(A.D. 797) was at a point much more likely to arouse attention--at Skerries, off the coast of Meath (now Dublin); in 803, and again in 806, they attacked and plundered the holy Iona; but it was not until a dozen years later they became really formidable. In 818 they landed at Howth; and the same year, and probably the same party, sacked the sacred edifices in the estuary of the Slaney, by them afterwards called Wexford; in 820 they plundered Cork, and in 824--most startling blow of all--they sacked and burned the schools of Bangor. The same year they revisited Iona; and put to death many of its inmates; destroyed Moville; received a severe check in Lecale, near Strangford lough (one of their favourite stations). Another party fared better in a land foray into Ossory, where they defeated those who endeavoured to arrest their progress, and carried off a rich booty. In 830 and 831, their ravages were equally felt in Leinster, in Meath, and in Ulster, and besides many prisoners of princely rank, they plundered the primatial city of Armagh for the first time, in the year 832. The names of their chief captains, at this period, are carefully preserved by those who had so many reasons to remember them; and we now begin to hear of the Ivars, Olafs, and Sitricks, strangely intermingled with the Hughs, Nials, Connors, and Felims, who contended with them in battle or in diplomacy. It was not till the middle of this century (A.D. 837) that they undertook to fortify Dublin, Limerick, and some other harbours which they had seized, to winter in Ireland, and declare their purpose to be the complete conquest of the country.
The earliest of these expeditions seem to have been annual visitations; and as the northern winter sets in about October, and the Baltic is seldom navigable before May, the summer was the season of their depredations. Awaiting the breaking up of the ice, the intrepid adventurers assembled annually upon the islands in the Cattegat or on the coast of Norway, awaiting the favourable moment of departure. Here they beguiled their time between the heathen rites they rendered to their gods, their wild bacchanal festivals, and the equipment of their galleys. The largest ship built in Norway, and probably in the north, before the eleventh century, had 34 banks of oars. The largest class of vessel carried from 100 to 120 men. The great fleet which invaded Ireland in 837 counted 120 vessels, which, if of average size for such long voyages, would give a total force of some 6,000 men. As the whole population of Denmark, in the reign of Canute who died in 1035, is estimated at 800,000 souls, we may judge from their fleets how large a portion of the men were engaged in these piratical pursuits. The ships on which they prided themselves so highly were flat-bottomed craft, with little or no keel, the sides of wicker work, covered with strong hides. They were impelled either by sails or oars as the changes of the weather allowed; with favourable winds they often made the voyage in three days. As if to favour their designs, the north and north-west blast blows for a hundred days of the year over the sea they had to traverse. When land was made, in some safe estuary, their galleys were drawn up on shore, a convenient distance beyond highwater mark, where they formed a rude camp, watch-fires were lighted, sentinels set, and the fearless adventurers slept as soundly as if under their own roofs, in their own country. Their revels after victory, or on returning to their homes, were as boisterous as their lives. In food they looked more to quantity than quality, and one of their most determined prejudices against Christianity was that it did not sanction the eating of horse flesh. An exhilarating beer, made from heath, or from the spruce tree, was their principal beverage, and the recital of their own adventures, or the national songs of the Scalds, were their most cherished amusement. Many of the Vikings were themselves Scalds, and excelled, as might be expected, in the composition of war songs.
The Pagan belief of this formidable race was in harmony with all their thoughts and habits, and the exact opposite of Christianity. In the beginning of time, according to their tradition, there was neither heaven nor earth, but only universal chaos and a bottomless abyss, where dwelt Surtur in an element of unquenchable fire. The generation of their gods proceeded amid the darkness and void, from the union of heat and moisture, until Odin and the other children of Asa-Thor, or the Earth, slew Ymer, or the Evil One, and created the material universe out of his lifeless remains. These heroic conquerors also collected the sparks of eternal fire flying about in the abyss, and fixed them as stars in the firmament. In addition, they erected in the far East, Asgard, the City of the Gods; on the extreme shore of the ocean stood Utgard, the City of Nor and his giants, and the wars of these two cities, of their gods and giants, fill the first and most obscure ages of the Scandinavian legend. The human race had as yet no existence until Odin created a man and woman, Ask and Embla, out of two pieces of wood (ash and elm), thrown upon the beach by the waves of the sea.
Of all the gods of Asgard, Odin was the first in place and power; from his throne he saw everything that happened on the earth; and lest anything should escape his knowledge, two ravens, Spirit and Memory, sat on his shoulders, and whispered in his ears whatever they had seen in their daily excursions round the world. Night was a divinity and the father of Day, who travelled alternately throughout space, with two celebrated steeds called Shining-mane and Frost-mane. Friga was the daughter and wife of Odin; the mother of Thor, the Mars, and of the beautiful Balder, the Apollo, of Asgard. The other gods were of inferior rank to these, and answered to the lesser divinities of Greece and Rome. Niord was the Neptune, and Frega, daughter of Niord, was the Venus of the North. Heimdall, the watchman of Asgard, whose duty it was to prevent the rebellious giants scaling by surprise the walls of the celestial city, dwelt under the end of the rainbow; his vision was so perfect he could discern objects 100 leagues distant, either by night or day, and his ear was so fine he could hear the wool growing on the sheep, and the grass springing in the meadows.
The hall of Odin, which had 540 gates, was the abode of heroes who had fought bravest in battle. Here they were fed with the lard of a wild boar, which became whole every night, though devoured every day, and drank endless cups of hydromel, drawn from the udder of an inexhaustible she-goat, and served out to them by the Nymphs, who had counted the slain, in cups which were made of the skulls of their enemies. When they were wearied of such enjoyments, the sprites of the Brave exercised themselves in single combat, hacked each other to pieces on the floor of Valhalla, resumed their former shape, and returned to their lard and their hydromel.
Believing firmly in this system--looking forward with undoubting faith to such an eternity--the Scandinavians were zealous to serve their gods according to their creed. Their rude hill altars gave way as they increased in numbers and wealth, to spacious temples at Upsala, Ledra, Tronheim, and other towns and ports. They had three great festivals, one at the beginning of February, in honour of Thor, one in Spring, in honour of Odin, and one in Summer, in honour of the fruitful daughter of Niord. The ordinary sacrifices were animals and birds; but every ninth year there was a great festival at Upsala, at which the kings and nobles were obliged to appear in person, and to make valuable offerings. Wizards and sorcerers, male and female, haunted the temples, and good and ill winds, length of life, and success in war, were spiritual commodities bought and sold. Ninety-nine human victims were offered at the great Upsala festival, and in all emergencies such sacrifices were considered most acceptable to the gods. Captives and slaves were at first selected; but, in many cases, princes did not spare their subjects, nor fathers their own children. The power of a Priesthood, who could always enforce such a system, must have been unbounded and irresistible.
The active pursuits of such a population were necessarily maritime. In their short summer, such crops as they planted ripened rapidly, but their chief sustenance was animal food and the fish that abounded in their waters. The artizans in highest repute among them were the shipwrights and smiths. The hammer and anvil were held in the highest honour; and of this class, the armorers held the first place. The kings of the North had no standing armies, but their lieges were summoned to war by an arrow in Pagan times, and a cross after their conversion. Their chief dependence was in infantry, which they formed into wedge-like columns, and so, clashing their shields and singing hymns to Odin, they advanced against their enemies. Different divisions were differently armed; some with a short two-edged sword and a heavy battle-axe; others with the sling, the javelin, and the bow. The shield was long and light, commonly of wood and leather, but for the chiefs, ornamented with brass, with silver, and even with gold. Locking the shields together formed a rampart which it was not easy to break; in bad weather the concave shield seems to have served the purpose of our umbrella; in sea-fights the vanquished often escaped by swimming ashore on their shields. Armour many of them wore; the Berserkers, or champions, were so called from always engaging, bare of defensive armour.
Such were the men, the arms, and the creed, against which the Irish of the ninth age, after three centuries of exemption from foreign war, were called upon to combat. A people, one-third of whose youth and manhood had embraced the ecclesiastical state, and all whose tribes now professed the religion of peace, mercy, and forgiveness, were called to wrestle with a race whose religion was one of blood, and whose beatitude was to be in proportion to the slaughter they made while on earth. The Northman hated Christianity as a rival religion, and despised it as an effeminate one. He was the soldier of Odin, the elect of Valhalla; and he felt that the offering most acceptable to his sanguinary gods was the blood of those religionists who denied their existence and execrated their revelation. The points of attack, therefore, were almost invariably the great seats of learning and religion. There, too, was to be found the largest bulk of the portable wealth of the country, in richly adorned altars, jewelled chalices, and shrines of saints. The ecclesiastical map is the map of their campaigns in Ireland. And it is to avenge or save these innumerable sacred places--as countless as the Saints of the last three centuries--that the Christian population have to rouse themselves year after year, hurrying to a hundred points at the same time. To the better and nobler spirits the war becomes a veritable crusade, and many of those slain in single-hearted defence of their altars may well be accounted martyrs--but a war so protracted and so devastating will be found, in the sequel, to foster and strengthen many of the worst vices as well as some of the best virtues of our humanity.
The early events are few and ill-known. During the reign of Hugh VI., who died in 819, their hostile visits were few and far between; his successors, Conor II. and Nial III., were destined to be less fortunate in this respect. During the reign of Conor, Cork, Lismore, Dundalk, Bangor and Armagh, were all surprised, plundered, and abandoned by "the Gentiles," as they are usually called in Irish annals; and with the exception of two skirmishes in which they were worsted on the coasts of Down and Wexford, they seem to have escaped with impunity. At Bangor they shook the bones of the revered founder out of the costly shrine before carrying it off; on their first visit to Kildare they contented themselves with taking the gold and silver ornaments of the tomb of St. Bridget, without desecrating the relics; their main attraction at Armagh was the same, but there the relics seemed to have escaped. When, in 830, the brotherhood of Iona apprehended their return, they carried into Ireland, for greater safety, the relics of St. Columbkill. Hence it came that most of the memorials of SS. Patrick, Bridget, and Columbkill, were afterwards united at Downpatrick.
While these deplorable sacrileges, too rapidly executed perhaps to be often either prevented or punished, were taking place, Conor the King had on his hand a war of succession, waged by the ablest of his contemporaries, Felim, King of Munster, who continued during this and the subsequent reign to maintain a species of rival monarchy in Munster. It seems clear enough that the abandonment of Tara, as the seat of authority, greatly aggravated the internal weakness of the Milesian constitution. While over-centralization is to be dreaded as the worst tendency of imperial power, it is certain that the want of a sufficient centralization has proved as fatal, on the other hand, to the independence of many nations. And anarchical usages once admitted, we see from the experience of the German Empire, and the Italian republics, how almost impossible it is to apply a remedy. In the case before us, when the Irish Kings abandoned the old mensal domain and betook themselves to their own patrimony, it was inevitable that their influence and authority over the southern tribes should diminish and disappear. Aileach, in the far North, could never be to them what Tara had been. The charm of conservatism, the halo of ancient glory, could not be transferred. Whenever, therefore, ambitious and able Princes arose in the South, they found the border tribes rife for backing their pretensions against the Northern dynasty. The Bards, too, plied their craft, reviving the memory of former times, when Heber the Fair divided Erin equally with Heremon, and when Eugene More divided it a second time with Con of the Hundred Battles. Felim, the son of Crimthan, the contemporary of Conor II. and Nial III., during the whole term of their rule, was the resolute assertor of these pretensions, and the Bards of his own Province do not hesitate to confer on him the high title of Ard-Righ. As a punishment for adhering to the Hy-Nial dynasty, or for some other offence, this Christian king, in rivalry with "the Gentiles," plundered Kildare, Burrow, and Clonmacnoise--the latter perhaps for siding with Connaught in the dispute as to whether the present county of Clare belonged to Connaught or Munster. Twice he met in conference with the monarch at Birr and at Cloncurry--at another time he swept the plain of Meath, and held temporary court in the royal rath of Tara. With all his vices lie united an extraordinary energy, and during his time, no Danish settlement was established on the Southern rivers. Shortly before his decease (A.D. 846) he resigned his crown and retired from the world, devoting the short remainder of his days to penance and mortification. What we know of his ambition and ability makes us regret that he ever appeared upon the scene, or that he had not been born of that dominant family, who alone were accustomed to give kings to the whole country.
King Conor died (A.D. 833), and was succeeded by Nial III., surnamed Nial of Callan. The military events of this last reign are so intimately bound up with the more brilliant career of the next ruler--Melaghlin, or Malachy I.--that we must reserve them for the introduction to the next chapter.