Read CHAPTER X - THE RAIDS OF THE NORTHMEN of Ireland‚ Historic and Picturesque, free online book, by Charles Johnston, on

A.D. 750-1050.

Aed Allan, the king who so feelingly wrote the epitaph of the saintly virgin Samtain, needed an epitaph himself four years later, for he fell in battle with Domnall son of Murcad son of Diarmaid, who succeeded him on the throne. It is recorded that, in the following year, the sea cast ashore a whale under the mountains of Mourne, to the great wonder of those who dwelt by the hill of Rudraige. Thus do the Chronicles establish their good faith, by putting on record things trifling or grave, with equal impartiality.

They were presently to have something more memorable to record than the loss of a battle or the stranding of a whale. But before we come to this new chapter in the life of Ireland, let us show the continuity of the forces we have already depicted. The old tribal turmoil went on unabated. In 771, the first year of Doncad son of Domnall in the sovereignty over Ireland, that ruler made a full muster of the Ui-Neill and marched into Leinster. The Leinstermen moved before the monarch and his forces, until they arrived at the fort called Nectain’s Shield in Kildare. Domcad with his forces was entrenched at Aillin, whence his people continued to fire, burn, plunder and devastate the province for the space of a week, when the Leinstermen at last submitted to his will. Seventeen years later it is recorded that the church and abbey of Ardmaca, or, as we may now begin to call it, Armagh, were struck by lightning, and the night was terrible with thunder, lightning and wind.

We see, therefore, that the double life of the people, the life of valor and the life of wisdom, were following their steady course in camp and school. We may call up a very interesting witness to the whole condition of Ireland during this epoch: Alfred king of the Northumbrian Saxons, who spent several years traveling through the land and studying in the schools. On his departure, he wrote an ode of acknowledgment to the country he was leaving, in the verse of the native Irish tongue. From this ode we may quote a few picturesque lines, taking them from a version which preserves something of the original rhythm:

“I traveled its fruitful provinces round,
And in every one of the five I found,
Alike in church and in palace hall,
Abundant apparel and food for all.
Gold and silver I found, and money,
Plenty of wheat and plenty of honey;
I found God’s people rich in pity;
Found many a feast and many a city....
I found in each great church moreo’er,
Whether on island or on shore,
Piety, learning, fond affection,
Holy welcome and kind protection....
I found in Munster unfettered of any
Kings and queens and poets a many,
Poets well skilled in music and measure;
Prosperous doings, mirth and pleasure.
I found in Connacht the just, redundance
Of riches, milk in lavish abundance;
Hospitality, vigor, fame,
In Crimean’s land of heroic name....
I found in Ulster, from hill to glen,
Hardy warriors, resolute men.
Beauty that bloomed when youth was gone,
And strength transmitted from sire to son....
I found in Leinster the smooth and sleek,
From Dublin to Slewmargy’s peak,
Flourishing pastures, valor, health,
Song-loving worthies, commerce, wealth....
I found in Meath’s fair principality
Virtue, vigor, and hospitality;
Candor, joyfulness, bravery, purity-
Ireland’s bulwark and security.
I found strict morals in age and youth,
I found historians recording truth.
The things I sing of in verse unsmooth
I found them all; I have written sooth.”

The modern form of the names used by the translator gives this version a slightly misleading tone. Ulster, Munster, Leinster were still known by their old names: Ulad, Mumain and Lagin. The Danish termination by which we know them had not been added. In like manner, Dublin in those days and far later was still called At-Cliat, the Ford of the Hurdles. Yet the tribute which the Saxon king paid to Ireland has a true ring. It thoroughly supports what we have said: that incessant tribal warfare rather expressed than detracted from the vigor of the nation’s life. It had this grave defect, however: it so kindled and cherished the instinct of separateness that union in face of a common foe was almost impossible. Long years of adverse fate were needed to merge the keen individual instinct of old into the common consciousness of to-day.

Modern historians generally write as if the onslaught of the Northmen had had this unifying effect; as if it had been a great calamity, overwhelming the country for several centuries, and submerging its original life under a tide of conquest. Here again the history of the time, as recorded year by year in the Annals, leads us to a wholly different conclusion. We find inroads of the Northmen, it is true; but they are only interludes in the old national life of storm and struggle. That enduring tribal conflict, of which we have already seen so much, did not cease even for a year. Nor can it have greatly mattered to the dwellers in some remote valley whether they were sacked, their cattle driven off, and their children taken captive by strangers or by men of their own land.

There was one chief difference: the foreigners, being still heathens, did not spare the churches and the schools. The golden or silver reliquaries, the jeweled manuscript-cases, the offerings of precious stones and rich ornaments laid on the altars: these things proved an irresistible temptation to the roving sea-kings. They often burned or cast away the manuscripts, eager only to take the jeweled coverings, and in this way many monuments of the olden time have been lost, and many gaps in the history of the nation made irreparable. Yet it would seem that even the loss of manuscripts has been exaggerated, since such lavish abundance remains to us from the times before the first northern raiders came. Many a remote shrine was never even approached by the northern wanderers; and, in the long times of peace between raid and raid, one school had time to gain from another copies of the books which were lost. We may hope that the somewhat rigid views of copyright expressed in the matter of St. Finian’s Psalter were not invariably adhered to. We have Chronicles kept with unbroken regularity year by year through the whole of the epoch of Northern raids, and they by no means indicate a period of national depression, nor justify us in thinking of these raids as much more than episodes in the general fighting of the nation,-the martial state through which every modern country has passed before emerging to homogeneous life.

To come to the events themselves, as they appeared to the men who witnessed them. We find the first record of the Northern raiders under the year 795: “The burning of Lambay by the Gentiles. The shrines were broken and plundered.” This Lambay is an island of considerable extent, off the Dublin coast, some six or seven miles north of Howth. It rises gradually from the south extremity into a purple cliff of porphyry facing the northern sea, and on the sheltered slope under the sun a little church colony with schools and dwelling-houses had been built. Against this peaceful solitude the raiders came, burning and plundering, and when they rowed away again in their long ships towards the north, a smoldering black ruin bore testimony that they were indeed Gentiles, unblessed by Christian baptism.

Three years later the little island of St. Patrick, six miles north of Lambay, met with a like fate. It was “burned by the Gentiles,” as the Chronicles say. And from that time forth we hear of their long ships again and again, hovering hawk-like around the coasts of Ireland and Scotland. In 802, and again in 806, the Scottish Iona of Colum of the Churches was raided, and the next year we find the pirates making a descent upon Inismurray, off the Sligo coast, between the summit of Knocknarea and the cliffs of Slieve League. This last settlement of saints and scholars was founded by Molaise,-he who had pronounced sentence of exile on Colum of the Churches, the banishment that was the beginning of grace for the northern Picts. His oratory still remains on the island, beside the Church of the Men, the Church of the Women and the circular stone fort, which was very likely built to guard against new attacks, after this first raid. There are holy wells and altars there also, and Inismurray, better than any other place, gives us a picture of the old scholastic life of that remote and wonderful time.

Five years later, the Northern raiders made their way further round the coast, under the shadow of the western mountains and the great cliffs of Achill; we read of “a slaughter of the people of Connemara by the Gentiles” in that year, and the year following, other battles with Gentiles are recorded in the same part of Ireland.

In 818, if we are to believe the Annalist, a singular thing happened: “An army was led by Murcad, having the Ui-Neill of the North with him. Concobar king of Ireland with the Ui-Neill of the South and the Leinstermen came from the South on the other hand. When they came to one place, it happened, through a miracle of God, that they separated from each other for that time without slaughter or one of them spilling a drop of the other’s blood.” That entry better than any other shows the restless spirit of the times. It shows, too, that the first shock of Norse invasion had not in any sense warned the people and chieftains of Ireland of coming danger, nor had it in any degree checked the steady course of the nation’s growth through storm and strife to personal consciousness, as the stepping-stone to the wider common consciousness of the modern world.

The year following we read of “a plundering of Howth by the Gentiles, who carried off a great prey of women.” These captives were doubtless the first to bring the Message of the New Way to the wild granite lands of the north, where the mountains in their grandeur frown upon the long inlets of the fiords. They taught to their children in those wild lands of exile the lessons of grace and holiness, so rudely interrupted when the long ships of the Norsemen were sighted from the Hill of Howth.

A year later, in 820, the raiders had found their way to the southernmost extremity of the island; to Cape Clear, off the coast of Cork. This once again brings to our notice the position of so many of the early religious settlements,-on rocky islands off the coasts, well out of the turmoil of tribal strife which raged uninterrupted on the mainland. St. Patrick’s Island and Lambay on the east, Clear Island on the south, and Inismurray on the northwest, so well protected by the sea from disturbance at home, were, by that very isolation, terribly exposed to these foreign raiders from the sea. Howth, Moville and Bangor, all on peninsulas, all by the seashore, enjoyed a like immunity and were open to a like danger. Therefore we are not surprised to find that, two years later, Bangor was “plundered by the Gentiles.”

It will be remembered that St. Patrick’s first church was built on land given him by Dicu, chieftain of the district round Downpatrick, a name which commemorates the presence of the Messenger. Two sons of this same Dicu had been held as hostages by Laogaire the king, and their marvelous escape from durance was recorded in the name, Dun-da-lath-glas, the Dwelling of the Two Broken Fetters, given to Downpatrick. The place was of old renown. Known to Ptolemy as Dunum, it was, during Concobar’s sway at Emain of Maca, the fortress of the strong chief, Celtcar, whose huge embattled hill of earth still rises formidable over the Quoyle River. In the year 823, we read, Dundalathglas was plundered by the Gentiles; but the story does not stop here, for we are further told that these same Gentiles were beaten by the Ulad armies not far from the great fort of Celtcar. This is the first entry of this tenor. Hitherto, the Northmen seem to have fallen only on outlying religious communities, in remote islands or on the seashore; but this last raid brought them to one of the very few church-schools which had been built close to a strong fortress, with the result that the Northmen were beaten and driven back into their ships.

Three years later the Gentiles plundered Lusk on the mainland opposite Lambay, but in that same year they were twice defeated in battle, once by Cairbre son of Catal, and once by the king of Ulad. The raids of the Norse warriors grow more frequent and determined from this time; in itself a testimony to the wealth and prosperity of the country, the abundance of gold and of accumulated riches, whether cattle or corn, ornaments or richly dyed stuffs, red and purple and blue. Word seems to have been carried to the wild hills and fiords of frozen Scandinavia that here was booty in abundance, and the pirate hordes came down in swarms.

Thus we read that Armagh, the center of St. Patrick’s work, and the chief home of learning, was thrice plundered in 830, the raiders sailing up Carlingford Lough and then making a dash of some fifteen miles across the undulating country separating them from the city of churches. This is the first time they ventured out of sight of their boats. Two years later they plundered Clondalkin, nine miles inland from the Dublin coast, where the Round Tower still marks the site of the old church and school. To the growing frequency of these raids, it would seem, the building of Round Towers is to be attributed; they were at once belfries and places of refuge. We find, therefore, that the door is almost always many feet above the ground, being reached by a ladder afterwards drawn up by those inside. The number of these Round Towers all over the country, and the perfect preservation of many of them, show how universal this precaution was, and how effective were the refugees thus provided. It is instructive to read under this same year, 832, that “a great number of the family of Clonmacnoise were slain by Feidlimid king of Cashel, all their land being burned by him up to the door of the church.” Thus the progress of tribal struggle was uninterrupted by the Gentile raids.

Four years later, a fleet of sixty Norse fighting galleys sailed up the Boyne. Sixty long ships entered the Liffey in the same year, and a year later they captured the fortress of the Ford of the Hurdles, At-Cliat,-the old name of Dublin. Three years later we find the king of Munster plundering Meath and West Meath, showing that no sense of common danger disturbed the native kings. This strengthens the view we have already taken: that the attacks of the Norse sea-kings were only an interlude in the incessant contests between the tribes of province and province; contests perfectly natural and normal to the development of the land, and through which every country has at some period passed.

It would seem that the Northmen who captured the Ford of the Hurdles departed from their former usage. Fortifying themselves, or strengthening the existent fortress, they determined to pass the winter in Ireland, instead of returning, as they had always done up to this time, before the autumn storms made dangerous the navigation of the wild northern seas. Their presence in this fort gave the native powers a center upon which to concentrate their attack, and as a result the year 846 was marked by a signal victory over the Northmen, twelve hundred of those at At-Cliat being slain. Four other successful contests with the raiders are recorded for the same year, and we can thoroughly trust the Annalists who, up to this time, have so faithfully recorded the disasters of their own race.

About the same time the Northmen gained a second point of vantage by seizing and fortifying a strong position where the town of Cork now stands. Indeed their instinct of seamanship, their knowledge of good harbors and the conditions which make them, led them to fix their first entrenchments at Dublin, Cork and Limerick,-which remained for centuries after the great ports of the country on the east, south and west; and the Norse flavor still lingers in the names of Carlingford, Wexford and Waterford, the Fiords of Cairlinn, Weis and Vadre. A wonderful side-light on the whole epoch is shed by this entry for 847: “In this year sevenscore ships of the Gentiles from abroad fought against the Gentiles in Ireland.” It would seem that the earlier comers, who had drawn up their long ships on the beach, and thrown up earthworks round their camp, instantly resented the attempt of later arrivals to poach on their preserves, and that a fierce fight was the result. During the whole of the following century we find signs of like rivalry between different bands of raiders, and it becomes evident that they were as much divided amongst themselves as were the native tribes they fought against.

Two years later a further light is shed on this mutual strife when we are told that “Dark Gentiles came to At-Cliat and slaughtered the Fair Gentiles, plundering their fort and carrying away both people and property.” The next year saw a new struggle between the Dark Gentiles and the Fair Gentiles, with much mutual slaughter. This leads us to realize that these raiders, vaguely grouped by modern writers under the single name of Danes, really belonged to several different races, and doubtless came from many parts of the Baltic coasts, as well as from the fiords of the great Scandinavian peninsula. The Dark Foreigners are without doubt some of that same race of southern origin which we saw, ages earlier, migrating northwards along the Atlantic seaboard,-a race full of the spirit of the sea, and never happier than when the waves were curling and breaking under their prows. They found their way, we saw, as far northwards as the coast of Scotland, the Western Isles, and distant Norway over the foam, where the long fiords and rugged precipices gave them a congenial home. We find them hovering over the shores of Ireland at the very dawn of her history; and, in later but still remote ages, their power waned before the De Danaan tribes. This same dark race returning now from Norway, swooped hawk-like upon the rich shrines of the Irish island sanctuaries, only to come into hostile contact once more with sons of that golden-haired race which scattered the dark Fomorians at Mag Tuiread of the North. For the Fair Gentiles of our mediaeval Chronicle are no other than the golden-haired Scandinavians; the yellow-locked Baltic race that gave conquerors and a new ideal of beauty to the whole modern world. And this Baltic race, as we saw in an earlier epoch, was the source and mother of the old De Danaans, whose hair was like new-smelted gold or the yellow flag-lilies of our lakes and rivers. Thus after long ages the struggle of Fomor and De Danaan was renewed at the Ford of the Hurdles between the Dark and Fair Strangers, rivals for the plunder of the Irish religious schools.

Though the personalities of this age do not stand forth with the high relief of Cuculain and Concobar, though we can hardly quote poems to equal the songs of Find son of Cumal and Ossin of the golden tongue, yet genuine inspiration never failed in the hearts of the warriors and on the lips of the bards. Thus in 860 did a poet lament the death of a king:

“Mournfully is spread her veil of grief over Erin
Since Maelseaclain, chieftain of our race has perished,-
Maelseaclain of the flowing Shannon.
Many a moan resounds in every place;
It is mournful news among the Gael.

Red wine has been spilled into the valley:
Erin’s monarch has died.
Though he was wont to ride a white charger.
Though he had many steeds,
His car this day is drawn by a yoke of oxen.
The king of Erin is dead.”

Four years afterwards the contest between the raiders and the chieftains grew keener, more centered, more like organized war. “A complete muster of the North was made by Aed Finnliat, so that he plundered the fortresses of the foreigners, wherever they were in the north; and he carried off their cattle and accoutrements, their goods and chattels. The foreigners of the province came together at Lough Foyle. After Aed king of Ireland had heard that this gathering of strangers was on the borders of his country, he was not negligent in attending to them. For he marched towards them with all his forces, and a battle was fought fiercely and spiritedly between them. The victory was gained over the foreigners, and a slaughter was made of them. Their heads were collected to one place, in the presence of the king, and twelve-score heads were reckoned before him, which was the number slain in that battle, besides the numbers of those who were wounded and carried off by him in the agonies of death, and who died of their wounds some time afterwards.”

A renewal of tribal warfare in the second year after this, when this same Aed the king was attacked by Flann the lord of Breag in Meath, called forth certain battle-verses full of the fire and fervor of the time.

A poet sang:

“At Kiladerry this day the ravens shall taste sips of blood:
A victory shall be gained over the magic host of the Gentiles
and over Flann.”

The mother of Flann sang:

“Happiness! Woe! Good news! Bad news! The gaining of a great
triumphant battle.

Happy the king whom it makes victorious; unhappy the king who
was defeated.

Unhappy the host of Leat Cuin, to have fallen by the sprites
of Slain;

Happy the reign of great Aed, and unhappy the loss of Flann.”

Aed the victorious king sang:

“The troops of Leinster are with him, with the added men of
swift Boyne;

This shows the treachery of Flann: the concord of Gentiles
at his side.”

After ten years, a bard thus sings the dirge of Aed:

“Long is the wintry night, with rough gusts of wind;
Under pressing grief we meet it, since the red-speared king
of the noble house lives not.
It is fearful to watch how the waves heave from the bottom;
To them may be compared all those who with us lament him.
A generous, wise, staid man, of whose renown the populous
Tara was full.
A shielded oak that sheltered the palace of Milid’s sons.
Master of the games of the fair hilled Taillten,
King of Tara of a hundred conflicts;
Chief of Fodla the noble, Aed of Oileac who died too soon.
Popular, not forgotten, he departed from this world,
A yew without any blemish upon him was he of the long-flowing

Nor must it be thought that these repeated raids which we have recorded in any way checked the full spiritual life of the nation. It is true that there was not that quiet serenity from which came the perfect beauty and art of the old Book of Kells, but a keenness and fire kindled the breasts of those who learned the New Way and the Ancient Learning. The schools sent forth a host of eminent men who over all western Europe laid the intellectual basis of the modern world. This view of Ireland’s history might well be expanded almost without limit or possibility of exaggeration. Receiving, as we saw, the learning and traditions of Rome while Rome was yet mighty and a name of old imperial renown, Ireland kept and cherished the classical wisdom and learning, not less than the lore of Palestine. Then the northern garrisons of Rome were beaten back, and Britain and Gaul alike were devastated by hordes from beyond the Rhine. The first wild deluge of these fierce invaders was now over, and during the lull of the storm teachers went forth from Ireland to Scotland, as we have seen; they went also to Britain; to Belgium; to northern, central and southern Gaul; and to countries beyond the Rhine and in the south; to Switzerland and Austria, where one Irishman gave his name to the Canton of St. Gall, while another founded the famous see of Salzburg, a rallying-point through all the Middle Ages. It was not only for pure spiritual zeal and high inspiration that these teachers were famed. They had not less renown for all refined learning and culture. The famous universities of Oxford, Paris and Pavia count among the great spirits at their inception men who were worthy pupils of the schools of Devenish and Durrow, of Bangor and Moville.

We have recorded the tribute paid by Alfred the Saxon king to the Ireland of his day. Let us add to it the testimony of a great divine of France. Elias, Bishop of Angoulême, who died in 875, wrote thus: “What need to speak of Ireland; setting at nought, as it does, the difficulties of the sea, and coming almost in a body to our shores, with its crowd of philosophers, the most intelligent of whom are subjecting themselves to a voluntary exile.”

We have traced the raids of the Northmen for nearly a century. They continued for a century and a quarter longer. Through all this time the course of the nation’s life was as we have described it: a raid from the sea, or from one of their seaboard fortresses by the Dark Gentiles or the Fair; an assembling of the hosts of the native chieftains against them; a fierce and spirited battle against the pirates in their mail-coats and armed with great battle-axes. Sometimes the chosen people prevailed, and sometimes the Gentiles; but in either case the heads of the slain were heaped up at the feet of the victor, many cattle were driven away as spoil, and young men and maidens were taken into captivity. It would seem that at no time was there any union between the foreigners of one and another seaboard fortress, any more than there was unity among the tribes whom they raided and who defeated them in their turn. It was a strife of warring units, without fusion; small groups round chosen leaders, and these merging for awhile in greater groups. Thus the life of the times, in its warlike aspect. Its spiritual vigor we have sufficiently shown, not less in the inspirations of the saints than in the fiery songs of the bards, called forth by battles and the death of kings. Everywhere there was fierce force and seething energy, bringing forth fruit of piety or prowess.

The raiders slowly lost their grasp of the fortresses they had seized. Newcomers ceased to fill their thinning ranks. Their force was finally shattered at the battle of Clontarf, which the Annalist thus records: “1013: The Foreigners of the west of Europe assembled against Brian and Maelseaclain, and they took with them a thousand men with coats of mail. A spirited, fierce, violent, vengeful and furious battle was fought between them, the likeness of which was not to be found in that time, at Cluain-tarb, the Lawn of the Bulls. In this battle was slain Brian son of Ceinneidig, monarch of Ireland, who was the Augustus of all the west of Europe, in the eighty-eighth year of his age.”

The scene of this famous conflict is on the coast, between Dublin and the Hill of Howth. A wide strand of boulders is laid bare by the receding tide, with green sea-grass carpeting the stones. At the very verge of the farthest tide are two huge sand-banks, where the waves roar and rumble with a sound like the bellowing of bulls, and this tumultuous roaring is preserved in the name of the place unto this day.