Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

the clergy should be exempted, and three verses purporting to be his decision are still extant.

Invasion of the Northmen.—The first incursion of the Northmen took place in A.D. 795, when they plundered and burnt the church of Rechru, now Lambay, an island north of Dublin Bay. When this event occurred, the power of the over-king was a mere shadow. The provincial kingdoms had split up into more or less independent principalities, almost constantly at war with each other. The oscillation of the centre of power between Meath and Tír Eogain, according as the ardrí belonged to the southern or northern Hy Neill, produced corresponding perturbations in the balance of parties among the minor kings. The army consisted of a number of tribes, each commanded by its own chief, and acting as so many independent units without cohesion. The tribesmen owed fealty only to their chiefs, who in turn owed a kind of conditional allegiance to the over-king, depending a good deal upon the ability of the latter to enforce it. A chief might through pique or other causes withdraw his tribe even on the eve of a battle without such defection being deemed dishonourable. What the tribe was to the nation or the province, the fine or sept was to the tribe itself. The head of a sept had a voice not only in the question of war or peace, for that was determined by the whole tribe, but in all subsequent operations. However brave the individual soldiers of such an army might be, the army itself was unreliable against a well-organized and disciplined enemy. Again, such tribal forces were only levies gathered together for a few weeks at most, unprovided with military stores or the means of transport, and consequently generally unprepared to attack fortifications of any kind, and liable to melt away as quickly as they were gathered together. Admirably adapted for a sudden attack, such an army was wholly unfit to carry on a regular campaign or take advantage of a victory. These defects of the Irish military system were abundantly shown throughout the Viking period and also in Anglo-Norman times.

The first invaders were probably Norwegians[1] from Hördaland in search of plunder and captives. Their attacks were not confined to the sea-coasts; they were able to ascend the rivers in their ships, and already in 801 they are found on the upper Shannon. At the outset the invaders arrived in small bodies, but as these met with considerable resistance large fleets commanded by powerful Vikings followed. With such forces it was possible to put fleets of boats on the inland lakes. Rude earthen or stockaded forts, serving as magazines and places of retreat, were erected; or in some cases use was made of strongholds already existing, such as Dun Almain in Kildare, Dunlavin in Wicklow and Fermoy in Cork. Some of these military posts in course of time became trading stations or grew into towns. During the first half of the 9th century attacks were incessant in most parts of the island. In 801 we find Norwegians on the upper Shannon; in 820 the whole of Ireland was harried; and five years later we hear of Vikings in Co. Dublin, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow, Queen’s Co., Kilkenny and Tipperary. However, the invaders do not appear to have acted in concert until 830. About this time a powerful leader, named Turgeis (Turgesius), accompanied by two nobles, Saxolb and Domrair (Thorir), arrived with a “royal fleet.” Sailing up the Shannon they built strongholds on Lough Ree and devastated Connaught and Meath. Eventually Turgeis established himself in Armagh, whilst his wife Ota settled at Clonmacnoise and profaned the monastery church with pagan rites. Indeed, the numerous ecclesiastical establishments appear to have been quite as much the object of the invaders’ fury as the civil authorities. The monastery of Armagh was rebuilt ten times, and as often destroyed. It was sacked three times in one month. Turgeis himself is reported to have usurped the abbacy of Armagh. To escape from the continuous attacks on the monasteries, Irish monks and scholars fled in large numbers to the continent carrying with them their precious books. Among them were many of the greatest lights in the world of letters of the time, such as Sedulius Scottus and Johannes Scottus Erigena. The figure of Turgeis has given rise to considerable discussion, as there is no mention of him in Scandinavian sources. It seems probable that his Norwegian name was Thorgils and he was possibly related to Godfred, father of Olaf the White, who figures prominently in Irish history a little later. Turgeis apparently united the Viking forces, as he is styled the first king of the Norsemen in Ireland. A permanent sovereignty over the whole of Ireland, such as Turgeis seems to have aimed at, was then as in later times impossible because of the state of society. During his lifetime various cities were founded—the first on Irish soil. Dublin came into existence in 840, and Waterford and Limerick appear in history about the same time. Although the Norsemen were constantly engaged in conflict with the Irish, these cities soon became important commercial centres trading with England, France and Norway. Turgeis was captured and drowned by the ardrí Maelsechlainn in 844, and two years later Domrair was slain. However cruel and rapacious the Vikings may have been, the work of disorder and ruin was not all theirs. The condition of the country afforded full scope for the jealousy, hatred, cupidity and vanity which characterize the tribal state of political society. For instance, Fedilmid, king of Munster and archbishop of Cashel, took the opportunity of the misfortunes of the country to revive the claims of the Munster dynasty to be kings of Ireland. To enforce this claim he ravaged and plundered a large part of the country, took hostages from Niall Caille the over-king (833-845), drove out the comarba of St Patrick, or archbishop of Armagh, and for a whole year occupied his place as bishop. On his return he plundered the termon lands of Clonmacnoise “up to the church door,” an exploit which was repeated the following year. There is no mention of his having helped to drive out the foreigners.

For some years after the death of Turgeis the Norsemen appear to have lacked a leader and to have been hard pressed. It was during this period that Dublin was chosen as the point of concentration for their forces. In 848 a Danish fleet from the south of England arrived in Dublin Bay. The Danes are called in Irish Dubgaill, or black foreigners, as distinguished from the Findgaill[2] or white foreigners, i.e. Norwegians. The origin of these terms, as also of the Irish name for Norway (Lochlann), is obscure. At first the Danes and Norwegians appear to have made common cause, but two years later the new city of Dublin was stormed by the Danes. In 851 the Dublin Vikings succeeded in vanquishing the Danes after a three days’ battle at Snaim Aignech (Carlingford Lough), whereupon the defeated party under their leader Horm took service with Cerball, king of Ossory. Even in the first half of the 9th century there must have been a great deal of intermarriage between the invaders and the native population, due in part at any rate to the number of captive women who were carried off. A mixed race grew up, recruited by many Irish of pure blood, whom a love of adventure and a lawless spirit led away. This heterogeneous population was called Gallgoidel or foreign Irish (whence the modern name Galloway), and like their northern kinsmen they betook themselves to the sea and practised piracy. The Christian element in this mixed society soon lapsed to a large extent, if not entirely, into paganism. The Scandinavian settlements were almost wholly confined to the seaport towns, and except Dublin included none of the surrounding territory. Owing to its position and the character of the country about it, especially the coast-land to the north of the Liffey which formed a kind of border-land between the territories of the kings of Meath and Leinster, a considerable tract passed into the possession of so powerful a city as Dublin.

The social and political condition of Ireland, and the pastoral occupation of the inhabitants, were unfavourable to the development of foreign commerce, and the absence of coined money among them shows that it did not exist on an extensive scale.

  1. At this period it is extremely difficult to distinguish between Norwegians and Danes on account of the close connexion between the ruling families of both countries.
  2. This name survives in Fingall, the name of a district north of Dublin city. Dubgall is contained in the proper names MacDougall, MacDowell.