Irish Monasteries Plundered

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XII

As plunder was the sole object of these barbarians, they naturally sought it first where it could be obtained most easily and surely. The islands on the Irish coast were studded with monasteries. Their position was chosen as one which seemed peculiarly suitable for a life of retreat from worldly turmoil, and contemplation of heavenly things. They were richly endowed, for ancient piety deemed it could never give enough to God. The shrines were adorned with jewels, purchased with the wealth which the monks had renounced for their own use; the sacred vessels were costly, the gifts of generous hearts. The Danes commenced their work of plunder and devastation in the year 795. Three years after, A.D. 798, they ravaged Inis-patrick of Man and the Hebrides. In 802 they burned "Hi-Coluim-Cille." In 806 they attacked the island again, and killed sixty-eight of the laity and clergy. In 807 they became emboldened by success, and for the first time marched inland; and after burning Inishmurray, they attacked Roscommon. During the years 812 and 813 they made raids in Connaught and Munster, but not without encountering stout resistance from the native forces. After this predatory and internecine warfare had continued for about thirty years, Turgesius, a Norwegian prince, established himself as sovereign of the Vikings, and made Armagh his head-quarters, A.D. 830.

If the Irish chieftains had united their forces, and acted in concert, the result would have been the expulsion of the intruders; but, unhappily, this unity of purpose in matters political has never existed. The Danes made and broke alliances with the provincial kings at their own convenience, while nese princes gladly availed themselves of even temporary assistance from their cruel foes, while engaged in domestic wars, which should never have been undertaken. Still the Northmen were more than once driven from the country by the bravery of the native commanders, and they often paid dearly for the cruel wrongs they inflicted on their hapless victims. Sometimes the Danish chiefs mustered all their forces, and left the island for a brief period, to ravage the shores of England or Scotland; but they soon returned to inflict new barbarities on the unfortunate Irish.[1]

Burning churches or destroying monasteries was a favourite pastime of these pirates, wherever they could obtain a landing on Christian shores; and the number of religious houses in Ireland afforded them abundant means of gratifying their barbarous inclinations. But when they became so far masters as to have obtained some permanent settlement, this mode of proceeding was considered either more troublesome or less profitable than that of appropriating to themselves the abbeys and churches. Turgesius, it is said, placed an abbot of his own in every monastery; and as he had already conferred ecclesiastical offices on himself and on his lady, we may presume he was not very particular in his selections. The villages, too, were placed under the rule of a Danish captain; and each family was obliged to maintain a soldier of that nation, who made himself master of the house, using and wasting the food for lack of which the starving children of the lawful owner were often dying of hunger.

All education was strictly forbidden; books and manuscripts were burned and drowned ; and the poets, historians, and musicians imprisoned and driven to the woods and mountains. Martial sports were interdicted, from the lowest to the highest rank. Even nobles and princes were forbidden to wear their usual habiliments, the cast-off clothes of the Danes being considered sufficiently good for slaves.

The clergy, who had been driven from their monasteries, concealed themselves as best they could, continuing still their prayers and fasts, and the fervent recital of the Divine Office. The Irish, true to their faith in every trial, were not slow to attribute their deliverance to the prayers of these holy men.

In 831 Nial Caille led an army against them, and defeated them at Derry; but in the meanwhile, Felim, King of Cashel, with contemptible selfishness, marched into Leinster to claim tribute, and plundered every one, except the Danes, who should have been alone considered as enemies at such a time. Even the churches were not spared by him, for he laid waste the termon-lands of Clonmacnois, "up to the church door." After his death,[2] A.D. 843, a brave and good king came to the rescue of his unfortunate country. While still King of Meath, Meloughlin had freed the nation from Turgesius, one of its worst tyrants, by drowning him in Lough Owel. His death was a signal for a general onslaught on the Danes. The people rose simultaneously, and either massacred their enemies, or drove them to their ships. In 846 Meloughlin met their forces at Skreen, where they were defeated; they also suffered a reverse at Kildare.


[1] Irish.—The history of the two hundred years during which these northern pirates desolated the island, has been preserved in a MS. of venerable age and undoubted authenticity. It is entitled Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh (the Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gall). It was quoted by Keating, known to Colgan, and used by the Four Masters; but for many years it was supposed to have been completely lost, until it was discovered, in 1840, by Mr. O'Curry, among the Seabright MSS. The work is now edited, with a translation and most valuable notes, by Dr. Todd. Several other copies have been discovered since, notably one by the Franciscan Brother, Michael O'Clery, which is at present in the Burgundian Library at Brussels. From internal evidence, it is presumed that the author was a contemporary of King Brian Boroimhé. Dr. O'Connor refers the authorship to Mac Liag, who was chief poet to that monarch, and died in 1016, two years after his master. Dr. Todd evidently inclines to this opinion, though he distinctly states that there is no authority for it.

[2] Death.—It appears doubtful whether he really died at this time. It is said that he repented of his sins of sacrilege, and ended his days in penance and religious retirement. See Four Masters, p. 472.