Danish Invasion of Ireland

There is a consensus of opinion that the first appearance of the Northmen in Ireland occurred in 785 A.D. They came at first simply for the sake of plunder. Monasteries, oratories, and shrines received their main attention. These they sacked, and plundered, and destroyed, with a vengeance, treating barbarously the monks, often starving them to death, and killing them. The following were some of their raids:—

In 795 Rathlin was raided; in 803-6 Iona, when they killed 26 monks; in 807, Innishmurry and part of Roscommon; in 813, Mayo; in 820, Cork and Cape Clear; in 823, Skelig Michil, when the hermit Etgal was carried off and died from hunger and thirst; in 825 Dun Lagan near Glendalough; in 826, Wexford; in 828, Louth. In 831 or 2 Turgesius comes on the scene and unites the divided forces of the Northmen, who from this forward aim at settlement and conquest.

To this date the Ard-righ and provincial kings were wholly inactive, having made no move to repel the pirates. Some local chiefs, it is true, protected their property as well as they could. In 812 the Northmen were defeated by the men of Mayo, but no combined action was taken. This was the result of the tribal system. The various tribes could fight bravely against one another, but they could never unite to fight a common enemy. Every petty king and chief was independent, and if there was any allegiance to an over-king it was only nominal. Some chiefs may, on a call to arms, rally round the Ard-righ, if they considered it their interest to do so, but on the eve of a battle they might, for some slight or imaginary offence order their men to withdraw from the field and thus cause incalculable injury. We must remember that at the time there was no standing army, or navy. Without a navy it was impossible to check the incursions of the barbarians.

Turgesius landed in the north of Ireland about 831 and succeeded in uniting under his own command the scattered hordes of Northmen. He directed his first efforts against Armagh in 832. The Christian Primate, Forman, fled at his approach, and carrying with him the relics of the Cathedral, sought shelter in the south. Turgesius usurped the authority of the Primate.

Soon after a large fleet arrived, which he divided into three parts. One entered the Bann and sailed up to Lough Neagh. Another was stationed in the Bay of Dundalk, while the third ascended the Shannon, and entered Lough Ree. Several monasteries, including Innis-Scaltra and Clonmacnoise, were ravaged. The wife of Turgesius, who was a pythoness, delivered her oracle from the High Altar of the Cathedral of Clonmacnoise. With a general’s keen eye Turgesius saw the advantages of Ath-Cleath (Dublin), so in 837 he took the place and erected a fortress. A similar fortress was erected at Waterford. He may be called the founder of Dublin. Before his time there may have been some huts near the ford, but there was nothing like a town. By the disposition of his fleets and fortresses we perceive that he dominated large tracts of Leinster, Ulster, and Connaught. We must admit he held a firm grip of the country, but he did not conquer it. There is no trustworthy evidence to support the view that he exercised sovereignty over the whole island.

In 845 Turgesius was drowned in Lough Owel. The general view is that his death was brought about by stratagem. The story runs that he was in love with the daughter of Malachy, King of Meath. An arrangement was made that they should meet at a certain place, the lady to be accompanied by fifteen maidens and he by fifteen youths. The maidens turned out to be beardless young men with concealed daggers. Turgesius, suspecting nothing, arrived at the spot, and immediately the youths fell upon him and his guard and secured them.

In 847 a large fleet of seven score ships arrived, and these brought what were called the Dubh-Gaill, or Black Foreigners.

The former invaders were called Finn-Gaill, or Fair Foreigners. The latter were natives of Norway and Sweden, while the former were Danes. The newcomers, sailing up to Ath-Cleath, attacked the Fair Foreigners and made a great slaughter of them. In 851 a great fleet, eight score ships of the Fair Foreigners arrived at Carlingford. A great battle, which lasted three days and three nights, was fought between these and the Black Foreigners, with the result that the latter were victorious. In 852 Olaf, son of the King of Lachlann, arrived and all the foreigners, black and fair, submitted to him as their king.

From 853 to 875 the foreigners received no further reinforcements, and made no serious attempts to enlarge their territories. There were the usual raids, and skirmishing, and hostings, and in these many captives were taken by the strangers, who reduced them to slavery. But they were gradually settling down to lead a peaceable life and take their place among the tribes of Erin. The two races were beginning to communicate, and there were alliances and inter-marriages between them. From 875 to 915 occurred what is called the forty years peace.

Now we take a review of the Kings of Erin and their doings since the arrival of the invaders to the year 915. Conchobar was Ard-Righ from 798 to 818; Niall Ceille, from 818 to 845; Malachy (Maelseach-lain), from 845 to 861; Aaedh Finleath, 861 to 877; Flann Cinna, 877 to 916; Niall Glundubh, 916.

Our Annals note, under date 839, that a large part of the present King’s County was plundered by Niall Caille.

840.—Fedlimidh, King of Munster and Bishop of Cashel, led an army against Niall Caille, and they met in North Kildare. A battle ensued, and Niall “bore away the crozier of the devout Fedlimidh by the battle of Swords.”

844.—Fedlimidh, bishop, plundered Clonmacnoise.

852.—Malachy made an expedition into Munster and enforced hostages and submission from Munster men.

857.—He went to Munster and plundered southwards to the sea after defeating their kings.

858.—Aedh Finleath formed a league with the foreigners, attacked Malachy in his camp, but was defeated with great loss.

859.—King of Ossory was in alliance with Olaf and Ivar.

860.—Aedh Finleath and the son of Olaf and the foreigners raided Meath.

877.—Flann plundered Munster.

883.—The Northmen raided Kildare and carried off fourteen score captives to their ships.

890.—They raided Armagh, and carried off 710 captives.

895.—Northmen were defeated by the men of Louth and Ulidia, with the loss of 800 men.

901.—The Northmen were expelled from Ath-Cleath by Cearbhall and the Leinster men.

906.—Flann plundered from Gowran to Limerick. The celebrated Cormac MacCuilenan was King of Munster at the time, who deserves more than a passing notice.

He belonged to the royal house of Munster. He was born in 831 and trained for the ecclesiastical life, and in due course was elevated to the episcopate. He acceeded to the throne in 896, when he was an old man. His age or office of bishop had not the effect of cooling his warlike spirit. He, like his predecessors, maintained the supremacy of Munster, and refused to submit to an Ard-righ. Flann and Cearbhall, as stated, raided Munster in 906 with the view of crushing that ambitious kingdom. Cormac got ready to defend his dominion, and meeting the enemy in the neighbourhood of the King’s County utterly defeated them. His triumph, however, was short-lived. The three provinces, united under Cathal O’Connor, King of Connaught, attacked Cormac at Ballymoon, near Carlow, and defeated him in the year 908. Six thousand of the Munster men fell. Cormac’s horse fell on the slippery bloodstained field, with the result that his neck was broken, and he died saying:

“Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

He was the most learned man of his day, had known Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Danish. He was the author of Cormac’s Glossary, compiled the Psalter of Cashel, and built Cormac’s Chapel, already mentioned.

The forty years’ peace ended in 915. The year before a fleet of the Northmen landed at Waterford, and they immediately commenced to raid Munster. From this period to Brian Boru the kings were:—Niall Glundubh, 916 to 918; Donnachad, 918 to 943; Clongalach, 943 to 955; Donal, 955 to 979; Malachy, 979 to 1002.

Niall at length succeeded in uniting the men of Erin against the new invasion. The four provinces rose up against the invaders. In the first campaign the Northmen were victorious, and re-occupied Dublin. A battle was fought the next year at Kilmashogue near Rathfarnham, and the Gael were utterly defeated. Niall fell with twelve kings, or chieftains, around him.

Donnachad the next year avenged this defeat and gained in North Dublin a signal victory over the Northmen. They were not entirely crushed, for they soon again sent parties in all directions to raid the country. Murkertach, son of Niall, encountered and defeated them in the North. He was a true patriot and renowned hero. Donnachad, the Ard-righ, grew jealous of his achievements and popularity, but Murkertach, exhibiting some of the qualities and patience of David, did not retaliate. In 929 Donnachad led an army to Leitrim against Murkertach, but they separated without bloodshed. In 938 there was another challenge of battle between Donnachad and Murkertach, but they made peace, united their forces, marched to lay siege to Dublin, and spoiled the country of the foreigners from Ath-Cleath to Ath-Triestin, near Athy.

941.—Murkertach, on hearing that Callaghan of Cashel had made a slaughter of the men of Desies for submitting to him the year before, set out, with the view of making secure his succession to the throne, in mid-winter of the same year on his famous circuit of Erin with one thousand picked warriors. They started from his palace at Aileach and spent a night at Oench Cross in Antrim—“Not more pleasant to be in Paradise”; a night at Ath-Cleath, where they were treated most hospitably by its beautiful queen, who gave them “bacon and joints of meat and fine good wheat, and fine cheese, and a coloured mantle for each chieftain”; they marched to Cashel and the men of Cashel were disposed to fight, but Callaghan would not permit them, and offered himself as a hostage; they spent a night at Kilialoe, and then turned homewards. Nearing home a giolla was despatched to Aileach to tell the queen to send women to cut rushes for bedding. “The noble kings were attended, as if they had been clerics”—“ten score hogs, ten score cows, 200 oxen, three score vats of curds, which banished the hungry look of the army; twelve vats of choice mead; and all was the gift of the queen.” His expedition was a great success, and he brought to Aileach several hostages, kings and chieftains, with “rough bright fetters on them”; “or a chain of iron on their stout legs.” His men were supplied with leather cloaks as a protection against the cold, and hence he was called Murkertach of the Leather Cloaks. He was slain, 943, in a battle fought near Ardee by Blocar the son of Godfrey.

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