Michael V. Duignan, ‘Historical Introduction’, in The Shell Guide to Ireland (1967) - cont. [2/4]

Source: Lord Killanin & Michael V. Duignan, The Shell Guide to Ireland [2nd edn.] (London: Ebury Press 1967)

Gaelic Ireland, c. 500-1165


Gaelic Ireland, c.500-1165
“Island of Kings”
“The Field of Royal Niall”
Gaelic Society
Célsine: Gaelic Feudalism
Gaelic Literati
The Coming of Christianity
“Island of Saints” - Primitive Monasticism
“Exiles for Christ”
“Island of Scholars” - Monastic Culture
Monastic Decay; The Céle Dé Movement
Norse Pirates and Traders
Reorganisation of the Church
The Close of the Gaelic Epoch



“Island of Kings”
The Romans omitted Ireland from their conquests. No Germanic migrants violated her shores until the Viking age. Gaelic Ireland, therefore, presents us with the unique example of an archaic, Iron Age, Celtic society operating unchanged - save in so far as it has been affected by Christianity - in the light of history. Therein lies much of its fascination.

The primary aggregate of Gaelic society was the túath, a tiny pastoral and agricultural community ruled by a king (). The precise number of túatha at any particular stage seems impossible now to determine, but most of the two-hundred-odd “baronies” still shown on the Ordnance Survey sheets represent ancient túatha.

The túatha tended to cluster together in “over-kingdoms” acknowledging the superiority of the king of the dominant túath. (Many of the ecclesiastical dioceses organised in the twelfth century represent over-kingdoms of that time.) The over-kingdoms in turn grouped together in major federations. Heroic literature, which mirrors the conditions obtaining towards the close of the prehistoric Iron Age, shows us five such major federations, “the Five Fifths of Ireland”, viz. Ulaid (whence “Ulster”) in the north, Mide (whence “Meath”) in the eastern midlands, La(i)gin (whence “Leinster”) in the south-east, Mumha (or Mumhain, whence “Munster”) in the south, and Connachta (whence “Connacht”, “Connaught”) in the west.

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“The Field of Royal Niall”
When - in the later sixth century - the fogs obscuring the earlier historic centuries begin to clear, two of the “Fifths” have undergone major changes. The Midlands have been parcelled out among the southern branches of a dynastic stock called Uí Néill (“The Descendants of Niall”) after Niall Nine-Hostager who died about 427(?). The Ulster federation has been reduced to little more than the area of the three small dioceses which today represent its principal historic kingdoms: the diocese of Down representing Dál Fiatach, or Ulster proper; the diocese of Dromore representing Uí Echach; the diocese of Connor representing Dál nAraidi and Dál Riada. (Dál Riada, in north Antrim, has a particular interest in that its ruling stocks had overflowed in the fifth century into Scotland, much of which thereafter belongs to the Gaelic world.) The rest of the North, from the Bann westwards to the Atlantic, is now in the hands of the northern branches of the Uí Néill and their tributary Airgialla (Oirghialla, whence “Oriel”, “Uriel”) kinsfolk, Ulster’s Heroic Age capital, Emain Macha (see Navan Fort under Armagh) having been destroyed by these conquerors from the Midlands in the previous century (c. 450?). Together with the Airgialla, the Southern and Northern Uí Néill constitute a new “Fifth” which covers the Midlands as well as the North, a “Fifth” which is the largest and most powerful federation in the country. The acknowledged head of head of this federation bears the title King of Tara (see Tara) and is pre-eminent among the over-kings.

Though a St Adomnán (see Raphoe), writing in the seventh century, can describe a sixth-century King of Tara as “ruler of all Ireland consecrated by the authority of God” (see Rathmore under Antrim), the King of Tara in act is not even titular King of Ireland. he may, it is true, overawe Connacht and Leinster, but he is accorded no primacy by the jurists. Neither is his superiority recognised by the second-greatest federation Munster, whose over-king, the King of Cashel, is also [20] the head of a widely distributed royal stock, the Eóghanacht. (Unlike the Uí Néill, the Eóghanacht have a strong sense of dynastic solidarity, and succession to their over-kingship is remarkably peaceful.)

The notion of a supreme King of Ireland long remained foreign to the Gaelic mind, to which the Church could impart no political message, no Roman ideas of order and unity. (Rather was it Gaelic society which remoulded the organisation of the Church to its own image.) This is something which admits of no single, simple explanation. In addition to the weight of traditions constantly expounded by jurist and poet, we have to reckon with the operation of the law of succession which, at one and the same time, fragmented the Uí Néill, incited faction among them, and caused the Kingship of Tara to oscillate between the strategic “heart-land” of Meath and the remote, marginal domains of the Northern Uí Néill. Nor must we overlook the effects on a relatively prosperous and relatively civilised country of centuries of immunity from external aggression. It is only when that immunity has ceased that the idea of a national monarchy, prompted perhaps by the example of the Emperor Charlemagne (with whose court Ireland was in contact), is seen in active operation.

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Gaelic Society
For the ordinary everyday purposes of life it was the túatha, not the over-kingdoms or the major federations, which mattered. Each túath was an aristocratic hierarchical community. As its head stood the king, president of the public assembly of freemen and commander of the armed hosting of freemen. In pagan times he td been a sacred personage of divine ancestry, and at his inauguration had been mystically wedded to the local goddess by ancient fertility rites. In modified form such rites survived as long as traditional Gaelic kingship survived at all.

Below the king were stratified grades of noblemen. Every nobleman was the vassal (céle, companion) of the king, or of some other social superior, who was his (flaith) and protector. His own rank was determined by the amount of his property, or the number of his vassals, or his function in society, as well as by his birth. Together, the royal and noble grades formed the warrior aristocracy of the túath ; the aristocracy whose pedigrees were preserved by the genealogists and on whose patronage the literati and superior craftsmen depended, the aristocracy whose final defeat and dispersal in the seventeenth century cleared the way for the anglicisation of the island. Supporting the social superstructure were the free commoners, lesser landowners tilled the soil and raised livestock, paid food-rent to the king, had a voice in public assembly of the túath, served with the armed hosting, and were normally vassals a of some nobleman or other. Intercalated between the free commoners and the nobles, but associated more with the latter, were “the men of art” (áes dána), jurists, poets, leeches, superior craftsmen, historians, harpers, clerics, Latin scholars, in a word all whose superior knowledge or skill had raised them above their birth. At the foot of the social scale were various servile and semi-servile classes, including tenants-at-will, serfs bound to the soil, and slaves.

Save where they had been secured to him by formal treaty, the freeman, whether noble or commoner, had no legal rights outside the bounds of his ancestral túath. Within the túath his rights came to him, not as an individual. but as a member of a blood-group called fine (family, legal kin, friends) which was the Gaelic counterpart of the Indo-European “great family”. At the head of the fine was the patriarchal áige fine, Gaelic counterpart of the Roman paterfamilias. In a society where the administration of justice was not a function of the “state”, a prime function of the blood-group was to protect and avenge its members. With the development of [21] Célsine (see below) this function of the fine tended to become obsolete. For this and other reasons the rigid organization of the fine withered gradually away. Previously a five-generation group, the fine has already been reduced to the four-generation derb-fine (“certain family”) in the oldest stratum of customary law, where it is the normal unit for all major legal purposes such as inheritance, the sharing of liabilities, and the pursuit of blood-feuds to protect its members; it is also the ultimate land-owning unit, with a contingent interest in the ancestral real property of all its members. By the middle of the eighth century the derb-fine has been replaced for most purposes by the three-generation gel-fine (“clear family”). By the second half of the ninth century the jurists themselves no longer understand the original organisation of the fine.

The normal freeman owned his own private parcel of land. This he would have inherited from his father, and would in due course leave to his sons, to be divided equally among them. His fine, however, had a contingent interest in his ancestral land, so that he could not alienate it, or burden it with liabilities, without the consent of the adult members. To his daughters he could leave only chattels and land acquired otherwise than by inheritance. Kingship, like real property, ultimately belonged to the fine. Unlike property, it could not be divided. The king therefore had to be chosen - how precisely we know not - from the “sacred” royal stock, in practice from the derb-fine of a previous ruler. The method of choice operated so as to favour succession through collaterals rather than in the direct line. This occasioned endless strife and, in the case of the Kingship of Tara, hindered the emergence of a national monarchy. On the other hand, invaders, when they came, found it next to impossible to exterminate the ramified dynasties that opposed them. While the Gaelic polity engendered strife and disorder, the pre-Viking warfare was seldom serious, for it was limited, at all levels, by ritual, taboo, and legal convention, which combined to maintain the established political and social structure: warriors grounded their arms once their king had fallen; the victor did not normally dethrone the “sacred” dynasty of the vanquished, or annex even part of its territory; “sanctuaries” immune from attack - monastic settlements and the lands of the áes dána - were numerous; legal enactments safeguarded women, clerics, and children.

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Célsine: Gaelic “Feudalism”
Every freeman was normally the céle (companion, client, vassal) of a social superior who was his flaith (lord). Initially the contract between lord and vassal had been strictly personal, contractual, and terminable; it could, moreover, be impugned by the vassal’s fine. In time, however, the relationship tended to become hereditary. The essence of the contract was the advancing of a fief (normally of livestock, but occasionally of land) by the lord to the vassal. The latter became thereby the lord’s debtor, bound to pay him interest, and his “companion”, bound to do him homage, to render him personal services such as accompanying him to war and on public occasions, and to provide him with one night’s cóe or entertainment (the “coshering” so sharply denounced by the English) in the period between New Year’s Day and Shrove. On the other hand, the lord became the vassal’s protector, bound to support him in all his causes.

The relationship is clearly but the Gaelic version of that ancient system of the commendation of the weak to the protection of the strong which spread far and wide in late Roman and post-Roman Europe to culminate in the fully feudal relationship of lord and vassal. In Gaelic Ireland the institution and development of such a relationship point, not only to the absence of state justice, but also to the decay of tribal institutions, in particular the decay of the fine as the protector and avenger of its members. [22]

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Gaelic Literati
Classical accounts of the Continental Celts name the druidis, vatis, and bardus (druid, seer, and bard) as the principal exponents of Celtic oral tradition and literature. While all three were concerned with the poetic art, the druid’s primary concern was with religion, the seer’s with prophecy and divination, the bard’s with the making of poems praising his patrons “as regards birth, bravery, and wealth”.

All three survive in early Gaelic Ireland, though time and circumstance have altered their relative importance and their social functions. The druid (drui) is now but an easily discomfited magician, doomed to disappear from the scene. The bard (bárd) retains his ancient office, but acts also as the chanter of compositions by the beer, who is himself not above adapting the bard’s “crooked lays” to his own purposes. (Between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries the bard’s influence as a maker of praise-poems exerts a tremendous influence on the struggle for Gaelic survival and provokes the bitter hostility of the foreigner.) The seer (fili ; less usually fáith = vatis) has become the lord of the learned and literary world. Originally a diviner and weaver of spells, he is now professional story-teller, antiquary, jurist, and court poet. As story-teller he is a weaver of new tales as well as master of the traditional canon. As jurist he is at once assessor, arbitrator, and custodian-teacher of the corpus of customary law. As antiquary (senchaid) he is expert in senchas, which comprises the history, topographical lore, and antiquities of the Gael. As court poet he is a maker of didactic and mantic verse recounting the pedigrees and achievements of his patrons and their ancestors. He is also an expert in Irish grammar, in “etymology”, in ogham, and in the secret language of his order. A heathen odour still clings to his office, and all fear his satire, not only for the loss of face occasioned by its recital throughout all the Gaelic lands, but also for the blisters it can raise on the victim’s very countenance, or the death it may bring.

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The Coming of Christianity
By the opening of the historic period Ireland is substantially Christian, the first Country outside the Roman world to be won for the new faith, but the beginnings Irish Christianity are hidden from us. The first recorded missionary, Palladius, bad been sent from Rome in 431 as bishop “to the Irish believers in Christ”. By that time much of the South and East may already have been Christianised by emigrants returning from Britain, as well as by British missionaries. Of the work of Palladius himself, and of the missionaries who, presumably, had preceded him, we know nothing. for the fame of all has been eclipsed by that of Bishop Patrick, a Romanised British Celt who, taken to Ireland as a youthful slave, had dedicated his adult life to the conversion of his captors. Patrick’s mission is usually dated to the period 432-61, but these dates are still the subject of controversy, as is also the Patrick’s labours. According to ancient tradition Patrick established his principal church at Armagh, close to Emain Macha, the capital of the prehistoric Fifth of the Ulaid.

Other missionary bishops were: Secundinus (Sechnall) of Dunshaughlin (Domhnach Sechnaill) near Tara, who died in 447/8, Auxilius of Killossy (Cell Auxli, Cell Aussaili) near the Leinster royal seat at Naas, who died in 459/60; Iserninus of Old Kilcullen (near the Leinster royal hill-fort called Dún Ailinne) and of Aghade (near Rathvilly, another Leinster royal seat), who died in 468. The coming of Christianity was of tremendous cultural significance. The remote, peripheral, island was reintegrated into the West European fabric. The artistic repertoire was enlarged with new media and enriched with new motifs and new techniques that stimulated the last, and finest, flowering of insular Celtic art. To the Church Ireland owes her first true architecture, to the Church her introduction [23] to the treasury of Mediterranean thought and letters, to the Church that early written literature in the Gaelic vernacular which is one of the boasts of her heritage.

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“Island of Saints” - Primitive Monasticism
The expansion of the heathen Germanic nations, in particular their conquests in Britain and Gaul, had severed Ireland’s connexions with Latin Europe and left the Irish mission-field to the churches of Celtic Britain. It was kindred British, not alien Roman, influences which were decisive in shaping the Irish ecclesiastical structure, in fitting it to the inchoate Gaelic polity. In their isolation the insular churches, set in closely related social and cultural environments, inevitably developed Celtic eccentricities of organisation, discipline, and practice. Some ecclesiastical institutions atrophied, others became distorted, yet others acquired an exaggerated significance. When, in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Irish Church emerges into daylight, we find that a wave of monasticism has well-nigh obliterated all traces of the primitive episcopal framework, and that the typical focus of regional jurisdiction is no longer the episcopal see, but the monastery ruled by a priest-abbot. (There are bishops, but their office is now purely sacramental.) In addition, the Irish Church adheres to an outmoded method of computing, the date of Easter, and to an outmoded tonsure. Curiously enough, it is these minor eccentricities of the computus and the tonsure which rouse the ire of the orthodox abroad.

The phenomenal growth of Irish monasticism in the sixth and seventh centuries was primarily due to the influence of the great British saints, some of whom founded monasteries in Ireland and attracted Irish disciples to Wales, whence they returned home to found new monasteries themselves. Foremost among such Irish founders were Éanna (“Enda”) of Killeany in Aran, who died about 530, and Finnian of Clonard, “Tutor of the Saints of Ireland”, who died in 549. Other celebrated founders were: Colum (Columba) of Derry and Iona best known as Columcille, Comgall of Bangor, Finnian of Moville, Colum (Columba) of Terryglass, Ciarán of Clonmacnois, Ciarán of Seir, Kevin of Glendalough, Brendan the Navigator of Clonfert, Mo-Ling of Timolin, and Finnbárr of Cork. Three all-Ireland women saints were Brigid of Kildare, Íde of Kileedy, and Samthann of Clonbroney. Men and women such as these fired the imagination of thousands and inspired them to follow in their footsteps, so that in a brief space the Gaelic lands were covered with hundreds of monastic and anchoritic foundations. Houses - however widely dispersed - which revered a common founder tended to form leagues under a supreme abbot, leagues to which the name paruchia (Ir. fairche) was transferred from the moribund dioceses. The greater the prestige of the founder, the greater the prestige of his paruchia. The fame of Columcille could, for a time, overshadow that of Patrick, the hegemony of Iona eclipse that of Armagh.

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“Exiles for Christ”
For the Gaelic saints, passionately attached to home and kindred, to go into exile “for the love of Christ” was to make the supreme sacrifice, to suffer martyrdom. And so we find them sailing away in their frail boats to the Orkneys, to the Faroes, and even to distant uninhabited Iceland, as well as to Britain, France, the Germanies, and Italy. The best known names in the countless roll of these “exiles for Christ” are those of Columcille (Columba) of Iona, Colmán (Columbanus) of Bangor, Luxeuil, and Bobbio, Aidan of Lindisfarne, Fursa of Cnobersburgh and Peronne, Gall (Gallus) of St Gallen, Fergal (“Vergilius”) of Aghaboe and Salzburg, and Cilian (Kilian) of Würzburg.

Columcille left his beloved Ireland in 563 “to make a pilgrimage for Christ” in [24] Irish Scotland (Dál Riada), where he settled on the barren, but strategic, island of Iona. His monastery there became a base for the conversion of Pictland and of Northumbria, a prop of the Gaelic monarchy in Scotland, and a clearing-house through which important cultural and artistic influences passed - in both directions - between Ireland and England. (Scottish Dál Riada was as Irish a kingdom as any in Ireland, Iona as Irish a monastery as, say, Clonmacnois.)

About 635 King Oswiu of Northumbria applied to Iona for missionaries, Iona sent him Aidan, a monk-bishop who fixed his see on the island of Lindisfarne. Before his death (651) Aidan saw Christianity firmly established north of the Humber. From Northumbria the Iona mission spread into Mercia and to the Middle Angles, even into Sussex and Essex. Contacts with representatives of the Augustinian mission to England inevitably led to wranglings about tonsures and the date of Easter. The issue was brought to a head in 663 at the Synod of Whitby, where the intransigence of the Iona party led to the withdrawal of Aidan’s successor, Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne, together with the more stubborn of his Irish and English disciples (see Mayo), from Northumbria. Their departure marked the end of Ireland’s spiritual hegemony in the northern half of England. It did not put an end to Irish missionary activities in England, or to Irish influence in non-controversial spheres.

On the European mainland the great Irish name is that of the Colmán, alias Columbanus, who set out from Bangor with the traditional company of twelve disciples in 590. In Burgundy he founded monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil, and Fontaine. Expelled after twenty years by an offended king, he eventually made his way to Bregenz on Lake Constance, and there preached the Gospel to the heathen Alemanni. From Bregenz, too, he was driven away and, in 614, crossed over the Alps to Bobbio. There he founded his last monastery and there he died the following year. Irish influence and Irish connexions remained potent at Bobbio throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, and occasional Irish contacts persisted down to the eleventh.

Columbanus revived religion wherever he went. He gave a special impetus and direction to European monasticism and was responsible for the European adoption of the practice of private and frequent confession. His letters and poems reflect the relatively high quality of Latin studies in the Ireland of his day. St Fursa, whose celebrated Visions of Heaven and Hell were to influence medieval European literature, spent the earlier part of his exile at Cnoberesburgh (Burgh Castle, Suffolk). About 640/44 he passed over to France, where his brothers (Ultán and Foíllán) founded famous monasteries at Peronne (“Peronne of the Irish”), Lagny-sur-Marne, Nivelles, and Fosse. Other Irish exiles made their way to the heathen and semi-heathen lands beyond the Rhine: Thuringia, Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, and Carinthia. Here the best-known Irish names are those of St Cilian of Würzburg and St Fergal of Salzburg. Cilian was martyred with two Irish companions in 689. Fergal, who had been abbot of Aghahoe, appears about 743 at the court of Pippin the Short, whence he was sent Salzburg, where he became abbot of St Peter’s. St Boniface, English apostle of Germany, sought to have him condemned as a heretic, but he became bishop of Salzburg and ruled the diocese for more than forty years.

The Viking onslaught (p.28) gave a fresh impetus to the dispersion of Irish monks and to the multiplication of Irish monasteries and hospices in Europe. Now, however, in the ninth and tenth centuries, the typical Irish exile is the Latin scholar rather than the ascetic or the missionary; Clemens Scottus (“The Irishman”), Latin scholar and Alcuin’s successor as head of Charlemagne’s celebrated palace school; Dícuil, grammarian, geographer, astronomer, and teacher in the palace school; Sedulus Scottus, a Leinster scholar active between 848 and 858 at Liège, Metz, and Cologne, where he proved himself an outstanding Ciceronian and an accomplished [25] maker of gay drinking songs; Johannes Scottus (Eriugena), intellectual giant of his age, who appears at the court of Charles the Bald in 845.

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“Island of Scholars” - Monastic Culture
The Irish monasteries quickly won international renown for their scholarship, so that the descriptions “Irishman” (Scottus) and “scholar” came to be synonymous, and that princes, nobles, prelates, priests, and monks flocked from overseas for training in the several branches of Christian learning as well as in the religious life. Students from Anglo-Saxon England were particularly numerous, among them several whose names were to become famous in English history.

The texts and treatises studied being in Latin, a good grounding in that language was a primary requirement. The study of Latin awakened an interest in profane Latin literature, including the writings of Cicero, Horace, and Virgil, an interest so fruitful that some of the Irish scholars have to be numbered among the foremost Classical scholars of their time, while others rank among the finest Latin poets of the Carolingian age. The true genius of that age was John The Irishman (Johannes Scottus, alias Johannes Eriugena), poet, grammarian, philosopher, and theologian; a superb Latinist, an excellent Greek scholar, and a master dialectician. The attainments of such men are fully appreciated only when we recall that Ireland, unlike Britain and France, had never formed part of the Roman Empire and thus had no tradition of Latin culture.

A unique feature of the Latin culture of the Irish monasteries was the fact that it proved in no way inimical to the development of a written literature in the Gaelic vernacular. On the contrary, it was monks who adapted the Latin alphabet and Latin verse-forms to Gaelic requirements and who created the vernacular written literature. St Columcille was a famous protector of the fili, and an elegy on him by one of them, Dallán Forgaill, is the oldest securely dated (597) Irish poem we have. St Colmán of Cloyne was himself the author of some of the oldest surviving examples of the new verse. That lovely ancient tale, The Voyage of Bran, was first committed to writing in the monastery of Bangor. The célé Dé movement (p.27) of the eighth and ninth centuries has left us a body of personal lyrics, intimate nature poems which still delight. Clonmacnois and Terryglass have left us the oldest of our collections of secular tales. Not until the introduction of Continental Rules and Orders in the twelfth century did the written canon - as we may call it - of Gaelic secular lore finally pass into the guardianship of the famous secular families who conserved it throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. And even they conserved that canon as it had been arranged in the monastic codices.

The arts, too, owed much to the monasteries. Most of the finest metalwork of the period, exemplified by such masterpieces as the Ardagh Chalice (National Museum, Dublin), was produced for them and, like the other manifestations of ecclesiastical art, reflects their foreign connexions. Metalwork was an ancient, pre-Christian craft. So, too, was the stone-carving exemplified by gravestones, cross-slabs, and High Crosses (below). Both these crafts were probably practised in monastic ateliers; proof, however, is lacking. Book-painting, on the other hand, was an entirely new, and essentially monastic, art; and here there is no doubt about who produced it. The supreme masterpiece is the Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin).

The early monastery differed markedly from the highly organised monastery, with buildings of well-developed architecture, which was diffused throughout middle and western Europe from Carolingian times onwards. In essence it was but an adaptation to monastic purposes of the larger ringfort, and its primitive character accorded well with the ascetic temper of the early Irish Church: an enclosure ringed by one or more ramparts of earth or stone; within it one or more tiny churches or oratories, of the simplest form and, at first, of timber wherever possible; and series [26] of rude huts for the monks; similar structures for kitchen and refectory, as also for library, workshops, and school, where such existed; a series of crosses and cross-pillars; a cemetery with gravestones which might be decorated with delightful cross-patterns and whose inscriptions are normally in Irish, not Latin; from the tenth century onwards a lofty, free-standing, conical-roofed, circular belfry (Round Tower) whose impregnable strength and remote doorway made it also a convenient refuge when danger threatened. In time the timber churches were translated into stone, to give small, ill-lit, and usually single-chamber, buildings whose remains are normally devoid of ornament. However, a seventh century description of the church at Kildare, with its glowing shrines, its painted pictures, and its hangings, reminds that such remains are but fleshless skeletons of the dead. (So, too, for all their elaboration of ornament, are the remains of the Romanesque churches associated with the twelfth century reformation.)

Some monastic sites are noteworthy for their High Crosses, great freestanding crosses of stone whose elaborate carvings were doubtless picked out in colour. An early group, exemplified at Kilclispeen near Carrick-on-Suir, is characterised by predominantly abstract, overall ornament. A second group, nobly represented at Monasterboice, dates from the ninth or tenth centuries and may be linked with the célé Dé movement (below); it is characterised by panelled figurations of Scriptural themes.

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Monastic Decay: The céle Dé Movement
The missions abroad had quickly drawn attention to the eccentricities of the early monastic churches, and the Easter Controversy had led to the eclipse of Iona at the Synod of Whitby and to the withdrawal of Colmán of Lindisfarne from the English mission. The same controversy had involved Colmán of Luxeuil with the bishops of Burgundy. The irony of the situation was that the two namesakes had been defending positions already being abandoned at home.

Of greater moment than a wrongly calculated Easter, or an outlandish tonsure. were the evils which sprang from the Gaelic social system, and from the growth of the monasteries in privilege, wealth, and power. Some of the greater monasteries, notably those with schools, scriptoria. and ateliers, gradually grew into town-like centres inhabited by craftsmen, farm-workers, lay-tenants, and the like; that is to say, developed into corporations whose economic and political significance was bound to attract the attention of secular potentates. And always in the background as was the concept of the continuing interest of the founder’s fine in the headship of a monastery, of the continuing interest of the patron’s fine in its landed property. Small wonder if the headship of the monasteries tended to become hereditary and to fall into the hands of lay members of the ruling stocks.

While the decay of primitive simplicity and piety was enormously aggravated by the Viking wars (p.28), it was not caused by them. In the later eighth century, well before the first recorded Viking raids, monastic offices were already passing from father to son, and monasteries were already engaging in battle, even with other monasteries, to safeguard their material interests. Reaction to such evils found expression in the célé Dé (“culdee”) movement, which came to the fore in the eighth and ninth centuries, a movement characterised by anchoritic asceticism, puritanical idealism, and strict supervision by spiritual superiors. With these were combined choral duties and care of the poor, of the sick, and of travellers. The Viking wars arrested the natural development of the movement and, by the time they had subsided, few culdee houses survived. In its heyday, the movement had been one of great significance for art and literature, and has left as its memorials the great High Crosses of the ninth and tenth centuries and a remarkable body of personal lyrics (natural poems). [27]

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Norse Pirates and Traders
Ireland’s freedom from serious foreign aggression ended in 795 with a Viking raid on Lambay Island. Two centuries of devastation and destruction followed. At the outset the heathen ravagers came in small independent bands, and confined their “tip-and-run” forays to the seaboard. The attack entered on a more serious phase with the arrival, in 837, of a large fleet on the Boyne and Liffey, which became bases for plundering expeditions deep into the heart of the country. That year, too, a great Viking, Thorgestr (“Turgesius”), assumed the leadership of the scattered raiding parties. Even more ominous, Vikings set up a semi-permanent camp near the mouth of the Liffey. Two years later, Thorgestr brought a fleet to Lough Neagh and ravaged the North. In 841 he occupied Armagh, by then the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. That same year, the Viking camp by the Liffey became a permanent settlement, soon to grow into the seaport town of Dublin. In 844 Thorgestr established himself on Lough Ree, from which he wasted Meath and Connacht. The great monasteries of Inis Cealtra, Lorrha, Terryglass. Clonfert, and Clonmacnois, all were pillaged, Thorgestr’s wife. Ota, pronouncing pagan oracles from the principal altar at Clonmacnois. The following year, Melaghlin I (Máel-Shechlainn, “Malachy”) of Meath captured Thorgestr and drowned him.

In 847, Melaghlin succeeded to the kingship of Tara. His reign (847-62) was to prove a landmark in Irish history. About this time, Scandinavian activity in both Britain and Ireland was rising to a climax. Worse, Melaghlin found himself faced more than once with alliance between Gaelic king and Norse plunderer, even with alliances between Uí Néill rivals and the Norse. He proved himself the outstanding Irish king of the century, and raised the Uí Néill kingship of Tara to its greatest height, compelling Munster in 859 to concur in the transfer of the important kingdom of Ossory to the hegemony of Meath and, of greater moment still, to acknowledge for the first time the supremacy of a king of Tara (see Rahugh under Tullamore). The next year Munster forces marched alongside those of Connacht, Leinster, and Meath in Melaghlin’s campaign against rebellious Tír Eóghain.

By this time, Dublin was on the way to finding a place in Gaelic polity, and alliance - often by marriage - with the heathen was becoming a normal feature of the policy of the Gaelic kings. On the Norse side, trade was assuming an ever increasing importance, though raiding and plundering still took place as opportunity offered. The Battle of Killineer (near Drogheda) in 868 marks a critical stage in the Norse-Irish struggle, as well as exemplifying the new Norse r61e in Irish affairs. Here, Melaghlin’s successor, Áedh Finnliath of Tír Eóghain (862-79), who himself had not scrupled to join with Norse Dublin against Melaghlin, was confronted with a Leinster-Dublin-East Meath combination. He won the day, and was able to follow up his success by destroying for ever the Scandinavian strongholds in the North. Nevertheless, the disruption of the old order was now far advanced, and in 873, 876, 878, and 879 Aedh was unable to convene Aonach Tailteann (see Teltown under Donaghpatrick). Thereafter. the great annual assembly of the U N6i11 federation lapsed repeatedly.

The forty years after 876 were marked by a comparative lull in major Norse activity, a fresh phase of which opened with the arrival (914, 915) of fleets which set up a new raiding base at Waterford. In 919 came the disastrous Battle of Dublin, where the King of Tara (Niall Glúndub, eponymous successor of the O Néills of Tír Eóghain) was slain. This was followed by widespread campaigns of plundering and wasting based on new settlements (Limerick, Cork, Wexford) as well as on old. Luckily for Ireland, about this time (918-54) the Dublin Norse were dissipating their strength in efforts to get control of the Scandinavian kingdom of York.

The Norse wrought untold harm to Ireland. Mercilessly efficient, they were [28] trammelled in their search for lands and booty by neither Christian principle nor Gaelic convention, but slaughtered and laid waste all about them. Having learnt to counter like with like, the Irish kings soon began to apply Viking methods to their traditional quarrels also, and to discard the shackles which had rendered those quarrels harmless. From the ninth and tenth centuries onwards Gaelic battles too became ruthless; all over the country weaker stocks were forcibly subjected to stronger; ecclesiastical liberties were invaded; kings were dethroned and replaced by “strangers in sovereignty”; long-established landowning families were displaced by the kindred of conquerors; ancient federations were broken up. In the end the old Gaelic order was wrecked, and the strongest king in the country could make himself high-king of all. Organised religion suffered too: the monasteries, treasure-houses of art and nurseries of Latin learning and of Gaelic civilisation, were foremost among the victims of the Scandinavian plunderers-and of their Irish emulators; secularisation of the greater foundations was intensified; hundreds of minor houses and churches were turned into lay hereditaments claiming monastic privileges and exemptions. (There was, of course, a credit side to the account: the Scandinavian contribution to Irish trade, to Irish town life, and, in the twelfth century, to Irish art styles. The seaport towns, however, had their sinister aspect, for they prepared the way of the Normans and provided them with secure bases through which periodically to renew their strength.)

One of the first signs of a serious break in the established Gaelic tradition was the challenge (944) to the declining, now faction-ridden, Eóghanacht supremacy in Munster by Cennótig, king of the obscure Dál Chais (eastern Clare). Twenty years later Cennétig’s son and successor, Mahon, captured Cashel and made himself, in effect, over-king of Munster. Three years after that, Mahon and his brother, Brian Boru, routed the Limerick Norse at Solohead (near Tipperary) and sacked their city. The sequel was the collapse of both Eóghanacht and Norse power in Munster (976-8) and the unchallenged supremacy of Brian Boru in the South by 979. Brian’s triumph in Munster coincided with the accession (980) of Melaghlin II of Meath to the Kingship of Tara. Rivalry between the two kings was inevitable. They were, however, for a time evenly matched, and it was not until 997 that Melaghlin surrendered the claims he had inherited from Melaghlin I and acknowledged Brian’s supremacy in the southern half of Ireland, including Leinster. The two kings signalised their accord by joint action against the Norse settlements the following year.

King Máel-Mórdha of Leinster proved no more submissive to Brian than he or any of his predecessors had been to the Kings of Tara. He found a ready ally in Norse Dublin, which by now had become more or less a permanent dependency of Leinster. Brian, however, trapped the Leinster-Dublin army in Gleann Márna on the western side of the Wicklow mountains and won a resounding victory (999) which he followed up by plundering Dublin, and by forcing Máel-Mórdha to give the customary hostages for good behaviour. Brian’s way was now clear for a final contest with Melaghlin. The tussle between them dragged on until 1002, when Melaghlin, unable to rally Uí Néill support, bowed to the inevitable. The northern kings, however, though riven by dissension, would have none of Brian, and it required several expeditions against them to force their submission. By 1005, however, Brian was strong enough to go to go to Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital, there to present himself in the great church as Imperator Scottorum, “Emperor of the Irish”. On Tír Connaill refused to submit.

Brian was the most famous king in early Irish history, and the legends which grew around him make him first and foremost a life-long leader of resistance to the Norse. They also credit him with active measures to restore religion, learning, and [29] civilisation, and with endeavouring in every way to undo something of the damage the Scandinavians had wrought. The account may be exaggerated, but the achievement must have been substantial. In the political sphere his one innovation was the nominal high-kingship. In fact he seems to have respected the traditional rights of the over-kingdoms. Notwithstanding this, Leinster continued to chafe at the bit and in 1013 set about organising a widespread rebellion against him. The midlands were soon the scene of moves and countermoves, in the course of which Melaghlin attacked Dublin territory. Leinster sprang to Dublin’s aid and forced Melaghlin to appeal to Brian for help. The latter harried Leinster and Ossory with Munster-Connacht forces and blockaded Dublin, but had in the end to withdraw without satisfaction. Both sides then set about gathering forces for a decisive encounter.

Brian’s call for support was answered only by two of the South Connacht kingdoms, by the Mór-máer (Earl) of Marr in Scotland, and by Melaghlin; and Melaghlin withdrew before battle was joined at Clontarf outside Dublin on Good Friday 1014. On the opposing side were ranged the forces of North Leinster and Dublin, reinforced by Norse contingents from Man and the Orkneys. The battle - the greatest in early Irish history - lasted all day and was stubbornly contested. It ended in complete victory for the high-king’s army, but Brian himself, his son Murchad, and his grandson Turloch were slain.

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Reorganisation of the Church
When the Scandinavian tempest died away in the eleventh century, there set in a new phase of Irish pilgrimages to Rome and other holy places abroad, and of Irish monastic foundations on the Continent (even in Rome itself). In this way Irish kings, as well as ecclesiastics, made contact with the Cluniac and Hildebrandine movements which were reorganising monasticism and freeing bishops and popes from subservience to secular rulers to raise them to unprecedented heights of authority. Irish participation in the movements quickly followed, kings and churchmen uniting to improve private morals, to cleanse and revive monasticism, and to provide the country with a normal diocesan system. To help in the undertaking they invited the assistance of the great European orders of monks, notably of the Tironian, Savigny, and Cistercian Benedictines and of the Canons Regular of St Augustine. Ominously enough, the assistance sometimes came from monasteries in Normandy and in Norman England.

To the establishment of the diocesan system the Norse settlements, now Christian, made a significant contribution, for their first bishops, as well as being the first bishops in Ireland to rule clearly defined dioceses, ominously acknowledged the primacy of Canterbury, and that despite the fact that they were all native-born Gaels. Giolla Easbuig (“Gilbert”), who became bishop of the Norse diocese of Limerick in 1105, appears to have been the initiator of Hildebrandine reforms in Ireland. His active zeal led to his appointment as papal legate, in which capacity he presided in 1111 over a synod held at Rath Breasail in the presence of Muircheartach O Brien, contender for the high-kingship. Other reforming synods followed, the last being the synod of Kells (1152) which gave the Irish Church its enduring diocesan system under the primacy of Armagh. (It was not without significance that obstacles had been placed in the way of the papal legate a latere, Cardinal Paparo, on his journey across England.)

The greatest of the Irish reformers was undoubtedly St Máel M;Aedhóig (“Malachy”) Úa Morgair (see Bangor and Armagh). His journeys to Rome as representative of the Irish bishops brought him into contact with the Augustines of Arrouaise and with St Bernard of Clairvaux, and so led to the introduction of both Arrosians and Cistercians into Ireland. Canons Regular of St Augustine are said [30] to have been in Armagh by 1126. Máel, M;Aedhóig seems to have introduced them to Bangor, Downpatrick, and Saul about 1135-40. Benedictines were brought from Savigny in Normandy to Carrick (Erynagh; see under Downpatrick) as early as 1127 by Niall Mac Dunleavy, King of Ulster, and St Mary’s Abbey, Dublin, was founded for the same order in 1139. Tironians are said to have been at Holy Cross Abbey (see under Thurles) and at Fermoy before 1135. In 1142 Máel M;Aedhólg brought the first Cistercians to Mellifont. In 1158 steps were taken to organise the remaining Columban monasteries in a single congregation under the abbot of Derry. The Norman invasion wrecked this particular project, and all the surviving monasteries of ancient foundation seem to have become houses of Augustinian Canons Regular.

This eleventh and twelfth century reformation made a distinctive contribution to the arts, the most important development being in architecture. The need for diocesan cathedrals stimulated the adoption of the Romanesque style - in a distinctively Irish guise. The first dated example, Cormac’s “Chapel” at Cashel (1127-34) exemplifies not only the Continental and English influences at work, but also the small size of the buildings needed to meet the social and economic conditions of the time. Despite its unique towers, this tiny cathedral is only a nave-and-chancel structure. Indeed, the small, aisleless, nave-and-chancel church appears to have been the utmost of which the twelfth century Irish mason was capable (and in many of the Romanesque churches the chancel is an addition). In due course, the great Orders, notably the Augustinians and the Cistercians, introduced Transitional-style monasteries, cathedrals, and churches of the highly organised, elaborate kinds to which they were accustomed. To do so, they had to bring over experienced masons, but the Irish craftsmen soon imparted a local stamp to buildings which, by European standards, were modest in size.

Closely related to the Romanesque churches was a new style of sculpture well-represented (at such places as Cashel, Kilfenora, and Tuam) by High Crosses which are characterised by large figures and by Scandinavian (Urnes) style ornament. Urnes influence is also a feature of the art-metalwork of the time, outstanding examples of which are the Cross of Cong (National Museum, Dublin) and St Manchán’s Shrine (Boher Church, see under Clara). The vitality of the contemporary literati is also well attested. Secular and religious literature were gathered into great bibliotheca like the so-called Book of Leinster, compiled by an abbot of Terryglass, and Lebor na hUidre (“The Book of the Dun Cow”), compiled at Clonmacnois. In this period, too, ballad poems made their first recorded appearance, Finn tales found their way into the canon of upper-class literature, and early Gaelic story-telling reached its culmination in Acallamh na Senórach (“The Colloquy of the Ancient Men”).

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The Close of the Gaelic Epoch
Brian’s high-kingship marked the end of the old Gaelic order. Unfortunately, with Murchad amid Turloch dead, there was no one in Dál Chais capable of filling Brian’s place, and his high-kingship collapsed. Not until 1073 could any real attempt be made to replace it. In that year, Dál Chais having recovered the hegemony of Munster, Turloch Mór Ó Brien (Ó Briain “descendant of Brian”), found himself strong enough to enforce the submission of Meath and Connacht. An attempt to force the submission of the North led to his defeat at Ardee, a defeat, however, which could not prevent him from installing a kinsman in the : kingship of Teallach Óg in Tír Eóghan itself, just as he installed his son Muirchertach in the Norse kingship of Dublin. These were classical examples of “strangers in sovereignty”.

Turloch’s death in 1086 was followed by more than twenty years of intermittent struggle for supremacy between Dál Chais and Tír Eóghain. Then a new actor, [31] Connacht, moved to the front of the stage. By an obscure process, the O Conor kings of Connacht had been advancing in strength and winning control of lands outside their domestic territories. By 1118, King Turloch Mór O Conor was strong enough to partition Munster between the Eoghanacht and Dál Chais. This division of the southern over-kingdom into Desmond (South Munster) and Thomond (North Munster) was to prove as lasting as it was fatal. Turloch next (1125) invaded Meath and partitioned that strategic kingdom between three local rulers of his own choice; this partitioning, too, was to prove disastrous for Gaelic Ireland. Dynastic rivalries in Leinster enabled him to lead his armies at will through that kingdom, and to emulate Turloch Ó Brien by imposing first (1126) his son Conor, later (1127) a North Leinster prince, on the Norse of Dublin. He also endeavoured to impose his son on Leinster itself, and later, on Meath. His most faithful adherent was Tiernan O Rourke of Breany, one of the stronger and expanding sub-kingdoms of Connacht (roughly Cos. Leitrim and Cavan). Him he rewarded with large tracts of Meath. Further designs on Meath were indicated by the erection (1129) of a fortress (“the first castle in Ireland”) to command the Shannon crossing at Athlone, gateway to the Midlands. Athlone lay outside the historic lands of the O Conors, as also did Tuam, which about this time became the royal seat of Connacht and was soon to become the ecclesiastical capital as well. The zenith of Turloch’s power was reached in 1152, when he presided as high-king over the national synod of Kells in the presence of the papal legate.

When Turloch’s reign came to a close in 1156, Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn asserted the claims of Tír Eóghain to the high-kingship. Leinster had acknowledged him as far back as 1145, but Connacht and Munster resisted him at first. In 1161, however, Connacht too submitted, the price being Muirchertach’s acknowledgement of Connacht supremacy in the western half of Meath. Five years later, Muirchertach was overthrown, in consequence of a crime which shocked his supporters, and Rory O Conor, son of Turloch and his successor on the throne of Connacht, became high-king. As such, he presided in 1167 over the national synod of Tlachtga (Hill of Ward, near Athboy) and in 1168 over a national assembly at the site of Aonach Tailteann. The downfall of Gaelic Ireland was at hand, but no one in Ireland had eyes for the portents long visible. [32].

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