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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Thirteen

                     The Dark Ages 800-1000

Summary. Describes Ireland in the Dark Ages including the attacks of the Vikings. As usual the detailed descriptions of the clans and their incessant warfare may be skipped. 


800-900 General Political Situation



Over-chiefs of Tara

The Provinces

The Vikings

Economy and Society

The Church

900 to 1000 Europe


Over-chiefs of Tara

The Provinces

The Vikings

Economy and Society

The Church



General Political Situation

             This was the period Hilaire Belloc called the 'Siege of Christendom'. It was the period when Christian western Europe was being attacked by pagan barbarian tribes from the north, the south and the east. From the north in the ninth century came the Vikings, Norse, Danish, and Swedish; from the south came the Moors, the Muslim rulers of North Africa and Spain who attacked the Christian regions in Spain, France and Italy, and in the next century came the Magyars, a Hunnish people who attacked Germany. Even Burgundy in eastern France was attacked successively by all three over a period of fifty years. The attacks by the Vikings occurred mostly in the earlier part of the period and chiefly affected northern Europe, though they made some raids into the Mediterranean. The attacks by the Magyars were in the later part of the period and affected Germany principally. But unlike the others they used horses in their raiding and so could raid further and swifter. The Muslim pressure on southern Europe grew continually during the whole period. They captured and occupied Sicily and defeated all organised resistance in Corsica and Sardinia. The raiders from the Umayyad caliphate in Spain established a based in Provence and raided deep into France. Christian shipping disappeared from the western Mediterranean. In the eastern Mediterranean the Muslims seized Cyprus and Crete from the Byzantine Empire. These attacks were totally unrelated to each other, and proceeded from different causes. But they had the same result in disrupting life in Western Europe.

             Yet Christian Europe survived, and before the end of the first millennium the tide had turned in favour of the Christians. The Vikings accepted Christianity; the Magyars were heavily defeated by the Saxon dynasty in Germany and also accepted Christianity. The power of the Muslim caliphates and emirates decayed, and in both east and west Christian rulers slowly recovered lost territories, and the re-conquest of Spain commenced. As the end of the first millennium came nearer there was a widespread fear that the end of the world was at hand in accordance with the current interpretation of Revelation chapter 20 in the Bible. Yet this was also the period when the seeds were sown which was to lead to a great flowering in the centuries which followed 1000 AD. 

             As mentioned above, not all places were equally affected all of the time. This was particularly true of France. From 800 onwards, when the British Isles were being increasingly attacked by the Vikings much of western Europe had been united under the strong hand of Charlemagne. Charlemagme had extended the kingdom of his father Pepin the Short by conquering the Friesians, Saxons, and Lombards. In Italy his western empire virtually touched the Byzantine Empire. But by breaking the power of the Friesians and Saxons who were up to then the dominant powers in the northern seas he facilitated the expansion of the Danes, Norse and Swedes. The conquests of the Lombards permitted the emergence of the Papal States, which emergence was encouraged by the Franks to limit the power of the Lombards. The Byzantine presence in Sicily at first largely protected Italy from Muslim raids. But when the Muslims conquered Sicily the whole Italian peninsula was open to their raids. By 900 AD most of the island was in their hands. Further east however the Byzantine empire was enjoying a revival and lost provinces were recovered, though Sicily was not recovered until the eleventh century, and then by the Normans.

The emerging Papal States were secure while the Carolingian empire remained intact. But after the treaty of Verdun (843) the Italian part, called the kingdom of Italy was rent by civil war as two claimants fought for the throne. Muslim raiders sacked St Peter’s in Rome in 846 and Pope Leo IV surrounded the area around it with a wall, and it became known as the Leonine City. Hadrian’s mausoleum now called the Castel Sant’Angelo, on the banks of the Tiber was its great citadel. Though the Pope normally lived in the Lateran palace, the castle was also furnished as a palace, and a secret passageway was constructed to connect it with the basilica. The city of Rome in the Middle Ages was compressed into the area between the tomb and the basilica. With outlying settlements around the other basilicas, and various monasteries and churches scattered amongst the ruins. Leo rebuilt the city, formed a defensive league with some Greek cities, and fortified Civita Vecchia, the seaport of Rome. Though there was long a small papal palace beside St Peter’s called the Vatican palace, it was not enlarged until the Middle Ages. The Popes at this time were by no means inactive, taking a strong interest in French and German affairs. Despite the Saracen raids and the building of the walls, there was much re-building of churches in the city at this time.

Further south the principality of Benevento split into three, while the trading cities of Venice and Naples, though nominally Byzantine were in fact independent. In Rome itself between 896 and 904 there were 10 popes. Yet there were still bright spots. In 863 the Moravians, the first of the Slav states were converted to Christianity by two Greek priests, Cyril and Methodius. The alphabet, which they devised based on the Greek alphabet for writing down Slavic, was called Cyrillic, and is used by the Russians to this day. Above all it was the period when monasticism established itself at the very centre of civilisation. This was true even the urbanised Byzantine Empire, while Hindu and Buddhist monasteries likewise spread over Asia and formed the exact counterparts of western monasteries. In most of Europe where cities were lacking monasteries and cathedrals formed the only counter-balance to the castles of the warlords. Life revolved around the abbots and the robber barons that were in any case from the same families. The full flowering of monasteries as centres of learning, of art, of architecture, of learning, of literature, of sacred music did not arrive before the founding of Cluny in 910, but most of the elements were present long before that. Monasticism had everywhere developed far from its humble origins in the Egyptian deserts. 

             People in north western Europe are inclined to look at historical events from their own perspective. But it should be remembered that the cultural pattern that emerged at the beginning of the Bronze Age over Eurasia and Africa still persisted. The great civilised cultures based on the city and trade was still in the areas of the Middle East and Mediterranean and China where it had begun. The essentially pastoral economies were to the north and south of them and stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The continuous line of fortifications that had once stretched from Hadrian’s Wall to the Great Wall of China had long since been breached, and the Iron Age pre-Roman pattern of life north of the Alps had returned. The new invaders, whether Lombards from the North, or Arabs from the south, or Turks from central Asia simply imposed their own dynasties, and sometimes their language on the existing city culture. The culture of Byzantium and the Arab culture of the Middle East were essentially the same. The great exception was the Turks. They were inclined to impose their own nomadic culture on the places they conquered. The great irrigation works were neglected and the land returned to pastoralism. There was no Turkic civilisation to match that of the Arabic-speakers or of the Lombards.

             There was as much turbulence and confusion among the partly nomadic and partly settled peoples of central Asia as there was in North Europe. There was no great difference in the cultures in central Asia, but the peoples were divided into two related linguistic groups, the Mongols and the Turkis. The Turkis were chiefly famous for their conquest of the remains of the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Land; the Mongols for their frequent invasions of Europe from the steppes


             This period called the Dark Ages as far as the whole of Western Europe is concerned may also be called the Viking period in Northwest Europe. The Viking period can be said to have begun with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 and on Lambay Island off the east coast of Ireland. It may be considered to have ended when the power of the Norse of Dublin was broken at Clontarf in 1014 and when the Danish king Canute became king of England in 1016 after having been baptised sometime before 1013. Viking art gave way to Romanesque; the Viking period to the Romanesque. The contrast between the two was also signalled by signs everywhere or regrowth and rejuvenation in Western Europe. The decline of civilisation was arrested and the great expansion of European culture that was to lead it to a conquest of most of the globe had commenced. The Normans were then the coming power. The Viking period itself can be divided into two phases, the destructive period in the ninth century and the constructive period in the tenth when settlement and trading became for them more important than raiding. 

             There has been an image of the Vikings which originated among Christian monks and which continued to be taught to schoolchildren until recent times. There was in fact nothing unique or strange about Viking culture. Their culture, like their language, was the Indo-European one. Like the Irish they had been outside the Roman Empire, but by the time of Charlemagne just outside its borders. They traded and fought with their neighbours, and like them learned the various improvements in boat-building skills, and navigation techniques. Gradually, after their expansion commenced, they improved both these skills, but around the year 800 they knew no more than their neighbours. They were farmers rather than fishermen. Their ships, like those of their neighbours could be used indifferently for trading or piracy. Like their neighbours, their chief commodity was slaves. Like the inhabitants of the seacoast tuatha in Ireland they were often pirates, but not more so. Yet there were elements in their societies which in particular circumstances, led Denmark, Sweden and Norway to rapid and extraordinary expansion.

 The term Viking is applied indiscriminately to the pirates or sea-rovers whether of Norse, Danish, or Swedish origins, and to those descended from them or who lived in their settlements. Their name is derived from the Vik the old name for the Skagerrak. The period immediately preceding had been characterised by reasonably good weather in the North Atlantic area which had affected Scandinavia as much as the British Isles. The population of Scandinavia increased between 600 and 800.  The production of iron increased, as did the use of slaves. The language developed rapidly away from the common Germanic stem and became a distinct Scandinavian language. After 800 the speed of mutation slowed and there was a mutually intelligible language spoken from Greenland to the Baltic.

. Viking society and institutions were very like their Irish counterparts. As in Ireland the basic social unit was the extended family descended either from a common great grandfather or great great great grandfather. The laws too were codes of the different provinces, but at the end of the Viking period there was a tendency for the kings to draw up national codes. Besides the ties of kin, there was, as in Ireland, other social ties such as the loyalty of a freeman to his patron, of the warrior to the chief of the warband, of the lord's household to the lord, and of the ship's company to the captain, and finally the loyalty due to the over-chief or king. This latter tended to increase, and led to the formation of national monarchies. The growth of the towns naturally weakened kinship bonds. Every province had its own centre for cult and place of assembly of the freemen. The most important body of men were the free farmers, corresponding to the boaire. They had the right to bear arms, and to speak in the assembly, and to decide much local matter for themselves. The impression is given that these assemblies had rather more influence over the chiefly families than in Ireland, and that this grew in new territories like Iceland. But even in Iceland the influence of the chiefly families was paramount, and it resembled a tuath without a ri but only the nobles. As royal authority increased so did local authority decrease, and law-making became the prerogative of the king and the Christian Church after Christianity was introduced. It is not obvious how many of these features became transplanted into Ireland, but we can assume considerable influence. 

             The Danes concentrated their trade and raids on north Germany that became open to them after Charlemagne had broken the power of the Friesians and Saxons. Not much is known about individual kings or rulers of Sweden before 1000 AD, but by 800 AD the chief of the province around Stockholm and Uppsala seems to have been recognised as the dominant king. The Swedes traded and raided eastward and by the middle of the ninth century had reached as far as Kiev in the Ukraine. Though more mountainous and rocky than Sweden, Norway was more free from frost and ice. Most of Norway too was rich in articles suitable for trade such as furs and hides, walrus ivory, leather ropes of walrus and seal hides, and feathers of sea birds, and these were traded for iron, flour, malt, weapons, jewellery, and cloth. Denmark was always the most prosperous and advanced state, but its influence in Ireland was slight, as they concentrated their efforts on England.

             When the Viking raiding and settling overseas began at the end of the eighth century the organisation and development of their regions was no better than that in the different parts of the British Isles. Skills in craftsmanship and agriculture too were basically similar. Nor were they at the beginning of the period building different forms of ships from those being built elsewhere. In the course of the Viking expansion period improvements in detail in design and construction of ships, especially with regard to the use of sails in the open sea were developed and quickly copied elsewhere. The Viking ships were still basically rowing ships as in the earlier centuries. The Atlantic ships were higher amidships than those used in the more sheltered waters, but were basically of the same construction. Ships constructed principally for raiding were narrower and faster than those for trading. But all had a very flat bottom and a correspondingly shallow draught, rarely exceeding one metre. They were not large, normally carrying fewer than 30 rowers, but they were light and flexible, and could be easily carried by the crew if this should prove necessary. From this time onwards keels were gradually added, as the use of the sail became more important. The sailors could travel a considerable distance out of sight of land, but almost certainly needed to sail along a line of latitude to arrive at a destination. This method was used until ship's clocks became common in the nineteenth century. A ship's captain, for example sailing from Scotland to Norway or Iceland would sail more or less due north until he reached the latitude of the Faeroes. Then he would sail either east or west to reach Iceland or the Norwegian coast near Trondheim. The shortest journey between Norway and Scotland was from Bergen to the Shetlands, a route well-travelled during World War II.

             The main thrust of the Vikings was into the Baltic, into north Germany, and into Russia. However the colonies they planted in the north Atlantic region survived better than those planted elsewhere. Also because the regions in the West they raided were Christian more was written about them. It would appear that the first Viking ships to appear off the British Isles from 780 onwards were trading ships (Binns 13f). It became immediately apparent that there was much plunder to be had from defenceless monasteries and other settlements near the coast. In this they were aided by the sea-worthy construction of their ships, their shallow draught, and their ability within reason to sail from one point to another out of sight of land. The early-warning system used for centuries in Ireland to apprise the defenders of a raid appears to have been ineffective against the lightly-armed, fast-moving raiders. Always they would find local rulers willing to assist them, and guide them. The only real defence was to construct an equal or superior fleet, and this at first no kingdom they attacked managed to do. In the course of the ninth century the Norse occupied all the Scottish islands and parts of Caithness, Argyle and Galloway

             The weapons used by the Vikings were those common at the time, the shield, the iron hat, the sword, spear, and battle axe. The sword was the most important of the weapons. Its blade was rather long at over three feet, one handed, double edged with a rather blunt tip, used for slashing not thrusting. Some spears were carried for throwing before the hand-to-hand combat commenced. Some bows and arrows were carried but were probably used more for hunting. They fought on foot as Chesterton noted:

"Where Ogier went on foot to die
In the old way of the Danes"
(The Ballad of the White Horse).

            In the British Isles even the warrior chiefs who rode to battle dismounted to fight because of the difficulty of the rider maintaining his seat in the melee of battle. But the stirrup and high saddle had already been invented, and gradually the nobles began to fight on horseback. The cavalry from the steppes of eastern Europe had already, as early as the battle of Adrianople in 378 learned how to defeat an infantry army. In the west there was the same problem of keeping horses over winter, as there was keeping other livestock. As late as the seventeenth century the O’Neills in mid-Ulster (though it was then a notoriously backward area) had to pasture their horses in Leinster in winter. 

             At the beginning of the Viking period a single dynasty or ruling family had emerged among the Danes. It is not clear why this happened for there was no external threat. Kingship was hereditary to the extent that only members of the ruling family could be elected, and unpopular or unsuccessful kings could be deposed. The king was allowed extensive estates to support himself. He could gain further wealth from trade or warfare, or by selling licences to merchants or taxing them. 

             Climatic conditions in north western Europe continued benign and in the summer months it was relatively easy to sail from Norway to Greenland, Ireland, and as far as the Mediterranean. Similarly, in summer the Swedes could travel to the eastern end of the Baltic and follow the rivers inland to Kiev where they could make contact with the merchants of Byzantium. Farming conditions on the northern islands were probably somewhat better than they are today.

 When the Vikings switched from raiding to trading they developed trade in north-western Europe to an extent not seen since Roman times. They re-introduced coinage. These were developments rather of the 10th century than the 9th, and if a low point were to be sought for the economy and culture of Western Europe it would probably be around 900 AD. The foundation of a permanent Norse settlement at Dublin in 837 provided the focus point around which all of Irish society was to develop and inaugurated the change from a subsistence economy to a commercial one.

             In France at the beginning of the ninth century the Carolingian Empire was at its height. It was the aim of Charlemagne to restore the Roman Empire. The art, architecture, and learning of the later Roman Empire were cultivated. The chapel in his imperial palace at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) was closely modelled on the Byzantine church of St. Vitale in Ravenna. The round or Roman arch was used extensively. Eventually, in the eleventh century, Romanesque architecture, as this new style was called, developed new forms of vaulting and became quite distinct from the original late Roman models. It apparently was first brought to Ireland by St Malachy in the Twelfth Century. Charlemagne also assembled scholars from various parts of Europe, the most famous of these being Alcuin of York, whom he placed over the palace school. Another scholar living in France at this time was Dicuil the Geographer (c. 825) who was apparently of Irish origin. These Carolingian scholars were responsible for two undertakings that had great significance for the future development of Europe. One was the extensive copying of manuscripts from the Roman period which had survived all disasters until then, and so a great many of the significant works of Latin classical authors and of early Christian writers were passed on to posterity. The other was the reform of the Latin script. A clear script with well-formed letters called the Caroline minuscule was developed, and from it all modern western European scripts are derived.

             There was no adequate administrative machinery available to hold all the dominions together. Nevertheless, even after the death of Charlemagne in 814 his empire continued to grow. On the death of Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious in 840, his sons could not agree which of them should get the throne. So, by the Treaty of Verdun in 843 the empire was divided between three of them in accordance with the old Merovingian custom and soon disintegrated into warring parts, and formed the bases of the future kingdoms of France, Germany, and Italy. The Franks under Charlemagne and his successors pushed the boundary of Christendom as far as the Elbe, and many new dioceses were established. Bremen on the Weser was made a bishopric in 787 and an archbishopric in 848. Paderborn in Westphalia was made a bishopric in 805. Magdeburg on the Elbe was made a bishopric in 968.

             Small at first, the Viking attacks grew stronger and stronger and in 886 a Danish army besieged Paris. They settled in Normandy, and one of their chiefs named Rollo was made a duke by the French king. The Plunkets, Earls of Fingall, claimed descent from this Rollo, for of course his descendants, the Normans came to England and Ireland. There is little doubt that if the Vikings had concentrated their efforts they could have established a vast empire. But their efforts were dispersed from Iceland to Kiev. [Top]


             In Britain, the decline of the towns had been reversed, and many towns were well developed again by 800. The relative quiet of the period meant that agriculture, trade and manufacture were able to develop. Like in Ireland there were many monasteries, and artwork flourished. The first raid of the Vikings had been made in 793 with an attack on Lindisfarne. Northumbria and Mercia were in relative decline, but Wessex began to develop as the strongest of the provinces when Egbert (802-39) became its king or chief. In 825 Egbert smashed the power of Mercia, and shortly afterwards Northumbria submitted to him. Kent and East Anglia also accepted him as king.  He organised Wessex on the shire system, namely by dividing it into counties or shires under a royal official called an ealdorman (This official corresponded with the Norse jarl, and Danish earl, and it was the latter term which eventually prevailed. It was applied to one who was of a noble as opposed to free family, and who was appointed as a royal official over part of the king's territories. The crucial point was that he ruled with royal authority, and not as a local lord.) He also determined the powers of the bishop with regard to the shire. In 831 he led an army into Wales and secured some acknowledgement of his overlordship. In 836 he conquered the last British chiefdom in the south west, Cornwall. Towards the end of his reign the Norse were appearing in force in his territories and were supported by the Cornishmen, but he defeated them both. His son Ethelwulf (839-858) was an able warrior but indolent. In 850 the Vikings wintered in England for the first time, having now the conquest of England in mind. The Viking raids were now being more centrally directed by the kings. After the Danish fleet over-wintered on the isle of Thanet 850-1 in preparation for a conquest of the island they were heavily defeated by Ethelwulf and his son Ethelbald        

              No serious attempt was then made until 865 to conquer England. In that year a great army landed, defeated the Northumbrians, and established a chiefdom at York. Their attempt to conquer Mercia was defeated by Wessex, and they withdrew to Northumbria. In 870 they conquered East Anglia, and in 871 with a strong army invaded Wessex and was heavily defeated by Ethelred I and his brother Alfred. But the Danes were able to gather more forces. Alfred the Great succeeded his brother in 871 and the Danes conquered Mercia again in 874, and in 876 tried unsuccessfully to conquer Wales. In 878 they concentrated on the conquest of Wessex and Alfred was heavily defeated. By this time the Viking armies were composed of virtually professional soldiers, well-seasoned by a lifetime of warfare, and steady in defeat. The levies that opposed them were assembled to meet an invasion and dispersed to their homes after a battle was won. However Alfred was able to rally his forces and defeat the invading army. The Danish king Guntrum agreed to be baptised, and England was divided between them on a line running north west from London along the Roman road called Watling Street. Mercia was full incorporated into Wessex, and this event marked the end of the so-called heptarchy and the beginning of the kingdom of England. This latter unification was not achieved for another century. The Danes attacked again between 892 and 896 but Alfred, after a long struggle managed to defeat them. They were still left in possession of the eastern part of England, the area called the Danelaw. In order to defeat the Vikings at sea Alfred had ships called 'dragon ships' constructed. Though basically the same shape as the Viking boats they were larger, higher and faster than the rather slight Viking boats.

             Wales was the part of the British Isles that was most successful in repelling the Viking attacks whether they came from the land or the sea. Undoubtedly this was derived to a large extent from their expertise learned over the centuries on how to deal with Irish pirates. The Vikings established settlements around the coast at places like Anglesey, Swansea, and Fishguard, but these settlements never became strong enough to really trouble the Welsh chiefs, and no Norse kingdom was ever established on Welsh soil. The various ruling families in Wales were linked by marriage, and over large parts of Wales there was a tendency to recognise one particular family as the princely one. Unification developed by policy and marriages, not warfare (Evans 133). Two works on the history of the British were written at this time, the Historia Brittonum of Nennius and the Annales Cambriae. These also marked the revival of writing in Wales.  Nor were the Mercians able to advance further than Offa's Dyke. Some Welsh scholars were in close contact with Irish scholars, and with the scholars at the courts of Charlemagne and his son Charles the Bald In the great Danish invasion at the end of the ninth century Wales, like Wessex, was repeatedly attacked. The Welsh chief Anarawd however formally submitted to Alfred. When Anarawd died in 916 the territory of the Welsh principalities was still intact. 

             In Scotland the power of the Dal Riadan chiefs had diminished. Under Kenneth MacAlpine the chiefdoms of the Picts and Scots were united. The Scottish and Pictish kingdoms were united by Kenneth MacAlpine in 843, but it is not clear if he were a Pict or a Scot as the royal families of both chiefdoms were inter-married. It is clear however that it was the Scottish language that prevailed. The focus of his new kingdom was in a more central location and more fertile land in Perthshire in the Pictish region with its capital at Scone and its chief monastery at Dunkeld. He invaded Northumbria six times, which did not help them to resist the Danes. He married one daughter to the king of Stratchclyde, another to Aed Finnliath of Ulster. The pattern of these marriages would seem to indicate that he regarded the Northumbrians as the principal danger. At the same time most of the territory of both kingdoms north of the Great Glen was abandoned to the Norse so that most of the new kingdom consisted of Pictish territory. The Dublin Norse were bent on conquering the new kingdom, but being repulsed concentrated their efforts on capturing York from the Danes. 

Little resistance was made to the colonisation of the western Isles by the Norse who had already colonised the Shetlands and Orkneys. Steady colonisation by the Norse in the Scottish Islands and in the coastal parts of Caithness, Argyle, and Galloway, proceeded throughout the century. The Norse came round the north of Scotland and occupied the Isles, and from there fanned out to attack Ireland and Strathclyde. The Danes concentrated their attacks further south against Northumbria. The first recorded raid was against the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793. This was followed by an attack on the Hebrides in 794, on Lambay Island in 795, and on the Isle of Man in 798. In 801 and 806 Iona was plundered. Iona was abandoned and some of its relics were taken to Ireland, and others to Dunkeld where Constantine, the king of the Picts later built a monastery to house them. The Viking attacks were not planned or systematic, and came in three main waves, the first around 800, the second around 830 and the third around 860. The great efforts of the Danes in southern England came in the reign of Alfred of Wessex from 885 onwards.

             Strathclyde was still an independent chiefdom, but any hold it still retained over Cumbria was eroded as the Norse colonised that region intensively. It became a dependency of the kingdom of Scotland in 908 and was absorbed into it in 945. Some of the British chiefs of Stratchclyde fled to Wales where Anarawd gave them a grant of land on his frontier towards Chester if they could expel the English. The present boundary between England and Scotland as far as Strathclyde is concerned was fixed about 1000 AD.

             It can be seen that none of the areas in the British Isles had developed centralised monarchies by the year 800. By 900, both in England and Scotland single monarchies were emerging. By 900 too the beginnings of central monarchies emerged in Norway and Sweden besides Denmark. The century began with isolated Viking raids on the coasts; it ended with the Vikings in control of considerable lands in Western Europe from Iceland to Normandy. 

             One should pause to consider the effect of these raids on the ordinary people. The annalists who recorded the raids were only concerned with their effect on the Church and on the ruling families. Later romantic writers concentrated on the same classes as well. Only a small proportion of the raids were perpetrated by foreigners; the vast bulk of the raids at this and later periods were by Irish on Irish.

             By way of illustration we can study an account of the life of the Chinese peasants in the period of the 'war lords' in the first part of twentieth century as recorded by contemporary witnesses. The armies of the Government, of the warlords, and of marauding bandits filled the countryside. All of them pillaged the peasants. Some of them resorted to exemplary acts of cruelty to make the peasants more anxious to hand over their supplies of food, or their horses, mules, or donkeys. The men of the village would bury their wheat and their stores of coins. The women would put on their best clothes and gather their most precious belongings into a bundle, ready at the first alarm to flee to hidden caves or other hiding places only they knew about. Captured women suffered the usual fate of captured women. One village warned another when the army or the brigands approached. When the alarm was given all the villagers fled. When the brigands appeared they would find an empty village so they collected all the grain, fowl, vegetables, sheep, or anything else they could find. When the robbers were gone, the peasants returned to their villages and resumed their normal life. If the village was surprised, the men were flogged to force them to disclose where the grain and the valuables were hidden. If it were an army of the Government or a great war lord, the villagers were told to bring the supplies needed to the appointed town. The soldiers also systematically looted every house in the town and vicinity. The hungry army consumed supplies as fast as they were brought in. The peasants were never paid, so they stopped bringing supplies. Parties of soldiers were then sent round the farms to extract the grain and the sheep the farmer had set aside to feed his family during the winter. With the war came the famine, the disease, and the death, known in the Bible as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6). Dogs and wolves devoured the unburied corpses. Finally, the warlord or the government official rounded up all the able young men and forcibly drafted them into his army. And that was often the last their parents or wives, or children ever heard of them (Cable and French 236ff)

             This kind of warfare continued in Ireland down to the seventeenth century. One result of the interminable raids was that no peasant ever built a proper house or took any care of the appearance of his farm. Any indication of wealth would only attract the greater torture. We must not however exaggerate the extent of warfare, at this period. [Top]


Over-chiefs of Tara

Aed Oirnidhe 797- 819 of Cenel Eogain, son of Niall Frossach

Concobar 819-933 of Clan Colmain, son of Donnchad Midi

Niall Caille 833-846 of Cenel Eogain, son of Aed Oirnidhe

Mael Sechlainn I 846-862 of Clan Colmain, nephew of Concobar

Aed Finnliath 862-879 of Cenel Eogain son of Niall Caille

Flann Sinna 879-916 of Clan Colmain, son of Mael Sechlainn 

It should be noted that we have abundant snippets of information from these centuries to follow in considerable detail what was happening in most parts of Ireland. Much of the information, such as about raids and battles is repetitive.

Aed Oirnidhe of the Cenel Eogain become the over-chief of Tara in 797, succeeding Donnchad Midi of Clan Colmain.  He was probably the first over-chief to be inaugurated with a Christian rite. The bad blood between the Cenel Eogain and Clann Colmain continued and Aed Oirnidhe had his revenge. He imposed kings in Brega and Lagore (Sil nAedo Slaine), and then attacked Leinster (Ui Dunchada), devastating it in a heavy raid and imposing kings there. This seems to be the first instance of one of the provincial chiefs defeating and dividing the chieftainship of a different province. Cenel Eogain, having excluded the Cenel Conaill from the chieftainship of Tara in 789 were clearly trying to weaken their rivals in Clan Colmain, and also potential enemies in Leinster. Despite the family pact to alternate in the overlordship each side was clearly trying to knock out the other. This followed on the attempt of the Eoganacht to raid Meath and Leinster. It is likely too that the attacks of Donnchad Midi on the Cenel Eogain had been motivated partly by a desire to prevent them becoming too strong in the north. Aed then repelled an invasion from Connaught and defeated the Ulaid. In 808 he sent ambassadors to the court of Charlemagne. In 818 he again imposed kings in Leinster, and his son Niall Caille did so again in 835.  In 815 he defeated the Cenel Conaill. But for the intervention of the Vikings it is likely that the northern Ui Neill might have achieved over-lordship over all Ireland except Munster by the middle of the century. 

             On the death of Aed Oirnidhe the over-chieftainship passed to Conchobar (Connor) of Clan Colmain while the chieftainship in the north passed not to Niall Caille son of Aed Oirnidhe, but to Murchad grandson of Aed Allan. Murchad again defeated the Cenel Conaill and then defeated and took hostages from the southern Ui Neill before being deposed by his cousin Niall Caille in 823. (From Murchad came the minor branch of the Northern Ui Neill, the O’Lavertys.) In 827 Niall secured the direct subjection of the Oirgialla to the Cenel Eogain and not to the over-chief of Tara. This meant that the Oirgialla would always have to pay tribute directly to the Cenel Eogain. The battle of Leth Cam near Armagh was one of the major battles in Irish history. The local chief of the Oirgialla expelled Eogan Mainistreach the abbot of Armagh who happened to be Niall Caille’s confessor. Armagh at this time had an abbot and a bishop, and Feidlimid mac Crimthainn, the bishop and chief of Cashel for his own reasons supported the bishop against the abbot. The abbot sent his psalm-singer or cantor to Niall. The latter gathered the forces of both Cenel Eogan and Cenel Conaill, while the Oirgialla appealed to the Ulaid for assistance. The latter group was heavily defeated, and subjected directly to Cenel Eogain. This marked a definite point in the expansion of the Ui Neill over Ulster. The Cenel Eogain became the absolute overlords and not merely nominal overlords of Ulster west of the Bann. This did not mean actual dispossessing of the Oirgialla and the seizure of their land, but it was to make the process easier in the future. The greatest losers for the moment were the Ind Oirthir, for they lost the nomination to the abbacy of Armagh, which went in future to the Ui Neill. In theory the unification of the rights of appointment should have rendered unnecessary the division of monasteries into followers of Armagh and followers of Iona. The community of Iona was now re-located at Kells, in what was formerly lands subject to Sil nAedo Slaine. Though defeated the power of the Ulaid was not reduced.

Conchobar does not appear to have been a particularly effective king. But he had the northern Ui Neill to contend with, having to give hostages to Murchad of Aileach, also dealing with another powerful chief in Cashel, as well as with intermittent Viking raids which were to a large extent concentrated on Meath, Louth and Dublin. He was unable to prevent the Cenel Eogan from subjecting the Oirgialla directly to themselves rather than to the overchief of Tara. The most persistent and formidable attacks in his reign were those of Feidlimid mac Crimthainn the bishop-king of Cashel who was the most powerful warrior in Ireland in his day. He was aiming at capturing the chieftainship of Tara for himself. This did not imply that the Eoganacht of Cashel had become a formidable power, but only that one of their chiefs was the greatest warrior of his day. As in Britain, in the first half of the century the Vikings were not seen as the greatest threat. 

             No Viking raids in the first forty years went more than twenty miles inland. Small raiding parties would appear suddenly and attack island and coastal settlements, and disappear rapidly. In 795 Lambay Island was attacked, and shortly afterwards the island monasteries of Inishmurray and Inishbofin off the west coast were plundered, presumably by the same raiding party. Iona too as mentioned above was raided several times and in 806 68 people were killed on the island. The following year the community re-settled at Kells in Meath. The same fate was befalling the remoter Irish monasteries as befell the eremitic settlement in the Egyptian desert some centuries earlier. Most of the attacks were on the northern coasts as far south of the Boyne. Unlike in England and on the Continent, few Irish rivers were navigable far inland. All of them, except the Boyne, had rapids near the coast. The raiders could go a few miles up a river until they found a deserted place with some woods in which they could hide their boats, and then march rapidly in various directions to carry out raids. They could either follow tracks, or torture some local until he consented to act as a guide. But the raiders were not always successful, and they were ambushed on many occasions. The raid could not be anticipated, but the raiders had always to return to their ships (O’Corrain 80f). Though the Irish had sea-going boats and fishermen, the lower reaches of the rivers appear to have been very thinly inhabited. Settlements along coasts from time immemorial mixed fishing, trading and piracy.

             As O’Corrain notes in the first 25 years of their raiding 26 plundering raids were attributed to the Vikings and 87 raids were attributed to the Irish. Some consider that their raids on the west coast were made more with a view to establishing colonies than acquiring plunder. Much land on the west coast was to remain uncultivated until the eighteenth century, but it may have appeared attractive to many of the Vikings in comparison with what they were used to. They may also have had an economy better balanced between harvesting the sea and the land. A Viking fleet arrived and settled in Dublin in 837.            

              In 833 Niall Caille of Cenel Eogain, son of Aed Oirnidhe became over-chief. Niall repulsed a Viking attack from Lough Foyle aimed at the monastery of Derry. Despite his successes in the north Niall Caille spent his reign fending off the attacks of the Norse and the Eoganacht. Feidlimid mac Crimthainn of the Eoganacht Caisil was ruler of Cashel from 820 to 847. Niall Caille was chief of Aileach from 823 and over-chief of Tara from 833 until his death in 846. They were therefore almost exact contemporaries. But Niall Caille was a more formidable warrior than Conchobar.

             Niall’s first business as over-chief was to continue his father’s dispute s with the Laigin and with the southern Ui Neill. He exacted the tribute and appointed Bran mac Faelain of the Ui Dunchada as his own king in Leinster. He then plundered Meath. In 838 he met and came to some agreement with Feidlimid mac Crimthainn. Whatever the Munster writers might allege it is unlikely that Niall recognised him as over-chief of Tara. The following year Feidlimid raided Meath but Niall marched against him and crushed him so that he did not dare attack Meath again while Niall was alive. By this time however the Vikings were becoming a real menace. He managed to catch them in 843 and inflicted a heavy defeat on them and their ally the chief of northern Brega. The Sil nAedo Slaine had decided on an alliance with the Norse of Dublin. He caught them again in 845 but was drowned while pursuing them. His daughter was married to Conaing, chief of northern Brega.

From 837 there commenced the second phase of Norse attacks. These were stronger, more frequent, and covered much of the eastern half of Ireland. They were concentrated largely on the central part of Ireland, from the coast between Dublin and Carlingford to the east and the river Shannon to the west. It was precisely in this area that there was the greatest concentrations of monasteries and therefore of wealth. But they could only be assisted by the attacks of the Cenel Eogain and the Sil nAedo Slaine on Clan Colmain precisely in this area. The weakening of the Laigin in the face of Ui Neill attacks, and the weakness of the Eoganacht Caisil in north Munster also undoubtedly assisted them. This period ended in 873 when the joint reign of Olaf and Ivar in Dublin ended, and the Norse split into factions, and their raids became infrequent. 

He was succeeded by Mael Sechlainn (Mellaghlin, rendered into Latin as Malachi) of Clan Colmain in 846 a grandson of Donnchad Midi and nephew of Conchobar. (Others prefer the form MaelSechnaill, but the family seems to have been called O’Mellaghlin in the Middle Ages.) His father Mael Runaidh had been chief of Clan Colmain or chief of Uisneach when Niall Caille was over-chief of Tara. (Uisneach is a hill in Westmeath from which no fewer than 20 counties can be seen. It was reputed to be the exact centre of Ireland, umbilicus Hiberniae, and hence a sacred place in pagan times. It corresponded to Aileach among the Northern Ui Neill.) Mael Sechlainn succeeded his father as chief of Uisneach in 842 after the usual bloody family struggle, becoming over-chief of Tara in 846. (These struggles may explain the weakness of Clan Colmain under Conchobar.) Feidlimid mac Crimthainn of Cashel died the following year and was succeeded by weak rulers, and from the accession of Mael Sechlainn in 846 until the death of Donal Ardmacha in 980 the power of the Ui Neill was unchallenged, and no other provincial chief tried to claim the overlordship of Tara until Brian Boru in 1002. Mael Sechlainn of Clan Colmain was the first over-chief of Tara to have any claim to be king of Ireland, for in 858 he took hostages from the whole province of Munster. But significantly he was unable to control, or replace or exact tribute from the northern Ui Neill. The chief of the northern branch Aed Finnliath made war on him several times, assisted by the chief of northern Brega (Sil nAedo Slaine) and the Norse of Dublin.

             Mael Sechlainn first attacked two subject clans, the Luigne and Galenga who had also sided with the Norse in his father's time, and destroyed their chief fortress on an island in Lough Ramor, on the present Meath-Cavan border. These ancient tuatha were being squeezed between Clan Colmain and the Ui Briuin Breifne. He then dealt with the Norse in Dublin and defeated their ally Cinaed mac Conaing of northern Brega who had been ravaging the lands of his arch-rival the chief of Lagore or southern Brega. Mael Sechlainn captured him and drowned him although he was under the protection of the safe-conduct granted by the abbot of Armagh and other ecclesiastics. Having established his authority in the north he marched into Munster and established his authority there. He secured the independence of the chief of the Osraige (Ossory) from the Eoganacht and their subjection to Clan Colman. It is said that he usually rode a white horse. As noted earlier this was the time when chiefs began to go on horseback to battle but to fight on foot.

              Though the most powerful chief in Ireland and the first to make the attempt to control the whole of Ireland, he was unable to defeat his rival Aed Finnliath of the northern Ui Neill. Aed Finnliath joined those chiefs seeking Norse help and made full use of the Norse fighting forces in his attempt to overthrow Mael Sechlainn. The latter gathered his forces to attack Aed. He camped in co. Tyrone, and Aed cut his way into the camp at night, and was with difficulty driven out. Mael Sechlainn then withdrew his army.

             On the death of Mael Sechlainn in 862 Aed Finnliath son of Niall Caille, succeeded as over-chief of Tara. By this time the Norse were allied with the Southern Ui Neill, for Aed eliminated their settlements in Ulster and defeated them and the Southern Ui Neill. But this was nor permanent, for a few years later the Vikings and Cenel Eogain stormed Dunseverick fort on the very tip of the north Antrim coast. (A curious legend states the Conall Cairneach of Dun Sobairce, one of the great warriors in the 'Ulster Cycle', served in the Roman army and witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. It is possible, just.)  It is not clear who controlled it at this period, but it was probably still the Dal Riada. It was regarded as one of the earliest forts built in Ireland and controlled a major embarkation point for Scotland. It is significant that the Ui Neill had to ally themselves with the Vikings to storm a fort. In the Middle Ages it was rebuilt by the de Mandevilles whose ruined castle survives.) Aed married a daughter of Kenneth MacAlpine. He held the Tailtin games near Tara on various occasions, after which they lapsed repeatedly. In 868 he defeated an alliance of the Southern Ui Neill, the Laigin, and the Dublin Norse. He married one of his daughters to Olaf the Young, the Viking chief of Dublin after 853. As was usual with invaders the Norse quickly made matrimonial and military alliances with local chiefs. 

In 879 Aed Finnliath was succeeded as the over-chief of Tara by Flann Sinna son of Mael Sechlainn of Clan Colmain who ruled until 916. He had little trouble until after the year 900. Donal son of Aed Finnliath who succeeded to the chiefship of Aileach was a peaceful man, so Flann was left undisturbed from that quarter. In the 10th century the power of the Eoganacht was to revive but for the moment were no great threat. The Norse of Dublin had carved out a considerable chiefdom of middle rank, but they had become Christians and were more interested in establishing themselves in York. Though this was the time in England when the Danes were making an all-out effort to conquer the entire country, the Norse raids in Ireland had virtually ceased, and the Norse just took part in ordinary Irish wars. The success of the Ui Neill in keeping their shores clear is also probably explained by the possession of a strong fleet or access to its use. [Top]

The Provinces

             In Ulster the great march of conquest of the Cenel Eogain was well under way. It proceeded whether the chiefs of Cenel Eogain were over-chiefs of Tara or not. On the death of Aed Oirnidhe in 819 Murchad, grandson of Aed Allan became the chief of Aileach and continued the war with the Cenel Conaill. He also took hostages from the southern Ui Neill in 822. He was soon deposed by a faction led by Niall Caille who directed the warfare in the direction of the Oirgialla in 827. Armagh was still a long way from the stronghold of the Cenel Eogain in Aileach. It seems that about this time the Cenel Eogain established themselves at Tulach Og (Tullaghogue) near Dungannon just to the west of Lough Neagh. The development of a separate chiefdom of Tullaghogue seems to have come later, and the occupation of Tullaghogue by the senior branch of the Ui Neill later still.  The circumstances are obscure, for the region seems to have been already occupied by Clan Binnig.  The dynamics of this move that saw the shift of the centre of power of the Cenel Eogain away from Inishowen in Donegal and Aileach to mid-Ulster is far from clear. It may be that with changes in property, the higher families sought places to live which were at the same time safer and nearer to centres of civilisation like the city of Armagh. By 870 Aed Finnliath had a hall within the rath of the monastery of Armagh. The older and now less desirable lands would have gone to lesser branches who were unable to defend them from the O'Dohertys a branch of the Cenel Conaill. But from 827 he Cenel Eogain were established as overlords of the Oirgialla, and Niall succeeded in subjecting them directly to the Cenel Eogain. As described above at the battle of Leth Cam in 827 the Ulaid supported the Oirgialla, and shared in their defeat. The north coast of Ireland was the one most exposed to Viking raids and settlements, and Niall led a couple of campaigns against them in the north. When he became over-chief of Tara he had to deal with the Eoganacht as well as the Vikings as also noted above.

             On the death of Niall Caille in 846 Mael Sechlainn of Clan Colman had become over-chief of Tara, and Aed Finnliath, son of Niall Caille, chief of Aileach. Aed Finnliath supported the Norse of Dublin against Mael Sechlainn and was attacked by him. But when he succeeded Mael Sechlainn as over-chief he systematically attacked the Viking settlements on the north coast. On his death in 879 Flann Sinna of Clan Colman became overchief, and Aed's eldest son Donal became chief of Aileach. He was a peaceful man, too peaceful for his younger and more warlike brother Niall Glundubh. The leaders of the Cenel Eogain agreed that they should share the chieftainship. Donal went on a pilgrimage and then entered a monastery. By this time the chiefs of Aileach were recognised as overlords, or claimed to be overlords of much of Ulster west of the Bann. This by no means indicates that they occupied those lands. In this century the Cenel Eogain seem to have been preoccupied with the struggle against Clan Colmain, and with incursions into Meath. The gradual appropriation of the smaller tuatha was left to the lesser branches of the Ui Neill.

              One junior branch of the Cenel Eogain was growing and establishing itself in strength. This was the Clan Connor of Magh Ithe, a district in east Donegal later known as the Laggan. They were the family of Conchobar (Connor) the son of Fergal and brother of Niall Frasach. The senior branch of this family was later known as the O’Cahans (O’Kanes) while the O’Mullans, O’Carolans, and McCloskeys were other branches. But their occupation of the lands of the Cianacht and the Oirgialla did not commence until after 900.

             Despite the fact that Cenel Eogain had succeeded in getting the overlordship of the Oirgialla transferred to themselves the position of the latter does not appear to have been much weakened militarily, and they do not appear to have lost much territory to the Ui Neill in this century. Like the rest of Ulster they were subjected to various Viking raids. The Norse established themselves on Lough Neagh whose shores were almost completely covered with woods. The Norse could establish easily defensible forts to protect their ships and sally forth to raid in any direction. Such forts could only be destroyed by a combined attack from the land and the water. Obviously the raiders would need local guides. Whether the latter were willing or coerced they seem never to have been lacking. The Oirgialla, especially in south Ulster were gradually to come under the more powerful chiefs like the MacMahons.

 The Ulaid were perhaps the most exposed to Norse raids. But they probably had the most powerful fleet in Ireland, and apart from early hit-and-run raids, they do not seem to have been particularly molested. Everywhere too in Ireland, Irish boatbuilders were copying the Norse designs. Even places where the Norse name survives like Strangford and Carlingford, they do not seem to have made permanent settlements. They were also holding their own against the Ui Neill who do not seem to have made advances against them. The Ulaid had lost control of some land in south Louth occupied by the Fir Ard Cianachta who were now counted with the Oirgialla, as well as the lands along the Lower Bann lost to Clan Binnig. But these were marginal lands. The northern Cianacht seem also to have still held on to their lands, though under the overlordship of the Cenel Eogain. The Ulaid were themselves conquering and absorbing the minor tuatha like the Boindrige, the Eilne, the Latharna (near Larne) and the Ui Derce Cein (Doherty).

              In Meath, despite the emergence of Clan Colman as by far the dominant power, the lesser chiefs were far from being subdued, and the chiefs of Brega were often at war with them. Lesser chiefs benefited from the assistance of outsiders, particularly the Norse. The chiefs of northern Brega of the Sil nAedo Slaine still remained powerful, and were to launch one last bid for the overchieftainship of Tara. Within their area of influence, the Sil nAedo Slaine seem to have occupied all the lesser tuatha. From at least 750, the annalists described separate successions for the chiefs of Brega and the chiefs of Lagore. The split in their family meant that they were no longer a power of the first rank, but they were still of powerful secondary rank.

 In Leinster the Ui Dunlainge in the north and the Ui Chennselaig in the south had established themselves as the dominant powers. The Ui Dunlainge excluded all the others from the leadership of the Laigin. They however split into three septs, the Ui Dunchada, the Ui Faelain, and the Ui Muiredaig. As these families were of roughly equal strength they shared the overlordship, whatever that meant in practice. In 884, the overlord was the abbot of Kildare. This split prevented them from presenting a united front to the increasing power of the Ui Neill who were increasingly able to exact tribute from Leinster and to interfere in the election of chiefs. The Ui Chennselaig were of course local or mesne chieftains (ruiri) in south Leinster even if never strong enough to challenge the Ui Dunlainge. Clans like the Ui Mail and the Dal Mesin Corb either remained as subordinate tuatha, or were uprooted and driven to find places of refuge elsewhere. In the western part of Leinster were the long-lasting families of the Loigse and Ui Failge despite the efforts of both the Ui Dunlainge and Clan Colmain. Though never in a position to challenge for the over-chieftainship, they could not be dislodged either. The Osraige in particular allied themselves to the Norse of Dublin, and so managed to establish their independence from any overlord.

In Munster the power of the Eoganacht of Locha Lein (Killarney), the powerful overlords of west Munster, declined, and there was a corresponding rise in the strength of the Ciaraige Luachra  (Kerry) (O’Corrain 2f). The Ui Fidgente in present county Limerick remained strong in this century but went into decline after 900 allowing the Norse to establish themselves in the next century.  After 820 the nominal overlordship of Munster was held almost exclusively by the Eoganacht of Cashel. The fact that this overlordship was given to an abbot or bishop on more than one occasion gives strength to the belief that the groupings were originally religious ones in connection with a particular shrine.

             There was a brief resurgence of the power of the Eoganacht of Cashel during the reign of Feidlimid mac Crimthainn, the bishop and over-chief of Cashel from 820 to 847. He was also a monk, being of the ascetic order of the Celi De. He interfered in the choice of bishops in Armagh, being responsible for the expulsion of Eogan Mainistreach in 827, and tried also to get an abbot he favoured in Clonmacnoise. If the Ui Neill had no other reason for interfering in Armagh themselves he supplied them with a reason. At this point Clonmacnoise seems to have been controlled by the Ui Maine as Armagh was by Ind Oirthir, so Feidlimid went to war with the Ui Maine. He was also constantly at war with the Ui Neill, raiding Meath in 823 and 826 and 831, and attacked the Ui Briuin Seola in Connaught in the same year. However he was unable to defeat either Niall Caille or Mael Sechlainn. In 837 he came to an agreement with Niall Caille, but raided Meath in 839, and camped on the hill of Tara. Hearing this Niall marched from the north and defeated him heavily so that he never again returned to Meath. Though undoubtedly a powerful warrior, his achievements were exaggerated by the weakness of his chief opponent in Clan Colmain.  His successes however led to the development of the idea of a king of all Ireland. On his death the Munster challenge to the Ui Neill faded, and Mael Sechlainn was able to take hostages in Munster in 854 and 856. In 858, to crush revolts he led a great hosting ‘of the men of Ireland’ into Munster and devastated it, taking hostages everywhere. It was the first time the chiefs of the south were forced to accept the over lordship of the chief of Tara. There was nothing peculiar to Ireland in the inter-relationships between powerful families and ecclesiastical institutions; it was common all over Europe.

             No chiefs of note emerged in Connaught during the century. The Ui Briuin Ai had managed to exclude the other contenders for the overlordship of the province. They promptly broke into two almost equal septs, the Sil Cathail and the Sil Muiredaig who shared the overlordship. Once again one feels that an opportunity of building up a strong chiefdom which could impose its authority on the whole of Ireland was missed. The chance did not recur until the emergence of the O’Connor branch of the Sil Muiredaig in the twelfth century. Of all the provinces, Connaught was the least affected by the Norse raids.

The whole northern, eastern, and southern coasts of Ireland were lined with small weak tuatha. Each of these would have had a small fleet of boats. All of them were subject to some extent to more powerful chiefs whose power base was further inland, the chiefs of the northern and southern Ui Neill, the Ulaid, and the Laigin. All these were land powers, chiefly interested in gaining power in their own localities. Only one chiefdom, the Ulaid, and that only once, made an attempt to gain land overseas. These powers could always commandeer the small fleets and unite them if occasion required. Once they gained control of a stretch of coast on which foreign merchants could land and trade with them directly, they seem to have been satisfied. Each of these tuatha would have been separated from each other by stretches of bogs marshland, forest, and other wasteland. The tuatha controlled by the Ulaid have already been mentioned. In north Leinster were the Ui Meith Mara, the Cualigne, the Connaille, the remnants of the Cianacht, the Saithne, Gailenga, and Deisi, the latter three in county Dublin. South of Dublin were the Ui Chellach Chualainn and the Ui Briuin Chualainn, the Ui Teig, the Fotharta, the Ui Bairrche, and so on. In Cork were the Ui Meic Caille, the Ciaraige Cuirce, the Cenel Aeda, and the Cenel mBeicce (see maps in O’Corrain). [Top]

The Vikings 

Let Erin remember the days of old
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her
When Malachy wore the collar of gold
That he won from her proud invader,
When kings with standard of green unfurled

Led the Red Branch Knights to danger.

             This poem was written by the Romantic poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852) who had a typical Romantic vision of the past, and an almost total ignorance of the facts. The Malachy referred to was Mael Sechlainn I and there was an ancient tale, now discredited, that he fought against the chief of the Vikings who was called Thorkil, or Thorgestr or in Latin Turgesius, took his collar of gold, and drowned him in a lake. The reference to the betrayal is to the Irish chiefs who invited in the Normans, and so, it was alleged, gave the English control over Ireland. 

The Vikings, though their raids spread over most of eastern Ireland, might be regarded as merely a provincial power. They never had the power or status in Ireland that they achieved in England, nor did they ever make the same effort at settlement. If one were to exclude the activities of the Norse of Dublin, their attacks on Ireland would have been little more than pinpricks, almost unnoticed in the general Irish wars. For some reason, probably to develop trade, the Norse concentrated their efforts on the development of Dublin. Other places like Connaught, which they could have easily reached, and which had plenty of fertile land and very weak tuatha they ignored. The same too applies to the whole southern coast. Yet they made their chief effort on the lands of some of the most powerful chiefs Ireland had ever seen. This may have had more to do with politics and power in Norway than any conditions in Ireland. Yet in many ways their influence in warfare, in trade and in art spread to the whole of Ireland.

The Vikings were in the process of establishing permanent settlements at remote anchorages on the Irish coast where their ships could be protected when on raids. Dublin, Drogheda, Carlingford, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick originated in more or less permanent Norse settlements. All of these had to have sufficient land and forests around them to provide food for the town, so the settlement might extend inland for several miles. As noted above, the Norse seem to have chosen marshy uninhabited places to land their boats, and these were also useful when they wished to establish defensible sites for trading purposes. There was no idea of a national identity either among the Irish or the Norse. Alliances were made and broken purely for the immediate advantage of the individual chiefs. Like the later Normans the Vikings were formidable fighters and were thus useful allies if the could be kept under control. As time went on in Scandinavia there was a tendency to recruit young men as specialist warriors, and the original peasants and fishermen were left at home. The only chiefs who wanted to exclude them altogether were the Cenel Eogain, and that not immediately. The result was that no towns ever developed in their territories

The idea that the true Irish chiefs always fought against the foreigners was a piece of invented O’Brien propaganda written two centuries after the first arrival of the Norse.  The Norse too, when they first arrived, did not venture to attack the great chiefs, but carved out little defensible territories for themselves either in unoccupied places, or places inhabited by small and weak clans. It may very well be that such lands were allocated to them by the great chiefs in the same way that barren lands were allocated to the Normans. They did not directly threaten the great chiefs, they controlled the lesser chiefs who were little better than bandits and pirates in any case, and they were useful allies in battle. The question what exactly the Vikings were doing in Ireland will be considered later. But every branch of the Irish chiefs was anxious to get their assistance against the others in the struggle for total power. They were also anxious for the trade the Norse brought, and wanted to participate in it. The Norse themselves were anxious to settle and trade, to marry into local families, to become Christian, and to adopt the ways of Christian civilisation.

             The great political development of the ninth century was the rise of the Norse towns and Norse chiefdoms. A Norse town was no bigger than the towns around the great monasteries, but it was organised for different purposes, trade, piracy, and warfare. These occupations were lucrative and so relatively large number of slaves and free craftsmen could be found together. Because of the need for defence, they were kept very small, so the houses were tiny, and arranged in narrow streets. Originally they were the forts of warlords, and only much later did government by corporations of merchants evolve. Trade and piracy were not different trades; they were just practised on different days. Up until 836 there were small fast-moving raids, chiefly on the coastal areas.

During the first 25 years of the raids the recorded raids averaged about one a year. Twenty six Viking raids were recorded compared with eighty seven Irish raids. The Irish raiders burned monasteries and churches just as frequently as did the Norse. Even if only a fifth of the raids were recorded and there were say five a year over the whole of Ireland the disruption by the Norse was not great. The chief problem with them was that nobody at first seemed to know how to cope with them for nobody knew what direction they came from and what route they had to retrace to return to their bases (O’Corrain 80ff). Some of their raids on the west coast seem to have been for purposes of settlement for geographically and climatically these areas were a continuation of the west coast of Scotland. We must always remember the benign geographical conditions of the time, and the fact that Ireland was still very under-populated.

From 830 onwards the Viking raids intensified both in Britain and in Ireland, the Norse being now joined by the Danes attacking the east coast of England and they were stronger and more bold. In 832 the lands of the Cianacht of Brega were plundered extensively. The Vikings sailed up Carlingford Lough as far as Newry, and then raided as far as Armagh that they occupied for a month (Canavan). In 836 the lands of the southern Ui Neill (Sil nAedo Slaine) were attacked and also all the lands of Connaught. In 837 a fleet of sixty ships arrived at the Liffey and another at the Boyne, and the southern Ui Neill were heavily defeated. As each of the sixty boats held about forty warriors, the force of 2400 young, strong, active and well-trained warriors was formidable. Given warning a ruiri or mesne chief could probably have matched their force, but they were not given warning. Such raids, repeated, would contribute to the decline of the ruiri, and the growth of the power of the chief of a province, the ri ruirech. They also advanced up the Shannon, and along Lough Erne. In 839 they placed a fleet on Lough Neagh and raided the surrounding region. In the winter 840-841 they over-wintered for the first time in Ireland on Lough Neagh, and then in the following winter at Annagassan in Co. Louth on the joint estuary of the Dee and Glyde, and at Dublin. The settlement at Annagassan, on the site of a small local monastery, lasted until 927. They joined in the wars of the local chiefs including Aed Finnliath of Cenel Eogain, and the local chiefs courted their help. The Sil nAedo Slaine particularly welcomed their assistance against Clan Colmain. Whether they conquered the local Saithne and Gailenga, or were awarded their lands is immaterial. They established a strong local presence equal to that of a ruiri. Their attacks intensified and they over-ran much of Ireland. Mael Sechlainn of Clan Colman succeeded in driving them from his own territories at least and repressing them sufficiently to allow him to invade Munster and Ulster. The Viking attacks in the ninth century were largely concentrated on the east coast, and then on central Ireland as far as the Shannon, the region dominated by Clan Colmain. Even in the tenth century large parts of West Ulster, Connaught, and Munster were scarcely touched. We can presume that the thinness of the population, the poverty, and the distances to be covered did not make raids worth while. The Norse were particularly welcomed by Cerball mac Dunlainge chief of the Osraige who made a close alliance with the Norse of Dublin against the Laigin. Aed Finnliath married a daughter to Olaf the Young who was killed in Scotland in 874.

              But the Norse had also been consolidating their gains. They established settlements along the coast, and built small towns, and each town had to have a reasonable amount of land surrounding it in which the townsmen could grow their crops, and pasture their cattle, sheep, and horses. The places they chose were defensible spots as far up river as the tide reached and in regions with few inhabitants, and where the power of the great lords was not directly challenged. The most successful were on the borders between the provinces. Dublin was between Meath and Leinster, Drogheda between Meath and Oirgialla, Waterford and Wexford between Leinster and Munster, and Limerick between Munster and Connaught. The region around Cork, like those around Dublin, Waterford, and Wexford was occupied by small unimportant clans. Though the north and north east coasts were most exposed to the raids from the Scottish Isles they were controlled by the powerful local chiefs of the Cenel Eogain, the Cenel Conaill, and the Ulaid. But in Louth that was under small local chiefs of the Oirgialla they were able to establish themselves at Carlingford, Annagassan and Drogheda.

             The Vikings, who by mid-century included some Danes, had nothing like the success in Ireland that they had in Scotland and England. T he relative immunity of Ireland, like Wales, may be due to the fact that England was a much greater and much richer prize, which attracted the Danes from the east and the Norse from the west. Their greatest success in Ireland was in Dublin where they controlled the whole of county Dublin and the coastal strip as far south as Arklow in Co. Wicklow. Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick had smaller territories in the immediate vicinity of the towns.

 Before the arrival of the Norse Dublin was only mentioned occasionally as the river-crossing near some monasteries. But thereafter it was mentioned with increasing frequency. It was to become a place of ever-increasing importance. When the Angevins made it their principal port and stronghold it became the most important place in Ireland.  The Viking territory would have been bounded on its western side by a line of bogs, on its southern side by mountains and woods, and on its eastern side by the sea. Only to the north was it vulnerable. But it never became more than a chiefdom of secondary rank like that of the Ulaid. About 841 the Norse constructed a defended area for their ships at a place called the Black Pool (Dub Linn) on a tidal creek of the Poddle a tributary of the Liffey below the ford called Ath Cliath. The pool was just east of the present Dublin Castle.

Olaf the White the son of a Norse king arrived at Dublin in 853, a small permanent settlement was constructed nearby, and he made an alliance with another Viking called Ivar and assumed the chieftainship of the town (Norse rulers, like the Irish, were given distinguishing epithets or simply ‘son of’.) He led out several petty raids against local tuatha, but the town concentrated more on trading. Gradually the Norse of Dublin got involved in the wars between the Irish chiefs. By the end of the ninth century they had become Christians. Ivar Ragnarson the Boneless (Beinlaus) who led a contingent of Danes was joint chief. Ivar’s family ruled Dublin down to 1042. In 873 commenced the attempt of the family of Ivar to conquer the Norse chiefdom of York. This division of effort meant that the Dublin Norse failed to conquer either Ireland or York. Sihtric Gale, grandson of Ivar Ragnarsson came to Dublin with the great fleet in 888 but went to Scotland in 902. He later returned. The Danes made few interventions into Ireland. The Danes, called the Black Foreigners Dubh Gall and the Norse the White Foreigners Finn Gall. The distinction was preserved in the place names Baldoyle and Fingall. [Top]

Economy and Society

             There was little in the way of either internal or external trade, but neither was quite absent. The great developments of the period, towns and money, were brought about by the Norse. Wine for the clergy and for the upper classes was one of the chief imports, along with iron, and salt, and among the exports to pay for them were still hides and wool and forest products like furs. Agriculture continued as in the preceding period. Bellamy notes that forest regenerated on some soils which had been cultivated with the mouldboard plough, which would indicate that techniques for maintaining fertility were not well understood. When fertility was reduced the new fields would be abandoned and used as rough pasture while new fields would have been cleared and ploughed. The use of the mouldboard plough would have been spreading in this period, but unlike in England there was probably little expansion on to heavy clay soils. Ireland basically consists of a heavily worn down limestone plateau with uncertain drainage. Much of the soil had been removed by glaciation, and had to be regenerated in the post-glacial period, and was composed largely of glacial drift, some of it quite fertile. Many areas could not be satisfactorily drained until arterial schemes involving much blasting of the underlying rock were undertaken in the nineteenth century. Drainage in any case did not become common in Europe before 1000 AD. Strict laws were made and imposed to prevent the felling of trees. As elsewhere in Europe this was probably to protect the hunting grounds of chiefs and lords. The aims of forest laws were to maintain lands suitable for hunting, namely open forest and parkland. If the woodland was too dense the hunters could not hunt. If there was not enough cover the beasts of the chase would not thrive. Cattle and pigs could be allowed to roam the forests but not sheep or goats, as these would nibble the young shoots and prevent regeneration of the forest. Large belts of thick woodland were also probably retained by the chiefs for defensive purposes. The general increase in the population was probably slight if any occurred at all. The effect of the Viking raids on the ordinary farmer was probably slight. He was growing little or nothing for the market, and the Vikings probably did not rob him more than the Gaelic chiefs. In most cases the Norse swift raiding parties would not stay in any place for long. In such a case the best strategy for the peasants was to leave sufficient food for them to find and move on.

             But the coming of the Norse brought enormous changes to Irish society, but in ways not always easy to pinpoint or measure. It was not a case, as earlier nationalist historians believed, that a golden age of peace, prosperity, and justice came to an end, to be replaced by spoliation and warfare. At the beginning there was little difference between the Gaelic chiefs and the Norse. The Norse had slightly better ships, and slightly better techniques of navigation. Having learned in a rougher school on the Continent where warfare was more than cattle-raiding they were probably better, more experienced, more ruthless, more daring, and more aggressive warriors. Raiding a thousand miles from home did not worry them, for they knew how to escape and find their way home. But a generation later the Irish warriors were probably their match.

             Rather, it would seem that they were a channel for foreign ideas which reached Ireland through them a hundred years earlier than they would have otherwise. The increase in trade they brought was probably not as significant as the development of trading towns. These towns would have been no larger than monastic towns, or the settlements around a chief's lios. But they were different in kind, for they held a number of warrior/merchants dedicated to trade and piracy. The isolation of Ireland from the rest of Europe was ended. It is true that the Irish Church had always kept up links with the Continent. But the Irish chiefs were no longer just fighting among themselves, they were fighting an enemy who was also strongly entrenched in Britain. It did not make the Irish chiefs less insular. Having conquered the Norse chiefdom of Dublin one would have expected the Irish chiefs to follow on and conquer the Norse settlements in Cumbria and York, but they did not. One reason could be that they were never secure enough at home to launch a campaign in Britain. Another might be that they never mastered the technique of the siege. All through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages town walls were a great protection against mobile raiders, as the Greeks had found at Troy. Still, the isolation was ended and the Irish chiefs knew they were but part of a wider field. [Top]

The Church

             The organised Christian Church had by this time been fully assimilated into Irish society, and it is doubtful if any pagans survived whether among the warrior or the learned classes. These latter were now Christian laymen. The Church in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe had attained to a crucial position in society. One only God was recognised, and so only one body of priests to deal with supernatural affairs, officially at least. (Resort to ‘; wise men’ and ‘wise women’ continued at least until the nineteenth century.). The supernatural could involve anything that could not be explained, or for which a supernatural intervention was required or sought. The clergy too could all read and write and so, even in secular affairs, had access to a wide body of secular knowledge. They could speak Latin, and so could travel to foreign countries, or as they might put it 'distant provinces' and be able to converse with the clergy in those parts. When Irish missionaries went abroad they could always speak at least to the local clergy until they learned the local language. Though there is no record of Irish bishops attending foreign synods or councils, or of foreign legates attending Irish ones, this ability freely to converse with foreign clergy meant that they never felt themselves cut off from Europe or strangers thereto. Rather they felt they were an integral part of Christendom. When Irish clerics in the middle of the century, at the height of the Viking wars, went to the Frankish empire for safety it was not a question of going into exile but of moving to a richer, safer province of Christendom. Rites were never as standardised as they were in the post-Tridentine period, so variations of rituals by the Irish abroad would not have called for much comment.

The pronunciation of Latin in the Church and among the learned classes slowly changed, but never to the same extent as the popular languages which were rapidly turning into French, Italian, Spanish, etc. the W sound gradually became the V sound. C before a slender vowel ceased to be K and became Ch. (In French and English it went on to be pronounced S.) But it is not easy to determine when these changes took place, as the writers of manuscripts did not distinguish between the sounds.

             We can surmise that, as in the rest of Europe, worship in the monasteries and in the cathedrals had become assimilated to each other, and had become progressively more elaborate. No longer would the prayers of the monks consist of a simple chanting of the psalms by a group of monks. We would expect the solemn chanting of the mass to be the focal element in the day, and the other offices to consist of longer readings and more elaborate chants. The public too would be admitted to these offices, but would no longer participate. As the churches were still wooden and were still being regularly burned there is no direct archaeological confirmation of this.  One can surmise too that processions came to form an important element in the worship. The various crosses and chapels in Irish monasteries would lend themselves to these even better than the cloisters of continental monasteries and cathedrals, or popular processions to the local shrine.

             It is significant that this period is precisely that of the great carved monastic crosses, which being made of stone survived, when all else was destroyed. The ornamentation on the crosses was no doubt typical of the ornamentation of the churches. Expounding the various scenes would have involved re-telling the original tales in the Bible and showing their application to the life of Jesus and to the life of the Christian. We should not look for a picture of the Church in decline but rather one blossoming in ritual and art and interwoven into society. One might argue that this was a debased Christianity unworthy of the name, but the point being made here is that Irish monasteries seem to have been centres of the religious life of the people as they were in the rest of Europe, and across the whole of Hindu and Buddhist Asia. As elsewhere in the world, they were centres of learning and art, however such learning might be defined, and of art. Monasterboice may be today a small collection of stone ruins and some high crosses, but then it would have consisted of a large collection of wooden buildings, huts, churches, outhouses, and so on. There would have been a community of monks, probably never very numerous, but many students, and many workers and artificers male and female attached to the monastery and living nearby. Corish notes that the diocesan clergy disappeared. Not all monks were priests, but now all priests were monks.

Learning and Literature

             The great collections of the laws had been made in the preceding centuries, and the scholars now confined themselves to glosses and annotations. The law then became fossilised and out of contact with changing social conditions. Nevertheless there was a gradual fusion of the two traditions of secular and ecclesiastical learning, and, as on the Continent, monastic copyists preserved much ancient secular material. Monastic annals, originally, bare records of events were filled out with genealogies. Once again this was following trends on the Continent, though the Irish monastic chroniclers never developed into historians like the later Matthew Paris (O’Corrain 74ff). The Book of Armagh (between 810 and 845) contains a complete New Testament from the ninth century, the Confessio of St Patrick, and the Lives of St Patrick by Muirchu and Tirechan. It was originally intended to be a computation of the date of Easter. Having a genuine relic of St Patrick doubtless boosted the church’s claim to precedence.  The version of the Latin Bible was the Old Latin not the Vulgate, indicating perhaps that the adoption of the Vulgate was far from complete in Ireland. (By the end of the eighth century, the adoption of the Vulgate was virtually complete in the Latin Church.) Armagh was pushing its claim to be the first see of St Patrick and consequently the archiepiscopal see for the whole of Ireland

             The monk Dicuil (d 825) produced an important work on the geography of the world, derived for the most part from ancient Roman or Byzantine authorities, but also including some details he had obtained from contemporary travellers. Among these latter was the famous observation that at midnight in Iceland at the summer solstice it was sufficiently bright to enable one to pick lice from one's shirt. (The shirt would have been of unbleached linen much the same colour as the louse.) There is no evidence that the authors he quotes were to be found in Irish monastic or cathedral libraries. But the commentaries on certain books of the New Testament by the other learned Irishman of the period, Sedulius Scotus, were drawn from the writings of the Church Fathers and these may have been available in Irish monasteries. Scotus Erigena (c. 850), a teacher and philosopher at the court of Charles the Bald, may have been from Ireland.


             The metal work did not maintain its high standard during the ninth century, but perhaps the best examples from the period did not survive. In manuscripts the extraordinary complexity of the Book of Kells was not maintained. A much simpler style is found in the Book of Armagh. On the other hand, the stonework on the great high crosses probably reached its peak in the middle of the ninth century with the great crosses at Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise. The earliest reliable reference to stone churches is in 788, and there were some stone buildings in important ecclesiastical centres like Armagh and Kells in the ninth century. The shape of the stone churches show us that simple box-like shape, common elsewhere in Europe during the eighth century was preferred shape for wooden churches as well. The distinctive round towers did not appear until the following century. [Top]

900 to 1000


             This century marked the lowest point in the decline of civilisation as marked by the presence of cities, markets, trade and manufactures, which followed the over-running of the western provinces of the Roman Empire by the Germanic-speaking tribes from beyond the frontier. Urban civilisation and trade continued in the Eastern Greek-speaking provinces, and also in those provinces in North Africa and the Middle East that had been over-run by the Arabs.

              Four events in the West, small and insignificant at first occurred in this century that marked the beginning of what we call the Middle Ages. The first was the foundation of the monastery of Cluny in 910, the second was the treaty between the Viking ruler Rollo in Normandy and the French king Charles the Simple in 911. Rollo became a Christian and accepted the French king as his overlord. The third was the accession to the throne of the German part of Charlemagne's empire of a Saxon ruler called Henry the Fowler who became Duke of Saxony in 912 and effectively the Holy Roman Emperor, and who restored effective order in Germany by beating off invasions of Danes, Wends, and Magyars. The fourth was the development of feudalism and the division of kingdoms into territories whose rulers owed personal loyalty to the king and not to their families and relatives. The tenth century saw the working out of these developments that paved the way to the much greater progress in the following century. One of the great military and social developments of the period was the introduction of the armed knight on horseback. These were particularly effective in pursuing small parties of raiders on foot. A war saddle with a single girth had been introduced into Western Europe in the sixth century, the stirrup and curb bit in the seventh, and iron horseshoes in the ninth. A horse needed large amounts of grain, so only rich people could afford them. Therefore a warrior on horseback had to be assigned sufficient land to allow him to maintain horses. As armour grew heavier so heavier horses had to be bred to carry the warriors. This in turn led to the development of feudalism, a system by which a Frankish king gave grants of land to nobles in return for military service.

             In Ireland, the great event was the development of Dublin, a town that within a few centuries was to become the political centre of Ireland. 

             The Byzantine Empire remained reasonably strong in Anatolia, Greece and parts of southern Italy, though Sicily was lost to the Muslims of Tunis. As the century advanced the Byzantines recovered lost territories in Crete and Cyprus.  The Arabic-speaking world became divided into various local emirates and caliphates that corresponded to the semi-independent dukedoms and counties in Europe. Their divisions did not lessen their effectiveness at raiding, and this century saw the most intense period of raiding from the south, as from the east and north. But the balance of power could change, and the Christian states did manage to hold out long enough to regain the initiative and finally to conquer the world. The Umayyad emirate controlled most of Spain except for the tiny Christian kingdoms of Leon and of the Basques in north western Spain. The drive to the north had been halted by Charles Martel in 732, but even Charlemagne was not able to drive the Muslims out of the north of Spain. By the end of the century the Fatimid caliphate controlled most of the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

             In eastern Europe various Slavic-speaking kingdoms or chiefdoms emerged, but there were also kingdoms of Turkish or Mongol origin like those of the Magyars and the Bulgars. The Magyars retained their language, but the Bulgars did not. As usual we are speaking of a small ruling elite. About this time the stirrup was finding its way into eastern Europe and the raiders mounted on horseback became as great a scourge as the Vikings in their long ships. The Vikings and Muslims were still raiding on foot after they landed from their light swift craft. This was the period when Burgundy, seemingly inaccessible was raided by the Vikings, Muslims, and Magyars in turn.  

             Charlemagne's empire had effectively split into three, the future kingdoms of France, Germany and Italy. But within these powerful nobles established virtually independent territories as in Brittany, Burgundy, Provence, and southern Italy. Charlemagne had been unable to develop an imperial civil and military service so under his weak successors the political structure reverted to what it had been before, a hierarchy of greater and lesser nobles as in the old German and Celtic systems. The titles they gave themselves in regions where the Romance languages had developed out of late Latin, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, were derived from military ranks in the late Roman army (duke from dux, count from comes) or from the late Latin for a barbarian chief (prince from princeps).

             The first part of Charlemagne's empire to recover from the decline that followed his death was East Francia or Germany. The last Holy Roman emperor descended from Charlemagne, Arnulf, died in 899. His son, Louis III the Child became king of Germany but not emperor, and died in 911. Conrad, Duke of Franconia, was then elected king of Germany, but not emperor. He was not effective. On his death in 918, Henry I the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, was elected king of Germany, and under the Saxon rulers the revival of Germany and western Europe commenced. (Though called 'Saxons' they were not the Saxons defeated by Charlemagne but descendants of the Frankish conquerors. They themselves spoke the Frankish dialect of German from which modern German is largely derived. The Franks who had crossed into Roman Gaul adopted Latin, which developed into French by 850.) The Magyars were decisively defeated at Lechfield in 955 leading to the adoption of Christianity there. The Saxon rulers brought the other German dukedoms under their control, and then conquered northern Italy. The prince of Poland paid his feudal homage.

             In the course of this century most of Italy came under the German Emperor, who dominions stretched from the Baltic to Naples. Most of the south of Italy was under the Byzantines, though Sicily was still under the Muslims, and there was a tiny remnant of the Lombard Kingdom in the centre. Italy was fairly tightly governed by the emperors, who often used local bishops as their agents.

             The Treaty of Verdun had effectively split off France from Germany in 843 and the rulers in France were incapable of either maintaining order or effective central control. The Vikings were called Normands in French and the territory ceded to them became known as Normandy. The Vikings, like the Franks before them, adopted the French language and customs and the only thing that distinguished them from the rest of France was the origin of the ruling families. As in the British Isles the raiders had made settlements and built towns so Normandy was the equivalent of the Norse kingdoms of Dublin or York. The Carolingian rulers of France were ineffective and resistance to the raiders devolved on the local magnates. In 787 the crown was offered to Hugh Capet, Duke of France, inaugurating the Capetian line that lasted until 1326. The king of France was less powerful than his great nobles, but gradually an effective royal administration was built up, though the monarchy remained weak for another two centuries. In southeast France, the dukedom of Burgundy maintained its independence of the French crown. The monastery of Cluny, and later the monastery of Citeaux were in Burgundy.

             Northern Italy came progressively under the Saxon rulers of Germany so that the Holy Roman Empire stretched from the borders of Denmark to the borders of Naples where the last remains of the Lombard Kingdom survived. [Top]


            England had been left in the best position of all by Alfred, at least as far as its western side was concerned. His son Edward the Elder who succeeded his father in 901 improved the English position. As usual, the succession was disputed but Edward emerged as master. In his reign Mercia was assimilated into Wessex, and the division of the kingdom into self-defending sections called shires was commenced. The reeve of the shire, the shire-reeve or sheriff, was appointed by the king, who naturally chose one of the most powerful nobles in the area to discharge the office. The immediate practical point was that if the king had to go to one part of his realm to repel an incursion of the Danes he had loyal officers in the shires who could raise a levy of the shire for local defence, which in turn became the county militia. This was a great gain for before local areas were defended by local chiefs who might not want to get involved if the raiders were not specifically targeting themselves. Or they might side with the invaders. Now, no matter where they went in the kingdom there was a royal official with the responsibility for raising a local levy to meet them. Unlike in central Europe, the raiders were still on foot, and there was no need to allocate lands for the maintenance of cavalry that led to the development of feudalism.  Alfred's policy of building royal burhs (burgh) or forts was extended, and pushed forward as the king made territorial gains. A burh was just a fort or fortified place in an advanced position that could be used as a place to store supplies and as a base from which to mount attacks. It needed to be sufficiently defensible to maintain itself until a relieving force arrived. Edward pushed the bounds of his kingdom as far as the Humber and received the submission of the Northumbrians, the Scots, and the British of Strathclyde. This, in accordance with the customs of the times, was not a permanent one but personal to the king and died with him.

             The expansion of Wessex continued under Edward’s son Athelstan who conquered the Danes of Northumbria. He received submission and tribute from Wales. He also took steps to control the British in the South West, in Devon and Cornwall, for though they had in theory been incorporated into Wessex nearly a century before he was not satisfied with their loyalty. He ruled his conquests through vassals and made no attempt to incorporate them into his kingdom. In 927 on the death of Sihtric of York he annexed the old chiefdom of Deira around York. This annexation was met in 937 by a coalition of Northumbrians, the Welsh of North Wales, the Scots under Constantine II of Scotland, and the Norse of Dublin under Olaf Godfreyson and Olaf Sihtricson. Athelstan defeated them at the battle of Brunanburh in Yorkshire. Olaf Sihtricson was in fact a nephew of Athelstan, for his father, Sihtric, a descendant of Ivar the Boneless had married a sister of Athelstan. Athelstan then granted Northumbria to Eric of the Bloody Axe, another Norseman, to hold against the Danes. It is clear that he feared the Danes more than the Norse.

             His policy was continued by Edmund the Deed-doer, half brother of Athelstan. As was usual at the time, he had to re-conquer most of the territory Athelstan had ruled. The two Olafs returned on the death of Athelstan in 939 but after some initial success Edmund expelled them.

             Almost a golden age for England occurred during the reign of Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) which was also the period of St Dunstan the great reforming archbishop of Canterbury. At one stage in his life Dunstan was forced into exile in Flanders where a monastic reform was in progress, and the Benedictine rule was being strictly interpreted. Edgar had him elected archbishop of Canterbury and he went to Rome to seek confirmation. On his return he became Edgar's chief minister and he pursued a policy of conciliation with the Danes. In Dunstan's time, though he was not responsible for it, the stricter observance of the Benedictine rule was introduced into many English monasteries from the Continent. The new observance brought about a revival of learning and the improvement of education. The disruption of religious life caused by the Vikings made this all the more necessary. The archbishop insisted that the parish clergy should instruct the faithful every Sunday, and passed other statutes for the improvement of the lives and morals of the clergy. Dunstan did not insist on a celibate clergy, though he said they should descend to the legal status of laymen as far as the courts were concerned. Penances imposed on the rich could include the building, endowing, and repairing of churches, the making of roads, bridges or causeways, assisting the poor the widows and the orphans, freeing his own slaves, or buying slaves to set them free.

 The Vikings had succeeded in uniting their homelands into three kingdoms that had the result that they were able to concentrate their attacks. For both the Danes and the Norse England was the great prize, the Danes concentrating on eastern England where their conquests were called the Danelaw, while the Norse concentrated on Cumbria and York, and they often fought each other for control. The interventions of the Danes in Ireland were negligible, but the Norse had established a powerful state in the Hebrides. The Hebridean Norse became famous warriors. At this stage various Viking rulers were accepting Christianity 

             The happy picture of England during the reign of Edgar the Peaceful was shattered during the reign of Ethelred the Unready 978-1016. (Unready means roughly badly-advised or rash). If England had been more or less united into one kingdom, so too had Denmark and Norway been united into separate kingdoms. It became a case not of minor raids but of Denmark against England. In 980 the Viking raids were renewed and grew in intensity, and many came to settle in England. The organised defences had lapsed and the king was forced to pay them thousand pounds of silver as 'Danegeld' to buy them off. In doing so, he set a precedent, and the 'Blackrent' became a feature of many parts of the British Isles. In Ireland, it would seem that the blackrent was the sole means of support of some of the minor chiefly families. During his reign St Oswald, archbishop of York, carried on the work of introducing the full observance of the Benedictine Rule to the North. Some members of the reforming party aided by various members of the nobility turned the married clergy out of the monasteries by force, but Oswald did not approve of this. The expelled secular clergy, if they got the opportunity, were likely to return with a different force of laymen and expel the monks who had supplanted them. In 972 he was made archbishop of York, a place described as a large city filled with merchants from many races, but especially Danes.

The kingdoms of the Picts and of the Scots had been united under Kenneth MacAlpine in 844, and the Scottish rulers controlled Scotland north of the firths of Forth and Clyde. (Firth is derived from Old Norse.) South of the firths, Strathclyde and Northumbria still were independent, and the Scottish rulers failed to conquer them. In alliance with them however, at various times, Kenneth's successors managed to prevent the Norse from securing a foothold on the Scottish mainland, the old Scottish territory of Dal Riada. In 908 Constantine II, the Scottish king, on the death of Donald the last British king of Strathclyde (at this time confined to Ayr, Galloway, and Dumfries), secured the election of his own brother Donald to the throne, and Strathclyde remained a subordinate kingdom until it was fully incorporated into the Scottish kingdom by Duncan I of the junior branch of the family on the death of Malcolm II in 1034. At which time the southern boundary of Scotland became fixed at the Solway Firth and the Tweed, the Northumbrian region of Lothian being acquired about the same time.

             The dominating figure in Wales at this period was Hywel Dda (the Good) of Ceredigion who was to peacefully unite most of Wales under his rule without becoming involved in the affairs of England or the Norse. He did continue to pay homage to the English king, but homage meant little more than the recognition of the Queen as head of the Commonwealth does today (Evans 142). Among his great achievements was to get the Welsh lawyers from every part of Wales to agree to a common code of Welsh law. Gavelkind, or the rule that on a man's death all his property, real or otherwise must divided among his sons, was adopted. This effectively prevented the formation of a Welsh kingdom. From the same period comes a Welsh poem of marked anti-English feeling, which promoted the unrealisable dream of a Celtic reconquest of the whole of Britain.

But the relative freedom of Wales from foreign attack came to an end in the second half of the century. The raids on the Welsh coasts and borders multiplied. Between 982 and 999 St David's was ravaged four times. The Norse succeed in establishing foothold at Swansea (supposedly Sven's Island) and Cardiff. After the death of Hywel Dda in 950 Wales split again into the differing chiefdoms. It was re-united forcibly by his grandson Marredudd ap Owain (d. 999?) whose rather short reign was troubled by numerous attacks of the Danes in the period of their greatest invasions.

If we ask ourselves what conditions were like in Western Europe during the tenth century we would find that they were not too bad. The achievements were less than those in the following centuries. But peaceful conditions were to be found everywhere as the century advanced. If an Irish cleric wished to travel to Rome he would have found it increasingly easier by land and sea. He could travel across Wales and southern England, cross to France, ascend the valley of the Seine past Paris, and then either cross into Germany where the emperor had control, or take the shorter route down the Rhone, and then by sea from Marseilles. The only source of tin in Europe was in southwest England, so tin merchants would have travelled from there all over Europe. [Top] 

Over-chiefs of Tara

Flann Sinna 879-916 of Clan Colmain, son of Mael Sechlainn

Niall Glundubh 916-919 of Cenel Eogain, son of Aed Finnliath

Donnchad mac Flainn 919-944 of Clan Colmain, son of Flann Sinna

Congalach mac Mael Mithig 944-956 of Sil nAedo Slaine, minor branch.

Donal Ardmacha ua Neill 956-980 of Cenel Eogain, grandson of Niall Glundub

Mael Sechlainn II 980-1002 of Clan Colmain, grandson of Donnchad mac Flainn 

             In Ireland Flann Sinna of Clan Colman was still the over-chief. In Munster, Cormac mac Cuillenain, the bishop of Cashel became over-chief of the Eoganacht. This was a period when the influence of the Ui Neill was at its height, and the power of Munster weak, and Cormac may have been appointed by Flann. If he had been he was not submissive, and in 905 and 906 repulsed attacks by Flann. In 907 he invaded Meath and defeated Flann near Tara and then invaded Connaught. He was defeated and killed by the Ui Neill and the Laigin in 908 after which the Eoganacht again relapsed into powerlessness. At the very end of Flann’s reign two of his sons revolted against him and he was only able to suppress the rebellion with the assistance of Niall Glundubh of the Northern Ui Neill.

             When Flann died in 916 he was succeeded by the active and warlike Niall Glundubh of the Northern Ui Neill, from who were descended the medieval family of the O’Neills. He revived the ancient meeting and games at Tailtiu in 916. He was not over-chief for very long, but his rule coincided with the period of renewed Viking expansion in Ireland. They had been active in England now for some decades against Ethelred the Unready. He fought an indecisive battle with the Norse of Waterford, and was compelled to retreat northwards back into Meath. He also fought the Norse, assisted by the Danes, of Dublin, whose chief was Sihtric, afterwards king of York. This was Sihtric Gale who returned to Dublin in 916 and successfully set about re-establishing Norse power. Niall had married a daughter of Flann Sinna, who had been previously married to Cormac, chief of Munster, and to Cerball chief of Leinster.  He was killed in battle with the Norse of Dublin.

             He was succeeded by Donnchad mac Flainn of Clan Colman. He defeated the Norse of Dublin in 920, now under Godfrey another grandson of Ivar, but failed to subdue them and for the next two decades they remained a major power and tried to extend their control over the other Norse settlements in Ireland. In 936 Donnchad burned Dublin, and in the following years he co-operated with Muircheartach of the Leather Cloaks of Cenel Eogain against them. The Eoganacht Caisil suddenly produced another powerful warrior. Cellachan Coir became chief of Cashel in 939 and afflicted the Ui Neill until his death in 954 shortly before the death of Congalach. While trying to deal with the revived Norse, Donnchad and Muirchertach had to deal with him as well. Donnchad was overshadowed as a warrior by Muircheartach (see below). Muircheartach was killed in 943 and Donnchad died the following year.

             The new overchief was surprisingly Congalach mac Mael Mithig chief of Brega of Sil nAedo Slaine who had been excluded by Clann Colman for nearly 200 years. He was challenged by Ruadhri Ua Cannanain of Cenel Conaill who had likewise been excluded for over two hundred years. Only disputes in the two major houses could allow two chiefs of the second rank to advance. Congalach was a considerable warrior and was allied with the Norse of Dublin under Olaf Cuaran Sihtricson, the most powerful Norse ruler in Ireland. When he finally defeated Ruadhri he marched south and defeated the rising Dal Cais. But he quarrelled with the Norse who thereafter supported the Leinstermen and Cenel Eogain. In 956 Congalach forced the Leinstermen to submit, but the following year he was killed by an alliance of the Cenel Eogain, the Laigin, and the Norse of Dublin (O’Corrain 118).

             Donal O’Neill of the Cenel Eogain succeeded as overchief. In his time he was called Donal Ardmacha but was also the first in his family to be called O’Neill. He was the second son of Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks and grandson of Niall Glundubh. He harried the Norse everywhere in the north. In 962 Donal had light boats constructed that could be carried overland to Lough Ennell. This is a lake in Westmeath, south of Mullingar, on whose shore was a monastery destroyed by the Norse. Presumably the Norse camp could only be approached by water. The Cenel Eogain had heavily defeated the Oirgialla at Let Cam in 827 and had a hall in Armagh by 870 from which presumably his cognomen is derived. The Irish chiefs now, as was the custom of noblemen everywhere in Europe, tried to dominate and control the church by getting their own supporters elected bishops. Donal was also a patron of the church in Armagh, promoted learning there and gave valuable gifts to it. He was at war on more than one occasion with Clan Colmain, and it seems that he was trying to exclude them from the overchiefdom of Tara. He also fought the usual opponents, the Laigin, the Norse of Dublin, and Cenel Conaill. He died in Armagh in 980 after a long period of penance for his sins. Had he been able to conquer Clan Colman, where between 944 and 975 there were nine chiefs of Uisneach, Ireland might have been united under him. This was probably the greatest chance the northern Ui Neill ever had of achieving a kingship of Ireland. He was one of the greatest warriors the Cenel Eogain ever produced, but apart from Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn d 1166, he was the last of that family to become overchief.

             He was succeeded in 980 as overchief by Mael Sechlainn II of Clan Colmain a grandson of Donnchad mac Flainn. The latter's mother was a daughter of Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks. He was probably the greatest warrior of his family, but he too was also the last to hold the overchiefship of Tara. After the succession of weak and short-lived chiefs Clan Colmain was powerful again. Unlike the O’Neills in the north who remained powerful provincial chiefs until the reign of James I, the lands of Clan Colmain were over-run by the Normans, and by other powerful enemies. The family survived as minor chiefs, the O'Mellaghlins, until the reign of Elizabeth. His first act was to make an alliance with the Ulaid against the Dublin Norse and he smashed their power at a battle near Tara. This battle proved to be the end of the power of the Norse of Dublin built up over many years by Olaf Curaun. In 982 he invaded Munster to try to check the rising power of the Dal Cais under Brian Boru. Though he defeated him he did not prevent the power of Brian growing. He fought many battles in Leinster, Connaught and Munster without gaining any permanent advantage. By this time warfare between the provincial chiefs had become general. Increasingly, he became involved in a struggle with Brian, though the end of the century saw them in alliance. But in 1002 Brian forced him to give hostages and so was recognised as the supreme chief in Ireland. Brian, undoubtedly the ablest war leader of his time, remained king of Ireland until 1014, after which Mael Sechlainn was again recognised as king. He was the last of his family to become over-chief of Tara.

             The ri ruirech, or provincial chief, had emerged. In the next century Irish warfare was dominated by the O’Briens in Munster, the O’Connors in Connaught, the MacLoughlins in Ulster, the O’Mellaghlins in Meath, and the MacMurroughs in Leinster. Each of these in turn was dominant, and the central theme of Irish history is no longer the oscillation of power among the Ui Neill, but the dominance of each province in turn. [Top]

The Provinces

             In Ulster at the beginning of the century after the death of Niall Glundubh, his son Conaing is recorded as having slain 1,200 of the Ulaid near Lough Erne. At some time in this century the O’Neills shifted their main stronghold from Aileach to Tullaghogue near Cookstown in County Tyrone. The chiefs were still called chiefs of Aileach or chiefs of the North. Inis Eogain became part of Tir Conaill (Tyrconnell otherwise Donegal), of the Cenel Conaill, while the lands of the Oirgialla in mid-Ulster became known as Tir Eogain (Tyrone). As the century advanced Aileach became increasingly unimportant. The ancestral lands in Inishowen were now held by a junior branch, later called the O’ Mulfoyles of Clan Fergus. The O’Neill rulers of Tullaghogue/Aileach were of the MacLoughlin branch, but the descendants of Conaing were still the local chiefs at Tullaghogue in the eleventh century.  Conaing was overshadowed as a warrior by his younger brother Muircheartach of the Leather Cloaks who on the death of Conaing in 937 became chief of Aileach. Already in 927 he slew a rebellious chief of the Cianacht. The beginning of his reign was not auspicious for he was surprised in his fort at Aileach by the Vikings who carried him to their ships in Lough Swilly. He escaped, gathered his own fleet, and pursued the Norse to their stronghold in the Hebrides.

             In 944 he made his famous plundering mid-winter circuit of Ireland, having carefully provided his raiders with leather cloaks. All winter campaigns in Ireland depended on the ground being frozen hard, and this occurred very infrequently. All the chiefs, wherever he went, were caught off-guard. He took the local chiefs as hostages back to Aileach before sending them to his father-in-law Donnchad mac Flainn. His second wife was a daughter of the chief of the Osraige. He was killed in battle at Ardee in 943 in a battle against Blacar, the Norse chief of Dublin His daughter Donnflaith married firstly Donal chief of the southern Ui Neill, and secondly Olaf Cuaran, the Norse chief of Dublin. Olaf had married firstly a daughter of Constantine II king of Scotland, then a sister of the overchief of Leinster, and thirdly, the daughter of Muircheartach. These marriages illustrate the alliances of the period. He was succeeded as chief of Aileach in 943 by his son Donal Ardmacha mentioned above who became the overchief at Tara in 956 and ruled until 980. Donal's first son Muircheartach Midach died before him, being killed in a battle with his uncle Olaf Cuaran of Dublin. His second son was Muiredach, and Muiredach's second son was called Lochlann. For over a century Lochlann's family, the MacLochlainns or MacLoughlins were the most powerful branch of the Cenel Eogain until the last of them, Donal MacLoughlin and most of his relatives were slain by Brian O’Neill in 1241. Then the chieftainship returned to the main line of the O’Neills. The chieftainship of the O’Neills was still elective, and the descendants of Donal, the older brother of Niall Glundubh, could still be elected chief of Aileach. Donal Ardmacha's third son, Aed, became chief of Aileach in 989 and was killed in battle against the Ulaid in 1004.

             The Cenel Eogain were dominant in Ulster all through the century, but do not seem to have made many territorial gains, though the lands around Tullaghogue appear to have been acquired before the end of the century. These lands seem to have been added to the holding of the chief of Aileach for the descendants of Conaing, of Lochlainn, and of Niall Glundubh were all at times chiefs of Tullaghogue, but not necessarily chiefs of Aileach. The lands had formerly belonged to the Ui Tuirtre of the Oirgialla. In the eleventh century these latter are found east of the Bann. The last Ui Tuirtre chief of the Oirgialla died in 919, so the Cenel Eogain could have seized their lands any time after that date. Probably during the tenth century too a junior branch of the Cenel Eogain, Clan Conor of Magh Ithe (later O’Cahans) began to seize the lands of the Cianacht of Glengiven (around Dungiven, Co. Tyrone). There is no record of this conquest most of which probably took place in the following century, but at the end of the process, the various branches of Clan Conor, the O’Cahans, O’Mullans, O’Carolans, and McCloskeys, were well established in Co. Derry, and the Cianacht had ceased to exist. It would seem too that the Cenel Eogain was under pressure from a branch of the Cenel Conaill (the O’Dohertys) in Inishowen. The old Cenel Eogan lands in Inishowen were now held by the Mulfoyles of the Cenel Fergus. The Cenel Conaill did not finally drive these out until the beginning of the twelfth century (Mullin and Mullan).

This illustrates a point we find elsewhere in Ireland at other times. A piece of territory could only be held if the local defences by the local residents were strong. If the local sub-chiefs were weak, or the local chief often absent, the lands could be lost to a determined aggressor. On the other hand, if the defenders were staunch it was virtually impossible to seize their lands. Some boundaries of chiefdoms could remain virtually unchanged for centuries, while in other cases lands seem to have been seized and held fairly easily. Among the Ulaid the dominant family the Dal Fiatach had an almost exclusive grip on the chieftainship, and in the Middle Ages were to become the O’Donlevys. The Ulaid remained unbroken until a family dispute allowed in the Normans

 In Meath the chief points of interest was the revival of Sil nAedo Slaine that coincided with a weak period for Clan Colmain. The challenge of the Norse of Dublin revived, and they were most concerned with warfare in Meath. The Norse also managed to establish themselves at Drogheda at the mouth of the Boyne. Like many of the successful Norse settlements it was at a defensible spot near the mouth of a navigable river, but several miles from the sea. These provided safe bases for either raiding or trading. Presumably, a point was selected which a fully laden sea-going merchant vessel could reach over sandbars and mudbanks at normal high tides. All these channels had to be extensively dredged and straightened in modern times.

In Leinster there was little change in this century except for the growing power of Ossory at one side and the Norse of Dublin and Wexford on the other side. The coast between Drogheda and Waterford was the region where the Norse settlements were most plentiful. Like the Ulaid, the Laigin were still a powerful and cohesive group. They were very much exposed to attacks from Dublin, especially in the first half of the century, but in the second half the power of Dublin decreased. The Norse had established themselves along the coast that apparently was thinly inhabited, and at Wexford where there was quite a large Norse settlement. Any town or large settlement had to have quite extensive ‘fields’ surrounding it for the sowing of crops and the rearing of animals. Wexford possessed quite a good harbour. The three branches of the Ui Dunlainge, the Ui Dunchada, the Ui Faelain, and the Ui Muiredaig, from the northern part of the province, had a virtually unbreakable hold on the overchieftainship that they held from 738 to 1033.

             The chief event in Munster was the decline in the second half of the century of the Eoganacht of Cashel and the rise of the Dal Cais, originally a branch of the Deisi. There were powerful secondary Norse settlements in Waterford and Limerick, and the Eoganacht overchiefs could do little about them. The power of the Eoganacht declined shortly before that of Clan Colmain and Cenel Eogain. One should not exaggerate this change. Firstly the Eoganacht of Cashel had been powerful only at irregular intervals. The other point is that the Dal Cais were a powerful chiefdom for a relatively short period, for just over a century later they were displaced by a similarly short-lived dynasty of the O’Connors of Connaught. For most of their existence the O’Briens and the O’Connors were secondary chiefdoms like Cenel Conaill (O’Donnell). In the heyday of the O’Briens they were overlords of most of Munster as the O’Neills were of most of Ulster.

             The beginning of the century saw another revival of the power of the Eoganacht of Cashel when Cormac mac Cuillenain, the local bishop, became chief of Cashel in 902. The rock itself was crowned by a small stone fort and a small church that was the bishop's cathedral. The present building on the rock, called Cormac’s chapel, had not yet been built. (It was built in the twelfth century by Cormac MacCarthy.) Cormac resisted Flann Sinna the overchief of Tara, who then led an army into Munster. In 907 Cormac defeated Flann's army at Mag Lena and he invaded Meath and Connaught. He was killed the following year by a combination of the Ui Neill and Laigin. It is recorded that he was killed when his horse slipped when he and a few companions were fleeing on horseback. 

             No other powerful chief emerged in Munster until Cellachan Coir became chief of Cashel in 939. He gathered an army from among his own followers, the Deisi, and the Vikings of Waterford, and ravaged the borders of Meath. Donnchad mac Flainn then took hostages from Munster, and the following year Muircheartach of the Leather Cloaks, on his circuit of Ireland captured Cellachan in mid-winter and sent him a prisoner to Donnchad. He was set free but was soon engaged in conflict with the western Deisi, the Dal Cais. In 944 he defeated their chief Cennetig (Kennedy) mac Lorcain and slew two of his sons. Cellachan died peacefully in 954. He was the last notable chief of the Eoganacht to rule from Cashel. (The O’Callaghans were descended from a great-great grandson of his.)

             In 950 Congalach, chief of Tara attacked the Dal Cais and slew two more of Cennetig's sons. He too clearly regarded the Dal Cais as a growing threat. The Deisi had established themselves west of the Shannon at an early date, but did not become important for a long time. At the beginning of the tenth century they, like many other ruling families began to conquer and occupy the lands of weaker neighbours. One branch attacked the lands of the Corcu Modruad to their north. Cennetig mac Lorcain was of this branch, and he became chief of the Dal Cais by 934. By the time of his death in 951 the Dal Cais were beginning to be respected. A son who succeeded him was killed by a rival branch of the Dal Cais and another son Mathgamain (Mahon) became chief. As there was no powerful contender from the Eoganacht Caisil Mathgamain and Mael Muad of the Eoganacht Raithlind contended for the chieftainship of Cashel. Each gathered supporters. Mael Muad gained the support of Donnuban (Donovan) of the Ui Fidgente of Limerick and of the Norse of Limerick. In 976 Mael Muad was victorious and became overchief. This was the origin of the struggle between the Dal Cais and the Norse that was to culminate at Clontarf half a century afterwards. Later it was to be claimed that Brian Boru was the great native champion against the foreigners. But it was just that the Norse of Limerick backed the losing side. In 967 Mathgamain defeated them at Sulchoid. He had ambitions to conquer and occupy their town at Limerick. By 972 he was equal in power with Mael Muad and the chief of the Deisi of Waterford. The Eoganacht Raithlind and the Ui Fidgente of Limerick then combined with the Norse of Limerick. Donnuban captured him and handed him over to Mael Muad who killed him. His younger brother Brian than attacked Mael Muad in 978 and became nominal overlord of Munster. In the next twenty five years Brian Boru, one of the greatest warriors ever produced in Ireland was to increase the power of the Dal Cais until he was master of the whole of Ireland, the very first to achieve that.             

             Brian had first to establish himself in Munster and this he did in successive battles until all the principal chiefs who opposed him had been conquered. Brian then tried to subdue the Osraige, but Mael Sechlainn of Tara came to their aid and ravaged the territories of the Dal Cais. Brian seems to have avoided a direct battle at this time. He entered into an alliance in 984 with the Norse of Waterford to attack the Osraige and the Ui Chennselaig chiefs of the Laigin, and was successful. He spent the next few years securing his power in Munster before venturing to attack Mael Sechlainn of Tara in 988. The warfare between them went on for several years. Though unable at first to beat Clan Colmain he was not himself seriously defeated and his power in Munster grew. In 997 the two chiefs agreed to share the island and co-operated with each other. At the very end of the century the Laigin, now subject to Brian, allied themselves with the Norse of Dublin, and revolted. They were defeated easily enough by Brian whose troops then plundered Dublin.

             There was not much change in the rest of Munster. The Norse towns of Waterford and Limerick had a certain amount of land around their towns to feed themselves, and were quite considerable military powers though not of the same rank as Dublin.  In 930 the Vikings of Limerick tried to establish themselves in the lands of the Osraige. A new settlement was made at Cork in 917 which never became of great importance in itself, but like Dublin and Limerick was to be adopted as their capital town by the more powerful Gaelic chiefs. Most of the chiefs saw the advantages of taking over and controlling the towns and their trade. The Cenel Eogain was unique in wiping out the Viking settlements. The importance of Drogheda dates from the Angevin or Plantagenet period. But for the moment the Norse towns, though at times minor players, were independent. The Ciaraige remained a chiefdom of the second rate into the early Middle Ages, but the Ui Fidgente in Limerick split into two about 950 and then divided into petty chiefdoms. This aided the spread of the Dal Cais, and also much later the spread of the Anglo-Normans. The Eoganacht Locha Lein around Killarney continued to decline, but most of the other Eoganacht families were growing in importance at the expense of their lesser neighbours. This was a very slow process and usually not recorded in the annals. We just notice when particular families who once occupied an area are not mentioned again, and other names appear in their place. The Deisi of Waterford were still powerful. The monastic cities of Lismore, Cork, and Emly, were powerful enough for Brian Boru to demand hostages from them. The Muscraige in north Tipperary were still independent and were defeated by Mael Sechlainn in 989.

             Connaught still had not emerged from the shadows but there were growing signs of the increasing power of the Ui Briuin. The Sil Muiredaig branch of the Ui Briuin Ai had firmly established themselves as the dominant power in Connaught and were to survive into the Middle Ages as the O’Connors. From 882 until 1224 they provided 16 out of the twenty over-chiefs of Connaught. All the over-chiefs in the 12th century were from the same family. The Ui Briuin Seola declined in power but as the O’Flahertys remained a powerful local family in the Middle Ages. The Ui Briuin Breifne were also growing in power but still remained in their original home in Leitrim. Their expansion eastwards into north Meath came later. Fergal ua Ruairc, from whom the O’Rourkes of Breifne became over-chief in 956, one of the few not from Sil Muiredaig. Donal Ardmacha before he was overchief of Tara attacked Connaught from the direction of Lough Erne and took hostages from its chiefs. On this occasion Donal carried light boats from Lough Neagh to Lough Erne, using available waterways where possible. Later he repeated the feat against the Norse on Lough Ennel. The interventions of the Ui Neill were largely to counteract the expansion of the Dal Cais up the Shannon. [Top]

The Vikings

The tenth century saw the great period of Norse settlement in Ireland. Dublin was more or less re-founded in 902, Drogheda founded in 911, Waterford in 915, Cork in 917, Wexford around the same time and Limerick in 922. There were also settlements in Wicklow and Arklow. They made attempts to develop their base at Carlingford and to ravage the country as far as Armagh. In this attempt they were prevented by a young warrior of the Cenel Eogain, later known as Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks in 926, but Muirchertach had to retire when Godfrey of Dublin brought up a fresh contingent. Large fleets descended on the Irish coasts from 914 onwards, chiefly it would seem that the development of strong monarchies in Britain made that place unattractive, especially to those who were seeking land. Only in Waterford and Limerick, apart from Dublin, did they succeed in capturing much territory. Around Dublin itself, the present county Dublin would seem to mark the extent of their gains. In addition the Norse raids were resumed. The distribution of the raids was however much the same as in the previous phase, with large parts of Ireland never attacked. By this time however, the Irish chiefs, like Alfred in England, were acquiring their own fleets to meet and defeat the Norse and Danish fleets at sea, and on the rivers and lakes. They also imitated their tactics of carrying their boats overland to the next piece of open water.

Meath saw a revival of Sil nAedo Slaine, but more importantly the rise of the Norse kingdom of Dublin. It was the disputes between the branches of Sil nAedo Slaine combined with a temporary weakness of Clan Colmain that gave the Norse of Dublin their chance in Meath. The Norse had between them even fewer names than the Irish, so their added names are still more important. Scribes however did not always add them. Divisions and disputes weakened the Norse of Dublin, and in 902 the chiefs of Brega and the Laigin combined to burn Dublin and expel the Norse. Sihtric Gale returned to Ireland in 916, re-conquered and re-occupied Dublin in 918 and together with Ivar the Norse chief of Dublin slew Niall Glundub at Kilmashogue in 919.

Sihtric then went to York where he was chief from 921 and married the sister of Athelstan. Olaf Curaun was one of his sons. His brother or cousin was called Godfrey, and he ruled in Dublin in the early part of the 10th century. His son Olaf Godfreyson succeeded him as chief of Dublin in 934. In this period of Norse expansion he raided far and wide, though his city was burned, probably in his absence, by Donnchad mac Flainn of Clan Colmain. In 937 he joined Olaf Sihtricson in England and was on the losing side in the battle of Bruanburgh against Athelstan. He escaped back to Dublin. Again Dublin was burned by Donnchad, which shows that the defences were very flimsy, the Vikings relying more on flight in their boats

. In 938 Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks ravaged their territory, but the following year a Viking fleet from Lough Swilly burned Aileach and captured Muirchertach who however escaped. He gathered his own fleet and pursued the raiders to the Hebrides and plundered their islands. In 940 Olaf accepted an invitation by the Northumbrians to be the chief of York.

 At the same time in Dublin was Olaf Sihtricson, known as Olaf Curaun (of the sandal or hairy sandal). On the death of his father Sihtric chief of York or Deira in 927, Athelstan annexed the territory. Along with Olaf Godfreyson he made an attempt to drive out Athelstan but failed. Ten years later in 937 he and Godfrey allied themselves to Constantine II of Scotland, and some of the Welsh but were defeated at Brunanburgh. It seems that Olaf Curaun joined the other Godfrey in Dublin and shared in his battles. He was also apparently joint chief of the Northumbrians with Olaf Godfreyson and then with Reginald Godfreyson. They made their peace with the English king Edmund and became Christians. In 944 they rebelled, were defeated and expelled from England. Olaf Curaun turned his attention to Dublin now under Blacar Godfreyson and secured the supremacy of the Dublin Norse in Ireland. He allied himself at first with Congalach of Sil nAedo Slaine but later with Tuathal chief of the Laigin and slew Congalach in 956.

His career, and the power of the chiefdom of Dublin, came to an end in 980 when Mael Sechlainn II smashed the power of the Norse at Tara, and Olaf's son along with many other leading chiefs and warriors were slain. He died on a pilgrimage to Iona the following year. Two of his sons succeeded him as Norse chiefs of Dublin, but the power of the Norse of Dublin ended with him. His widow, and then his daughter Maelmuire, married Mael Sechlainn II that seems to imply that Mael Sechlainn valued the alliance very much. (Others consider that Maelmuire was the daughter of Sihtric, chief of Dublin.) After 989 the Norse were forced to pay an annual tribute to Mael Sechlainn. This appears to have driven the Norse firmly into the camp of the Laigin. By 1014 the Norse of Dublin were allied with the Laigin and the Osraige against Mael Sechlainn so he fought on Brian's side. Brian Boru in his turn was to take a Norse wife, and to give an Irish one to Sihtric, chief of Dublin. In 989, Sihtric Olafsson Silkbeard became the chief of the Norse of Dublin. His mother was a sister of Mael Morda, the Ui Faelain overchief of Leinster [Top]

Economy and Society

             In warfare the Norse were better equipped and better trained than the Irish. The Irish were not given to fighting wars; they were essentially cattle-raiders. The aim was to make a surprise attack and withdraw with the booty. If necessary to subdue an opponent, prolonged raiding was carried out. Battles were not always avoided, but such battles were not necessarily bloody. One side or the other might flee before the battle commenced or shortly after the clash occurred. The Irish chiefs preferred to have the Norse on their side rather than against them. The Irish chiefs were to employ the descendants of the Norse of the Isles, the gallowglasses or redshanks, until the seventeenth century. We must not let nineteenth century nationalist ideology confuse us at this point. The word Norse described a political and linguistic unit not a racial one. The Norse, when the first arrived in Ireland, perhaps had not more than one grandparent actually born in Scandinavia. Like all roving warriors they took their women wherever they found them. By the year 1000, the number of Norsemen in Ireland all of whose ancestors were born in Scandinavia were probably few, even if any existed. Gaelic and Norse were probably equally spoken in Dublin. The Norse were freely intermarrying with the Irish.

             The tactic on the Gaelic side never seems to have changed from the Gaulish invasions of Italy until the battle of Prestonpans in 1745 (or Arklow and New Ross in 1798). The most powerful group would have been placed in the middle opposite the strongest part of the opponents’ force. Both sides would have placed weaker elements on either side of the main group. They rushed forward in a body, hacking and thrusting with edged weapons until the other side gave way. The Norse technique was not different, but their weapons and armour were rather better. Some had a form of chain mail made of interlinked iron rings, and had axes, swords, spears and bows. The axes were short-handled and were especially useful on board ship, but were no less useful in a tight melee on land where the long sword was unhandy. They possessed long, straight, broadbladed swords. The swords of the Irish originally were shorter, but the longer Viking sword was probably used as well. Both sides fought on foot. Both sides had bowmen but made little use of them. The favourite missile weapon was the spear or javelin. The spear was unhandy in a melee or close fight, so it would have been thrown before the battle was joined. Most spears would have been used for hunting. Some of the Irish had helmets but no body armour. For defence they relied on the shield. As usual it is difficult to get an idea what actually happened in a fight; no writers described it. It is clearly impossible for a man to wield a sword or axe continuously for several hours. More than likely, if the battle was not won in the first twenty minutes or half hour, the attacking side would try to draw off.

             The Vikings relied on attack in battle, but for defence chiefly on their ships. Their towns were no better defended than were the raths or lioses of the Irish. In the next century various Irish chiefs began to construct the defended fort or burgh after the manner of Alfred. Wooden fences and forts have their uses and were widely used by the European colonies up until the twentieth century. But these walls must be defended with missiles, stones, spears, or arrows, or they are easily burned down. The Irish, who never developed the techniques of the siege had no difficulty in capturing Dublin once the Viking army was defeated outside its walls. 

             The economy of Ireland did not change much during the Viking period. There was probably more trade but the traded goods had not changed much for thousands of years. It is probable that the regression in agriculture noted in the preceding century continued, and tillage declined while cattle-rearing increased. This would have been marginal for the society was largely pastoral.

             The Vikings were to have a powerful influence on the development of the Irish economy. They were not economically or technically advanced when they first arrived, but their societies were able to adopt new developments on the Continent faster than the Irish societies and they introduced these developments to Ireland. From primitive farmers, fishermen and raiders, they became traders, built towns, introduced coinage, and became Christians. Their ships were somewhat better than those in Ireland, but were easily copied. Indeed many words connected with shipping and fishing were adopted into the Gaelic language from Norse. The use of boats in warfare was not unknown in Ireland, but their use increased greatly in the Viking period. Like all sea traders working on foreign coasts they had to fortify their settlements to preserve them from being looted by the local chiefs. It would seem that most of the foreign trade in Ireland became concentrated in their towns, whether the ships were of Norse or other origin. Foreign textiles and leatherwork were looted from Limerick. It would seem too that they controlled the lucrative slave trade and the wine trade. The Friesians had been trading in fish, beer, wine, salt and metals, and the Vikings extended this trade. Goods from Byzantium could have come along trades routes controlled by the Vikings through Russia and the Baltic. Again it is not necessary to assume that the ships which carried these articles were Norse for a Viking town would act as a magnet to traders. Words connected with markets and coinage came into Gaelic from the Norse.

             The Norse began to use coins in Ireland in the early tenth century, using English coins, and in 995 the Norse of Dublin established their own mint. But later, as the power of the Dublin Norse declined the Irish appear to have reverted to barter (O’Corrain 104 ff)

              At this time Bellamy notes many laws were passed to prevent the felling of trees. We can assume these laws were passed by the nobles and were aimed at the farmers and peasants. We can assume that like similar forest laws of the Normans they were designed to protect the chief interests of the chiefs, hunting and warfare, or possibly for their house-building. As houses and churches were regularly raided and burned, a regular supply of long, strong timber would have been required for the houses of the rich. The houses of the ordinary people would have been made from scrub. Ships too were becoming increasingly important, while every rath or lios had to be defended by a strong wooden stockade. Hunting required rather open country with stands of trees and coverts, but dense woodland was useless for hunting. A forest means an open woodland kept for hunting.  Dense woodlands on the boundaries of the chiefdom would always have been carefully maintained and no cutting of any timber at all permitted. By plashing the timber, i.e. felling trees and branches in a line so that they interlaced, the passage of invaders through the boundary forests would have been slowed. Of course large stands of good timber survived in parts of Ireland until the seventeenth century. The Great Earl of Cork made much money selling timber from the lands he had acquired. But it is likely that they only survived because of their remote and inaccessible sites. However it should be noted that the Ui Neill seem to have been able to carry boats from Lough Erne into Connaught. The wars between the Provinces seem to indicate that the woods were becoming more open.

             It is unlikely that there were any great changes in Irish agriculture, or that the new technologies like the stirrup, the nailed horseshoe, the padded harness, or the watermill made much difference to the bulk of the farmers. Monasteries certainly had watermills and no doubt too the farms of the greater chiefs. The mills seem to have been horizontal, but some arrangement would have to be made to ensure that a swift current always struck the blades. They were probably located on the outside of a bend in the river where the water was deeper and the current swifter. They were very inefficient, as the blades on the other side of the wheel would have to move back through still water or perhaps through a backward flowing eddy. (A solution could have been to channel the running water round a U-bend so that it passed the blades on both sides.) A horizontal mill drove the grindstone directly, without any need for gearing.  They would not have interfered with fishing rights, rights to water cattle, or navigation rights. As labour was so cheap there was little need for them or indeed for other labour saving devices. Some farms too had corn-drying kilns almost certainly used in connection of malting barley to make ale. It is possible that some specialisation in agriculture was taking place with perhaps exchanges between milk products, grain products, and forest products. The Vikings introduced their own breeds of sheep and cattle, but it is not clear to what extent they influenced the local breeds. The chances are that they influenced the breeds owned by the monasteries and the great chiefs, the classes most likely to follow what was seen as the superior Norse fashions. The other farmers would have used the cheapest scrub bull, as they were to do until the twentieth century. Hay was still not made, and farmers relied on their being a sufficiency of dried grass and leaves in the winter pastures. [Top]

The Church

             There were no particular changes or developments in the Church in this century which have not been mentioned earlier, but the primacy of Armagh seems to have been increasingly recognised. When the Munster chiefs wished to claim the overchieftainship of Tara they had to give some form of recognition to the claim. All the offices in the Church became hereditary, but only in the sense that the chieftainship was hereditary. In other words, the bishop, priest, abbot or abbess could only be chosen from the ruling or other specified family. More importantly the lands belonging to a monastery or diocese were under the control of a lay steward or erenagh. This period was the heyday of the coarb and the erenagh. The coarb was the legal successor of the founder of the see and in possession of its lands and associated rights, but he was not necessarily a bishop. The problem with coarbs arose when the reforming clergy wished to choose a person who was not from the family from whom the bishops were normally selected. It may have been the case too that the coarb, a married layman, never took orders but had another relative consecrated bishop to discharge the religious duties. Or he could have applied to the bishop of a neighbouring tuath to act when necessary.  The erenagh was the steward of the lands. They were laymen, but retained some of the duties of the clerics. They were supposed to maintain some pretence of learning, and to dispense some hospitality, to pay some revenues to the bishop or abbot, and to help with the upkeep of the churches. It does not seem that the situation in Ireland was much different from that on the Continent where most Church property was controlled by the laity. It was precisely this control of Church property by the laity that led to the Hildebrandine reform. In the early Middle Ages all offices, like king's butler or king's poet, tended to become hereditary. 

Learning and Literature

             O’Corrain notes that whereas Irish art was profoundly influenced by the Vikings Irish literature was not (107ff). The tales in the Ulster cycle that in their present form derive from this period show little Viking influence. The are more references to them in the more popular cycle of Finn and the Fianna. One effect of the raids however was to shift the centres of redaction of the tales from the monasteries of the north east to those of the more sheltered midlands. The school in Armagh was retained but its scholars devoted themselves to promoting the primacy of their see. A person called the fer leigind or chief scholar controlled monastic schools. The Culdee reform movement that produced a fresh approach to literature also re-located itself away from the east coast into the southern midlands. From there about this time began the collections of mixed history, hagiography, folklore, myths, and propaganda as applied to Ireland which was to become such an enduring feature of Irish accounts of the past. The theme itself, of a group seeing itself as a holy and chosen people beset by powerful nations who are themselves the enemies of God, is as old as the earliest books of the Bible. Probus, who wrote a Life of St Patrick, was probably a teacher at a school in the monastery at Slane. He added an account of the Roman mission of Patrick and tried to write a more plausible account than that of Muirchu moccu Machteni. 


             The most distinctive of all pieces of Irish architecture, the round towers, date from this period, though why they were built is a mystery. They were intended as bell towers, though why the Irish church should suddenly decide to build campaniles in a round form cannot be explained. It is possible that they were copied from similar towers in northern Italy. They could also have been intended as places of defence, and may at times have been so used. But without parapets they would have been indefensible and liable to attack by undermining or by fire carried by arrows. Probus was said to have perished in this manner. Yet the fact that the doors were all placed some distance above the ground that some kind of protection, perhaps for the sacred vessels, was intended. References to them are found from 948 onwards.

             The carving of the high crosses continued, but almost exclusively in the northern part of the island, and with the quality of the carving declining. Biblical scenes were no longer carved after the middle of the 10th century. When the carving of crosses was resumed in the twelfth century either a single figure was carved or abstract patterns of lacing.

             The quality of the metal work too declined in the course of the 10th century. But as it was of high quality later in the 11th century it could be that the best examples of the 10th century just did not survive.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.