LOOKING BACK ACROSS THE thousand or so years between the mythical legends of Ireland’s origins and the disastrous battle at Kinsale in 1601, it seems downright shortsighted that people pick out a few years in the twentieth century and call them “The Troubles.” Offhand, it looks as though there was nothing but trouble from the very beginning.

It all began—so we’re told in Lebor Gabala (The Book of Invasions)— during the lifetime of the biblical Abraham, 310 years after Noah’s flood. Ireland had been peacefully invaded by a leader named Partholon. The rivers and lakes had been created. The first natural death and burial had taken place, and the first incident of adultery was just about to happen, when Ireland witnessed its first battle. Partholon’s men took on the Fomoire (who may have been monsters from the sea) on a field near Dublin Bay. The Book of Invasions tells us that the enemy was men with “single noble legs and single full hands,” that there were three hundred of them, that their leader’s mother had four eyes on her back, and that they were “cut down in a week.” But, unfortunately, the book doesn’t tell how an army of one-armed, one-legged men actually fought. It must have involved a good deal of hopping around.

The Partholonians were the first of a series of invaders, each of which brought something to the island (everyone’s favorite conqueror seems to be the Tuatha De Danann, from the Greek isles, who brought magic and the arts), and each is defeated in turn until the arrival of Miles Hispaniae (his name means “the soldier from Spain”) and his followers, who are the forebears of the Irish. Or so the story goes.

One of the remarkable things about Ireland is that very early in its history decisions were made in monasteries all over the island to record stories like these about its history and what was thought to be its history. Later, in the twelfth century, these earlier records and memories of the oral tradition of storytelling were used to create books meant to be read—and this is both unusual and important—by laymen as well as monks and priests. These early scribe-historians created a literature shaped by political propaganda, family pride, a bit (but not much) of religiosity, and the love of a good story that glorified, romanticized, or simply recorded the past. At the very beginning of Irish history, it would seem, there was already nostalgia for an earlier time. There was a strong sense that current events could be justified—or explained—by knowledge of past events.

Another wave of historical interest came in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth century, amid an awakened sense of nationalism, those ancient documents—still amazingly preserved—were rediscovered and translated into English.

The earliest tales, although not the first written, were about the mythical conquests that created Ireland. They combined references to events in the Old Testament and Greek mythology with ancient Irish gods and heroes (who seem cut from the same cloth), and actual historical events. Take, for instance, two battles fought during the De Danann conquest on different parts of the plain—called Moytura (Mag Tured)—outside Sligo. The first battle was probably based on a historical event. The second, which we are told took place at the time of the Trojan War, probably was not. Gods stroll around quite casually, and one of them—known for his gluttony and love of porridge—is used for comic relief. There is a hero who cannot be voted king because he lost an arm in battle and kings must be physically intact, but then a magical craftsman makes him a silver arm, which, not surprisingly, turns into a real arm. And that may be a way of explaining through myth how one ancient, maimed chieftain got around the rules of kingship.

Long after the waves of invasions covered in Lebor Gabala, two great figures emerge in early literature: Cuchulain and Finn MacCool. Cuchulain is the hero of Ulster, who has two fathers, the king of Cooley and the god Lug. The entire Ulster Cycle of stories is built around him, the most famous being the Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), which is usually pointed out as the finest example of early Irish literature. In spite of his great deeds (the Irish Hercules is an overused phrase), there is often a tinge of sadness about Cuchulain, and his frequent rages make him appear to be more than a little insane.

Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cuimhaill) appears later in Irish mythical history, and with his loyal knights, the Fenians (the legends about him are called the Fenian Cycle), he often resembles an Irish King Arthur. Finn and his entire court became extremely popular with artists and composers in the nineteenth century. It seems likely that Sir William Wilde, a society eye surgeon in Dublin as well as an amateur archaeologist, and his wife, who wrote romantically nationalist poems under the name Speranza, probably named their younger son after Finn’s brave and handsome grandson with the decidedly un-Irish-sounding name of Oscar.

The “real” history during this time was being recorded by annalists, monks who compiled year-by-year records of what they thought to be important, including the death of kings, local battles, rumors of trouble elsewhere, ecclesiastical appointments, weather reports, and amazing happenings such as a mermaid washing ashore. The earliest histories were based on these annals as have most medieval histories of Ireland ever since. Later, compilations of annals, from individual monasteries were made to create annals of provinces and the country as a whole. The most important of these was a mammoth work called Annals of the Four Masters, compiled in the early seventeenth century by a group of Donegal Franciscans.

The earliest histories, such as the one written in Irish by Geoffrey Keating at the beginning of the seventeenth century, were a liberal mixture of the annals and material from the myths presented as fact. Keating, for example, includes Partholon’s first battle but never says how many limbs the Fomoire had. As Irish history progresses from local squabbles, through the real invasions of Vikings, English, and Scots, to the rise of truly national leaders such as Brian Boru (an upstart king from nowhere) and Hugh O’Neill (who had the most distinguished name in Ireland), more and more hands became involved in the writing of history. But two themes persist. One is the coming and going of kings. The other is war.

The saints aside, Ireland’s earliest visitors from abroad were military men who seemed to be confused by the number of kings they encountered and by the curious way the Irish fought their battles. The two oddities were, in fact, connected.

From its earliest days Ireland was divided into four tidy quarters, the provinces—moving clockwise—of Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. There was a single high king (ard ri) of all Ireland who ruled from the sacred hill of Tara, sacred to both pagans and Christians, but more often than not it was an empty title. A few high kings such as Rory O’Connor (Ruaidri O’Conchobhair), who ruled at the time of the English invasion in 1170, were powerful leaders, but the ard ri’s influence was more mystical, even religious, than political or military. In time the title would become just another glittering adornment of the O’Neill family. Below the high king, each province had its king, and below each of them were dozens of lesser kings. As the Norman author of the Song of Dermot and the Earl observes, there were as many kings in Ireland as there were counts in other lands. It is partly a semantic problem—the word ri does not in fact mean “king”—but king was what they were called, and between the fifth and twelfth centuries there could have been as many as 150 of them, great and small, ruling at a time.

And none of them, great or small, inherited his crown outright.

Each Irish king was chosen or approved by the nobles of his kingdom. Elected is probably too democratic a word for it, and as a matter of practice sons did tend to follow their fathers onto the throne. But it did not have to be that way. Any man who was a son, grandson, or great-grandson of a king could become king if he had the support of the men—frequently his relatives—who were his rivals for office. This constant search for a constituency was the primary cause of most of the small Irish wars, not, as was traditionally the case in Europe, a king’s desire for more land to rule. Besides battles, other ways of winning support included bribery and marriage, which partially explains the elaborate medieval rituals of gift giving and the fact that so many Irish battles seem to have been between sons and fathers-in-law or brother-in-law against brother-in-law. By its very nature it was an unstable system that discouraged central government.

In fact, land in pre-twelfth-century Ireland had little political value. Although there were rich plains, it was not a farming culture but a decentralized grazing one in which wealth was measured in cattle. There were no cities, and the kingdoms, which rarely had roads or clearly defined boundaries, were separated by dense forests and bogs, which were more of a deterrent to travel (or easy military movement) than the mountains. A reading of the sometimes-cryptic early annals suggests an endless series of battles and cattle raids. To be glib, early medieval Ireland sounds like a somewhat crazed Wisconsin, in which every dairy farm is an armed camp at perpetual war with its neighbors, and every farmer claims he is a king.

Ireland was also seriously underpopulated. Scholars have estimated that there were only about half a million people on the entire island. Military activity was costly both in actual expense and in time taken away from earning a living. For in spite of what sounds like constant combat, there was no military class in Ireland, no standing armies always at the ready. When a king needed an army, he called up a “hosting,” a temporary draft, during which his subjects dropped what they were doing and turned out armed and ready to fight or threaten. It was a system that discouraged long military campaigns in favor of single—often indecisive—battles.

Just as there were hints of democracy in the selection of kings, there was a suggestion of a citizen army here that was unknown in feudal Europe. Although these conscripts were not paid until the late sixteenth century (unlike the hired mercenaries brought over from Scotland), hostings were so expensive they rarely lasted for more than a few months. Unfortunately, one way of saving money and time was to not fight an enemy’s army directly but to try to weaken him by pillaging his land, burning the homes and barns of his people, kidnapping their daughters and young men of fighting age, and making off with the cattle, if only to hold the cows hostage for ransom.

Which brings us to the Irish fighting style, a style that seemed to change little in the six hundred years after the first millennium. Mobility was the key. They never wore armor (except leather vests) even after it had been introduced to the island by the Vikings and the English. They carried small, round shields, swords, spears, and sharp, deadly darts. Horses, when they used them, were small and fast, unlike the massive warhorses of Europe.

Their tactics confused outsiders as much as the American colonists’ tactics later confused the English and later still the Vietcong the Americans. The Tudor poet Edmund Spenser, an Englishman who parlayed a bureaucratic government job in Dublin into an Irish estate (and a loathing of the Irish), wrote the following in his A View of the State of Ireland (1633):

It is well known that [the Irishman] is a flying enemy, hiding himself in woods and bogs from whence he will not draw forth [except] into some straight passage and perilous ford, where he knows the army must need pass, there will he lie in wait, and, if he find advantage fit, will dangerously hazard the troubled soldier. Therefore, to seek him out that still flitteth and follow him that can hardly be found [would be] vain and bootless; but I would divide my men in garrison upon his country in such places as I think must most annoy him.

Which pretty much sums up the English policy in Ireland for hundreds of years.

According to Katharine Simms, an Irish medievalist, two quotations epitomize the situation. The first is from the fourteenth-century French writer Jean Froissart: “It is hard to find a way of making war on the Irish effectively for, unless they choose, there is no one there to fight and there are no towns to be found.” The second is a paraphrase of something an Irish king says in the fourteenth-century Scottish poem “The Bruce” by John Barbour: “Our custom is to pursue and fight and fight when retreating, and not to stand in hand-to-hand conflict until the other side is defeated.”

Yet, in spite of what Froissart thought, many people did manage to “war on the Irish effectively.” Beginning in the ninth century, Ireland experienced a new wave of invaders, and this time there was nothing mythical about them. The Viking raids began as just that: quick looting expeditions in which a ship or two would put ashore only long enough for its warriors to take what they could carry away. Later entire fleets came, but rather than leaving established settlements, they would pillage and go. It has been said that the Vikings’ great gifts to Ireland were red heads and cities. The gift of red hair may be debatable, but there were no cities in Ireland until Viking winter camps and trading posts alongside harbors all around the island grew and became known by names such as Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick.

As the years went by after the first raids, the Vikings—most of whom came from present-day Norway and Denmark—played greater social and commercial roles in Irish life. In occupied areas, Viking men were quartered in Irish homes. Viking armies took sides in local wars. And in the eleventh century, an obscure king from the west named Brian Boru grew in power and influence and became known—at least in retrospect—as the man who defeated the Vikings.

There are two great expulsion myths in early Irish history. One was that St. Patrick drove out the snakes in the fifth century, the other that Brian Boru drove out the Vikings in the eleventh. Of course there were no snakes to begin with and the Vikings never left, but both men—one in religion, one in government—became Ireland’s first national leaders. Brian challenged the traditional role of minor Irish kings by seeking control of more and more land and more and more kingdoms until much of the island (the very north excepted) was his to command. He forced the high king—an O’Neill, of course—to step aside and had himself crowned in his place, not at Tara, as tradition would have it, but on another sacred hill. This one, Cashel, was in the south. He was killed at Clontarf on Dublin Bay in 1014, defeating a combined army of rebellious Irish and Vikings from both Dublin and abroad. Afterward, in a pattern that would become familiar in Irish history, things went back pretty much to the way they were before. Only now, Brian’s family clan, who once called themselves the Dal Cais, would be known as the O’Briens, and they would do all they could to keep alive the memory of their family hero.

The next invasion came a century and a half later, and it would change Ireland forever. It used to be popular to call it the Norman invasion, although the invaders did not come from Normandy. Many call it the English invasion, although few of the invaders were actually English. Welsh nationalists have been heard to call it the Welsh Conquest of Ireland, since the invaders—Normans whose families had settled in southern Wales after 1066—did indeed sail from there. But whatever its name, the little army that landed on the coast between Waterford and Wexford in 1170, and began its first battle against the Irish by driving a herd of captured cattle toward them, brought English rule to Ireland.

The situation, of course, was not as simple as it seemed. The Welsh-Normans (let’s call them that) had been invited over by an Irish king to fight with him against the high king, lured with promises of land and—in one case—marriage to the king’s daughter. They invaded without the permission of the English king, who, as it happened, had the blessing of the pope to make just such a move. The Irish, so Pope Adrian IV wrote King Henry II, had strayed from St. Patrick’s example. But Henry had other problems to worry about, the French in particular. As for the pope, who believed the sinful ways of the Irish needed to be straightened out by a firm hand from abroad, he was English, the only Englishman ever to be pope.

Led by an earl called Strongbow (his name was actually Richard de Clare), the invaders moved without too much trouble from Waterford to Dublin, and although there were a few sallies into the west, English power more or less centered on that broad corridor. King Henry rushed over belatedly to put the crown’s stamp on the earl’s upstart Irish enterprise and accept the allegiance of the Irish kings. Then the English got down to business making money in Dublin, while new Norman landowners got to work building castles on their new estates in the south and southeast. The Irish kings, for the most part, found themselves ignored and stronger than ever. It’s unclear whether the general moral tone of the land was changed one way or the other.

Next came the Scots in an invasion history has largely forgotten about, perhaps because there has always been a strong Scottish presence on the island. The strait between the east coast of Ulster and the west coast of Scotland is only about twenty miles wide, and as early as the third century a Celtic clan called the Dal Riada spanned the divide and in time introduced both Gaelic and Christianity eastward into Scotland. The Viking raids broke the clan in two, but a close relationship continued. In the twelfth century, the Irish kings began hiring Scots mercenaries called gallowglass (and later redshanks, because of their bare legs) to fight in their wars.

The gallowglass were not common foot soldiers (or kerns), but minor knights for hire, who, unlike the Irish, wore distinctive light armor, chain-mail jerkins, and pointed metal helmets that can still be easily spotted in medieval tombstone carvings. Their favorite weapon was a pole ax with a foot-long head; according to the military historian G. A. Hayes-McCoy, a contemporary described it as “resembling double bladed hatchets, almost sharper than razors, fixed on shafts of more than ordinary length, which when they strike they inflict a dreadful wound.” Most gallowglass came attended by two young squires, one carrying weapons (which also included javelins and darts), the other, provisions. By the fifteenth century entire families of gallowglass had settled in northern Ireland, the MacDonalds and the MacSwineys being among the best known. Unlike their neighbors, they were still paid to fight, only now they lived locally.

A gallowglass soldier.

In 1315, a year after Robert Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn in Scotland and became king of the Scots, his brother Edward led a huge army across the strait to Larne in Ulster and declared himself king of the Irish. There has always been debate over what the Bruces were up to. They may have just been putting another thorn in the side of the hated English. Or they may have honestly been trying to inspire their Gaelic brothers from across the sea to rise up and fight for a nation of their own. (A similar plan was in the works for Wales.) Perhaps Edward simply wanted a kingdom like his older brother’s. Whatever the motive, the Bruces had the support of a few Irish leaders in the north and clearly hoped their presence would inspire a general uprising against the English. One of the Scots’ allies was Donal O’Neill (Donnall Ua Neill), a local king who had been having his own problems with the English. In 1317 he sent Pope John XXII his “Remonstrance of the Irish Princes,” which, with its list of outrages committed by a foreign king and its justification for rebellion, bears a sometimes striking resemblance to the American Declaration of Independence written four and a half centuries later:

[In] order to shake off the harsh and insupportable yoke of servitude to them [the English] and to recover our native freedom, which for the time being we have lost through them, we are compelled to enter a deadly war against the aforementioned, preferring … to face the dangers of war like men in defense of our right rather than to go on bearing their cruel outrages like women.

And in order to achieve our aim more swiftly and more fully in this matter we call to our help and assistance the illustrious Edward de Bruce, earl of Carrick and brother of the Lord Robert by grace of God the most illustrious king of Scots, and sprung from our noblest ancestors.

O’Neill, of course, was not choosing independence but an allegiance to a new monarch whom he saw, interestingly enough, as having a common ancestry with the Irish.

But an uprising of support never came. And in the three years before Edward was killed in battle not far from where his troops had originally landed, his forays around northern Ireland produced nothing but devastation and famine. Ireland returned to its old ways with the English pretty much keeping within what was called the English Pale, the area around Dublin that included what are now the counties of Meath, Louth, and Kildare, while elsewhere the kings continued their traditional rivalries. The area within the Pale (which at one time had actually been marked off with an earthen dike or pale) was called “The Land of Peace.” The “unprotected” rest of Ireland was “The Land of War.”

The next great struggle—the one that put an end to the notion that there were kings of Ireland or that there were parts of the island that were not under English domination—was triggered not by an invasion but by an edict from London. In 1536, Henry VIII, as part of his break with Rome, declared himself head of the church in England and Ireland. The churches, from country chapels to the two great cathedrals in Dublin, became Protestant, the monasteries were dissolved, and the Irish people had a new term of identity. The buildings may have converted, but most of the people did not. They were now not only Irish but Catholic as well. What followed was a series of revolts that culminated in Hugh O’Neill’s rebellion, which is often called the Nine Years War.

Under Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth, English policy was to no longer stay within the Pale but to control—or try to—the whole land. Confronted by O’Neill, who was the earl of Tyrone and a master of the Irish art of hit-and-run warfare, the English were baffled, at least until he changed his tactics. In 1601, O’Neill’s new ally, His Most Catholic Majesty Philip III of Spain, ordered a small army to Ireland to help the rebels. They landed in the south and took the walled city of Kinsale, near Cork. The English laid siege, and O’Neill, his fellow rebel Hugh O’Donnell, and their men rushed to aid the Spaniards. The traditional, and terribly brief, European-style battle that followed was a disaster that many came to believe blighted the cause of Irish independence for generations to come. There were—and still are—recriminations and bouts of what-if second-guessing, but no one, any longer, talked of Irish kings unless telling stories from the past.

This collection, however, is nothing but stories from the past about how, over the course of about a thousand years, a few kings from generations of kings in a country on the edge of the known world fought their battles. It does not attempt to be a detailed history of early Ireland. Every effort has been made to find source material that was written as closely as possible to the time of the events it describes. None of the texts is more recent than the seventeenth century, and even that material is based on earlier sources. This choice was made not because older material was thought to be more accurate. As most police officers understand, no one’s story is more untrustworthy than that of an eyewitness, unless it’s the story of someone an eyewitness told his story to. What the early sources do is create a vivid feeling for the times in which the original events took place and a sense of the biases and thought processes that combine with fact to create what we call history.

Henry Ford once got into a lot of trouble for calling history “more or less bunk.” It is unclear what he meant by bunk, but it is clear that in spite of our love of facts and tidy accuracy, history is more or less what the historians and storytellers down the ages have said it is. This collection is a compendium of lies, distortions, myths, dreams, facts, and amazing insights, and the best we can hope from it is a raw and perhaps astonishing appreciation of a time we can never fully understand. In its way, the collection is a history of how Irish history has come to be written.

The material includes the annals of medieval monks, the diary of a siege, unabashed political propaganda for one family or another, honest attempts at accurate history, and the record of early myths and tales. An Irish historian who looked at a proposed table of contents advised—vigorously—that readers must be warned that not all the entries should be treated with the same level of credulity. The introduction and notes in each chapter are intended to guide the reader toward a reasonable level of skepticism. The editor’s advice is to believe nothing outright, then enjoy everything for its sheer exuberance.

Reading much of this book should be like looking at a primitive painting. The genius is in the small details. Look, for example, at the version of the fourteenth-century battle fought outside Athenry in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of Ireland. It was a terrible slaughter, and the author dutifully lists the names of some of the celebrity casualties, but the story he tells in detail is about a young soldier. He is sent back onto the field after the battle is over to see if his officer’s enemy is indeed dead. The enemy—his name is O’Kelley—appears and, in effect, offers the young soldier a job. As a result there is more bloodshed. It is a curious tale, but the details bring the battle statistics alive. In The Book of Howth some soldiers cannot believe that their officer, a Scot, probably a gallowglass, is indeed dead, so they bring by a woman and then some food to see if he will revive, and in the end they still cannot bear to bury him.

Of course some of the writing here is highly sophisticated. The Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) is one of the masterpieces of medieval literature, although it is a work that probably evolved over centuries, while Buile Suibne (The Frenzy of Sweeney)seems certain to have been consciously written as a work of literature. Gerald of Wales probably wrote of the conquest of Ireland with a politically influential London audience in mind, while three hundred years later, an archdeacon from Aberdeen wrote an epic poem that included the Scottish invasion to glorify the Bruce family back home. And in the seventeenth century, Philip O’Sullivan Beare could write about the Nine Years War in Latin and make it sound like pages torn from The Lives of the Saints.

If one theme seems to run through the book, it is what a divided history Ireland has had. One of the most popular Irish patriotic songs has a impassioned refrain that goes, “A nation once again, A nation once again!” Again? The sad question that comes to mind is: When was it ever one nation? Among the earliest stories of the kings is how Conn of the Hundred Battles, from the north, and Owen the Great, from the south, draw a line across the center of Ireland—just about where the road today goes from Dublin to Galway—to divide the island between Conn’s half and Owen’s half. It was a line that was referred to for centuries to come. Centuries later in their annals, the Four Masters list, along with the reports of death of kings, the landing of Vikings, and damage done by high winds, the news that in year 808 a band of O’Neills from the north met a party of O’Neills from the south, but that “through the miracles of God … they separated from each other at that time without slaughter or one of them spilling a drop of the other’s blood.” The fact that nothing happened was worth recording for the ages.

The accounts in this collection are almost always the stories of noblemen and their families. The stories of the common people (or even the kings’ wives) are of limited interest to those keeping track of history. There are exceptions. We hear of Alice of Abervenny, a widow, who after the first battle of the Norman invasion was called in to do some grim work, and of the harp player whose head was mistakenly sent to the king of England after the Battle of Faughart, and of the unnamed soldier who discovered the dangers of gunpowder at the Battle of Yellow Ford. Their appearances are so rare they are memorable. More often than not, this is the story of kings and their sons.

Yet the great destruction and violence that are so common in these tales were often felt by the poorest, who always remain nameless. In fact, they were frequently the targets when it was too expensive or too time consuming to attack those wearing the crowns. There were refugees even then, and it is worth remembering this rare, brief, glimpse we get of them in The Annals of Connacht. The year is 1225. The place is in what is now County Mayo. One faction of the O’Connor clan is warring against another and its foreign allies:

They plundered Coolcarney and wrought destruction of its cattle and folk on that day, for as many of them [the fleeing people] as reached the level plain without being drowned [in the river] were plundered and slain; A pitiful thing: all who went to Ballycong were drowned and the weirs [dams] were found to have their wattles full of drowned children. Some of the refugees of Clonn Tomalhaig who evaded the Galls and escaped drowning went into Tirawhey, where O’Dubda fell on upon them and left them without a single cow.



Cuchulainn, Cu Cnulaind, Cuchulain, and Cuculan are all different ways of writing the same name. Malachy and Mael Sechnaill are the same eleventh-century high king. The O’Neills are sometimes the Ui Neills. When it comes to early Irish proper names, there is little uniformity of spelling. Names are sometimes kept in their original Irish form, sometimes not. One writer’s Suibne may well be another’s Sweeney. Each generation might have its own version. Each writer—or translator—might have a preferred spelling all his own.

Since this is a collection of early writing with nothing more recent than the seventeenth century, idiosyncratic spellings of names have been retained to respect the spirit and feeling of the individual texts. The variations are usually as obvious as those in the case of Cuchulain, but introductions and notes throughout the book make it clear, when necessary, just who in fact is indeed who.



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