The Northmen (3)

Eleanor Hull
The Northmen | start of chapter

The wars and miseries of the city of Dublin during the perpetual attacks and sacks of the cramped mediæval town led to their natural results. In 950–951 the unfortunate city was visited by a terrible pestilence, called in the Annals of Ulster “a great leprosy and bloody flux,” which became known in Ireland as the Dolor Gentilium. It was followed by a plague among the cattle and bees, so that the country must have been in a miserable state of sickness and famine, in addition to the constant terrors of war. In the Annals of the Four Masters we hear that the famine was so intolerable that “the father would sell his son or his daughter for food.”

It is to the same period that the worst oppressions in Munster are also ascribed. The clergy had to go into hiding and many of the Irish were reduced to servitude. Heavy imposts were laid upon them:

“an ounce of gold yearly from every man in Ireland or else the nose from his face."

Foreign overseers were placed over every townland and every household was forced to take in a foreign soldier, who, if he were not satisfied with his treatment, could summon his host before the assembly. The milk of the babes of one year and of the sick had to be given to the soldier.[20]

But toward the close of the tenth century a check was given to the power of the Danes by the rapid rise of two rulers, one in the North and the other in the South, whose able and persistent efforts came near to bringing the foreign dominion to an end. Had not Brian of the Tributes been so fortunate in his eulogists, posterity would probably have regarded Malaughlan II (commonly miscalled Malachy) as one of the most commanding figures that ever occupied the seat of the High King of Ireland. His fame has, however, been overshadowed by that of his rival Brian, who deposed him, and whose poets and chroniclers put forth unusual efforts to glorify the first prince from Munster who succeeded in breaking through the long tradition of monarchs drawn from the Northern branches of the family of the Hy-Neill.

Malaughlan II came to the throne in 980, and it was only after a reign of twenty-three years that Brian deposed him. During all that time he had pursued a steady and successful policy of opposition to the common enemy, similar to that which Brian was carrying on in the South. In the first year of his reign he inflicted on the foreigners of Dublin, at the battle of Tara, one of the heaviest defeats they had ever experienced. It is safe to say that Clontarf was rendered possible by this weakening defeat. As a result, Olaf Cuaran withdrew from Ireland and sought an asylum in Iona among those Columban monks whom the Norse had so often ravaged. With his retirement the whole of the North was freed from subjection to the foreigners of Dublin.

Malaughlan forced the Danes to set free the Irish hostages and all slaves, and obliged them to give him hostages in token of subjection. Ragnall, Olaf Cuaran’s son, fell in the battle, and Sitric, another son by Gormliath, succeeded to the rule of the Danes of Dublin. This was Sitric Silkenbeard (Silkiskeggor), the Danish king who was present at the battle of Clontarf. He had an uneasy reign. He was expelled from Dublin in 994, when his foe Ivar of Waterford unseated him, but he returned and drove out Ivar a couple of years afterward and reinstated his authority.

Malaughlan allowed his enemies no rest. He immediately followed up his success at Tara by a three days’ and three nights’ siege of Dublin, which gave way before his “great army.” He carried off booty and hostages and issued a proclamation bidding every Gael who was in servitude to the foreigner to return to his own territory in peace. So complete was the triumph of Malaughlan that the Annals of the Four Masters add that this was the end of the “Babylonian Captivity of Ireland; next, indeed, to the captivity of hell.”

Two years later we find Malaughlan, who was doubtless aware of the growing power of Brian, descending on his sept, the Dalcais, and plundering Thomond. He cut down the ancient tree of Magh Adhair, under which, according to Irish custom, the chiefs of the O’Briens were inaugurated, following up this humiliation by marching on Waterford and inflicting a defeat on Ivar, with the men of Leinster along with him. He took prisoner Gilla-Phadraic, Ivar’s son,[21] ravaged Leinster and passed on to inflict a similar fate on Connacht.

In 989 he fell again upon the fort of Dublin. For twenty nights he besieged the fort, the Danes within having meanwhile nothing to drink “but the saltish water of the seas.” He took the fort with great slaughter of the defenders and wrung from them his full demand, an ounce of gold out of every garden and croft in the city, to be paid for ever on Christmas Night. Shortly afterward Malaughlan asserted his supremacy over the Danes of Dublin by carrying off the royal insignia, the Ring of Tomar and the Sword of Carlus, which were taken by him forcibly with many other jewels. This possession of the Danish trophies and the imposition of the first annual tax upon them shows that the tide had turned in favour of the Irish kings.

At this moment of their greatest power Malaughlan and Brian entered into friendly negotiations against their common enemy. “To the joy of all the Irish” they joined their armies and together obtained hostages from the Danes and plundered Dublin. A year later, in 1000, the two armies united in Co. Wicklow and inflicted on the foreigners a crushing defeat at Glenmama, a battle which was sternly contested on both sides. Brian and Malaughlan pursued the retreating Danes to Dublin, where they again burned the fort and expelled Sitric, Brian remaining encamped in the town from Christmas to Epiphany. The account of the wealth found in the city is surprising. Besides quantities of gold and silver, bronze and precious stones, goblets and buffalo horns, the poets of the day sing:

We brought silk out of the fortress,

We brought bedding, we brought feathers,

We brought steeds goodly and fleet,

We brought blooming fair white women.

This was “the barbarian wealth of Dublin” of which the Northern saga speaks. Every yeoman in Munster gained enough to furnish his house with gold and silver and coloured cloths and property of all sorts. As a part of the “mutual peace” agreed upon between them the monarch of Ireland handed over to Brian all hostages held by him from the South of Ireland, whether foreign or Irish, thus acknowledging Brian’s undivided authority over Munster, in return for a solemn renunciation on Brian’s part of any claims on the High Kingship. In a few months’ time this compact was broken by Brian’s designs on the throne of Ireland, which were fully revealed in the following year.

At this turning-point in the story we must trace the rise to power of the King of Munster. The early career of Brian had been one long adventure. He and his elder brother Mahon were sons of Kennedy, a prince of the Dalcais who had withdrawn his claim in favour of Callachan of Cashel of the rival house of Eoghan, or Owen, an old arrangement between the two houses having provided for the alternate succession of the two Munster houses of the Eoghanacht and the Dalcais. The former had their seat in Cashel, the latter in Clare. The fort of Kincora, the ‘Head of the Weir,’ near the present town of Killaloe, on the Shannon, was the palace of the Dalcais. Kennedy of the Dalcais never reigned, but on the death of Callachan the succession passed by right to Mahon, who determined to continue Callachan’s policy of a steady resistance to the Danes.

After a period of waiting Brian stirred up his brother to more vigorous action, and he took the bold step of marching on Limerick to attack the Danish camp outside the city. The two armies met at Sulcoit, and after a fierce encounter the Danes were routed and the Munstermen pursued them into the city and sacked it, “the fort and good town being reduced to a cloud of smoke and red fire.” A terrible orgy followed on the hills above the town, every man being put to the sword, and every “soft youthful matchless girl and every blooming silk-clad woman” of the Danes being degraded and enslaved “for the good of the souls of the foreigners who were killed,” as the writer adds with a grim attempt at irony.[22]

Mahon followed up the important defeat of Sulcoit (968) by seven routs of the Danes, and the people, encouraged by his successes, everywhere turned on the foreign soldiers billeted in their families and killed them. At the height of his success the career of Mahon was cut short by the jealousy of two rival clans under their chiefs Donovan and Molloy, who treacherously invited Mahon to their house and had him killed. Even the Bishop of Cork, under whose protection he had put himself, took part in the murder.

The horrid deed brought Brian to the throne as the undisputed head of the chiefs of Munster. He inflicted a just retribution on the murderers of his brother, slaying “that ripe culprit Donovan” along with his Danish ally Harald, or Aralt, and then set himself to continue Mahon’s policy. He took hostages from Leinster and pushed his way up the Shannon into Meath and Connacht. In 998 he made his first compact with Malaughlan, who was closely watching the advance of his ambitious designs, now revealing themselves as directed against the monarchy.

It was in the very year of the combined victory of Glenmama over the foreigners (1000) that we find the record, “The first turning of Brian against Malaughlan,” to which the Northern Annals of Tighernach add “through guile and treachery.” A brief entry in the same annals: “Brian of the Tributes reigns,” announces the accomplishment of his ambitious purpose, but the Four Masters give the date of his accession as 1002. The Annals of Ulster do not mention his elevation to the kingship, but they later speak of him as King of Ireland, while his rival is named King of Tara.

Brian is said to have attained the age of seventy-six years when he replaced Malaughlan on the throne. The Annals of the Four Masters give the date of his birth at 925, and he is said to have been twenty-four years older than his rival. According to the Annals of Ulster, however, Brian is said to have been born in 941, which would make him sixty-one at the time of his accession, a much more probable age.

The ambition of every prince who had risen to power by his own exertions was to secure the public recognition of his position by making an armed circuit of the provinces of Ireland, to obtain the open submission of the provincial chiefs by taking hostages from them. In the second year of Brian’s reign he attempted such a circuit, but was refused entry into the North and was obliged to turn back. Not till after the delay of a year did the North consent unwillingly to give hostages to Brian rather than to go to battle with him.

It was during Brian’s circuit into Ulster that he visited the city of Armagh, where he spent a week discussing the question of the primacy as between the foundation of St Patrick and Brian’s own abbatial church of Cashel. In the end Brian solemnly confirmed to Armagh the ecclesiastical supremacy over the whole of Ireland which the clergy of Armagh might well have feared would, on the accession of a prince of Munster to the throne of Ireland, pass from them to the Southern Church.

There is still to be seen in the Book of Armagh an inscription written on this occasion by Brian’s scribe under the eyes of the King himself, confirming these rights to the Church of Armagh. The entry ends as follows:

“I, that is Calvus Perennis [i.e., Maelsuthain, Brian’s secretary], have written under the eyes of Brian, Emperor of the Scots [Irish], and what I have written he determined for all the kings of Maceria [i.e., Cashel].”[23]

Ten years before this visit of Brian to Armagh a great misfortune had befallen the city in the destruction by lightning of the chief part of its religious buildings, “both houses and churches and its belfry and sacred wood,” say the annals. Doubtless one of the most treasured objects in the city was the Book of Armagh, in which Brian inscribed his name and which contained some of the writings of St Patrick. When a few years later, in 1020, nearly all the city was again burned down, including its fort, the damhlaic or great church with its leaden roof, the bell-house with its bells, along with several oratories and houses, and the old preaching-chair and abbot’s chariot, fortunately the library or house of the manuscripts was spared. Had it been burned with the rest the Book of Armagh would have been lost to us. Brian completed his patronage of Armagh by laying twenty-two ounces of gold upon the altar, after which he returned to Munster bringing the hostages of Eastern Munster with him. Next year he carried out his design of enforcing his imperial supremacy over Ireland by making the grand circuit of the provinces.

Having now accomplished his aims, Brian settled at home, and for nine years, up to the close of his life, he occupied himself with little interruption in securing the well-being of his own province of Munster. He made bridges and roads, built or strengthened a number of fortresses in different parts of the South, living himself chiefly at his favourite fort or palace of Kincora in Co. Clare. Close to it was a place called Boromhe (pronounced Boru) to which the tributes of cattle were brought to be given to Brian, and from which he came to be called, from the number of the tributes, Brian Boromhe, or “Brian of the Tributes.”[24] He built churches and belfries, executed justice, and encouraged learning. He exercised a wide hospitality, and the peace of his reign is symbolized by the story of the solitary woman who could pass in safety from one part of the country to the other, carrying a gold ring on a horse-rod.[25] He sent professors over the sea “to teach wisdom and knowledge and to buy books beyond the sea and the great ocean, because the books and writings in every church and in every sanctuary had been burned and thrown into the water by plunderers; and Brian himself gave the price of learning and the price of books to each one who went on this service.”

But though things were outwardly prosperous there were signs of coming trouble. Leinster was restive under Brian’s restraining hand and the necessity forced upon it of giving large tributes to him. The Norse were smarting under the defeats that they had received, and were showing unusual activity in forming alliances, fomenting dissatisfaction, and gaining adherents both within and without the country. Brian on his side was not unaware of what was going forward, and he was gathering the whole of the forces over whom he had control in one final effort to drive the Danes permanently out of Ireland.