The objective of this section is to describe the most important
aspects of early Gaelic society and the emergence of the main clan power
blocs up to the Viking and Brian Boru era.
1. The Brehon Laws and their Impact on Society
Everyday life in ancient Ireland was governed by the Brehon laws(
derived from the Gaelic word “breitheamh” meaning judge). Traditionally
the Brehon judges belonged to a legal class who memorised the laws,
applied them in practice and passed them to later generations. Their
training resembled that of the Druids in that it was long and rigorous
and knowledge was passed on orally. These laws strongly influenced Irish
society right up to the 1600s.
They differ from Western laws in that they developed without Roman
influence and reflect a tribal society where the crime of an individual
was the responsibility of a tribe or family. The laws are neither
male-.centred nor individual -centred. Moreover, women had a higher
status than in many other legal systems at the time, notably the Roman
system. While it is difficult to pinpoint this from legal texts, many of
the old sagas refer to independent women who are poets, druids and even
go into battle. Generally speaking the women in ancient Ireland enjoyed
an independence and status which they subsequently lost with the
imposition of Anglo-Norman law.
Among a number of important differences between the Irish legal
system and those of Romanised Europe was that unlike the rest of Europe,
an Irish king did not have control over what the laws were or even how
they were administered. In Ireland the King or chieftain was as subject
to the laws as everybody else. The Brehons were a powerful class in that
they preserved the laws, interpreted them and administered them. In
addition some Brehons were itinerant, moving from place to place and
providing a sense of cultural unity and cohesion in a society where
power was decentralised.
Although there were no prisons there was an elaborate court system in
which correct procedure was very important. Proper deliberation was
necessary, the accused was given ample time to prepare and defend his or
her case and there were few quick decisions. The Brehon was supreme in
administering justice and nobody could interfere with his final
judgement, though there was a system whereby an appeal could be lodged
in a separate hearing later if there was dissatisfaction with the first
The principal difficulties nowadays in interpreting the Brehon Laws
(consolidated in the 7th and 8th centuries, pre-Viking) are that the few
surviving texts are sparse and one is therefore dependent on explanatory
“glosses” and there is a total lack of case law and few records of
decisions by judges. Moreover, the written versions which have survived
are from a period when Christianity began to influence the writings,
leading to some inconsistencies between texts.
Punishment for a crime was usually by way of compensation and this
hinged upon an honour price. A value was placed on each individual,
depending on their rank and status, and if a crime was committed against
somebody, the perpetrator had to pay compensation which was a function
of the gravity of the crime and the victim’s status. The honour price
could be expressed in terms of female slaves (cumals) or cattle. The
laws were therefore “elitist” in that rank was of paramount importance
in the giving of evidence and the size of penalties. There was, however,
upward social mobility and the top of the social pyramid were not a
“closed class” i.e. a man could do better than his birth would normally
allow. On the other hand, someone’s honour price could be lowered if
that person committed a serious offence, one of which would be to refuse
Moreover, where illegal injury was done to somebody, the perpetrator
would be responsible for all costs, medical attention and maintenance of
Murder, rape, violation of hospitality or protection demanded an
honour price and damage to animals had also to be appropriately
The compensation payment could sometimes become the responsibility of
the perpetrator’s family, and even the perpetrators’s descendants, when
the crime was serious enough and the compensation high.
2. Social, Legal Aspects of Marriage and Sexual Relationships
Polygamy was acceptable under the Brehon laws (of course for those
who could afford its attendant responsibilities), but the first wife
remained the most important. The mark of a man of standing was that he
had a “cétmuintir” or chief wife. Her honour price was half his, while
in the case of an additional wife or “dormuine” or “bean carrthach”
(literally love woman) it was one quarter of the husband’s honour price.
The Brehon legislation encompassed rights in ten different types of
relationships, extending even to deception and force.
The Brehon laws recognised that variations could arise in the
affections of men and women towards each other and they legislated for
these rather than simply condemning them as illegal. Those who could
afford more than one wife were legally entitled to do so, which of
course was not in line with the Christian Church’s ideas on the matter.
The acceptance of polygamy meant that the number of descendants of
chieftains could rapidly reach major proportions over time. The Norman
system of primogeniture was alien to the system, as it would rule out
offspring from multiple wives from succession to chieftainship, in a
manner in which Irish custom did not.
Lack of Illegitimacy Concept
In his book “Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland”, Patrick C.Power
points out that the Brehon laws humanely legislated for all children,
irrespective of the circumstances of their conception and their rights
were recognised. The laws were not framed for the notion of a single
lawful marriage, only the issue of which could be deemed legitimate.
Basically, the notion of “illegitimacy” was foreign to the Brehon laws
and children were not narrowly branded as under Norman law. Moreover,
given the acceptability of polygamy, the lack of illegitimacy was a
logical outcome. In fact, the paternity of a child was recognised on the
sole basis of a mother’s claim. One example in the sixteenth century is
that of the origin of Matthew “the Baron” O’Neill of Dungannon, who grew
up as a boy named Kelly in Dundalk until his mother claimed that his
father was “the O’Neill”. This was accepted by O’Neill and Matthew
eventually succeeded to the chieftainship.
This lack of the concept of illegitimacy was later to come into
conflict with Norman ideas, notably in the case of the Caomhánach
lineage. Of course the Normans were happy to use the idea of
illegitimacy when it suited them and ignore it when it did not. William
the Conqueror was not a “legitimate” son under Norman law and neither
were some of the leading initial Norman invaders of Ireland.
Divorce and Ownership of Goods in Marriage
Divorce was permitted by the Brehon laws for a number of reasons and
there is an entire section devoted to the resulting division of
property. Goods once owned by a woman continued to be hers; the husband
did not obtain possession of them. This is also of interest as we shall
see in the case of Dervorgilla’s elopement. The final ownership of goods
depended not alone on the amount brought into the marriage but also the
amount work for performed the household in the case of goods accumulated
after marriage. The more work carried out by a partner within the
household, the greater the entitlement to a share afterwards.
Divorce was so much apart of early Irish family life that it took
many centuries for it to be abandoned.
Custom of Fosterage
Under the custom of fosterage it was quite common for children to be
raised by others within the community (chosen by both parents) and then
return home at a certain age. This custom was partly aimed at preventing
children being spoiled by their parents and was supposed to toughen them
up. It also gave them a sense of belonging to the entire community, not
just their parents. It ensured that loyalty and strong bonds were formed
within the community at a very early age. This custom lingered on almost
into modern times in Irish society. For example the Great Daniel
O’Connell was fostered out at an early age.
Pagan Feasts and Religious Practices
The principal feasts and rituals of the ancient Celtic religion were
centred on the changing seasons. As might be expected, they were
associated with nature, fertility and the survival of the tribe.
The chief festivals were on the quarter days related to the middle of
the sun’s cycle. The mid-winter solstice falls in December and the
mid-summer solstice falls in June, so the quarter feasts were on the
first day of February, May, August and November (Samhain). Druids
presided over events aimed at pleasing the gods and goddesses and
ensuring that the tribe would have good fortune. The texts describe
celebrations at ritual sites like Tara, Rath Croghan and Emain Macha
(Armagh). These festive celebrations were joyful occasions and one
punishment for law breaking consisted of being barred from attending
Samhain on 1 November was the principal festival. It related to the
end of an old year and the beginning of a new one. It was also the time
when the dead and the living were supposed to mingle. This was later
adapted to Christian calendar and became Halloween, celebrating the
saints of the Church. The most important god was Dagda, the Father god
who protected the tribe and the female equivqlent was the mother goddess
Morrigan who protected her people in battle.
The arrival of Spring was marked on 1 February by the feast of Imbolg,
associated with the goddess Brigid. The feast of Beltine on 1 May was
associated with the sungod and light. Ceremonial bonfires were a major
feature of this. Lunasa on 1 September was the second most important
feast dedicated to the Celtic god Lugh, described as handsome youthful
and athletic. This was essentially a harvest festival.
Religion played a central role in the life of ancient Ireland and was
a joyous affair. When Christianity arrive din Ireland in the middle of
the fifth century it had to accommodate the strong presence of a
sophisticated pagan religion and had to adapt to it, since it could
never hope to obliterate it. Traces of ancient pagan practices are still
found today in Irish religious practices. For example, the holy wells
and patterns are relics of the ancient pagan rituals.
Part of St. Patrick’s missionary success was that he was familiar
with these practices and knew how to adapt his Christian message to
3. Election of Chieftains
According to an old law tract the candidate had to be of good legal
standing, not guilty of theft, be physically unblemished and be a man of
Early Brehon law distinguished (i) kings of local tuaths (ii)
overlords of a group of local tuaths (iii) provincial kings and (iv) the
High King of all provinces.
An essential factor to bear in mind is that the Norman system of
primogeniture did not apply when it came to choosing the chieftains. The
chieftainship was not hereditary and they were “elected” from any one of
the males from the “deirbhthine” or the descendants of a deceased
chieftain to the fourth generation i.e. one stood little chance of being
elected unless at least a greatgrandfather had been a chieftain. As in
the case of the Uí Chinnsealaigh an “oscillating kingship” system
operated. This meant that the chieftain was elected from the leading
clan families who was considered the fittest to lead, as demonstrated by
the strength of his following. The advantage of this system was that a
son who was not considered capable, did not automatically succeed his
father. The disadvantage is that the system sometimes led to bitter
disputes and even bloody warfare among rival candidates. This was often
exploited in later years by the English as part of their divide and rule
It is frequently asserted that the great Irish sagas are in some
respects a truer guide as to how people lived and the social manners of
these early times than the surviving legal texts, because of the biases
introduced by Christian influence when the legal texts eventually came
to be written down. If one looks for evidence of the kind of warrior
society which existed in early Ireland, it comes through in the great
Irish sagas such as the Táin Bo´ Cuailgne (the Cattle Raid of Cooley),
even though these were written down much later than the events they are
supposed to describe. The society described was one in which there were
numerous small kingdoms and lack of a strong central power. Irish
society was essentially one of small kingdoms and local issues. Cattle
were the basis of wealth and cattle raids were frequent. War was usually
a fairly localised affair, with skirmishes and ambuscades rather than
4. Early Peoples and Politics
The introduction of Christianity in the 5th Century and the freedom
to write down learning, a somewhat more reliable picture of the
political situation to be preserved, but we must rely on legend for a
picture of the early kingships. Part of the difficulty is that
genealogies were retrospectively created or adjusted to support the
hereditary legitimacy of certain leading clans. Information on these
early kingships comes down to us largely from the “Annála Ríoghachta
Éireann” or “Annals of the Four Masters”, which was translated by the
great 19 th century Gaelic scholar John O’Donovan (who had himself some
Ballyleigh Kavanagh ancestry).
These annals were compiled between 1632 and 1636 in a Franciscan
monastery in Donegal in a desperate attempt to preserve the traditional
version of early history, just as the Gaelic world was collapsing. The
chief compiler was Mícheál (Tadhg) O’Clery, assisted by his cousin
Cúchoigríche O’Clery, Fearfeasa O’ Mulconry and Cúchoigríche O’Duigenan.
Of special interest to the Caomhánachs, was Cathair Mór who was said
to have been elected High King in the second century AD, son of Felim
Fiorurglas. He is regarded by many as the founder of the Leinster line.
The number of Cathairs/Cahirs (later anglicised Charles) who appear in
the later Mac Murrough Cavanagh line is no doubt a tribute to this
legendary “founder”. To maintain his hold on the High Kingship he had to
engage in many battles and according to legend he was overthrown and
slain at the battle of Moigh Acha in Co. Meath by the forces of the
aggressive Conn of the Hundred Battles (Céad Cathach), who subsequently
become High King and is said to have reigned for 30 years.
A chieftain called Eoghan Mór, also known as Mogha Nuadhad, is said
to have forced Conn of the Hundred Battles to divide Ireland into two
equal parts along a line from Dublin to Galway. The top part became
Leath Cuinn (Conn’s half) and the lower part Leath Mhogha (Mogha’s
half). From Mogha, via his son Olioll Olum are said to have descended
the leading southern clans, the Eoghanacht, the Dál gCais (subsequently
the O’Brien dynasty) and the Ciannachta.
The great king Cormac Mac Airt, grandson of Conn of the Hundred
Battles, was said to have established a new royal capital at the ancient
site of Tara and his descendants were the ruling kings of the northern
provinces of Connacht, Meath and Ulster. Many legendary battles are
recounted , including that of Magh Techt in 240 AD, in the aftermath of
which his fleet sailed to Scotland and he is supposed to have obtained
sovereignty over Alba. One legend has him imposing the Borumha tribute
on the Leinstermen in revenge for a massacre committed by them at Tara
in 241 AD. The imposition of this tribute led to considerable strife in
Which or any of the leading kings/chieftains referred to above were
real, or fictional, (to validate dynastic claims of later chieftains)
personages, we have no definite way of knowing either way.
5. Early Leinster and the Emergence of the Uí Chinnsealaigh
The major Leinster families were said to be descendants of Cathair
Mór which began to split off as his sons and grandsons had families.
The Uí Chinnsealaigh dynasty split into the powerful sept of Uí
Fáelchán (Mac Murrough), Uí Felmeda Theas (Murphy), Uí Felmeda Thuaidh (O’Garvey),
the Síl Chormaic, the Síl Máeluidir (Hartley), Uí Clann Guaire and Clann
Fiachu meic Ailella.
The ancient Uí Chinnsealaigh Kings of Leinster had fortresses at Dinn
Righ, between Carlow and Leighlin and at Naas in Co.Kildare. Later on
Ferns in Wexford, became their capital and they also had castles at Old
Ross in Wexford and Ballymoon in Carlow. (For a fuller account of
Caomhánach castles, see Junglejim’s article on those in Carlow in the
2004 Annual). The Uí Chinnsealaigh were inaugurated as kings of Leinster
at a place called Cnoc an Bhogha, attended by the chief marshall and
chief of Forth in Carlow, O’Nolan, and O’Doran Chief Brehon of Leinster
and Mac Keogh, chief Bard.
The lineage of the Uí Chinnsealaigh starting with Cathair Mór, goes
via his son Fiacha Ba Aiccid, through a few generations to Enna
Cinnsealaigh , regarded as direct founder of the line, Crimthann Cas
(King of Leinster for many years, born around 448 at Rathvilly Co.Carlow,
through a few generations to Fáelchon Taulchait , through a few
generations to Dónal slain in battle in 974, Diarmuid son of Dónal, died
in 997, Diarmuid’s son, Donnchadha Mac Maol na mBó, his son the famous
Diarmuid Mac Maol na mBó.
Diarmuid Mac Maol na mBó first appears in the Annals in 1042, elected
chief of the Uí Chinnseaigh. He was a warrior king who expanded his
power, sacking Danish Waterford and warring with the O’Briens of Munster
for some 20 years before finally defeating them. At his death in 1072,
he is described as High king of Ireland (with opposition), King of
Wales, King of the Isles, including Isle of Man and King of Dublin
The only other king who could claim comparable widespread power was
Niall of the Nine Hostages, who incidentally was according to legend,
ambushed and slain in 405 AD on an overseas raid by a Leinsterman,
Eochaidh son of Enna Cinnsealach.
6. Leading Clans in the Seventh Century
The big powers by the start of the 7th century were:
- the Eoghanacht in Munster (ancestors of the Southern Munster
families), with their capital in Cashel, who had eclipsed the Érainn who
had earlier held power there.
- The two Uí Neill groups claiming descent from quasi-historical
Niall of the Nine Hostages
- (i) the Northern Uí Néill, (Cineal Eoghain and Cineal Conall, who
held sway in the North West with their stronghold at Aileach, having
pushed the Ulaid (Dál Fiatach Dál Riada) out of Meath and confined them
east of the Bann and,
Midlands, Meath and North Leinster
- (ii) the Southern Uî Néill who had pushed the Leinstermen out of
Tara and who held sway over the Midlands and North Leinster. The victory
of the Southern Uí Néill at Druim Deirge enabled them to push back the
boundaries of northern Leinster until the arrival of the Cambro-Normans
- (i) Uí Dúinlainge in Co. Kildare (ancestors of the O’Tooles and
O’Byrnes) had gained dominance by the 630s
- (ii) the Uí Chinnsealaigh in Wexford/Carlow and the Uí Bairrche in
the East of the province.
the Uí Briuin (Westmeath, East Galway, Breifne and surrounding areas)
and Uí Fiachra (Mayo) were dominant. These clans claimed kinship with
the Uí Néill.
The Dál Riada, who had earlier moved out of Munster and up to the
northeast corner of Ireland, extended their kingdom into what is now
Argyll (literally “Eastern Gael”) in Scotland. In 493 AD Fergus Mac Erc
established the kingdom of Dál Riada there, which in later centuries
expanded to render all Scotland Gaelic speaking, replacing the Cymric
and Pictish languages which existed there previously.
As Roman power weakened in Britain, the (mainly Belgic origin) Irish
also began to colonise Wales and Cornwall around 375 AD. There was a
Leinster colony in North Wales, a Deisi (Waterford) colony in South
Wales and an Uí Liatháin (East Cork) colony in Cornwall and Devon. We
can see therefore that there was always considerable movement over and
back to the British mainland, initially trading and raiding and later
7. Arrival of Christianity
Legend concentrates fairly exclusively on the Romanised Briton,
Patrick, as the bearer of Christianity to Ireland. He himself says that
he was first taken as a slave by Irish raiders from the north and having
escaped he subsequently returned to bear the message of Christianity,
the date being given as 432 AD. However, there is evidence that Gaulish
missionaries preceded him and in 431 AD, deacon Palladius of Auxerre in
France was appointed Bishop “of the Irish who believe in Christ” by the
Pope, though he apparently did not remain long in Ireland. In any event,
Patrick was particularly successful in the northern part of the country
and this led to the establishment of the primacy of Armagh over the rest
of the Irish church. Armagh was close to the ancient seat of northern
power, Emain Macha. Patrick’s success was no doubt partly based on his
knowledge of the language, allied with his willingness to transform the
Christian message in terms of local customs and religious practices.
As indicated above, St. Patrick’s ability to adapt to local
conditions may have been a major factor in his success. Patrick sited
his religious centres where the Druids had already chosen their centres,
notably in the case of Armagh Emain Macha. That, and the existence of a
book called the “Confessions of St. Patrick” (written down some 200
years after his death), ensured his immortality in Irish legend.
Moreover, while legend makes much of Patrick’s overthrow of the
Druids, their extensive knowledge in a wide range of fields from
medicine to astrology no doubt rendered it easy for them to adapt to the
8. The Golden Age of Monasticism
By the 6th century Ireland’s most important churches were ruled by
monastic hierarchies. Although the monks would have participated in the
manual work, the vast extent of church lands meant that the great bulk
of the work was carried out by tenants who lived on the land with their
families. In this pre-urban society, the great ecclesiastical centres
would have been essential hubs of economic activity. Increasing
secularisation, wealth and lay patronage resulted in a great
contribution by the monasteries to metal work and the arts.
Among the important monastic founders were Brendan (Clonfert), Ciarán
(Clonmacnoise) and Colmcille (Durrow, Derry and Iona in Scotland).
St.Bridget of Kildare is the best known abbess.
This newly Christianised and literate society soon began to display
evidence of a high level of scholarship both in Latin and in Irish,
clerical and secular. By the 7th century Irish monastic schools and
libraries were well stocked with the writings of the early Christian
fathers and were beginning to produce scholars and holy men of their
own, whose work would soon be disseminated throughout Europe.
9. Ireland and its Mission in Europe
Successive barbarian invasions from the 5th century ad onwards
wreaked havoc with the Gallo-Roman infrastructure, including that of
learning and literature. This era became known as the “Dark Ages”.
However, on the edge of Europe the Irish conserved the Roman and Greek
learning and literature as well as the Christian faith (see e.g. “How
the Irish Saved Western Civilisation” by Thomas Cahill) and in turn
began to revitalise these in Europe.
To begin with we have the foundation of Iona in 563 AD by Colmcille,
which resulted in the spread of Irish missionaries throughout Scotland
and into Anglo-Saxon Northumbria (St. Aidan in Lindisfarne was a major
Then the Irish monks and learned laymen began to move to the
continent, where their work is still well remembered. St. Fursa first
preached in England before moving to the north of France, where is
buried in Peronne (known as “Peronne of the Irish” because of its
association with Irish monks. Columbán (Columbanus) left Bangor in 591
AD. with 12 disciples and founded a number of monasteries in France,
notably Luxeuil (where there is today a statue of him wielding a big
stick, a personality trait apparently). Having quarrelled with the local
chief he went into Italy to found Bobbio, having parted company in
Switzerland with St. Gall, after whom the Swiss town is named. (It is of
interest that the Czech version of Gall is “Havel”). Columbán who died
in 615 AD is ranked with St.Benedict as the “founder of Western
Monasticism”. Because of their literacy and learning Irish laymen were
employed by the Emperor Charlemagne to help administer his empire.
The monks were followed by scholars who were advisers, administrators
and teachers to the court of Emperor Charlemagne (who began his reign in
800 AD ) and his successors. At the Palace of Charles the Bald (born 823
AD) grandson of Charlemagne a group of Irish scholars gathered around
the famous and controversial philosopher, Scotus Eriugena (meaning
“Irish-born”….there is still a street in Laon called the Irish Scots).
It may be noted that the Roman name for the Irish was “Scoti” and they
were so known in Europe in the Middle Ages. Irish missionaries continued
to found monasteries, known in German as Schottenkloster, until the 12th
In fact the influence of Irish monks was immense and all over
northern and middle France, Belgium, Germany, northern Italy and Austria
churches and towns still bear witness to this impact. To name but a few,
in France you had St. Gobain after whom an international glassmaking
firm is now named, St. Fiachre, after whom horse drawn carriages were
called, in Belgium, St. Monon of Nassogne, St.Dymphna of Gheel, in
Germany St.Killian patron of Wurzburg and St. Wendel, in Austria St.
Fergal patron of Salzburg. Even in the very south of Italy, St. Cataldo
(Cathal) is patron of Taranto.
In a little church near Dinant in the Belgian Ardennes there is a
little church with a plaque indicating that this had been an Irish
monastery in the tenth century. Amazingly the local curé could repeat
two names of the the Irish monks there (Cathal and Forannán, the latter
a name now vanished in Ireland, but once widely used).
There is a very interesting and pretty comprehensive account of the
impact of these Irish monks and nuns on the continent in “In Search of
Early Irish Saints” by Róisín Ní Mheara (Four Courts Press).
10. The Vikings
Foreshadowing their later Norman (“Northmen”) kinsmen, bands of
Scandinavian warriors manning technically advanced warships, began
raiding Western Europe at the end of the 8th century. One theory is that
the impetus to their raids came from the fact that elder sons inherited
the family farms in Scandinavia, while younger sons were left to find an
outlet through seagoing voyages.
The first recorded raids on Ireland were about in 795. Raids at first
tended to be confined to the northern and western seaboards (monasteries
in Rathlin, Inishmurray, and Inishbofin) but by 824 they were in the
southwest as well. In the initial phase, the Vikings were sea-borne
raiders, based elsewhere, who never penetrated far inland. It should be
borne in mind that monasteries were in fact storehouses of moveable
wealth and goods and places from which captives could be taken for the
thriving slave markets so that raids on them were not simply
anti-Christian gestures. In fact, warring Irish chieftains also
frequently raided monasteries located in their adversaries’ territories
for booty. There are even recorded cases of inter-monastery wars and
raids. Later the superior technology of their longboats, which enabled
them not only to traverse the open seas, but also to navigate major
internal river channels, meant that they could strike quickly inland,
gather booty and captives as slaves and then disappear back to their
coastal bases before resistance could be organised.
By the mid-ninth century, the Vikings began to establish permanent
settlements, notably Dublin (841) and Annagassen, near Dundalk, but also
in Cork (846), Waterford (850) and subsequently in Wexford and Limerick.
This had two effects. It made them more vulnerable to attack themselves
by the native Irish and it resulted in a gradual integration into the
domestic power struggles. Various Irish chieftains, notably the
Leinstermen, made use of the Vikings when it suited them and vice versa.
Having captured and drowned a Viking chief called Turgeis in a lake
in 845, Mael Sechnaill, the Uí Néill King of Meath, became High King in
847 and organised stiffer Irish military resistance to the Vikings which
resulted in heavy Viking losses and severely curbed their raiding power.
Moreover, a power struggle emerged between the Fingall (Norwegian) and
Dubhghall (Danish) Vikings. A fierce battle resulted in victory for the
Danes who then seized Dublin, until they were dislodged in 853 by the
Norse Olaf, who arrived with an overwhelming naval force. Olaf and his
brother Ivor ruled Dublin for some twenty years. However, the interests
of these Vikings were also on their growing power in Scotland (Western
Isles and part of the Highlands). Olaf’s primary interest was not so
much in expanding his rule over territory, even though he controlled
Dublin and large parts of Scotland. His main focus was on ruling the
Irish Sea and controlling trade, especially the silver and slave trades.
Olaf and Ivor plundered the Pictish territory and Strathclyde, but does
not appear to have interfered with the Dál Riada kingdom in Scotland.
Then followed a period in which Viking interest focused on colonising
Iceland, taking with them both Irish slaves and freemen.
In 902 Cerball king of Ossory and Leinster, although having marriage
links with the Norsemen, attacked a weakened Dublin and forced most of
them out of Dublin from which they fled to the Isle of Man and to the
Viking kingdom of York in England and also to invade the Anglo-Saxon
kingdom of Wessex.
However, the grandsons of Ivor, Sitric and Ragnall reappeared in 914.
Ragnall took Waterford and the Leinster king was killed in battle when
Sitric re-took Dublin. The northern Uí Néill High King, Niall Glundubh
suffered a major disaster in attacking Dublin. For a period the Vikings
under Sitric ruled supreme, but he did not seek to capitalise on this as
he was more interested in taking over as king of York and in trading
matters. By 930 the Viking expansion had come to an end. Areas around
the coastal ports continued to be Norse, but the countryside was in
Irish hands and, as intermarriage continued between the two sides and as
the Vikings converted to Christianity, the original differences between
The positive contribution of the Vikings was to establish the first
major towns, to create major trading centres (notably Dublin) and to
introduce coinage. Their presence weakened some of the local chieftains
to the benefit of others (e.g. the Eoghannacht in Munster were weakened
to the benefit of the Dál gCais -O’Briens). There are still extant a
number of Irish family names linked to some Viking ancestry, among them.
McAuliffe (from Olaf), Doyle (Dubhghall), Mc Loughlin, Cotter,
11. Emergence of the Dál gCais, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf
For centuries before Brian Boru the High kinship was in the hands of
the Uí Néill who ruled Ulster (Northern) and Meath (Southern). Brian was
born in 941 in Thomond in Co.Clare to a minor dynasty known as the Dál
gCais. On the death of Brian’s father Cennetíg in 951, Brian’s brother
Mathgamhain or Mahon was elected King of Thomond and pushed back the
encroachments of the Vikings in nearby Limerick. The Eoghanacht rulers
of Munster grew wary of the rising power of the Dál gCais and, with the
assistance of the Limerick Vikings, they had Mahon murdered. At 34 years
of age Brian was then inaugurated King of Thomond in succession. In
revenge for his brother’s death Brian slew the Viking rulers of
Limerick, but allowed the Vikings to remain there in return for a
tribute. Then Brian turned on the Eoghanacht and defeated them in a
ferocious battle in which he slew their king Maelmhuaidh , the mane
directly responsible for his brother’s death. Brain then went on to
proclaim himself King of Munster.
Brian was preparing the way for a bid for the High Kingship , which
brought a reaction from Mael Sechnaill, King of the Uí Néill. However,
Brian managed to fend off these attacks and finally an agreement was
reached between the two sides in 997at Clonfert whereby the Uí Néill
would keep their northern territories and Brian would become overlord of
Dublin and Leinster. A revolt two years later by Sitric Silkenbeard,
King of Dublin, was squashed by Brian. By 1002 Brian, who had come from
a minnor dynasty had become High King. He visited Armagh, which he
confirmed in its primacy of the Irish Church and made a gift for the
restoration of its cathedral.
In time the Vikings of Dublin and the Leinstermen decided to revolt
and the Vikings summoned help from the Orkneys and the Isle of Man
(ruled by a Viking called Brodar). The first major battle in Irish
history was fought on Good Friday, April 24 in 1014, with some 20 000
warriors on the Dublin and Leinster side and somewhat less on Brian’s
side, which included Vikings from Limerick and Waterford in its ranks.
Despite their superior equipment and armour, the Vikings were defeated
and pushed back into the sea. However, it was a victory at a
considerable price for the Dál gCais. The 73 year old Brian was slain in
his tent by Brodar and among the reported 7 000 dead were Brian’s som
Murchadh and his grandson as well as the King of Leinster on the
opposing side. In the aftermath, the O’Briens were unable to hold on to
the High Kingship, which was resumed by Mael Sechlann of the Uí Néill.
The aftermath, however, was one of considerable political
instability, with various claimants on the High Kingship. Among those
claimants was the Caomhánach ancestor referred to earlier, grandfather
of Diarmuid Mac Murchadha, the renowned Diarmuid Mac Maol na MBo.
- The ancient Brehon laws were the outcome of tribal customs and were
in many ways quite humane in their treatment of people and in
- The laws were administered by the brehons, a judiciary which was
independent and which the kings and chieftains were themselves subject
to, and could not influence
- Polygamy was permitted under the Brehon laws and persisted right up
to the 1600s. This could result in many descendants of the chieftain
- The laws legislated for all children irrespective of the
circumstances of their birth so that the later Norman notion of
“illegitimacy” was foreign to them
- The Vikings came initially as raiders in search of plunder but over
time became more permanent settlers, intermarrying with the Irish and
becoming involved in local politics. They founded the main ports and
introduced coinage. Their main focus was on control of the Irish Sea for
trade rather than on territorial power
- The Leinster lineage is an ancient one extending back to a
legendary Cathair Mór and within this, the Uí Chinnsealaigh emerged
early on as the main force in South Leinster
- Brian Boru emerged from a little known clan called the Dál gCais to
become High King. However, following his death at the battle of Clontarf
in 1014, his O’Brien successors were not able to maintain overall power
and a period of political instability ensued
- The battle of Clontarf was, not as it is often portrayed, a battle
between the Christian Irish and heathen Norse invaders but essentially a
struggle for power, with Irish and Vikings on both sides
- Diarmuid Mac Maol na mBó, who died in 1072 , was a major figure in
Irish history, being High King (with opposition) and reputedly with
influence overseas in the Isle of Man and Wales
- The extent of Irish monastic influence in Europe from the 6th
century to Middle Ages was immense
Cathal Cavanagh - Clann Member