Good Friday – 1014 and all that

Here beginneth the lesson.  Be patient and stay with me, and I will lead you to the promised land.  1002 years ago Good Friday fell on today, the 23rd April.  At one time every school child in Ireland knew this fact and could tell you about the Battle of Clontarf.  Nowadays that is doubtful and there will be no celebration today to commemorate a date in Irish history that is as significant as 1066, and the Battle of Hastings, is in English history.  The difference is that in 1014 the Irish were victorious in repulsing the Norsemen, while in 1066 the English were defeated by the Normans.

This year the Royal Mint has issued a special 50p coin to commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and in 2066 there will no doubt be extensive official events organised.  In contrast in 2014 the commemoration events for the Battle of Clontarf were muted.  It was left to Dublin City Council to organise events close by the site of the Battle.  The inhabitants of Clontarf were enthusiastic celebrators, as were the inhabitants of Killaloe [on the Shannon] in County Clare – the heartland of the Dal gCais and Brian mac Cennetig.  The National Museum of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin staged exhibitions.  There were no military parades and fly-pasts in Dublin or naval reviews in Dublin Bay.  The Irish State was conspicuous by its lack of enthusiasm and there can only be one reason for that, acute embarrassment.

The Battle is recorded in the Irish Annals and the Scandinavian Sagas, with everyone wishing they had been present at this epic and historic milestone.  It is described in the Annals as ‘The war of the Irish with the Foreigners’, that freed the Irish from foreign domination with Brian hailed as a national hero.  This view was especially popular during British rule in Ireland, and though subject to critical revisionism, it still has a hold on popular sentiment if not with politicians.

The first recorded Viking (exclusively Norse) raid on Ireland was in 795, but it has been suggested that the ocean-going fleet which raided the Hebrides and northern Ireland in 617 was Scandinavian.  It is clear that the Orkneys and the Hebrides had been extensively settled by Norse fishermen and farming communities long before the Viking raids on the Irish coast.  By 823 they had made the circuit of the whole coastline.  Up to 836 the raiding followed a clear pattern.  The raids themselves were hit-and-run affairs by small, sea-borne but fast-moving forces, probably independent freebooters, who appeared suddenly to attack island and coastal monastic settlements – disappearing with equal rapidity.  No Viking raids are recorded further inland than twenty miles and these had no impact on secular society.  In fact they averaged only one per year, while acts of violence amongst the Irish themselves were four to five times as much.  The raids caused no great distress to Irish society, which was warlike.  Due to the speed and surprise of the raids, defence of the coastline was virtually impossible, although raiding parties were frequently and successfully attacked and slaughtered.

From about 830 the Viking raids became more intense and penetrated deeper using the navigable rivers.  In 837 a fleet of sixty ships appeared on the Boyne, and the same number on the Liffey ravaged the valley and eastern Meath.  They made their way up the Shannon and Erne, and by 839 placed a fleet on Lough Neagh, ravaging the surrounding countryside.  Using the Shannon as a main route they made their way in to the midlands.  They started wintering and established longphorts [defended ship enclosures] from 840, including founding Dublin, which attracted further larger fleets.  The intensity of the raids was such that it appeared the country was about to be overrun, but there was no concerted effort amongst the Irish kings to combine and expel the invaders.  Around the same time there is reference to military co-operation between the Irish and Vikings.

Once the Vikings settled and operated from fixed bases they became vulnerable to attack and many of their leaders were routed.  Dublin, founded on the Liffey by the Vikings, was attacked and their settlement at Cork destroyed.  The Irish also benefited from dissension amongst the Vikings themselves.  In 849 a royal fleet of 120 ships arrived and internal feuds broke out.  In 851 a fleet of Danes arrived in Dublin from England and began to attack the Dublin Norse.  The following year a fleet of 160 Norse ships attacked the Danes at Carlingford Lough.  In 853 Olaf, the son of a Norse king, arrived in Dublin in alliance with another Viking, Ivar, and assumed the sovereignty of the Vikings.  The period of the great raids was over.  The Vikings became politically integrated and acted like petty kingdoms.  By 866 the Dublin Vikings, who exercised little or no control over their brethren in the rest of the country, turned their attention to Scotland and captured  Dumbarton in 870.  In 893 there was a major split between the Norse of Dublin, which lead to their defeat in 902 when their Dublin fortress was destroyed and they were expelled.  Irish pressure resulted in Viking migration to Iceland and Cumbria.  Those left were culturally assimilated and intermarriage became common, aided by the conversion of the Norse to Christianity.

The overlordship of Ireland remained with the Irish, but early in the tenth century pagan Vikings began to reappear in Ireland.  It is in that context that the rise of the Dal gCais and the rise of Brian to become High King and Emperor of the Irish opened up the prospect of a unified, independent and sovereign country with influence in Europe.  So you can see where I am going with this post.

By the beginning of the tenth century, the outlook for Viking pirates and raiders in continental Europe and in England was much reduced.  After protracted struggles in France, Rollo and his Danish followers were settled in Normandy, where they had become Christian and respectable, and as antagonistic to raiders as the French had been.  In England, the house of Wessex had reconquered lands held by the Scandinavians and by 915 were masters of the country to the Humber.  Also, by this time the best lands had been settled in Iceland.  With opportunities limited there was a second Viking attack on Ireland, but the new invaders did not come directly from Scandinavia.  They were recruited from families long settled in Scotland, the Isles and northern England.  The Viking kings of Dublin were as much interested in York as in Ireland.  From 914 large fleets again descended on Ireland and plundering recommenced.  Under King Sitric the Norse of Dublin were resurgent, but this was mainly directed at dominating the other Viking settlements in Ireland and establishing themselves in the kingdom of York.

The Irish counter-attacked with growing success and the Norse in York suffered a reverse when in 937 the English King Athelstan inflicted a crushing defeat on a combined Norse and Scots force in Northumbria.  Despite this the main Irish dynasties were incapable of co-operating and in constant conflict.  The overwhelming threat was from a growing and expansionist Scandinavian empire lead by the Danes.  If the Irish kings were unable to make common cause under a High King, and make the High Kingship a reality instead of symbolic, neither did they have the vision to make common cause with the Anglo-Saxons.



One Response to Good Friday – 1014 and all that

  1. Ericl says:

    More complicated than I can cope with! Just want to say how totally turned off I was by the recent celebrations of 1916, so totally militaristic. Even a fly-past by the Irish airforce! – to quote Churchill, “the few”.

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