The Norsemen or Northmen were the people of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They always call themselves Northmen. This implies that they regarded themselves as being the northern branch of a larger people—and that larger people can only have been the Germans. Northmen means North Germans. On their first appearance on the Irish and Scottish coasts, the Irish called them simply “the Heathens”—Genti: all the other peoples with whom the Irish came in contact at that time being Christians. Afterwards they were called in Irish Lochlannaigh. The origin of this name is unknown. Professor Marstrander thinks it must mean the men of Rogaland, an old division of Scandinavia.
The Norse invasions are seen to go through several phases. In the first phase, the islands and coasts are fiercely devastated, and the Northmen make away again with their booty and captives, or hold the captives to ransom. In the second phase, they occupy islands and outlying forelands. They are thus able to gather strong bands and plan out incursions into the interior. These two phases cover about half a century, from 790 to 840. Gradually the leaders are learning the geography of Ireland, especially of its harbours and navigable rivers.
The rapid development of these raiding enterprises has been explained as caused by political changes in Norway. But these changes did not take place until about eighty years after the Norse raids began. They amounted to a strong centralisation under king Harald the Fairhaired and a diminution of the power of the nobles; and they were perhaps rather a consequence than a cause of the raiding movement. We have seen how, some five centuries earlier, an almost similar outbreak of raiding activity brought the Irish into touch with Roman Britain and Gaul, and how the rewards of plunder enabled Irish kings to maintain a permanent military organisation and to acquire thereby much greater power, leading to a depression of the old nobility. I think it likely that the chief cause of the Norse movement of invasion was the development of a particularly suitable style of ship-building; the building of long undecked ships of light draft and very strong construction, very seaworthy; in which, during a sea-fight, every man could take a hand.
The third phase was the occupation of inland waters. The invaders ran their ships, which were propelled by oars as well as by sails, up the navigable rivers, if necessary dragging them overland where the navigable parts were interrupted by shallow rapids, for example on the Bann and the Shannon. Thus they could place a whole fleet on a lake like Loch Neagh or Loch Ree. There they were safe from attack and were in a position to choose the place on a large shoreline for their incursions. It is to be borne in mind that, during the period of the Norse wars in Ireland and for some centuries before and after it, the Irish had no permanent military organisation. Their largest military operations never extended beyond a few weeks. Their fighting men were called out for the purpose from their ordinary peaceful occupations, and could not lawfully be held to military service for more than a few weeks in any year. Thus there was no effective means of fighting down a hostile force encamped on its ships in a large inland water. It was by a crafty lure, we are told, that Turgesius, commander of the Norse fleet on the Shannon, was captured.
The fourth phase was the occupation of a fortified station on some haven, so that the ships, drawn up on land, were secure from attack. The earliest of these Norse stations in Ireland were at Dublin and at Annagassan in Co. Louth. Annagassan, now a mere hamlet, was a port of note in ancient times. Its sandy estuary suited the shipping of that age. Irish folk-tales still describe the old way of bringing ships to land in such places. The ships were of very light draft. Those made in Ireland had the strong framework covered with hides not planks. They were run ashore in a sandy rivermouth and dragged up on land beyond the reach of the tide. What gave Annagassan importance was that at this point the old great northern highway, the Slighe Midhluachra, touched the coast. It is in describing the fortified stations of the Norsemen at Dublin and Annagassan, in the annals under the year 841, that we first find the Irish term long-phort. This word, about seventy years afterwards, has come to mean an entrenched or stockaded position for an army, a fortified camp; and its use in this sense shews us what was the character of these first Norse stations on the Irish mainland.
The occupation of these fortified stations enabled the invaders to accumulate force for strong expeditions overland. Such expeditions were soon undertaken with success.
Dublin was well chosen. The Liffey here was the boundary between two of the greater kingdoms—Leinster and Bregia. The Norsemen of Dublin were thus in a position to take advantage of the ancient hostility between the Leinstermen and the Ui Néill who had wrested the plain of Meath from Leinster and imposed a hated tribute on the Leinster kings. So, as a rule, we find the Norse of Dublin and the kings of Leinster in close alliance.
The Irish annals indicate an earlier date for the centralising policy of the kings of Norway than Norwegian historians seem to accept. In 849, they tell us, eight years after the occupation of Dublin, the king of Norway (Lochlainn) sent a fleet to establish his authority over the Norse settlers in Ireland; and four years later, in 853, they say that Olaf, whom they call son of the king of Lochlainn, assumed kingship over the Norsemen in Ireland. He became joint king of Dublin with Ivar.
Soon after this, in 856 and 857, the Gall-Ghaedhil or Norse-Irish, make their appearance in various parts of the island—in Meath and Ulster and Munster. These were the people of the generation following the Norse occupation of the Scottish islands and the Isle of Man. They spoke a broken Irish and no doubt also a broken Norse dialect.
In 851, a new variety of Norsemen arrives on the Irish coast. They are called the Black Heathens, the Black Foreigners, the Black Lochlannachs, in contradistinction to the Fair Heathens, Fair Foreigners, or Fair Lochlannachs who had been here before them. The Welsh chronicle, the Annales Cambriae, makes it fairly clear that these Black Heathens were the Danes. They came in hostility to the Norwegians, with whom they fought fierce battles; and we have already seen that for a number of years the Danes held the chief power in the Hebrides.
At this point of time, about the middle of the ninth century, the Norsemen must have seemed to be about to become masters of all northern Europe from the west of Ireland to the banks of the Volga. England was crumbling under their attacks. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how Norse armies marched up and down through the country without resistance, then moved off to the Continent. They occupied Ghent in Flanders for a year. They defeated the Franks in battle and supplied themselves with horses from their captures, pushed up the Meuse into France, encamped there for another year; went up the Scheldt to Condé and sat there for a year; up the Somme to Amiens, and sat there for a year. Then up the Seine, and took up their winter quarters beside Paris. Then the “army went up through the bridge at Paris, and thence up along the Seine as far as the Marne, and thence up the Marne to Cheny, and then sat down, there and on the Yonne, two winters in the two places.” Then they crossed from the Seine to the borders of Brittany, where the Bretons attacked and defeated them, driving them into their ships, which apparently had been sent round by sea to co-operate with them. Turning again eastward they were defeated next year in Germany, but held together in France for two years more, when they came down to Boulogne, and finding shipping for their whole force, including horses, crossed over to England in two hundred and fifty ships, Alfred being then king in England. Afterwards they crossed England, passing up the Thames and then up the Severn. Alfred, assisted by the Welsh, defeated them. They fell back on Essex, mustered fresh forces there, once more crossed England and laid siege to Chester, invaded Wales and were driven out of it. Some settled down in the conquered lands of East Anglia and Northumbria, the rest made a fresh expedition into France. Though Alfred was a great and admirable king, and justly held up to renown in English history, he could do no more than hold a minor part of England against these invaders, and at his death in 901 they were undisputed masters of about two thirds of that country.
Several causes operated in checking the growth of Norse power. One was the rivalry between the Danes and the Norwegians. Another was the consolidation of Scotland under Cinaeth Mac Ailpin. A third cause undoubtedly was the tenacious resistance of the “Celts.” Had the Norsemen been as successful in Scotland and Ireland, Wales and Brittany, as they were in England and Normandy, Harald the Fair might have been the head of a new empire. The annals give a long list of pitched battles in Ireland, in some of which the invaders were victorious but for the most part they were defeated. Mr. Orpen ascribes their failure to the fact that the Irish were not politically centralised and were therefore harder to break down; yet he goes on to censure this defect in the Irish polity. Are we to conclude that it was a misfortune for Ireland and other countries that Ireland was not subjugated by the Scandinavian Heathens?
As a matter of fact, it was under the personal command of the high-king, Aedh Finnliath, that the Irish resistance took a definitely successful turn. In 866, this king captured all the strongholds of the Norsemen in the northern half of Ireland; and from this time on, they made no settlements to the north of Dublin and Limerick. Olaf and Ivar, the two kings of Dublin, turned their arms against Britain. In 870, as already related, after a siege of four months, they captured the last stronghold of the northern Britons at Dumbarton. In recording the death of Ivar in 873, the Irish annals entitled him “king of the Norsemen of Ireland and Britain.”
Ireland, however, was not at peace from the invaders. Under the same year, 873, we find a characteristic entry in the annals. I have already said that those who resort to these chronicles for a record of the normal affairs of Ireland mistake the character of the record and expose themselves to deception. One of the institutions connected with the Irish monarchy was the “Fair” or Assembly of Taillte near Navan. This was considered to be the principal assembly in Ireland, and to preside over it was a function of the king of Ireland. Yet during more than four centuries before this year 873, the Assembly is only five times mentioned, and in each instance it is not the normal fact but an abnormal incident that is recorded. In the year 717, the Assembly was disturbed by Foghartach, king of Bregia. Foghartach was a claimant to the high-kingship. In 714, he was deposed and exiled to Britain. In 716, he is recorded as reigning again. His disturbance of the Assembly of Taillte in the following year marks therefore an attempt on his part to assert his position as monarch. The effective high-king at the time was Fergal, king of Ailech. In 733, Cathal, king of Munster, made a similar attempt to preside, and was prevented by the king of Meath. After this event, there is no mention of the Assembly until 811. In that year, the Ui Néill having done something in violation of the sanctuary rights of the monastery of Tallaght near Dublin, the monastic authorities placed the Assembly under an interdict. The high-king nevertheless proceeded to hold it. He was Aedh Oirdnidhe, king of Ailech; and so we see that whether the monarch had his domestic realm in Meath or in the far North, it was equally his custom to preside over this Assembly. He failed to hold the Assembly. In face of the ban “neither horse nor chariot came thither.” And the violated sanctuary of Tallaght received reparation after this in the form of many gifts.
In 827, the Assembly was broken up “against the Gailings” by the high-king Conchobor. The explanation of this event is possibly that the high-king failed to hold the Assembly, being preoccupied with the hostile activities of the Norsemen who in that year were plundering, burning and wasting the Bregian seaboard, not far from Taillte; also with the equally troublesome activities of Feidlimid, king of Cashel, about whom there is more to be said. The Gailings, whose territory lay close by, were loth to be deprived of the customary celebration, and attempted to hold the Assembly on their own account, but were forcibly prevented by the high-king.
In 831, the annals record a disturbance in the courts of the Assembly, owing to some dispute regarding reliquaries of St. Patrick and St. MacCuilinn of Lusk, the reliquaries no doubt being brought there for the purpose of administering oaths in litigation.
Let it not be thought that the silence of the annals in other years is compatible with the absence of the unrecorded event. The entry of the year 873 puts this possibility out of question. It says: “The Assembly of Taillte is not held, in the absence of just and worthy cause, a thing which we have not heard to have befallen from ancient times.” Nevertheless, that there was sufficient cause in the disturbed condition of the country owing to the Norse wars is made evident, for the chronicler has to record the abandonment of the Assembly three years later, in 876, when again he denies a just and worthy cause; and again in the second year after that, in 878, without just and worthy cause. When we come to 888, we are told only that the Assembly fell through. This is repeated in 889, and then, when the failure to hold the Assembly becomes annual and, so to speak, normal, the annalist ceases to record it. The next we hear of this institution is in 916, and once more it is the unwonted thing that is chronicled. In that year, the Assembly of Taillte was restored by the high-king, Niall Glúndubh. Hence it would appear that the half-century preceding 916 was the period during which the disturbance of normal conditions in Ireland reached its maximum; and this is also the period of maximum activity for the Norsemen in neighbouring countries.
Aedh Finnliath died in the monastery of Dromiskin in 879. Dromiskin is in Co. Louth, near the sea-coast, and the fact that it was there the high-king “fell asleep,” i.e. died a peaceful death in religious retirement, testifies to his success in checking the menace of the Norsemen in northern Ireland. He was succeeded in the monarchy, according to the custom of alternation, by Flann Sinna, king of Meath.
In the meantime, the power of the kings of Cashel continued to increase. It is a remarkable thing that at least four kings of Cashel during this period were ecclesiastics. These were Ólchobor, who died in 796, a scribe and a bishop; Feidlimid, who reigned from 820 to 847, described in his obit as “scribe and anchorite,” but in an earlier annal he is mentioned as carrying his crozier to battle; Cormac, the learned bishop, who fell in battle in 908; and Flaithbertach, the chief cause of Cormac’s tragedy, who was abbot of Inis Cathaigh, afterwards became king of Cashel, abdicated or was deposed, and died in 944. The career of Feidlimid reads like that of a Heathen king of Norsemen. There are some churchmen who stand upon the letter of the law, and consider themselves thereby entitled to do things that are hard to reconcile with the spirit. Feidlimid began his reign by proclaiming the Law of Patrick over Munster, i.e. by enforcing there the primatial claims of Armagh. In the same year he burned the monastery of Gallen, a foundation of the Britons in the west of Meath, destroying all its dwelling places and its oratory. Three years later, in 826, he led the army of Munster into the same district and wasted it. In 827 the king of Ireland, Conchobor, met him in convention at Birr; this indicating that the two kings were on terms of equality. In 830, he was again burning and wasting over his borders in Meath and Connacht. In 831, he appeared at the head of an army of Munster and Leinster in Bregia. In 833, he attacked Clonmacnois, slaughtered its monks and burned its termon-lands up to the church gates; then handled the monastery of Durrow in the same fashion. In 836, he attacked Kildare, then a purely ecclesiastical and monastic settlement, and finding the abbot and other dignitaries of Armagh there on visitation, he carried them off as captives, no doubt holding them to ransom. Next year he again invaded Connacht, and in 838 another king of Ireland met him in convention at Cloncurry, and doubtless came to terms with him; in 840 he attacked Meath, Bregia, and Connacht, and exacted the hostages of Connacht; in 841, the year in which the Norsemen established themselves at Dublin, Feidlimid with his army encamped on Tara. This, along with his taking the hostages of Connacht, shows that his aim was to secure the high-kingship. In the same year he marched to Carman, near Mullaghmast; Carman was the assembly-place of the kings of Leinster, and Feidlimid no doubt wished to preside and so assert his sovereignty over Leinster. This time, however, he overstretched his power. The reigning high-king, Niall, came in force against him and drove him out, and a poem on this event says that in his flight the vigil-keeping Feidlimid left his crozier behind. After this check, he is not further heard of until his death in 847. In his obit he is called by the northern chronicler “optimus Scottorum,” the best man of the Irish. His reign exhibits the high-water mark of the power of the Eoghanacht kings of Munster.
After 500 years of undisputed sovereignty in Munster, the Eoghanacht dynasty of Cashel reached a turning point in the battle of Belach Mugna in 908. In that year, urged on by Flaithbertach, abbot of Inis Cathaigh, an eligible prince and afterwards king of Cashel, king Cormac, the bishop, invaded Leinster. The high-kings of the line of Niall regarded the Leinster kings as their own choice vassals and jealously reserved to themselves the privilege of exacting homage and tribute from Leinster. We have seen how a high-king allowed a king of Cashel to plunder and harry in Connacht and Meath, and interfered with effect only when the Assembly of Carman and the sovereignty of Leinster were involved. So it befel with Cormac. Advancing through Ossory he compelled the king of Ossory to join forces with him, and crossing the Barrow they were confronted by the Leinster king and his army. They encamped for the night, prepared to do battle on the morrow. Flann Sinna, the high-king, must have been well warned, for when the morning came, the Munster army found not only the Leinstermen against them in front, but the high-king and the king of Connacht coming upon their left flank. The king of Ossory attempted to retreat but was cut off and killed. The battle became a rout. King Cormac was unhorsed and beheaded. Two Munster abbots fell in the slaughter. The abbot of Inis Cathaigh escaped.
A graphic account of this expedition, with all the appearance of authentic detail, is found in a book of annals apparently compiled at Durrow in Ossory. The memory of King Cormac was held afterwards in great veneration. To him is ascribed the compilation of the Irish glossary that bears his name, also of the Psalter of Cashel and the Book of Rights. The Psalter of Cashel survives only in excerpts and quotations, and to judge from these it was a collection of historical and genealogical matter. Of the Book of Rights, Professor Ridgeway once said to me that it was the most remarkable state document produced by any European country outside of the Byzantine empire in that age. We must consider its character and content on a later occasion.
This tragic battle, fought in the year 908, ended the long-established prestige of the Cashel dynasty. Six years afterwards, in 914, the Norsemen took possession of Waterford without opposition; and still six years later, in 920, they took possession of Limerick. Until these years, they had gained no foothold on the land of Munster. Another result of the weakening of the Eoghanacht power was the rapid rise of the Dalcassian kings.
Closely connected with the events of this time, a thousand years ago, was the remarkable story of Queen Gormlaith. She was daughter of the king of Ireland, Flann Sinna. Apparently she had been betrothed to Cormac, king of Cashel. He having become an ecclesiastic, Gormlaith was given in marriage to Cearbhall, king of Leinster, the same Cearbhall, victor over Cormac at Belach Mugna, to whose sword an ode written by a Leinster poet is preserved in the Book of Leinster. The Ossory collection of annals, which differs from the ordinary chronicles in expanding into narrative, tells that Cearbhall, wounded in the battle, lay long a-healing, and that once, as the queen sat on the couch at his feet, he boasted rudely over the death of Cormac. Gormlaith reproached him for his disrespect to the memory of so good a king. Her husband, remembering that she had been promised wife to Cormac, became enraged, and with his foot cast the queen from the couch to the floor. Thus affronted in the presence of others, Gormlaith left her husband and went back to her father. Flann refused to receive her, not desiring a quarrel with the king of Leinster. Gormlaith then sought protection from Niall Glúndubh, king of Ailech. Cearbhall died of his wounds the year after the battle, and Niall married Gormlaith. On the death of Flann in 916, Niall became king of Ireland.
I have shown that the annals are a record of abnormal rather than of normal matters. Another character of the annals is that they are in the main an aristocratic and personal record, having chief regard to great personages in Church and State and to the personal aspect of events as they concerned these magnates. A good exemplification of this feature of the annals is shown in the record of king Flann’s death. It says: “Flann, son of Mael Sechnaill, king of Tara, who reigned thirty-six years, six months, and five days, died in the sixty-eighth year of his age, on Saturday, the 25th of May, about the hour of 1 p.m.” So Gormlaith, daughter of a king of Ireland, chosen to be queen of Munster, became queen of Leinster, then queen of Ailech, and lastly queen of Ireland. There is an old poem which represents her standing by the grave of her husband Niall and commanding a monk not to set his foot upon that clay. She died in religious retirement in 948, forty years after the battle of Belach Mugna.
In the first year of his reign as king of Ireland, 916, Niall Glúndubh, as already told, restored the Assembly of Taillte. In the following year, 917, he marched against the Norsemen of Waterford. They came out to meet him. An indecisive action was fought. Then both armies fortified themselves in the field, anticipating the modern manner of warfare, and remained thus face to face for three weeks. Niall meanwhile sent to the king of Leinster requesting him to attack the Norsemen from that side. The Norsemen, however, did not wait for this attack. Keeping enough force to hold their position against Niall, they sent their main body to meet the Leinstermen, whom they completely defeated. The place of this encounter is named Cenn Fuait, and was absurdly identified by O’Donovan with Confey in Co. Kildare, apparently on the principle that there is an M in Macedon and also in Monmouth. The battle must have taken place close to Waterford Harbour on the Leinster side. Other editors of the annals content themselves with repeating O’Donovan’s conjecture as authentic. After this failure, Niall withdrew, and the Norsemen held Waterford from that time until the Norman invasion.
Next year 918, Niall opened war on the Norsemen of Dublin. That is just 1000 years ago. The following year, 919, he led an army against Dublin. The Norsemen met him on the north bank of the Liffey at Islandbridge. Niall was defeated and mortally wounded. This battle is sometimes called the battle of Dublin, sometimes the battle of Cell-mo-Shámhóg, from a church in the vicinity. The latter name furnished O’Donovan with the occasion for another conjectural identification, which other editors have blindly followed. He made Cell-mo-Shámhóg to be the same as Kilmashogue, six or seven miles from Dublin on the south side and among the hills. A little reflection would have assured these editors that, just as a Leinster army coming to the relief of an army near Waterford was not likely to encounter the Norse of Waterford in the north of Leinster, so also an army from northern Ireland was not likely to meet the Norsemen of Dublin in the mountains to the south of Dublin. For the full identification of the battle site, the student may refer to the name Cell Mo Shámóc in Father Hogan’s Onomasticon.
From Niall Glúndubh the O’Neills of Tyrone derive their surname and descent.
The Norsemen were now no longer the ferocious heathens of their earlier record. Most of them had adopted Christianity. Intermarriages between them and the Irish were quite frequent. Their towns soon developed into trading communities, though it is clear enough from Norse documents that a Norse trading ship went to sea well prepared to make gains by less patient methods than buying and selling. Wexford seems to have been pre-eminently a trading settlement, and the first part taken by the Wexford Norsemen in Irish wars was apparently the defence of their town against the Anglo-Normans. With their Irish neighbours they lived in peace and security. In the tenth century the Norse settlements in Ireland became part of the Irish body politic, and if they went to war in Ireland, as often as not, it was in alliance with one Irish king against another. There were still incursions of the Norsemen of outlying parts, the Isle of Man, Galloway, the Hebrides, etc., and in Ireland the struggle takes the form of resistance to these invaders, under a number of leaders of note. One of these leaders, Cellachán of Cashel, king of Munster, has a saga all to himself, but I think the story contains more than history. Some of its striking events, which we might expect to find recorded in the chronicles, find no place in them. However that may be, Cellachán’s activity against the Norsemen is the last glory of the Cashel dynasty, the flame that shoots up from the candlestick before the candle goes out. Already the Dalcassian line was preparing to take the place of the declining Eoghanacht power in Munster. In the year 944, the father of Brian Bóramha, Cennétig, king of Dál gCais, with the title of king of Thomond or North Munster, gave battle to Cellachán, but was defeated. Brian was born in 941, three years before this battle. Cellachán died in 954.
In northern Ireland at this time the head of resistance to the Norsemen was Muirchertach, son of the high-king Niall Glúndubh who fell in the battle of Dublin. A list of his victories is given, a century after his time, by the poet-historian Flann of Monasterboice. Among them is mentioned an expedition by sea against the Norsemen of the Hebrides—it is also mentioned in the genealogies but not in the contemporary annals. The annals on the other hand record that in 939 Muirchertach was captured in Ailech and carried off by the Norsemen to their ships but was immediately ransomed. The event shows that Ailech, one of the great prehistoric stone fortresses, was still occupied in the tenth century by the kings who took their title from it. Especially interesting in Muirchertach’s career are his relations with the high king Donnchadh. In the ordinary course of the alternate succession, Muirchertach, as king of Ailech, was the designated successor in the high-kingship to Donnchadh, who was king of Meath. At times he appears prepared to dispute the authority of Donnchadh, at other times he is active in upholding it. His most remarkable action is what is known as his Circuit of Ireland, in 941, briefly noticed in the Annals but described at length in a poem by Cormacán Éces, who accompanied the expedition. With a picked force, said to number 1000, Muirchertach marched through all the principal kingdoms of Ireland, and exacted hostages from each king. In Cashel, he took the king himself, Cellachán, as a hostage. The Dalcassians alone stood off, and after four days marching here and there in their territory, Muirchertach passed on to Connacht without the hostages of Dál gCais.
The fact of this expedition illustrates what I have already said, that, from the sixth to the thirteenth century, there was no military organisation in Ireland. The hostages were brought to Ailech and there hospitably entertained by the king and queen for some weeks, after which Muirchertach, so to speak, regularised his position in the matter by handing over all the hostages to the high king Donnchadh.
Two years later, in 943, Muirchertach fell in battle with the Norsemen near Dundalk. The high king Donnchadh died in the following year, 944. In the ordinary course of the alternate succession, he should have been succeeded by the king of Ailech, but Muirchertach’s death left this kingship either disputed or divided, and the high-kingship was assumed by Congalach, king of Bregia, who reigned for twelve years and fell in battle with the Norsemen. This reign of Congalach is the only breach in the alternate monarchy between the years 734 and 1002.
The kingdom of Dál gCais occupied the eastern half of the present county of Clare. Its prominence dates from the time of Lorcán, grandfather of Brian. Being a border state, it was able to form relations of mutual advantage with the border states of Connacht, with Aidne, Ui Maine, and the Delbna. In the wars between Mathgamain and the Limerick Norsemen, the Delbna were his allies. The kings of Aidne and Ui Maine, Connacht states, were allies of Brian, and gave their lives, as he did, on the great day of Clontarf.
The killing of Mathgamain in 976 appears in later writings in a more odious light than it could have appeared to contemporaries. We can recognise that the ancient Eoghanacht dynasty of Cashel, which Mathgamain overthrew, had already lost its prestige and was no longer able to rule and protect Munster. It has always happened in the world’s history, and is probably happening to-day, that institutions and established powers appear to contemporary people to be full of vigour and likely to last, whereas to people of a later time it is clear that they resembled the hollow tree awaiting the blast that was to lay it low. To the Eoghanacht princes who compassed the death of Mathgamain, he was the successful usurper who had broken into the ancient right of their kindred and held it by the strong hand.
With regard to Brian, there are some noteworthy things to be said which even enthusiastic eulogists have ignored. Brian had one or two ideas which, in the Ireland of his time, were revolutionary. He had the idea of a more centralised authority than any Irish king in history before him had attempted to create. To this end, he designed holding in permanent garrison a number of fortified places in various parts of Munster. This design is clearly expressed in a poem added in his time, and no doubt under his direction, to the Book of Rights; and the annals show that he endeavoured to give effect to it.
Brian had also definite notions on the subject of what in our time is called sovereign independence. This is one of many matters about which we must be on our guard against thinking the present back into the past—an obvious precaution yet one which many writers on Irish history have neglected. It can be shown, and it would have interested Professor Bury had he known it, that from the earliest Irish chronicle, from the sixth century, down to the eleventh or twelfth century, the dominant idea in Ireland with regard to international relations was this—that as in Ireland there were many little States and over them all, in primacy rather than in operative authority, there was a chief king, the monarch of Ireland, so in the world there were many kingdoms and over all these a chief king whom Irish writer called the king of the world. This idea was adopted from Latin historians, especially from St. Jerome and Orosius. In our earliest histories, the emperor reigning at Constantinople was regarded as king of the world. A metrical list of the kings of the world from Noah’s Flood down to the eighth century was written by the poet-historian Flann of Monasterboice, who died in 1056. The prevalence of this idea probably facilitated Henry of Anjou in obtaining the submission of the Irish princes. The annals, in relating Henry’s arrival in Ireland in 1171 and his departure in 1172, say nothing about the papal grant, but describe Henry as “the son of the Empress.” The same idea lingered in western Europe down to the time of the emperor Charles V, and was the cause of no small anxiety to the mind of Henry VIII, with all his bluffness. Nevertheless, it was very much shaken and confused by the creation of the Western Empire under Charlemagne. That made two kings of the world. If two why not more?
About the year 1000, under Brian, that portion of the Book of Rights which concerns Munster was rewritten, and we have now the new version side by side with the old one. The new poem on the rights of the king of Cashel asserts that Cashel is subject to no king in Ireland but its own. But what about the king of the world? On that point the old idea still holds. This is what the poem says:
Cashel overheadeth every head
Except Patrick and the King of the Stars,
The high-king of the world and the Son of God
To these alone is due its homage.
But a few years later when Brian was king, not only of Cashel but of all Ireland, his view about the high-king of the world, the Emperor—eastern or western—had undergone a change. He recognised the spiritual primacy of Armagh, and when he visited Armagh, which now holds his dust, he offered a tribute of twenty ounces of gold. The Book of Armagh was displayed to him, and in his presence his official historian wrote in Latin these words, which are still upon the page:
“I Mael Suthain write this in the presence of Brian, Emperor of the Irish.”
This title, “emperor of the Irish,” is not a mere high-sounding epithet. It means that, as Basil was then supreme temporal ruler in the East and Henry of Bavaria in the West, so was Brian in this island.
Another trait in Brian’s policy was his avoidance of battle when, by delay or otherwise, he could hope to establish his authority. In 1001, when Brian’s aim at supremacy was clear to the high king Mael Sechlainn, the latter prepared to resist with the effective co-operation of the king of Connacht, and to this end built a new causeway of stone across the Shannon at Athlone. Brian’s first move the following year was to occupy Athlone and prevent co-operation; and it was at Athlone that he received the submission of both kings. Year after year he led his army into the North to obtain the submission of the northern states; and when he was opposed in force he retired without battle, until at length it became evident that he had the power to enforce submission and the northern hostages were yielded to him in peace.
Some writers have been at pains to argue that the popular view of the battle of Clontarf as a national victory over foreigners is a delusion; and would have it that this battle was either a mere incident in the domestic wars of Ireland or was rather a struggle between the forces of Christianity and Heathendom. It is enough to say that the Norse sagas regard the battle as the Irish popular view regards it—a contest between Irishmen and Norsemen about the sovereignty of Ireland. The kingdom of Ireland was the prize which king Sigtrygg of Dublin offered to Earl Sigurd of the Orkneys. It was to win Ireland that the Norsemen came from distant Iceland and from Normandy; and the Norse poet who tells of the event says, “Brian fell but saved his kingdom.” “This Brian,” too, says the Norse account, “was the best of kings.”
If the battle of Clontarf ended the prospect of a Norse conquest, it brought no advantage to the internal peace of Ireland. The effect of Brian’s assumption of the monarchy is visible. The year after the battle, Flaithbertach Ua Néill, king of Ailech, came southward with his hosting, plainly with the aim of restoring the alternate succession, under which he would become next king of Ireland after Mael Sechnaill. Mael Sechnaill resumed the high-kingship and held it until his death in 1022. The king of Ailech seems then to have made no attempt to assert his claim to the high-kingship; and for half a century afterwards no high-king is recognised. Towards the end of the century, the monarchy is restored, going now always to the strong hand—two O’Briens from Thomond, two O’Conors from Connacht, and two O’Lochlainns from Tyrone; an irregular hegemony, without even the semblance of an institution.
The Icelandic saga of Burnt Njal shows us in the most vivid possible way how great a shock Clontarf sent through the Norse world. The battle, it tells us, was accompanied or followed by apparitions and dreadful portents seen in the Hebrides, in the Orkneys, in the Faroe islands, and in distant Iceland. In truth a victory for Earl Sigurd might have been, as his defeat must have been, a decisive event in European history. The Norse of Dublin were comparatively not much affected. They maintained their alliance with Leinster. Three years after the battle, these confederates are again seen on the offensive, invading Bregia, and their joint forces sustain a heavy defeat from Mael Sechnaill.
Though a close intercourse was maintained with Norsemen in other countries, the colonies of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick became a domestic factor in the life of Ireland. Intermarriage with the Irish was quite common. We find Norse names in Irish families and Irish names in Norse families, and a considerable vocabulary of Norse words became at home in the Irish language. A new element, the commercial life of towns, was introduced by these colonies.