Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Coming of the Land-Leapers

After the death of Columbkille, the Irish Christians went on teaching the word of God in Ireland and going on missions to other lands, but, outside the monasteries, the people were as warlike as ever, and battle succeeded battle just as in heathen times.

The four great houses of O'Conor, O'Brien, MacMorrogh, and O'Neill ruled the four provinces of Connacht, Munster, Leinster, and Ulster, and the O'Neills were over-kings of the whole island in name. Yet no chief could check, if he would, the strife of clan with clan.

Then in the eighth century came a foe from without to join in the confused warfare the men of Erin waged among themselves. A band of Northmen appeared first on the Irish coast in 795 A.D., when they plundered the church of Columbkille, off Lambay Island, near Dublin. At first they came only to plunder, and did not go far inland, though they had the daring to capture the king on one of their raids and to take him off to their ships. They often captured bishops and learned men and shut them up in the strong fortresses they took, with the plunder that the new churches furnished, for the Northmen were heathens and hated Christianity and all who were of the new faith. The beautiful cathedral of Armagh was burnt to the ground in one of their first raids. The Irish trembled as they saw it fall with all the treasures they had stored there lovingly, and still more they trembled when Turgesius or Thorgist, lord of the Northmen, came on a raid in 845.

Dreadful crimes of impiety followed this king's coming to the island; and Ota, wife of Thorgist, dared to take her seat on the High Altar of the Church of Clanmacnois, and there give audience. Such sin did not escape punishment, they say, and Thorgist was drowned by a miracle after his wife's sacrilege.

Religion suffered in other ways too. Cloichtechs or Round Towers had been built in the neighbourhood of churches and monasteries to serve as storehouses for precious relics and refuges of the defenceless. Many a time, in the troubled years of the Northmen's raids, old men and women and children hastened, with all their goods, to the Round Tower of the district, and ascending the ladder that led to the strong door, pulled it up after them in panic, while the warriors waited below to beat off the attack from their homes. It was not always safe in the Round Towers when the Northmen were resolved on plunder. In 950 we hear that the Cloichtech of Slane in Meath was burned by the enemy "with its full of relics and distinguished persons, and the crozier of the patron saint and the bell, which was the best of bells."

About the middle of the ninth century, Northmen began to settle near the coast of Ireland. They built fortresses in Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford, and gave new names to several Gaelic towns.

Soon after the death of Thorgist, seven score ships had come, bearing men of more dreadful aspect than the first Northmen, for these carried tents with them, and muffled them with such dark colourings that they were not likely to be seen at once, They wore black armour, too, and were so fierce that the sight of their dusky ships struck terror into the Irish when they approached. The first Northmen were called the Fair Foreigners, but they probably did not differ much in complexion from the second raiders, known as the Black Foreigners.

A pitched battle was fought in gob at Ballaghmoon in Kildare. "Woeful indeed was the tumult and clamour of that battle, for there rose the death-cry of the Munster men as they fell, and the shouting of the Leinster men exulting in slaughter." In this battle King Cormac fell on the field, his horse stumbling on the ground slippery with the blood of the slaughtered warriors. He died with a prayer upon his lips, for he was a bishop and scribe as well as a king, and greatly honoured for his piety.

At a battle near Rathfarnham, the Northmen conquered the army of the High King with "red slaughter," and O'Neill himself was slain with twelve chieftains around him. His defeat was avenged by Murkertagh of the Leather Cloaks, who succeeded him as High King.

Murkertagh set out once in mid-winter to traverse the island in search of foes, and exact tribute from them. One thousand men went with him, the flower of all his troops. They spent each night at a different place, and received hostages and tribute from the Foreigners. From one northern queen, Murkertagh took a gift of bacon, and fine good wheat, and joints of meat, and fine cheese, and coloured mantles for each chieftain. At Kilcullan, snow fell, and the only houses to protect the warriors were their strong leather cloaks. They carried off Lorcan, King of Leinster, with "a rough bright fetter on him." They then passed into Ossory, receiving ale and hogs from a hospitable chief. "Not a man of them returned to his home without a beautiful present of dress."

Murkertagh returned home in state, leading captive kings to the Ard-Ri, who declined to keep them, but freely bestowed a blessing on the captor. In 943, Murkertagh fell in battle near Ardee, fighting valiantly for his kingdom.

In the second half of the tenth century, two other bold defenders rose against the Northmen—Malachy, the Ard-Ri and head of the O'Neills, and Brian Boromna, chieftain of the Dal Cais, who dwelt in the north of Munster. It was time indeed that the tyrants should be checked, when, as the bard of O'Brien's house writes, they had "a king in every territory, an abbot in every church, a steward in every village, and a soldier in every house, so that none of the men of Erin had power even to give the milk of his cow, nor as much as the clutch of eggs of his hen, in succour or kindness to an aged man, or to a friend, but was obliged to preserve them for the foreign steward or bailiff or soldier."

In England the Northmen settled among the English, and became united to them in course of time; but in Ireland, the race-differences were too great, and the Northman was always "the foreigner," hated and despised by the people he ruled so harshly.

After the Northmen built their forts at King's Island, near Limerick, and placed their ships on the Upper Shannon, they harried especially the land of the Dal Cais. Mahon, King of Leinster, was forced into paying tribute; but his brother, Brian Boromna, retired into the woods, and held out till he was in the last extremities. At a meeting of the Dal Cais, every voice declared for war; so, in 968, a battle was fought at Sulcost, near Limerick, which lasted from sunrise to midday, and ended in a complete rout of the Northmen and their allies. The fort and town of Limerick fell into the hands of the victors; the prisoners were collected on a hill near Limerick, and "every one that was fit for war was put to death, and every one that was fit for a slave was enslaved."

In 978, Brian attacked Donovan, a native chief, whose daughter had married Ivar, a Northman of Waterford, and who was himself allied with the invaders. Brian defeated the traitor, became undisputed King of Munster, and after a long struggle with Malachy, the High King, received his submission and reigned in hi$ stead.

For twelve years Erin had peace under Brian, who was a wise ruler, though he had gained his power by force of arms, and insisted on levying the "boromna" or cow-rent, a tribute, which made the men of Leinster his deadly enemies. He sought to be supreme over his tribe, yet showed himself a brave warrior and skilful leader, both in his struggle with Malachy and his continued warfare with the "proud invader." He rebuilt monasteries, erected fortresses, restored schools and colleges, and brought the country to such a state of order that a beautiful maiden is said to have decked herself in rich attire, adorned with jewels, and to have gone alone from one end of the kingdom to the other without encountering danger.

Brian was collecting forces for an attack on Dublin, a stronghold of the Northmen, and they mustered an army to meet him with, the help of kinsmen from across the sea. The final struggle brought Brodar, a Viking, of giant proportions, with armour "that no steel could bite," and Sigurd of Orkney, who carried the raven standard, which was shaped like the bird of evil omen, and seemed, when the wind blew, to flap its wings. The men of Leinster and Ossory took the Northmen's side, while Brian gathered the men of Meath under their old king, Malachy. Ulster and Connacht would not take part in the battle, which was fought at Clontarf on the Friday before Easter, 1014. Before the battle, Brian went round his camp, holding a crucifix in his left hand, and a sword with a golden scabbard in his right. He wished to remind his men that they fought for the cause of Christ against heathens, who were ruthless in destruction of all that was sacred to Christianity.

On the Viking's side, over ten thousand men had been summoned by the dispatch of the war-arrow, sent from settlement to settlement to give the warning of battle, and call out the fighting men. The Raven-standard was their rallying-point, and the belief that the man who bore it was doomed to death gained more credence from the day of Clontarf, when Sigurd took it into his hands unwillingly, and fell on the battle-field, his mighty strength availing naught.

Brian's army stood in closely-packed lines to meet the fierce host, who had proved the curse of Ireland. The men of South Munster were overthrown, but as the Northmen scattered in pursuit, Malachy came up and drove the enemy with "red slaughter" to their ships.

Brodar, the Viking, made for the woods, and as he passed Brian's tent, he saw the old king, and slew him with an axe. The Irish avenged the death of their leader by pursuing Brodar and hacking him to pieces, but all the glory of their victory at Clontarf was undone. The hope of a settled government vanished. Malachy was restored to the throne, and the old disorder soon made Brian's reforms of little value. Till the coming of the race that was to conquer Ireland, there is nothing in her history save a bewildering record of feud between the great houses and successive usurpations of the throne, and all that loss of life in battle that was too true a shadowing of the history yet to come.