The Northmen (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Northmen | start of chapter

Malaughlan’s efforts against the foreigners were impeded by the struggles of two restless foes who were disputing the monarchy with him, Aedh Finnliath, his successor, and Carroll (Cearbhal or Kjarval) of Ossory, a prince whose power so impressed the Northmen that we find him mentioned in the opening passage of the Icelandic Landnámabóc as King of Dublin at the same time that Harald Fairhair reigned in Norway and Alfred the Great in England. He was on friendly terms with the Norse and married his large family of daughters to famous vikings of the Hebrides or Iceland. His daughter Rafarta married Eyvind the Eastman, a great trader, who had a fleet fitted out specially for raiding the Irish coasts. Another, Aithne, married the father of Sigurd the Stout, who fell at Clontarf carrying the raven-banner which she had wrought. His descendants went home to Iceland and founded families there, calling their children partly by Norse and partly by Irish names.

Carroll is said to have been “a person worthy to possess all Erin for the goodness of his countenance, hospitality, and valour,” but he was an uncertain ally, and a thorn in the side both of the foreigners and of the Irish King. He crushed the Norse chief Orm, or Horm, in Munster, but he failed the Munstermen at the moment of battle, and involved them in a hopeless defeat. He wasted Leinster, and in 858–859 the King of Ireland had to summon a convention of princes and abbots to force Carroll to pay him his dues. He died in 887. But in 902, the year after the death of Alfred the Great, whose activities in England had broken the strength of the foreigners in that country, the invaders met with so severe a reverse in Ireland that they are said to have been expelled from the country and to “have escaped half dead, having been wounded and broken.” Thus the first period of their power ended in rout and defeat.

A partial pause in hostilities or “forty years’ rest” is reckoned in the annals between 876 and 916, years during which the Danes found it necessary to withdraw their troops in order to concentrate against the wars of expulsion that Alfred was waging against them in England. But fighting was going on all the time, and, in spite of it, the Norse kings of Dublin were again consolidating their power. Ivar, brother of Olaf the White (?), who in the Annals of Ulster is styled Rex Nordmannorum totius Hiberniæ et Britanniæ,[6] was succeeded in turn by Ivar, his grandson, Sitric Gale and Olaf Godfreysson.

Under Olaf Cuaran, or Olaf of the Sandal, whose name is famous in romance and history, the power of the Dublin Norse rose to its greatest height. Ragnall (d. 921) captured York in 919, and he and his successors ruled a kingdom which included all Northumbria south to the Humber, making their headquarters sometimes at York and sometimes in Dublin. But at the battle of Brunanburh, or Brumby, fought near the mouth of the Humber in 937, their power was broken in the defeat of the most formidable combination ever made by the Norsemen, including Scottish and Irish contingents, by Athelstan, King of England; and Olaf Cuaran, the Norse leader, only escaped back to Dublin “with a few,” leaving five kings dead on the field.

In their nailed barks the Northmen departed

Bloody relic of darts, on roaring ocean

O’er the deep water Dublin to seek,

Back to Ireland, shamed in mind.[7]

In Ireland the power of the Norse attacks had been weakened even during the forty years’ truce by a series of determined rulers, of whom the greatest were Niall Glundubh, or “Black-knee,” and his son Murtogh of the Leather Cloaks in the North, and Cormac MacCuilennan and Callachan of Cashel in the South. These princes kept up a continuous fight, though with varying success, against the invaders.

The least warlike but in many ways the most remarkable of these princes was Cormac, who reigned for seven years (901–908) from his capital on the rocky cliff of Cashel which rises out of the plain of Tipperary. The existing group of buildings, consisting of the palace and cathedral, and the chapel of wonderfully rich decoration known as Cormac’s Chapel now crowded on its summit, are all later than the tenth century, but they occupy the site of an earlier fort or palace.[8]

The round tower was built, like most of the round towers of Ireland, about this date, as a protection against the Danish pirates. Cormac belonged to a race of abbot-kings, who in his day occupied the throne of Cashel. His predecessor and his successor were, like himself, at once abbots and princes, combining in their persons the religious and royal functions. His temperament was quiet and peaceful, and devoted to studious pursuits. He has left a glossary of obscure Irish words which were already, in his time, falling out of use, and he either initiated or continued a work called the Psalter of Cashel, containing “all the inhabitations, events, and septs that lived in this land, from the first peopling and discovery thereof,” which seems to have been compiled after his accession to the throne. He is described as “a most excellent scribe, bishop, and anchorite,” and “as a holy man, master of Gaelic and Latin; proficient in law, in wisdom, knowledge, and science; most pious, most pure.”[9] But the times in which he lived and the influence of the warlike ecclesiastic Flaherty, Abbot of Scattery Island, who was Cormac’s successor, involved him in wars against his better judgment.

In the fateful battle of Ballymoon, in which Cormac fell (908) fighting against the men of Leinster, the clergy of Leinster are said to have abused Flaherty roundly for inducing the King to enter the battle to his own destruction. “Nobles of Munster,” exclaimed one of the leaders, “fly from this abominable battle and leave the clergy, who could not be quiet without coming to battle, to fight it out between themselves.”

The law exempting ecclesiastics from warfare had evidently become a dead letter, if it had ever been enforced at all, and “the life of a cleric in battle was not more spared than that of a layman.”

Cormac was killed by the fall of his horse into a trench, just as he was urging a foster-son “who was an adept in wisdom and jurisprudence, in history and Latin” to escape. When Cormac’s head was brought to Flann, King of Ireland, he was filled with horror. “It was a monstrous thing,” he exclaimed, “to have taken off the head of the holy bishop,” and he had it interred with reverence.[10]

The last days of old Flann Sinna, who reigned as King of Tara for over thirty-six years, saw the outbreak of new and more determined attempts to establish a permanent footing in the South. From this time may be dated the seacoast towns, of which the most important were Waterford and Limerick, ruled by branches of the great house of Ivar; but even the less important trade centres, Cork, Youghal, and Wexford, seem at this period to have undergone a rapid expansion. Wexford is described by Giraldus in 1170 as having walls, towers, and battlements.[11] But Waterford (Port Lairge) continued to be the seat of the Southern line of Danish princes and the capital city of the Munster Danes. Already in the “Kraku-Mal”of the Ragnar Lodbrok cycle we hear of Waterford as one of the places visited by his viking troops.

Marstein, Erin’s king, whelm’d by the irony sleet,

Allayed the hunger of the eagle and the wolf;

The slain at Wadras ford [Waterford] became the raven’s booty;

We hewed with our swords!

South in Leinster, at break of day, we held our game of war.[12]

Probably the first settlement was at Gaultire, or Gall-tire, “the Foreigner’s Country,” where there had been a settlement since 891. Waterford, like Dublin, had its walls and gates and its ‘Green,’ or Thing-mote, of judgment.[13] This nucleus was added to from time to time, especially after the “forty years’ rest,” when Ragnall, grandson of Ivar, and Ottar the Black, with “innumerable hordes,” are said to have arrived. They raided all Munster, subdued it, and demanded from it heavy taxes.

Though independent of Dublin, both Waterford and Limerick were in close contact with the Scandinavian kingdom of the Isles and with Man; their princes are found fighting in the Hebrides on the way to and from Ireland. The position of Waterford made it a centre from early times for trade with Britain, especially with Bristol. When the Normans landed there they found a merchant ship with a cargo of corn and wine lying in the harbour; and it became the port for the extensive slave trade carried on with Bristol.

Limerick and Waterford seem to have been on friendly terms, and though each had its own line of princes, we do not hear of fighting between them. Limerick became an important harbour for Danish fleets; they anchored round what is now King Island (Inis Sibthonn) in the Shannon, and the arrival, about 919–920, of Tamar, son of Elge, with an immense fleet, enlarged this then small settlement in the river-mouth into a regular resort for Danish fleets. They speedily pushed their way northward; and their “mighty deeds” included raids on Loughs Derg and Ree,[14] from whence they made their way into Connacht and even across to Meath.

The heavy blows inflicted by the Irish on the Danes of Limerick must have greatly weakened the colony, and we hear of Morann, the viking chief of the island of Lewis in the Hebrides, coming to the help of the Danish city.[15] The Irish fought at a great disadvantage, for they wore no armour, but only tunics, with shields for protection; their weapons were swords, spears, clubs, and arrows; but the Northmen were encased in suits of armour, upon which the blades of the Irish took no effect, while the helmets of the Danes were impervious to the blows delivered with their clubs.[16] The battleaxe, later the favourite weapon of the Irish, was introduced by the Northmen; but both nations used it at the time of the Norman invasion.

The years of the brief reign of Niall Glundubh (917–919) were the worst hitherto experienced by the Irish. Sixteen fleets are said to have arrived simultaneously to ravage Munster, one of them being commanded by the celebrated Inghen Ruadh, or “Red Maiden,” the woman-warrior of whom terrible stories are told.

The necessity of self-defence forced the Irish to imitate the Danes in building fleets of fighting vessels, and from this time we hear of considerable fleets of “brown-planked” barks in Munster used by the Irish. Regular levies of warships, “ten from each cantred,” were raised and could be mustered on occasion. We hear of “Limerick of the ships and bulwarks” and the “king of Foyle of the ready ships.”

The fleet with which Murtogh of the Leather Cloaks penetrated to the Hebrides, “after gaining victory and triumph,” was evidently a full fighting fleet. Most of the Irish words connected with ships and shipping, and many of those connected with commerce and markets, are of Norse origin. The native Gaelic words for boats, such as currach, a canvas or skin-covered bark, or ethar, a ferry-boat, indicate a very primitive sort of craft, which could not have met the “nailed barks” of the Norse on equal terms. The Irish also adopted Norse weights and measures, and the first coins minted in Ireland bear the names of Ivar and Sitric.

Building and fortifying went on all over the country; the massive tower known as Ragnall’s or Reginald’s Tower, in Waterford, still bears the name of its Danish ruler. Limerick is spoken of as “Limerick of the riveted stones,” and even Armagh is called “Armagh of the great towers,” while in Dublin arose the battlemented tower from which King Sitric looked out on the battle of Clontarf. Beneath it lay the bridge over the Liffey, called Droichet Dubhgall, or “the Dane’s Bridge,” later, when the Normans had driven the Danes into Ostmanstown on the north side of the river to be called Ostman’s or Eastman’s Bridge.

In addition to the ordinary articles of tribute, cattle, cauldrons, drinking horns and vessels, chariots and swords, we now hear of “imported gold and silver,” “steeds brought across the green sea,” and “foreign shields,” as part of the tributes paid from prince to prince, or from the foreigners to the Irish princes.

Bondsmen and bondswomen formed an important article of tribute, in one case “ten foreigners without a knowledge of Gaelic” being among the demands. Irish girls of high rank were carried away into slavery, as we know from the beautiful story of the daughter of King Myrkiartan, probably Murtogh of the Leather Cloaks, who was carried to Iceland as a slave, and whose son, Olaf the Peacock, or Olaf Pa, is the hero of Laxdæla Saga. Tributes were also paid from the Irish to the Danes, “a severe tribute” being demanded by the Dublin Norse from Leinster. On the other hand, the Danes had to attend the kings of Cashel in battle, in return for maintenance by them in their territory.[17]

In 919 Niall Glundubh, or “Black-knee,” King of Aileach, in Donegal fell in the fierce battle of Kilmashog, near Dublin, in a vain effort to recover the city from Sitric Gale, the Norse king. One of the few Irish entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records, but incorrectly, under the year 921:

“This year King Sitric slew Neil his brother.”

Though victorious, Sitric left Dublin the next year and never returned, Dublin falling into the hands of his brother or cousin Godfrey, and the great kingdom of the Norse became henceforth divided.

Around the Irish princes who succeeded Niall Glundubh a number of stories or sagas have grown up, written in their praise by their poets and chroniclers. Murtogh of the Leather Cloaks, Callachan of Cashel, Brian Boromhe, or Boru, has each his story, written in the romantic manner of the bards. Substantially true, these stories are yet coloured by poetical imagination or provincial pride. This form of historical romance seems to have grown out of the union of the two nations who were at this period brought into such close contact. It also influenced several of the sagas of Iceland; some bear Irish names, as Cormac’s Saga and Njal’s (Niall’s) Saga, others deal with Irish subjects, such as Thorstein’s Saga or Brian’s Saga, which take the battle of Clontarf as their central topic.

The saga, as we may call it, of Murtogh, King of the Northern Hy-Neill, son of Niall Glundubh, who reigned from his fort of Aileach in Donegal, describes a tour made by him round the provinces of Ireland in the depth of winter in assertion of his authority after a series of defeats of the foreigners. He was accompanied by an imposing force of a thousand picked men, who were clad in sheepskin or cowhide cloaks, which served as wraps by day and tents by night, and from which he received his sobriquet of “Murtogh of the Leather Cloaks.” He received tribute from the Norse of Dublin and “blood-money of red gold,” besides a prince of their royal house as hostage. From Munster he carried off King Callachan of Cashel in fetters—an audacious stroke of policy, which made a noise in its day; and in Connacht a young son of Teigue of the Three Towers was entrusted to his care. On their arrival at Aileach the captive princes were received with honour and treated to a banquet, at which Murtogh himself and his queen waited on the hostages, after which they were delivered by him voluntarily to the King of Ireland as his superior lord. This chivalrous and successful prince fell in battle at Ardee in the same year (943) by the sword of Blacaire, Lord of the Foreigners, and the feeling of his countrymen is voiced by the chronicler:

“Alas! since Murtogh does not live, the country of the Gael will ever be orphaned!”[18]

A romantic tale has also grown up round Callachan of Cashel, the prince of Munster whom Murtogh took as a hostage. Like the King of Aileach he made a strong stand against the Northmen, but he was less fortunate in his efforts than his Northern rival, for he was twice a prisoner in their hands. They endeavoured also to entrap him by arranging a marriage between him and a sister of Sitric, lord of Dublin,[19] in order to entice him into their power.

When he was on his way to Dublin to bring about the match Callachan was secretly warned by Sitric’s queen that it was intended to take him prisoner. The warning came too late. As he turned to retrace his way he found himself surrounded by ambushed troops, who bore down upon him, killed his followers, and took him captive to Dublin and thence to Armagh.

The men of Munster lost no time in collecting a great army to rescue their chief. They marched north to Armagh, only to find that the Northmen had got notice of their intentions and had quietly sent Callachan off with an escort to Dundalk, and thence to their ships in the harbour. Destroying as they went, the angry Munstermen pursued the party down to the brink of the sea. Their wrath was fierce when they saw their king bound with ropes and suspended from the mast of Sitric’s ship. At this moment the Munster fleet under Failbe, King of Desmond, which had been making its way round by sea, entered the harbour. The Norse were caught between the land and sea forces, and a furious battle began. Failbe boarded Sitric’s ship, a sword in each of his hands, and, while he kept the foe at bay with his right hand, with his left he cut down the ropes that bound Callachan and set him free. The two warriors cut their way back to Failbe’s ship, but Failbe was overpowered and his head cut off on the side of his own boat. Callachan escaped safely and returned home in triumph to resume the sovereignty of Munster and to carry his revenge upon the Danes as far as the cities of Cork, Waterford, and Limerick.

The Munster story speaks of Callachan’s great size and ruddy face. The Northern chroniclers are not so favourable, and the annalists of Clonmacnois describe him as “that unruly king that partaked with the Danes,” probably in memory of the fact that he and the foreigners had once plundered their monastery in company. But Callachan acted with magnanimity on more than one occasion, and he succeeded in keeping down the Danish advance in the south. He is said to have fought fifteen battles with the enemies of his country in the course of his career.