Monday 13 April 2015

Irish Monks and the Norsemen I

The Vikings are a favourite subject of historical revisionism these days, gone is the image of the fierce pagan marauders on which my generation was raised and instead we are encouraged to think of the Vikings primarily as traders, farmers and settlers. A Greek Orthodox friend of mine is perplexed by our rehabilitation of the Vikings and the sense of pride which the Irish take in promoting Viking festivals and the like. For him the Vikings are those who assaulted the Irish monasteries, martyred our monks and destroyed relics so what is there to celebrate? Maybe this question would have made sense to the gentleman antiquarian who authored the paper below, one of a series on Viking attacks on Ireland and Britain. Writing in 1880, Henry Howorth compiled a full dossier of information from the Annals on the assaults on Irish monasteries. I have omitted his lengthy introduction and various other sections to concentrate on the details of the Viking raids. The paper can be read in full online if you want the extra detail. In this first section we are going to look at the period from 795 until 832.


....The attack on Ireland in 795 was, a very transient matter, and only affected one of the small islands on the coast. They did not appear there again for some years.

Their next attack was in 807, when we read in the Chronicon Scotorum, "Burning of Inis-Muiredhaigh by the Gentiles, and devastation of Roscam. The moon was turned into blood " (i.e., was eclipsed). This is the first record we have of any attack made by the Northmen on the mainland of Ireland. Its date is fixed by the eclipse just mentioned. In the Art de Verifier les Dates, i. 67, it is given under the year 807. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also names it, dating it, however, on the 1st of September, 806 ("Chron. Scot," 126, note i). Inis-Muiredhaigh, or Inis Murray, as it is more generally known, was a famous monastic site. The island is situated in the Bay of Donegal, about five miles from the coast of Sligo… The island was known by its present name as early as 747, and it probably took its name from Muiredach, a follower of St. Patrick, put by him over the church of Killala, and who also probably founded the monastery. A century later St. Molain, a contemporary of Saint Columba, was abbot of the place and founder of the old church bearing his name there, which therefore dates from the sixth century… Inis Murray was clearly a very important monastic foundation. It was also easily accessible from the Hebrides, where the rovers probably now had settled quarters. Having burnt the monastery on the island, they went over to the mainland, and penetrated into the very heart of Connaught, where they devastated Roscommon.

…We do not again read of the invaders till 811, when they made a descent upon Ulster, where, we are told, a slaughter was made of them.("Chron. Scot." 127). The next year we find them in Connaught. They were there beaten by the men of Umhall or Owle, a district comprising the modern baronies of Murresk and Burrishoole, in the county of Mayo. By this defeat we are probably to understand that, as usual with them, having made a descent and being resisted they retreated and went on, for we are told that they, the same year, slaughtered the men of Conmaicne, i. e., of Connemara, in Western Galway. They advanced yet further and made an attack on Munster. According to the Tract on the Wars of the Danes in Ireland, this fleet numbered 120 ships, a most important armament and doubtless a royal fleet… This fleet, according to the Tract just cited, went to Camas ó Fothaidh Tire (i.e., the fair island of Forthaidh), or, says Dr. Todd, perhaps of Ui Rathaigh (probably the island of Ui Rathaigh in Kerry being meant), and they plundered and devastated it and Inis Labhrain (probably some island on the river Cashen in Kerry), and also Dair Inis (i.e., the oak island). Thence the invaders seem to have advanced inland, where they were beaten by Cobthach, son of Mach Cobha, chief of the Eoghanacht of Loch Lein, a tribe which lived east of Killarney, in the barony of Magunihy and the county of Kerry. On this occasion 416 of them were killed ("Wars of the Danes in Ireland," 5 and 222; "Chron. Scot," 127; and "Annals of the Four Masters," 419). This means that the invaders were very severely beaten indeed, for 416 must have made a great gap in their not very large armament. We are not surprised therefore to find the defeat a subject of European notoriety. Eginhardt in his Annals tells us that in 812 a fleet of Northmen having attacked Ireland was defeated by the Scots. Many of the invaders were killed, and the rest returned home ignominiously (Pertz, I., 199, 200; Kruse, 66). The same event is mentioned in the annals of Fulda, where the invaders are called Danes, and in the Annales Ottenburani. It was doubtless on their return journey that, in the following year, i.e., in 813, the men of Umhall or Owle were slaughtered by them, and that Cosgrach, son of Flannabhrat and Dunchadh, king of Umhall, perished ("Chron. Scot," 129). The invaders seem altogether to have learnt a severe lesson on this visit, for we do not again hear of them for nine years.

When their attacks began again it was, as I believe, from an entirely different quarter; and I will now try and trace them out. We read in the Frankish annals, that in the year 820 a fleet of thirteen ships from Normania appeared on the coasts of Flanders, but were driven off by the coastguards there, after burning some small houses and carrying off some cattle. They then entered the estuary of the Seine, where they were also routed by the guards and lost five of their number. Then going on towards Aquitaine they destroyed a town there called Bundium by Eginhardt, and Buin in the Vita Ludovici, and whose site seems not to be known. Hence they carried off a vast booty and returned homewards ("Eginhardt Pertz," i. 207; " Vita Lud." id. ii. 625; Kruse, 79, 8o). Kruse has argued with some plausibility that this fleet was commanded by two chieftains, brothers of Eric, the Danish king, who had been expelled from their country the year before (pp. cit. 80). The question is whither did they go after leaving Aquitaine. It is curious that in the year 821 we again read of the Norsemen in Ireland, not in the north, where they would naturally have appeared if they had come from the Hebrides or Scotland, but on the south-east coast, facing the coast of Gaul. This makes it not improbable that the invaders were the same or a part of the same fleet which had been busy in Aquitaine….

As I have said, we read of a Danish invasion of the east coast of Ireland in the year 821 or 822. The "Annals of the Four Masters" tell us they attacked Edar, (which was the ancient name of the peninsula of Howth, near Dublin,) and carried off a great prey of women. They also plundered Beg Eire, i.e., Little Ireland, now Begery, a small island close to the land in Wexford harbour, on which was a church built by Saint Ibhar, who died in the year 500 ("Annals of the Four Masters," 431, notes y and z]. They also plundered Dairinis Caemhain, i. e., St. Camhain's oak island in Wexford harbour (id. and note a). St. Camhain was brother of St. Kevin of Glendalough, and was apparently also the founder of a church in one of the Arran islands (Lord Dunraven's "Irish Architecture," i. 86).

The next year we find them creeping along the coast further west, and attacking Cork and Inis Doimhli, probably not far from Cork ("Chron. Scot.," 131; "Annals of Four Masters," 433). According to the Tract on the Wars of the Danes, they also ravaged Cloyne and Rosniallain, or Roskellan; perhaps, says Dr. Todd, Rostellan, a parish in the barony of Imokilly, in the county of Cork. These places they plundered.

We also read that they made a descent on the barren rock of Scelig Michael, or St. Michael's rock, which was inhabited by an anchorite named Etgall, whom they carried off. He died shortly after, and his death is dated in the Ulster Annals in the year 823, answering to A.D. 824. The same account says he died of hunger and thirst ("Annals of the Four Masters” 435, note z)……

Hitherto the attacks of the Norsemen had fallen in Ireland chiefly upon monasteries of a secondary importance. Their next victim was to be a much more stately foundation, namely the monastery of Bangor, Bennchair Mor, or Great Bangor, as the "Chronicon Scotorum" calls it, which was founded in 558 by Saint Comgall, a companion of Saint Columba. It was situated on the south side of Belfast Loch, in the county Down. Three thousand monks at one time obeyed its rule, and it became the foster-mother of many missionaries (Skene, "Celtic Scotland," i. 55 57). It was now to go under. We are told the Gentiles plundered the monastery, killed its bishop, its doctors and clergy, and broke the shrine of Saint Comgall. The Ulster Annals state that the relics of Saint Comgall were shaken out of the shrine by the falling of the building (" Wars of the Danes," &c., xxxviii. and 7; " Chron. Scot," 133; "Annals of the Four Masters," 434, note p). This was in 824. The next year, i.e. in 825, the invaders, who had apparently wintered in Strangford or Belfast Lochs, which in later times became very favourite trysting places of theirs, made a descent on Magh bile, i.e. Movilla in the county of Down, several of whose bishops are mentioned in the Annals, and we are told they burnt it with its erdamhs, i.e., plundered the church with its attached chapels ("Chron. Scot.," 133; “Wars of the Danes," &c., xxxviii. and 223). They also attacked Dunleth glaise ("Chron. Scot," 133), i.e., Downpatrick, at the southern end of Strangford Loch, the burial place of Saint Patrick (Todd's "Life of St. Patrick," 493), and which was in those days the royal residence of the chieftains of Eastern Ulster ("Wars of the Danes," cxlviii. note 2). The invaders, however, had not it all their own way, for we are told that they were defeated by the Ulster men at Magh Inis (i. e., the island plain, so called from its being nearly surrounded by the sea. It is the modern barony of Lecale, in the county Down.) In this fight very many people fell ("Chron. Scot," 133; Todd's "Patrick," 408, note 3). The same year we find the invaders in the south of the island. They had perhaps coasted round its eastern shores after their exploits in Ulster, for we meet with them in Munster and Ossory. The Chronicon Scotorum merely says they defeated the people of Ossory, and again plundered Inis Doimhle. In the Tract on the Wars of the Danes we are told they came to the Ceinnselaigh (i.e., the district coinciding nearly with the present dioceses of Leighlin and Ferns in the counties of Wexford and Carlow id. xxxix. and 7), and plundered Tech Munnu (St. Munna's house) now Taghmon, in the county of Wexford; Tech Moling, St. Moling's house, a monastery founded in 632; the place is still called Saint Mullins, and is on the river Barrow, in the county of Carlow) and Inis Teoc, now Inistioge, a small town on the river Nore, in the county of Kilkenny. They then entered the district of Ossory, where they had a warm reception from the inhabitants, and 170 of them were killed (" Wars of the Danes," &c., xxxix.)

In the same year we are told in the Ulster Annals that the Gentiles spoilt Lusca, in the modern county of Dublin, and wasted Cianachta (i. e., a territory situated in the baronies of Upper and Lower Duleek in the county of Meath) as far as Ochtar Ungen (? Ocha in the county of Meath, near Tara), and afterwards they spoiled the Galls of the north-east, i. e., of Scotland (" Annals of the Four Masters," 1,440, note i). This is doubtless the same event mentioned in the Chron. Scot., where we read that Blathmac, son of Flann, was martyred by the Gentiles at Iona ("Chron. Scot.," 133). According to the metrical life of this saint, by his contemporary, Walafred Strabo, which is still extant, he was of royal descent and heir to a throne in Ireland, but devoted himself to a religious life, and became the head of a monastery. Coveting the crown of martyrdom we are told he sought the dangerous neighbourhood of Iona, then presided over by Diarmaid, who in 818 had taken the shrine of Saint Columba there from Ireland ("Chron. Scot," 131). This seems to show that the Scottish isles were, at that time, unmolested by the pirates. When he learnt of the approach of the invaders he addressed the brethren, and bidding those who could not face the danger depart, he and others determined to stay and oppose the intruders. The chief objects of Danish cupidity on these occasions were the gold and bejewelled shrines enclosing the precious bones of the saints. The shrine of Saint Columba was now taken from its place, buried and covered with sods. We are told that St. Blathmac was celebrating Mass when the invaders fell upon the island. They put many of the monks to the sword, and then turned upon the Saint and demanded the precious reliquary, all showing that the monastery had been in a measure rebuilt since its former destruction. He had purposely remained ignorant of its hiding place, and, we are told, spoke to the enemy in the barbarous tongue, i.e., in Norse, which was assuredly a most curious accomplishment for an Irish ecclesiastic at this time. He said, "I know not truly what gold ye seek, where it may be placed in the ground, and in what recesses it may be hid; but if it were permitted me to know, Christ permitting, never would these lips tell this to your ears. Savagely bring your swords, seize their hilts and kill. O God I commend my humble self to thy protection." Thereupon they cut him in pieces (Skene, 2, 302 and 303). Diarmaid, the abbot of Iona, apparently escaped, and four years later, i. e., in 829, we find him going to Scotland with the Meonna of St. Columba, which is explained by Dr. Reeves as the articles of veneration of the saint, such as his crozier and his books or vestments, as distinguished from his ashes, and which he had doubtless saved in his flight (id. 303)….

Let us now revert once more to Ireland. Still referring to the year 825, the annals report the destruction Dun Laighen at Druim, by the pagans, in which Conaing, son of Cuchongelt, lord of the Fortuatha was slain with many others ("Annals of the Four Masters," 441). Fortuatha Laighen was the district in which Saint Patrick first landed, and was situated in the county of Wicklow (Todd's "St. Patrick," 286 and notes).

In 826, according to the Four Masters, a year answering to 828 of the Chron. Scotorum, which was probably the true date, Temhnen the anchorite (not otherwise known to me) was martyred by the foreigners (op. cit. 441), and Leathlobhar mac Loingseach, king of Ulidia (i. e., the modern county Down) defeated them (id. 443). The Ulster Annals also mention a great slaughter of hogs by the Galls, i.e., the strangers in Ard Ceanachta, the modern barony of Ferrard, county of Louth ("Chron. Scot.," index); and we are told Cinaedh mac Cumascai, king of Cianacht (i. e. of Upper and Lower Duleek in county Meath), was wounded by the same foreigners, who also burnt Lain Lere (i. e., Dunleer, county Louth) and Cluonmor (? Cloyne in county Cork or Clonmore in county Carlow) (" Annals of the Four Masters," 442 note, p). The same year, according to several authorities, a battle was fought against the invaders by Cairpre, son of Cathal king of the Ui Cennsealaigh, i. e. of Wexford, and by the family of Teach Munna, who had already suffered from their attacks (vide supra), so that the monks were becoming martial men, and were now allied with the royal clan (from whom doubtless their comarbs were chosen) in repelling the intruders…

During the next two years we do not read of any attacks made upon Ireland by the pirates, and strangely enough it is during this interval we find them on the coasts of Gaul again. The coincidence is certainly strange, and one fact, probably, explains the other… It was in 832, however, that they made a much more important attack upon Ireland. The times were favourable to them. There was at this period a persistent feud among the Irish princes, which had lasted for more than a century, owing to the pretensions of the chief of Cashel in Munster to be acknowledged as overking of all Ireland. This claim was at this time hard pressed by Feidhlimidh son of Crimhthan the chieftain of Munster.

"Although," says Dr. Todd, "he was himself an ecclesiastic, abbot, and bishop, as well as king of Cashel, he did not hesitate in the prosecution of his political designs to plunder the most sacred places in the northern half of Ireland, and to put to the sword their monks and clergy. In 826, and again in 833, he had spoiled the Termon lands, or sanctuary of Clonmacnois, on which last occasion he slew many of the religious and burned the Termon up to the very doors of the principal church. He had treated in the same way the celebrated Columban monastery of Durrow. In 836 he took the oratory of Kildare by force of arms from Forannan of Armagh, who seems to have found refuge there with his clergy, and exacted from him a forced submission; and about the same time he obtained atemporary submission from Nial Caille, the head of the O'Neills who had been overkings of Ireland for so long, and was acknowledged as king of all Ireland" (Todd, op. cit., xliv. and xlv.)

There was a similar feud in ecclesiastical quarters, and the famous see of Armagh, St. Patrick's metropolitan throne, was the subject of a fierce strife, one candidate being the nominee of the O'Neills, and another of their rival the chief of Munster just named. It is not improbable that the Norsemen were the allies of the latter, and that they were actually called in to his aid. Whether this be so or not, we read that in 832 Ardmacha was plundered three times in one month by the Gentiles, this being the first time it had been attacked by them ("Chron.Scot.," 139)…

The way in which the capture of this northern ecclesiastical capital of Ireland is mentioned, when we are told that it was taken three times in one month, shows that there must have been some very hard fighting there. The Chron. Scot, after mentioning the plundering of Armagh, speaks of the devastation of Lughmhagh, that is of Louth, where there was a famous monastery founded by Saint Mochta, a disciple of St. Patrick, which was so rich that he was able to support there without requiring them to work for their livelihood, and while engaged altogether in the pursuit of learning, three hundred priests and one hundred bishops, with sixty or, according to another reading, eighty singers; and these numbers constituted the ordinary monastic family or household of the monastery (Todd, op. cit., 29).

Besides Louth, other neighbours of Armagh suffered on this occasion, as Mucsnamha, now Muchnoe, in the county of Monaghan, the district of the Ui Meith Macha in the same county, and Druim Mic Ua Blae, or Druim Hubhla, situate in the baronies of Upper and Lower Slane, in northern Meath, where a church dedicated to Saint Sedna was renovated in the ninth century, but which no longer exists ("Annals of the Four Masters," 445; "Chron. Scot.," 139). The same year they laid waste Daimhliag Cianain (the stone church of Saint Cianain), founded by a disciple of St. Patrick's named Cianan, and now called Duleek, in the county of Meath.

They also carried off Ochill the son of Colgan.

The Chron. Scot., besides the capture of Duleek itself, also mentions that the territory of Ciannachta (i.e. a tribe settled in the present baronies of Upper and Lower Duleek in the county of Meath), with its churches, was also spoiled. Tuathal, son of Feradach (about whom I can find nothing) was carried off by them, and the shrine of Saint Adamnan was taken away from Domhnach Maghen (i.e., Donaghmoyne, in the barony of Farney and the county of Monaghan Reeves,"Adamnan," 389).

It was the same invaders, doubtless, who ravaged Cill Uaisaille (the church of St. Auxilius), now Killashee, near Naas, in the county of Kildare, which adjoins Meath.

The Chron. Scot, also mentions a plundering of Lismore in southern Ireland in the same year (op. cit., 139 ; "Wars of the Danes," xl.). The church at Lismore was founded by the famous St. Carthach or Mochuda, who was its first bishop, and who having died in 637 was buried there (Petrie, op. cit., 240). Lis meant the wall of earth or stones which enclosed the cashel, and Lismore therefore meant merely the great wall or great rampart (id. 441).

This year is the probable date of the raid in the same district mentioned in the Tract already cited as grouping the invasions, and where we are told they demolished Dundermuighe, i.e., the fort of the oak plain, now Dunderrow, near Kinsale; Inis Eoghanain, now Inis Shannon, on the river Bandon ; Disert Tipraite, a place not now known; Lismore itself, and Cil Molaisi, now Kilmolash, five miles south-east of Lismore (" Wars of the Danes," &c, xxxix. and 7), all, so far as we can discover, close around the harbour of Kinsale in the county of Cork. The same work next mentions Cluain-ard Mobeoc (i.e., the high lawn of St. Mobeoc) as being attacked by the invaders…

The very ancient fragment of the work on the "Wars of the Danes," contained in the book of Leinster, says that after plundering the various places about Kinsale already named, the invaders went north to Snamh Aignech, i. e., Carlingford Loch, where they spoiled Lann Lere, i.e., Dunleer in the county Louth ("Wars of the Danes," &c.,xl. and 224), and Cill Shleibhe, now Killevy, near Newry, at the head of Carlingford Loch.

(To be continued)

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Volume VIII (1880), 281-330.

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