REIGN OF FLAN "OF THE SHANNON" (A.D. 879 TO 916).
Midway in the reign we are called upon to contemplate, falls the centenary of the first invasion of Ireland by the Northmen. Let us admit that the scenes of that century are stirring and stimulating; two gallant races of men, in all points strongly contrasted, contend for the most part in the open field, for the possession of a beautiful and fertile island. Let us admit that the Milesian-Irish, themselves invaders and conquerors of an older date, may have had no right to declare the era of colonization closed for their country, while its best harbours were without ships, and leagues of its best land were without inhabitants; yet what gives to the contest its lofty and fearful interest, is, that the foreigners who come so far and fight so bravely for the prize, are a Pagan people, drunk with the evil spirit of one of the most anti-Christian forms of human error. And what is still worse, and still more to be lamented, it is becoming, after the experience of a century, plainer and plainer, that the Christian natives, while defending with unfaltering courage their beloved country, are yet descending more and more to the moral level of their assailants, without the apology of their Paganism. Degenerate civilisation may be a worse element for truth to work in than original barbarism; and, therefore, as we enter on the second century of this struggle, we begin to fear for the Christian Irish, not from the arms or the valour, but from the contact and example of the unbelievers. This, it is necessary to premise, before presenting to the reader a succession of Bishops who lead armies to battle, of Abbots whose voice is still for war, of treacherous tactics and savage punishments; of the almost total disruption of the last links of that federal bond, which, "though light as air were strong as iron," before the charm of inviolability had been taken away from the ancient constitution.
We begin to discern in this reign that royal marriages have much to do with war and politics. Hugh, the late king, left a widow, named Maelmara ("follower of Mary"), daughter to Kenneth M'Alpine, King of the Caledonian Scots: this lady Flan married. The mother of Flan was the daughter of Dungal, Prince of Ossory, so that to the cotemporary lords of that borderland the monarch stood in the relation of cousin. A compact seems to have been entered into in the past reign, that the Roydamna, or successor, should be chosen alternately from the Northern and Southern Hy-Nial; and, subsequently, when Nial, son of his predecessor, assumed that onerous rank, Flan gave him his daughter Gormley, celebrated for her beauty, her talents, and her heartlessness, in marriage. From these several family ties, uniting him so closely with Ossory, with the Scots, and with his successor, much of the wars and politics of Flan Siona's reign take their cast and complexion. A still more fruitful source of new complications was the co-equal power, acquired through a long series of aggressions, by the kings of Cashel. Their rivalry with the monarchy, from the beginning of the eighth till the end of the tenth century, was a constant cause of intrigues, coalitions, and wars, reminding us of the constant rivalry of Athens with Sparta, of Genoa with Venice. This kingship of Cashel, according to the Munster law of succession, "the will of Olild," ought to have alternated regularly between the descendants of his sons, Eugene More and Cormac Cas--the Eugenians and Dalcassians. But the families of the former kindred were for many centuries the more powerful of the two, and frequently set at nought the testamentary law of their common ancestor, leaving the tribe of Cas but the border-land of Thomond, from which they had sometimes to pay tribute to Cruachan, and at others to Cashel. In the ninth century the competition among the Eugenian houses--of which too many were of too nearly equal strength--seems to have suggested a new expedient, with the view of permanently setting aside the will of Olild. This was, to confer the kingship when vacant, on whoever happened to be Bishop of Emly or of Cashel, or on some other leading ecclesiastical dignitary, always provided that he was of Eugenian descent; a qualification easily to be met with, since the great sees and abbacies were now filled, for the most part, by the sons of the neighbouring chiefs. In this way we find Cenfalad, Felim, and Olcobar, in this century, styled Prince-Bishops or Prince-Abbots. The principal domestic difficulty of Flan Siona's reign followed from the elevation of Cormac, son of Cuillenan, from the see of Emly to the throne of Cashel.
Cormac, a scholar, and, as became his calling, a man of peace, was thus, by virtue of his accession, the representative of the old quarrel between his predecessors and the dominant race of kings. All Munster asserted that it was never the intention of their common ancestors to subject the southern half of Erin to the sway of the north; that Eber and Owen More had resisted such pretensions when advanced by Eremhon and Conn of the Hundred Battles; that the esker from Dublin to Galway was the true division, and that, even admitting the title of the Hy-Nial king as Ard-Righ, all the tribes south of the esker, whether in Leinster or Connaught, still owed tribute by ancient right to Cashel. Their antiquaries had their own version in of "the Book of Rights," which countenanced these claims to co-equal dominion, and their Bards drew inspiration from the same high pretensions. Party spirit ran so high that tales and prophecies were invented to show how St. Patrick had laid his curse on Tara, and promised dominion to Cashel and to Dublin in its stead. All Leinster, except the lordship of Ossory-- identical with the present diocese of the same name-was held by the Brehons of Cashel to be tributary to their king; and this Borooa or tribute, abandoned by the monarchs at the intercession of Saint Moling, was claimed for the Munster rulers as an inseparable adjunct of their southern kingdom.
The first act of Flan Siona, on his accession, was to dash into Munster, demanding hostages at the point of the sword, and sweeping over both Thomond and Desmond with irresistible force, from Clare to Cork. With equal promptitude he marched through every territory of Ulster, securing, by the pledges of their heirs and Tanists, the chiefs of the elder tribes of the Hy-Nial. So effectually did he consider his power established over the provinces, that he is said to have boasted to one of his hostages, that he would, with no other attendants than his own servants, play a game of chess on Thurles Green, without fear of interruption. Carrying out this foolish wager, he accordingly went to his game at Thurles, and was very properly taken prisoner for his temerity, and made to pay a smart ransom to his captors. So runs the tale, which, whether true or fictitious, is not without its moral. Flan experienced greater difficulty with the tribes of Connaught, nor was it till the thirteenth year of his reign (892) that Cathal, their Prince, "came into his house," in Meath, "under the protection of the clergy" of Clonmacnoise, and made peace with him. A brief interval of repose seems to have been vouchsafed to this Prince, in the last years of the century; but a storm was gathering over Cashel, and the high pretensions of the Eugenian line were again to be put to the hazard of battle.
Cormac, the Prince-Bishop, began his rule over Munster in the year 900 of our common era, and passed some years in peace, after his accession. If we believe his panegyrists, the land over which he bore sway, "was filled with divine grace and worldly prosperity," and with order so unbroken, "that the cattle needed no cowherd, and the flocks no shepherd, so long as he was king." Himself an antiquary and a lover of learning, it seems but natural that "many books were written, and many schools opened," by his liberality. During this enviable interval, councillors of less pacific mood than their studious master were not wanting to stimulate his sense of kingly duty, by urging him to assert the claim of Munster to the tribute of the southern half of Erin. As an antiquary himself, Cormac must have been bred up in undoubting belief in the justice of that claim, and must have given judgment in favour of its antiquity and validity, before his accession. These dicta of his own were now quoted with emphasis, and he was besought to enforce, by all the means within his reach, the learned judgments he himself had delivered. The most active advocate of a recourse to arms was Flaherty, Abbot of Scattery, in the Shannon, himself an Eugenian, and the kinsman of Cormac. After many objections, the peaceful Prince-Bishop allowed himself to be persuaded, and in the year 907 he took up his line of march, "in the fortnight of the harvest," from Cashel toward Gowran, at the head of all the armament of Munster. Lorcan, son of Lactna, and grandfather of Brian, commanded the Dalcassians, under Cormac; and Oliol, lord of Desies, and the warlike Abbot of Scattery, led on the other divisions. The monarch marched southward to meet his assailants, with his own proper troops, and the contingents of Connaught under Cathel, Prince of that Province, and those of Leinster under the lead of Kerball, their king. Both armies met at Ballaghmoon, in the southern corner of Kildare, not far from the present town of Carlow, and both fought with most heroic bravery. The Munster forces were utterly defeated; the Lords of Desies, of Fermoy, of Kinalmeaky, and of Kerry, the Abbots of Cork and Kennity, and Cormac himself, with 6,000 men, fell on the ensanguined field. The losses of the victors are not specified, but the 6,000, we may hope, included the total of the slain on both sides. Flan at once improved the opportunity of victory by advancing into Ossory, and establishing his cousin Dermid, son of Kerball, over that territory. This Dermid, who appears to have been banished by Munster intrigues, had long resided with his royal cousin, previous to the battle, from which he was probably the only one that derived any solid advantage. As to the Abbot Flaherty, the instigator of this ill-fated expedition, he escaped from the conquerors, and, safe in his island sanctuary, gave himself up for a while to penitential rigours. The worldly spirit, however, was not dead in his breast, and after the decease of Cormac's next successor, he emerged from his cell, and was elevated to the kingship of Cashel.
In the earlier and middle years of this long reign, the invasions from the Baltic had diminished both in force and in frequency. This is to be accounted for from the fact, that during its entire length it was contemporaneous with the reign of Harold, "the Fair-haired" King of Norway, the scourge of the sea-kings. This more fortunate Charles XII., born in 853, died at the age of 81, after sixty years of almost unbroken successes, over all his Danish, Swedish, and insular enemies. It is easy to comprehend, by reference to his exploits upon the Baltic, the absence of the usual northern force from the Irish waters, during his lifetime, and that of his cotemporary, Flan of the Shannon. Yet the race of the sea-kings was not extinguished by the fair-haired Harold's victories over them, at home. Several of them permanently abandoned their native coasts never to return, and recruited their colonies, already so numerous, in the Orkneys, Scotland, England, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. In 885, Flan was repulsed in an attack on Dublin, in which repulse the Abbots of Kildare and Kildalkey were slain; in the year 890, Aileach was surprised and plundered by Danes, for the first time, and Armagh shared its fate; in 887, 888, and 891, three minor victories were gained over separate hordes, in Mayo, at Waterford, and in Ulidia (Down). In 897, Dublin was taken for the first time in sixty years, its chiefs put to death, while its garrison fled in their ships beyond sea. But in the first quarter of the tenth century, better fortune begins to attend the Danish cause. A new generation enters on the scene, who dread no more the long arm of the age-stricken Harold, nor respect the treaties which bound their predecessors in Britain to the great Alfred. In 912, Waterford received from sea a strong reinforcement, and about the same date, or still earlier, Dublin, from which they had been expelled in 897, was again in their possession. In 913, and for several subsequent years, the southern garrisons continued their ravages in Munster, where the warlike Abbot of Scattery found a more suitable object for the employment of his valour than that which brought him, with the studious Cormac, to the fatal field of Ballaghmoon.
The closing days of Flan of the Shannon were embittered and darkened by the unnatural rebellion of his sons, Connor and Donogh, and his successor, Nial, surnamed Black-Knee (Glundubh), the husband of his daughter, Gormley. These children were by his second marriage with Gormley, daughter of that son of Conaing, whose name has already appeared in connection with the plundered sepulchres upon the Boyne. At the age of three score and upwards Flan is frequently obliged to protect by recourse to arms his mensal lands in Meath-their favourite point of attack-or to defend some faithful adherent whom these unnatural Princes sought to oppress. The daughter of Flan, thus wedded to a husband in arms against her father, seems to have been as little dutiful as his sons. We have elegiac stanzas by her on the death of two of her husbands and of one of her sons, but none on the death of her father: although this form of tribute to the departed, by those skilled in such compositions, seems to have been as usual as the ordinary prayers for the dead.
At length, in the 37th year of his reign, and the 68th of his age, King Flan was at the end of his sorrows. As became the prevailing character of his life, he died peacefully, in a religious house at Kyneigh, in Kildare, on the 8th of June, in the year 916, of the common era. The Bards praise his "fine shape" and "august mien," as well as his "pleasant and hospitable" private habits. Like all the kings of his race he seems to have been brave enough: but he was no lover of war for war's-sake, and the only great engagement in his long reign was brought on by enemies who left him no option but to fight. His munificence rebuilt the Cathedral of Clonmacnoise, with the co-operation of Colman, the Abbot, the year after the battle of Ballaghmoon (908); for which age, it was the largest and finest stone Church in Ireland. His charity and chivalry both revolted at the cruel excesses of war, and when the head of Cormac of Cashel was presented to him after his victory, he rebuked those who rejoiced over his rival's fall, kissed reverently the lips of the dead, and ordered the relics to be delivered, as Cormac had himself willed it, to the Church of Castledermot, for Christian burial. These traits of character, not less than his family afflictions, and the generally peaceful tenor of his long life, have endeared to many the memory of Flan of the Shannon.