History of Ireland. Frederick Engels 1870

Ancient Ireland

The writers of ancient Greece and Rome, and also the fathers of the Church, give very little information about Ireland.

Instead there still exists an abundant native literature, in spite of the many Irish manuscripts lost in the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It includes poems, grammars, glossaries, annals and other historical writings and law-books. With very few exceptions, however, this whole literature, which embraces the period at least from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries, exists only in manuscript. For the Irish language printing has existed only for a few years only from the time when the language began to die out. Of this rich material, therefore, only a small part is available.

Amongst the most important of these annals are those of Abbot Tigernach (died 1088), those of Ulster, and above all, those of the Four Masters. These last were collected in 1632-36 in a monastery in Donegal under the direction of Michael O'Clery, a Franciscan monk, who was helped by three other Seanchaidhes (antiquarians), from materials which now are almost all lost. They were published in 1856 from the original Donegal manuscript which still exists, having been edited and provided with an English translation by O'Donovan.

Annala Rioghachta Eireann. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. Edited, with an English Translation, by Dr. Jolin O'Donovan. Second edition, Dublin, 1856, 7 volumes in 4°

The earlier editions by Dr. Charles O'Conor (the first part of the Four Masters, and the Annals of Ulster) are untrustworthy in text and translation.[188]

The beginning of most of these annals presents the mythical prehistory of Ireland. Its base was formed by old folk legends, which were spun out endlessly by poets in the 9th and 10th centuries and were then brought into suitable chronological order by the monk-chroniclers. The Annals of the Four Masters begins with the year of the world 2242, when Caesair, a granddaughter of Noah, landed in Ireland forty days before the Flood; other annals have the ancestors of the Scots, the last immigrants to Ireland, descend in direct line from Japheth and bring them into connection with Moses, the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, as the German chroniclers of the Middle Ages connected the ancestors of the Germans with Troy, Aeneas or Alexander the Great. The Four Masters devote only a few pages to this legend (in which the only valuable element, the original folk-legend, is not distinguishable even now); the Annals of Ulster leave it out altogether; and Tigernach, with a critical boldness wonderful for his time, explains that all the written records of the Scots before King Cimbaoth (approximately 300 B.C.) are uncertain. But when new national life awoke in Ireland at the end of the last century, and with it new interest in Irish literature and history, just these monks’ legends were counted to be their most valuable constituent. With true Celtic enthusiasm and specifically Irish naivete, belief in these stories was declared an intrinsic part of national patriotism, and this offered the supercunning world of English scholarship — whose own efforts in the field of philological and historical criticism are gloriously enough well known to the rest of the world — the desired pretext for throwing everything Irish aside as arrant nonsense.

One of the most naive products of that time is The Chronicles of Eri, being the History of the Gaal Sciot Iber, or the Irish People, translated from the original manuscripts in the Phoenician dialect of the Scythian language by O'Connor, London, 1822, 2 volumes. The Phoenician dialect of the Scythian language is naturally Celtic Irish, and the original manuscript is a verse chronicle chosen at will. The publisher is Arthur O'Connor, exile of 1798,[189] uncle of Feargus O'Connor who was later leader of the English Chartists, an ostensible descendant of the ancient O'Connors, Kings of Connaught, and, after a fashion, the Irish Pretender to the throne. His portrait appears in front of the title, a man with a handsome, jovial Irish face, strikingly resembling his nephew Feargus, grasping a crown with his right hand. Underneath is the caption: “O'Connor — cear-rige, head of his race, and O'Connor, chief of the prostrate people of his nation: ‘Soumis, pas vaincus’ (subdued, not conquered).”

Since the thirties of this century a far more critical spirit has come into being in Ireland, especially through Petrie and O'Donovan. Petrie’s already-mentioned researches prove that the most complete agreement exists between the oldest surviving inscriptions, which date from the 6th and 7th centuries, and the annals, and O'Donovan is of the opinion that these begin to report historical facts as early as the second and third centuries of our era. It makes little difference to us whether the credibility of the annals begins several hundred years earlier or later since, unfortunately, during that period they are almost wholly fruitless for our purpose. They contain short, dry notices of deaths, accessions to the throne, wars, battles, earthquakes, plagues, Scandinavian raiding expeditions, but little that has reference to the social life of the people. If the whole juridical literature of Ireland were published, the annals would acquire a completely different meaning; many a dry notice would obtain new life through explanations found in the law-books.

Almost all of these law-books, which are very numerous, still await the time when they will see the light of day. On the insistence of several Irish antiquarians, the English Government agreed in 1852 to appoint a commission for publishing the ancient laws and institutions of Ireland. But the commission consisted of three lords (who are never far away when there is state money to be spent), three lawyers of the highest rank, three Protestant clergymen, and Dr. Petrie and an official who is the chief surveyor in Ireland. Of these gentlemen only Dr. Petrie and two clergymen, Dr. Graves (now Protestant Bishop of Limerick) and Dr. Todd, could claim to understand anything at all about the tasks of the commission, and of these three Petrie and Todd have since died. The commission was instructed to arrange the transcription, translation and publication of the legal content of the ancient Irish manuscripts, and to employ the necessary , people for that purpose. It employed the two best people that were to be had, Dr. O'Donovan and Professor O'Curry, who copied, and made a rough translation of, a large number of manuscripts; both died, however, before anything was ready for publication. Their successors, Dr. Hancock and Professor O'Mahony, then took up the work, so that up to the present the two volumes already cited, containing the Senchus Mor, have appeared. According to the publishers’ acknowledgment only two of the members of the commission, Graves and Todd, have taken part in the work, through some annotations to the proofs. Sir Th. Larcom, a member of the commission, placed the original maps of the survey of Ireland at the disposal of the publishers for the verification of place names. Dr. Petrie soon died, and the other gentlemen confined their activities to drawing their salaries conscientiously for 18 years.

That is how public works are carried out in England, and even more so in English-ruled Ireland. Without jobbery, they cannot begin.

Jobbery: the using of public office to one’s private advantage or to that of relations and friends, and likewise the using of public money for indirect bribery in the interests of a party, is called jobbery in England. An individual transaction is called a job. The English colony in Ireland is the main centre of jobbery.

No public interest may be satisfied without a pretty sum or some fat sinecures being siphoned off for lords and government proteges. With the money that the wholly superfluous commission has wasted the entire unpublished historical literature could have been published in Germany — and better.

The Senchus Mor has until now been our main source for information about conditions in ancient Ireland. It is a collection of ancient legal decisions which, according to the later composed introduction, was compiled on the orders of St. Patrick, and with his assistance brought into harmony with Christianity, rapidly spreading in Ireland. The High King of Ireland, Laeghaire (428-458, according to the Annals of the Four Masters), the Vice-Kings, Corc of Munster and Daire, probably a prince of Ulster, and also three bishops: St. Patrick, St. Benignus and St. Cairnech, and three lawyers: Dubthach, Fergus and Rossa, are supposed to have formed the “commission” which compiled the book — and there is no doubt that they did their work more cheaply than the present commission, who only had to publish it. The Four Masters give 438 as the year in which the book was written.

The text itself is evidently based on very ancient heathen materials. The oldest legal formulas in it are written in verse with a precise metre and the so-called consonance, a kind of alliteration or rather consonant-assonance, which is peculiar to Irish poetry and frequently goes over to full rhyme. As it is certain that old Irish law-books were translated in the fourteenth century from the so-called Fenian dialect (Berla Feini), the language of the fifth century, into the then current Irish (Introduction (Vol. I), p. xxxvi and following) it emerges that in the Senchus Mor too the metre has been more or less smoothed out in places; but it appears often enough along with occasional rhymes and marked consonance to give the text a definite rhythmical cadence. It is generally sufficient to read the translation in order to find out the verse forms. But then there are also throughout it, especially in the latter half, numerous pieces of undoubted prose; and, whereas the verse is certainly very ancient and has been handed down by tradition, these prose insertions seem to originate with the compilers of the book. At any rate, the Senchus Mor is quoted frequently in the glossary composed in the ninth or tenth century, and attributed to the King and Bishop of Cashel, Cormac, and it was certainly written long before the English invasion.

All the manuscripts (the oldest of which appears to date from the beginning of the 14th century or earlier) contain a series of mostly concordant annotations and longer commenting notes on this text. The annotations are in the spirit of old glossaries; quibbles take the place of etymology and the explanation of words, and comments are of varying quality, being often badly distorted or largely incomprehensible, at least without knowledge of the rest of the law-books. The age of the annotations and comments is uncertain. Most of them, however, probably date from after the English invasion. As at the same time they show only a very few traces of developments in the law outside the text itself, and these are only a more precise establishment of details, the greater part, which is purely explanatory, can certainly also be used with some discretion as a source concerning earlier times.

The Senchus Mor contains:

1. The law of distraint [Pfändungsrecht], that is to say, almost the whole judicial procedure;
2. The law of hostages, which during disputes were put up by people of different territories;
3. The law of Saerrath and Daerrath (see below)[190]; and
4. The law of the family.

From this we obtain much valuable information on the social life of that time, but, as long as many of the expressions are unexplained and the rest of the manuscripts is not published, much remains dark.

In addition to literature, the surviving architectural monuments, churches, round towers, fortifications and inscriptions also enlighten us about the condition of the people before the arrival of the English.

From foreign sources we need only mention a few passages about Ireland in the Scandinavian sagas and the life of St. Malachy by St. Bernard,[191] which are not fruitful sources, and then come immediately to the first Englishman to write about Ireland from his own experience.

Sylvester Gerald Barry, known as Giraldus Cambrensis, Archdeacon of Brecknock, was a grandchild of the amorous Nesta, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of South Wales, and mistress of Henry I of England and the ancestor of almost all the Norman leaders who took part in the first conquest of Ireland. In 1185 he went with John (later “Lackland”) to Ireland and in the following years wrote, first, the Topographia Hibernica, a description of the land and the inhabitants, and then the Hibernia Expugnata, a highly-coloured history of the first invasion. It is mainly the first work which concerns us here. Written in highly pretentious Latin and filled with the wildest belief in miracles and with all the church and national prejudices of the time and the race of its vain author, the book is nevertheless of great importance as the first at all detailed report by a foreigner.

Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, ed. J. S, Brewer, London, Longmans, 1863.[192] — A (weak) English translation of the historical works including the two works already mentioned was published in London by Bohn in 1863 (The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis).

From here on, Anglo-Norman sources about Ireland naturally become more abundant; however, little knowledge is gained about the social circumstances of the part of the island that remained independent, and it is from this that conclusions regarding ancient conditions could be drawn. It is only towards the end of the 16th century, when Ireland as a whole was first systematically subjugated, that we find more detailed reports about the actual living conditions of the Irish people, and these naturally contain a strong English bias. We shall find later that, in the course. of the 400 years which elapsed since the first invasion, the condition of the people changed little, and not for the better. But, precisely because of this, these newer writings — Hanmer, Campion, Spenser, Davies, Camden, Moryson and others[193] — which we shall have to consult frequently, are one of our main sources of information on a period 500 years earlier, and a welcome and indispensable supplement to the poor original sources.

* * *

The mythical prehistory of Ireland tells of a series of immigrations which took place one after the other and mostly ended with the subduing of the island by the new immigrants. The three last ones are: that of the Firbolgs, that of the Tuatha-de-Dananns, and that of the Milesians or Scots, the last supposed to have come from Spain. Popular writing of history changed Firbolgs (fir — Irish fear, Latin vir, Gothic vair — man) into Belgian without further ado; the Tuatha-de-Dananns (tuatha — Irish people, tract of land, Gothic thiuda) into Greek Danai or German Danes as they felt the need. O'Donovan is of the opinion that something historical lies at the basis of at least the immigrations named above. According to the annals there occurred in the year 10 A.D. an insurrection of the aitheach tuatha (which Lynch, who is a good judge of the old language, translated in the seventeenth century as: plebeiorum hominum gens), that is, a plebeian revolution, in which the whole of the nobility (saorchlann) was slain. This points to the dominion of Scottish conquerors over the older inhabitants. O'Donovan draws the conclusion from the folk-tales that the Tuatha-de-Dananns, who were later transformed in folk-lore into elves of the mountain forest, survived up to the 2nd or 3rd century of our era in isolated mountain areas.

There is no doubt that the Irish were a mixed people even before large numbers of English settled among them. As early as the twelfth century, the predominant type was fair-haired as it still is. Giraldus (Top. Hib. III, 26) says of two strangers, that they had long yellow hair like the Irish. But there are also even now, especially in the west, two quite different types of black-haired people. The one is tall and well-built with fine facial features and curly hair, people whom one thinks that one has already met in the Italian Alps or Lombardy; this type occurs most frequently in the south-west. The other, thickset and short in build, with coarse, lank, black hair and flattened, almost negroid faces, is more frequent in Connaught. Huxley attributes this darkhaired element in the originally light-haired Celtic population to an Iberian (that is, Basque) admixture,[194] which would be correct in part at least. However, at the time when the Irish come clearly into the light of history, they have become a homogeneous people with Celtic speech and we do not find anywhere any other foreign elements, apart from the slaves acquired by conquest or barter, who were mostly Anglo-Saxons.

The reports of the classical writers of antiquity about that people do not sound very flattering. Diodorus recounts that those Britons who inhabit the island called Iris (or Irin? it is in the accusative, Irin) eat people.[195] Strabo gives a more detailed report:

“Concerning this island [Jerne] I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy eaters [poluyagoi; according to another manner of reading pohyagoi — herbivorous], and since, further, they count it an honourable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters."[196]

The patriotic Irish historians have been more than a little indignant over this alleged calumny. It was reserved to more recent investigation to prove that cannibalism, and especially the devouring of parents, was a stage in the development of probably all nations. Perhaps it will be a consolation to the Irish to know that the ancestors of the present Berliners were still honouring this custom a full thousand years later:

Aber Weletabi, die in Germania sizzent, tie wir Wilze heizên, die ne scament A nieht ze chedenne daz — sie iro parentes mit mêren rehte ezen sulîn, danne die wurme.” ["But the Weletabi who reside in Germany, which we call Wilze, who are not ashamed to say that they have a greater right to eat their parents than the worms have."] (Notker, quoted in Jacob Grimm’s Rechtsaltertümer, p. 488.)

And we shall see the consuming of human flesh reoccur more than once under English rule. As far as the phanerogamy (to use an expression of Fourier’s[197]), which the Irish are reproached with, is concerned: such things occurred amongst all the barbarous peoples, and much more amongst the quite unusually gallant Celts. It is interesting to note that even then the island carried the present native name: Iris, Irin and Jerne are identical with Eire and Erinn; and how even Ptolemy already knew the present name of the capital, Dublin, Eblana (with the right accent Eblana).[198] This is all the more noteworthy since the Irish Celts have since ancient times given this city another name, Athcliath, and for them Duibhlinn — the black pool — is the name of a place on the River Liffey.

Moreover we also find the following passage in Pliny’s Historiae Naturalis, IV, 16:

“The Britons travel there” (to Hibernia) “in boats of willow. branches across which animal-skins have been sewn together.”

And later Solinus says of the Irish:

“They cross the sea between Hibernia and Britannia in boats of willow-branches, which they overlay with a cover of cattle-hide.” (C. Jul. Solini, Cosmographia, Ch. 25.)

In the year 1810, Wakefield found that on the whole west coast of Ireland “no other boats occurred except ones which consisted of a wooden frame covered over with a horse- or ox-hide.” The shape of these boats varies according to the district, but they are all distinguished by their extraordinary lightness, so that mishaps rarely occur on them. Naturally they are of no use on the open sea, for which reason fishing can only take place in the creeks and amongst the islands. Wakefield saw these boats in Malbay, County Clare. They were 15 feet long, 5 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Two cowhides with the hair on the inside and tarred on the outside were used for one of these, and they were arranged for two rowers. Such a boat cost about 30 shillings. (Wakefield, Vol. 2, p. 97.) Instead of woven willows — a wooden frame! What an advance in 1,800 years and after nearly 700 years of the “civilising” influence of the foremost maritime nation in the world!

As for the rest, several signs of progress can be seen. Under King Cormac Ulfadha, who was placed on the throne in the second half of the third century, his son-in-law, Finn McCumhal, is said to have reorganised the Irish militia — the Fianna Eirionn [Feini, Fenier, is the name given to the Irish nation throughout the Senchus Mor. Feinechus, Fenchus, Law of the Fenians, often stands for the Senchus or for another lost law-book. Feine, grad feine also designates the plebs, the lowest free class of people] — probably on the lines of the Roman legion with differentiation between light troops and troops of the line; all the later Irish armies on which we have detailed information have the following categories of troops: the kerne — light troops — and the galloglas — heavy troops or troops of the line. Finn’s heroic deeds are celebrated in many old songs, some of which still exist; these and perhaps a few Scottish-Gaelic traditions form the basis of Macpherson’s Ossian (Irish Oisin, son of Finn), in which Finn appears as Fingal and the scene is transferred to Scotland.[199] In Irish folk-lore Finn lives on as Finn Mac-Caul, a giant, to whom some wonderful feat of strength is ascribed in almost every locality of the island.

Christianity must have penetrated Ireland quite early, at least the east coast of it. Otherwise the fact that so many Irishmen played an important part in Church-history even long before Patrick cannot be explained. Pelagius the Heretic is usually taken to be a Welsh monk from Bangor; but there was also an ancient Irish monastery, Bangor, or rather Banchor at Carrickfergus. That he comes from the Irish monastery is proved by Hieronymus, who describes him as being “stupid and heavy with Scottish gruel” (“scotorum pultibus praegravatus”).[200] This is the first mention of Irish oatmeal gruel (Irish lite, Anglo-lrish stirabout), which even then, before the introduction of potatoes, was the staple food of the Irish people and after that continued to be so alongside with the latter. Pelagius’s chief followers were Celest us and Albinus, also Scots, that is, Irishmen. According to Gennadius,[201] Celestius wrote three detailed letters to his parents from the monastery, and from them it can be seen that alphabetical writing was known in Ireland in the fourth century.

The Irish people are called Scots and the land Scotia in all the writings of the early Middle Ages; we find this term used by Claudianus, Isidorus, Beda, the geographer of Ravenna, Eginhard and even by Alfred the Great: “Hibernia, which we call Scotland” (“lgbernia the ve Scotland hatadh”).[202] The present Scotland was called Caledonia by foreigners and Alba, Albania by the inhabitants; the transfer of the name Scotia, Scotland, to the northern area of the eastern isle did not occur until the eleventh century. The first substantial emigration of Irish Scots to Alba is taken to have been in the middle of the third century; Ammianus Marcellinus already knows them there in the year 360.[203] The emigrants used the shortest sea-route, from Antrim to the peninsula of Kintyre; Nennius explicitly says that the Britons, who then occupied all the Scottish lowlands up to the Clyde and Forth, were attacked by the Scots from the west, by the Picts from the north.[204] Further, the seventh of the ancient Welsh historical Triads[205] reports that the gwyddyl ffichti (see below) came to Alba over the Norse Sea (Mor Llychlin) and settled on the coast. Incidentally, the fact that the sea between Scotland and the Hebrides is called the Norse Sea shows that this ‘Triad was written after the Norse conquest of the Hebrides. Large numbers of Scots came over again at about the year 500, and they gradually formed a kingdom, independent of both Ireland and the Picts. They finally subdued the Picts in the ninth century under Kenneth MacAlpin and created the state to which the name Scotland, Scotia was transferred, probably first by the Norsemen about 150 years later.

Invasions of Wales by the gwyddyl ffichti or Gaelic Picts are mentioned in ancient Welsh sources (Nennius, the Triads) of the fifth and sixth centuries. These are generally accepted as being invasions of Irish Scots. Gwyddyl is the Welsh form of gavidheal, as the Irish call themselves. The origin of the term Picts can be investigated by someone else.

Patricius (Irish Patrick, Patraic, as the Celts always pronounce their c as k in the Ancient Roman way) brought Christianity to dominance in the second quarter of the fifth century without any violent convulsions. Trade with Britain, which had been of long standing, also became livelier at this time; architects and building workers came over and the Irish learned from them to build with mortar, while up to then they had only known dry-stone building. As mortar building occurs between the seventh and twelfth centuries, and then only in church buildings, that is proof enough that its introduction is connected with that of Christianity, and further, that from then on the clergy, as the representative of foreign culture, severed itself completely from the people in its intellectual development. Whilst the people made no, or only extremely slow, social advances, there soon developed amongst the clergy a literary learning which was extraordinary for the time and which, in accordance with the custom then, manifested itself mostly in zeal for converting heathens and founding monasteries. Columba converted the British Scots and the Picts; Gallus (founder of St. Gallen) and Fridolin the Allemanni, Kilian the Franks on the Main, Virgilius the city of Salzburg. All five were Irish. The Anglo-Saxons were also converted to Christianity mainly by Irish missionaries. Furthermore, Ireland was known throughout Europe as a nursery of learning, so much so that Charlemagne summoned an Irish monk, Albinus, to teach at Pavia, where another Irishman, Dungal, followed him later. The most important of the many Irish scholars, who were famous at that time but are now mostly forgotten, was the “Father,” or as Erdmann calls him, the “Carolus Magnus” [Charles the Great] of philosophy in the Middle Ages-Johannes Scotus Erigena. Hegel says of him, “Real philosophy began first with him."[206] He alone understood Greek in Western Europe in the ninth century, and by his translation of the writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, he restored the link with the last branch of the old philosophy, the Alexandrian Neoplatonic school.[207] His teaching was very bold for the time. He denied the “eternity of damnation,” even for the devil, and brushed close to Pantheism. Contemporary orthodoxy, therefore, did not fail to slander him. It took a full two hundred years before the branch of learning founded by Erigena was developed by Anselm of Canterbury.

More about Erigena’s doctrine and works is to be found in Erdmann’s Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, 2. Aufl., Berlin, 1869, Bd. 1, S. 241-47. Erigena, who was not a clergyman, shows real Irish wit. When Charles the Bald, King of France, who was sitting opposite him at table, asked him the difference between a Scot and a sot, Erigena answered: “The width of a table.”

Before this development of culture could have an effect on the people, it was interrupted by the raids of the Norsemen. The raids, which form the main staple product of Scandinavian, and particularly Danish, patriotism, occurred too late, and the nations from which they originated were too small for them to result in conquest, colonisation, and the forming of states on a large scale as had been the case with the earlier invasions of the Germans. Their advantage which they bequeathed on historical development is infinitesimal in comparison with the immense and fruitless (even for the Scandinavians themselves) disturbances they caused.

Ireland was far from being inhabited by a single nation at the end of the eighth century. Supreme royal power over the whole island existed only in appearance, and by no means always at that. The provincial kings, whose number and territories were continually changing, fought amongst themselves, and the smaller territorial princes likewise carried on their private feuds. On the whole, however, these internal wars seem to have been governed by certain customs which held the ravages within definite limits, so that the country did not suffer too much. But this was not to last. In 795, a few years after the English had been first raided by the same plundering nation, Norsemen landed on the Isle of Rathlin, off the coast of Antrim, and burnt everything down; in 798, they landed near Dublin, and after this they are mentioned nearly every year in the annals as heathens, foreigners, pirates, and never without additional reports of the losccadh (burning down) of one or more places. Their colonies on the Orkneys, Shetlands and Hebrides (Southern Isles, Sudhreyjar in the old Norse sagas) served them as operational bases against Ireland, and against what was later known as Scotland, and against England. In the middle of the ninth century, they were in possession of Dublin, [the assertion of Snorri in the Haraldsaga,[208] that Harald Harfagr’s sons, Thorgils and Frodi, were the first of the Norsemen to occupy Dublin — that is, at least 50 years later than stated — is in direct contradiction with all Irish accounts which are unimpeachable for this period. Evidently Snorri is confusing Harald Harfagr’s son Thorgils with the Thorgils (Turgesius) mentioned later] which, according to Giraldus, they rebuilt for the first time into a proper city. He also attributes the building of Limerick and Waterford to them. The name Waterford is only a nonsensical anglicisation of the ancient Norse Vedhrafiördhr, which means either storm-bay [Welterföhrde] or ram-bay [Widderbucht]. Naturally, as soon as the Norsemen settled down in the land, their prime necessity was to have fortified harbour-towns. The population of these long remained Scandinavian, but in the twelfth century it had long since assimilated Irish speech and customs. The quarrelling of the Irish princes amongst themselves greatly simplified pillage and settlement for the Norsemen, and even the temporary conquest of the whole island. The extent to which the Scandinavians considered Ireland as one of their regular pillage grounds is shown by the so-called death-song of Ragnar Lodbrôk, the Krâkumâl, composed about the year 1000 in the snaketower of King Ella of Northumberland.[209] In this song all the ancient pagan savagery is massed together, as if for the last time, and under the pretext of celebrating King Ragnar’s heroic deeds in song, all the Nordic peoples’ raids in their own lands, on coasts from Dunamunde to Flanders, Scotland (here already called Skotland, perhaps for the first time) and Ireland are briefly pictured. About Ireland is said:

“We hew’d with our swords, heap'd high the slain,
Glad was the wolf’s brother of the furious battle’s feast;
Iron struck brass-shields; Ireland’s ruler, Marsteinn,
Did not starve the murder-wolf or eagle;
In Vedhrafiördhr the raven was given a sacrifice.

We hew'd with our swords, started a game at dawn,
A merry battle against three kings at Lindiseyri;
Not many could boast that they fled unhurt from there.

Falcon fought wolf for flesh, the wolf’s fury, devoured many;
The blood of the Irish flow'd in streams on the beach in the battle.”

Hiuggu ver medh hiörvi, hverr lâthverr of annan;
gladhr, vardh gera brôdhir getu vidh sôknar laeti,
lêt ei örn nê ylgi, sâ er Îrlandi styrdhi,
(môt vardh mâlms ok rîtar) Marsteinn konungr fasta;
vardh î Vedhra firdhi valtafn gefit hrafni.

Hiuggu ver medh hiörvi, hadhum sudhr at morni
leik fyrir Lindiseyri vidh lofdhûnga threnna;
fârr âtti thvî fagna (fêll margr î gyn ûlfi,
haukr sleit hold medh vargi), at hann heill thadhan kaemi;
Yra blôdh î oegi aerit fêll um skaeru.”

Vedhrafiordlir is, as we have said, Waterford; I do not know whether Lindiseyri has been discovered anywhere. On no account does it mean Leinster as Johnstone translates it[210]; eyri (sandy neck of land, Danish öre) points to a quite distinct locality. Valtafn can also mean falcon feed and is generally translated as such here, but as the raven is Odin’s holy bird, the word obviously has both meanings.

By the first half of the ninth century, a Norse Viking Thorgils, called Turgesius by the Irish, had succeeded in submitting all Ireland to his rule. But, with fits death in 844, his kingdom fell apart, and the Norsemen were driven out. The invasions and battles continued with varying success. Finally, at the beginning of the eleventh century, Ireland’s national hero, Brian Borumha, originally King of only a part of Munster, gained the kingship of all Ireland and gave the decisive battle to the concentrated force of the invading Norsemen on the 23rd April (Good Friday), 1014, at Clontarf, close to Dublin, as a result of which the power of the invaders was broken forever.

The Norsemen who had settled in Ireland, and on whom Leinster was dependent (the King of Leinster, Maolmordha, had come to the throne in 999 with their help and was maintained there by it), had sent messengers to the Hebrides, the Orkneys, Denmark and Norway asking for reinforcements, in anticipation of the impending decisive battle. Help came to them in large numbers. The Niâlssaga[211] recounts how Jarl Sigurd Laudrisson armed himself for the departure on the Orkneys, and how Thorstein Siduhallsson, Hrafn the Red and Erlinger of Straumey went with him, and how he arrived in Dublin (Durflin) with all his army on Palm Sunday.

“Brodhir had already arrived with his whole force. Brodhir tried to learn by means of sorcery how the battle would turn out, and the answer was this: if the battle was fought on a Friday, King Brian would win the victory but die; and that if it was fought before that time, then all who were against him would fall. Then Brodhir said that they should not fight before Friday.”

There are two versions of the battle itself, that of the Irish annals and the Scandinavian one of the Nialssaga. According to the latter:

“King Brian had come up to the fortified town” (Dublin) “with his entire army, and on Friday the army” (of the Norsemen) “issued from the town. Both hosts arranged themselves in battle array. Brodhir headed one wing, King Sigtrygg” (King of the Dublin Norsemen according to the Annals of Inisfallen) “the other. We must say that King Brian did not wish to give battle on Good Friday; therefore a shield-burg was set about him and his army stationed in front of that. Ulf Hraeda headed the wing facing Brodhir, and Ospak and his sons headed the wing facing Sigtrygg, but Kerthialfadh stood in the middle and had the flag carried before him.”

When the battle began Brodhir was driven into a wood by Ulf Hraeda where he found safety. Jarl Sigurd had a hard struggle against Kerthialfadh, who fought his way to the flag and slew the flag-bearer as well as the next man who seized the flag; then all refused to carry the flag and Jarl Sigurd took the flag from the staff and hid it in his clothing. Soon after he was pierced by a spear, and with this his part of the army appears to have been defeated. Meanwhile Ospak attacked the Norsemen in the rear and defeated Sigtrygg’s wing after a hard fought battle.

“Thereupon the entire host took to flight. Thorstein Hallson stopped while the others were fleeing and tied his shoe thong. Then Kerthialfadh asked him why lie was not running too.

“ ‘Because I can’t get home this evening anyway,’ said Thorstein, as I live out in Iceland!’ Kerthialfadh spared him.”

Brodhir now saw from his hiding-place that Brian’s army was pursuing those who fled from the battle and that few people remained at the shield-burg. Then he ran out of the wood, broke through the shield-burg and slew the King. (Brian, who was 88, was obviously not capable of joining in the battle and had remained in the camp.)

“Then Brodhir shouted: ‘Let it pass from mouth to mouth that Brodhir felled Brian!’ “

But the pursuers returned, surrounded Brodhir and seized him alive.

“Ulf Hraeda slit open his belly, led him round and round an oak-tree, and in this way unwound all his intestines out of his body, and Brodhir did not die before they were all pulled out of him. Brodhir’s men were slain to the last man.”

According to the Annals of Inisfallen the Norse army was divided into three sections. The first consisted of the Dublin Norsemen and 1,000 Norwegian volunteers, who all wore long shirts of mail. The second was made up of the Irish auxiliary forces from Leinster under King Maolmordha. The third consisted of reinforcements from the Islands and Scandinavia under Bruadhair, the commander of the fleet that had brought them, and Lodar, the Jarl of the Orkneys. Against these Brian also placed his troops in three sections; but the names of the leaders given here do not correspond with those given in the Nialssaga, and the account of the battle is insignificant. The following account, given in the Four Masters, is shorter and clearer:

“A.D. 1013 (given here as everywhere mistakenly for 1014). The foreigners of the west of Europe assembled against Brian and Maelseachlainn” (usually called Malachy, King of Meath under Brian’s High Kingship); “and they took with them ten hundred men with coats of mail. A spirited, fierce, violent, vengeful, and furious battle was fought between them — the likeness of which was not to be found at that time — at Cluaintarbh” (Meadow of the Bulls, now Clontarf) “on the Friday before Easter precisely. In this battle were slain Brian ... in the eighty-eighth year of his age; Murchadh, his son, in the sixtythird year of his age; Conaing, ... the son of Brian’s brother; Toirdhealbhach, son of Murchadh. . .” (there follow a multitude of names). “The” (enemy) “forces were afterwards routed by dint of battling, bravery, and striking, by Maelseachlainn, from Tulcainn to Athcliath” (Dublin), “against the foreigners and the Leinstermen; and there fell Maolmordha, son of Murchadh, son of Finn, King of Leinster.... There was a countless slaughter of the Leinstermen along with them. There were also slain Dubhgall, son of Amhlanibh” (usually called Anlaf or Olaf), “and Gillaciarain, son of Gluniairn, two tanists of the foreigners, Sichfrith, son of Lodar, Earl of the Orkneys (iarla Insi h Oirc); Brodar, chief of the Danes, who was the person that slew Brian. The ten hundred in armour were cut to pieces, and at the least three thousand of the foreigners were there slain.”

The Niâlssaga was written in Iceland approximately 100 years after the battle; the Irish annals are based, at least in part, on contemporary information. The two are completely independent of each other. Yet not only do they correspond in all the main points, but they also complete each other. We can only find out who Brodhir and Sigtrygg were from the Irish annals. Sigurd Laudrisson is the name of Sichfrith, Lodar’s son. Sichfrith is in fact the correct Anglo-Saxon form of the ancient Norse name, Sigurd. In Ireland, Scandinavian names appear — on coins as well as in the annals — mainly in their Anglo-Saxon forms, not in the ancient Norse. In the Niâlssaga the names of Brian’s generals are adapted for easier pronunciation by the Scandinavians. One of the names, Ulf Hraeda, is, in fact, ancient Norse, but it would be risky as some do to conclude from this that Brian had Norsemen in his army too. Ospak and Kerthialfadh appear to be Celtic names; the latter might be a distortion of the Toirdhealbhach mentioned in the Four Masters. The date of the battle — given as the Friday after Palm Sunday in the one, and as the Friday before Easter in the other — is the same in both, as is also the place of the battle. Although this is given as Kantaraburg (otherwise Canterbury)[212] in the Niâlssaga, it is also explicitly said to be close to the gates of Dublin. The course of the battle is reported more precisely in the Four Masters: The Norsemen attacked Brian’s army on the Plain of Clontarf. From there they were thrown back beyond the Tolka, a little stream near the northern part of Dublin, towards the city. Both report that Brodhir slew King Brian, but more detailed accounts are given only in the Norse source.

It can be seen that our reports on this battle are quite informative and authentic, considering the barbarity of that time. There are not many eleventh-century battles on which such reliable and corroborating accounts are available from both sides. This does not prevent Professor Goldwin Smith from describing it as a “shadowy conflict” (Ir. His., p. 48). Certainly, the most robust facts quite often take on a “shadowy” form in our Professor’s head.

After their defeat at’ Clontarf, the Norse raids became less frequent and less dangerous. The Dublin Norsemen soon came under the domination of the neighbouring Irish princes, and, after one or two generations, were assimilated by the native population . The only compensation the Irish got for the devastation caused by the Scandinavians was three or four cities and the beginnings of a trading bourgeoisie.

* * *

The further back we go into history, the more the characteristics distinguishing different peoples of the same race disappear. This is partly because of the nature of the sources, which in the measure in which they are older become thinner and contain only the most essential information, and partly because of the development of the peoples themselves. The less remote the individual branches are from the original stock, the nearer they are to each other and the more they resemble each other. Jacob Grimm has always quite correctly treated the information given by Roman historians, who described the War of the Cimbri,[213] Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus, all the literary written records from Beowulf and Hildebrandslied to the Eddas[214] and the sagas, all the books of law from the Leges barbarorum[215] to the ancient Danish and ancient Swedish laws and the old Germanic judicial procedures as equally valuable sources of information on the German national character, customs and legal conditions. A specific characteristic may be of purely local significance, but the character reflected in it is common to the whole race; and the older the sources used, the more local differences disappear.

just as the Scandinavians and the Germans differed less in the seventh and eighth centuries than they do today, so also must the Irish Celts and the Gallic Celts have originally resembled each other more than present-day Irishmen and Frenchmen. Therefore we should not be surprised to find in Caesar’s description of the Gauls many features which are ascribed to the Irish by Giraldus some twelve hundred years later, and which, furthermore, are discernible in the Irish national character even today, in spite of the admixture of Germanic blood. ...


188. Engels is referring to the collection Rerum Hibernicarum Scriptores Veleres (Ancient Annalists of Ireland), published in four volumes in 1814, 1825 and 1826 by Charles O'Conor in Buckingham.

The collection contains the first publication of part of the Annales IV Magistrorum, the Annales Tigernachi, which were written between the 11th and 15th centuries and described events from the close of the third century, the Annales Ultonienses (compiled by various chroniclers between the 15th and 17th centuries and describing events beginning with the mid-5th century), and the Annales Inisfalensis (generally assumed to have been compiled from 1215 onwards, and treating events up to 1318), mentioned by Engels.

189. Arthur O'Connor was one of the few leaders of the United Irishmen society, which prepared the 1798 uprising, who managed to escape execution. After his release from gaol in 1803 O'Connor was banished to France, where he stayed to the end of his days.

190. Saerrath and Daerrath — two forms of tenancy in ancient Ireland, whereby the tenant, generally an ordinary member of the community, was given the use of stock and later also of land by the chief of the clan or tribe and by other representatives of the tribal elite. They involved partial loss of personal freedom (especially in the case of Daerrath) and various onerous duties. These forms of dependence were typical of the period of the disintegration of tribal relations in ancient Irish society and of the early stages of feudalisation. At this time land tenure was on the whole still communal, while stock and farming implements were already private property, and private landownership already existed in embryonic form. Engels’s “see below” refers to the section of this chapter which remained unwritten.

191. S. Bernard, Vita S. Malachiae.

192. The works of Giraldus Cambrensis on Ireland, Topographia Hibernica and Expugnatio Hibernica (in Engels’s manuscript Hibernia Expugnata), were included in the 5th volume of the Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, mentioned by Engels, the publication of which was begun by J. S. Brewer. The 5th volume published by J. F. Dimock appeared in 1867.

193. A reference to the following works: M. Hanmer, The Chronicle of Ireland; E. Campion, History of Ireland; E. Spencer, A View of the State of Ireland, published in Ancient Irish Histories. The Works of Spencer, Campion, Hanmer and Marleburrough, vols. I-II, Dublin, 1809, and also to: John Davies, Historical Tracts, London, 1786; W. Camden, Britannia, London, 1637; F. Moryson, An Itinerary Containing Ten Years Travels Through the Twelve Dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Switzerland, Netherland, Denmark, Poland, Italy, Turkey, France, England, Scotland and Ireland, London, 1617.

194. Engels is referring to Huxley’s public lecture on the subject “The Forefathers and Forerunners of the English People,” read in Manchester on January 9, 1870. A detailed account of the lecture was published in the Manchester Examiner and The Times on January 12, 1870.

195. Diodorus Siculus, Bibliothecae historicae, Vol. 5.

196. Strabo, Geographic, translated by K. Kärcher, Buch 7, Tübingen, 1835.

197. Ch. Fourier, Le nouveau monde industriel et societaire on invention du procede d'industrie attrayante et naturelle distribuee en series passionnees. The first edition appeared in Paris in 1829. For the passage mentioned by Engels see p. 399 of that edition.

198. Claudius Ptolemaeus, Geographia, Book 11, Chapter 2.

199. A reference to The Poems of Ossian written by the Scottish poet James Macpherson, who published them in 1760-65. He ascribed them to Ossian, the legendary Celtic bard. Macpherson’s poems are based on an ancient Irish epos in a later Scottish interpretation.

200. S. Eusebius Hieronymus, Commentariorum in Jeremiam Prophetam libri sex. Prologus.

201. Gennadius, Illustrium, virorum, catologus.

202. The references are to the following medieval works: Claudianus, De IV consulatu Honorii Augusti panegiricus; Isidorus Hispalensis, Etymologiarum, libri XX; Beda Venerabilis, Historiae Ecclesiasticae libri quinque; Anonymus Ravenatis, De Geographiae libri V; Egin hard, Vita et gesta Karoli Magni; Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon Version of the Historian Orosius. In all probability Engels used extracts from the above-mentioned works contained in K. Zeuss, Die Deutschen und die Nachbarstaemme. See pp. 568-69 of the edition published in Munich in 1837.

203. Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum gestarum libri XXXI, liber XX.

204. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, with an English Version by Gunn, London, 1819, § 15.

205. Triads — medieval Welsh works written in the form characteristic of the poetry of the ancient Celts of Wales, with persons, things, events, etc., arranged in sets of three. As regards their content the Triads are historical, theological, judicial, poetical and ethical. The early Triads were composed not later than the 10th century, but the extant manuscripts of these works relate to the period from the12th to the 15th century.

206. G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (Lectures on the History of Philosophy), Bd. 3. In: Werke, Bd. XV, Berlin, 1836, S. 160.

207. Alexandrian Neoplatonic school — a trend in ancient philosophy originating in the 3rd century A. D. in Alexandria during the decline of the Roman Empire. The source of neoplatonism was Plato’s idealism, and the idealistic aspect of Aristotle’s teaching, interpreted in a mystical spirit by the neoplatonic philosophers. In the 5th century A. D. an unknown adherent of this school, who attempted to combine the Christian teaching with neoplatonism, signed his works with the name of Dionysius the Areopagite, the first Christian Bishop of Athens.

208. Haraldsaga was written early in the 13th century by the Icelandic poet and chronicler Snorri Sturluson. He tells of the life and exploits of the Norwegian King Harald (9th-10th centuries), founder of the Harfagr dynasty.

209. Krakumal (Song of Kraka) — a medieval Scandinavian poem, composed as the death-song of Ragnar Lodbrok (9th century), a Danish Viking taken prisoner and put to death by Ella, the King of Northumberland. According to the legend Kraka, Ragnar’s wife, sang the song to her children to inspire in them the desire to avenge their father’s death. Engels used the text of the song as given in the reader: F. E. Ch. Dietrich, Altnordisches Lesebuch, Leipzig, 1864, S. 73-80.

210. Johnstone, Lodbrokar — Quida; or, the Death Song of Lodbroke, London, 1782.

211. Niâlssaga — an Icelandic saga which according to recent research was recorded at the end of the 13th century from oral tradition and ancient written monuments. The central theme is the life story of Gunnar, an Icelandic Hawding (a member of the clan nobility) and his friend Bond Nial (a free community member), an expert on and commentator of ancient customs and laws. The saga tells of the battle of the Norsemen against the Irish King Brian Born, and is an authentic source for the study of a major event in Irish history the Irish victory over the Norse invaders in 1014 at the battle of Clontarf. Engels quoted the excerpt from the Niâlssaga according to the text of the reader: F. E. Ch. Dietrich, Altnordisches Lesebuch, Leipzig, 1864, S. 103-08.

212. Modern scholars transcribe the name of King Brian’s residence in Munster as Kankaraborg, or Kincora.

213. The Cimbri and Teutons, Germanic tribes, invaded Southern Gaul and Northern Italy in 113-101 B.C. In 101 B.C. these tribes were routed by the Roman General Marius in the battle of Vercelli (Northern Italy). The battle of the Romans against the Cimbri and Teutons was described by Plutarch in his biography of Marius, by Tacitus in Germania, and by other ancient historians.

214. Beowulf — a poem about the legendary hero Beowulf is supposed to have been recorded in the 8th century and ranks as the finest known work of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The poem is based on folk sagas about the life of the Germanic tribes of the early 6th century.

Hildebrandslied — an 8th century German epic poem, of which only some passages have survived.

Edda — a collection of epic poems and songs about the lives and deeds of the Scandinavian gods and heroes. It has come down to us in a manuscript dating from the 13th century, discovered in 1643 by the Icelandic Bishop Sveinsson — the so-called Elder Edda — and in a treatise on the poetry of the scalds compiled in the early 13th century by Snorri Sturluson (Younger Edda).

215. Leges barbarorum — records of the common law of various Germanic tribes, compiled between the 5th and 9th centuries.