Irish Warfare

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

« previous page | contents | next page »

Sculpture on Chancel Arch, Monastery Church, Glendalough

Sculpture on Chancel Arch, Monastery Church, Glendalough; drawn, 1845 (from Petrie’s Round Towers)



SECTION 1. Foreign Conquests and Colonisations.

Letter LIKE their ancestors the Continental Celts, the Irish, from the earliest ages, had a genius for war and a love of fighting. In the writings of classical Latin and Greek authors are found many passages that indicate the warlike character the ancient Irish had earned for themselves among foreign nations. They were not contented with fighting at home, but made themselves formidable in other lands. Their chief foreign conquests were in Wales and Scotland: but they not unfrequently found their way to the Continent. In those times the Scots, as the Irish were then called, seem to have been almost as much dreaded as the Norsemen were in later ages. Irish literature of every kind abounds in records of foreign invasions and alliances; and the native accounts are corroborated by Roman writers, so far as they touch on these matters.

All who have read the histories of England and Rome know how prominently the "Picts and Scots" figure during the first four centuries of our era, and how much trouble they gave to both Romans and Britons. The Picts were the people of Scotland: the Scots were the Irish Gaels. As a protection against these two tribes, the Romans, at different intervals in the second and third centuries, built those great walls or ramparts from sea to sea between Britain and Alban, so well known in the history of those times, the ruins of which still remain. For three or four centuries the Irish continued their incursions to Britain and Scotland, sometimes fighting as invaders against the Picts, sometimes combining with them against Romans and Britons; and as a consequence there were several settlements of colonies from Ireland in Wales and Scotland.

Criffan the Great, who reigned in Ireland from A.D. 366 to 379, is celebrated for his conquests in Britain, in all the Irish histories and traditions dealing with that time, so that he is often called Criffan the Great, "king of Ireland and of Alban to the Ictian Sea": "Alban" here meaning, not Scotland, but Great Britain; and the "Ictian Sea," the English Channel. His reign is almost exactly coincident with the command of the Roman general Theodosius (father of the emperor Theodosius the Great), who, according to the Roman historians, checked the career of the Gaels and their allies. The Irish accounts of Criffan's invasion of Britain are in the main corroborated by the Roman poet Claudian, in those passages of his poem that celebrate the victories of Theodosius. The continual attacks of the three tribes—Scots, Picts, and Saxons—became at last so intolerable that the Roman government was forced to take defensive measures. In 367, the year after Criffan's accession, Theodosius was appointed to the military command of Britain; and, after two active campaigns, he succeeded in delivering that country for the time from the invaders.

Criffan was succeeded as king of Ireland by Niall of the Nine Hostages (A.D. 879 to 405), who was still more distinguished for foreign conquests than his predecessor. Moore (Hist. I. 150) thus speaks of his incursions into Wales:—"An invasion of Britain, on a far more extensive and formidable scale than had yet been attempted from Ireland, took place towards the close of the fourth century under Niall of the Nine Hostages, one of the most gallant of all the princes of the Milesian race." He collected a great fleet, and landing in Wales, carried off immense plunder: but was at last forced to retreat by the valiant Roman general Stilicho. On this occasion Claudian, when praising Stilicho, says of him—speaking in the person of Britannia:—"By him was I protected when the Scot [i.e. Niall] moved all Ireland against me, and the ocean foamed with their hostile oars." The Irish narratives of Niall's life and actions add that he invaded Gaul, which was his last exploit; for he was assassinated (A.D. 405) on the shore of the river Loire by one of his own chiefs, the king of Leinster, who shot him dead with an arrow.

The extensive scale of these terrible raids is strikingly indicated by no less an authority than St. Patrick, who, in his "Confession," speaking of the expedition—probably led by Niall—in which he himself was captured, says:—"I was then about sixteen years of age, being ignorant of the true God; I was brought captive into Ireland, with so many thousand men, according as we had deserved."

« previous page | contents | next page »