaders and Irish genius made itself felt upon them. The names of Norse students are found among those who attended Ireland's most celebrated university, Clonmacnois, in the first half of the eleventh century. Streams of professors, students and missionaries continued to flow to the continent, some of them no doubt fleeing from the Vikings.

Irish sculpture, building, metal work, art, and ornament flourished and influenced the art of the Scandinavians....It was Irish scholars who introduced the literature of Greece and Rome to the men of the north... The Irish influence on the early litera-ture of Iceland is unmistakable. Indeed, the Norse were the imitators of the Irish, and certain northern types, motives and forms of style are clearly of Irish origin or have been developed through Irish influence. The Irish were also of considerable influence in softening the wild manners of the Norsemen with whom they came in contact and, above all, it is to the Irish that they owe their Christianity...

Besides the general histories of Ireland and works in German and the Scandi-navian languages (which give the best account of the period), the following books are recommended:

  • C. F. Keary: The Vikings in Western Christendom, London, 1891.
  • George Henderson: The Norse Influence on Celtic Scotland, Glasgow, 1910.
  • Alexander Bugge: Contributions to the History of the Norsemen in Ireland, Christiana, 1900.
  • Charles Haliday: The Scandinavian Kingdom of Dublin, Dublin, 1884.

From: The Story of the Irish Race, by Seamus MacManus.

June Pelo, 1996

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