Danes in Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE first dark cloud came from Scandinavia. Toward the close of the eighth century the Danes made their appearance in Ireland.

They came at first as transitory coast marauders, landing, and sacking a neighboring town, church, or monastery.

For this species of warfare the Irish seem to have been as little prepared as any of the other European countries subjected to the like scourge, that is to say, none of them but the Danes possessed at this period of history a powerful fleet.

So when the pirates had wreaked their will upon the city or monastery, in order to plunder which they had landed, they simply re-embarked and sailed away comparatively safe from molestation.

At length it seems to have occurred to the professional pirates that in place of making periodical dashes on the Irish coast, they might secure a permanent footing thereupon, and so prepare the way for eventually subjugating the entire kingdom.

Accordingly, they came in force and possessed themselves of several spots favorably placed for such purposes as theirs—sites for fortified maritime cities on estuaries affording good shelter for their fleets, viz.: Dublin, Drogheda, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, etc.

In the fourth year of Nial the Third (about the year A.D. 840), there arrived a monster fleet of these fierce and ruthless savages, under the command of Turgesius.

They poured into the country and carried all before them.

For nearly seven years, Turgesius exercised over a considerable district kingly authority, and the Irish groaned under the horrors of oppression the most heartless and brutal.

Turgesius converted the cathedral at Clonmacnoise into a palace for his own use, and from the high altar, used as a throne, the fierce idolater gave forth his tyrannical commands.

Meantime the Christian faith was proscribed, the Christian shrines were plundered, the gold and jewels were kept by the spoilers, but the holy relics were sacrilegiously given to destruction.

The schools were dispersed, the books and chronicles burned, and finally the “successor of Patrick,” the Archbishop of Armagh, was seized, the cathedral sacked, and the holy prelate brought a captive into the Danish stronghold.

But a day of retribution was at hand.

The divided and disorganized tribes were being bitterly taught the necessity of union.

These latest outrages were too much for Christian Irish flesh and blood to bear.

Concerting their measures, the people simultaneously rose on their oppressors.

Turgesius was seized and put to death by Malachy, Prince of Westmeath, while the Irish Ard-Ri, Nial the Third, at length able to rally a powerful army against the invaders, swooped down upon them from the north, and drove them panic-stricken to their maritime fortresses, their track marked with slaughter.

Nial seems to have been a really noble character, and the circumstances under which he met his death, sudden and calamitous, in the very midst of his victorious career, afford ample illustration of the fact.

His army had halted on the banks of the Callan River, at the moment swollen by heavy rains. One of the royal domestics or attendants, a common Giolla, in endeavoring to ford the river for some purpose, was swept from his feet and carried off by the flood.

The monarch, who happened to be looking on, cried aloud to his guards to succour the drowning man, but quicker than any other he himself plunged into the torrent. He never rose again.

The brave Nial, who had a hundred times faced death in the midst of reddened spears, perished in his effort to save the life of one of the humblest of his followers!

The power of the Danes was broken, but they still clung to the seaports, where either they were able to defy efforts at expulsion, or else obtained permission to remain by paying heavy tribute to the Irish sovereign.

It is clear enough that the presence of the Danes came, in course of time, to be regarded as useful and profitable by the Irish, so long as they did not refuse tribute to the native power.

The history of the succeeding centuries accordingly—the period of the Danish struggle—exhibits a singular spectacle.

The Danes made themselves fully at home in the great maritime cities, which they may be said to have founded, and which their commerce certainly raised to importance.

The Irish princes made alliances betimes with them, and Danes frequently fought on opposite sides in the internecine conflicts of the Irish princes.

Occasionally seizing a favorable opportunity (when the Irish were particularly weakened by internal feud, and when a powerful reinforcement for themselves arrived from Scandinavia) they would make a fierce endeavor to extend their dominion on Irish soil.

These efforts were mostly successful for a time, owing to the absence of a strong centralized authority among the Irish; but eventually the Irish, by putting forth their native valor, and even partially combining for the time, were always able to crush them.

Yet it is evident that during the three hundred years over which this Danish struggle spreads, the Irish nation was undergoing disintegration and demoralization.

Toward the middle of the period, the Danes became converted to Christianity; but their coarse and fierce barbarism remained long after, and it is evident that contact with such elements, and increasing political disruption among themselves, had a fatal effect on the Irish.

They absolutely retrograded in learning and civilization during this time, and contracted some of the worst vices that could pave the way for the fate that a few centuries more were to bring upon them.

National pride may vainly seek to ignore or hide the great truth here displayed.

During the three hundred years that preceded the Anglo-Norman invasion, the Irish princes appeared to be given over to a madness marking them for destruction!

At a time when consolidation of national authority was becoming the rule all over Europe, and was becoming so necessary for them, they were going into the other extreme. As the general rule, each one sought only his personal or family ambition or aggrandizement, and strove for it lawlessly and violently.

Frequently when the Ard-Ri of Erinn was nobly grappling with the Danish foe, and was on the point of finally expelling the foreigner, a subordinate prince would seize what seemed to him the golden opportunity for throwing off the authority of the chief king, or for treacherously endeavoring to grasp it himself!

During the whole time—three centuries—there was scarcely a single reign in which the Ard-Ri did not find occupation for his arms as constantly in compelling the submission of the subordinate native princes, as in combating the Scandinavian foe.

Religion itself suffered in this national declension.

In these centuries we find professedly Christian Irish kings themselves as ruthless destroyers of churches and schools as the pagan Danes of a few years previous.

The titles of the Irish episcopacy were sometimes seized by lay princes for the sake of the revenues attached to them; the spiritual functions of the offices, however, being performed by ecclesiastics meanwhile.

In fine, the Irish national character in those centuries is to be censured, not admired.

It would seem as if by adding sacrilege and war upon religion and on learning to political suicide and a fatal frenzy of factiousness, the Irish princes of that period were doing their best and their worst to shame the glories of their nation in the preceding thousand years, and to draw down upon their country the terrible chastisement that eventually befel it, a chastisement which never could have befallen it but for the state of things I am here pointing out.

Yet was this gloomy period lit up by some brilliant flashes of glory, the brightest, if not the, last, being that which surrounds the name of Clontarf, where the power of the Danes in Ireland was crushed totally and forever.