Read CHAPTER XI - THE PASSING OF THE NORSEMEN of Ireland‚ Historic and Picturesque, free online book, by Charles Johnston, on

A.D. 1013-1250.

There was, as we have seen, no “Danish Conquest” of Ireland, nor anything approaching a conquest. What really happened during the ninth and tenth centuries was this: Raiders from the shores of the Northern seas, from the Scandinavian peninsula and the Western Isles of Scotland, sailed in their long ships among the islands of the Irish coast, looking for opportunities to plunder the treasuries of the religious schools, and carrying off the gold and silver reliquaries and manuscript cases, far more valuable to these heathen seamen than the Latin or Gaelic manuscripts they contained.

These raids had little connection with each other; they were the outcome of individual daring, mere boat’s-crews from one or another of the Northern fiords. A few of the more persistent gradually grew reluctant to retreat with their booty to the frozen north, and tried to gain a footing on the shores of the fertile and wealthy island they had discovered. They made temporary camps on the beach, always beside the best harbors, and threw up earthworks round them, or perhaps more lasting forts of stone. Thus they established a secondary base for raids inland, and a place of refuge whither they might carry the cattle, corn and captives which these raids brought them from the territories of the native clans. These camps on the shore were the germ of a chain of sea-ports at Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick.

From these points raiding went on, and battles were fought in which the raiders were as often vanquished as victorious. There was little union between the various Norse forts, and indeed we sometimes find them fighting valiantly among themselves. Meanwhile, the old tribal contest went on everywhere throughout the island. The south invaded the north and was presently invaded in return. The east and the west sent expeditions against each other. Clan went forth against clan, chief against chief, and cattle and captives many times changed hands. These captives, it would seem, became the agricultural class in each clan, being made to work as the penalty for unsuccessful fighting. The old tribal life went on unbroken during the whole of this period; nor did it subsequently yield to pressure from without, but rather passed away, during succeeding centuries, as the result of inward growth. Meanwhile the religious schools continued their work, studying Latin and Greek as well as the old Gaelic, and copying manuscripts as before; and one fruit of their work we see in the gradual conversion of the heathen Norsemen, who were baptized and admitted to the native church. The old bardic schools likewise continued, so that we have a wealth of native manuscripts belonging to this time, embodying the finest tradition and literature of the earlier pagan ages.

If the Danes and Northern raiders never conquered Ireland, on the other hand they never were expelled. Through the cessation of the original impulse of unrest which brought them, they gradually ceased to receive accessions from the North, and at the same time the forces of amalgamation were slowly merging them into the national and tribal life of their new home. Their separate influence grew less and less, but their race continued, and continues to this day in the sea-ports we have named.

We shall presently have to record another series of Norse inroads, this time not directly from the North, but mediately, through France and Britain, and we shall find that much of our subsequent history was influenced by the new elements and principles then added. We shall do well, therefore, to linger for a moment before this new transition, to gain a clear view of the tendencies of the epoch then closed, the wider significance of that chapter of our nation’s life.

The culture of Ireland, during the period before the Northern raids, bridged over the abyss between the classical and the mediaeval world. During the whole of that period the rest of Europe was hidden under the clouds of the Dark Ages. Ireland stood alone as the one cultured nation. Receiving the classical learning from Roman Gaul and Britain and Italy, while the old world was still alive, Ireland carried that culture onward when Rome and the Roman Empire fell, crushed under the hordes of Northern barbarians: the Franks in Gaul; the Lombards, Goths and Vandals in Spain and Italy; the Angles, Saxons and Danes in Britain; and the Picts and Northmen in the Scottish lowlands. Austria was meanwhile overrun by Asian nomads, the Huns and Magyars; Russia and Germany, with the Scandinavian lands, were still pagan.

Thus all Europe was submerged under a deluge of heathenism, and the old Latin culture was swept away. The tradition of ancient Greece still lingered at Constantinople behind the wall of the Balkans, but it had no influence at all on the northern nations beyond the wall. Ireland was thus the one exception, the ark of safety for the old wisdom and beauty of classical days. And from Ireland, when the tide of heathen invasion slackened, the light of classical times and the spirit of the New Way went forth to all the nascent nations, the great pagan tribes that were to form the modern world. Thus Ireland was the bridge over the Dark Ages, the first of modern nations, keeping the old and blending it with the new.

Yet another view of Ireland’s significance must not be forgotten. Of the original life of the great pagan world which swept over the Roman Empire we know almost nothing. How much do we realize of the thought and genius of Aleman, Frank and Vandal, of Angle and Lombard and Burgundian?

Nothing at all. The darkness that shrouds them is complete. But what a contrast when we come to Ireland! If we leave out the basin of the Mediterranean, with its Asian and African traditions, Ireland is the one European nation which has clear records of its pagan history. And how excellent that history was, how full of humanity and the rich wine of life, the stories of Fergus and Concobar and Cuculain, of Find and Ossin and Gael, of Meave and Deirdre and Crede bear sufficient witness. The tide of Irish life to which they belong, and which brought them forth, flowed on without break to a time so recent that their whole tradition has come down to us, practically at first hand, from the heralds and bards themselves. Ireland is, therefore, our one doorway to the history of northern Europe through the long era of pagan times.

That history was everywhere a fierce tale of tribal warfare. Its heroes are valiant fighters, keen leaders of forays, champion swordsmen and defenders of forts. The air throbs to the battle-drum, rings to the call of the war-trumpet. Every tribe, every clan, is in turn victor and vanquished, raider and victim of raids. Everywhere are struggle and unrest, tales of captivity and slaughter.

We fall into vain lamenting over this red rapine and wrath, until we divine the genius and secret purpose of that wonderful epoch, so wholly different in inspiration from our own. The life of races, like the life of men, has its ordered stages, and none can ripen out of season. That was the epoch of dawning individual consciousness, when men were coming to a keen and vivid realization of themselves and their powers. Keen consciousness and strong personal will could be developed only through struggle-through long ages of individual and independent fighting, where the best man led, and often fought for his right to lead with the best of his followers. Innumerable centers of initiative and force were needed, and these the old tribal life abundantly gave. The territory of a chief hardly stretched farther than he could ride in a day, so that every part of it had a real place in his heart. Nor was he the owner of that territory. He was simply the chosen leader of the men who lived there, perhaps the strongest among many brothers who shared it equally between them. If another thought himself the better man, the matter was forthwith decided by fighting.

The purpose of all this was not the “survival of the fittest” in the material sense, but a harvest purely spiritual: the ripening of keen personal consciousness and will in all the combatants, to the full measure of their powers. The chiefs were the strongest men who set the standard and served as models for the rest, but that standard held the minds of all, the model of perfect valor was in the hearts of all. Thus was personal consciousness gained and perfected.

If we keep this in mind as the keynote of the whole pagan epoch, we shall be better able to comprehend the new forces which were added to that epoch, and which gradually transformed it. The greatest was the Message of the New Way. Deeds are stronger than words, and in the deeds of the first Messengers we can see the new spirit bearing fruit. The slave of Slemish mountain returned breathing not vengeance for his captivity but pity and generous kindness towards his captors. Colum the exile did not seek to enlist the Picts against his native land, but sought rather to give the message of that land to the wild Pictish warriors, and to spread humane and generous feeling among them. Thus was laid the foundation of a wide and universal consciousness; a bridge was built between soul and soul.

From the waning of the Norsemen to the first coming of the Normans is a period of about a hundred and fifty years. We shall best gain an insight into the national and religious life of that time by gleaning from the Annals the vivid and living pictures they never fail to give,-pictures which are the records of eye-witnesses. The strictly contemporary character of the records is vouched for by the correct entry of eclipses: for instance, “on the day before the calends of September, in the year 1030, there was a darkening of the sun.”

We see the genius of the Norsemen suffering a like eclipse the year before: “1029: Olaf son of Sitric, lord of the Foreigners, was taken prisoner by Matgamain Ua Riagain lord of Breag, who exacted twelve hundred cows as his ransom, together with seven score British horses, three score ounces of gold, the sword of Carlus, the Irish hostages, sixty ounces of white silver as the ransom of his fetters, eighty cows for word and supplication, and four hostages to Ua Riagain as a security of peace.”

Two generations later we read: “1088: Tigearnac Ua Briain, chief successor of Ciaran and Coman, died. He was a paragon of learning and history.” The work of the paragon Tigearnac, a history of Ireland, is extant and writ in choice Latin, a monument at once of the classical learning of our schools and of the historical spirit carried down from the days of the pagan heralds and bards. Tigearnac quotes abundantly from Greek and Latin authors, fortifying his conclusions with passages from Eusebius, Orosius, Julius Africanus, Josephus, Jerome and Bede.

A half-century later we get a quaint and vivid glimpse into the religious life of the time: “1145: A lime-kiln which was sixty feet every way was erected opposite Emain Maca by Gilla Mac Liag, the successor of Patrick, and Patrick’s clergy in general.” Here is the glow of that devotion through work which gave us the great mediaeval cathedrals, the fervor and artistic power, which in former times adorned the Gospels of the Book of Kells, now working out its way in lasting stone. The date of this lime-kiln lies indeed just half-way between the consecration of Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel in 1134 and the foundation of the beautiful cathedral beside it by the lord of Tuaid-Muma or Thomond in 1152. Cormac’s Chapel is a very pure example of native style, untouched by foreign or continental influence.

We can divine the figure of one of the great men of the religious world in the records for the year 1148: “A synod was convened at Saint Patrick’s Isle by Maelmaedog, called also Malachias, successor of Patrick, at which were present fifteen bishops and two hundred priests, to establish rules and morals for all. Maelmaedog by the advice of the synod went a second time to Rome, to confer with the successor of Peter.” A few months later we read this record of his death: “Malachias, that is, Maelmaedog Ua Morgair, Archbishop of the chair of Patrick, chief head of the piety of the West of Europe, legate of the successor of Peter, the only head whom the Irish and the Foreigners obeyed, chief paragon of wisdom and piety, a brilliant lamp which illumined territories and churches by preaching and good works, faithful shepherd of the church in general,-after having ordained bishops and priests and persons of every degree; after having consecrated many churches and cemeteries; after having performed every ecclesiastical work throughout Ireland; after having bestowed jewels and food upon the mighty and the needy; after having founded churches and monasteries, for by him was repaired in Ireland every church which had been consigned to decay and neglect, and they had been neglected from times remote;-after leaving every rule and every good moral in the churches of Ireland in general; after having been the second time in the legateship; after having been fourteen years in the primacy; and after the fifty-fourth year of his age, resigned his spirit to heaven on the second day of November, and was buried in the monastery of Saint Bernard at Claravallis in France.”

This is the same worthy under whose influence was built the great lime-kiln over against the fort of Emain, where Concobar once ruled. Even from the scant notices which we have quoted he stands forth clear and strong, full of spiritual and moral vigor, a great man in every sense, and one in whom we divine a lovable and admirable spirit. At that time there were four archbishoprics in Ireland, at Armagh, Cashel, Dublin and Tuam; the primacy belonging to the first, as the seat of the Damliag Mor or Great Stone Church, built by Saint Patrick himself. A sentence in the Annals shows how the revenues were raised: “A horse from every chieftain, a sheep from every hearth.” A few passages like these are enough to light up whole epochs of that mediaeval time, and to show us how sympathetic, strong and pure that life was, in so many ways.

We find, meanwhile, that the tribal struggle continued as of old: “1154: Toirdealbac Ua Concobar brought a fleet round Ireland northwards, and plundered Tir-Conaill and Inis Eogain. The Cinel Eogain sent to hire the fleets of the Hebrides, Arran, Cantyre and Man, and the borders of Alba in general, and they fell in with the other fleet and a naval battle was fiercely and spiritedly fought between them. They continued the conflict from, the beginning of the day till evening, but the foreign fleet was defeated.” This records perhaps the only lesson learned from the Norsemen, the art of naval warfare. We may regret that the new knowledge was not turned to a more national end.

Four years later, “a wicker bridge was made by Ruaidri Ua Concobar at Athlone, for the purpose of making incursions into Meath. There was a pacific meeting between Ruaidri Ua Concobar and Tigearnan, and they made peace, and took mutual oaths before sureties and relics.” This is our first meeting with a king as remarkable in his way as the great archbishop his contemporary. Ruaidri descendant of Concobar was king of Connacht, holding the land from the western ocean up to the great frontier of the river Shannon. Eager to plunder his neighbors and bring back “a countless number of cows,” he undertook this wonderful work, a pile bridge across the river, seemingly the first of its kind to be built there, and in structure very like the famous bridge which Cæsar built across the Rhine,-or like many of the wooden bridges across the upper streams of the Danube at the present day. We shall record a few more of this enterprising and large-minded prince’s undertakings, following the course of the years.

In parenthesis, we find a clue to the standard of value of the time in this record: “1161: The visitation of Osraige was made by Flaitbeartac, successor of Colum Kill; the tribute due to him was seven score oxen, but he selected, as a substitute for these, four hundred and twenty ounces of pure silver.” The price of an ox was, therefore, three ounces of silver. The old-time barter, an echo of which still lingers in the word “pecuniary” from the Latin name for “cattle,” was evidently yielding to the more convenient form of exchange through the medium of the metals, which are easily carried and divided, and suffer no detriment from the passage of time. With the wicker bridge and the lime-kiln, this change from a tribute in cattle to a payment in silver may remind us that we are on the threshold of the modern world.

In 1162 we find the king of Connacht in a new adventure: “An army was led by Muirceartac Ua Lochlain, accompanied by the people of the north of Ireland, the men of Meath, and a battalion of the Connacht men, to At-Cliat, to lay siege to the Foreigners and the Irish; but Ua Lochlain retired without battle or hostages after having plundered the Fair Strangers. A peace was afterwards concluded between the Foreigners and the Gaels; and six score ounces of gold were given by the Foreigners to Ua Lochlain, and five score ounces of gold were paid by Diarmaid Ua Maelseaclain to Ruaidri Ua Concobar for West Meath.” Here again we see the “countless cows” giving place to counted gold in the levying of tribute. We note also, in the following year, that “a lime-kiln measuring seventy feet every way was made by the successor of Colum Kill and the clergy of Colum Kill in twenty days,” in evident emulation of the work of the Armagh see.

The synod already recorded as having been held in the little island of Saint Patrick off the Dublin coast, gives us a general view of the church at that time, the number of sees and parishes, and the spirit animating them. We gain a like view of the civil state in the record of a great assembly convened in 1167 by the energetic and enterprising Connacht king: “A great meeting was called together by Ruaidri Ua Concobar and the chiefs of Leat Cuin, both lay and ecclesiastic, and the chiefs of At-boy,-the Yellow Ford across one of the streams of the Boyne in Meath. To it came the successor of Patrick, the archbishop of Connacht, the archbishop of Leinster, the lord of Breifne, the lord of Oirgialla, the king of Ulster, the king of Tara, and Ragnall son of Ragnall, lord of the Foreigners. The whole of their gathering and assemblage was 19,000 horsemen, of which 6000 were Connachtmen, 4000 with the lord of Breifne, 2000 with the king of Tara, 4000 with the lord of Oirgialla and the king of Ulster, 2000 with the chief of Ui-Failge, and 1000 with the Foreigners of At-Cliat. They passed many good resolutions at this meeting, respecting veneration for churches and clerics, and control of tribes and territories, so that women used to traverse Ireland alone; and a restoration of his prey was made by the chief of the Ui-Failge at the hands of the kings aforesaid. They afterwards separated in peace and amity, without battle or controversy, or without anyone complaining of another at that meeting, in consequence of the prosperousness of the king, who had assembled these chiefs with their forces at one place.”

Here is a foreshadowing of the representative assemblies of our modern times, and the same wise spirit is shown in another event of the same year, thus recorded: “A hosting and a mustering of the men of Ireland, with their chieftains, by Ruaidri Ua Concobar; thither came the lord of Deas-muma, the lord of Tuaid-muma, the king of Meath, the lord of Oirgialla and all the chieftains of Leinster. They arrived in Tir-Eogain, and allotted the part of it north of Slieve Gullion,-now the eastern part of Derry,-to Nial Ua Lochlain for two hostages, and allotted the part of the country of the clan to the south of the mountain to Aed Ua Neill for two other hostages. Then the men of Ireland returned back southwards over Slieve Fuaid, through Tir-Eogain and Tir-Connaill, and over Assaroe-the Cataract of the Erne-and Ruaidri Ua Concobar escorted the lord of Deas-muma with his forces southwards through Tuaid-muma as far as Cnoc-Aine-in Limerick-and the lord of Deas-muma departed with gifts of many jewels and riches.”

While the Norse foreigners were a power at Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, there were not wanting occasions when one of the native tribes called on them for aid against another tribe, sharing with them the joys of victory or the sorrow of defeat, and, where fortune favored, dividing with them the “countless cows” taken in a raid. In like manner the Cinel Eogain, as we saw, hired the fleet of the Norsemen of the Western Isles of Scotland to help them to resist a raid of the Connachtmen. The example thus set was followed repeatedly in the coming years, and we find mention of Flemings, Welshmen and Saxons brought over to take one side or other in the tribal wars.

In the same year that saw the two assemblings of the chieftains under Ruaidri Ua Concobar, another chieftain, Diarmaid son of Murcad brought in from “the land of the Saxons,” as it was called, one of these bands of foreign mercenaries, for the most part Welsh descendants of the old Gaelic Britons, to aid him in his contest for “the kingdom of the sons of Ceinnsealaig.” Two years later, Ruaidri Ua Concobar “granted ten cows every year from himself and from every king that should follow him for ever, to the Lector of Ard Maca, in honor of Patrick, to instruct the youths of Ireland and Alba in Literature.”

For the next year, 1170, we find this record: “Robert Mac Stepni and Ricard Mac Gillebert-Iarl Strangbow-came from Saxonland into Erin with a numerous force, and many knights and archers, in the army of the son of Murcad, to contest Leinster for him, and to disturb the Gaels of Erin in general; and the son of Murcad gave his daughter to Iarl Strangbow for coming into his army. They took Loch Garman-Wexford-and Port Lairge-Waterford-by force; and they took Gillemaire the officer of the fortress and Ua Faelain lord of the Deisi and his son, and they killed seven hundred persons there. Domnall Breagac with numbers of the men of Breag fell by the Leinstermen on that occasion. An army was led by Ruaidri Ua Concobar with the lord of Breifne and the lord of Oirgialla against Leinster and the Foreigners aforesaid, and there was a challenge of battle between them for the space of three days.” This contest was indecisive. The most noteworthy event of the battle was the plundering and slaughter of the Danes of At-Cliat by the newcomers under Iarl Strangbow. The Danes had long before this given up their old pagan faith, converted by their captives and their Gaelic neighbors. Christ Church Cathedral in At-Cliat or Dublin was founded early in the preceding century by Sitric son of Olaf, king of the Danes of Dublin, and Donatus the first Danish bishop; but the oldest part of the present structure belongs to the time we are now speaking of: the close of the twelfth century. The transepts with their chevron mouldings and the principal doorway are of that period, and we may regard them as an offering in expiation of the early heathen raids on Lambay, Saint Patrick’s Isle, and the early schools of the church.

The ambitious Diarmaid Mac Murcad died shortly after the last battle we have recorded, “perishing without sacrament, of a loathsome disease;” a manifest judgment, in the eyes of the Chronicler, for the crime of bringing the Normans to Ireland. In the year that saw his death, “Henry the Second, king of the Saxons and duke of the Normans, came to Ireland with two hundred and forty ships.” He established a footing in the land, as one of many contesting powers, but the immediate results of his coming were slight. This we can judge from the record of three years later: “A brave battle was fought by the Foreigners under Iarl Strangbow and the Gaels under Ruaidri Ua Concobar at Thurles, in which the Foreigners were finally defeated by dint of fighting. Seventeen hundred of the Foreigners were slain in the battle, and only a few of them survived with the Iarl, who proceeded in sorrow to his home at Port Lairge-Waterford.” Iarl Strangbow died two years later at Dublin.

Norman warriors continue to appear during the succeeding years, fighting against the native chieftains and against each other, while the native chieftains continue their own quarrels, just as in the days of the first Norse raids. Thus in the year of Iarl Strangbow’s death, Kells was laid waste by the Foreigners in alliance with the native Ui-Briain, while later in the same year the Foreigners were driven from Limerick by Domnall Ua-Briain, who laid siege to them and forced them to surrender.

Two years later, four hundred and fifty of the followers of De Courcy, another great Norman warrior, were defeated at Maghera Conall in Louth, some being drowned in the river, while others were slain on the battlefield. In the same year De Courcy was again defeated with great slaughter in Down, and escaped severely wounded to Dublin. For At-Cliat, from being a fortress of the Danes and Norsemen, was gradually becoming a Norman town. The doorway of Christ Church Cathedral, which dates from about this time, is of pure Norman style.

In 1186 we find a son of the great Ruaidri Ua Concobar paying a band of these same Foreigners three thousand cows as “wages,” for joining him in some plundering expedition against his neighbors. The genius of strife reigned supreme, and the newcomers were as completely under its sway as the old clansmen. Just as we saw the Dark Norsemen of the ninth century coming in their long ships to plunder the Fair Norsemen of At-Cliat, and the Fair Norsemen not less vigorously retaliating, so now we find wars breaking out among the Normans who followed in the steps of the Norsemen. In 1205 the Norman chieftain who held a part of Meath under his armed sway, and who had already built a strong castle at Kells, was at war with the De Bermingham family, who at that time held the old Danish stronghold of Limerick. Two years later another contest broke out between the De Berminghams and William Marescal, and yet another struggle between Hugo de Lacy and De Bermingham, very disastrous to the retainers of the latter, for the Chronicler tells us that “nearly all his people were ruined.”

Thus the old life of tribal struggle went on. The country was wealthy, full of cattle and herds, silver and gold, stored corn and fruit, rich dyed stuffs and ornaments. The chieftains and provincial kings lived in state within their forts, with their loyal warriors around them, feasting and making merry, and the bards and heralds recited for their delight the great deeds of the men of old, their forefathers; the harpers charmed or saddened them with the world-old melodies that Deirdre had played for Naisi, that Meave had listened to, that Crede sang for her poet lover.

The life of the church was not less vigorous and vital. There are many churches and cathedrals of that period of transition, as of the epoch before the first Norman came, which show the same fervor and devotion, the same faith made manifest by works of beauty. In truth no country in the world has so full and rich a record in lasting stone, beginning with the dwellings of the early saints who had seen the first Messenger face to face, and passing down through age after age, showing the life and growth of the faith from generation to generation.

The schools, as we saw, carried on the old classical tradition, bringing forth monuments like the Annals of Tigearnac; and there was the same vigor and vital force in every part of the nation’s life. The coming of the Normans changed this in no essential regard. There was something added in architecture, the Norman modifying the old native style; the castle and keep gradually taking the place of the earthwork and stone fort. And in the tenure of land certain new principles were introduced. But the sum of national life went on unbroken, less modified, probably, than it had been by the old Norse raids.