The ancient Irish church/Chapter 14

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The position of Ireland, at the extreme west of Europe, has rendered it less liable to invasion than countries otherwise more advantageously situated. England was conquered by Romans and Saxons; but the former never set foot on Irish soil, and the latter only came on insignificant plundering expeditions. The third invasion of England, however, was one in which Ireland had its share. In the year 787, three ships of Northmen from Denmark appeared off the south coast of England. Eight years later they had made their way round to the coast of Antrim.

The story of their invasions is in many respects very similar for both countries. First, they came only in small parties, as pirates rather than invaders, their one object being plunder. Then they formed larger and better organized expeditions; they boldly attacked strongholds and fortresses; assumed the offensive in warfare, and endeavoured to dethrone the reigning sovereigns and usurp their authority. Finally, they made for themselves settlements, built cities, and erected castles, relinquishing more or less their roving and unsettled life, and making for themselves a home in the land which they had gained with their swords.

We should, however, be quite mistaken in supposing that the Danes of Ireland ever came in such formidable numbers as those who landed on the coast of England, or that the struggle with the invaders ever reached such a pitch of intensity as when in England the Saxons had to fight for their very national existence. Only once was there anything even remotely approaching an attempt to subjugate the whole island. On that occasion, a Norse leader named Turgesius is said to have united the different bands which up to that time had acted independently. With their help he made an attack simultaneously on different parts of the country, defeated the native kings, and set himself up as chief monarch of the land. The story is one highly coloured, and abounding in dramatic incidents. The subjugation of the country is said to have been so complete that all the churches were destroyed, all schools closed, all meetings prohibited. Every village had a Danish ruler. Every house had in it a Danish soldier. Every adult had to pay a tribute to the Danes for the mere right to live. The tyranny lasted for thirty years, until at length the country was delivered by the valour of fifteen beardless youths, who, disguised as maidens, went as escort to the king's daughter, after a demand had been made by Turgesius that she should be delivered up to him. These, suddenly producing daggers from beneath their robes, killed the principal Danish warriors, made the Viking leader himself a prisoner, and then raised the cry of battle from one end of the land to the other.

That this whole story is founded on fact is no doubt true; but it seems equally certain that it has been greatly exaggerated. The works of the Norse chroniclers are searched in vain for any mention of Turgesius, and this omission effectually disposes of the idea that he was such a great leader as he is generally represented to be. On the other hand, the Annals of the Four Masters, which are very full in their record of the Danish incursions, only mention his name once, and the events which they narrate for the years in which he is said to have held sway would have been quite impossible if a tithe of the story of his oppression were true. The principal source of our information respecting him comes from English authors, like Giraldus Cambrensis, who imagined that the number and fierceness of the Danish warriors in England was to be taken as the measure of their strength in Ireland; and who, when they met with a good story, had not the remotest idea that it was the duty of a historian to reject it, merely because it was not true.

On this whole subject of the Danish invasions there has been an immense amount of exaggeration. On the one hand, their insignificant piratical expeditions have been spoken of as if they were great national movements; and on the other, they have been credited with the introduction of that art and civilization which they did their best to destroy. There is perhaps no better corrective to the extraordinary statements which have been made on this subject than the study of local names. Nearly fourteen hundred names of Danish origin have been enumerated in the middle and northern counties of England. This tells us that there was a real invasion, carried on by an overwhelming and victorious force. Not more than fifteen of such names can be found in the whole of Ireland, and these are nearly all on the east coast.[1] We may therefore conclude that nothing more than small seaport settlements were ever attempted, or at all events accomplished, by the Danes in Ireland.

When they first came, the religious establishments, especially those on the coasts and in the islands, were the greatest sufferers. The Norsemen have obtained for themselves a historical reputation for bravery. It is doubtful if this reputation would ever have been gained if they had nothing to show but the record of their campaigns in Ireland. Their first attacks were all directed against the monasteries. In them they encountered the least resistance, for though ecclesiastics sometimes joined in battle, they were necessarily for the most part given to peace. The monasteries, too, had the greatest wealth, and that of a portable kind. In them were produced the works of gold and silver and metal—in them the stores of industry were garnered—in them were to be found costly shrines, book covers and altar vessels, curiously wrought and adorned with precious stones. In them, therefore, were the greatest hopes of plunder. As soon as the work of pillaging was accomplished, they retreated to their ships. They risked as few combats as possible. Once on board their vessels, they knew that they were safe.

In the year 795 they made their first appearance, when a small company landed on the island of Rathlin, off the coast of Antrim, burnt the houses and churches, and carried off the shrines and all the other valuables they could find. Three years later they attacked the little island of Innispatrick, opposite Skerries. There the remains of Saint Dochonna were preserved in a shrine, which the Norsemen broke and carried away. Then, sailing towards the north, they cruised along the coast, landing and plundering whenever they found a favourable opportunity.

Iona, from its exposed situation, suffered more than any other place. In 802 the Norsemen landed and burned a great part of the establishment. In 806 they returned with a larger force, and seemed determined to destroy it completely. Everything on which they could lay their hands was seized; sixty-eight of the inmates were killed, and the rest, hastily embarking in their coracles, and bringing with them whatever valuables they could collect, escaped to Ireland, made their way to the monastery of the same order at Kells, and there built a church and erected 'as it were a new Iona.'

As the years went by they arrived in greater numbers. They even ventured inland, and met the native Irish in pitched battles. But till stheir tactics were the same. Churches and monasteries were the prey for which they sought, until in the end there was not a religious establishment of importance in Ireland which had not suffered more or less at their hands.

It is not an unnatural mistake that many historians, both ancient and modern, have made in supposing that these expeditions of the Danes had a religious character, and that their deliberate aim was to destroy the Christian faith, and set up in its stead the worship of the Scandinavian deities. Among the stories about Turgesius is one, that at Armagh and Clonmacnois he actually used the Christian churches for the celebration of heathen rites, and that in the latter place his wife officiated as priestess. That such ideas should have been entertained at the time and have passed at once into history is not a subject of wonder; and yet any one who considers the question will see that this view of the case is most improbable, particularly when another and much simpler explanation is coming. The Norsemen were simply plunderers, and not religious enthusiasts; and they attacked the monasteries and churches, not because they hated Christianity, but because they found in them the most booty and the least resistance.

The result was almost as disastrous to the Irish Church as if the Danes had come of set purpose to destroy it. Amid all the troubles and disturbances of tribal warfare, the Irish had for the most part respected those peaceful settlements in their midst where the worship of God was celebrated. Occasionally, an act of sacrilege would be committed, but it was viewed with abhorrence by the nation in general. The result was that learning flourished, and the Church became more and more a power in the land. But the Danes changed all this. Bishops and teachers had to fly for their lives. Scribes saw their precious manuscripts in the rough hands of the barbarians, who took a brutal delight in destroying them, because they knew them to be so highly prized. And the native Irish were not long in following the pernicious example. Soon it came to be a recognised method of warfare that one chief should destroy the sanctuaries in the territory of his rival. Sometimes the churches of a whole province were ravaged because an unfriendly king was making war on its ruler. Under such circumstances learning could make but little progress. The Church itself became infected with the spirit of the age. The era of the 'saints and doctors' was at an end.

One of the more immediate results was the emigration of several Irish ecclesiastics to England and the Continent; and we learn incidentally that in the ninth century, as in the seventh, those churches which were in communion with the see of Rome refused to acknowledge the validity of the Irish ordinations. In a synod held at Chalons-sur-Saone in 813, one of the canons has the title 'On the nullity of the ordinations conferred by the Irish, who call themselves bishops.' And in 816, at a synod held at Cealcythe, in England, it was enacted that no one of the Irish race should be allowed to exercise any priestly function, the reason given being that amongst them 'neither rank is given to metropolitans nor honour to other bishops.'[2] This shows us that however much the Irish Church may have approximated to Romish doctrine, it had not gone far enough to be acknowledged as belonging to the Communion of the Romish Church.

  1. See Joyce, Irish Names of Places, vol. i. p. 105.
  2. Both canons are given in Todd's Life of St. Patrick pp. 40, 43.