A Popular History of Ireland


Hugh VI., surnamed Ornie, succeeded to the throne vacant by the death of Donogh I. (A.D. 797), and reigned twenty-two years; Conor II. succeeded (A.D. 819), and reigned fourteen years; Nial III. (called from the place of his death Nial of Callan), reigned thirteen years; Malachy I. succeeded (A.D. 845), and reigned fifteen years; Hugh VII. succeeded and reigned sixteen years (dying A.D. 877); Flan (surnamed Flan of the Shannon) succeeded at the latter date, and reigned for thirty-eight years, far into the tenth century. Of these six kings, whose reigns average twenty years each, we may remark that not one died by violence, if we except perhaps Nial of Callan, drowned in the river of that name in a generous effort to save the life of one of his own servants. Though no former princes had ever encountered dangers equal to these—yet in no previous century was the person of the ruler so religiously respected. If this was evident in one or two instances only, it would be idle to lay much stress upon it; but when we find the same truth holding good of several successive reigns, it is not too much to attribute it to that wide diffusion of Christian morals, which we have pointed out as the characteristic of the two preceding centuries. The kings of this age owed their best protection to the purer ethics which overflowed from Armagh and Bangor and Lismore; and if we find hereafter the regicide habits of former times partially revived, it will only be after the new Paganism—the Paganism of interminable anti-Christian invasions—had recovered the land, and extinguished the beacon lights of the three first Christian centuries.

The enemy, who were now to assault the religious and civil institutions of the Irish, must be admitted to possess many great military qualities. They certainly exhibit, in the very highest degree, the first of all military virtues—unconquerable courage. Let us say cheerfully, that history does not present in all its volumes a braver race of men than the Scandinavians of the ninth century. In most respects they closely resembled the Gothic tribes, who, whether starting into historic life on the Euxine or the Danube, or faintly heard of by the Latins from the far off Baltic, filled with constant alarm the Roman statesmen of the fourth century; nor can the invasions of what we may call the maritime Goths be better introduced to the reader than by a rapid sketch of the previous triumphs of their kindred tribes over the Roman Empire.

It was in the year of our Lord 378 that these long-dreaded barbarians defeated the Emperor Valens in the plain of Adrianople, and as early as 404—twenty-six years after their first victory in Eastern Europe—they had taken and burned great Rome herself. Again and again—in 410, in 455, and in 472—they captured and plundered the Imperial City. In the same century they had established themselves in Burgundy, in Spain, and in Northern Africa; in the next, another branch of the Gothic stock twice took Rome; and yet another founded the Lombard Kingdom in Northern Italy. With these Goths thus for a time masters of the Roman Empire, whose genius and temper has entered so deeply into all subsequent civilization, war was considered the only pursuit worthy of men. According to their ideas of human freedom, that sacred principle was supposed to exist only in force and by force; they had not the faintest conception, and at first received with unbounded scorn the Christian doctrine of the unity of the human race, the privileges and duties annexed to Christian baptism, and the sublime ideal of the Christian republic. But they were very far from being so cruel or so faithless as their enemies represented them; they were even better than they cared to represent themselves. And they had amongst them men of the highest capacity and energy, well worthy to be the founders of new nations. Alaric, Attila, and Genseric, were fierce and unmerciful it is true; but their acts are not all written in blood; they had their better moments and higher purposes in the intervals of battle; and the genius for civil government of the Gothic race was in the very beginning demonstrated by such rulers as Theodoric in Italy and Clovis in Gaul. The rear guard of this irresistible barbaric invasion was now about to break in upon Europe by a new route; instead of the long land marches by which they had formerly concentrated from the distant Baltic and from the tributaries of the Danube, on the capital of the Roman empire; instead of the tedious expeditions striking across the Continent, hewing their paths through dense forests, arrested by rapid rivers and difficult mountains, the last northern invaders of Europe had sufficiently advanced in the arts of shipbuilding and navigation to strike boldly into the open sea and commence their new conquests among the Christian islands of the West. The defenders of Roman power and Christian civilization in the fifth and sixth centuries, were arrayed against a warlike but pastoral people encumbered with their women and children; the defenders of the same civilization, in the British Islands in the ninth and tenth centuries, were contending with kindred tribes, who had substituted maritime arts and habits for the pastoral arts and habits of the companions of Attila and Theodoric. The Gothic invasion of Roman territory in the earlier period was, with the single exception of the naval expeditions of Genseric from his new African Kingdom, a continental war; and notwithstanding the partiality of Genseric for his fleet, as an arm of offence and defence, his companions and successors abandoned the ocean as an uncongenial element. The only parallel for the new invasion, of which we are now to speak, is to be found in the history and fortunes of the Saxons of the fifth century, first the allies and afterwards the conquerors of part of Britain. But even their descendants in England had not kept pace, either in the arts of navigation or in thirst for adventure, with their distant relatives, who remained two centuries later among the friths and rocks of Scandinavia.

The first appearance of these invaders on the Irish and British coasts occurred in 794. Their first descent on Ireland was at Rathlin island, which may be called the outpost of Erin, towards the north; their second attempt (A.D. 797) was at a point much more likely to arouse attention—at Skerries, off the coast of Meath (now Dublin); in 803, and again in 806, they attacked and plundered the holy Iona; but it was not until a dozen years later they became really formidable. In 818 they landed at Howth; and the same year, and probably the same party, sacked the sacred edifices in the estuary of the Slaney, by them afterwards called Wexford; in 820 they plundered Cork, and in 824—most startling blow of all—they sacked and burned the schools of Bangor. The same year they revisited Iona; and put to death many of its inmates; destroyed Moville; received a severe check in Lecale, near Strangford lough (one of their favourite stations). Another party fared better in a land foray into Ossory, where they defeated those who endeavoured to arrest their progress, and carried off a rich booty. In 830 and 831, their ravages were equally felt in Leinster, in Meath, and in Ulster, and besides many prisoners of princely rank, they plundered the primatial city of Armagh for the first time, in the year 832. The names of their chief captains, at this period, are carefully preserved by those who had so many reasons to remember them; and we now begin to hear of the Ivars, Olafs, and Sitricks, strangely intermingled with the Hughs, Nials, Connors, and Felims, who contended with them in battle or in diplomacy. It was not till the middle of this century (A.D. 837) that they undertook to fortify Dublin, Limerick, and some other harbours which they had seized, to winter in Ireland, and declare their purpose to be the complete conquest of the country.

The earliest of these expeditions seem to have been annual visitations; and as the northern winter sets in about October, and the Baltic is seldom navigable before May, the summer was the season of their depredations. Awaiting the breaking up of the ice, the intrepid adventurers assembled annually upon the islands in the Cattegat or on the coast of Norway, awaiting the favourable moment of departure. Here they beguiled their time between the heathen rites they rendered to their gods, their wild bacchanal festivals, and the equipment of their galleys. The largest ship built in Norway, and probably in the north, before the eleventh century, had 34 banks of oars. The largest class of vessel carried from 100 to 120 men. The great fleet which invaded Ireland in 837 counted 120 vessels, which, if of average size for such long voyages, would give a total force of some 6,000 men. As the whole population of Denmark, in the reign of Canute who died in 1035, is estimated at 800,000 souls, we may judge from their fleets how large a portion of the men were engaged in these piratical pursuits. The ships on which they prided themselves so highly were flat-bottomed craft, with little or no keel, the sides of wicker work, covered with strong hides. They were impelled either by sails or oars as the changes of the weather allowed; with favourable winds they often made the voyage in three days. As if to favour their designs, the north and north-west blast blows for a hundred days of the year over the sea they had to traverse. When land was made, in some safe estuary, their galleys were drawn up on shore, a convenient distance beyond highwater mark, where they formed a rude camp, watch-fires were lighted, sentinels set, and the fearless adventurers slept as soundly as if under their own roofs, in their own country. Their revels after victory, or on returning to their homes, were as boisterous as their lives. In food they looked more to quantity than quality, and one of their most determined prejudices against Christianity was that it did not sanction the eating of horse flesh. An exhilarating beer, made from heath, or from the spruce tree, was their principal beverage, and the recital of their own adventures, or the national songs of the Scalds, were their most cherished amusement. Many of the Vikings were themselves Scalds, and excelled, as might be expected, in the composition of war songs.

The Pagan belief of this formidable race was in harmony with all their thoughts and habits, and the exact opposite of Christianity. In the beginning of time, according to their tradition, there was neither heaven nor earth, but only universal chaos and a bottomless abyss, where dwelt Surtur in an element of unquenchable fire. The generation of their gods proceeded amid the darkness and void, from the union of heat and moisture, until Odin and the other children of Asa-Thor, or the Earth, slew Ymer, or the Evil One, and created the material universe out of his lifeless remains. These heroic conquerors also collected the sparks of eternal fire flying about in the abyss, and fixed them as stars in the firmament. In addition, they erected in the far East, Asgard, the City of the Gods; on the extreme shore of the ocean stood Utgard, the City of Nor and his giants, and the wars of these two cities, of their gods and giants, fill the first and most obscure ages of the Scandinavian legend. The human race had as yet no existence until Odin created a man and woman, Ask and Embla, out of two pieces of wood (ash and elm), thrown upon the beach by the waves of the sea.

Of all the gods of Asgard, Odin was the first in place and power; from his throne he saw everything that happened on the earth; and lest anything should escape his knowledge, two ravens, Spirit and Memory, sat on his shoulders, and whispered in his ears whatever they had seen in their daily excursions round the world. Night was a divinity and the father of Day, who travelled alternately throughout space, with two celebrated steeds called Shining-mane and Frost-mane. Friga was the daughter and wife of Odin; the mother of Thor, the Mars, and of the beautiful Balder, the Apollo, of Asgard. The other gods were of inferior rank to these, and answered to the lesser divinities of Greece and Rome. Niord was the Neptune, and Frega, daughter of Niord, was the Venus of the North. Heimdall, the watchman of Asgard, whose duty it was to prevent the rebellious giants scaling by surprise the walls of the celestial city, dwelt under the end of the rainbow; his vision was so perfect he could discern objects 100 leagues distant, either by night or day, and his ear was so fine he could hear the wool growing on the sheep, and the grass springing in the meadows.

The hall of Odin, which had 540 gates, was the abode of heroes who had fought bravest in battle. Here they were fed with the lard of a wild boar, which became whole every night, though devoured every day, and drank endless cups of hydromel, drawn from the udder of an inexhaustible she-goat, and served out to them by the Nymphs, who had counted the slain, in cups which were made of the skulls of their enemies. When they were wearied of such enjoyments, the sprites of the Brave exercised themselves in single combat, hacked each other to pieces on the floor of Valhalla, resumed their former shape, and returned to their lard and their hydromel.

Believing firmly in this system—looking forward with undoubting faith to such an eternity—the Scandinavians were zealous to serve their gods according to their creed. Their rude hill altars gave way as they increased in numbers and wealth, to spacious temples at Upsala, Ledra, Tronheim, and other towns and ports. They had three great festivals, one at the beginning of February, in honour of Thor, one in Spring, in honour of Odin, and one in Summer, in honour of the fruitful daughter of Niord. The ordinary sacrifices were animals and birds; but every ninth year there was a great festival at Upsala, at which the kings and nobles were obliged to appear in person, and to make valuable offerings. Wizards and sorcerers, male and female, haunted the temples, and good and ill winds, length of life, and success in war, were spiritual commodities bought and sold. Ninety-nine human victims were offered at the great Upsala festival, and in all emergencies such sacrifices were considered most acceptable to the gods. Captives and slaves were at first selected; but, in many cases, princes did not spare their subjects, nor fathers their own children. The power of a Priesthood, who could always enforce such a system, must have been unbounded and irresistible.

The active pursuits of such a population were necessarily maritime. In their short summer, such crops as they planted ripened rapidly, but their chief sustenance was animal food and the fish that abounded in their waters. The artizans in highest repute among them were the shipwrights and smiths. The hammer and anvil were held in the highest honour; and of this class, the armorers held the first place. The kings of the North had no standing armies, but their lieges were summoned to war by an arrow in Pagan times, and a cross after their conversion. Their chief dependence was in infantry, which they formed into wedge-like columns, and so, clashing their shields and singing hymns to Odin, they advanced against their enemies. Different divisions were differently armed; some with a short two-edged sword and a heavy battle-axe; others with the sling, the javelin, and the bow. The shield was long and light, commonly of wood and leather, but for the chiefs, ornamented with brass, with silver, and even with gold. Locking the shields together formed a rampart which it was not easy to break; in bad weather the concave shield seems to have served the purpose of our umbrella; in sea-fights the vanquished often escaped by swimming ashore on their shields. Armour many of them wore; the Berserkers, or champions, were so called from always engaging, bare of defensive armour.

Such were the men, the arms, and the creed, against which the Irish of the ninth age, after three centuries of exemption from foreign war, were called upon to combat. A people, one-third of whose youth and manhood had embraced the ecclesiastical state, and all whose tribes now professed the religion of peace, mercy, and forgiveness, were called to wrestle with a race whose religion was one of blood, and whose beatitude was to be in proportion to the slaughter they made while on earth. The Northman hated Christianity as a rival religion, and despised it as an effeminate one. He was the soldier of Odin, the elect of Valhalla; and he felt that the offering most acceptable to his sanguinary gods was the blood of those religionists who denied their existence and execrated their revelation. The points of attack, therefore, were almost invariably the great seats of learning and religion. There, too, was to be found the largest bulk of the portable wealth of the country, in richly adorned altars, jewelled chalices, and shrines of saints. The ecclesiastical map is the map of their campaigns in Ireland. And it is to avenge or save these innumerable sacred places—as countless as the Saints of the last three centuries—that the Christian population have to rouse themselves year after year, hurrying to a hundred points at the same time. To the better and nobler spirits the war becomes a veritable crusade, and many of those slain in single-hearted defence of their altars may well be accounted martyrs—but a war so protracted and so devastating will be found, in the sequel, to foster and strengthen many of the worst vices as well as some of the best virtues of our humanity.

The early events are few and ill-known. During the reign of Hugh VI., who died in 819, their hostile visits were few and far between; his successors, Conor II. and Nial III., were destined to be less fortunate in this respect. During the reign of Conor, Cork, Lismore, Dundalk, Bangor and Armagh, were all surprised, plundered, and abandoned by “the Gentiles,” as they are usually called in Irish annals; and with the exception of two skirmishes in which they were worsted on the coasts of Down and Wexford, they seem to have escaped with impunity. At Bangor they shook the bones of the revered founder out of the costly shrine before carrying it off; on their first visit to Kildare they contented themselves with taking the gold and silver ornaments of the tomb of St. Bridget, without desecrating the relics; their main attraction at Armagh was the same, but there the relics seemed to have escaped. When, in 830, the brotherhood of Iona apprehended their return, they carried into Ireland, for greater safety, the relics of St. Columbkill. Hence it came that most of the memorials of SS. Patrick, Bridget, and Columbkill, were afterwards united at Downpatrick.

While these deplorable sacrileges, too rapidly executed perhaps to be often either prevented or punished, were taking place, Conor the King had on his hand a war of succession, waged by the ablest of his contemporaries, Felim, King of Munster, who continued during this and the subsequent reign to maintain a species of rival monarchy in Munster. It seems clear enough that the abandonment of Tara, as the seat of authority, greatly aggravated the internal weakness of the Milesian constitution. While over-centralization is to be dreaded as the worst tendency of imperial power, it is certain that the want of a sufficient centralization has proved as fatal, on the other hand, to the independence of many nations. And anarchical usages once admitted, we see from the experience of the German Empire, and the Italian republics, how almost impossible it is to apply a remedy. In the case before us, when the Irish Kings abandoned the old mensal domain and betook themselves to their own patrimony, it was inevitable that their influence and authority over the southern tribes should diminish and disappear. Aileach, in the far North, could never be to them what Tara had been. The charm of conservatism, the halo of ancient glory, could not be transferred. Whenever, therefore, ambitious and able Princes arose in the South, they found the border tribes rife for backing their pretensions against the Northern dynasty. The Bards, too, plied their craft, reviving the memory of former times, when Heber the Fair divided Erin equally with Heremon, and when Eugene More divided it a second time with Con of the Hundred Battles. Felim, the son of Crimthan, the contemporary of Conor II. and Nial III., during the whole term of their rule, was the resolute assertor of these pretensions, and the Bards of his own Province do not hesitate to confer on him the high title of Ard-Righ. As a punishment for adhering to the Hy-Nial dynasty, or for some other offence, this Christian king, in rivalry with “the Gentiles,” plundered Kildare, Burrow, and Clonmacnoise—the latter perhaps for siding with Connaught in the dispute as to whether the present county of Clare belonged to Connaught or Munster. Twice he met in conference with the monarch at Birr and at Cloncurry—at another time he swept the plain of Meath, and held temporary court in the royal rath of Tara. With all his vices lie united an extraordinary energy, and during his time, no Danish settlement was established on the Southern rivers. Shortly before his decease (A.D. 846) he resigned his crown and retired from the world, devoting the short remainder of his days to penance and mortification. What we know of his ambition and ability makes us regret that he ever appeared upon the scene, or that he had not been born of that dominant family, who alone were accustomed to give kings to the whole country.

King Conor died (A.D. 833), and was succeeded by Nial III., surnamed Nial of Callan. The military events of this last reign are so intimately bound up with the more brilliant career of the next ruler—Melaghlin, or Malachy I.—that we must reserve them for the introduction to the next chapter.


When, in the year 833, Nial III. received the usual homage and hostages, which ratified his title of Ard-Righ, the northern invasion had clearly become the greatest danger that ever yet had threatened the institutions of Erin. Attacks at first predatory and provincial had so encouraged the Gentile leaders of the second generation that they began to concert measures and combine plans for conquest and colonization. To the Vikings of Norway the fertile Island with which they were now so familiar, whose woods were bent with the autumnal load of acorns, mast, and nuts, and filled with numerous herds of swine—their favourite food—whose pleasant meadows were well stored with beeves and oxen, whose winter was often as mild as their northern summer, and whose waters were as fruitful in fish as their own Lofoden friths; to these men, this was a prize worth fighting for; and for it they fought long and desperately.

King Nial inherited a disputed sovereignty from his predecessor, and the Southern annalists say he did homage to Felim of Munster, while those of the North—and with them the majority of historians—reject this statement as exaggerated and untrue. He certainly experienced continual difficulty in maintaining his supremacy, not only from the Prince of Cashel, but from lords of lesser grade—like those of Ossory and Ulidia; so that we may say, while he had the title of King of Ireland, he was, in fact, King of no more than Leath-Con, or the Northern half. The central Province, Meath, long deserted by the monarchs, had run wild into independence, and was parcelled out between two or three chiefs, descendants of the same common ancestor as the kings, but distinguished from them by the tribe-name of “the Southern Hy-Nial.” Of these heads of new houses, by far the ablest and most famous was Melaghlin, who dwelt near Mullingar, and lorded it over western Meath; a name with which we shall become better acquainted presently. It does not clearly appear that Melaghlin was one of those who actively resisted the prerogatives of this monarch, though others of the Southern Hy-Nial did at first reject his authority, and were severely punished for their insubordination, the year after his assumption of power.

In the fourth year of Nial III. (A.D. 837), arrived the great Norwegian fleet of 120 sail, whose commanders first attempted, on a combined plan, the conquest of Erin. Sixty of the ships entered the Boyne; the other sixty the Liffey. This formidable force, according to all Irish accounts, was soon after united under one leader, who is known in our Annals as Turgeis or Turgesius, but of whom no trace can be found, under that name, in the chronicles of the Northmen. Every effort to identify him in the records of his native land has hitherto failed—so that we are forced to conclude that he must have been one of those wandering sea-kings, whose fame was won abroad, and whose story, ending in defeat, yet entailing no dynastic consequences on his native land, possessed no national interest for the authors of the old Norse Sagas. To do all the Scandinavian chroniclers justice, in cases which come directly under their notice, they acknowledge defeat as frankly as they claim victory proudly. Equal praise may be given to the Irish annalists in recording the same events, whether at first or second-hand. In relation to the campaigns and sway of Turgesius, the difficulty we experience in separating what is true from what is exaggerated or false, is not created for us by the annalists, but by the bards and story-tellers, some of whose inventions, adopted by Cambrensis, have been too readily received by subsequent writers. For all the acts of national importance with which his name can be intelligibly associated, we prefer to follow in this as in other cases, the same sober historians who condense the events of years and generations into the shortest space and the most matter of fact expression.

If we were to receive the chronology while rejecting the embellishments of the Bards, Turgesius must have first come to Ireland with one of the expeditions of the year 820, since they speak of him as having been “the scourge of the country for seventeen years,” before he assumed the command of the forces landed from the fleet of 837. Nor is it unreasonable to suppose that an accurate knowledge of the country, acquired by years of previous warfare with its inhabitants, may have been one of the grounds upon which the chief command was conferred on Turgesius. This knowledge was soon put to account; Dublin was taken possession of, and a strong fort, according to the Scandinavian method, was erected on the hill where now stands the Castle. This fort and the harbour beneath it were to be the rendezvous and arsenal for all future operations against Leinster, and the foundation of foreign power then laid, continued in foreign hands, with two or three brief intervals, until transferred to the Anglo-Norman chivalry, three centuries and a half later. Similar lodgment was made at Waterford, and a third was attempted at Limerick, but at this period without success; the Danish fort at the latter point is not thought older than the year 855. But Turgesius—if, indeed, the independent acts of cotemporary and even rival chiefs be not too often attributed to him—was not content with fortifying the estuaries of some principal rivers; he established inland centres of operation, of which the cardinal one was on Lough Ree, the expansion of the Shannon, north of Athlone; another was at a point called Lyndwachill, on Lough Neagh. On both these waters were stationed fleets of boats, constructed for that service, and communicating with the forts on shore. On the eastern border of Lough Ree, in the midst of its meadows, stood Clonmacnoise, rich with the offerings and endowments of successive generations. Here, three centuries before, in the heart of the desert, St. Kieran had erected with his own hands a rude sylvan cell, where, according to the allegory of tradition, “the first monks who joined him,” were the fox, the wolf, and the bear; but time had wrought wonders on that hallowed ground, and a group of churches—at one time, as many as ten in number—were gathered within two or three acres, round its famous schools, and presiding Cathedral. Here it was Turgesius made his usual home, and from the high altar of the Cathedral his unbelieving Queen was accustomed to issue her imperious mandates in his absence. Here, for nearly seven years, this conqueror and his consort exercised their far-spread and terrible power. According to the custom of their own country—a custom attributed to Odin as its author—they exacted from every inhabitant subject to their sway—a piece of money annually, the forfeit for the non-payment of which was the loss of the nose, hence called “nose-money.” Their other exactions were a union of their own northern imposts, with those levied by the chiefs whose authority they had superseded, but whose prerogatives they asserted for themselves. Free quarters for their soldiery, and a system of inspection extending to every private relation of life, were the natural expedients of a tyranny so odious. On the ecclesiastical order especially their yoke bore with peculiar weight, since, although avowed Pagans, they permitted no religious house to stand, unless under an Abbot, or at least an Erenach (or Treasurer) of their approval. Such is the complete scheme of oppression presented to us, that it can only be likened to a monstrous spider-web spread from the centre of the Island over its fairest and most populous districts. Glendalough, Ferns, Castle-Dermid, and Kildare in the east; Lismore, Cork, Clonfert, in the southern country; Dundalk, Bangor, Derry, and Armagh in the north; all groaned under this triumphant despot, or his colleagues. In the meanwhile King Nial seems to have struggled resolutely with the difficulties of his lot, and in every interval of insubordination to have struck boldly at the common enemy. But the tide of success for the first few years after 837 ran strongly against him. The joint hosts from the Liffey and the Boyne swept the rich plains of Meath, and in an engagement at Invernabark (the present Bray) gave such a complete defeat to the southern Hy-Nial clans as prevented them making head again in the field, until some summers were past and gone. In this campaign Saxolve, who is called “the chief of the foreigners,” was slain; and to him, therefore, if to any commander-in-chief, Turgesius must have succeeded. The shores of all the inland lakes were favourite sites for Raths and Churches, and the beautiful country around Lough Erne shared the fiery ordeal which blazed on Lough Ree and Lough Neagh. In 839 the men of Connaught also suffered a defeat equal to that experienced by those of Meath in the previous campaign; but more unfortunate than the Methians, they lost their leader and other chiefs on the field. In 840, Ferns and Cork were given to the flames, and the fort at Lyndwachill, or Magheralin, poured out its ravages in every direction over the adjacent country, sweeping off flocks, herds, and prisoners, laymen and ecclesiastics, to their ships. The northern depredators counted among their captives “several Bishops and learned men,” of whom the Abbot of Clogher and the Lord of Galtrim are mentioned by name. Their equally active colleagues of Dublin and Waterford took captive, Hugh, Abbot of Clonenagh, and Foranan, Archbishop of Armagh, who had fled southwards with many of the relics of the Metropolitan Church, escaping from one danger only to fall into another a little farther off. These prisoners were carried into Munster, where Abbot Hugh suffered martyrdom at their hands, but the Archbishop, after being carried to their fleet at Limerick, seems to have been rescued or ransomed, as we find him dying in peace at Armagh in the next reign. The martyrs of these melancholy times were very numerous, but the exact particulars being so often unrecorded it is impossible to present the reader with an intelligible account of their persons and sufferings. When the Anglo-Normans taunted the Irish that their Church had no martyrs to boast of, they must have forgotten the exploits of their Norse kinsmen about the middle of this century.

But the hour of retribution was fast coming round, and the native tribes, unbound, divided, confused, and long unused to foreign war, were fast recovering their old martial experience, and something like a politic sense of the folly of their border feuds. Nothing perhaps so much tended to arouse and combine them together as the capture of the successor of Saint Patrick, with all his relics, and his imprisonment among a Pagan host, in Irish waters. National humiliation could not much farther go, and as we read we pause, prepared for either alternative —mute submission or a brave uprising. King Nial seems to have been in this memorable year, 843, defending as well as he might his ancestral province—Ulster—against the ravagers of Lough Neagh, and still another party whose ships flocked into Lough Swilly. In the ancient plain of Moynith, watered by the little river Finn, (the present barony of Raphoe,) he encountered the enemy, and according to the Annals, “a countless number fell”—victory being with Nial. In the same year, or the next, Turgesius was captured by Melaghlin, Lord of Westmeath, apparently by stratagem, and put to death by the rather novel process of drowning. The Bardic tale told to Cambrensis, or parodied by him from an old Greek legend, of the death by which Turgesius died, is of no historical authority. According to this tale, the tyrant of Lough Ree conceived a passion for the fair daughter of Melaghlin, and demanded her of her father, who, fearing to refuse, affected to grant the infamous request, but despatched in her stead, to the place of assignation, twelve beardless youths, habited as maidens, to represent his daughter and her attendants; by these maskers the Norwegian and his boon companions were assassinated, after they had drank to excess and laid aside their arms and armour. For all this superstructure of romance there is neither ground-work nor license in the facts themselves, beyond this, that Turgesius was evidently captured by some clever stratagem. We hear of no battle in Meath or elsewhere against him immediately preceding the event; nor, is it likely that a secondary Prince, as Melaghlin then was, could have hazarded an engagement with the powerful master of Lough Ree. If the local traditions of Westmeath may be trusted, where Cambrensis is rejected, the Norwegian and Irish principals in the tragedy of Lough Owel were on visiting terms just before the denouement, and many curious particulars of their peaceful but suspicious intercourse used to be related by the modern story-tellers around Castle-pollard. The anecdote of the rookery, of which Melaghlin complained, and the remedy for which his visitor suggested to be “to cut down the trees and the rooks would fly,” has a suspicious look of the “tall poppies” of the Roman and Grecian legend; two things only do we know for certain about the matter: firstly, that Turgesius was taken and drowned in Lough Owel in the year 843 or 844; and secondly, that this catastrophe was brought about by the agency and order of his neighbour, Melaghlin.

The victory of Moynith and the death of Turgesius were followed by some local successes against other fleets and garrisons of the enemy. Those of Lough Ree seem to have abandoned their fort, and fought their way (gaining in their retreat the only military advantage of that year) towards Sligo, where some of their vessels had collected to bear them away. Their colleagues of Dublin, undeterred by recent reverses, made their annual foray southward into Ossory, in 844, and immediately we find King Nial moving up from the north to the same scene of action. In that district he met his death in an effort to save the life of a gilla, or common servant. The river of Callan being greatly swollen, the gilla, in attempting to find a ford, was swept away in its turbid torrent. The King entreated some one to go to his rescue, but as no one obeyed he generously plunged in himself and sacrificed his own life in endeavouring to preserve one of his humblest followers. He was in the 55th year of his age and the 13th of his reign, and in some traits of character reminded men of his grandfather, the devout Nial “of the Showers.” The Bards have celebrated the justice of his judgments, the goodness of his heart, and the comeliness of his “brunette-bright face.” He left a son of age to succeed him, (and who ultimately did become Ard-Righ,) yet the present popularity of Melaghlin of Meath triumphed over every other interest, and he was raised to the monarchy—the first of his family who had yet attained that honour. Hugh, the son of Nial, sank for a time into the rank of a Provincial Prince, before the ascendant star of the captor of Turgesius, and is usually spoken of during this reign as “Hugh of Aileach.” He is found towards its close, as if impatient of the succession, employing the arms of the common enemy to ravage the ancient mensal land of the kings of Erin, and otherwise harassing the last days of his successful rival.

Melaghlin, or Malachy I. (sometimes called “of the Shannon,” from his patrimony along that river), brought back again the sovereignty to the centre, and in happier days might have become the second founder of Tara. But it was plain enough then, and it is tolerably so still, that this was not to be an age of restoration. The kings of Ireland after this time, says the quaint old translator of the Annals of Clonmacnoise, “had little good of it,” down to the days of King Brian. It was, in fact, a perpetual struggle for self-preservation—the first duty of all governments, as well as the first law of all nature. The powerful action of the Gentile forces, upon an originally ill-centralized and recently much abused Constitution, seemed to render it possible that every new Ard-Righ would prove the last. Under the pressure of such a deluge all ancient institutions were shaken to their foundations; and the venerable authority of Religion itself, like a Hermit in a mountain torrent, was contending for the hope of escape or existence. We must not, therefore, amid the din of the conflicts through which we are to pass, condemn without stint or qualification those Princes who were occasionally driven—as some of them were driven—to that last resort, the employment of foreign mercenaries (and those mercenaries often anti-Christians,) to preserve some show of native government and kingly authority. Grant that in some of them the use of such allies and agents cannot be justified on any plea or pretext of state necessity; where base ends or unpatriotic motives are clear or credible, such treason to country cannot be too heartily condemned; but it is indeed far from certain that such were the motives in all cases, or that such ought to be our conclusion in any, in the absence of sufficient evidence to that effect.

Though the Gentile power had experienced towards the close of the last reign such severe reverses, yet it was not in the nature of the men of Norway to abandon a prize which was once so nearly being their own. The fugitives who escaped, as well as those who remained within the strong ramparts of Waterford and Dublin, urged the fitting out of new expeditions, to avenge their slaughtered countrymen and prosecute the conquest. But defeat still followed on defeat; in the first year of Malachy, they lost 1,200 men in a disastrous action near Castle Dermot, with Olcobar the Prince-bishop of Cashel; and in the same or the next season they were defeated with the loss of 700 men, by Malachy, at Forc, in Meath. In the third year of Malachy, however, a new northern expedition arrived in 140 vessels, which, according to the average capacity of the long-ships of that age, must have carried with them from 7,000 to 10,000 men. Fortunately for the assailed, this fleet was composed of what they called Black-Gentiles, or Danes, as distinguished from their predecessors, the Fair-Gentiles, or Norwegians. A quarrel arose between the adventurers of the two nations as to the possession of the few remaining fortresses, especially of Dublin; and an engagement was fought along the Liffey, which “lasted for three days;” the Danes finally prevailed, driving the Norwegians from their stronghold, and cutting them off from their ships. The new Northern leaders are named Anlaf, or Olaf, Sitrick (Sigurd?) and Ivar; the first of the Danish Earls, who established themselves at Dublin, Waterford and Limerick respectively. Though the immediate result of the arrival of the great fleet of 847 relieved for the moment the worst apprehensions of the invaded, and enabled them to rally their means of defence, yet as Denmark had more than double the population of Norway, it brought them into direct collision with a more formidable power than that from which they had been so lately delivered. The tactics of both nations were the same. No sooner had they established themselves on the ruins of their predecessors in Dublin, than the Danish forces entered East-Meath, under the guidance of Kenneth, a local lord, and overran the ancient mensal, from the sea to the Shannon. One of their first exploits was burning alive 260 prisoners in the tower of Treoit, in the island of Lough Gower, near Dunshaughlin. The next year, his allies having withdrawn from the neighbourhood, Kenneth was taken by King Malachy’s men, and the traitor himself drowned in a sack, in the little river Nanny, which divides the two baronies of Duleek. This death-penalty by drowning seems to have been one of the useful hints which the Irish picked up from their invaders.

During the remainder of this reign the Gentile war resumed much of its old local and guerrilla character, the Provincial chiefs, and the Ard-Righ, occasionally employing bands of one nation of the invaders to combat the other, and even to suppress their native rivals. The only pitched battle of which we hear is that of “the Two Plains” (near Coolestown, King’s County), in the second last year of Malachy (A.D. 859), in which his usual good fortune attended the king. The greater part of his reign was occupied, as always must be the case with the founder of a new line, in coercing into obedience his former peers. On this business he made two expeditions into Munster, and took hostages from all the tribes of the Eugenian race. With the same object he held a conference with all the chiefs of Ulster, Hugh of Aileach only being absent, at Armagh, in the fourth year of his reign, and a General Feis, or Assembly of all the Orders of Ireland, at Rathugh, in West-Meath, in his thirteenth year (A.D. 857). He found, notwithstanding his victories and his early popularity, that there are always those ready to turn from the setting to the rising sun, and towards the end of his reign he was obliged to defend his camp, near Armagh, by force, from a night assault of the discontented Prince of Aileach; who also ravaged his patrimony, almost at the moment he lay on his death-bed. Malachy I. departed this life on the 13th day of November, (A.D. 860), having reigned sixteen years. “Mournful is the news to the Gael!” exclaims the elegiac Bard! “Red wine is spilled into the valley! Erin’s monarch has died!” And the lament contrasts his stately form as “he rode the white stallion,” with the striking reverse when, “his only horse this day”—that is the bier on which his body was borne to the churchyard—”is drawn behind two oxen.”

The restless Prince of Aileach now succeeded as Hugh VII., and possessed the perilous honour he so much coveted for sixteen years, the same span that had been allotted to his predecessor. The beginning of this reign was remarkable for the novel design of the Danes, who marched out in great force, and set themselves busily to breaking open the ancient mounds in the cemetery of the Pagan kings, beside the Boyne, in hope of finding buried treasure. The three Earls, Olaf, Sitrick, and Ivar, are said to have been present, while their gold-hunters broke into in succession the mound-covered cave of the wife of Goban, at Drogheda, the cave of “the Shepherd of Elcmar,” at Dowth, the cave of the field of Aldai, at New Grange, and the similar cave at Knowth. What they found in these huge cairns of the old Tuatha is not related; but Roman coins of Valentinian and Theodosius, and torques and armlets of gold, have been discovered by accident within their precincts, and an enlightened modern curiosity has not explored them in vain, in the higher interests of history and science.

In the first two years of his reign, Hugh VII. was occupied in securing the hostages of his suffragans; in the third he swept the remaining Danish and Norwegian garrisons out of Ulster, and defeated a newly arrived force on the borders of Lough Foyle; the next the Danish Earls went on a foray into Scotland, and no exploit is to be recorded; in his sixth year, Hugh, with 1,000 chosen men of his own tribe and the aid of the Sil-Murray (O’Conor’s) of Connaught, attacked and defeated a force of 5,000 Danes with their Leinster allies, near Dublin at a place supposed to be identical with Killaderry. Earl Olaf lost his son, and Erin her Roydamna, or heir-apparent, on this field, which was much celebrated by the Bards of Ulster and of Connaught. Amongst those who fell was Flan, son of Conaing, chief of the district which included the plundered cemeteries, fighting on the side of the plunderers. The mother of Flan was one of those who composed quatrains on the event of the battle, and her lines are a natural and affecting alternation from joy to grief—joy for the triumph of her brother and her country, and grief for the loss of her self-willed, warlike son. Olaf, the Danish leader, avenged in the next campaign the loss of his son, by a successful descent on Armagh, once again rising from its ruins. He put to the sword 1,000 persons, and left the primatial city lifeless, charred, and desolate. In the next ensuing year the monarch chastised the Leinster allies of the Danes, traversing their territory with fire and sword from Dublin to the border town of Gowran. This seems to have been the last of his notable exploits in arms. He died on the 20th of November, 876, and is lamented by the Bards as “a generous, wise, staid man.” These praises belong—if at all deserved—to his old age.

Flan, son of Malachy I. (and surnamed like his father “of the Shannon”), succeeded in the year 877, of the Annals of the Four Masters, or more accurately the year 879 of our common era. He enjoyed the very unusual reign of thirty-eight years. Some of the domestic events of his time are of so unprecedented a character, and the period embraced is so considerable, that we must devote to it a separate chapter.


Midway in the reign we are called upon to contemplate, falls the centenary of the first invasion of Ireland by the Northmen. Let us admit that the scenes of that century are stirring and stimulating; two gallant races of men, in all points strongly contrasted, contend for the most part in the open field, for the possession of a beautiful and fertile island. Let us admit that the Milesian-Irish, themselves invaders and conquerors of an older date, may have had no right to declare the era of colonization closed for their country, while its best harbours were without ships, and leagues of its best land were without inhabitants; yet what gives to the contest its lofty and fearful interest, is, that the foreigners who come so far and fight so bravely for the prize, are a Pagan people, drunk with the evil spirit of one of the most anti-Christian forms of human error. And what is still worse, and still more to be lamented, it is becoming, after the experience of a century, plainer and plainer, that the Christian natives, while defending with unfaltering courage their beloved country, are yet descending more and more to the moral level of their assailants, without the apology of their Paganism. Degenerate civilisation may be a worse element for truth to work in than original barbarism; and, therefore, as we enter on the second century of this struggle, we begin to fear for the Christian Irish, not from the arms or the valour, but from the contact and example of the unbelievers. This, it is necessary to premise, before presenting to the reader a succession of Bishops who lead armies to battle, of Abbots whose voice is still for war, of treacherous tactics and savage punishments; of the almost total disruption of the last links of that federal bond, which, “though light as air were strong as iron,” before the charm of inviolability had been taken away from the ancient constitution.

We begin to discern in this reign that royal marriages have much to do with war and politics. Hugh, the late king, left a widow, named Maelmara (“follower of Mary”), daughter to Kenneth M’Alpine, King of the Caledonian Scots: this lady Flan married. The mother of Flan was the daughter of Dungal, Prince of Ossory, so that to the cotemporary lords of that borderland the monarch stood in the relation of cousin. A compact seems to have been entered into in the past reign, that the Roydamna, or successor, should be chosen alternately from the Northern and Southern Hy-Nial; and, subsequently, when Nial, son of his predecessor, assumed that onerous rank, Flan gave him his daughter Gormley, celebrated for her beauty, her talents, and her heartlessness, in marriage. From these several family ties, uniting him so closely with Ossory, with the Scots, and with his successor, much of the wars and politics of Flan Siona’s reign take their cast and complexion. A still more fruitful source of new complications was the co-equal power, acquired through a long series of aggressions, by the kings of Cashel. Their rivalry with the monarchy, from the beginning of the eighth till the end of the tenth century, was a constant cause of intrigues, coalitions, and wars, reminding us of the constant rivalry of Athens with Sparta, of Genoa with Venice. This kingship of Cashel, according to the Munster law of succession, “the will of Olild,” ought to have alternated regularly between the descendants of his sons, Eugene More and Cormac Cas—the Eugenians and Dalcassians. But the families of the former kindred were for many centuries the more powerful of the two, and frequently set at nought the testamentary law of their common ancestor, leaving the tribe of Cas but the border-land of Thomond, from which they had sometimes to pay tribute to Cruachan, and at others to Cashel. In the ninth century the competition among the Eugenian houses—of which too many were of too nearly equal strength—seems to have suggested a new expedient, with the view of permanently setting aside the will of Olild. This was, to confer the kingship when vacant, on whoever happened to be Bishop of Emly or of Cashel, or on some other leading ecclesiastical dignitary, always provided that he was of Eugenian descent; a qualification easily to be met with, since the great sees and abbacies were now filled, for the most part, by the sons of the neighbouring chiefs. In this way we find Cenfalad, Felim, and Olcobar, in this century, styled Prince-Bishops or Prince-Abbots. The principal domestic difficulty of Flan Siona’s reign followed from the elevation of Cormac, son of Cuillenan, from the see of Emly to the throne of Cashel.

Cormac, a scholar, and, as became his calling, a man of peace, was thus, by virtue of his accession, the representative of the old quarrel between his predecessors and the dominant race of kings. All Munster asserted that it was never the intention of their common ancestors to subject the southern half of Erin to the sway of the north; that Eber and Owen More had resisted such pretensions when advanced by Eremhon and Conn of the Hundred Battles; that the esker from Dublin to Galway was the true division, and that, even admitting the title of the Hy-Nial king as Ard-Righ, all the tribes south of the esker, whether in Leinster or Connaught, still owed tribute by ancient right to Cashel. Their antiquaries had their own version in of “the Book of Rights,” which countenanced these claims to co-equal dominion, and their Bards drew inspiration from the same high pretensions. Party spirit ran so high that tales and prophecies were invented to show how St. Patrick had laid his curse on Tara, and promised dominion to Cashel and to Dublin in its stead. All Leinster, except the lordship of Ossory— identical with the present diocese of the same name-was held by the Brehons of Cashel to be tributary to their king; and this Borooa or tribute, abandoned by the monarchs at the intercession of Saint Moling, was claimed for the Munster rulers as an inseparable adjunct of their southern kingdom.

The first act of Flan Siona, on his accession, was to dash into Munster, demanding hostages at the point of the sword, and sweeping over both Thomond and Desmond with irresistible force, from Clare to Cork. With equal promptitude he marched through every territory of Ulster, securing, by the pledges of their heirs and Tanists, the chiefs of the elder tribes of the Hy-Nial. So effectually did he consider his power established over the provinces, that he is said to have boasted to one of his hostages, that he would, with no other attendants than his own servants, play a game of chess on Thurles Green, without fear of interruption. Carrying out this foolish wager, he accordingly went to his game at Thurles, and was very properly taken prisoner for his temerity, and made to pay a smart ransom to his captors. So runs the tale, which, whether true or fictitious, is not without its moral. Flan experienced greater difficulty with the tribes of Connaught, nor was it till the thirteenth year of his reign (892) that Cathal, their Prince, “came into his house,” in Meath, “under the protection of the clergy” of Clonmacnoise, and made peace with him. A brief interval of repose seems to have been vouchsafed to this Prince, in the last years of the century; but a storm was gathering over Cashel, and the high pretensions of the Eugenian line were again to be put to the hazard of battle.

Cormac, the Prince-Bishop, began his rule over Munster in the year 900 of our common era, and passed some years in peace, after his accession. If we believe his panegyrists, the land over which he bore sway, “was filled with divine grace and worldly prosperity,” and with order so unbroken, “that the cattle needed no cowherd, and the flocks no shepherd, so long as he was king.” Himself an antiquary and a lover of learning, it seems but natural that “many books were written, and many schools opened,” by his liberality. During this enviable interval, councillors of less pacific mood than their studious master were not wanting to stimulate his sense of kingly duty, by urging him to assert the claim of Munster to the tribute of the southern half of Erin. As an antiquary himself, Cormac must have been bred up in undoubting belief in the justice of that claim, and must have given judgment in favour of its antiquity and validity, before his accession. These dicta of his own were now quoted with emphasis, and he was besought to enforce, by all the means within his reach, the learned judgments he himself had delivered. The most active advocate of a recourse to arms was Flaherty, Abbot of Scattery, in the Shannon, himself an Eugenian, and the kinsman of Cormac. After many objections, the peaceful Prince-Bishop allowed himself to be persuaded, and in the year 907 he took up his line of march, “in the fortnight of the harvest,” from Cashel toward Gowran, at the head of all the armament of Munster. Lorcan, son of Lactna, and grandfather of Brian, commanded the Dalcassians, under Cormac; and Oliol, lord of Desies, and the warlike Abbot of Scattery, led on the other divisions. The monarch marched southward to meet his assailants, with his own proper troops, and the contingents of Connaught under Cathel, Prince of that Province, and those of Leinster under the lead of Kerball, their king. Both armies met at Ballaghmoon, in the southern corner of Kildare, not far from the present town of Carlow, and both fought with most heroic bravery. The Munster forces were utterly defeated; the Lords of Desies, of Fermoy, of Kinalmeaky, and of Kerry, the Abbots of Cork and Kennity, and Cormac himself, with 6,000 men, fell on the ensanguined field. The losses of the victors are not specified, but the 6,000, we may hope, included the total of the slain on both sides. Flan at once improved the opportunity of victory by advancing into Ossory, and establishing his cousin Dermid, son of Kerball, over that territory. This Dermid, who appears to have been banished by Munster intrigues, had long resided with his royal cousin, previous to the battle, from which he was probably the only one that derived any solid advantage. As to the Abbot Flaherty, the instigator of this ill-fated expedition, he escaped from the conquerors, and, safe in his island sanctuary, gave himself up for a while to penitential rigours. The worldly spirit, however, was not dead in his breast, and after the decease of Cormac’s next successor, he emerged from his cell, and was elevated to the kingship of Cashel.

In the earlier and middle years of this long reign, the invasions from the Baltic had diminished both in force and in frequency. This is to be accounted for from the fact, that during its entire length it was contemporaneous with the reign of Harold, “the Fair-haired” King of Norway, the scourge of the sea-kings. This more fortunate Charles XII., born in 853, died at the age of 81, after sixty years of almost unbroken successes, over all his Danish, Swedish, and insular enemies. It is easy to comprehend, by reference to his exploits upon the Baltic, the absence of the usual northern force from the Irish waters, during his lifetime, and that of his cotemporary, Flan of the Shannon. Yet the race of the sea-kings was not extinguished by the fair-haired Harold’s victories over them, at home. Several of them permanently abandoned their native coasts never to return, and recruited their colonies, already so numerous, in the Orkneys, Scotland, England, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. In 885, Flan was repulsed in an attack on Dublin, in which repulse the Abbots of Kildare and Kildalkey were slain; in the year 890, Aileach was surprised and plundered by Danes, for the first time, and Armagh shared its fate; in 887, 888, and 891, three minor victories were gained over separate hordes, in Mayo, at Waterford, and in Ulidia (Down). In 897, Dublin was taken for the first time in sixty years, its chiefs put to death, while its garrison fled in their ships beyond sea. But in the first quarter of the tenth century, better fortune begins to attend the Danish cause. A new generation enters on the scene, who dread no more the long arm of the age-stricken Harold, nor respect the treaties which bound their predecessors in Britain to the great Alfred. In 912, Waterford received from sea a strong reinforcement, and about the same date, or still earlier, Dublin, from which they had been expelled in 897, was again in their possession. In 913, and for several subsequent years, the southern garrisons continued their ravages in Munster, where the warlike Abbot of Scattery found a more suitable object for the employment of his valour than that which brought him, with the studious Cormac, to the fatal field of Ballaghmoon.

The closing days of Flan of the Shannon were embittered and darkened by the unnatural rebellion of his sons, Connor and Donogh, and his successor, Nial, surnamed Black-Knee (Glundubh), the husband of his daughter, Gormley. These children were by his second marriage with Gormley, daughter of that son of Conaing, whose name has already appeared in connection with the plundered sepulchres upon the Boyne. At the age of three score and upwards Flan is frequently obliged to protect by recourse to arms his mensal lands in Meath-their favourite point of attack-or to defend some faithful adherent whom these unnatural Princes sought to oppress. The daughter of Flan, thus wedded to a husband in arms against her father, seems to have been as little dutiful as his sons. We have elegiac stanzas by her on the death of two of her husbands and of one of her sons, but none on the death of her father: although this form of tribute to the departed, by those skilled in such compositions, seems to have been as usual as the ordinary prayers for the dead.

At length, in the 37th year of his reign, and the 68th of his age, King Flan was at the end of his sorrows. As became the prevailing character of his life, he died peacefully, in a religious house at Kyneigh, in Kildare, on the 8th of June, in the year 916, of the common era. The Bards praise his “fine shape” and “august mien,” as well as his “pleasant and hospitable” private habits. Like all the kings of his race he seems to have been brave enough: but he was no lover of war for war’s-sake, and the only great engagement in his long reign was brought on by enemies who left him no option but to fight. His munificence rebuilt the Cathedral of Clonmacnoise, with the co-operation of Colman, the Abbot, the year after the battle of Ballaghmoon (908); for which age, it was the largest and finest stone Church in Ireland. His charity and chivalry both revolted at the cruel excesses of war, and when the head of Cormac of Cashel was presented to him after his victory, he rebuked those who rejoiced over his rival’s fall, kissed reverently the lips of the dead, and ordered the relics to be delivered, as Cormac had himself willed it, to the Church of Castledermot, for Christian burial. These traits of character, not less than his family afflictions, and the generally peaceful tenor of his long life, have endeared to many the memory of Flan of the Shannon.


Nial IV. (surnamed Black-Knee) succeeded his father-in-law, Flan of the Shannon (A.D. 916), and in the third year of his reign fell in an assault on Dublin; Donogh II., son of Flan Siona, reigned for twenty-five years; Congal III. succeeded, and was slain in an ambush by the Dublin Danes, in the twelfth year of his reign (A.D. 956); Donald IV., in the twenty-fourth year of his reign, died at Armagh, (A.D. 979); which four reigns bring us to the period of the accession of Malachy II. as Ard-Righ, and the entrance of Brian Boru, on the national stage, as King of Cashel, and competitor for the monarchy.

The reign of Nial Black-Knee was too brief to be memorable for any other event than his heroic death in battle. The Danes having recovered Dublin, and strengthened its defences, Nial, it is stated, was incited by his confessor, the Abbot of Bangor, to attempt their re-expulsion. Accordingly, in October, 919, he marched towards Dublin, with a numerous host; Conor, son of the late king and Roydamna; the lords of Ulidia (Down), Oriel (Louth), Breagh (East-Meath), and other chiefs, with their clans accompanying him. Sitrick and Ivar, sons of the first Danish leaders in Ireland, marched out to meet them, and near Rathfarnham, on the Dodder, a battle was fought, in which the Irish were utterly defeated and their monarch slain. This Nial left a son named Murkertach, who, according to the compact entered into between the Northern and Southern Hy-Nial, became the Roydamna of the next reign, and the most successful leader against the Danes, since the time of Malachy I. He was the step-son of the poetic Lady Gormley, whose lot it was to have been married in succession to the King of Munster, the King of Leinster, and the Monarch. Her first husband was Cormac, son of Cuilenan, before he entered holy orders; her second, Kerball of Leinster, and her third, Nial Black-Knee. She was an accomplished poetess, besides being the daughter, wife, and mother of king’s, yet after the death of Nial she “begged from door to door,” and no one had pity on her fallen state. By what vices she had thus estranged from her every kinsman, and every dependent, we are left to imagine; but that such was her misfortune, at the time her brother was monarch, and her step-son successor, we learn from the annals, which record her penance and death, under the date of 948.

The defeat sustained near Rathfarnham, by the late king, was amply avenged in the first year of the new Ard-Righ (A.D. 920), when the Dublin Danes, having marched out, taken and burned Kells, in Meath, were on their return through the plain of Breagh, attacked and routed with unprecedented slaughter. “There fell of the nobles of the Norsemen here,” say the old Annalists, “as many as fell of the nobles and plebeians of the Irish, at Ath-Cliath” (Dublin). The Northern Hydra, however, was not left headless. Godfrey, grandson of Ivar, and Tomar, son of Algi, took command at Dublin, and Limerick, infusing new life into the remnant of their race. The youthful son of the late king, soon after at the head of a strong force (A.D. 921), compelled Godfrey to retreat from Ulster, to his ships, and to return by sea to Dublin. This was Murkertach, fondly called by the elegiac Bards, “the Hector of the West,” and for his heroic achievements, not undeserving to be named after the gallant defender of Troy. Murkertach first appears in our annals at the year 921, and disappears in the thick of the battle in 938. His whole career covers seventeen years; his position throughout was subordinate and expectant—for King Donogh outlived his heir: but there are few names in any age of the history of his country more worthy of historical honour than his. While Donogh was king in name, Murkertach was king in fact; on him devolved the burden of every negotiation, and the brunt of every battle. Unlike his ancestor, Hugh of Aileach, in his opposition to Donogh’s ancestor, Malachy I., he never attempts to counteract the king, or to harass him in his patrimony. He rather does what is right and needful himself, leaving Donogh to claim the credit, if he be so minded. True, a coolness and a quarrel arises between them, and even “a challenge of battle” is exchanged, but better councils prevail, peace is restored, and the king and the Roydamna march as one man against the common enemy. It has been said of another but not wholly dissimilar form of government, that Crown-Princes are always in opposition; if this saying holds good of father and son, as occupant and expectant of a throne, how much more likely is it to be true of a successor and a principal, chosen from different dynasties, with a view to combine, or at worst to balance, conflicting hereditary interests? In the conduct of Murkertach, we admire, in turn, his many shining personal qualities, which even tasteless panegyric cannot hide, and the prudence, self-denial, patience, and preservance with which he awaits his day of power. Unhappily, for one every way so worthy of it, that day never arrived!

At no former period,—not even at the height of the tyranny of Turgesius,—was a capable Prince more needed in Erin. The new generation of Northmen were again upon all the estuaries and inland waters of the Island. In the years 923-4 and 5, their light armed vessels swarmed on Lough Erne, Lough Ree, and other lakes, spreading flame and terror on every side. Clonmacnoise and Kildare, slowly recovering from former pillage, were again left empty and in ruins. Murkertach, the base of whose early operations was his own patrimony in Ulster, attacked near Newry a Northern division under the command of the son of Godfrey (A.D. 926), and left 800 dead on the field. The escape of the remnant was only secured by Godfrey marching rapidly to their relief and covering the retreat. His son lay with the dead. In the years 933, at Slieve Behma, in his own Province, Murkertach won a third victory; and in 936, taking political advantage of the result of the great English battle of Brunanburgh, which had so seriously diminished the Danish strength, the Roydamna, in company with the King, assaulted Dublin, expelled its garrison, levelled its fortress, and left the dwellings of the Northmen in ashes. From Dublin they proceeded southward, through Leinster and Munster, and after taking hostages of every tribe, Donogh returned to his Methian home and Murkertach to Aileach. While resting in his own fort (A.D. 939), he was surprised by a party of Danes, and carried off to their ships, but, says the old translator of the Annals of Clonmacnoise, “he made a good escape from them, as it was God’s will.” The following season he redoubled his efforts against the enemy. Attacking them on their own element, he ravaged their settlements on the Scottish coasts and among the isles of Insi-Gall (the Hebrides), returned laden with spoils, and hailed with acclamations as the liberator of his people.

Of the same age with Murkertach, the reigning Prince at Cashel was Kellachan, one of the heroes of the latter Bards and Story-tellers of the South. The romantic tales of his capture by the Danes, and captivity in their fleet at Dundalk, of the love which Sitrick’s wife bore him, and of his gallant rescue by the Dalcassians and Eugenians, have no historical sanction. He was often both at war and at peace with the foreigners of Cork and Limerick, and did not hesitate more than once to employ their arms for the maintenance of his own supremacy; but his only authentic captivity was, as a hostage, in the hands of Murkertach. While the latter was absent, on his expedition to Insi-Gall, Kellachan fell upon the Deisi and Ossorians, and inflicted severe chastisement upon them-alleging, as his provocation, that they had given hostages to Murkertach, and acknowledged him as Roydamna of all Erin, in contempt of the co-equal rights of Cashel. When Murkertach returned from his Scotch expedition, and heard what had occurred, and on what pretext Kellachan had acted, he assembled at Aileach all the branches of the Northern Hy-Nial, for whom this was cause, indeed. Out of these he selected 1000 chosen men, whom he provided, among other equipments, with those “leathern coats,” which lent a soubriquet to his name; and with these “ten hundred heroes,” he set out—strong in his popularity and his alliances—to make a circuit of the entire island (A.D. 940). He departed from Aileach, says his Bard, whose Itinerary we have, “keeping his left hand to the sea;” Dublin, once more rebuilt, acknowledged his title, and Sitrick, one of its lords, went with him as hostage for Earl Blacair and his countrymen; Leinster surrendered him Lorcan, its King; Kellachan, of Cashel, overawed by his superior fortune, advised his own people not to resist by force, and consented to become himself the hostage for all Munster. In Connaught, Conor, (from whom the O’Conors take their family name), son of the Prince, came voluntarily to his camp, and was received with open arms. Kellachan alone was submitted to the indignity of wearing a fetter. With these distinguished hostages, Murkertach and his leather-cloaked “ten hundred” returned to Aileach, where, for five months, they spent a season of unbounded rejoicing. In the following year, the Roydamna transferred the hostages to King Donogh, as his suzerain, thus setting the highest example of obedience from the highest place. He might now look abroad over all the tribes of Erin, and feel himself without a rival among his countrymen. He stood at the very summit of his good fortune, when the Danes of Dublin, reinforced from abroad, after his “Circuit,” renewed their old plundering practices. They marched north, at the close of winter, under Earl Blacair, their destination evidently being Armagh. Murkertach, with some troops hastily collected, disputed their passage at the ford of Ardee. An engagement ensued on Saturday, the 4th of March, 943, in which the noble Roydamna fell. King Donogh, to whose reign his vigorous spirit has given its main historical importance, survived him but a twelvemonth; the Monarch died in the bed of repose; his destined successor in the thick of battle.

The death of the brave and beloved Murkertach filled all Erin with grief and rage, and as King Donogh was too old to avenge his destined successor, that duty devolved on Congal, the new Roydamna. In the year after the fatal action at Ardee, Congal, with Brann, King of Leinster, and Kellach, heir of Leinster, assaulted and took Dublin, and wreaked a terrible revenge for the nation’s loss. The “women, children, and plebeians,” were carried off captive; the greater part of the garrison were put to the sword; but a portion escaped in their vessels to their fortress on Dalkey, an island in the bay of Dublin. This was the third time within a century that Dublin had been rid of its foreign yoke, and yet as the Gaelic-Irish would not themselves dwell in fortified towns, the site remained open and unoccupied, to be rebuilt as often as it might be retaken. The gallant Congal, the same year, succeeded on the death of Donogh to the sovereignty, and, so soon as he had secured his seat, and surrounded it with sufficient hostages, he showed that he could not only avenge the death, but imitate the glorious life of him whose place he held. Two considerable victories in his third and fourth years increased his fame, and rejoiced the hearts of his countrymen: the first was won at Slane, aided by the Lord of Breffni (O’Ruarc), and by Olaf the Crooked, a northern chief. The second was fought at Dublin (947), in which Blacair, the victor at Ardee, and 1,600 of his men were slain. Thus was the death of Murkertach finally avenged.

It is very remarkable that the first conversions to Christianity among the Danes of Dublin should have taken place immediately after these successive defeats—in 948. Nor, although quite willing to impute the best and most disinterested motives to these first neophytes, can we shut our eyes to the fact that no change of life, such as we might reasonably look for, accompanied their change of religion. Godfrid, son of Sitrick, and successor of Blacair, who professed himself a Christian in 948, plundered and destroyed the churches of East-Meath in 949, burnt 150 persons in the oratory of Drumree, and carried off as captives 3,000 persons. If the tree is to be judged by its fruits, this first year’s growth of the new faith is rather alarming. It compels us to disbelieve the sincerity of Godfrid, at least, and the fighting men who wrought these outrages and sacrileges. It forces us to rank them with the incorrigible heathens who boasted that they had twenty times received the Sacrament of Baptism, and valued it for the twenty white robes which had been presented to them on those occasions. Still, we must endeavour hereafter, when we can, to distinguish Christian from Pagan Danes, and those of Irish birth, sons of the first comers, from the foreign-born kinsmen of their ancestors. Between these two classes there grew a gulf of feeling and experience, which a common language and common dangers only partially bridged over. Not seldom the interests and inclinations of the Irish-born Dane, especially if a true Christian, were at open variance with the interests and designs of the new arrivals from Denmark, and it is generally, if not invariably, with the former, that the Leinster and other Irish Princes enter into coalitions for common political purposes. The remainder of the reign of Congal is one vigorous battle. The Lord of Breffni, who had fought beside him on the hill of Slane, advanced his claim to be recognised Roydamna, and this being denied, broke out into rebellion and harassed his patrimony. Donald, son of Murkertach, and grandson of Nial, (the first who took the name of Uai-Nial, or O’Neill), disputed these pretensions of the Lord of Breffni; carried his boats overland from Aileach to Lough Erne in Fermanagh, and Lough Oughter in Cavan; attacked the lake-islands, where the treasure and hostages of Breffni were kept, and carried them off to his own fortress. The warlike and indefatigable king was in the field summer and winter enforcing his authority on Munster and Connaught, and battling with the foreign garrisons between times. No former Ard-Righ had a severer struggle with the insubordinate elements which beset him from first to last. His end was sudden, but not inglorious. In returning from the chariot-races at the Curragh of Kildare, he was surprised and slain in an ambuscade laid for him by Godfrid at a place on the banks of the Liffey called Tyraris or Teeraris house. By his side, fighting bravely, fell the lords of Teffia and Ferrard, two of his nephews, and others of his personal attendants and companions. The Dublin Danes had in their turn a day of rejoicing and of revenge for the defeats they had suffered at Congal’s hands.

This reign is not only notable for the imputed first conversion of the Danes to Christianity, but also for the general adoption of family names. Hitherto, we have been enabled to distinguish clansmen only by tribe-names formed by prefixing Hy, Kinnel, Sil, Muintir, Dal, or some synonymous term, meaning race, kindred, sept, district, or part, to the proper name of a remote common ancestor, as Hy-Nial, Kinnel-Connel, Sil-Murray, Muintir-Eolais, Dal-g Cais, and Dal-Riada. But the great tribes now begin to break into families, and we are hereafter to know particular houses, by distinct hereditary surnames, as O’Neill, O’Conor, MacMurrough, and McCarthy. Yet, the whole body of relatives are often spoken of by the old tribal title, which, unless exceptions are named, is supposed to embrace all the descendants of the old connection to whom it was once common. At first this alternate use of tribe and family names may confuse the reader—for it is rather puzzling to find a MacLoughlin with the same paternal ancestor as an O’Neill, and a McMahon of Thomond as an O’Brien, but the difficulty disappears with use and familiarity, and though the number and variety of newly-coined names cannot be at once committed to memory, the story itself gains in distinctness by the change.

In the year 955, Donald O’Neill, son of the brave and beloved Murkertach, was recognised as Ard-Righ, by the required number of Provinces, without recourse to coercion. But it was not to be expected that any Ard-Righ should, at this period of his country’s fortunes, reign long in peace. War was then the business of the King; the first art he had to learn, and the first to practise. Warfare in Ireland had not been a stationary science since the arrival of the Norwegians and their successors, the Danes. Something they may have acquired from the natives, and in turn the natives were not slow to copy whatever seemed most effective in their tactics. Donald IV. was the first to imitate their habit of employing armed boats on the inland lakes. He even improved on their example, by carrying these boats with him overland, and launching them wherever he needed their co-operation; as we have already seen him do in his expedition against Breffni, while Roydamna, and as we find him doing again, in the seventh year of his reign, when he carried his boats overland from Armagh to West-Meath in order to employ them on Loch Ennell, near Mullingar. He was at this time engaged in making his first royal visitation of the Provinces, upon which he spent two months in Leinster, with all his forces, coerced the Munster chiefs by fire and sword into obedience, and severely punished the insubordination of Fergal O’Ruarc, King of Connaught. His fleet upon Loch Ennell, and his severities generally while in their patrimony, so exasperated the powerful families of the Southern Hy-Nial (the elder of which was now known as O’Melaghlin), that on the first opportunity they leagued with the Dublin Danes, under their leader, Olaf “the Crooked” (A.D. 966), and drove King Donald out of Leinster and Meath, pursuing him across Slieve-Fuaid, almost to the walls of Aileach. But the brave tribes of Tyrconnell and Tyrowen rallied to his support, and he pressed south upon the insurgents of Meath and Dublin; West-Meath he rapidly overran, and “planted a garrison in every cantred from the Shannon to Kells,” In the campaigns which now succeeded each other, without truce or pause, for nearly a dozen years, the Leinster people generally sympathised with and assisted those of West-Meath, and Olaf, of Dublin, who recruited his ranks by the junction of the Lagmans, a warlike tribe, from Insi-Gall (the Hebrides). Ossory, on the other hand, acted with the monarch, and the son of its Tanist (A.D. 974) was slain before Dublin, by Olaf and his Leinster allies, with 2,600 men, of Ossory and Ulster. The campaign of 978 was still more eventful: the Leinster men quarrelled with their Danish allies, who had taken their king captive, and in an engagement at Belan, near Athy, defeated their forces, with the loss of the heir of Leinster, the lords of Kinsellagh, Lea and Morett, and other chiefs. King Donald had no better fortune at Killmoon, in Meath, the same season, where he was utterly routed by the same force, with the loss of Ardgal, heir of Ulidia, and Kenneth, lord of Tyrconnell. But for the victories gained about the same period in Munster, by Mahon and Brian, the sons of Kennedy, over the Danes of Limerick, of which we shall speak more fully hereafter, the balance of victory would have strongly inclined towards the Northmen at this stage of the contest.

A leader, second in fame and in services only to Brian, was now putting forth his energies against the common enemy, in Meath. This was Melaghlin, better known afterwards as Malachy II., son of Donald, son of King Donogh, and, therefore, great-grandson to his namesake, Malachy I. He had lately attained to the command of his tribe—and he resolved to earn the honours which were in store for him, as successor to the sovereignty. In the year 979, the Danes of Dublin and the Isles marched in unusual strength into Meath, under the command of Rannall, son of Olaf the Crooked, and Connail, “the Orator of Ath-Cliath,” (Dublin). Malachy, with his allies, gave them battle near Tara, and achieved a complete victory. Earl Rannall and the Orator were left dead on the field, with, it is reported, 5,000 of the foreigners. On the Irish side fell the heir of Leinster, the lord of Morgallion and his son; the lords of Fertullagh and Cremorne, and a host of their followers. The engagement, in true Homeric spirit, had been suspended on three successive nights, and renewed three successive days. It was a genuine pitched battle—a trial of main strength, each party being equally confident of victory. The results were most important, and most gratifying to the national pride. Malachy, accompanied by his friend, the lord of Ulidia (Down), moved rapidly on Dublin, which, in its panic, yielded to all his demands. The King of Leinster and 2,000 other prisoners were given up to him without ransom. The Danish Earls solemnly renounced all claims to tribute or fine from any of the dwellers without their own walls. Malachy remained in the city three days, dismantled its fortresses, and carried off its hostages and treasure. The unfortunate Olaf the Crooked fled beyond seas, and died at Iona, in exile, and a Christian. In the same year, and in the midst of universal rejoicing, Donald IV. died peacefully and piously at Armagh, in the 24th year of his reign. He was succeeded by Malachy, who was his sister’s son, and in whom all the promise of the lamented Murkertach seemed to revive.

The story of Malachy II. is so interwoven with the still-more illustrious career of Brian Borooa, that it will not lose in interest by being presented in detail. But before entering on the rivalry of these great men, we must again remark on the altered position which the Northmen of this age hold to the Irish from that which existed formerly. A century and a half had now elapsed since their first settlement in the seaports, especially of the eastern and southern Provinces. More than one generation of their descendants had been born on the banks of the Liffey, the Shannon, and the Suir. Many of them had married into Irish families, had learned the language of the country, and embraced its religion. When Limerick was taken by Brian, Ivar, its Danish lord, fled for sanctuary to Scattery Island, and when Dublin was taken by Malachy II., Olaf the Crooked fled to Iona. Inter-marriages with the highest Gaelic families became frequent, after their conversion to Christianity. The mother of Malachy, after his father’s death, had married Olaf of Dublin, by whom she had a son, named Gluniarran (Iron-Knee, from his armour), who was thus half-brother to the King. It is natural enough to find him the ally of Malachy, a few years later, against Ivar of Waterford; and curious enough to find Ivar’s son called Gilla-Patrick—servant of Patrick. Kellachan of Cashel had married a Danish, and Sitrick “of the Silken beard,” an Irish lady. That all the Northmen were not, even in Ireland, converted in one generation, is evident. Those of Insi-Gall were still, perhaps, Pagans; those of the Orkneys and of Denmark, who came to the battle of Clontarf in the beginning of the next century, chose to fight on Good Friday under the advice of their heathen Oracles. The first half of the eleventh century, the age of Saint Olaf and of Canute, is the era of the establishment of Christianity among the Scandinavians, and hence the necessity for distinguishing between those who came to Ireland, direct from the Baltic, from those who, born in Ireland and bred up in the Christian faith, had as much to apprehend from such an invasion, as the Celts themselves.


Melaghlin, or Malachy II., fifth in direct descent from Malachy I. (the founder of the Southern Hy-Nial dynasty), was in his thirtieth year when (A.D. 980) he succeeded to the monarchy. He had just achieved the mighty victory of Tara when the death of his predecessor opened his way to the throne; and seldom did more brilliant dawn usher in a more eventful day than that which Fate held in store for this victor-king. None of his predecessors, not even his ancestor and namesake, had ever been able to use the high language of his “noble Proclamation,” when he announced on his accession—”Let all the Irish who are suffering servitude in the land of the stranger return home to their respective houses and enjoy themselves in gladness and in peace.” In obedience to this edict, and the power to enforce it established by the victory at Tara, 2,000 captives, including the King of Leinster and the Prince of Aileach, were returned to their homes.

The hardest task of every Ard-Righ of this and the previous century had been to circumscribe the ambition of the kings of Cashel within Provincial bounds. Whoever ascended the southern throne—whether the warlike Felim or the learned Cormac—we have seen the same policy adopted by them all. The descendants of Heber had tired of the long ascendancy of the race of Heremon, and the desertion of Tara, by making that ascendancy still more strikingly Provincial, had increased their antipathy. It was a struggle for supremacy between north and south; a contest of two geographical parties; an effort to efface the real or fancied dependency of one-half the island on the will of the other. The Southern Hy-Nial dynasty, springing up as a third power upon the Methian bank of the Shannon, and balancing itself between the contending parties, might perhaps have given a new centre to the whole system; Malachy II. was in the most favourable position possible to have done so, had he not had to contend with a rival, his equal in battle and superior in council, in the person of Brian, the son of Kennedy, of Kincorra.

The rise to sovereign rank of the house of Kincorra (the O’Briens), is one of the most striking episodes of the tenth century. Descending, like most of the leading families of the South, from Olild, the Clan Dalgais had long been excluded from the throne of Cashel, by successive coalitions of their elder brethren, the Eugenians. Lactna and Lorcan, the grandfather and father of Kennedy, intrepid and able men, had strengthened their tribe by wise and vigorous measures, so that the former was able to claim the succession, apparently with success. Kennedy had himself been a claimant for the same honour, the alternate provision in the will of Olild, against Kellachan Cashel (A.D. 940-2), but at the Convention held at Glanworth, on the river Funcheon, for the selection of king, the aged mother of Kellachan addressed his rival in a quatrain, beginning—

“Kennedi Cas revere the law!”

which induced him to abandon his pretensions. This Prince, usually spoken of by the Bards as “the chaste Kennedy,” died in the year 950, leaving behind him four or five out of twelve sons, with whom he had been blessed. Most of the others had fallen in Danish battles—three in the same campaign (943), and probably in the same field. There appear in after scenes, Mahon, who became King of Cashel; Echtierna, who was chief of Thomond, under Mahon; Marcan, an ecclesiastic, and Brian, born in 941, the Benjamin of the household. Mahon proved himself, as Prince and Captain, every way worthy of his inheritance. He advanced from victory to victory over his enemies, foreign and domestic. In 960 he claimed the throne of Munster, which claim he enforced by royal visitation five years later. In the latter year, he rescued Clonmacnoise from the Danes, and in 968 defeated the same enemy, with a loss of several thousand men at Sulchoid. This great blow he followed up by the sack of Limerick, from which “he bore off a large quantity of gold, and silver, and jewels.” In these, and all his expeditions, from a very early age, he was attended by Brian, to whom he acted not only as a brother and prince, but as a tutor in arms. Fortune had accompanied him in all his undertakings. He had expelled his most intractable rival—Molloy, son of Bran, lord of Desmond; his rule was acknowledged by the Northmen of Dublin and Cork, who opened their fortresses to him, and served under his banner; he carried “all the hostages of Munster to his house,” which had never before worn so triumphant an aspect. But family greatness begets family pride, and pride begets envy and hatred. The Eugenian families who now found themselves overshadowed by the brilliant career of the sons of Kennedy, conspired against the life of Mahon, who, from his too confiding nature, fell easily into their trap. Molloy, son of Bran, by the advice of Ivar, the Danish lord of Limerick, proposed to meet Mahon in friendly conference at the house of Donovan, an Eugenian chief, whose rath was at Bruree, on the river Maigue. The safety of each person was guaranteed by the Bishop of Cork, the mediator on the occasion. Mahon proceeded unsuspiciously to the conference, where he was suddenly seized by order of his treacherous host, and carried into the neighbouring mountains of Knocinreorin. Here a small force, placed for the purpose by the conspirators, had orders promptly to despatch their victim. But the foul deed was not done unwitnessed. Two priests of the Bishop of Cork followed the Prince, who, when arrested, snatched up “the Gospel of St. Barry,” on which Molloy was to have sworn his fealty. As the swords of the assassins were aimed at his heart, he held up the Gospel for a protection, and his blood spouting out, stained the Sacred Scriptures. The priests, taking up the blood-stained volume, fled to their Bishop, spreading the horrid story as they went. The venerable successor of St. Barry “wept bitterly, and uttered a prophecy concerning the future fate of the murderers;” a prophecy which was very speedily fulfilled.

This was in the year 976, three or four years before the battle of Tara and the accession of Malachy. When the news of his noble-hearted brother’s murder was brought to Brian, at Kinkora, he was seized with the most violent grief. His favourite harp was taken down, and he sang the death-song of Mahon, recounting all the glorious actions of his life. His anger flashed out through his tears, as he wildly chanted

“My heart shall burst within my breast,
Unless I avenge this great king;
They shall forfeit life for this foul deed
Or I must perish by a violent death.”

But the climax of his lament was, that Mahon “had not fallen in battle behind the shelter of his shield, rather than trust in the treacherous words of Donovan.” Brian was now in his thirty-fifth year, was married, and had several children. Morrogh, his eldest, was able to bear arms, and shared in his ardour and ambition. “His first effort,” says an old Chronicle, “was directed against Donovan’s allies, the Danes of Limerick, and he slew Ivar their king, and two of his sons.” These conspirators, foreseeing their fate, had retired into the holy isle of Scattery, but Brian slew them between “the horns of the altar.” For this violation of the sanctuary, considering his provocation, he was little blamed. He next turned his rage against Donovan, who had called to his aid the Danish townsmen of Desmond. “Brian,” says the Annalist of Innisfallen, “gave them battle where Auliffe and his Danes, and Donovan and his Irish forces, were all cut off.” After that battle, Brian sent a challenge to Molloy, of Desmond, according to the custom of that age, to meet him in arms near Macroom, where the usual coalition, Danes and Irish, were against him. He completely routed the enemy, and his son Morrogh, then but a lad, “killed the murderer of his uncle Mahon with his own hand.” Molloy was buried on the north side of the mountain where Mahon was murdered and interred; on Mahon the southward sun shone full and fair; but on the grave of his assassin, the black shadow of the northern sky rested always. Such was the tradition which all Munster piously believed. After this victory over Molloy, son of Bran (A.D. 978), Brian was universally acknowledged King of Munster, and until Malachy had won the battle of Tara, was justly considered the first Irish captain of his age.

Malachy, in the first year of his reign, having received the hostages of the Danes of Dublin, having liberated the Irish prisoners and secured the unity of his own territory, had his attention drawn, naturally enough, towards Brian’s movements. Whether Brian had refused him homage, or that his revival of the old claim to the half-kingdom was his offence, or from whatever immediate cause, Malachy marched southwards, enforcing homage as he went. Entering Thomond he plundered the Dalcassians, and marching to the mound at Adair, where, under an old oak, the kings of Thomond had long been inaugurated, he caused it to be “dug from the earth with its roots,” and cut into pieces. This act of Malachy’s certainly bespeaks an embittered and aggressive spirit, and the provocation must, indeed, have been grievous to palliate so barbarous an action. But we are not informed what the provocation was. At the time Brian was in Ossory enforcing his tribute; the next year we find him seizing the person of Gilla-Patrick, Lord of Ossory, and soon after he burst into Meath, avenging with fire and sword the wanton destruction of his ancestral oak.

Thus were these two powerful Princes openly embroiled with each other. We have no desire to dwell on all the details of their struggle, which continued for fully twenty years. About the year 987, Brian was practically king of half Ireland, and having the power, (though not the title,) he did not suffer any part of it to lie waste. His activity was incapable of exhaustion; in Ossory, in Leinster, in Connaught, his voice and his arm were felt everywhere. But a divided authority was of necessity so favourable to invasion, that the Danish power began to loom up to its old proportions. Sitrick, “with the silken beard,” one of the ablest of Danish leaders, was then at Dublin, and his occasional incursions were so formidable, that they produced (what probably nothing else could have done) an alliance between Brian and Malachy, which lasted for three years, and was productive of the best consequences. Thus, in 997, they imposed their yoke on Dublin, taking “hostages and jewels” from the foreigners. Reinforcements arriving from the North, the indomitable Danes proceeded to plunder Leinster, but were routed by Brian and Malachy at Glen-Mama, in Wicklow, with the loss of 6,000 men and all their chief captains. Immediately after this victory the two kings, according to the Annals, “entered into Dublin, and the fort thereof, and there remained seven nights, and at their departure took all the gold, silver, hangings, and other precious things that were there with them, burnt the town, broke down the fort, and banished Sitrick from thence” (A.D. 999).

The next three years of Brian’s life are the most complex in his career. After resting a night in Meath, with Malachy, he proceeded with his forces towards Armagh, nominally on a pilgrimage, but really, as it would seem, to extend his party. He remained in the sacred city a week, and presented ten ounces of gold, at the Cathedral altar. The Archbishop Marian received him with the distinction due to so eminent a guest, and a record of his visit, in which he is styled “Imperator of the Irish,” was entered in the book of St. Patrick. He, however, got no hostages in the North, but on his march southward, he learned that the Danes had returned to Dublin, were rebuilding the City and Fort, and were ready to offer submission and hostages to him, while refusing both to Malachy. Here Brian’s eagerness for supremacy misled him. He accepted the hostages, joined the foreign forces to his own, and even gave his daughter in marriage to Sitrick of “the silken beard.” Immediately he broke with Malachy, and with his new allies and son-in-law, marched into Meath in hostile array. Malachy, however, stood to his defence; attacked and defeated Brian’s advance guard of Danish horse, and the latter, unwilling apparently to push matters to extremities, retired as he came, without “battle, or hostage, or spoil of any kind.”

But his design of securing the monarchy was not for an instant abandoned, and, by combined diplomacy and force, he effected his end. His whole career would have been incomplete without that last and highest conquest over every rival. Patiently but surely he had gathered influence and authority, by arms, by gifts, by connections on all sides. He had propitiated the chief families of Connaught by his first marriage with More, daughter of O’Heyne, and his second marriage with Duvchalvay, daughter of O’Conor. He had obtained one of the daughters of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Kent, for his second son; had given a daughter to the Prince of Scots, and another to the Danish King of Dublin.

Malachy, in diplomatic skill, in foresight, and in tenacity of purpose, was greatly inferior to Brian, though in personal gallantry and other princely qualities, every way his equal. He was of a hospitable, out-spoken, enjoying disposition, as we gather from many characteristic anecdotes. He is spoken of as “being generally computed the best horseman in those parts of Europe;” and as one who “delighted to ride a horse that was never broken, handled, or ridden, until the age of seven years.” From an ancient story, which represents him as giving his revenues for a year to one of the Court Poets and then fighting him with a “headless staff” to compel the Poet to return them, it would appear that his good humour and profusion were equal to his horsemanship. Finding Brian’s influence still on the increase west of the Shannon, Malachy, in the year of our Lord 1000, threw two bridges across the Shannon, one at Athlone, the other at the present Lanesborough. This he did with the consent and assistance of O’Conor, but the issue was as usual—he made the bridges, and Brian profited by them. While Malachy was at Athlone superintending the work, Brian arrived with a great force recruited from all quarters (except Ulster), including Danish men-in-armour. At Athlone was held the conference so memorable in our annals, in which Brian gave his rival the alternative of a pitched battle, within a stated time, or abdication. According to the Southern Annalists, first a month, and afterwards a year, were allowed the Monarch to make his choice. At the expiration of the time Brian marched into Meath, and encamped at Tara, where Malachy, having vainly endeavoured to secure the alliance of the Northern Hy-Nial in the interval, came and submitted to Brian without safeguard or surety. The unmade monarch was accompanied by a guard “of twelve score horsemen,” and on his arrival, proceeded straight to the tent of his successor. Here the rivals contended in courtesy, as they had often done in arms, and when they separated, Brian, as Lord Paramount, presented Malachy as many horses as he had horsemen in his train when he came to visit him. This event happened in the year 1001, when Brian was in his 60th and Malachy in his 53rd year. There were present at the Assembly all the princes and chiefs of the Irish, except the Prince of Aileach, and the Lords of Oriel, Ulidia, Tyrowen and Tyrconnell, who were equally unwilling to assist Malachy or to acknowledge Brian. What is still more remarkable is, the presence in this national assembly of the Danish Lords of Dublin, Carmen (Wexford), Waterford and Cork, whom Brian, at this time, was trying hard to conciliate by gifts and alliances.


By the deposition of Malachy II., and the transfer of supreme power to the long-excluded line of Heber, Brian completed the revolution which Time had wrought in the ancient Celtic constitution. He threw open the sovereignty to every great family as a prize to be won by policy or force, and no longer an inheritance to be determined by usage and law. The consequences were what might have been expected. After his death the O’Conors of the west competed with both O’Neills and O’Briens for supremacy, and a chronic civil war prepared the path for Strongbow and the Normans. The term “Kings with Opposition” is applied to nearly all who reigned between Brian’s time and Roderick O’Conor’s, meaning, thereby, kings who were unable to secure general obedience to their administration of affairs.

During the remainder of his life, Brian wielded with accustomed vigour the supreme power. The Hy-Nials were, of course, his chief difficulty. In the year 1002, we find him at Ballysadare, in Sligo, challenging their obedience; in 1004, we find him at Armagh “offering twenty ounces of gold on Patrick’s altar,” staying a week there and receiving hostages; in 1005, he marched through Connaught, crossed the river Erne at Ballyshannon, proceeded through Tyrconnell and Tyrowen, crossed the Bann into Antrim, and returned through Down and Dundalk, “about Lammas,” to Tara. In this and the two succeeding years, by taking similar “circuits,” he subdued Ulster, without any pitched battle, and caused his authority to be feared and obeyed nearly as much at the Giant’s Causeway as at the bridge of Athlone. In his own house of Kinkora, Brian entertained at Christmas 3,000 guests, including the Danish Lords of Dublin and Man, the fugitive Earl of Kent, the young King of Scots, certain Welsh Princes, and those of Munster, Ulster, Leinster and Connaught, beside his hostages. At the same time Malachy, with the shadow, of independence, kept his unfrequented court in West-Meath, amusing himself with wine and chess and the taming of unmanageable horses, in which last pursuit, after his abdication, we hear of his breaking a limb. To support the hospitalities of Kinkora, the tributes of every province were rendered in kind at his gate, on the first day of November. Connaught sent 800 cows and 800 hogs; Ulster alone 500 cows, and as many hogs, and “sixty loads of iron;” Leinster 300 bullocks, 300 hogs, and 300 loads of iron; Ossory, Desmond, and the smaller territories, in proportion; the Danes of Dublin 150 pipes of wine, and the Danes of Limerick 365 of red wine. The Dalcassians, his own people, were exempt from all tribute and taxation —while the rest of Ireland was thus catering for Kinkora.

The lyric Poets, in then nature courtiers and given to enjoyment, flocked, of course, to this bountiful palace. The harp was seldom silent night or day, the strains of panegyric were as prodigal and incessant as the falling of the Shannon over Killaloe. Among these eulogiums none is better known than that beautiful allegory of the poet McLaig, who sung that “a young lady of great beauty, adorned with jewels and costly dress, might perform unmolested a journey on foot through the Island, carrying a straight wand, on the top of which might be a ring of great value.” The name of Brian was thus celebrated as in itself a sufficient protection of life, chastity, and property, in every corner of the Island. Not only the Poets, but the more exact and simple Annalists applaud Brian’s administration of the laws, and his personal virtues. He laboured hard to restore the Christian civilization, so much defaced by two centuries of Pagan warfare. To facilitate the execution of the laws he enacted the general use of surnames, obliging the clans to take the name of a common ancestor, with the addition of “Mac,” or “O”—words which signify “of,” or “son of,” a forefather. Thus, the Northern Hy-Nials divided into O’Neils, O’Donnells, McLaughlins, &c.; the Sil-Murray took the name of O’Conor, and Brian’s own posterity became known as O’Briens. To justice he added munificence, and of this the Churches and Schools of the entire Island were the recipients. Many a desolate shrine he adorned, many a bleak chancel he hung with lamps, many a long silent tower had its bells restored. Monasteries were rebuilt, and the praise of God was kept up perpetually by a devoted brotherhood. Roads and bridges were repaired and several strong stone fortresses were erected, to command the passes of lakes and rivers. The vulnerable points along the Shannon, and the Suir, and the lakes, as far north as the Foyle, were secured by forts of clay and stone. Thirteen “royal houses” in Munster alone are said to have been by him restored to their original uses. What increases our respect for the wisdom and energy thus displayed, is the fact, that the author of so many improvements, enjoyed but five short years of peace, after his accession to the Monarchy. His administrative genius must have been great when, after a long life of warfare, he could apply himself to so many works of internal improvement and external defence.

In the five years of peace just spoken of (from 1005 to 1010), Brian lost by death his second wife, a son called Donald, and his brother Marcan, called in the annals “head of the clergy of Munster;” Hugh, the son of Mahon, also died about the same period. His favourite son and heir, Morrogh, was left, and Morrogh had, at this time, several children. Other sons and daughters were also left him, by each of his wives, so that there was every prospect that the posterity for whom he had so long sought the sovereignty of Ireland, would continue to possess it for countless generations. But God disposes of what man only proposes!

The Northmen had never yet abandoned any soil on which they had once set foot, and the policy of conciliation which the veteran King adopted in his old age, was not likely to disarm men of their stamp. Every intelligence of the achievements of their race in other realms stimulated them to new exertions and shamed them out of peaceful submission. Rollo and his successors had, within Brian’s lifetime, founded in France the great dukedom of Normandy; while Sweyn had swept irresistibly over England and Wales, and prepared the way for a Danish dynasty. Pride and shame alike appealed to their warlike compatriots not to allow the fertile Hibernia to slip from their grasp, and the great age of its long-dreaded king seemed to promise them an easier victory than heretofore was possible. In 1012 we find Brian at Lough Foyle repelling a new Danish invasion, and giving “freedom to Patrick’s Churches;” the same year, an army under Morrogh and another under Malachy was similarly engaged in Leinster and Meath; the former carrying his arms to Kilmainham, on the south side of Dublin, the other to Howth, on the north; in this year also “the Gentiles,” or Pagan Northmen, made a descent on Cork, and burned the city, but were driven off by the neighbouring chiefs.

The great event, however, of the long war which had now been waged for full two hundred years between the men of Erin and the men of Scandinavia was approaching. What may fairly be called the last field day of Christianity and Paganism on Irish soil, was near at hand. A taunt thrown out over a game of chess, at Kinkora, is said to have hastened this memorable day. Maelmurra, Prince of Leinster, playing or advising on the game, made, or recommended, a false move, upon which Morrogh, son of Brian, observed, it was no wonder his friends, the Danes, (to whom he owed his elevation,) were beaten at Glen-Mama, if he gave them advice like that. Maelmurra, highly incensed by this allusion—all the more severe for its bitter truth—arose, ordered his horse, and rode away in haste. Brian, when he heard it, despatched a messenger after the indignant guest, begging him to return, but Maelmurra was not to be pacified, and refused. We next hear of him as concerting with certain Danish agents, always open to such negotiations, those measures which led to the great invasion of the year 1014, in which the whole Scanian race, from Anglesea and Man, north to Norway, bore an active share.

These agents passing over to England and Man, among the Scottish isles, and even to the Baltic, followed up the design of an invasion on a gigantic scale. Suibne, Earl of Man, entered warmly into the conspiracy, and sent the “war arrow” through all those “out-islands” which obeyed him as Lord. A yet more formidable potentate, Sigurd, of the Orkneys, next joined the league. He was the fourteenth Earl of Orkney of Norse origin, and his power was, at this period, a balance to that of his nearest neighbour, the King of Scots. He had ruled since the year 996, not only over the Orkneys, Shetland, and Northern Hebrides, but the coasts of Caithness and Sutherland, and even Ross and Moray rendered him homage and tribute. Eight years before the battle of Clontarf, Malcolm II., of Scotland, had been feign to purchase his alliance, by giving him his daughter in marriage, and the Kings of Denmark and Norway treated with him on equal terms. The hundred inhabited isles which lie between Yell and Man,—isles which after their conversion contained “three hundred churches and chapels”—sent in their contingents, to swell the following of the renowned Earl Sigurd. As his fleet bore southward from Kirkwall it swept the subject coast of Scotland, and gathered from every lough its galleys and its fighting men. The rendezvous was the Isle of Man, where Suibne had placed his own forces under the command of Brodar or Broderick, a famous leader against the Britons of Wales and Cornwall. In conjunction with Sigurd, the Manxmen sailed over to Ireland, where they were joined, in the Liffey, by Carl Canuteson, Prince of Denmark, at the head of 1400 champions clad in armour. Sitrick of Dublin stood, or affected to stand, neutral in these preparations, but Maelmurra of Leinster had mustered all the forces he could command for such an expedition. He was himself the head of the powerful family of O’Byrne, and was followed in his alliances by others of the descendants of Cahir More. O’Nolan and O’More, with a truer sense of duty, fought on the patriotic side.

Brian had not been ignorant of the exertions which were made during the summer and winter of the year 1013, to combine an overwhelming force against him. In his exertions to meet force with force, it is gratifying to every believer in human excellence to find him actively supported by the Prince whom he had so recently deposed. Malachy, during the summer of 1013, had, indeed, lost two sons in skirmishes with Sitrick and Maelmurra, and had, therefore, his own personal wrongs to avenge; but he cordially co-operated with Brian before those occurrences, and now loyally seconded all his movements. The Lords of the southern half-kingdom—the Lords of Desies, Fermoy, Inchiquin, Corca-Baskin, Kinalmeaky, Kerry, and the Lords of Hy-Many and Hy-Fiachra, in Connaught, hastened to his standard. O’More and O’Nolan of Leinster, and Donald, Steward of Marr, in Scotland, were the other chieftains who joined him before Clontarf, besides those of his own kindred. None of the Northern Hy-Nial took part in the battle—they had submitted to Brian, but they never cordially supported him.

Clontarf, the lawn or meadow of bulls, stretches along the crescent-shaped north strand of Dublin harbour, from the ancient salmon-weir at Ballyboght bridge, towards the promontory of Howth. Both horns of the crescent were held by the enemy, and communicated with his ships: the inland point terminating in the roofs of Dublin, and the seaward marked by the lion-like head of Howth. The meadow land between sloped gently upward and inward from the beach, and for the myriad duels which formed the ancient battle, no field could present less positive vantage-ground to combatants on either side. The invading force had possession of both wings, so that Brian’s army, which had first encamped at Kilmainham, must have crossed the Liffey higher up, and marched round by the present Drumcondra in order to reach the appointed field. The day seems to have been decided on by formal challenge, for we are told Brian did not wish to fight in the last week of Lent, but a Pagan oracle having assured victory to Brodar, one of the northern leaders, if he engaged on a Friday, the invaders insisted on being led to battle on that day. And it so happened that, of all Fridays in the year, it fell on the Friday before Easter: that awful anniversary when the altars of the Church are veiled throughout Christendom, and the dark stone is rolled to the door of the mystic sepulchre.

The forces on both sides could not have fallen short of twenty thousand men. Under Carl Canuteson fought “the ten hundred in armour,” as they are called in the Irish annals, or “the fourteen hundred,” as they are called in northern chronicles; under Brodar, the Manxmen and the Danes of Anglesea and Wales; under Sigurd, the men of Orkney and its dependencies; under Maelmurra, of Leinster, his own tribe, and their kinsmen of Offally and Cullen —the modern Kildare and Wicklow; under Brian’s son, Morrogh, were the tribes of Munster; under the command of Malachy, those of Meath; under the Lord of Hy-Many, the men of Connaught; and the Stewart of Marr had also his command. The engagement was to commence with the morning, so that, as soon as it was day, Brian, Crucifix in hand, harangued his army. “On this day Christ died for you!” was the spirit-stirring appeal of the venerable Christian King. At the entreaty of his friends, after this review, he retired to his tent, which stood at some distance, and was guarded by three of his aids. Here, he alternately prostrated himself before the Crucifix, or looked out from the tent door upon the dreadful scene that lay beyond. The sun rose to the zenith and took his way towards the west, but still the roar of the battle did not abate. Sometimes as their right hands swelled with the sword-hilts, well-known warriors might be seen falling back to bathe them, in a neighbouring spring, and then rushing again into the melee. The line of the engagement extended from the salmon-weir towards Howth, not less than a couple of miles, so that it was impossible to take in at a glance the probabilities of victory. Once during the heat of the day one of his servants said to Brian, “A vast multitude are moving towards us.” “What sort of people are they?” inquired Brian. “They are green-naked people.” said the attendant. “Oh!” replied the king, “they are the Danes in armour!” The utmost fury was displayed on all sides. Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, fell by Thurlogh, grandson of Brian; and Anrud, one of the captains of the men in armour, by the hand of his father, Morrogh; but both father and son perished in the dreadful conflict; Maelmurra of Leinster, with his lords, fell on one side, and Conaing, nephew of Brian, O’Kelly, O’Heyne, and the Stewart of Marr, on the other. Hardly a nobly-born man escaped, or sought to escape. The ten hundred in armour, and three thousand others of the enemy, with about an equal number of the men of Ireland, lay dead upon the field. One division of the enemy were, towards sunset, retreating to their ships, when Brodar, the Viking, perceiving the tent of Brian, standing apart, without a guard, and the aged king on his knees before the Crucifix, rushed in, cut him down with a single blow, and then continued his flight. But he was overtaken by the guard, and despatched by the most cruel death they could devise. Thus, on the field of battle, in the act of prayer, on the day of our Lord’s Crucifixion, fell the Christian King in the cause of native land and Holy Cross. Many elegies have been dedicated to his memory, and not the least noble of these strains belong to his enemies. In death as in life he was still Brian “of the tributes.”

The deceased hero took his place at once in history, national and foreign. On hearing of his death, Maelmurra, Archbishop of Armagh, came with his clergy to Swords, in Meath, and conducted the body to Armagh, where, with his son and nephew and the Lord of Desies, he was solemnly interred “in a new tomb.” The fame of the event went out through all nations. The chronicles of Wales, of Scotland, and of Man; the annals of Ademar and Marianus; the Sagas of Denmark and the Isles all record the event. In “the Orcades” of Thormodus Torfaeus, a wail over the defeat of the Islesmen is heard, which they call

“Orkney’s woe and Randver’s bane.”

The Norse settlers in Caithness saw terrific visions of Valhalla “the day after the battle.” In the NIALA SAGA a Norwegian prince is introduced as asking after his men, and the answer is, “they were all killed.” Malcolm of Scotland rejoiced in the defeat and death of his dangerous and implacable neighbour. “Brian’s battle,” as it is called in the Sagas, was, in short, such a defeat as prevented any general northern combination for the subsequent invasion of Ireland. Not that the country was entirely free from their attacks till the end of the eleventh century, but from the day of Clontarf forward, the long cherished Northern idea of a conquest of Ireland, seems to have been gloomily abandoned by that indomitable people.


If a great battle is to be accounted lost or won, as it affects principles rather than reputations, then Brian lost at Clontarf. The leading ideas of his long and political life were, evidently, centralization and an hereditary monarchy. To beat back foreign invasion, to conciliate and to enlist the Irish-born Danes under his standard, were preliminary steps. For Morrogh, his first-born, and for Morrogh’s descendants, he hoped to found an hereditary kinship after the type universally copied throughout Christendom. He was not ignorant of what Alfred had done for England, Harold for Norway, Charlemagne for France, and Otho for Germany; and it was inseparable from his imperial genius to desire to reign in his posterity, long after his own brief term of sway should be for ever ended. A new centre of royal authority should be established on the banks of the great middle river of the island—itself the best bond of union, as it was the best highway of intercourse; the Dalgais dynasty should there flourish for ages, and the descendants of Brian of the Tributes, through after centuries, eclipse the glory of the descendants of Nial of the Hostages. It is idle enough to call the projector of such a change an usurper and a revolutionist. Usurper he clearly was not, since he was elevated to power by the action of the old legitimate electoral principle; revolutionist he was not, because his design was defeated at Clontarf, in the death of his eldest son and grandson. Not often have three generations of Princes of the same family been cut off on the same field; yet at Clontarf it so happened. Hence, when Brian fell, and his heir with him, and his heir’s heir, the projected Dalgais dynasty, like the Royal Oak at Adair, was cut down and its very roots destroyed. For a new dynasty to be left suddenly without indisputable heirs is ruinous to its pretensions and partizans. And in this the event of the battle proved destructive to the Celtic Constitution. Not from the Anglo-Norman invasion, but from the day of Clontarf we may date the ruin of the old electoral monarchy. The spell of ancient authority was effectually broken and a new one was to be established. Time, which was indispensable, was not given. No Prince of the blood of Brian succeeded immediately to himself. On Clontarf Morrogh, and Morrogh’s heir fell, in the same day and hour. The other sons of Brian had no direct title to the succession, and, naturally enough, the deposed Malachy resumed the rank of monarch, without the consent of Munster, but with the approval of all the Princes, who had witnessed with ill-concealed envy the sudden ascendancy of the sons of Kennedy. While McLaig was lamenting for Brian, by the cascade of Killaloe, the Laureat of Tara, in an elegy over a lord of Breffni, was singing—

“Joyful are the race of Conn after Brian’s
Fall, in the battle of Clontarf.”

A new dynasty is rarely the work of one able man. Designed by genius, it must be built up by a succession of politic Princes, before it becomes an essential part of the framework of the State. So all history teaches—and Irish history, after the death of Brian, very clearly illustrates that truth. Equally true is it that when a nation breaks up of itself, or from external forces, and is not soon consolidated by a conqueror, the most natural result is the aggrandizement of a few great families. Thus it was in Rome when Julius was assassinated, and in Italy, when the empire of the west fell to pieces of its own weight. The kindred of the late sovereign will be sure to have a party, the chief innovators will have a party, and there is likely to grow up a third or moderate party. So it fell out in Ireland. The Hy-Nials of the north, deprived of the succession, rallied about the Princes of Aileach as their head. Meath, left crownless, gave room to the ambition of the sons of Malachy, who, under the name of O’Melaghlin, took provincial rank. Ossory, like Issachar, long groaning beneath the burdens of Tara and of Cashel, cruelly revenged on the Dalgais, returning from Clontarf, the subjection to which Mahon and Brian had forcibly reduced that borderland. The Eugenians of Desmond withdrew in disgust from the banner of Donogh O’Brien, because he had openly proclaimed his hostility to the alternate succession, and left his surviving clansmen an easy prey to the enraged Ossorians. Leinster soon afterwards passed from the house of O’Byrne to that of McMurrogh. The O’Briens maintained their dominant interest in the south; as, after many local struggles, the O’Conors did in the west. For a hundred and fifty years, after the death of Malachy II., the history of Ireland is mainly the history of these five families, O’Neils, O’Melaghlins, McMurroghs, O’Briens and O’Conors. And for ages after the Normans enter on the scene, the same provincialized spirit, the same family ambitions, feuds, hates, and coalitions, with some exceptional passages, characterize the whole history. Not that there will be found any want of heroism, or piety, or self-sacrifice, or of any virtue or faculty, necessary to constitute a state, save and except the power of combination, alone. Thus, judged by what came after him, and what was happening in the world abroad, Brian’s design to re-centralize the island, seems the highest dictate of political wisdom, in the condition to which the Norwegian and Danish wars had reduced it, previous to his elevation to the monarchy. Malachy II. —of the events of whose second reign some mention will be made hereafter—held the sovereignty after Brian’s death, until the year 1023, when he died an edifying death in one of the islands of Lough Ennel, near the present Mullingar. He is called, in the annals of Clonmacnoise, “the last king of Ireland, of Irish blood, that had the crown.” An ancient quatrain, quoted by Geoffrey Keating, is thus literally translated:

“After the happy Melaghlin
Son of Donald, son of Donogh,
Each noble king ruled his own tribe
But Erin owned no sovereign Lord.”

The annals of the eleventh and twelfth centuries curiously illustrate the workings of this “anarchical constitution”—to employ a phrase first applied to the Germanic Confederation. “After Malachy’s death,” says the quaint old Annalist of Clonmacnoise, “this kingdom was without a king 20 years, during which time the realm was governed by two learned men; the one called Con O’Lochan, a well learned temporal man, and chief poet of Ireland; the other Corcran Claireach, a devout and holy man that was anchorite of all Ireland, whose most abiding was at Lismore. The land was governed like a free state, and not like a monarchy by them.” Nothing can show the headlessness of the Irish Constitution in the eleventh century clearer than this interregnum. No one Prince could rally strength enough to be elected, so that two Arbitrators, an illustrious Poet and a holy Priest, were appointed to take cognizance of national causes. The associating together of a Priest and a layman, a southerner and a northerner, is conclusive proof that the bond of Celtic unity, frittered away during the Danish period, was never afterwards entirely restored. Con O’Lochan having been killed in Teffia, after a short jurisdiction, the holy Corcran exercised his singular jurisdiction, until his decease, which happened at Lismore, (A.D. 1040.) His death produced a new paroxysm of anarchy, out of which a new organizer arose among the tribes of Leinster. This was Dermid, son of Donogh, who died (A.D. 1005), when Dermid must have been a mere infant, as he does not figure in the annals till the year 1032, and the acts of young Princes are seldom overlooked in Gaelic Chronicles. He was the first McMurrogh who became King of Leinster, that royalty having been in the O’Byrne family, until the son of Maelmurra, of Clontarf, was deposed by O’Neil in 1035, and retired to a monastery in Cologne, where he died in 1052. In 1036 or 1037 Dermid captured Dublin and Waterford, married the grand-daughter of Brian, and by ’41 was strong enough to assume the rank of ruler of the southern half-kingdom. This dignity he held with a strong and warlike hand thirty years, when he fell in battle, at Ova, in Meath. He must have been at that time full threescore years and ten. He is described by the elegiac Bards as of “ruddy complexion,” “with teeth laughing in danger,” and possessing all the virtues of a warrior-king; “whose death,” adds the lamentation, “brought scarcity of peace” with it, so that “there will not be peace,” “there will not be armistice,” between Meath and Leinster. It may well be imagined that every new resort to the two-third test, in the election of Ard-Righ, should bring “scarcity of peace” to Ireland. We can easily understand the ferment of hope, fear, intrigue, and passion, which such an occasion caused among the great rival families. What canvassing there was in Kinkora and Cashel, at Cruachan and Aileach, and at Fernamore! What piecing and patching of interests, what libels on opposing candidates, what exultation in the successful, what discontent in the defeated camp!

The successful candidate for the southern half-kingdom after Dermid’s death was Thorlogh, grandson of Brian, and foster-son of the late ruler. In his reign, which lasted thirty-three years, the political fortunes of his house revived. He died in peace at Kinkora (A.D. 1087), and the war of succession again broke out. The rival candidates at this period were Murrogh O’Brien, son of the late king, whose ambition was to complete the design of Brian, and Donald, Prince of Aileach, the leader of the Northern Hy-Nials. Two abler men seldom divided a country by their equal ambition. Both are entered in the annals as “Kings of Ireland,” but it is hard to discover that, during all the years of their contest, either of them submitted to the other. To chronicle all the incidents of the struggle would take too much space here; and, as was to be expected, a third party profited most by it; the West came in, in the person of O’Conor, to lord it over both North and South, and to add another element to the dynastic confusion.

This brief abstract of our civil affairs after the death of Brian, presents us with the extraordinary spectacle of a country without a constitution working out the problem of its stormy destiny in despite of all internal and external dangers. Everything now depended on individual genius and energy; nothing on system, usage, or prescription. Each leading family and each province became, in turn, the head of the State. The supreme title seems to have been fatal for a generation to the family that obtained it, for in no case is there a lineal descent of the crown. The prince of Aileach or Kinkora naturally preferred his permanent patrimony to an uncertain tenure of Tara; an office not attached to a locality became, of course, little more than an arbitrary title. Hence, the titular King of Ireland might for one lifetime reign by the Shannon, in the next by the Bann, in a third, by Lough Corrib. The supremacy, thus came to be considered a merely personal appurtenance, was carried about in the old King’s tent, or on the young King’s crupper, deteriorating and decaying by every transposition it underwent. Herein, we have the origin of Irish disunion with all its consequences, good, bad, and indifferent.

Are we to blame Brian for this train of events against which he would have provided a sharp remedy in the hereditary principle? Or, on the other hand, are we to condemn Malachy, the possessor of legitimate power, if he saw in that remedy only the ambition of an aspiring family already grown too great? Theirs was in fact the universal struggle of reform and conservatism; the reformer and the heirs of his work were cut off on Clontarf; the abuses of the elective principle continued unrestrained by ancient salutary usage and prejudice, and the land remained a tempting prey to such Adventurers, foreign or native, as dare undertake to mould power out of its chaotic materials.


Though Ireland dates the decay of Scandinavian power from Good Friday, 1014, yet the North did not wholly cease to send forth its warriors, nor were the shores of the Western Island less tempting to them than before. The second year after the battle of Clontarf, Canute founded his Danish dynasty in England, which existed in no little splendour during thirty-seven years. The Saxon line was restored by Edward “the Confessor;” in the forty-third year of the century, only to be extinguished for ever by the Norman conquest twenty-three years later. Scotland, during the same years was more than once subject to invasion from the same ancient enemy. Malcolm II., and the brave usurper Macbeth, fought several engagements with the northern leaders, and generally with brilliant success. By a remarkable coincidence, the Scottish chronicles also date the decadence of Danish power on their coasts from 1014, though several engagements were fought in Scotland after that year.

Malachy II. had promptly followed up the victory of Clontarf by the capture of Dublin, the destruction of its fort, and the exemplary chastisement of the tribes of Leinster, who had joined Maelmurra as allies of the Danes. Sitrick himself seems to have eluded the suspicions and vengeance of the conquerors by a temporary exile, as we find in the succession of the Dublin Vikings, “one Hyman, an usurper,” entered as ruling “part of a year while Sitrick was in banishment.” His family interest, however, was strong among the native Princes, and whatever his secret sympathies may have been, he had taken no active part against them in the battle of Clontarf. By his mother, the Lady Gormley of Offally, he was a half O’Conor; by marriage he was son-in-law of Brian, and uterine brother of Malachy. After his return to Dublin, when, in 1018, Brian, son of Maelmurra, fell prisoner into his hands, as if to clear himself of any lingering suspicion of an understanding with that family, he caused his eyes to be put out—a cruel but customary punishment in that age. This act procured for him the deadly enmity of the warlike mountaineers of Wicklow, who, in the year 1022, gave him a severe defeat at Delgany. Even this he outlived, and died seven years later, the acknowledged lord of his town and fortress, forty years after his first accession to that title. He was succeeded by his son, grandson, and great-grandson during the remaining half century.

The kingdom of Leinster, in consequence of the defeat of Maelmurra, the incapacity of Brian, and the destruction of other claimants of the same family, passed to the family of McMurrogh, another branch of the same ancestry. Dermid, the first and most distinguished King of Leinster of this house, took Waterford (A.D. 1037), and so reduced its strength, that we find its hosts no longer formidable in the field. Those of Limerick continued their homage to the house of Kinkora, while the descendants of Sitrick recognised Dermid of Leinster as their sovereign. In short, all the Dano-Irish from thenceforward began to knit themselves kindly to the soil, to obey the neighbouring Princes, to march with them to battle, and to pursue the peaceful calling of merchants, upon sea. The only peculiarly Danish undertaking we hear of again, in our Annals, was the attempt of a united fleet, equipped by Dublin, Wexford, and Waterford, in the year 1088, to retake Cork from the men of Desmond, when they were driven with severe loss to their ships. Their few subsequent expeditions were led abroad, into the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, or Wales, where they generally figure as auxiliaries or mercenaries in the service of local Princes. They appear in Irish battles only as contingents to the native armies—led by their own leaders and recognized as a separate, but subordinate force. In the year 1073, the Dublin Danes did homage to the monarch Thorlogh, and from 1095, until his death (A.D. 1119), they recognized no other lord but Murkertach More O’Brien; this king, at their own request, had also nominated one of his family as Lord of the Danes and Welsh of the Isle of Man.

The wealth of these Irish-Danes, before and after the time of Brian, may be estimated by the annual tribute which Limerick paid to that Prince—a pipe of red wine for every day in the year. In the year 1029, Olaf, son of Sitrick, of Dublin, being taken prisoner by O’Regan, the Lord of East-Meath, paid for his ransom—”twelve hundred cows, seven score British horses, three score ounces of gold!” sixty ounces of white silver as his “fetter-ounce;” the sword of Carlus, besides the usual legal fees, for recording these profitable formalities.

Being now Christians, they also began to found and endow churches, with the same liberality with which their Pagan fathers had once enriched the temples of Upsala and Trondheim. The oldest religious foundations in the seaports they possessed owe their origin to them; but even as Christians, they did not lose sight of their nationality. They contended for, and obtained Dano-Irish Bishops, men of their own race, speaking their own speech, to preside over the sees of Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick. When the Irish Synods or Primates asserted over them any supervision which they were unwilling to admit—except in the case of St. Malachy—they usually invoked the protection of the See of Canterbury, which, after the Norman conquest of England, became by far the most powerful Archbishopric in either island.

In the third quarter of this century there arose in the Isle of Man a fortunate leader, who may almost be called the last of the sea kings. This was Godard Crovan (the white-handed), son of an Icelandic Prince, and one of the followers of Harald Harfagar and Earl Tosti, in their invasion of Northumbria (A.D. 1066). Returning from the defeat of his chiefs, Godard saw and seized upon Man as the centre of future expeditions of his own, in the course of which he subdued the Hebrides, divided them with the gallant Somerled (ancestor of the MacDonalds of the Isles), and established his son Lagman (afterwards put to death by King Magnus Barefoot) as his viceroy in the Orkneys and Shetlands. The weakened condition of the Danish settlement at Dublin attracted his ambition, and where he entered as a mediator he remained as a master. In the succession of the Dublin Vikings he is assigned a reign of ten years, and his whole course of conquest seems to have occupied some twenty years (A.D. 1077 to 1098). At length the star of this Viking of the Irish sea paled before the mightier name of a King of Norway, whose more brilliant ambition had a still shorter span. The story of this Magnus (called, it is said, from his adoption of the Scottish kilt, Magnus Barefoot) forms the eleventh Saga in “the Chronicles of the Kings of Norway.” He began to reign in the year 1093, and soon after undertook an expedition to the south, “with many fine men, and good shipping.” Taking the Orkneys on his way, he sent their Earls prisoners to Norway, and placed his own son, Sigurd, in their stead. He overran the Hebrides, putting Lagman, son of Godard Crovan, to death. He spared only “the holy Island,” as Iona was now called, even by the Northmen, and there, in after years, his own bones were buried. The Isles of Man and Anglesea, and the coast of Wales, shared the same fate, and thence he retraced his course to Scotland, where, borne in his galley across the Isthmus of Cantyre, to fulfil an old prophecy, he claimed possession of the land on both sides of Loch Awe. It was while he wintered in the Southern Hebrides, according to the Saga, that he contracted his son Sigurd with the daughter of Murkertach O’Brien, called by the Northmen “Biadmynia.” In summer he sailed homeward, and did not return southward till the ninth year of his reign (A.D. 1102), when his son, Sigurd, had come of age, and bore the title of “King of the Orkneys and Hebrides.” “He sailed into the west sea,” says the Saga, “with the finest men who could be got in Norway. All the powerful men of the country followed him, such as Sigurd Hranesson, and his brother Ulf, Vidkunner Johnsson, Dag Eliffsson, Sorker of Sogn, Eyvind Olboge, the king’s marshal, and many other great men.” On the intelligence of this fleet having arrived in Irish waters, according to the annals, Murkertach and his allies marched in force to Dublin, where, however, Magnus “made peace with them for one year,” and Murkertach “gave his daughter to Sigurd, with many jewels and gifts.” That winter Magnus spent with Murkertach at Kinkora, and “towards spring both kings went westward with their army all the way to Ulster.” This was one of those annual visitations which kings, whose authority was not yet established, were accustomed to make. The circuit, as usual, was performed in about six weeks, after which the Irish monarch returned home, and Magnus went on board his fleet at Dublin, to return to Norway. According to the Norse account he landed again on the coast of Ulidia (Down), where he expected “cattle for ship-provision,” which Murkertach had promised to send him, but the Irish version would seem to imply that he went on shore to seize the cattle perforce. It certainly seems incredible that Murkertach should send cattle to the shore of Strangford Lough, from the pastures of Thomond, when they might be more easily driven to Dublin, or the mouth of the Boyne. “The cattle had not made their appearance on the eve of Bartholomew’s Mass” (August 23rd, A.D. 1103), says the Saga, so “when the sun rose in the sky, King Magnus himself went on shore with the greater part of his men. King Magnus,” continues the scald, “had a helmet on his head; a red shield, in which was inlaid a gilded lion; and was girt with the sword Legbiter, of which the hilt was of ivory, and the hand grip wound about with gold thread; and the sword was extremely sharp. In his hand he had a short spear, and a red silk short cloak over his coat, on which both before and behind was embroidered a lion, in yellow silk; and all men acknowledged that they had never seen a brisker, statelier man.” A dust cloud was seen far inland, and the Northmen fell into order of battle. It proved, however, by their own account to be the messengers with the promised supply of cattle; but, after they came up, and while returning to the shore, they were violently assailed on all sides by the men of Down. The battle is described, with true Homeric vigour, by Sturleson. “The Irish,” he says, “shot boldly; and although they fell in crowds, there came always two in place of one.” Magnus, with most of his nobles, were slain on the spot, but Vidkunner Johnsson escaped to the shipping, “with the King’s banner and the sword Legbiter.” And the Saga of Magnus Barefoot concludes thus: “Now when King Sigurd heard that his father had fallen, he set off immediately, leaving the Irish King’s daughter behind, and proceeded in autumn, with the whole fleet directly to Norway.” The annalists of Ulster barely record the fact, that “Magnus, King of Lochlan and the Isles, was slain by the Ulidians, with a slaughter of his people about him, while on a predatory excursion.” They place the event in the year 1104.

Our account with the Northmen may here be closed. Borne along by the living current of events, we leave them behind, high up on the remoter channels of the stream. Their terrible ravens shall flit across our prospect no more. They have taken wing to their native north, where they may croak yet a little while over the cold and crumbling altars of Odin and Asa Thor. The bright light of the Gospel has penetrated even to those last haunts of Paganism, and the fierce but not ungenerous race, with which we have been so long familiar, begin to change their natures under its benign influence.

Although both the scalds and chroniclers of the North frequently refer to Ireland as a favourite theatre of their heroes, we derive little light from those of their works which have yet been made public. All connection between the two races had long ceased, before the first scholars of the North began to investigate the earlier annals of their own country, and then they were content with a very vague and general knowledge of the western Island, for which their ancestors had so, fiercely contended throughout so many generations. The oldest maps, known in Scandinavia, exhibit a mere outline of the Irish coast, with a few points in the interior; fiords, with Norse names, are shown, answering to Loughs Foyle, Swilly, Larne, Strang_ford_, and Carling_ford_; the Provincial lines of Ulster and of Connaught are rudely traced; and the situation of Enniskillen, Tara, Dublin, Glendaloch, Water_ford_, Limer_ick_, and Swer_wick_, accurately laid down. It is thought that all those places ending in wick or ford, on the Irish map, are of Scandinavian origin; as well as the names of the islets, Skerries, Lambey, and Saltees. Many noble families, as the Plunkets, McIvers, Archbolds, Harolds, Stacks, Skiddies, Cruises, and McAuliffes, are derived from the same origin.

During the contest we have endeavoured to describe, three hundred and ten years had passed since the warriors of Lochlin first landed on the shores of Erin. Ten generations, according to the measured span of adult life, were born, and trained to arms and marshalled in battle, since the enemy, “powerful on sea,” first burst upon the shield-shaped Isle of Saints. At the close of the eighth century we cast back a grateful retrospect on the Christian ages of Ireland. Can we do so now, at the close of the eleventh? Alas! far from it. Bravely and in the main successfully as the Irish have borne themselves, they come out of that cruel, treacherous, interminable war with many rents and stains in that vesture of innocence in which we saw them arrayed at the close of their third Christian century. Odin has not conquered, but all the worst vices of warfare—its violence, its impiety, discontent, self-indulgence, and contempt for the sweet paths of peace and mild counsels of religion—these must and did remain, long after Dane and Norwegian have for ever disappeared!

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