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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 10585

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

While from the fifth to the eighth century the work of the Irish Church was thus yearly increasing, spreading its net wider and wider, and numbering its converts by thousands, not much good can be reported of the secular history of Ireland during the same period. It is for the most part a confused chronicle of small feuds, jealousies, raids, skirmishes, retaliations, hardly amounting to the dignity of war, but certainly as distinctly the antipodes of peace.

The tribal system, which in its earlier stages has been already explained, had to some degree begun to change its character. The struggles between the different septs or clans had grown into a struggle between a number of great chieftains, under whose rule the lesser ones had come to range themselves upon all important occasions.

As early as the introduction of Christianity Ireland was already divided into four such aggregations of tribes--kingdoms they are commonly called--answering pretty nearly to the present four provinces, with the addition of Meath, which was the appanage of the house of Ulster, and included West Meath, Longford,


and a fragment of the King's County. Of the other four provinces, Connaught acknowledged the rule of the O'Connors, Munster that of the O'Briens, Leinster of the McMurroughs, and Ulster of the O'Neills, who were also in theory over-kings, or, as the native word was, Ard-Reaghs of the entire island.

Considering what a stout fighting race they proved in later ages--fighting often when submission would have been the wiser policy--it is curious that in early days these O'Neills or Hy-Nials seem to have been but a supine race. For centuries they were titular kings of Ireland, yet during all that time they seem never to have tried to transform their faint, shadowy sceptre into a real and active one. Malachy or Melachlin, the rival of Brian Boru, seems to have been the most energetic of the race, yet he allowed the sceptre to be plucked from his hands with an ease which, judging by the imperfect light shed by the chroniclers over the transaction, seems to be almost unaccountable.

It is difficult to say how far that light, for which the Irish monasteries were then celebrated, extended to the people of the island at large. With one exception, little that can be called cultivation is, it must be owned, discoverable, indeed long centuries after this Irish chieftains we know were innocent of the power of signing their own names. That exception was in the case of music, which seems to have been loved and studied from the first. As far back as we can see him the Irish Celt was celebrated for his love of music. In one of the earliest extant annals a Cruit, or stringed harp, is described as belonging to the Dashda, or Druid chieftain. It was square in form, and possessed powers wholly or partly miraculous. One of its strings, we are told, moved people to tears, another to laughter. A harp in Trinity College, known as the harp of Brian Boru, is said to be the oldest in Europe, and has thirty strings. This instrument has been the subject of many controversies. O'Curry doubts it having belonged to Brian Boru, and gives his reasons for believing that it was among the treasures of Westminster when Henry VIII. came to the throne in 1509, and that it suggested the placing of the harp in the arms of Ireland, and on the "harp grotes," a coinage of the period. However this may be we cannot doubt that music had early wrought itself into the very texture and fabric of Irish life; airs and words, wedded closely together, travelling down from mouth to mouth for countless generations. Every little valley and district may be said to have had its own traditional melodies, and the tunes with which Moore sixty years ago was delighting critical audiences had been floating unheeded and disregarded about the country for centuries.

The last ten years of the eighth century were very bad ones for Ireland. Then for the first time the black Viking ships were to be seen sweeping shore-wards over the low grey waves of the Irish Channel, laden with Picts, Danes, and Norsemen, "people," says an old historian, "from their very cradles dissentious, Land Leapers, merciless, soure, and hardie." They descended upon Ireland like locusts, and where-ever they came ruin, misery, and disaster followed.


(From a drawing by George. Petrie, LL.D.)

Their first descent appears to have been upon an island, probably that of Lambay, near the mouth of what is now Dublin harbour. Returning a few years later, sixty of their ships, according to the Irish annalists, entered the Boyne, and sixty more the Liffy. These last were under the command of a leader who figures in the annals as Turgesius, whose identity has never been made very clear, but who appears to be the same person known to Norwegian historians as Thorkels or Thorgist.

Whatever his name he was undoubtedly a bad scourge to Ireland. Landing in Ulster, he burned the cathedral of Armagh, drove out St. Patrick's successors, slaughtered the monks, took possession of the whole east coast, and marching into the centre of the island, established himself in a strong position near Athlone.

Beyond all other Land Leapers, this Thorgist, or Turgesius,

seems to have hated the churches. Not content with burning them, and killing all priests and monks he could find, his wife, we are told, took possession of the High Altar at Clonmacnois, and used it as a throne from which to give audience, or to utter prophecies and incantations. He also exacted a tribute of "nose money," which if not paid entailed the forfeit of the feature it was called after. At last three or four of the tribes united by despair rose against him, and he was seized and slain; an event about which several versions are given, but the most authentic seems to be that he was taken by stratagem and drowned in Lough Owel, near Mullingar, in or about the year 845.

He was not, unfortunately, the last of the Land Leapers! More and more they came, sweeping in from the north, and all seem to have made direct for the plunder of the monasteries, into which the piety of centuries had gathered most of the valuables of the country. The famous round towers, or "Clocthech" of Ireland, have been credited with a hundred fantastic origins, but are now known not to date from earlier than about the eighth or ninth century, are always found in connection with churches or monasteries, and were unquestionably used as defences against these northern invaders. At the first sight of their unholy prows, rising like water snakes above the waves, all the defenceless inmates and refugees, all the church plate and valuables, and all sickly or aged brothers were hurried into these monastic keeps; the doors--set at a height of from ten to twenty feet above the ground--securely closed, the ladders drawn up, food supplies having been no doubt already laid in, and a state of siege began.

It is a pity that the annalists, who tell us so many things we neither care to hear nor much believe in, should have left us no record of any assault of the Northmen against one of these redoubtable towers. Even at the present day they would, without ammunition, be remarkably difficult nuts to crack; indeed, it is hard to see how their assault could have been successfully attempted, save by the slow process of starvation, or possibly by fires kindled immediately below the entrance, and so by degrees smoking out their inmates.

If any one ever succeeded in getting into them, we


(From a drawing by George Petrie, LL.D.)

may be sure the Land Leapers did! Before long they appear to have gathered nearly the whole spoil of the country into the towns, which they built and fortified for themselves at intervals along the coast. Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, and Dublin, all owe their origin in the first instance to the Northmen; indeed it is a curious fact that Dublin can never be said, save for very short periods to have belonged to the Irish at all. It was first the capital of their northern invaders, and afterwards that, of course, of the English Government.

Three whole centuries the Danish power lasted, and internecine war raged, a war during which almost every trace of earlier civilizing influences, all those milder habits and ways of thought, which Christianity had brought in and fostered, perished well-nigh utterly. The ferocity of the invaders communicated itself to the invaded, and the whole history is one confused and continual chronicle of horrors and barbarities.

An important distinction must be made at this point between the effects of the Northern invasion in England and in Ireland. In the former the invaders and natives became after a while more or less assimilated, and, under Canute, an orderly government, composed of both nationalities, was, we know, established. In Ireland this was never the case. The reason, doubtless, is to be found in the far closer similarity of race in the former case than the latter. In Ireland the "Danes," as they are popularly called, were always strangers, heathen tyrants, hated and despised oppressors, who retorted this scorn and hatred in the fullest possible measure upon their antagonists. From the moment of their appearance down to the last we hear of them--as long, in fact, as the Danes of the seaport towns retained any traces of their northern origin--so long they continued to be the deadly foes of the rest of the island.

Even where the Northmen accepted Christianity, it does not appear to have had any strikingly ameliorating effect Thus we read that Godfrid, son of Sitric, embraced Christianity in 948, and in the very next year we discover that he plundered and burnt all the churches in East Meath, killing over a hundred people who had taken refuge in them, and carrying off a quantity of captives. Land-leaping, too, continued in full force. "The godless hosts of pagans swarming o'er the Northern Sea," continued to arrive in fresh and fresh numbers from their inexhaustible Scandinavian breeding grounds--from Norway, from Sweden, from Denmark, even, it is said, from Iceland. The eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries are, in fact, the great period all over Europe for the incursions of the Northmen--high noon, so to speak, for those fierce and roving sons of plunder,--"People," says an old historian quaintly, "desperate in attempting the conquest of other Realmes, being very sure to finde warmer dwellings anywhere than in their own homes."

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