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The Celts - Part II
Early Gaelic Society-Social Aspects, Peoples and Politics


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 judgement.

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 hospitality.

Moreover, where illegal injury was done to somebody, the perpetrator would be responsible for all costs, medical attention and maintenance of the victim.

Murder, rape, violation of hospitality or protection demanded an honour price and damage to animals had also to be appropriately compensated

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 them.

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 them.

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 property.

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 policies.

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 major battles.

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 later centuries.

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 in 1169.

South Leinster

- (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 colonisation.

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 new religion.

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 figure).

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 century.

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 them narrowed.

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.



Main Points

- The ancient Brehon laws were the outcome of tribal customs and were in many ways quite humane in their treatment of people and in administering punishment

- 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 class

- 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

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