Four Green Fields: Trollheart’s History of Ireland

A acquaintance of mine writes about History mainly.
Anyone who wants to read would be welcomed by him. He has dedicated most of his life to his ill Sister. She is incoherent now. but he still reads to her a lot…all kinds that he knows she likes. I like the way he writes. not stuffy,pictures here and there along the way…This is how he started off his Irish History…to me it is a book…

If Irish people go abroad, they’re generally welcomed more than, say, English people. You’re heard speaking English in a foreign country and they say “English?” and you shake your head and say “No, Irish.” Immediately there is a change in attitude, and you’re more welcomed. Why is that? Well, part of it certainly has to do with our amazing sports supporters, the rugby and especially soccer fans who follow the national team when they’re in international competitions such as The World Cup or the European Championships. Their impeccable behaviour abroad, compared to some (cough) Russia (cough) has earned them the deserved respect and love of just about every country they visit. They are a credit to our nation, without question. There has never been, to my knowledge, a single instance of one Irish fan being involved in any trouble in all the time they’ve been travelling supporting their country. And given how we Irish are known for drinking, that’s damned impressive.

Another reason though could be that, to totally simplify things, just about everyone (with the possible exception of the English) love us and identify with us because we are a small country that has been occupied for most of our history. We have never made war upon anyone, we have never invaded anyone (couldn’t remain sobre long enough to do so probably! ) and therefore we are not seen as an oppressive nation, unlike Britain, Germany and the USA among others. We have only been an independent, free country for less than a century, which makes us a very young country in comparison to most of the rest of the world, and we have been on the receiving end of occupation, oppression, injustice and discrimination.

However, all is not rosy in Irish history, far from it. Without any means to invade other countries, without a standing army or anything even close to a navy, trapped on our own little insular island for thousands of years, we Irish have in the past typically turned to fighting ourselves. Clan chief fought clan chief, territories were disputed, civil war erupted and of course we had “The Troubles” for over thirty years. So I began wondering what Irish history was like, and having been very interested in it while at school, I thought I’d like to explore the story behind my native country.

I’ll therefore be looking into the very beginnings of Ireland with the ancient Celts and Druids, the Viking invasion, the Norman occupation, everything up to the Easter Rising and the eventual procurement of freedom when we became a free state in 1923. I’ll then be going on from there, to meet up with the present, where, after over eighty years of freedom and self-determination we handed back our sovereignty to Europe in return for an IMF bailout caused by greedy bankers. This will be, simply put, the entire history of Ireland, which is deeper and more interesting than many might think, and is littered with treachery, betrayal, wars, tragedies and a struggle for freedom that would take centuries to eventually achieve. Like most countries, it’s a story of heroism and failure, or cowardice and reversal of fortune, of strength and honesty and belief and faith, and it has its heroes and its martyrs while standing alongside those are its traitors and its villains.

I’ll be using multiple sources, and will include any relevant music I can find, but overall this will be a written journal, not a music one, and perhaps the first one to focus solely on history, and within that, the first to concentrate on the history of one small country. It will obviously take a long time and will be a work in progress, but as ever you’re all welcome to join in and comment.

Which just leaves me to issue the traditional Irish welcome: Cead mile failte (A hundred thousand welcomes) and hope you enjoy what I write here.

If you like it I will post more…absolutely fine if not…


I look forward to reading it.

Be interested to read more. Know so little about the ancient history of Ireland.
Could be a good educational thread Di.

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Chapter I: Meet the Irish

Timeline: 1200 BC - 500 AD

So, where did the Irish come from? Was there some prehistoric pub from which, Flinstones-like, we all fell out of the door at closing time and started fighting in the street? Well, quite possibly, but historians and archaeologists link us to the ancient Celts, a pagan people who migrated from the Russian Steppes into northern Europe around about the time of the Iron Age, somewhere around 1200 BC, and ended up in the general areas of what was known at the time as Bohemia (part of Germany today) and Austria.

Before I go any further, I would like to qualify the rest of this by quoting from Richard Killeen’s A Brief History of Ireland when he says ”What follows is not entirely true. No history can be complete. The sources on which it is based are always partial, often in both senses of the word … For here we are dealing with the era before written records – reliable or otherwise – and have only the inferences drawn from archaeology and certain artifacts to guide us.” Worth bearing in mind, certainly.

The Celts were a deeply spiritual people, and though they worshipped goddesses as well as gods they were very much a male-dominated society, with few if any examples of female leaders having been discovered. They also are believed to have practiced ritual sacrifice, including human, to appease their gods and ensure bountiful harvests, fruitful women and victory in battle.

However, even these ancient people, though they became acknowledged as the ancestors of we modern Irish, were not the first people to live in Ireland. An unknown and vanished society which flourished from, it is thought, about 9000 BC (that’s eight thousand years before the Celts got here) were responsible for the building of ancient tombs and monuments, such as the burial chambers in Newgrange, Co. Meath, which archaeologists believe were constructed five hundred years before the great Egyptian pyramids and over one thousand years before one of the most famous of the English monuments, Stonehenge. Hah! In your faces, ancient civilisations! Newgrange is therefore more or less accepted as one of the oldest monuments in the world today. It is probably well known (but I’ll tell you anyway in case you aren’t aware) that it is more than just a simple burial chamber. It is of the type known as a “passage tomb”, due to its long narrow approach to the burial chamber itself.

As a child I remember visiting this as part of a school trip, and being a child (probably nine, ten years old, I can’t quite remember but young definitely) I was less than impressed. For me, as for all my schoolmates, all this was was a chance to skip a day in school, ride on a bus and go somewhere we had never been. I wish I could have known at the time how important that visit should have been, but all I truly remember of it is it being cold, dark and just the tiniest bit disquieting as you descended into the dark, hoping the guide would be able to help us all find our way back out into the light.

The truth about Newgrange though, which I never witnessed personally but is a matter of record and draws people to it in almost pilgrimage every year, is that it is so constructed that there is a point on the very top of the cairn (the burial mound) through which the sun will shine only on one particular day – the Winter Solstice, December 21 – and when it does, it travels along the passage until it illuminates, with perfect accuracy and precision, an ancient symbol of renewal and rebirth carved on the back of the furthest wall.

As a religious symbol, this marks the return of the sun, the giver of life, into the darkness to renew the spirit and bring hope. It is said to be a powerful, even religious experience to those who are lucky enough to see it for themselves, and it proves that ancient though the people were, they had enough knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and construction to be able to build such a thing, and they were obviously a people for whom religion was not just something you did; it was their whole life, perhaps their very reason for existence. They certainly worshipped what would be known today as pagan gods, but they were as faithful to (perhaps fearful of) them as the ancient Egyptians were to theirs.

The first known (given Mr. Killeen’s important caveat above) inhabitants of Ireland were a Mesolithic people, meaning Stone Age (well, technically, Middle Stone Age, but you don’t care about that, do you?) who were hunter-gatherers, and are believed (or assumed) to have come over from the mainland of Scotland to settle in what is now Northern Ireland, or the province of Ulster. This then essentially makes Northern Ireland the oldest civilised part of Ireland, which sucks for us in the Republic, but at least we have a better soccer team! As for the Mesolithics, they were supplanted or succeeded by a new race in around 4000 BC who began to settle and farm the land, these being Neolithic, or New Stone Age, and they created the first real settlements of people, farms and attempts at agriculture, sowing crops, raising cattle and building walled enclosures. With a good and regular supply of food and permanent settlements the population grew and expanded.

With the arrival of the Celts however, these people were either fought to extinction or intermarried with the newcomers, with the Celts becoming the ancient forebears of the modern Irish people. Unlike the Native Americans or the Australian Aborigines, there are no descendants of this original race that inhabited Ireland and nothing exists of them now but some fossils and the impressive structures they left behind. The future of Ireland would be written by the Celts.

Although we know virtually nothing about them, the original inhabitants of Ireland left no evidence behind to allude to any real sort of hierarchy or system of justice. Undoubtedly they had them, as even the most primitive society cannot exist without rules, laws and punishments for those who break them, but the first properly organised system of law, perhaps even a form of government, comes with the arrival of the Celts and the rise of their religious leaders, the Druids.

Best likened these days to a cross between judges, historians and wizards, Druids kept the ancient beliefs alive, ensured the proper gods were worshipped, passed and enforced laws, and were answerable to no man, not even the king or chieftain. They were what we would call today “freelancers”, and their word was law. Being outside the hierarchical structure of Celtic society, they could even call a king to account if he had transgressed the law. Despite what might seem though as unlimited power – an ancient form, perhaps, of Executive Privilege? - Druids did not challenge their leaders and were not involved in any military undertakings. They were peaceful men, whose main mission in life was to honour and preserve the Celtic way of life, to pass down the stories of their mythology – by mouth alone, for the Celts had no form of writing, beyond Ogham, of which more shortly – and to revere and placate the ancient gods.

They were poets and storytellers, judges and arbiters – none could be more partial in a dispute than a Druid – and even advisors to kings. They held great power, yes, but in this one instance power did not corrupt. While the Druids who served the Celts in Britain and Gaul rose up against the Roman occupation of their lands and led the resistance against the invaders, Irish Druids did not take up arms at all, remaining completely peaceful.

Although the Celts did not or could not write, they did have a very rudimentary alphabet. It consisted of a number of straight lines, sometimes slanted and/or crossing other lines. This was called Ogham (I was brought up to believe it is pronounced “oh-am” but most documentaries on the Irish or the Celts I have watched seem to think it should be pronounced “og-ham”. I’m not sure which is right) and was used mostly to decorate tombs, often by way of huge stone crosses which can still be seen on graves today, though of course the ones that mark headstones these days are replicas and copies. Still, originals can be found in various archaeological sites, and most people know what you mean when you speak of a Celtic Cross. If you don’t, then look below.

Ogham was a very simple alphabet, with twenty-five characters but was apparently very limited in what it could say: basically, they used it for inscribing the name of the person buried under the cross, and that was about it. But writing isn’t everything, and the Celts must have had great memories as they passed their stories on down, word for word, through successive generations. Many of these were of course the exploits of kings or leaders, but much of their lore centred around the deeds of heroes, whether real or imagined, that came to make up the basis of Celtic mythology. Like most peoples, the Celts did not relate made-up stories for entertainment; they actually believed these events took place in a far-off time. Some of them may have – the idea of a young boy killing a dog who was attacking him by hitting him with a hurley ball and thereafter having to take the dog’s place as the chief’s guard (the genesis of the legend of one of Ireland’s most revered heroes, Cuchulainn) could be seen to have happened – others perhaps might be a little more fanciful, such as tales of frost giants and warp spasms and the Salmon of Knowledge, to say nothing of Tir na nOg.

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But in time, as Christianity took hold of the world and spread to Britain and Ireland, the Druids and the Celtic beliefs would be toppled, their gods either banished to fairy stories and myths or appropriated and metamorphosed into saints and martyrs, making Ireland in time one of the most Christian countries of the world. Old beliefs would die out as the new took hold, and civilisation of a different type would come to the Emerald Isle as we exchanged a group of powerful gods for one who couldn’t even save his own son from death. Not the greatest bargain, in my view.

Chapter II: The Book of Invasions, Part One: Onward, Christian soldiers

Timeline: 500 AD - 800 AD

It might seem a hell of a leap to jump from, what, 1200 BC to 500 AD, and it is. We’re talking about a millennium and a half here. But in terms of Irish history, it’s where you really end up next, as this was the beginnings of the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, a power that holds sway over us even to this day. Throughout its long history Ireland has been subject to invasions: the Vikings, the Normans, the English. Oddly enough, I was surprised to find my research turn up, we were not invaded by the Romans, unlike the English. Events seem to have conspired to have kept Ireland safe, as it were, at the eleventh hour. With a rebel Irish chieftain plotting with the Roman governor of Britain to aid in an Irish invasion, the governor was suddenly called back to Rome to deal with barbarian attacks closer to home, and so the invasion was cancelled.

We’ve always been a fighting people. On occasions we have allied to the enemy of our enemy (usually England), teaming up with or supporting the likes of the Scottish, the Spanish and the French, often along shared lines of faith, sometimes not. We have, in general, failed to drive back each wave of new invaders, but often have defeated them in more cunning ways, as they became integrated into our culture, marrying into Irish families and taking Irish land. Many Irish surnames that survive today have their origins in French, for example, as Norman conquerors became, slowly, Irish inhabitants. The same with the Vikings, with the famous slogan I recall from my history lessons that they “became more like the Irish than the Irish themselves.” Well, they certainly mirrored our drinking habits, that’s for sure!

But perhaps the most insidious and unstoppable invasion of all was that of the Christian missionaries who set out from the Roman Empire (mostly from Britain at the time) in around 500 AD to convert all heathens to the new religion that was sweeping across Europe, thanks in large part to the change of heart of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who, in around 306 AD converted to Christianity. Taking the title of Holy Roman Emperor he decreed tolerance and acceptance of the new religion which had up until then been mercilessly prosecuted by previous emperors, with the infamous stories of Christians being thrown into the arenas to fight lions and other wild animals, as well as other horrible punishments for what was seen as denying the true gods of Rome. Christian priests and monks were now free to travel throughout the empire, teaching the Good News and attempting to convert all nations to the true faith.

The most famous of these missionaries was a man who was born Palladius Patricius, but became known and revered in Ireland as Saint Patrick.

Saint Patrick

If you’ve ever wondered why Saint Patrick’s Day is such a big deal in Ireland, you need to realise how important the man was to this country. Born to a Roman official in occupied Britain, he was captured by an Irish raiding party, many of which had become emboldened as the Roman Empire in general began to crumble and shrink back on itself, and as garrisons and commanders and governors were recalled to Rome to fend off the attacks of the barbarian hordes such as the Visigoths, the Franks and the Germanic tribes. I suppose from that point of view you could point to the beginnings of the long antagonism between Ireland and England as having been started by us, but I’m sure the English sent out raiding parties of their own.

At any event, Patricius was captured (some say by the famous Irish chieftain known as Niall of the Nine Hostages) and taken to Ireland, where he was pressed into service as a slave. After tending sheep for six years he escaped back home, but while there he was tormented by the voice, he claims, of God (sometimes this is claimed to be the voice of the Irish people) calling him back to Ireland. During his time in Ireland he had become quite religious, turning to the Christian God in his hour of need, and now he devoted his time to study of the word of God, training to be a priest. When he was ready, he returned to Ireland around 432 AD and became the most successful export of Christianity there, building churches, destroying the hold of pagan gods and beliefs over the Irish people, and virtually single-handedly converting Ireland to Christianity.

Around the fifth century he wrote what is generally accepted as the first proper written Irish work of literature, his Confession, in which he described his mission to build churches and bring the word of God to Ireland. It’s from this account that we have most of our information about him confirmed, though there’s still some debate raging, such as whether Palladius and Patricius are two people or the names of one, but that sort of stuff is really only semantics and doesn’t matter here. What’s more interesting is the legend that grew up around him; almost, you might say, a new Celtic mythology, some of which is related below.

The Shamrock: One of the most famous stories told of St. Patrick is when he wished to explain the complicated nature of the Divinity to the Irish, who just didn’t understand. Three gods in one? What a bargain! How can I do better than twenty-nine ninety-nine, Troy? But seriously, it’s a hard concept to get: how can you have one god who has a son and another part of him, each separate yet of the same being? Patrick explained this by picking a shamrock, and showing that though it has three leaves, they all rise from the one stalk. And so the people finally got it, and the shamrock became one of our most treasured plants, and indeed the emblem of our country.

The Snakes: Although historians agree that at no time in its history was Ireland ever troubled by snakes (except in the Dail! Irish in-joke) Patrick is said to have stood on a hill and waved his staff, driving them all into the sea. He is therefore credited with banishing all snakes from Ireland, though this is more than likely metaphor for his attempts – pretty much successful – to drive out the old pagan beliefs and discredit the gods of the Celts. Snakes being seen as evil, and all, and linked with Satan and the Garden of Eden. You know the kind of thing.

With the coming of Saint Patrick, it was the end of the old ways in Ireland. Christianity one, Pagans nil. Of course, in some corners of Ireland the worship of pagan deities continued for a time, and the old practices were kept up, but in time the Church consolidated its absolute power over the Irish people, and the old gods were remembered only in folk tales and legend. If you take Rome as being the centre of the Christian Church, as it was, then essentially the Romans did invade, and subdue, Ireland, though not by military might. This was one of the only invasions of our island against which there was no standing, and though in later centuries when the Church underwent a fundamental schism one faction of this new religion would battle another for supremacy, Ireland would always be, and always has been, a Christian country.

Hot on the heels of Saint Patrick came other missionaries, priests, monks, abbots and bishops, who built monasteries, seen as the first real centres of any sort of governance in Ireland, where the idea of towns or even villages had yet to take hold. With the newly-converted Irish people holding them in awe, and with tacit support from various chieftains and leaders in the hope of bolstering their own power, the monasteries became almost a ruling force in Ireland. This next-to-absolute power of the Church only strengthened over the centuries, and indeed, even as late as the middle of the twentieth century, and further, up to the 1950s, 1960s and even 1970s, the Church held a sort of hypnotic power over the people of Ireland. Priests were sacrosanct and their word was taken as fact. The advice or decree of one was followed blindly. Families sent their sons into the priesthood, seen as a status symbol, and if a priest accused you or your family of doing something, even if you had not done it, you had. The power of the Church was absolute, and though it was ostensibly separated from the State, in real terms the two colluded more than they disagreed.

This blind obedience to the Church, especially the one which held sway over almost all of Southern Ireland, or what came to be known as The Republic, only began to be questioned around the 1980s, when evidence of clerical abuse towards children began to surface, and the almighty name of the Catholic Church began to be seen as an idol with clay feet. Suddenly, the evidence was there and the scales fell from (most) people’s eyes; the Church was just another organisation, ripe for corruption and perversion, and priests were not infallible saints, merely men with men’s sometimes ugly appetites. What did emerge during the various reports into clerical abuse was that the State, especially the national police force, the Gardai, who should have been the protectors of the children who were abused, failed miserably, allowing itself to remain bedazzled by the worship of the Church and unable to fathom how priests could after all be just men, and flawed men at that. Now we know better, and the Church has had to try to amend its ideas and remake itself in the image of twenty-first century Ireland – not, it has to be said, with too much success so far, though the new Pope is helping matters a great deal with his down-to-earth, return-to-basics approach, something that has not been seen coming out of Rome in hundreds of centuries – and people are wiser, no longer trusting blindly in their spiritual leaders, and holding them to account when necessary.

But back in Saint Patrick’s time, such ideas were totally alien to the Irish and the clergy were seen almost as gods, or would be if the Christian faith allowed belief in more than one deity. In a way, I suppose the Irish transferred the awe and reverence and respect they had had for the Druids to the new preachers of the gospel of Christ, and priests and bishops and all the rest became the successors to the trust people had placed in their ancient judges and holy men. It should, in the interests of fairness, be pointed out that at this point the Church – certainly the Church in Ireland – did not at any time capitalise on their power in the sort of ways Rome’s Popes would do later, raising private armies, living in luxury while their people eked out a pathetic existence, fighting “holy wars” and levelling taxes on the pilgrims who came to worship at the holiest shrine of Christianity. On the contrary, monks typically took a vow of poverty and chastity, leading a quiet life of gentle contemplation, praising God, preaching to the masses and when Latin was introduced to Ireland creating some of the most beautiful works of written art ever seen, including the famous Book of Kells, completed around 800 AD.

The Book of Kells

There can be few people, even outside of Ireland, who have not at least heard of the famous Book of Kells. Written, it is believed, on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides just off the coast of Scotland, it was said to have been begun in 800 AD by Saint Columba, and because of this has sometimes been called the Book of Columba. Modern historians have challenged this though, pointing to the fact that the Book is known or accepted to have been begun in 800 but that Columba was already over two hundred years dead by then. Whatever the case, whatever its origin, the Book of Kells is essentially the four Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible, lavishly illustrated with animal, human and Celtic imagery, and is widely accepted to be the finest example of what is known as “insular art” in history.

At its core, insular art is a type of writing where the words are “illuminated” by having figures stand under them, surround them or wind themselves around them, or otherwise colourfully decorated. These are known as illuminations, and Irish monks are acknowledged as having been the finest experts of this art in the world. This concentration of expertise (as well as the fall of the Roman Empire) drew like-minded artists to Ireland, where they studied under the monks, and led to the famous epithet for Ireland as being “a land of saints and scholars”, true today as when it was written, I do assure you!

When Viking raiders attacked Ireland in the tenth century, sacking the monasteries and plundering their treasures, the Book of Kells was moved for safekeeping to the Abbey of Kells, in County Meath, which is where it acquired its name. Of course, this did not stop the Norsemen and they attacked the Abbey of Kells, yet somehow this amazing book survived, donated to Trinity College in Dublin in 1661, and can be seen today, for free, by anyone who wishes to do so, in the Library of the college It is a huge attraction and draws visitors from all over the world to see it.
Interestingly, as the rest of Europe suffered with the fall of the Roman Empire and was plunged into what we know today as the Dark Ages (approximately 500 AD to 1000 AD), Ireland enjoyed a time of peace and tranquility, and great artistic advancement as monks and even lay persons worked in the monasteries, translating books like the Bible into Latin and even Irish – now that there was finally a written language that could be used in Ireland , carving huge stone Celtic crosses, and engraving fabulous detail on items like drinking cups, brooches and other jewellery.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, it was in fact Ireland that took up the baton, as it were, of missionary zeal and monks and priests from here travelled extensively across Europe, bringing the word of God to the heathen, whose ranks they had previously belonged to. Irish scholars and poets, writers and thinkers began to populate the courts of the more important kingdoms, such as France and Italy. For a time, Ireland enjoyed the reputation of, if not being the saviour of Christianity, then certainly its most voiciferous, powerful and successful ambassador. Comparatively suddenly, a tiny, unregarded island far from the centre of the mighty Roman Empire had become all but its successor in terms of orthodoxy and belief, and from the court of Kiev to that of Charlemagne himself, everyone knew of her existence.

But with increased presence and fame comes unwanted attention, and far across the seas to the cold north, to paraphrase H.G Wells, other eyes regarded this island with envy, and slowly, and surely they drew their plans against us. The next invaders would not use faith and piety as a weapon, but brutal aggression and a callous disregard for the new religion, which they saw as vastly inferior to, and threatening to supplant their own.

Note: Although the early history of Ireland is replete with saints and mythological beings who may or may not have existed, I am not covering them in this journal, as although they would certainly be seen as central to Irish beliefs and therefore an important part of Irish history, I want to concentrate more on the actual happenings and not get too bogged down with who saw what, where, and how. If such events are to be recounted at all, I’ll address them in my mythology journal at some later point. I’ve only given space to Saint Patrick and Saint Columba because it was impossible not to.

It’s a real shame the photos never came out…they are important…managed to add manually…hope you enjoy…

The photos are there Dianne, they’re wonderfully clear and illustrate the story perfectly. Thank you so much for this, I have so enjoyed reading it. I went to Dublin in the 80s and visited Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. Wonderful experience, I was totally in awe of it, and the library itself was such a thing of beauty - the photo above brought it all back so clearly.

You have no idea this Guy has no confidence really but as writer he obviously wants to be heard…glad it has bought back some good stuff for you…

I am now hoping the author joins and contributes to his own work. Now that would be the icing on the cake…I will give anybody that is interested plenty of time to read the start off, not about to rush ahead, as people sometimes have limited free time…

Chapter III: The Book of Invasions, Part two: Here be dragons!

It’s hard to imagine properly the impact the sudden arrival of the Vikings had in Ireland. Apart from a raid on the nearby island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria (Wales) in 793 AD, there had been no sign of invaders from across the sea and the explosion of violence and mayhem unleashed by the Norsemen when they attacked Irish ports in 795 surely took the Irish totally by surprise. Apart from anything else, though they warred among each other as frequently as ever, Ireland would have to have been said to have been a generally peaceful place, and it was those centres of peace, the Christian monasteries and abbeys, that first became the targets of these fierce warriors from across the sea. Stuffed with gold and jewels and precious statues as well as fine cloth and other riches – most if not all for use in the creation of their works and not the monks’ own personal goods – they were treasure troves to the Vikings, and even better, weren’t even defended! The monks were men of peace, sworn to oppose violence and forgive those who trespassed against them, but that wasn’t much use when a Viking sword was slicing into your ribs or you were on the receiving end of a blow from a battleaxe that could remove your head clean from its shoulders!

And so the early raids went largely unopposed, as fragmented Irish tribal kingdoms tried to come to terms with the fact that they were under attack, not from another clan, but by experienced and battle-hardened veteran fighters who seemed to know no fear, and dispensed no mercy to their foes. Apart from threatening their religion with their pagan beliefs and their vicious aim of forcing these beliefs on the Irish (a role reversal if ever there was one, minus the violence) the Vikings posed a threat to the fragile alliances and small kingdoms dotted throughout Ireland, and the Irish knew if they did not fight back they would soon be overrun, and so began to try to put aside petty rivalries in an attempt to present a united front against the common enemy.

This was not, however, easy, and to realise why we have to take something of a hard look at exactly how the system of government, such as it was, worked in Ireland at this time, which was, to be fair, not very well at all.

The Tuatha

Irish people were divided into clans, or tuatha, these being more or less simple gatherings of people in the same area. Like any clan, there was a leader, though in general he (always he) had no authority outside of his own tuath. They called these tuatha (the plural has an “a” added, like a lot of Irish words, in case you think I’m just being lazy with the spellcheck; one tuath, two tuatha) kingdoms but they really weren’t, and there were about two hundred of them scattered across Ireland. Of course, they all got on with each other. To add to this, the north/south split had already been well in evidence in Ireland, with the powerful O’Neill family ruling pretty much all of Ulster, and casting greedy and ambitious glances South, and if O’Neill (known as “The” O’Neill, to denote the head of the family and the man in power, to differentiate him from the many other O’Neills scattered throughout Ulster) believed himself king of Ireland (High King), while there was no actual king in the South, his authority was not acknowledged there, though his southern cousins did control much of it.

The coming of Saint Patrick and the advent of the monasteries did little to change the age-old rivalries and tribal differences between the Irish, and while this tuath or that, this small king or that would support the monasteries with their patronage or gold, they continued to fight among themselves. Irish history is, sadly, replete with the seemingly unquenchable need to fight someone, often ourselves. With really little to no power over the local kings the abbeys and monasteries existed in a kind of oasis of peace within a maelstrom of in-fighting, petty rivalries and sneak attacks by one self-proclaimed king on another. As a matter of sad fact, the riches and lack of defences of the monasteries began to appeal even to certain Irish warlords, who would originally have fought to save them, and so the monks were caught between a rock and, well, another rock. Certain kings, chieftains or warlords would even ally with the Vikings if it served their cause, all of which increased the level of rivalry and violence that was spreading throughout Ireland.

Although power was mostly held in the fists of the Northern king, the O’Neill, history would record that Ireland’s greatest leader of the time would arise out of an obscure town in the south of the country, near Limerick. It was called Dal Cais, and when the southern side of the O’Neills, led by a man called Mael Seachnaill, claimed overlordship and High Kingship of Ireland, they were opposed by the man who would eventually become Ireland’s first true High King.

Brian Boru (941 – 1014 AD)

Born in the south province of Munster, Brian succeeded his brother to the throne shortly after the death of their father, and became the king of Munster. He then marched to challenge the declared High King, Mael Seachnaill, who controlled Meath, another province of Ireland. Brian wished to take Leinster and Connacht, the remaining two provinces in the south, and so went to war against Meal Seachnaill. Although he did not win every battle he fought, he proved a determined commander and a shrewd tactician, laying down much of the strategy later generations of Irish military would use. After fifteen years of attack and withdraw, bloody fighting and huge casualties on both sides, Brian finally prevailed and brought Leinster under his control. Meal Seachnaill was allowed to live, providing he swear fealty to Brian as the new High King, and the two men divided control of the southern half of Ireland between them. Meal Seachnaill, however, was quickly overthrown on his return to his own province, leading to a new rebellion against Brian, led by Mael Seachnaill’s successor, Mael Morda .

It took another three bloody years before Brian finally took Dublin, after fighting the Viking lord of the city, Sitric Silkenbeard, whom he sent back to rule over the city in his name, as well as giving the Viking one of his daughters in marriage. As the first millennium turned, Brian faced off against the High King again, this time for the overall kingship of the island, and after two years of war Brian was crowned High King of Ireland in 1002. He then turned to consolidate his power by warring upon the long-independent northern province of Ulster and taking on the O’Neill and his allies there. A measure of how implacable and determined an enemy Ulster was shows not only in the fact that it took him a further ten years to subdue the province, but also when you realise that Brian had the massed forces of three quarters of the country against essentially a much smaller land, and yet they held out. Nevertheless, it was inevitable that the superior forces should triumph, and eventually in 1011 Brian Boru was crowned High King, and also recognised as the only Emperor of Ireland.

However the replacement for Mael Seachnaill, Meal Morda, decided he was going to challenge Brian’s power, but knowing he could not do so by himself, and failing to sway any of the other leaders to his flag, he turned to Silkenbeard – who in addition to being ruler of Dublin was his cousin - for help. The Viking lord was able to reach out to his comrades in the Orkney Islands and the Isle of Man and bring them to the assistance of Mael Morda, and the two armies finally met in one of the most climactic battles in early Irish history.‘Battle_of_Clontarf’%2C_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Hugh_Frazer%2C_1826.jpg/440px-‘Battle_of_Clontarf’%2C_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Hugh_Frazer%2C_1826.jpg

The Battle of Clontarf (1014 AD)

The struggle between Mael Morda and Brian Boru for control of Ireland was pretty much the very first Irish civil war, though it would not be the last. It was not Vikings against Irish, as Brian had Norsemen on his side too; the Vikings who fought for Mael Morda did not do so out of any family loyalty, despite Sitric Silkenbeard’s ties to him, nor indeed in the hope of gaining land. This was a raiding party, a chance to grab riches, loot the monasteries (again: you get the feeling the monasteries must have had something similar to a sign on the door saying “X days/weeks since being looted”!) and return across the seas. They were not interested in settling in Ireland, and once they had made Mael Morda High King and taken their spoils they would just **** off back to where they came.

Brian suffered his first setback when his old enemy Mael Seachnaill, with whom he had once shared the High Kingship of Ireland, withdrew his forces, though promising not to join in the attack. However he did not take part in the defence either, severely weakening Brian’s forces. Though the Viking were armoured and the Irish were not, the former used swords and battleaxes, which required close-quarters fighting, while the Irish tended to hurl short spears that could kill from a distance, and they had the numerical superiority. Brian’s own son, Murchad, is said to have fought valiantly, killing “fifty men with the sword in his left hand and fifty with the sword in his right”. That’s probably over-romanticised, but the facts of the battle are that there was much death on both sides, and that the fighting was fierce. It’s said the battle lasted the entire day, though this again could be down to the poets making more of the story later.

In the end, as darkness began to fall and the Vikings withdrew, pressed by Brian’s men, the high tide at Clontarf rose and cut them off from their ships, which were carried away. Didn’t they think to anchor them? Did Vikings not have anchors? Anyway, that’s the account. With many of them perishing in the sea as they drowned, others making for the safety of a nearby wood but unable to gain access thanks to the rising tides, the men under Brian Boru surged forth and dealt them a crippling blow. By nightfall, they had proven victorious.

Brian, however, paid a high price for his victory. As the Vikings fled, and while praying in his tent in thanks for their defeat, Brian was discovered by one of the leaders of the opposition, Brodir, who had led the forces from the Isle of Man, and beheaded as he knelt. Shortly afterwards Brodir himself was killed, but the first Irish High King was dead. His son, too, died in the battle, as did his grandson, effectively ending the line of succession. Perhaps ironically, Mael Seachnaill was restored as High King after Brian’s death. Brian was given probably the first official Irish state funeral, his body lying in state for twelve days of mourning before being finally buried in Armagh.

Although the power of the Vikings was not broken after the Battle of Clontarf, and indeed Silkenbeard remained as King of Dublin until 1036, though like most of his people in Ireland by now he seems to have converted to Christianity, making a pilgrimage to Rome in 1028, they were no longer invaders, no longer an occupying force. Like other invaders would find as the centuries turned, Ireland was a place that tended to defeat you not by military might, but by its allure of lands and climate. Most of those who attacked Ireland ended up settling in it, intermarrying Irish women and forming alliances, and often defending the country against their own fellows when fresh invasions came.

The next to try would also learn this lesson, though it would take a longer span of time before the Normans would yield up and surrender to the irresistible pull of the Emerald Isle. Their arrival would also echo down the annals of Irish history and change Ireland forever.

Written under the name of Trollheart

Wow this is starting to read like an episode of game of thrones. What with betrayals, people changing sides etc. Keep them coming Di.

Written in the name of Trollheart

Chapter IV: The Book of Invasions, Part three:
Boots on the ground – the beginning of eight hundred years of occupation and oppression

Timeline: 1073 – 1316

With the death of Brian Boru Ireland descended - or rather, returned - into petty wars, as claimants to the throne of Ireland (not literally: there was no single throne, no ruling palace or even indeed any idea of real kingship in Ireland, and would not be for hundreds more years, but various chieftains and warlords vied for the position of High King of Ireland) fought among themselves, but nobody was a worthy successor to Brian. As ever, the power of the Christian, and in particular Catholic Church, would be the real force for change in Ireland, and the real power would rest not in Dublin or Ulster, but in Rome. With increasing dissatisfaction with what it saw as the unacceptably semi-autonomous power of the Church in Ireland, and the reported misuses of power there, the papacy was eager to assert its own control over the island. Pope Gregory VII had already established his absolute accepted rule,not only over the Christian Church, but all of creation (and that surely included Ireland!) so the way was clear, in 1155, for Pope Adrian IV (who just happened to be an Englishman, the only English pope in history) to issue a papal bull.

A papal bull, in case you don’t know, was not some sort of pet the pope kept, nor was it a description of doubletalk coming out of the Vatican. It was a letter signed by the Pope, each a formal decree, a command that something must be done. Papal bulls could start or finance wars, revoke kingships or even excommunicate sinners from the Church, denying them the benison of Heaven on their death and banning them from churches. They could also provide annulments of marriages and, as in this case, confer authority upon a person to do something the pope wanted done. The papal bull of 1155, called Laudabiliter (“laudably”, or “in a praiseworthy manner”) allowed King Henry II of England to invade, at his convenience, Ireland, in order to bring it into line with religious orthodoxy. In other words, the King of England was encouraged to reassert the power of the Pope over the Irish monasteries.

Henry, however, was a little busy, fighting those pesky French, his eternal enemy, so he deferred invasion until such time as it might be possible, or, in the event of the war ending in victory for him, politically expedient. With rather telling Irish tragedy though, it would actually end up being the Irish – or one Irish lord, anyway – who would force Henry’s hand and bring his troops to the shores of Ireland, where, once entrenched, we would suffer their yoke and oppression for the next nine centuries. As you read on through this journal, you may get an idea of exactly why Irish people hate English – historically; not so much now, but even when Ireland plays England at football or rugby, the latter is always referred to as “the old enemy”.

Prelude to invasion: the Normans

The story is well known in Ireland about Diarmuid MacMurchada who, having abducted the wife of a rival chieftain, had his lands in Leinster confiscated by the closest to a High King Ireland had at the time, the powerful Rory O’Connor. Forced to flee abroad, Diarmuid plotted revenge and swore to regain his kingdom. If you feel bad for him, don’t: legend has it that the man said himself he would rather be feared than loved, and any of his enemies he did not have killed outright he had castrated and blinded, so that they could have no progeny who could avenge them. Indeed, the story is told of the time he became incensed because leadership of the Abbey of Kildare had been granted to one of his rivals, and furious he rode there, attacked the place and seized the abbess and had her thrown into a soldier’s bed and raped, thereby disqualifying her from holding her position. Not a nice guy!

And forevermore branded as a traitor in Ireland, though some historians see it differently. However the indisputable facts of the case are this: Diarmuid fled to France, where he found the English King, Henry II, engaged in war. Busy as he was, Henry could not spare any troops to help the dispossessed king, but he allowed him to go to Britain and recruit men in his royal name, in return for Diarmuid’s promise to submit to him, hold the province of Leinster in his name and offer his daughter to the leader of the troops he would raise.

And he found troops in Wales, men who called themselves Normans. These were the descendants of Vikings who had come to originally raid and then settled in France, in what is now known as (anybody?) Normandy. Gradually acclimatising to and being assimilated by the French lifestyle, they basically became French, and when they invaded England in 1066 led by the famous William the Conqueror, a whole new way of life was stamped on the English nation, and would be visited on the Irish too, a hundred years later. 1167 saw the first wave of Norman troops arrive in Ireland, where they quickly regained Diarmuid’s kingdom, and two years later their leader brought more troops, this time taking Dublin and Waterford, sweeping all before them contemptuously.

Strongbow (1130 – 1176)

Having inherited his late father’s lands as the Earl of Pembroke in 1149, Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, known as Strongbow, lost them again when he supported King Stephen when Henry’s mother, the Empress Matilda, rode against him but failed to take the throne of England. When Stephen died, and Henry inherited the throne after his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry had his revenge on the rebel earl. Seeking to better his fortunes, Strongbow was receptive when Diarmuid came looking for help to reclaim Leinster by force of arms, and after first dispatching some of his knights to aid the dispossessed Irishman, Strongbow himself followed Diarmuid to Ireland where he began a two-year rule of the country.

1170 saw the arrival of Strongbow and he laid siege with his knights to Dublin and Waterford, taking both towns easily. The Irish had never seen anything like the Normans: they were mounted and armoured, and they used longbows and crossbows, which could kill with great accuracy at a distance, and pierce armour (though the Irish wore none; indeed, they often charged naked into battle), as well as long lances. There was no contest, and Rory O’Connor, the de facto High King of Ireland, was reduced to the role of a provincial king. Diarmuid MacMurchada, who had married his daughter Aoife to Strongbow as part of the agreement, and had hoped not only to regain Leinster but to take all of Ireland and make himself High King, would not live to see this ambition fulfilled. In 1171, a mere year after Strongbow arrived, he died. On his death the kingship of Leinster fell to Strongbow, through Aoife. He was now in total control of the province.
The marriage of Strongbow and Aoife

Rory O’Connor, however, while weakened was still a threat, and the Normans under Strongbow only held Dublin, Wexford and Waterford, a relatively small percentage of the whole of Ireland. In 1171 O’Connor laid siege to Dublin, hoping to starve Strongbow’s people into submission. The Irish were not experts at siege: they had no clue what siege engines were, and merely surrounded the town with their troops. After a weak attempt at a truce, wherein his promise to swear fealty to the High King and renounce the feudal ties to his king were rejected, Strongbow engineered a daring attack by day. He literally (so the tales say) caught Rory O’Connor and most of his men bathing in the river Liffey. Unprepared (as you are, when naked) for the assault, the Irish were routed and the story spread of Strongbow’s cunning and guile, bringing more Irish lords over to his side and further weakening Rory O’Connor.

But all was not well for Strongbow. He had taken Ireland (well, Leinster) at the command of and under the auspices of King Henry, on condition he hold it as a vassal of the English king. When he offered to renounce this fealty, even though the offer was dismissed, it would not take long for the news to reach Henry. And news of attempted treachery and betrayal never sits well with kings.

Henry II and the arrival of the English

As already related, Henry was no friend to Strongbow, and did not select him for the task of helping MacMurchada regain Leinster; he told the Irish king he had licence to seek aid in his royal name, but did not mention Strongbow. Henry and the Earl of Pembroke had already butted heads, and the king certainly did not trust Strongbow. When his vassal seemed on the point of turning Ireland into a staging point for a possible attack against his former king – which may or may not have been in Strongbow’s mind; remember, his roots went back to the Vikings, whose ethos had always been conquest – he decided it was time for him to take a personal hand in things. With the war in France over he was able to turn his attention to this annoying little island, and see how it might become a problem.

In October of 1171, a mere five months after the death of the man who had unwittingly provided him the excuse he needed to come to Ireland, and only two months after Strongbow had married Aoife and taken the kingship of Leinster, King Henry II arrived in Waterford with a massive fleet of four hundred ships. This was a proper invasion, intended to bring the Irish church into line with the Crown and to subjugate the population to its rule. It was the beginning of an occupation which would last well into the twentieth century.

Although Henry II only stayed in Ireland for six months, he ensured that his power and authority there was unquestioned, securing fealty from Irish chieftains – including, eventually, the self-styled High King, Rory O’Connor, who was granted the province of Connaught – and conferring land on barons from among Strongbow and his own contingents, English nobles who were awarded Irish counties, such as Meath, Westmeath and Cavan, which were granted to Hugh de Lacy, one of the king’s trusted advisers. Henry’s son, John Lackland, who would become King John on the death of his father in 1199, presaging a new century which would be plagued by deprivation and bad governance, rebellion and unrest, and give rise to the legend of Robin Hood, was named Lord of Ireland. And yes, he was the same King John who signed the Magna Carta – not Encarta, kids: that’s a whole different thing.

An interesting and indeed important historical event around this time was when Rory O’Connor, former High King of Ireland and now content (without any real choice) to have Connaught for his realm, married off his daughter to Hugh de Lacy, which not only strengtened ties between Ireland and England but became the point in history to which the direct involvement of the English in Irish affairs can be traced. The status of Ireland was changed from a free independent land to that of a lordship of the English Crown, bringing it under direct rule of the English king. Meanwhile, John de Courcy, another English baron who had arrived with King Henry, set out for Ulster and took various towns there, setting himself up as the ruler of Ulster. He had done this, however, without the blessing or even the permission of the King, who then sent Hugh de Lacy to rein him in.

The story goes that de Lacy was told that de Courcy was such a religious man that the only time he would take off his armour and shield (which, it was said, he even slept in) was on Good Friday. On that most holy of days, he could be found in the church, praying, and defenceless. Caring, it would seem, nothing for the sanctuary of the church, de Lacy sent his men to apprehend the earl of Ulster, who was taken after a ferocious fight. Hugh de Lacy was then granted the earlship in his place by Henry. De Courcy would spend much of his life in exile, and after an abortive attempt to retake his holding in Country Down, but was repulsed and late imprisoned by the king.

In addition to their fierce knights and terrifying longbows and crossbows, the Normans were superior to the native Irish in that they believed in towns and settlements, and built castles, many of which survive today. Notable among these are Dublin Castle, which served as the centre of English power in Ireland right up to the Rising and until Ireland’s independence was procured in 1922. They introduced the idea of towns and cities to Ireland, though their superior weapons and charging knights could become bogged down in the mazy Irish landscape, which the Irish, familiar with, could navigate much more easily and use to set traps for their enemy. The Normans also introduced the idea of proper commerce to Ireland, with trade guilds set up. These were basically clubs, but vital to be part of. If you were not, for instance, part of the baker’s guild, you could not bake. If you weren’t a member of the carpenters’ guild, you couldn’t be a carpenter. And so on. As a way of excluding Irish tradesmen, membership of any guild was restricted to those of English name and blood. The very first “No Irish!” sign, as it were, something that immigrants down the centuries would see and turn away from.

Dublin Castle today

And so the subjugation of the Irish began in earnest: their lands were taken over by Norman barons and they were forced into serfdom to the lords. As the thirteenth century drew to a close, over sixty percent of the land of Ireland was occupied, owned and held by Norman lords loyal to the Crown, but essentially allowed a modicum of autonomy, as the feudal system was introduced to the previous independent island. Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinian orders moved in to “civilise” the Irish Church, taking over the monasteries and building new ones, and stamping their authority – and the authority of the King and the Pope – on the abbeys and monasteries that had enjoyed such independence for so long.

In England, the reign of King John had passed by now and he had been supplanted by the weak Henry III and then by Edward I, who came to be known as “The Hammer of the Scots” (you’ve seen Braveheart, haven’t you?) for his implacable suppression of the Scots’ attempt to gain independence. He further impoverished Ireland by taking thousands of fighting men and sending them to war against the Scots, at Ireland’s expense. Scotland had her revenge though when the king’s son and successor, Edward II, lost to Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314, and his own son Edward Bruce then tried to take Ireland from the Normans, at the behest of the Irish in Ulster. Ireland sent a famous letter to the Pope, The Papal Remonstrance, decrying the conditions the Normans foisted upon them, and asking His Holiness to intervene, but he never did. Edward Bruce landed in Ireland in 1315 and though initially he had many successes, and was in fact on the verge of complete victory, nature conspired to overturn his plans.

He failed, mostly due to the terrible famine that was sweeping across Europe at that time, and which had reached Ireland in 1316, but the power of the Normans was beginning to wane. Irish power was being re-established by the middle of the fourteenth century, by which time Ulster and most of Connaught were again under the control of the Irish chieftains, and even the Norman invaders were beginning to “go native”, adopting Irish customs and language and laws, intermarrying with Irish women and considering themselves, as the quote went, “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, resulting in the Statutes of Kilkenny, laws passed by British Parliament which made adopting Irish customs, language and laws illegal.

I’d like to digress here for a moment to recount a very funny story our history teacher told us, to illustrate how sometimes, winging it can be hilarious. He related how one question on the history paper at an exam was “What were the Statutes of Kilkenny?” and one clever dick wrote “The Statutes of Kilkenny were tall stone figures, twenty feet high, and Americans from all over the world came to see them”! Yeah, well I thought it was funny. Anyway, back to the real text.

With the defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce had achieved for the first time that which no other Celtic country could boast: he had taken on England and won. The mythical infallability and superiority of English forces developed an important crack, one the Irish would worry at and exploit over the next few hundred years. The power of the English in Ireland would be further weakened, as would all reigns and all kingdoms across Europe, by a force that not even kings or popes could stand against, and which was believed by many to be a punishment from God.


Thanks Chillie6,
I have really enjoyed the way he writes, as sometimes History is quiet Heavy to take in and keep you interested as well.
Just will do a couple of Chapters here and there so anyone reading can enjoy and pace…
The next Chapter…snip…

Chapter V: A plague on both your Houses:
The Black Death, the War of the Roses and the rise of Kildare.

Timeline: 1348 - 1512

Well Di it takes me a while for things to sink in so I shall be reading slowly :slight_smile:

:lol:baggy trousers…gotcha…
but on a serious note…next time…drum roll…
Chapter V: A plague on both your Houses:
The Black Death, the War of the Roses and the rise of Kildare.

Timeline: 1348 - 1512

Yes good one :-D:-D

Definitely is game of thrones :slight_smile: