The Danish Wars

Patrick Weston Joyce

143. Towards the close of the eighth century the Danes began to make descents on the coasts of Europe. They came from Norway, Sweden, Jutland, and in general from the islands and coasts of the Baltic. They deemed piracy the noblest career that a chief could engage in; and they sent forth swarms of daring and desperate marauders, who for two centuries kept the whole of Western Europe in a state of continual terror.

144. Our records make mention of two distinct races of Galls or Northmen: the Lochlanns, i.e. Norwegians and Swedes, who, as they were fair-haired, were called Finn-Galls or White strangers; and the Danars or Danes of Denmark, who were called Duv-Galls, Black strangers, because they were dark-haired and swarthy. In modern Irish histories the term "Danes" is applied to both indifferently.

The Finn-Galls or Norwegians were the first to arrive. They appeared on the Irish coast for the first time in 795, when they plundered Lambay Island near Dublin, then called Rechru.

145. From that time forward they continued to send detached parties to Ireland, who plundered and ravaged wherever they came, both islands and mainland, and destroyed many of the great monasteries.

At first they came as mere robbers: then they began to make permanent settlements on several points of the coast, from which they penetrated inland in all directions; and wherever there was a religious establishment likely to afford plunder, there they were sure to appear.

About the middle of the ninth century they established themselves permanently in Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford, where they built fortresses.

146. Hitherto there was little combination among the Norsemen; but now appeared the most renowned of all their leaders—Turgesius or Thorgils—who, coming with a fleet in 832, united the whole of their scattered forces. Soon afterwards three other fleets arrived, one of which, sailing up the lower Bann, took possession of Lough Neagh; another anchored in Dundalk Bay; while the third occupied Lough Ree on the Shannon.

Tergesius established himself for a time in Armagh which he sacked three times in one month; and he posted parties at important points on the coast, such as Dublin, Limerick, Dundalk and Carlingford. After committing great ravages in the north, he placed himself at the head of the fleet in Lough Ree; and from this central station he commanded a large part of Leinster and Connaught, and plundered those of the ecclesiastical establishments that lay within reach—Clonmacnoise, Lorrha and Terryglass in Tipperary, and the churches of Iniscaltra in Lough Derg.

147. Although the Irish made no combined effort to resist the robbers, yet the local chiefs often successfully intercepted them in their murderous raids, and slaughtered them mercilessly. In 838 they were defeated by the Kinel Connell at Assaroe, by the Dalcassians in Clare, and by the Southern Hy Neill in Meath. During the Fair of Roscrea in 845, a great body of the Norsemen marched suddenly on the town, expecting little resistance and plenty of booty. But the people, meeting them as they entered, killed their leader with a great number of the rank and file, and put the party to the rout. But the whole sea continued—as the Irish record expresses it—to vomit floods of foreigners into Erin; they still held their grip on the main strongholds of the coast, from which they swept like a whirlwind through the country; and wherever they went the track they left after them was a belt of desert.

The career of Turgesius was at last suddenly cut short by the valour of one of the provincial kings. He was taken prisoner in 845 by Malachi king of Meath, who caused him to be drowned in Lough Owel in Westmeath.

This brave prince succeeded to the throne of Ireland in 846, as Malachi I. He followed up his success with great determination; and the Danes now suffered many disastrous defeats, not only by this king, but by several of the provincial rulers.

148. Aed or Hugh Finnliath, who succeeded Malachi in 863, routed the Danes in several battles. He was succeeded by Malachy's son Flann Sinna. For 40 years—from 875 to 915—a period nearly coincident with Flann's reign, the Danes sent no new swarms to Ireland, and the land was comparatively free from their ravages; though those already in the country held their ground in their fortresses along the coast, such as Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, and Lough Foyle. But during this time there were serious wars among the Irish themselves.

149. In the time of Flann Sinna flourished archbishop Cormac Mac Cullenan king of Munster. Very soon after he was crowned king, Munster was invaded and plundered from Gowran to Limerick—in 906—by the monarch Flann and the king of Leinster. Cormac attended by Flahertagh the warlike abbot of Scattery, followed the invaders and defeated the monarch in two battles. But in the year 908 he was defeated and slain in the great battle of Ballaghmoon near Carlow, where 6,000 of the Munstermen fell.

Cormac Mac Cullenan was the most learned Irishman of his time, and was deeply versed in the history, literature, and antiquities of his country. The works written by him have already been mentioned (28).

150. The heroic king Niall Glunduff who succeeded Flann in 916, routed the Danes in several battles. But he was at last defeated by them in a terrible battle fought in 919 at Kilmashoge near Dublin, where fell the king himself with twelve princes and a great part of the nobles of the north of Ireland.

151. Donogh the son of Flann Sinna succeeded Niall, and in the second year of his reign—in 920—he avenged the battle of Kilmashoge by defeating and slaughtering the Danes on the plain of Bregia north of Dublin.

During the reign of this king flourished Murkertagh of the Leather Cloaks, son of Niall Glunduff. He was one of the most valiant princes commemorated in Irish history, and waged incessant war against the foreigners.

In order to silence all opposition to his succession, he made a circuit of Ireland with a thousand picked men in the depth of winter, A.D. 941, when he knew that his opponents were unprepared to resist. For protection against the wintry weather each man was furnished with a large loose mantle of leather; and hence this prince has ever since been known by the name of Murkertagh of the Leather Cloaks. In this expedition he was entirely successful. He brought away the provincial kings or their sons to his palace at Ailech, where he kept them captive for five months, after which he sent them to king Donogh as a testimony of loyalty.

But Murkertagh was not destined to be king of Ireland. He was killed in 943 in an obscure skirmish at Ardee by Blacar the Dane, dying as he had lived, in conflict with the enemies of his country.

152. Malachi II., or Malachi the Great, as he is often called, the most distinguished king that had reigned for many generations, became king in 980. The year before his accession he defeated the Danes in a great battle at Tara where vast numbers of them were slain. Following up his success he marched straight on Dublin, which he captured after a siege of three days, took immense booty, and liberated 2,000 captives.

We shall now interrupt the regular course of our narrative in order to trace the career of the man who was destined to crush the power of the Danes for ever.