The Northmen

Eleanor Hull
The Northmen

The “fury of the Northmen” from which the mediæval litanies of these islands and of Brittany prayed to be delivered began to fall upon Ireland toward the close of the eighth century. It was the backwash of a mighty movement which embraced all Southern and Western Europe and extended itself to the borders of Russia, then an almost unknown country. All the Scandinavian nations took part in it, but it was only the fleets of the Norsemen and Danes that visited the shores of Britain and Ireland, the main direction of Swedish expansion being toward the East.

When the first recorded fleet of the foreigners appeared before Rechra in 795, and burned Inis Patraic[1] in 797 (798), the rumours of their descents on the shores of Northumbria had already reached Ireland. The Annals of Ulster speak of the “devastation of all the islands of Britain by Gentiles” or heathen men, under the year 793. This report doubtless refers to the ravaging of Lindisfarne, the news of which seems to have reached Ireland soon after the event.

Though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of these first-comers as Danes, it is almost certain that they came from Norway, not from Denmark. The place from which they started was Haerethaland, now Hordaland, on the west coast of Norway, directly opposite the northern shores of the British Isles. The Irish name for Norway, Ioruaith or Hirotha, may be a reminiscence of this word. But even before 793 there must have been settlements of Norse in Northumbria, for we hear of a synod held at Finn-Gall or “Fair Foreigners,” a place evidently named after the Norse invaders, in the north of England in 788.

The descents of the Norse on Ireland were by way of the Orkneys, Caithness, and the Hebrides; those of the Danes chiefly by the south coasts of England and Wales. The Norse were hardy seafarers, who pushed out north-west to the shores of Greenland, Iceland, and North Britain, and thence made their way down the western coasts of Scotland to Ireland; the Danes, who were not naturally a sea-loving nation, were inclined to hug the shores. They landed on the coasts of Britain and eventually established themselves as kings of England, a monarchy which, though shortlived, was remarkable for the vigour of the great Canute, whose vast realm at one time included Britain, Denmark, and Norway and came near to adding Sweden as well. Canute’s dream of a Northern confederation of nations, to be ruled from Britain, though it was never realized, became very nearly an accomplished fact; but the weakness and follies of his successors dissipated all that his genius had achieved.

Thus the two peoples, Norsemen and Danes, met upon the shores of Ireland, the one descending from the north, by way of Scotland and the Hebrides, the other from the south, by way of England and Wales. In Ireland they tried their mutual strength, for the aim of the Danes was to oust the earlier Norsemen from the fruit of their conquests and to establish settlers from Denmark in their stead. To a large extent they succeeded, for the Norse kingdom of Dublin, firmly established by Olaf the White in 853, came to an end, and the Danish kingdoms of Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick took its place.

It is the Danes, not the Norse, who are remembered in Ireland. In the Irish Chronicles the distinction is usually well preserved, the Norse being called Finn-Gaill, or “Fair Foreigners,” and the Danes Dubh-Gaill, or “Dark Foreigners.”

The plunderers of Rechra appear to have been a chance party of the Danes who had been ravaging in Glamorgan and South Britain, the first serious attempts at conquest being made by the Norse who fell upon the North of Ireland. The Gwentian Chronicle calls the plunderers of Rechra “black pagans from Denmark” and adds that when the Cymry, or Welsh, had driven them into the sea and killed very many of them they went to Ireland and devastated Rechreyn (Rechra). This was probably Lambay Island, off the coast of Co. Dublin, and not Rathlin on the Antrim coast, which would have been quite out of their way. The Annals of Clonmacnois also call them Danes (a.d. 792, recte 795).

The viking period began in these islands earlier than is usually supposed and lasted longer. Zimmer shows that the Norse were settled in the Orkneys two centuries before their first descents recorded in history, and even then were carrying on trade between Ireland and Scandinavia. They came both for booty and on trading expeditions, often combining both professions as occasion served.

The earliest mention of Limerick is in the Icelandic Landnámabóc, where Hrafn, the Limerick-farer, is said to have spent a long time in Limerick in Ireland, which looks as if the town had already become a trading centre. Dublin, too, was very early a resort of the vikings, and the old song of Starkad, who was slain by Ragner Lodbrok, relates among his hero-deeds, “having taken the chief of the Irish race, I rifled the wealth of Dublin.”

Lodbrok himself is said to have slain King Melbrik (Maelbrigde) of Dublin and to have found the city “full of barbarian wealth.”

In Egil’s saga we hear of ships fitted out “for the Irish trade”; and many of these searovers settled down, married Irish wives, and made the trading towns they had established in Ireland their headquarters. One Bjorn, “a right doughty man,” went sometimes on freebooting and sometimes on merchant voyages. His father refused his request for a fighting ship, but made him master of a trading vessel and bade him “go south to Dublin, for that voyage is now most highly spoken of.”[2]

The division of the descents of the Northmen on Ireland into two periods, a preliminary movement consisting of raids round the coast and up the waterways, in order to become familiar with the country, and a later period of settlement, is only a very partial description of what actually occurred. The building of towns and settlements in the country by no means put an end to plunderings for booty. The Norse lord, whether he lived in Norway or in the Hebrides (Sudreyer),[3] made his spring-viking and his autumn-viking as regularly as the seasons came round, with a space for sowing his seed and reaping his harvest between each distant raid.

The terror of the Northmen was not confined to a brief period; it went on until late into the twelfth century, practically up to the time of the Norman invasion, for the coasts of Ireland lay conveniently within the range of coasting voyages. Half a century before we have any records of their doings in the Norse annals we hear of them pushing their way up the Irish rivers, robbing the monasteries of their ornaments, sacred books, and valuables, and burning the fragile structures to the ground. They made trading centres at every important river-mouth, to which the peasants of the interior brought down their goods for barter, and out of which were to grow the chief seaport towns of Ireland—Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, and Limerick.

As early as the middle of the ninth century we hear of a mixed race called the Gall-Gael (Gaill-Gaedhil) of partly Scandinavian and partly Irish blood, who began to collect formidable armies. Intermarriage and settlement must thus have been frequent at a date when it is customary to think of the Norse as mere occasional raiders along the coasts. To the Irish it seemed that “great sea-cast floods of foreigners” poured in at every harbour and river-mouth and began to overrun the whole country by means of its waterways. Two fleets of sixty sail appeared simultaneously on the Boyne and Liffey, and, though their landing was disputed with vigour, the invaders succeeded in penetrating to Lough Erne and raiding Meath.

For the first time, in 836, Ath-Cliath, henceforth to be known as Dyflin or Dublin, fell into their hands, and by a stroke of high policy they determined to make it their headquarters in Ireland. Standing on one of those splendid natural harbours which the Romans had envied, it lay within direct touch of the western coasts of Britain and was to form the main future passage for commerce and navigation between the two countries. Hitherto, as its name indicates, it had been the main ford across which ran the highway between the south-east and Tara, carried over the Liffey by a hurdle-bridge. Probably a village existed on the banks of the river where the bridge crossed it. But in the hands of the Norse it was to become not only a trading town and the capital of Olaf the White, but a chief link with the Scandinavian kingdoms of Northumbria and the Western Isles. There they planted their ‘Thing-mote’ for the administration of justice in the Scandinavian manner; there they built a fort on the site occupied by Dublin Castle in later days; and round “entrenched Ath-Cliath” they made their walls and gates. Norse names, such as Howth, Lambay, Leixlip, Skerries, cluster about the district north of the city which is still known as Fingall, or the place of the Fair Foreigners, as the Irish termed the Norse.

The choice of Dublin as the capital of the Norse kingdom brought about a corresponding change in the position of Armagh, which from the time of St Patrick onward had, both ecclesiastically and nationally, been looked upon as the metropolis of Ireland. Its great age and its connexion with the patron saint, its important schools and its abbatial dignity, had made it the real capital of the North. It was on this account that Turgeis, or Turgesius, styled in the Annals Lord of the Gall or Foreigners, who arrived in the North of Ireland in 842, with “a great royal fleet” attacked Armagh, plundering it three times in one month, the first of these dreadful experiences which had befallen it at the hands of the foreigners. Turgeis, who is said to have come “to assume the sovereignty of the Gall of Ireland,” appears to have had two chief aims; first he desired to unite under his rule the Norse settlers, who had hitherto been without any definite central authority, and to consolidate their conquests in the face of the incoming Danes, who were already beginning to “exercise authority” over the Norse who preceded them; and, secondly, he wished to re-establish paganism in Ireland. To give himself the necessary position of authority he “usurped the abbacy” of Armagh, claiming thereby the spiritual as well as the temporal power over the North. He aimed at a pagan revival in the very place specially consecrated to Christian worship, and Forannan, Abbot of Armagh, had to fly into Munster. He next set up his wife, Ota (Old Norse, Audr), as a priestess and giver of oracles in the second great centre of Christian influence in Northern Ireland, Clonmacnois, and she pronounced her oracles from the high altar of St Ciaran’s city.

Turgeis has been identified with Thorgils, whom the historian Snorro Sturleson believed to be a son of Harald Fairhair, and who is said to have gone on a viking expedition into Ireland. The dates, however, are difficult to reconcile. If he was a devotee of the god Thor, as this name would indicate, his anxiety to establish the worship of Thor in Ireland would be explained. In Scandinavia the priesthood did not form a separate caste; the head of a family or village was also its priest and offered sacrifices to Thor.

The attempt of Turgeis to introduce the worship of Scandinavian deities into Ireland was not so hopeless as might at first appear. The intermarriages between Irish women and Norse husbands had brought about a widespread reversion toward paganism, the converts becoming even more fierce and sacrilegious than the foreigners themselves.

Turgeis died a miserable death in 845, having been taken prisoner by the King of Ireland and drowned by him in Loch Owel in Westmeath, but his evil influence survived him. We hear that “many of the Irish forsook their Christian baptism and joined the Lochlanns or Norse, plundering Armagh and carrying away its riches. They even adopted the name of Norsemen, with the religion and customs of their former foes,” and “though the original Norse were bad to the churches, these were far worse, in whatever part of Erin they chanced to be.” The writer of this passage ascribes the awakening of this anti-Christian spirit to the fostering by the newcomers of Irish children, who thus imbibed from infancy ideas contrary to their own country and religion.

Fosterage was equally common among both peoples, few Norse or Irish children being reared at home. Norse children were ‘knee-seated’ with some distinguished friend of the family, who, exactly as in Ireland, brought them up and set them out in life, frequently making the adopted child the heir. From this intercourse sprang the mixed race called Gall-Gael, who formed a considerable section of the nation and had their own fleets and armies. They formed bodies of mercenary troops, whom each party tried to bring over to its side, and were difficult to reckon with; they entered the forces of the Danes, Norse, or Irish indifferently, and are found fighting sometimes for and sometimes against their country.[4]

After the death of Turgeis his conquests seem to have collapsed, and the next attempts were made by foreigners in the south. When King Malaughlan I came to the throne in 846 the seas between Ireland and the Scottish coasts swarmed with vessels, “so that there was not a point of Erin without a fleet.”

Forts sprang up on all the rivers along which the raiders could navigate their ships, and these gradually assumed the appearance of a network over the whole country. The King’s first step was to clear out the nests of marauders or “sons of death” who were plundering from centres such as Loch Ramor in Cavan, after which he turned his arms against the foreigners of Meath and inflicted on them a severe defeat at Sciath Nechtan. Here fell the chieftain Tomar, who is called tanist (or heir) to the King of Lochlann and who seems to have been the ancestor of the Norse kings of Dublin. “The Sword of Carlus and the Ring of Tomar” were treasured as royal heirlooms in the city; in later times they were carried off by Malaughlan II by force in token of the supremacy that he had gained over the Norse of Dublin, who went by the name of the “Race of Tomar” or “Tomar’s Chieftains.”[5]

The Ring of Tomar may have been one of the sacred iron rings on which it was customary with the Norse to swear judicial oaths. The Sword of Carlus seems to have been part of the royal insignia of the foreign kings of Dublin. Carlus was son of Olaf the White. He was killed in the battle of Killoderry in 866 (869). It may have been in consequence of the fall of Tomar, a scion of the royal house, that Olaf the White arrived in Dublin in the year 853 with a prodigious fleet. He seems to have been a Norse chief from the Hebrides, though his genealogy is given differently in the Northern and Irish accounts. The story of his wife, Aud the Deep-wealthy, who returned to Iceland by way of the Hebrides after the death of her husband, is told in Laxdæla Saga. Olaf came to Ireland to dispute the supremacy over the Irish with the Danes, who were making rapid advances both in the North and in Munster, and who, in the year succeeding the accession of King Malaughlan, had captured and plundered Dublin, the seat of Norse authority. These Dubh-Gaill or “Black Foreigners,” as the Irish called them, probably rather on account of their deeds than their complexion, brought terror alike to the Norse and the Irish. They had the fierce habits and also the accommodating spirit, half pagan, half Christian, which characterized the Northmen of the viking period.

When trading with Christian folk they were ‘prime-signed,’ or marked with a cross, so that they might enter into fellowship with Christian men, but at home they worshipped Thor as their ancestors had done. “I am prime-signed, but not baptized,” said a man named Toki to King Haraldson, “because I have been in turn with heathen and Christians, though I believe in the White Christ.”

So the Danes who now arrived in the North of Ireland adopted Patrick as their protector and offered their spoils to his church at Armagh. Malaughlan was forced to come to terms with the Norse against the Danes, “but though Olaf promised many things and swore to observe them, he did not observe the smallest of them after leaving Malaughlan’s house, but plundered all his land.”