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The History of Ulster
The Scandinavian Scourge


The Northern Pirates Internal Dissensions A New Leader, Malachy II Brian Boru His Treachery to Malachy Becomes Ardri The Boru Tribute enforced Fatal Results Rise of the Danes Battle of Clontarf Death of Brian Restoration and Death of Malachy.

The enemies of Ireland at this period appear to have been innumerable. No sooner did one race of fierce and roving sons of plunder come in by force and possess the land than they were followed by another. No sooner did the Danes occupy the island and settle down more or less amicably with the natives than another foe appeared in the shape of -Scandinavians, who desired to oust those in possession and slay all before them!

It must not, however, be thought that the conquerors had it all their own way or that the Irish calmly submitted. The Irish never submitted. They fought many a battle, and in some cases came off victorious. The Danes were defeated in more than one battle in the south, and were worsted by Malachy the Ardri on several occasions.

Had the Irish presented a united front the whole course of events might have been changed, but, as we have seen, the Bishop-King of Cashel was plundering Ulster at the same time that the Norsemen were plundering the South of Ireland. Nor were the Irish the only people to quarrel amongst themselves, for a desperate naval engagement between Norsemen and Danes took place (in A.D. 853) in Carlingford Lough, on which occasion the Danes were defeated, and the conquerors repaired to Dublin and established a kingdom where previously there had been but a fortress. Thus the capital of Ireland was founded by Norsemen, and, as Miss Lawless points out, it "can never be said, save for very short periods, to have belonged to the Irish at all. It was first the capital of their northern invaders and afterwards that, of course, of the English Government".

From their stronghold in Dublin the Norsemen sallied forth, as was their wont, marauding as they went. Their career, however, was checked on many occasions, notably when they suffered serious defeats at Lough Foyle in 867, and at Drogheda two years later. The history of this period ought to be written in blood, so great was the slaughter. Battle succeeds battle until the reader becomes wearied by the chronicle of sanguinary encounters and descriptions of the manifold miseries which followed them. Macliagh, the historian of these sorrowful years, in his Wars of the Gael and Gaul, describes how the Danes "killed the kings and the chieftains, the heirs to the crown, and the royal princes of Erin. They killed the brave and the valiant and the stout knights, champions and soldiers, and young lords, and the greater part of the heroes and warriors of the entire Gael; and they brought them under tribute and servitude; they reduced them to bondage and slavery. Many were the beautiful women and comely maidens. . . . they carried into bondage over the broad green sea."

In the almost impenetrable gloom of those dark times occasionally a ray of light is seen, some heroic figure is seen to stride across the scene of action and then to disappear into the darkness again. Such a figure is that of the warrior Muirchertach, an Ulster prince (son of Niall Glundubh) who fought the Danes for over twenty years, defeating them time after time, but being at last himself defeated and slain at the battle of Ardee in A.D. 943. Such another heroic figure, but one more substantial, is Malachy II, whose name has been rendered familiar by the genius of Moore in his melody, "Let Erin Remember".

Malachy was head of the O'Neills, and became Ardri in 980. His first act as over-king was to march against Olaf the White, the Norse King of Dublin. The opposing forces met at Tara, where Olaf was defeated, and his son, Regnall, killed. Malachy then marched on Dublin and forced the city to capitulate. He found within its walls nearly two thousand captives (including the King of Leinster), whom he released from " durance vile as hell". With singular magnanimity he allowed the Danes to remain, but he compelled them to pay tribute. The thirteen years following were spent in establishing his authority, suppressing revolts, and in fighting his enemies, who, alas! numbered amongst them the celebrated Irish King Brian Boru, a chief of the royal Dalcassian race of O'Brien. Malachy defeated Brian on more than one occasion; but later they both recognized a common enemy in the Danes of Dublin, and the King of Leinster, who had joined them; whereupon they ceased hostilities, and, it is said, fought side by side.

Malachy, notwithstanding his successes, was not ambitious. "He loved", say the annalists, "to ride a horse that had never been handled or ridden," but for affairs of State he had no heart. Brian, on the other hand, having risen from being merely chief of the Dalcassians to being the undisputed King of Munster, aspired not alone to be Ardri, but to become King of all Ireland! Not content, therefore, with the friendship of Malachy and his own position, he intrigued with the Danes and the King of Leinster, whom he had lately defeated, and, forming alliances with them, he, despite his good understanding with Malachy, gathered together his forces and occupied Tara. Malachy, yielding to circumstances, resigned the position of Ardri, which had been held by the O'Neills for nearly six hundred years, and Brian became over-king, and was universally acknowledged as such.

With the passing of the sceptre from Ulster the history of that kingdom or province loses to a certain extent the intense interest it possessed while the O'Neills ruled, much in the same way as the history of England loses in the reign of Henry V by the scene of action being removed from her shores to those of France. But what affected any part of Ireland naturally had its influence on Ulster, and great events which form part of the national history are not outside the history of Ulster; consequently it is the bounden duty of the historian of Ulster at this juncture to follow the fortunes of Brian rather than those of Malachy.

All Ulster did not submit when Malachy gave in. Two northern princes held out and obliged Brian to come to a truce with them, which it was agreed was to last twelve months. Before that time had expired the two princes had fallen in battle, and when Brian came north he succeeded in getting hostages from Ulster, and laid an offering on the altar of the church at Armagh, whether in recognition of peace or ingratitude it is impossible to say! He then made a circuit of the entire country, and went through the several counties of Ulster to assure himself of their recognition of him as Ardri.

Brian was now an old man. He was war-worn and longed for peace. For some ten years he was able to enjoy it, and for ten years the country enjoyed peace and the arts of peace. Roads and bridges were repaired, harbours were constructed, new churches were built, and some strong fortresses were erected to provide those who acted as preservers of peace with the means to do so. The Danes, on account of their connection with the Continent, were in a position to enrich themselves and the country, and they availed themselves of it, and became as good exponents of the victories of peace as they had been of the victories of war. They and the Irish chieftains regularly paid their tribute to the Ardri, and Brian almost realized his ambition of becoming sole King of Ireland. But it was not to be. Brian, true to his name, in a fatal hour revived the hated Boru tribute which had been a curse to the country for centuries. All Leinster resented this, and rose in revolt. The Danes joined them. Flaherty O'Neill of Tirowen, as an Ulster prince, seized the opportunity to flout Brian, and, with the view of becoming Ardri himself, joined forces with O'Rorke of Brefni, and they flung their cofnbined strength on the ex-Ardri, Malachy, but were defeated.

The dogs of war were once more let loose upon the unhappy land. Brian, although well stricken in years, was wonderfully energetic. Aided by his sons, he sent forth a summons to the field, and it was answered in such a manner as left him commander of a force of nearly 10,000 men.

Meanwhile his enemies had not been idle. Aid in the coming conflict had been sought for from far and near, even the Orkneys, Norway, and Denmark being implored by the Danes in Ireland to help them in the coming struggle, and an enormous force was sent. These, supplemented by the Danes of Dublin and the men of Leinster, made a formidable array when, on Palm Sunday, 1014, they assembled in Dublin or filled the beautiful bay with their ships.

All the forces ranged against Brian consisted of fierce men of war, vikings, and pirates; whereas of his own army many were not trained to war. Luckily the Irish had taken a lesson from their past sufferings, and had learned to swing the battle-axe in the Danish manner, and thus were better equipped than their forefathers to meet their foes.

Brian marched to meet the enemy, and, as a preliminary, plundered the Danish districts through which he passed. With Brian were his sons, and Malachy, the ex-Ardri, fought under his banner at the head of the men of Meath. The opposing forces met on the low foreshore at Clontarf, on the north side of the River Liffey, and at dawn on Good Friday, 23rd April, the battle began. The preliminaries were, as usual, a challenge from one camp to the other for single combat. The champions met, and both were slain; and then began a slaughter grim and great, extending, it is said, for two miles along the shore.

"All day long the tide of battle rolled," and it was not until sunset that either side wavered, and then the Danes gave way. Malachy dealt the final blow. Magnanimous as he had proved himself to be on more than one occasion, that admirable quality forsook the noble prince when he saw how the day was going. Brian had deposed him; why should he aid Brian? Such, no doubt, was his reflection as he and his troops remained sullen spectators of the fray. But when at the close of the day the Danes were retreating in disorder, he could no longer refrain. He cut off their retreat and slaughtered them in great numbers.

Malachy's action did not decide the battle. That had already been decided. Brian, though not on the field, was the victor, and the Danes were utterly defeated. But for Brian, the victory was dearly bought, for in the fight he lost Morrogh, the son on whom all his hopes had been set. The aged Ardri was in his tent when the news of his son's death was brought to him. He declared he did not wish to live. A little later a flying Dane rushed into the unprotected tent, and with his battle-axe clove in the king's head.

Thus perished the only Ardri who could in any sense be considered King of Ireland. This, however, he never was. His rule did not extend beyond the borders of his own kingdom. He could call, and did call, on tributary kings to aid him in war-time or in any sudden emergency; but he had no jurisdiction in their kingdoms, a fact which he was obliged to recognize in return for their fealty. When the news of his death reached Armagh, the bishop and his clergy came south as far as Swords, and there received the body of the dead king, which they carried back to Armagh and placed in a new tomb. So the ancient enemy of Ulster reposes within her borders.

Clontarf was one of the decisive battles of the world. Had the victory fallen to the Danes, the consequences would have been such as to roll back the tide of civilization for centuries. Ireland had lain under the heel of her heathen oppressors for nearly two hundred years. During those long and weary years the native Irish had suffered every wrong and every ignominy that "man's inhumanity to man" can devise. As it turned out, the power of the Dane and the Norseman was broken, and Ireland freed from the shackles of an intolerable tyranny.

But though Ireland might congratulate herself on having thrown off a foreign yoke, she was not sure of her own sons. As soon as the strong hand of Brian lost its hold over the land, all the old internal dissensions broke out afresh. Princes of every rank claimed the title of Ardri, and the matter was only settled by Malachy's restoration to the throne of the over-kings. This, however, was not done until twelve months had been spent in discord and fighting.

Malachy was now very old, but he reigned for eight years longer, with remarkable vigour, joining Flaherty O'Neill, and with his aid crushing the Dublin Danes in 1015. Two years later he entered Leinster, to again defeat them. He died in 1022. Of him it was well said in the native rhyme:

After Malachy, son of Donald,
Each man ruled his own tribe
But no man ruled Erin.

After his death the Dalcassian house came again to the front. Then Domhnall O'Loughlin, of the royal house of Niall, was for two years Ardri. He died in A.D. 1121.

Then followed an interval in which there was no Ardri, and war was so widespread that "Ireland was a trembling sod". These petty wars would require volumes to themselves. They resemble nothing so much as tables of endless genealogies, and make most wearisome reading. Suffice it then to say, so far as Ulster is concerned, that Murtough O'Loughlin or O'Neill became Ardri in A.D. 1156, and on his death Roderick O'Conor succeeded him. He was the last king of independent Ireland.


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