The First Irish Revival 1014-1169

Alice Stopford Green
Chapter V

After the battle of Clontarf in 1014 the Irish had a hundred and fifty years of comparative quiet. "A lively, stirring, ancient and victorious people," they turned to repair their hurts and to build up their national life.

Throughout the Danish wars there had been a growth of industry and riches. No people ever made a successful national rally unless they were on the rising wave of prosperity. It is not misery and degradation that bring success. Already Ireland was known in France as "that very wealthy country in which there were twelve cities, and wide bishoprics, and a king, and that had its own language, and Latin letters."

But the position of the Gaels was no longer what it had been before the invasions. The "Foreigners" called constantly for armed help from their people without, and by political alliances and combinations fostered war among the Irish states themselves. Nearly a hundred years after Clontarf king Magnus of Norway (1103) led the greatest army that ever marched conquering over Ireland. In a dark fen the young giant flamed out a mark for all, with his shining helmet, his golden hair falling long over his red silken coat, his red shield, and laid thereon a golden lion. There he fell by an Irish axe. The glory and terror of "Magnus of the swift ships," "Magnus of the terrible battles," was sung in Ireland for half-a-dozen centuries after that last flaring-up of ancient fires.

The national life, moreover, was now threatened by the settlement of an alien race, strangers to the Irish tradition, strangers to the Irish idea of a state, and to their feeling of a church. The sea-kings had created in Dublin an open gateway into Ireland, a gateway like Quebec in Canada, that commanded the country and that the country could never again close from within. They had filled the city with Scandinavian settlers from the English and Welsh coasts—pioneers of English invasion. A wealthy and compact community living on the seaboard, trading with all Europe, inclined to the views of their business clients in England and the Empire, their influence doubled the strength of the European pressure on Ireland as against the Gaelic civilisation.

To the division of peoples within the Irish state the Danes added also the first division in the Irish church. Olaf Cuaran, overlord of northmen of Dublin and York, had been baptized (943) in Northumberland by the archbishop of Canterbury, in presence of the English king. He formed the first converted Danes into a part of the English Church, so that their bishops were sent to be ordained at Canterbury. Since the Irish in 603 had refused to deal with an archbishop of the English, this was the first foothold Canterbury had got in Ireland. It was the rending in two of the Irish tradition, the degrading of the primacy of Armagh, the admission of a foreign power, and the triumph of the English over the Gaelic church.

In church and state, therefore, the Danes had brought the first anti-national element into Irish life. The change is marked by a change of name. The Danes coined the name "Ireland," a form of Eriu suited to their own speech; the people they called "Irish," leaving the name of "Scots" only to the Gaels who had crossed the sea into Alban. Their trading ships carried the words far and wide, and the old name of Eriu only remained in the speech of the Gaels themselves.

Clontarf, too, had marked ominously the passing of an old age, the beginning of a new. Already the peoples round the North Sea—Normans, Germans, English—were sending out traders to take the place of the Scandinavians; and the peoples of the south—Italians and Gauls—were resuming their ancient commerce. We may see the advent of the new men in the names of adventurers that landed with the Danes on that low shore at Clontarf—the first great drops of the storm—lords from Normandy, a Frenchman from Gaul, and somewhere about that time Walter the Englishman, a leader of mercenaries from England. In such names we see the heralds of the coming change.

The Irish were therefore face to face with questions of a new order—how to fuse two wholly different peoples into one community; how to make a united church within a united nation; and how to use foreign influences pouring in on all sides so as to enrich without destroying the national life. Here was the work of the next hundred and fifty years. Such problems have been solved in other lands by powerful kings at the heads of armies; in Ireland it was the work of the whole community of tribes. It is in this effort that we see the immense vitality of the Gaelic system the power of its tradition, and the spirit of its people.

After Brian's death two learned men were set over the government of Ireland; a layman, the Chief Poet, and a devout man, the Anchorite of all Ireland. "The land was governed like a free state and not like a monarchy by them." The victory of Clontarf was celebrated by a renascence of learning. Eyewitnesses of that great battle, poets and historians, wrote the chronicle of the Danish wars from first to last, and sang the glories of Cellachan and of Brian Boru in the greatness of his life and the majesty of his death. A scholar put into Irish from Latin the "Tale of Troy," where the exploits and battle rage of the ancient heroes matched the martial ardour of Irish champions, and the same words are used for the fights and armour and ships of the Trojan as of the Danish wars. Another translated from Latin a history of the Britons, the neighbouring Celtic races across the Channel. In schools three or four hundred poetic metres were taught. The glories of ancient Erin were revived. Poets wrote of Usnech, of Tara, of Ailech, of the O'Neills on Lough Swilly in the far north, of Brian Boru's palace Kincora on the Shannon, of Rath Cruachan of Connacht. Tales of heroes, triumphs of ancient kings, were written in the form in which we now know them, genealogies of the tribes and old hymns of Irish saints. Clerics and laymen rivalled one another in zeal. In kings' courts, in monasteries, in schools, annals of Ireland from the earliest to the latest time were composed. Men laboured to satisfy the desire of the Irish to possess a complete and brilliant picture of Ireland from all antiquity. The most famous among the many writers, one of the most learned men in all Europe in wisdom, literature, history, poetry, and science, was Flann the layman, teacher of the school of Monasterboice, who died in 1056—"slow the bright eyes of his fine head," ran the old song. He made for his pupils synchronisms of the kings of Asia and of Roman emperors with Irish kings, and of the Irish high-kings and provincial chiefs and kings of Scotland. Writings of that time which have escaped destruction, such as the Book of Leinster, remain the most important relics of Celtic literature in the world.

There was already the beginning of a university in the ancient school of Armagh lying on the famous hill where for long ages the royal tombs of the O 'Neills had been preserved. "The strong burh of Tara has died," they said, "while Armagh lives filled with learned champions." It now rose to a great position. With its three thousand scholars, famous for its teachers, under its high-ollave Gorman who spent twenty-one years of study, from 1133 to 1154, in England and France, it became in fact the national university for the Irish race in Ireland and Scotland. It was appointed that every lector in any church in Ireland must take there a degree; and in 1169 the high-king Ruaidhri O'Conor gave the first annual grant to maintain a professor at Armagh "for all the Irish and the Scots."

A succession of great bishops of Armagh laboured to bring about also the organisation of a national church under the government of Armagh. From 1068 they began to make visitations of the whole country, and take tribute and offerings in sign of the Armagh leadership. They journeyed in the old Irish fashion on foot, one of them followed by a cow on whose milk he lived, all poor, without servants, without money, wandering among hills and remote hamlets, stopping men on the roadside to talk, praying for them all night by the force only of their piety and the fervour of their spirit drawing all the communities under obedience to the see of Patrick, the national saint. In a series of synods from 1100 to 1157 a fixed number of bishops' sees was marked out, and four archbishoprics representing the four provinces. The Danish sees, moreover, were brought into this union, and made part of the Irish organisation. Thus the power of Canterbury in Ireland was ended, and a national church set up of Irish and Danes. Dublin, the old Scandinavian kingdom, whose prelates for over a hundred years had been consecrated in England (1036-1161), was the last to hold out against the union of churches, till this strife was healed by St. Lorcán ua Tuathail, the first Irish bishop consecrated in Dublin. He carried to that battleground of the peoples all the charity, piety, and asceticism of the Irish saint: feeding the poor daily, never himself tasting meat, rising at midnight to pray till dawn, and ever before he slept going out into the graveyard to pray there for the dead; from time to time withdrawing among the Wicklow hills to St. Kevin's Cave at Glendalough, a hole in the cliff overhanging the dark lake swept with storm from the mountain-pass, where twice a week bread and water were brought him by a boat and a ladder up the rock. His life was spent in the effort for national peace and union, nor had Ireland a truer patriot or wiser statesman.

Kings and chiefs sat with the clergy in the Irish synods, and in the state too there were signs of a true union of the peoples. The Danes, gradually absorbed into the Irish population, lost the sense of separate nationality. The growing union of the peoples was seen in the increasing power of the Ardri. Brian's line maintained at Cachel the title of "kings of Ireland," strengthening their house with Danish marriages; they led Danish forces and were elected kings of the Danes in Dublin. But in the twelfth century it was the Connacht kings who came to the front, the same race that a thousand years before had spread their power across the Shannon to Usnech and to Tara. Turlough O'Conor (1118-1156) was known to Henry I of England as "king of Ireland"; on a metal cross made for him he is styled "king of Erin," and a missal of his time (1150) contains the only prayer yet known for "the king of the Irish and his army"—the sign, as we may see, of foreign influences on the Irish mind. His son, Ruaidhri or Rory, was proclaimed (1166) Ardri in Dublin with greater pomp than any king before him, and held at Athboy in Meath an assembly of the "men of Ireland," archbishops and clergy, princes and nobles, eighteen thousand horsemen from the tribes and provinces, and a thousand Danes from Dublin—there laws were made for the honour of churches and clergy, the restoring of prey unjustly taken, and the control of tribes and territories, so that a woman might traverse the land in safety; and the vast gathering broke up "in peace and amity, without battle or controversy, or any one complaining of another at that meeting." It is said that Rory O'Conor's procession when he held the last of the national festivals at Telltown was several miles in length.

The whole of Ireland is covered with the traces of this great national revival. We may still see on islands, along river-valleys, in lonely fields, innumerable ruins of churches built of stone chiselled as finely as man's hand can cut it; and of the lofty round towers and sculptured high crosses that were multiplied over the land after the day of Clontarf. The number of the churches has not been counted. It must be astonishing. At first they were built in the "Romanesque" style brought from the continent, with plain round arches, as Brian Boru made them about A.D. 1000; presently chancels were added, and doors and windows and arches richly carved. These churches were still small, intimate, suited to the worship of the tribal communities; as time went on they were larger and more richly decorated, but always marked with the remembrance of Irish tradition and ornament, and signed by Irish masons on the stones. There was a wealth of metal work of great splendour, decorated with freedom and boldness of design, with inlaid work and filigree, and settings of stones and enamels and crystal; as we may see in book-shrines, in the crosiers of Lismore and Cachel and Clonmacnois and many others, in the matchless processional cross of Cong, in the great shrine of St. Manchan with twenty-four figures highly raised on each side in a variety of postures remarkable for the time. It was covered with an embroidery of gold in as good style, say the Annals, as a reliquary was ever covered in Ireland. Irish skill was known abroad. A French hero of romance wore a fine belt of Irish leather-work, and a knight of Bavaria had from Ireland ribbon of gold-lace embroidered with animals in red gold.

The vigour of Irish life overflowed, indeed, the bounds of the country. Cloth from Ireland was already sold in England and it was soon to spread over all Europe. It is probable that export of corn and provisions had already begun, and of timber, besides hides and wool. And the frequent mention of costly gifts and tributes, and of surprisingly large sums of gold and silver show a country of steadily expanding wealth. From the time of Brian Boru learned men poured over the continent. Pilgrims journeyed to Compostella, to Rome, or through Greece to Jordan and Jerusalem—composing poems on the way, making discourses in Latin, showing their fine art of writing. John, bishop of Mecklenburg, preached to the Vandals between the Elbe and the Vistula; Marianus "the Scot" on his pilgrimage to Rome stopped at Regensburg on the Danube, and founded there a monastery of north Irishmen in 1068, to which was soon added a second house for south Irishmen. Out of these grew the twelve Irish convents of Germany and Austria. An Irish abbot was head of a monastery in Bulgaria. From time to time the Irish came home to collect money for their foundations and went back laden with gold from the kings at home. Pope Adrian IV (1154) remembered with esteem the Irish professor under whom he had studied in Paris University. Irishmen were chaplains of the emperor Conrad III († 1152) and of his successor Frederick Barbarossa. Strangers "moved by the love of study" still set out "in imitation of their ancestors to visit the land of the Irish so wonderfully celebrated for its learning."

While the spirit of Ireland manifested itself in the shaping of a national university, and of a national church, in the revival of the glories of the Ardri, and in vigour of art and learning, there was an outburst too among the common folk of jubilant patriotism. We can hear the passionate voice of the people in the songs and legends, the prophecies of the enduring life of Irishmen on Irish land, the popular tales that began at this time to run from mouth to mouth. They took to themselves two heroes to be centres of the national hope—Finn the champion, leader of the "Fiana," the war-bands of old time; and Patrick the saint. A multitude of tales suddenly sprang up of the adventures of Finn—the warrior worthy of a king, the son of wisdom, the mighty hunter of every mountain and forest in Ireland, whose death no minstrel cared to sing. Every poet was expected to recite the fame in life of Finn and his companions. Pedigrees were invented to link him with every great house in Ireland, for their greater glory and authority. Side by side with Finn the people set St. Patrick—keeper of Ireland against all strangers, guardian of their nation and tradition. It was Patrick, they told, who by invincible prayer and fasting at last compelled Heaven to grant that outlanders should not for ever inhabit Erin; "that the Saxons should not dwell in Ireland, by consent or perforce, so long as I abide in heaven:" "Thou shalt have this," said the outwearied angel. "Around thee," was the triumphant Irish hope, "on the Day of Judgment the men of Erin shall come to judgment"; for after the twelve thrones of the apostles were set in Judaea to judge the tribes of Israel, Patrick himself should at the end arise and call the people of Ireland to be judged by him on a mountain in their own land.

As in the old Gaelic tradition, so now the people fused in a single emotion the nation and the church. They brought from dusky woods the last gaunt relics of Finn's company, sad and dispirited at the falling of the evening clouds, and set them face to face with Patrick as he chanted mass on one of their old raths—men twice as tall as the modern folk, with their huge wolf-dogs, men "who were not of our epoch or of one time with the clergy." When Patrick hesitated to hear their pagan memories of Ireland and its graves, of its men who died for honour, of its war and hunting, its silver bridles and cups of yellow gold, its music and great feastings, lest such recreation of spirit and mind should be to him a destruction of devotion and dereliction of prayer, angels were sent to direct him to give ear to the ancient stories of Ireland, and write them down for the joy of companies and nobles of the latter time. "Victory and blessing wait on thee, Caeilte," said Patrick, thus called to the national service; "for the future thy stories and thyself are dear to me"; "grand lore and knowledge is this thou hast uttered to us." "Thou too, Patrick, hast taught us good things," the warriors responded with courteous dignity. So at all the holy places of Ireland, the pillar-stone of ancient Usnech, the ruined mounds of Tara, great Rath-Cruachan of Connacht, the graves of mighty champions, Pagan hero and Christian saint sat together to make interchange of history and religion, the teaching of the past and the promise of the future. St. Patrick gave his blessing to minstrels and story-tellers and to all craftsmen of Ireland—"and to them that profess it be it all happiness." He mounted to the high glen to see the Fiana raise their warning signal of heroic chase and hunting. He saw the heavy tears of the last of the heroes till his very breast, his chest was wet. He laid in his bosom the head of the pagan hunter and warrior: "By me to thee," said Patrick, "and whatsoever be the place in which God shall lay hand on thee, Heaven is assigned." "For thy sake," said the saint, "be thy lord Finn mac Cumhall taken out of torment, if it be good in the sight of God."

In no other country did such a fate befall a missionary coming from strangers—to be taken and clothed upon with the national passion of a people, shaped after the pattern of their spirit, made the keeper of the nation's soul, the guardian of its whole tradition. Such legends show how enthusiasm for the common country ran through every hamlet in the land, and touched the poorest as it did the most learned. They show that the social order in Ireland after the Danish settlements was the triumph of an Irish and not a Danish civilisation. The national life of the Irish, free, democratic, embracing every emotion of the whole people, gentle or simple, was powerful enough to gather into it the strong and freedom-loving rovers of the sea.

On all sides, therefore, we see the growth of a people compacted of Irish and Danes, bound together under the old Irish law and social order, with Dublin as a centre of the united races, Armagh a national university, a single and independent church under an Irish primate of Armagh and an Irish archbishop of Dublin, a high-king calling the people together in a succession of national assemblies for the common good of the country. The new union of Ireland was being slowly worked out by her political councillors, her great ecclesiastics, her scholars and philosophers, and by the faith of the common people in the glory of their national inheritance. "The bodies and minds of the people were endued with extraordinary abilities of nature," so that art, learning and commerce prospered in their hands. On this fair hope of rising civilisation there fell a new and tremendous trial.