At the death of St. Patrick, and until the eleventh century, Ireland was divided into seven kingdoms: three in Ulster, the others Connaught, Leinster, Munster, Meath. Normally these kingdoms fought among themselves, for lack of transport to wider spheres of strife; but from the third century onward we hear of Irish raids and settlements on west British coasts. The chroniclers call these raiders Scots—apparently a Celtic word for wanderers; throughout this period “Scot” means Irishman. War was endemic: till 590 the women, till 804 the monks and priests, were required to fight alongside more ordinary warriors.32 A code of laws essentially similar to the “barbarian” codes of the Continent was administered by brehons—highly trained lawyer-judges who, as early as the fourth century, taught law schools and wrote legal treatises in the Gaelic tongue.33 Ireland, like Scotland, missed conquest by Rome, and therefore missed the boon of Roman law and orderly government; law never quite succeeded in replacing vengeance with judgment, or passion with discipline. Government remained basically tribal, and only at moments achieved a national unity and scope.
The unit of society and economy was the family. Several families made a sept, several septs a clan, several clans a tribe. All members of a tribe were supposedly descended from a common ancestor. In the tenth century many families prefixed Ui or O’ (grandson) to a tribal name to indicate their descent; so the O’Neills claimed descent from Niall Glundubh, King of Ireland in 916. Many others assumed their father’s name, merely prefixing Mac—i.e., son. Most of the land in the seventh century was owned in common by clans or septs;34 private property was limited to household goods;35 but by the tenth century individual ownership had spread. Soon there was a small aristocracy holding large estates, a numerous class of free peasants, a small class of renters, a still smaller class of slaves.36 Materially and politically the Irish in the three centuries after the coming of Christianity (461-750) were more backward than the English; culturally they were probably the most advanced of all the peoples north of the Pyrenees and the Alps.
This strange imbalance had many sources: the influx of Gallic and British scholars fleeing from the Germanic invasions of the fifth century, the growth of commercial contacts with Britain and Gaul, and the exemption of Ireland, before the ninth century, from foreign attack. Monks and priests and nuns opened schools of every scope and degree; one at Clonard, established in 520, had 3000 students (if we may believe patriotic historians);37 there were others at Clonmacnois (544), Clonfert (550), and Bangor (560). Several gave a twelve-year course leading to the doctorate in philosophy, and including Biblical studies, theology, the Latin and Greek classics, Gaelic grammar and literature, mathematics and astronomy, history and music, medicine and law.38 Poor scholars whose parents could not support them were maintained by public funds, for most students were preparing for the priesthood, and the Irish made every sacrifice to further that vocation. These schools continued the study of Greek long after knowledge of that language had almost disappeared from the other countries of Western Europe. Alcuin studied at Clonmacnois; in Ireland John Scotus Erigena learned the Greek that made him the marvel of the court of Charles the Bald in France.
The mood and literature of the age favored legend and romance. Here and there some minds turned to science, like the astronomer Dungal, or the geometer Fergil, who taught the sphericity of the earth. About 825 the geographer Dicuil reported the discovery of Iceland by Irish monks in 795, and exemplified the midnight day of the Irish summer by noting that one could then find light enough to pick the fleas from his shirt.39 Grammarians were numerous, if only because Irish prosody was the most complicated of its time. Poets abounded, and held high state in society; usually they combined the functions of teacher, lawyer, poet, and historian. Grouped in bardic schools around some leading poet, they inherited many of the powers and prerogatives of the pre-Christian Druid priests. Such bardic schools flourished without a break from the sixth to the seventeenth century, usually supported by grants of land from Church or state.40 The tenth century had four nationally known poets: Flann MacLonain, Kenneth O’Hartigan, Eochaid O’Flainn, and that MacLiag whom King Brian Boru made archollamh, or poet laureate.
In this age the sagas of Ireland took literary form. Much of their material antedated Patrick, but had been transmitted orally; now it was put into a running mixture of rhythmic prose and ballad verse; and though it has reached us only in manuscripts later than the eleventh century, it is the poets of this period who made it literature. One cycle of sagas commemorated the mythical ancestors of the Irish people. A “Fenian” or “Ossianic” cycle recounted in stirring stanzas the adventures of the legendary hero Finn Mac-Cumhail and his descendants the Fianna or Fenians. Most of these poems were ascribed by tradition to Finn’s son Ossian, who, we are informed, lived 300 years, and died in St. Patrick’s time after giving the saint a piece of his pagan mind. An “Heroic” cycle centered around the old Irish king Cuchulain, who encounters war and love in a hundred lusty scenes. The finest saga of this series told the story of Deirdre, daughter of Felim, King Conor’s leading bard. At her birth a Druid priest prophesies that she will bring many sorrows to her land of Ulster; the people cry out “Let her be slain,” but King Conor protects her, rears her, and plans to marry her. Day by day she grows in loveliness. One morning she sees the handsome Naoise playing ball with other youths; she retrieves a misthrown ball and hands it to him, and “he pressed my hand joyously.” The incident touches off her ripe emotions, and she begs her handmaid, “O gentle nurse, if you wish me to live, take a message to him, and tell him to come and talk with me secretly tonight.” Naoise comes, and drinks in her beauty to intoxication. On the following night he and his two brothers, Ainnle and Ardan, take the willing Deirdre out of the palace and across the sea to Scotland. A Scotch king falls in love with her, and the brothers hide her in the highlands. After some time King Conor sends a message: he will forgive them if they will come back to Erin. Naoise, longing for his native soil and youthful haunts, consents, though Deirdre warns him and foretells treachery. After reaching Ireland they are attacked by Conor’s soldiers; the brothers fight bravely, but are all killed; and Deirdre, insane with grief, flings herself upon the ground, drinks the blood of her dead lover, and sings a strange dirge:
On a day that the nobles of Alba [Scotland] were feasting…
To the daughter of the lord of Duntrone
Naoise gave a secret kiss.
He sent her a frisky doe,
A deer of the forest with a faun at its foot,
And he went aside to her on a visit
While returning from the host of Inverness.
But when I heard that,
My head filled with jealousy,
I launched my little skiff upon the waves;
I did not care whether I died or lived.
They followed me, swimming,
Ainnle and Ardan, who never uttered falsehood,
And they turned me in to land again,
Two who would subdue a hundred.
Naoise pledged me his word of truth,
And he swore in presence of his weapons, three times,
That he would never cloud my countenance again
Till he should go from me to the army of the dead.
Alas! if she were to hear this night
That Naoise was under cover in the clay,
She would weep most certainly,
And I, I would weep with her sevenfold.
The oldest version of “Deirdre of the Sorrows” ends with a powerful simplicity: “There was a large rock near. She hurled her head at the stone, so that she broke her skull and was dead.”41
Poetry and music were near allied in Ireland, as elsewhere in medieval life. Girls sang as they wove or spun or milked the cow; men sang as they plowed the field or marched to war; missionaries strummed the harp to muster an audience. The favorite instruments were the harp, usually of thirty strings, plucked with the finger tips; the timpan, an eight-string violin played with plectrum or bow; and the bagpipe, slung from the shoulder and inflated by the breath. Giraldus Cambrensis (1185) judged the Irish harpers the best he had ever heard—a high tribute from music-loving Wales.
The finest product of Irish art in this period was not the famous Ardagh chalice (c. 1000)—an astonishing union of 354 pieces of bronze, silver, gold, amber, crystal, cloisonné enamel, and glass; it was the “Book of Kells”—the Four Gospels in vellum, done by Irish monks at Kells in Meath, or on the isle of lona, in the ninth century, and now the prize possession of Trinity College, Dublin. Through the slow intercommunication of monks across frontiers, Byzantine and Islamic styles of illumination entered Ireland, and for a moment reached perfection there. Here, as in Moslem miniatures, human or animal figures played an insignificant role; none was worth half an initial. The spirit of this art lay in taking a letter, or a single ornamental motive, out of a background of blue or gold, and drawing it out with fanciful humor and delight till it almost covered the page with its labyrinthine web. Nothing in Christian illuminated manuscripts surpasses the Book of Kells. Gerald of Wales, though always jealous of Ireland, called it the work of angels masquerading as men.42
As this golden age of Ireland had been made possible by freedom from the Germanic invasions that threw the rest of Latin Europe back by many centuries, so it was ended by such Norse raids as in the ninth and tenth centuries annulled in France and England the progress so laboriously made by Charlemagne and Alfred. Perhaps the news had reached Norway and Denmark—both still pagan—that the Irish monasteries were rich in gold, silver, and jewelry, and that the political fragmentation of Ireland forestalled united resistance. An experimental raid came in 795, did little damage, but confirmed the rumor of this unguarded prey. In 823 greater invasions plundered Cork and Cloyne, destroyed the monasteries of Bangor and Moville, and massacred the clergy. Thereafter raids came almost every year. Sometimes brave little armies drove them back, but they returned, and sacked monasteries everywhere. Bands of Norse invaders settled near the coast, founded Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford, and levied tribute from the northern half of the island. Their King Thorgest made St. Patrick’s Armagh his pagan capital, and enthroned his heathen wife on the altar of St. Kieran’s Church at Clonmacnois.43 The Irish kings fought the invaders separately, but at the same time they fought one another. Malachi, King of Meath, captured Thorgest and drowned him (845); but in 851 Olaf the White, a Norwegian prince, established the kingdom of Dublin, which remained Norse till the twelfth century. An age of learning and poetry gave way to an era of ruthless war, in which Christian as well as pagan soldiers pillaged and fired monasteries, destroyed ancient manuscripts, and scattered the art of centuries. “Neither bard nor philosopher nor musician,” says an old Irish historian, “pursued his wonted profession in the land.”44
At last a man appeared strong enough to unite the kingdoms into an Irish nation. Brian Borumha or Boru (941-1014) was brother to King Mahon of Munster, and headed the Dalgas clan. The brothers fought a Danish army near Tipperary (968) and destroyed them, giving no quarter; then they captured Limerick, and despatched every Northman they could find. But two kinglets—Molloy of Desmond and Donovan of Hy Carbery—fearing that the marching brothers would absorb their realms, entered into a league with the immigrant Danes, kidnaped Mahon, and slew him (976). Brian, now king, again defeated the Danes, and killed Molloy. Resolved to unify all Ireland, and rejecting no means to this end, Brian allied himself with the Danes of Dublin, overthrew with their aid the king of Meath, and was acknowledged monarch of all Ireland (1013). Enjoying peace after forty years of war, he rebuilt churches and monasteries, repaired bridges and roads, founded schools and colleges, established order and repressed crime; an imaginative posterity illustrated the security of this “King’s peace” by the story—often occurring elsewhere—how a lovely lass, richly jeweled, traveled across the country alone and unharmed. Meanwhile the Norse in Ireland raised another army, and marched against the aging king. He met them at Clontarf, near Dublin, on Good Friday, April 23, 1014, and defeated them; but his son Murrogh was killed in the battle, and Brian himself was slain in his tent.
For a time the harassed country recovered the luxuries of peace. In the eleventh century art and literature revived; the Book of Leinster and the Book of Hymns almost equaled the Book of Kells in splendor of illumination; historians and scholars flourished in the monastic schools. But the Irish spirit had not yet been tamed. The nation again divided into hostile kingdoms, and spent its strength in civil war. In 1172 a handful of adventurers from Wales and England found it a simple matter to conquer—another matter to rule—the “Island of Doctors and Saints.”