(A.D. 920), when the Dublin Danes, having marched out, taken and burned Kells, in Meath, were on their return through the plain of Breagh, attacked and routed with unprecedented slaughter. "There fell of the nobles of the Norsemen here," say the old Annalists, "as many as fell of the nobles and plebeians of the Irish, at Ath-Cliath" (Dublin). The Northern Hydra, however, was not left headless. Godfrey, grandson of Ivar, and Tomar, son of Algi, took command at Dublin, and Limerick, infusing new life into the remnant of their race. The youthful son of the late king, soon after at the head of a strong force (A.D. 921), compelled Godfrey to retreat from Ulster, to his ships, and to return by sea to Dublin. This was Murkertach, fondly called by the elegiac Bards, "the Hector of the West," and for his heroic achievements, not undeserving to be named after the gallant defender of Troy. Murkertach first appears in our annals at the year 921, and disappears in the thick of the battle in 938. His whole career covers seventeen years; his position throughout was subordinate and expectant--for King Donogh outlived his heir: but there are few names in any age of the history of his country more worthy of historical honour than his. While Donogh was king in name, Murkertach was king in fact; on him devolved the burden of every negotiation, and the brunt of every battle. Unlike his ancestor, Hugh of Aileach, in his opposition to Donogh's ancestor, Malachy I., he never attempts to counteract the king, or to harass him in his patrimony. He rather does what is right and needful himself, leaving Donogh to claim the credit, if he be so minded. True, a coolness and a quarrel arises between them, and even "a challenge of battle" is exchanged, but better councils prevail, peace is restored, and the king and the Roydamna march as one man against the common enemy. It has been said of another but not wholly dissimilar form of government, that Crown-Princes are always in opposition; if this saying holds good of father and son, as occupant and expectant of a throne, how much more likely is it to be true of a successor and a principal, chosen from different dynasties, with a view to combine, or at worst to balance, conflicting hereditary interests? In the conduct of Murkertach, we admire, in turn, his many shining personal qualities, which even tasteless panegyric cannot hide, and the prudence, self-denial, patience, and preservance with which he awaits his day of power. Unhappily, for one every way so worthy of it, that day never arrived!
At no former period,--not even at the height of the tyranny of Turgesius,--was a capable Prince more needed in Erin. The new generation of Northmen were again upon all the estuaries and inland waters of the Island. In the years 923-4 and 5, their light armed vessels swarmed on Lough Erne, Lough Ree, and other lakes, spreading flame and terror on every side. Clonmacnoise and Kildare, slowly recovering from former pillage, were again left empty and in ruins. Murkertach, the base of whose early operations was his own patrimony in Ulster, attacked near Newry a Northern division under the command of the son of Godfrey (A.D. 926), and left 800 dead on the field. The escape of the remnant was only secured by Godfrey marching rapidly to their relief and covering the retreat. His son lay with the dead. In the years 933, at Slieve Behma, in his own Province, Murkertach won a third victory; and in 936, taking political advantage of the result of the great English battle of Brunanburgh, which had so seriously diminished the Danish strength, the Roydamna, in company with the King, assaulted Dublin, expelled its garrison, levelled its fortress, and left the dwellings of the Northmen in ashes. From Dublin they proceeded southward, through Leinster and Munster, and after taking hostages of every tribe, Donogh returned to his Methian home and Murkertach to Aileach. While resting in his own fort (A.D. 939), he was surprised by a party of Danes, and carried off to their ships, but, says the old translator of the Annals of Clonmacnoise, "he made a good escape from them, as it was God's will." The following season he redoubled his efforts against the enemy. Attacking them on their own element, he ravaged their settlements on the Scottish coasts and among the isles of Insi-Gall (the Hebrides), returned laden with spoils, and hailed with acclamations as the liberator of his people.
Of the same age with Murkertach, the reigning Prince at Cashel was Kellachan, one of the heroes of the latter Bards and Story-tellers of the South. The romantic tales of his capture by the Danes, and captivity in their fleet at Dundalk, of the love which Sitrick's wife bore him, and of his gallant rescue by the Dalcassians and Eugenians, have no historical sanction. He was often both at war and at peace with the foreigners of Cork and Limerick, and did not hesitate more than once to employ their arms for the maintenance of his own supremacy; but his only authentic captivity was, as a hostage, in the hands of Murkertach. While the latter was absent, on his expedition to Insi-Gall, Kellachan fell upon the Deisi and Ossorians, and inflicted severe chastisement upon them-alleging, as his provocation, that they had given hostages to Murkertach, and acknowledged him as Roydamna of all Erin, in contempt of the co-equal rights of Cashel. When Murkertach returned from his Scotch expedition, and heard what had occurred, and on what pretext Kellachan had acted, he assembled at Aileach all the branches of the Northern Hy-Nial, for whom this was cause, indeed. Out of these he selected 1000 chosen men, whom he provided, among other equipments, with those "leathern coats," which lent a soubriquet to his name; and with these "ten hundred heroes," he set out--strong in his popularity and his alliances--to make a circuit of the entire island (A.D. 940). He departed from Aileach, says his Bard, whose Itinerary we have, "keeping his left hand to the sea;" Dublin, once more rebuilt, acknowledged his title, and Sitrick, one of its lords, went with him as hostage for Earl Blacair and his countrymen; Leinster surrendered him Lorcan, its King; Kellachan, of Cashel, overawed by his superior fortune, advised his own people not to resist by force, and consented to become himself the hostage for all Munster. In Connaught, Conor, (from whom the O'Conors take their family name), son of the Prince, came voluntarily to his camp, and was received with open arms. Kellachan alone was submitted to the indignity of wearing a fetter. With these distinguished hostages, Murkertach and his leather-cloaked "ten hundred" returned to Aileach, where, for five months, they spent a season of unbounded rejoicing. In the following year, the Roydamna transferred the hostages to King Donogh, as his suzerain, thus setting the highest example of obedience from the highest place. He might now look abroad over all the tribes of Erin, and feel himself without a rival among his countrymen. He stood at the very summit of his good fortune, when the Danes of Dublin, reinforced from abroad, after his "Circuit," renewed their old plundering practices. They marched north, at the close of winter, under Earl Blacair, their destination evidently being Armagh. Murkertach, with some troops hastily collected, disputed their passage at the ford of Ardee. An engagement ensued on Saturday, the 4th of March, 943, in which the noble Roydamna fell. King Donogh, to whose reign his vigorous spirit has given its main historical importance, survived him but a twelvemonth; the Monarch died in the bed of repose; his destined successor in the thick of battle.
The death of the brave and beloved Murkertach filled all Erin with grief and rage, and as King Donogh was too old to avenge his destined successor, that duty devolved on Congal, the new Roydamna. In the year after the fatal action at Ardee, Congal, with Brann, King of Leinster, and Kellach, heir of Leinster, assaulted and took Dublin, and wreaked a terrible revenge for the nation's loss. The "women, children, and plebeians," were carried off captive; the greater part of the garrison were put to the sword; but a portion escaped in their vessels to their fortress on Dalkey, an island in the bay of Dublin. This was the third time within a century that Dublin had been rid of its foreign yoke, and yet as the Gaelic-Irish would not themselves dwell in fortified towns, the site remained open and unoccupied, to be rebuilt as often as it might be retaken. The gallant Congal, the same year, succeeded on the death of Donogh to the sovereignty, and, so soon as he had secured his seat, and surrounded it with sufficient hostages, he showed that he could not only avenge the death, but imitate the glorious life of him whose place he held. Two considerable victories in his third and fourth years increased his fame, and rejoiced the hearts of his countrymen: the first was won at Slane, aided by the Lord of Breffni (O'Ruarc), and by Olaf the Crooked, a northern chief. The second was fought at Dublin (947), in which Blacair, the victor at Ardee, and 1,600 of his men were slain. Thus was the death of Murkertach finally avenged.
It is very remarkable that the first conversions to Christianity among the Danes of Dublin should have taken place immediately after these successive defeats--in 948. Nor, although quite willing to impute the best and most disinterested motives to these first neophytes, can we shut our eyes to the fact that no change of life, such as we might reasonably look for, accompanied their change of religion. Godfrid, son of Sitrick, and successor of Blacair, who professed himself a Christian in 948, plundered and destroyed the churches of East-Meath in 949, burnt 150 persons in the oratory of Drumree, and carried off as captives 3,000 persons. If the tree is to be judged by its fruits, this first year's growth of the new faith is rather alarming. It compels us to disbelieve the sincerity of Godfrid, at least, and the fighting men who wrought these outrages and sacrileges. It forces us to rank them with the incorrigible heathens who boasted that they had twenty times received the Sacrament of Baptism, and valued it for the twenty white robes which had been presented to them on those occasions. Still, we must endeavour hereafter, when we can, to distinguish Christian from Pagan Danes, and those of Irish birth, sons of the first comers, from the foreign-born kinsmen of their ancestors. Between these two classes there grew a gulf of feeling and experience, which a common language and common dangers only partially bridged over. Not seldom the interests and inclinations of the Irish-born Dane, especially if a true Christian, were at open variance with the interests and designs of the new arrivals from Denmark, and it is generally, if not invariably, with the former, that the Leinster and other Irish Princes enter into coalitions for common political purposes. The remainder of the reign of Congal is one vigorous battle. The Lord of Breffni, who had fought beside him on the hill of Slane, advanced his claim to be recognised Roydamna, and this being denied, broke out into rebellion and harassed his patrimony. Donald, son of Murkertach, and grandson of Nial, (the first who took the name of Uai-Nial, or O'Neill), disputed these pretensions of the Lord of Breffni; carried his boats overland from Aileach to Lough Erne in Fermanagh, and Lough Oughter in Cavan; attacked the lake-islands, where the treasure and hostages of Breffni were kept, and carried them off to his own fortress. The warlike and indefatigable king was in the field summer and winter enforcing his authority on Munster and Connaught, and battling with the foreign garrisons between times. No former Ard-Righ had a severer struggle with the insubordinate elements which beset him from first to last. His end was sudden, but not inglorious. In returning from the chariot-races at the Curragh of Kildare, he was surprised and slain in an ambuscade laid for him by Godfrid at a place on the banks of the Liffey called Tyraris or Teeraris house. By his side, fighting bravely, fell the lords of Teffia and Ferrard, two of his nephews, and others of his personal attendants and companions. The Dublin Danes had in their turn a day of rejoicing and of revenge for the defeats they had suffered at Congal's hands.
This reign is not only notable for the imputed first conversion of the Danes to Christianity, but also for the general adoption of family names. Hitherto, we have been enabled to distinguish clansmen only by tribe-names formed by prefixing Hy, Kinnel, Sil, Muintir, Dal, or some synonymous term, meaning race, kindred, sept, district, or part, to the proper name of a remote common ancestor, as Hy-Nial, Kinnel-Connel, Sil-Murray, Muintir-Eolais, Dal-g Cais, and Dal-Riada. But the great tribes now begin to break into families, and we are hereafter to know particular houses, by distinct hereditary surnames, as O'Neill, O'Conor, MacMurrough, and McCarthy. Yet, the whole body of relatives are often spoken of by the old tribal title, which, unless exceptions are named, is supposed to embrace all the descendants of the old connection to whom it was once common. At first this alternate use of tribe and family names may confuse the reader--for it is rather puzzling to find a MacLoughlin with the same paternal ancestor as an O'Neill, and a McMahon of Thomond as an O'Brien, but the difficulty disappears with use and familiarity, and though the number and variety of newly-coined names cannot be at once committed to memory, the story itself gains in distinctness by the change.
In the year 955, Donald O'Neill, son of the brave and beloved Murkertach, was recognised as Ard-Righ, by the required number of Provinces, without recourse to coercion. But it was not to be expected that any Ard-Righ should, at this period of his country's fortunes, reign long in peace. War was then the business of the King; the first art he had to learn, and the first to practise. Warfare in Ireland had not been a stationary science since the arrival of the Norwegians and their successors, the Danes. Something they may have acquired from the natives, and in turn the natives were not slow to copy whatever seemed most effective in their tactics. Donald IV. was the first to imitate their habit of employing armed boats on the inland lakes. He even improved on their example, by carrying these boats with him overland, and launching them wherever he needed their co-operation; as we have already seen him do in his expedition against Breffni, while Roydamna, and as we find him doing again, in the seventh year of his reign, when he carried his boats overland from Armagh to West-Meath in order to employ them on Loch Ennell, near Mullingar. He was at this time engaged in making his first royal visitation of the Provinces, upon which he spent two months in Leinster, with all his forces, coerced the Munster chiefs by fire and sword into obedience, and severely punished the insubordination of Fergal O'Ruarc, King of Connaught. His fleet upon Loch Ennell, and his severities generally while in their patrimony, so exasperated the powerful families of the Southern Hy-Nial (the elder of which was now known as O'Melaghlin), that on the first opportunity they leagued with the Dublin Danes, under their leader, Olaf "the Crooked" (A.D. 966), and drove King Donald out of Leinster and Meath, pursuing him across Slieve-Fuaid, almost to the walls of Aileach. But the brave tribes of Tyrconnell and Tyrowen rallied to his support, and he pressed south upon the insurgents of Meath and Dublin; West-Meath he rapidly overran, and "planted a garrison in every cantred from the Shannon to Kells," In the campaigns which now succeeded each other, without truce or pause, for nearly a dozen years, the Leinster people generally sympathised with and assisted those of West-Meath, and Olaf, of Dublin, who recruited his ranks by the junction of the Lagmans, a warlike tribe, from Insi-Gall (the Hebrides). Ossory, on the other hand, acted with the monarch, and the son of its Tanist (A.D. 974) was slain before Dublin, by Olaf and his Leinster allies, with 2,600 men, of Ossory and Ulster. The campaign of 978 was still more eventful: the Leinster men quarrelled with their Danish allies, who had taken their king captive, and in an engagement at Belan, near Athy, defeated their forces, with the loss of the heir of Leinster, the lords of Kinsellagh, Lea and Morett, and other chiefs. King Donald had no better fortune at Killmoon, in Meath, the same season, where he was utterly routed by the same force, with the loss of Ardgal, heir of Ulidia, and Kenneth, lord of Tyrconnell. But for the victories gained about the same period in Munster, by Mahon and Brian, the sons of Kennedy, over the Danes of Limerick, of which we shall speak more fully hereafter, the balance of victory would have strongly inclined towards the Northmen at this stage of the contest.
A leader, second in fame and in services only to Brian, was now putting forth his energies against the common enemy, in Meath. This was Melaghlin, better known afterwards as Malachy II., son of Donald, son of King Donogh, and, therefore, great-grandson to his namesake, Malachy I. He had lately attained to the command of his tribe--and he resolved to earn the honours which were in store for him, as successor to the sovereignty. In the year 979, the Danes of Dublin and the Isles marched in unusual strength into Meath, under the command of Rannall, son of Olaf the Crooked, and Connail, "the Orator of Ath-Cliath," (Dublin). Malachy, with his allies, gave them battle near Tara, and achieved a complete victory. Earl Rannall and the Orator were left dead on the field, with, it is reported, 5,000 of the foreigners. On the Irish side fell the heir of Leinster, the lord of Morgallion and his son; the lords of Fertullagh and Cremorne, and a host of their followers. The engagement, in true Homeric spirit, had been suspended on three successive nights, and renewed three successive days. It was a genuine pitched battle--a trial of main strength, each party being equally confident of victory. The results were most important, and most gratifying to the national pride. Malachy, accompanied by his friend, the lord of Ulidia (Down), moved rapidly on Dublin, which, in its panic, yielded to all his demands. The King of Leinster and 2,000 other prisoners were given up to him without ransom. The Danish Earls solemnly renounced all claims to tribute or fine from any of the dwellers without their own walls. Malachy remained in the city three days, dismantled its fortresses, and carried off its hostages and treasure. The unfortunate Olaf the Crooked fled beyond seas, and died at Iona, in exile, and a Christian. In the same year, and in the midst of universal rejoicing, Donald IV. died peacefully and piously at Armagh, in the 24th year of his reign. He was succeeded by Malachy, who was his sister's son, and in whom all the promise of the lamented Murkertach seemed to revive.
The story of Malachy II. is so interwoven with the still-more illustrious career of Brian Borooa, that it will not lose in interest by being presented in detail. But before entering on the rivalry of these great men, we must again remark on the altered position which the Northmen of this age hold to the Irish from that which existed formerly. A century and a half had now elapsed since their first settlement in the seaports, especially of the eastern and southern Provinces. More than one generation of their descendants had been born on the banks of the Liffey, the Shannon, and the Suir. Many of them had married into Irish families, had learned the language of the country, and embraced its religion. When Limerick was taken by Brian, Ivar, its Danish lord, fled for sanctuary to Scattery Island, and when Dublin was taken by Malachy II., Olaf the Crooked fled to Iona. Inter-marriages with the highest Gaelic families became frequent, after their conversion to Christianity. The mother of Malachy, after his father's death, had married Olaf of Dublin, by whom she had a son, named Gluniarran (Iron-Knee, from his armour), who was thus half-brother to the King. It is natural enough to find him the ally of Malachy, a few years later, against Ivar of Waterford; and curious enough to find Ivar's son called Gilla-Patrick--servant of Patrick. Kellachan of Cashel had married a Danish, and Sitrick "of the Silken beard," an Irish lady. That all the Northmen were not, even in Ireland, converted in one generation, is evident. Those of Insi-Gall were still, perhaps, Pagans; those of the Orkneys and of Denmark, who came to the battle of Clontarf in the beginning of the next century, chose to fight on Good Friday under the advice of their heathen Oracles. The first half of the eleventh century, the age of Saint Olaf and of Canute, is the era of the establishment of Christianity among the Scandinavians, and hence the necessity for distinguishing between those who came to Ireland, direct from the Baltic, from those who, born in Ireland and bred up in the Christian faith, had as much to apprehend from such an invasion, as the Celts themselves.