Clontarf and After (2)

Eleanor Hull
Clontarf and After | start of chapter

But the Norse king whose memory is most clearly preserved in Ireland was Magnus Barelegs (reigned 1093–1103), so called because on his return from his Western viking raids he and his men adopted the Scottish and Irish custom of wearing the plaid and kilt. “They walked barelegged in the streets and wore short kirtles and over-wraps” to the great astonishment of their people. Magnus came three times on expeditions to the West and spent many years in Ireland. His close relations with Murtogh Mór[4] O’Brien, King of Munster, make it necessary that we should take up the course of events in Ireland after the battle of Clontarf.

The shattered army of Munster had fought its way back to the Shannon carrying the wounded on litters, but they were impeded by the unpatriotic attempt of the prince of Ossory to hinder the return by throwing his clansmen across the path of the marching troops. But the wounded warriors caused themselves to be tied upright to stakes set in the ground among the fighting men, so that they might bear their part in the conflict. Struck with fear and pity, the army of Ossory refused to fight such dauntless heroes and allowed them to pass on.

The rise of Brian and the intrusion of a king of Munster into the line of the High Kingship of Ireland, hitherto alternating between the Ulster and Meath branches of the race of Niall, had interrupted the custom of centuries. The interruption was more than momentary, for it had established a precedent which the princes of the South naturally thought might well be followed by Brian’s descendants. Hence a new uncertainty arose regarding the succession to the throne of Ireland and a fresh cause of strife.

Brian, during the course of his long reign, had come nearer than any king before him to establish his authority over the whole island; only Ulster, as always, had refused to recognize him and gave him, only when forced into it, a grudging and unwilling submission. The personal nobility of Brian, his benevolence and wisdom, added much to the dignity of his reign. To the Northmen he was “the best-natured of all kings, who would thrice forgive outlaws the same offence before he would have them judged by the law,” while the Munster Chronicles loudly proclaim the justice of his rule and the benevolence of his heart, praising his patronage of learning and devotion to religion.

Though on his fall Malaughlan, King of Meath, returned to the position from which Brian had ousted him, the brilliant possibility of attaining to the High Kingship was never absent from the minds of Brian’s powerful family. A short interregnum was filled by the joint regency of two good and learned men, Cuan O’Lochain, a chronicler and judge as well as a poet, of the distinguished family of the O’Lochains of Meath, and Corcran the cleric, who was connected with the Waterford district of Lismore. They governed the land like a free state, and not as kings; but the arrangement was brought to an end by the slaying of Cuan by the men of Teffia two years afterward, in 1024, an act which brought that family into great disrepute. The interregnum, however, lasted for eighteen years after his death.

Then began a series of reigns most of which are accounted by the chroniclers reigns “with opposition,” that is, they were not acquiesced in by the whole country, and there was generally a rival king who disputed the title to the throne. Three kings of the O’Brien family of Munster, two of the O’Conors of Connacht, and two of the O’Lochlans of Ulster held at various times the coveted title, though “with opposition”; and more than once a monarch of Leinster aspired to it. Some of these kings, in particular Murtogh O’Brien (d. 1119) and Turlogh O’Conor (d. 1156) were men of great power as well as of vast ambition. Each fought steadily for his own hand, and between them “great storms of war” swept through Ireland or, as the annals express it, Ireland became between them “a trembling sod.” They succeeded in making their names and influence felt outside their own country, willingly entering into foreign alliances in order to strengthen their claims at home.

The respect felt outside Ireland for Murtogh Mór (called Murchad by the Norse), the strongest representative of his house next to King Brian, is shown by the request that came to him from “the nobility of the Isles,” that is, from the Hebrides and Man, who, on the death of their ruler Lagman, son of Godred Croven, asked Murtogh to send them some worthy person to act as regent until Godred’s son should come of age to govern. Murtogh sent over his nephew Donald MacTeige, impressing upon him the duty of ruling a country which was not his own with all possible bounty and moderation. But the choice was unfortunate. Donald’s rule was so tyrannical and his crimes so great that the Hebridean chiefs formed themselves into an association and expelled him from the Isle of Man. He is said to have been killed by the men of Connacht in 1115 during a raid into his own country.[5]

Murtogh Mór instituted friendly relations not only with the Northmen of Dublin, the Isle of Man, and Norway, but also with the kings of England. William of Malmesbury tells us that Murtogh, King of Ireland, and his successor were so “devotedly attached” to Henry I that they wrote no letters but such as tended to soothe him and did nothing but what he commanded. He adds, however, that on one occasion Murtogh acted for a short time rather superciliously toward the English and had to be brought to a better mind by the suspension of navigation and foreign trade, upon which Ireland largely depended; this seems to have had the desired effect, seeing that “soon after his insolence subsided.” “For,” adds the chronicler, “of what value could Ireland be, if deprived of the merchandise of England?”[6]

This mercantile dependence on England is illustrated in the twelfth century by the facility with which the largest of the towns, such as Dublin, could be reduced to starvation when an English blockade was established by sea, the inland trade being evidently quite insufficient to cope with an emergency.[7] That there was a trade in fine cloth as well as provisions is shown by the well-known story of the Skrud-viking, or “Broadcloth cruise,” of the great viking chief of the Orkneys, Swein Asliefsson, who, when he was approaching Dublin with his ships for a raid about 1150, met two merchant ships coming from England laden with English cloth and other merchandise bound for Dublin. He set upon and plundered the vessels and “took every penny out of them,” leaving to the merchants “only a small quantity of provisions and the clothes they stood up in.” They sailed away to the Orkneys with the fine cloth sewn to their sails, so that it looked as though these were made entirely of rich cloth.[8]

It is possible that King Murtogh found it difficult to keep on good terms with princes so much opposed to each other as King Henry I of England and King Magnus of Norway, for both of them accused him of uncertain conduct. Murtogh was second son to Turlogh O’Brien and reigned thirty-three years. A letter from Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, written in 1074 to this Turlogh, styles him, “Magnificent King of Ireland,” and the Archbishop remarks that the Almighty showed great mercy toward the Irish people when He gave Turlogh supreme power over that land. But it detracts a little from this praise that by the very same messenger who transmitted this letter to Turlogh, Lanfranc sent another epistle to Godred, or Godfrey, at that moment Danish king both of Man and Dublin, calling him also “glorious King of Ireland.” This letter recommends to him Patrick (Gilla-Phadraic), whom he had just consecrated as the second Danish bishop of Dublin in 1074.[9]

Turlogh was never, in fact, supreme king of Ireland, though he came near to asserting his claim when, in 1080, he marched at the head of an army into Meath attended by the clergy of Munster. He then received the submission of Malaughlan, King of Tara, who brought with him the Bishop of Armagh carrying the famous relic, the Bachall Isa, or “Staff of Jesus,” supposed to have been given by our Lord to St Patrick.[10] But his claims were never acknowledged by the princes of the North, and after his death, six years later (1086), he is usually styled “King of Ireland with opposition.”[11]

Turlogh died at Kincora after a long illness. His son Murtogh Mór who succeeded him, as we have seen, set about immediately to assert his claim to the throne of Ireland, in opposition to a formidable rival in Western Ulster, Donal MacLochlan, who claimed the overlordship against the O’Briens. During the greater part of a long reign this contest continued. The fury with which it was waged is shown by the frequent efforts made by the abbots of Armagh to bring the sanguinary struggle to an end, but the most they could do was to impose a truce upon the combatants from time to time.[12]

The hewing down of several of the sacred trees under which from very early times the kings had been inaugurated shows also the bitterness with which these wars were conducted.[13] Both princes were men of determination and ability, and both felt that the contest was finally to decide the rival claims between the North and South. In the course of the struggle each combatant razed to the ground the principal palace of the other, Murtogh ordering his men, in the vehemence of his anger, to carry away the very stones of which the fortress of Aileach, the royal seat of the Hy-Neill, was built, a stone in every sack of their provisions, all the way from Donegal to Kincora. He declared that he would rebuild his own destroyed residence out of the ruins of that of his enemy.

It was in the course of this struggle that Murtogh came into close relations with King Magnus Barelegs, who came three times to Ireland and affianced his son Sigurd to Murtogh’s daughter. The marriage took place in 1102 on Magnus’s last visit to the country. The Norse King came over with the definite intention of making himself master of the country.

“On hearing of the delightfulness of Ireland, the abundance of its produce and the salubrity of its climate, Magnus could think of nothing else but the conquest of the country.”

His first step was to send over his shoes from the Isle of Man to Murtogh, “bidding the Irish King carry them on his shoulders through his palace on Christmas Day, in presence of the envoys,” in token of Magnus’s superior authority. The courtiers, furious at such a request, prayed the King not to agree to it. But Murtogh said that he “would not only carry the shoes, but eat them, rather than that Magnus should ruin a single province of Ireland.”[14]

They renewed their friendship, plundering together in Dublinshire, and the Norse King passed a winter in Kincora with the King of Munster. “Why should we think of faring home?” he sang shortly before his death.

“My heart is in Dublin. Youth makes me love the Irish girl better than myself.”

He was fated to fall in the country of his affection. While waiting for the arrival of some cattle needed to provision his homeward voyage from Ulster, he and his men fell a prey to an ambush in the swampy ground at the head of Strangford Lough below Downpatrick. The King was conspicuous by his armour and the emblems on his shield. He fell under a stroke from an Irish axe, such as the Danes had taught the Irish to use. This was in 1103.[15]

This is the last descent of a Norse king upon the shores of Ireland until King Hakon Hakonsson’s abortive attempt in 1263, shortly after the fatal battle of Down. But viking raids continued regularly up to the Norman period, well-known vikings such as Swein Asliefsson plundering the Isles and the coasts of Ireland twice a year, in their spring and autumn seafaring.

It is probable that the landing of the first band of Normans on the Southern shores was looked upon by many of the inhabitants as one of these old accustomed viking raids. But the Normans had come to dispute with the Norse the possession of the towns. An interesting remark made by MacFirbis the genealogist early in the seventeenth century tells us that up to his own day the greater part of the merchants of the city of Dublin belonged to the descendants of the son of Olaf Cuaran, that is Sitric Silkenbeard, showing that the Norse commercial activity survived in the old Norse city even after the Norman conquest. It is difficult to imagine the posterity of this fierce and ambitious prince developing into a trading community; but the Norse added to the original population a fresh and vigorous stock possessed of much practical ability. At the end of the thirteenth century the Annals of Clonmacnois mention the families of Dalemare, Ledwitch, ffrayne, and MacCabe as of the remnant of the Danes who remained in the kingdom.[16]

They evidently looked on the Normans as of Danish or Norse stock. There were of true Norse stock the MacCabes and MacLeods, the MacKeevers (Ivar), the O’Hagans (Hakon), MacSorleys (Somhairle), Kettles (Ketel), MacManus (Magnus), MacCaffereys (Godfred), Cottars (Ottar), and MacAwleys (Olaf), who not only became thoroughly nationalized but in some cases chiefs of Irish districts. It is difficult not to see in the MacLochlans and the fierce MacSweeneys, or MacSwines, the descendants of mixed Norse and Irish blood. Lochlann was the common Irish name for Norway or, perhaps, rather for the Hebrides, from which so many of the race descended upon the North of Ireland. MacFirbis gives a considerable list of Danish settlers in different parts of the country.

The intermarriages and consequent interchanges of name began early and went on apace, showing the terms of comradeship and familiarity on which, in spite of wars, the two peoples stood.[17]

A number of Norse place-names replaced the earlier Irish names, especially on the east coast. Howth, Skerries, Lambay, Dalkey, Leixlip, near Dublin, are names given by the foreigners, as are also Smerwick in Kerry, Waterford, Wexford, Arklow, and Carlingford and Strangford Loughs or fiords. Donegal means “the Fort of the Foreigners,” and the old Irish names of three provinces added the Norse termination ‘ster’ to the original Irish name.[18]

The adoption of Christianity by the Danes about the beginning of the eleventh century brought about great changes in the life, as in the architecture, of the Danish towns of Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick. Olaf Cuaran, Sitric’s father, died at the Columban monastery of Iona, which in the past the Danish vikings had ruthlessly wrecked, and his brother-in-law, King Olaf Tryggvsson (995–1000) had been baptized “to the West over in Ireland,” probably in the Skellig Isles off the Kerry coast.[19]

They would therefore appear to have united themselves to the Irish native Church. But Sitric and his successors were sharply divided from it. Their bishops sought consecration from Canterbury and held no intercourse with the Irish clergy for at least half a century. We may ascribe this adoption of the non-Celtic system of Church government to Sitric’s visits to Rome, where he probably received baptism. On his return he set up a Church organization in the city of Dublin in every way formed on the Roman model. Bishops, and not abbots, ruled in the Danish cities, and each bishop had his own diocese. The men chosen by the Danes as their first bishops appear all to have been Irishmen, but they were Irishmen who had received their training in England or abroad, and had been brought up under the discipline of the Anglo-Roman Church.[20]

Donogh O’Hanley had been a monk at Canterbury; Samuel O’Hanley, a monk at St Albans; Patrick of Dublin, “who had been nourished in monastic institutions from his boyhood,” was well known to Archbishop Lanfranc, and Gilbert of Limerick was the friend of Anselm, whom he had met in Rouen when Anselm was called over to the deathbed of William the Conqueror.

Malchus of Waterford had been a monk at Winchester. They were all men with a knowledge of affairs outside their native land, and they had been educated in the Roman methods of Church government. From the first they set about to organize their dioceses on the model in which they had been trained. They professed obedience to Canterbury, from which they had received consecration, five bishops of Dublin, one of Waterford, and one of Limerick having been consecrated in Canterbury in the time of Archbishop Theobald (1138–61).

When Cellach of Armagh, as Primate of the Irish Church, claimed the obedience of the Danish bishops to his authority, they wrote to Ralph, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1121, “We will not obey his command, but desire to be always under your rule.”[21]