Three Rivers of Ireland: History and Culture

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The Rise of Monasticism

The holy men who labored with St. Patrick and immediately succeeded him were mostly bishops and founders of churches. The churches set up by Patrick and other missionaries were fairly simple affairs. During the late 400’s, hundreds of churches were set up. They were unlike the churches that we would recognize today. Most were small wooden buildings, with the occasional small stone structure and would not have accommodated more than a few dozen people at a time. Each tuath (petty kingdom) had a 'bishop' to oversee the church's work in it. Supported by a grant of land from the chief of the clan and by voluntary offerings, bishop and priests lived together, preached to the people, administered the sacraments, and settled their disputes.

In time, the Irish church matured and by the 500’s a number of monasteries were set up. A Celtic monastery was not of the church-and-cloisters type that appeared in the Middle Ages. Rather, it usually consisted of an enclosure with a small stone church and a number of cells where the monks lived individually. By their nature, some were in the most remote areas imaginable. Sceilg Mhicil was perched on an outcrop of rock in the stormy north Atlantic off the coast of county Kerry. Many monasteries were set up in connection with the ministry of Patrick, for example the great monastery of Armagh.

Initially intended to be places of retreat from the world, Monasteries attracted the patronage of the kings and the rich and became influential institutions in their own right. Monasteries were soon invaded by others anxious to share their penances and their vigils, and to learn wisdom at their feet. Each newcomer built his little hut, a church was erected, a grant of land obtained. Their master became abbot, and perhaps bishop, and thus arose monastic establishments the fame of which soon spread throughout Europe. Noted examples in the sixth century were Clonard, founded by St. Finian, Clonfert by St. Brendan, Bangor by St. Comgall, Clonmacnoise by St. Kieran, Killeaney by St. Enda; and, in the seventh century, Lismore by St. Carthage and Glendalough by St. Kevin.

In time, some monasteries extended control over other monasteries, with Armagh ultimately claiming primacy over all churches in Ireland. The network of buildings that eventually grew up on monastic settlements - the hired workers, craftsmen and artisans - were, in a sense, the first 'towns' in Ireland.

As Ireland's monastic establishments grew, they became centers of learning as well as of evangelism. During the early decades of the seventh century many Anglo-Saxon nobles were educated at Irish monasteries in northern Britain, specifically at Iona. The Irish willingly welcomed the English students, gave them food, and provided them with books and instruction, without seeking any payment. When these Irish-educated English nobles returned to England, they invited Irish missionaries into their pagan kingdoms to evangelize. Missionaries from Ireland to England and Continental Europe spread news of the flowering of learning, and scholars from other nations came to Irish monasteries. It is for this reason that Ireland has been termed the land of "Saints and Scholars".

One of the most important works of the Irish monasteries, besides catering for the needs of the local population, was in the production of books. These are the great illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, which were hand written copies of the Bible and other books. Beautifully decorated by hand, these books were usually written in Latin, which were introduced by Patrick. Although Latin was the language of education, Celtic-Irish remained the language of everyday life.

One of the most prominent Irish Saints was St. Colum Cille (also known as St Columba and St Colmcille). Colum Cille was of the province of the northern Uí Néill (in present-day Donegal), a prominent relative of the King who became a Christian and evangelized in the Irish colony of the Dal Riata in Scotland. Colum Cille believed in people becoming "Exiles for Christ," by leaving their homes to go and live with other Christians in isolated places, thereby coming closer to God. He set up monasteries in Ireland, such as that at Derry, before setting up the monastery of Iona off the western Scottish coast in the year 563.  Colum Cille's establishment successfully converted the Dal Riata before converting Northumbria (Northern England) by 627. The great Northumbrian monastery of Lindisfarne was founded in 635. Thus, Britain was Christianized by a missionary from northwest Ireland. Iona and Armagh together became the most influential monasteries in Ireland.

After Colum Cille, and his evangelical successor Aidan, had set up the monasteries in Scotland and Northumbria (northern England), the Irish turned their attention to southern England. St. Fursa preached in East Anglia (eastern England) in the 6th century before travelling to Gaul (France) and setting up churches there. St. Columbanus, of Bangor Monastery in Northern Ireland, went to Gaul in 591 and founded two monasteries in France before travelling through modern Germany, Switzerland and Italy. He is buried in a Monastery he founded at Bobbio, in northern Italy. By the 9th century, Irish scholars followed the missionaries and managed to gain important academic roles in the courts of Kings such as Charlemagne of the Franks. Irish foundations can be found in France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy and their influence was been left in places as far afield as Vienna, Rome and eastern Germany.

Although many of the monks and eventual Saints were men, women were not left out of the contest for holiness. St. Brigid is a name still dear to Ireland, and she, as well as St. Ita, St. Fanchea and others, founded many convents.

Everyday Life in early Christian Ireland
All through the early Christian period, the dynastic quarrels between the Celtic kings of Ireland continued. By the early 700’s, the spread of Christianity and continued growth of the concept of a 'province' meant that the Kings of individual petty kingdoms (tuaths) ceased to be regarded as kings, and were referred to increasingly as dukes or lords. The provinces evolved from being federations of dozens of petty kingdoms, to being more closely knit units whose king was from one of the more prominent families. It became more common, then, for there to be dynastic disputes within provinces over which family held the kingship. A province can be almost regarded as an independent country, although without the well-delineated borders of today.

As a result, society in early Christian Ireland was heavily tiered. At the top of society were the kings. These were the rulers of the large Provinces. They lived in large enclosures, often fortified, and had a large retinue of staff. The kings maintained their position by ensuring the loyalty of the lords in their province, although it was not unknown for a lord to challenge the sitting king for the position. Below the kings were the lords. The lords were the heads of the individual petty kingdoms established in the pre-Christian period. A lord owed allegiance to the king, and usually paid his dues in the form of military service. It was not common for the peasantry to engage in warfare. Some lords may have lived in crannógs, which are artificial islands built from wood in lakes. Easily defended, but hard to build, crannógs were apparently built in two intense phases of 420-650 and 720-930. Some crannógs survive, but most have been destroyed.

Below the lords were the commoners. Commoners were attached to a lord by clientship ,which was similar to medieval feudalism. The landlord gave the commoner a payment and a certain number of animals and in return the commoner gave various food products to the lord at regular intervals. For the lord, having many clients increased his prestige and ensured a steady supply of food. For the client, it provided a source of food and protection. It was not without its perks. By law, the commoner was entitled to one night's feasting at the lord's residence each year - not a trivial expense. In general, extended families lived together in early Christian Ireland. The poorer commoners would have lived in wooden houses in the open countryside. Wealthier commoners would have built their houses within an earthen enclosure about 100 feet in diameter. So-called ring forts are amongst the most common historical features in Ireland, and are readily identifiable. There are almost 50,000 known examples although these are being rapidly destroyed by urban growth and agricultural mechanization.

Below the commoners were the cottiers and landless men who were free men but did not have any land and hired themselves out as laborers either to lords, commoners or to monasteries. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the hereditary serfs who were part of the estate of their landlord. Slavery was widely practiced in Ireland at the time. The slaves were usually supplied by traders, who acquired them from raiding trips in Britain. Alternatively, some families sold children into slavery during times of famine. In some cases, prisoners escaped their fates by being taken on as manual labor by a monastery.

In terms of agriculture, most farmers had animals. Cows were grazed on common land and beef provided the bulk of meat that was eaten. This was supplemented by some pork and mutton for the poorer people. The cows also provided dairy produce which formed a large part of the diet in the form of milk, salted butter and cheeses. Unfenced strips of arable land were found nearer the houses. These were used for cereal crops such as oats, barley, wheat and rye. These were eaten in the form of porridge, bread or ale. The grain was usually stored in pits or so terrains, because it was common for enemies to burn the grain of your peasantry at time of war. Wild fruit and vegetable growing provided the remainder of the diet. Survival was almost purely subsistence, and if there was a bad year for both animals and crops there was a famine. Famine was all too common in this era, probably causing the population to fluctuate continuously. New technology aided the farmers somewhat: the horizontal mill and a more efficient plow were adopted in the 400’s.

Marriage was very unstable - divorce and remarriage was common. In all tiers of society, but most notably with the nobility, polygamy was practiced. Despite the best efforts of the church, this trend persisted all through the period. The effect of polygamy was that the lords had huge families, not all of which could maintain the lordship status. This resulted in a general drift of lineages down through the ranks of society.


In the 700’s, pressure on land in Scandinavia had forced many nobles and warriors to seek land elsewhere. The invention of the longboat made it possible for these warriors to sail across the North Sea to attack Britain, France and Ireland. In these areas they became known as the "Norsemen" (literally, north-men) and also as the "Vikings". The Vikings who first attacked Ireland were Norwegian.

The Vikings did not have any respect for Christian symbols and sites, and often first raids in a country were against great monasteries. In Ireland, Rathlin Island monastery was burned by the Vikings in 795. Other prominent monasteries were also attacked.

For the next 30-40 years, the Vikings engaged in hit-and-run raids where they landed a small number of ships at a settlement, spent a few days pillaging and burning it before heading back to Scandinavia to sell their booty - riches and slaves. There was about one attack per year and the probability of being attacked in any given year was actually quite low. Life went on as normal in Ireland.

However, the Vikings were soon to improve their methods of pillaging. Instead of landing 3 or 4 boats, raiding nearby settlements and going back to Scandinavia, they decided to scale-up. They brought between 50 and 100 boats of Viking warriors, landed, and set up a camp. They pillaged monasteries, churches, the fortresses of Irish Lords, and farms.

It was the Vikings that founded the town “Dubh Linn” around 841, after invading the territory in 838. In addition to Dubh Linn, the Viking established the towns Cork, Vadrefjord (Waterford), and Youghal.

The Irish Kings seemed to be able to do little to prevent the wholesale destruction of large tracts of their Provinces. However, just as it looked as if Ireland was about to be conquered by the Vikings, and just as the Irish began to develop tactics with which to more effectively attack them, the raids died away. The last major Viking raid of this phase was in 851

Meanwhile, many of the Viking settlements developed and grew into towns. Their town of Dubh Linn had a thriving Norse community by the second half of the 800s, and had become the principal supplier of slaves in the British Isles. In time it became a great merchant town, until it was defeated, briefly, by an Irish attack in 902. After that, the Vikings moved their power base to the Isle of Man and to the growing territory that the Vikings were carving out of Anglo-Saxon England.

Other Viking towns had also been defeated by the Irish, including Cork in 848, Vadrefjord (Waterford) in 864 and Youghal in 866.

A second phase of raiding began in 914, with the arrival of a large fleet of Viking ships in Waterford harbor. They promptly re-captured their settlement of Vadrefjord (Waterford) from which the Irish had expelled the first Vikings half a century earlier. Reinforced by a second fleet which arrived the following year, the Vikings launched a series of offensives deep into Ireland.

In 917, the Vikings re-captured the settlement of Dubh Linn (Dublin) which the Irish had captured in 902. Repeated attempts by various Irish kings to defeat the Viking failed. It was not true to say that it was "the Irish against the Vikings". In fact, some Irish kings formed alliances with Vikings to attack other Irish kings.

The Vikings continued to raid inland from their towns of Dubh Linn, Cork and Vadrefjord. In 921, they founded a new town on the south-east tip of Ireland called Weisfjord (Wexford) and a year later founded the town of Limerick near a ford at the mouth of the River Shannon on the west coast.

While trying to consolidate their control over Great Britain, the influence of the Vikings in Ireland declined. They concentrated more on developing Dubh Linn as a trading city and by 934 exercised controls over the other Viking towns in Ireland. In its day, Dubh Linn was one of the most important cities in the Nordic world, as a trading and slaving center. In 952, Dubh Linn, which had been ruled by Viking kings located in England, split from control by these kings and from then on Dubh Linn had its own dynasty of Viking Kings. With the exception of the period of time from 902 to 917, a succession of Norse Kings ruled the “Kingdom of Dublin” from 839 until the Norman invasion in 1171, although over time the rulers of Dublin became increasing Gaelicized.

During the Viking raids, many of the hand-written illuminated manuscripts that Ireland is so famous for (the Book of Kells) produced at the monasteries were burned by the Vikings. They had no commercial value and the Viking had no regard for them. Most of the monasteries in Ireland were able to resurrect themselves, unlike in Britain and France, where the monastic communities disappeared after the Viking raids.

Prior to the Viking raids, the monasteries were earthen structures with a church, various buildings and the monk’s residences. They were easy to attack and ransack. The monks learned how to build tall stone towers known as round towers, with doors placed at least one floor up. During the raids, the monks would gather food and valuables, and used ladders to climb into the top of the towers. Once the ladders were pulled up, they were safe from the Vikings.devenish round tower [7kb]

It was during this time that the High Celtic Crosses appeared. Monasteries commonly had wooden crosses, but from 700’s onward the crosses were carved from stone. monasterboice [10kb]

Round Tower

High Celtic Cross

The Vikings eventually settled down in the lands they had conquered. By 950, the Vikings had stopped raiding in Ireland and developed instead as traders and settled in the lands around their towns. The Vikings and the Celts co-existed and the two cultures merged. The Vikings left many place names in Ireland including: Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, Strangford, Leixlip, Carlingford, Youghal, Howth, Dalkey and Fingall.

As mentioned previously, the region outside of Dublin was divided into a multiplicity of kingdoms controlled by a complex series of High Kings who ruled over lesser kings. Around 950 AD Ireland was divided into five main kingdoms, each under the overriding influence of a great Irish dynastic families. They were Ulster (Ui Neill/O’Neill), Munster (Ui Briain/O’Brien), Leinster (Mac Murchadha-Caomhanach/MacMurrough-Kavanagh), Connacht (Ui Conchobhair/O’Conor), and Mide or Meath (Ui Maeilsheachlainn/O’Melaghlin). Several kings of single petty kingdoms were under the rule of over kings, who themselves were under the rule of provincial over kings. The High King was really a ceremonial overlord who exercised actual power only within the realm of which he was actually king. During some periods of time, the various Kings ruled in a harmonious ways, but many times much of the island was fractious with regional conflicts.

ireland circa 950 [15kb]

So in 976, Mathgamain, Lord of a kingdom on the River Shannon in the Province of Munster, was attacked and killed by the Vikings of Limerick, who had converted to Christianity and ruled the settlement at the time. His brother, Brian Boruma (Brian Boru) succeeded him as the Lord, attacked the Vikings in Limerick, and slaughtered them. He next formed a strategic alliance with the Vikings of Vadrefjord (Waterford) and conquered the Provinces of Connacht and Leinster.

The Vikings were in decline after 980 and were absorbed by the Irish. However, the various kings of Ireland continued to battle for their own supremacy.

In 988, Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill, one of the High Kings of Ireland, led the Irish conquest of Dublin. In 999, Brian Boru, sacked the City of Dublin. He dethroned Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill as the High King of Ireland in 1002. Brian Boru was a strong King who tried to unify Ireland.

The Viking, in alliance with the Irish from the Province of Leinster, raised an army to defeat Brian Boru. In 1014, Brian Boru, with his army, attacked the Vikings and Leisterman at Clontarf a short distance northeast of Dublin. Brian Boru’s army won the battle and the Vikings took to their boats and fled to the Island of Man. However, Brian Boru himself was killed in the battle.

The power of the Vikings was broken, and Dublin was in the hands of the Irish. The 11th century Dublin became an important acquisition for any King with an eye to becoming the High King. By the end of the 1000’s, Dublin has replaced Tara to become the de-factor capital of the island.

In the 11th century, Irish politics became more like those of the rest of Europe. Kings spent longer times away from home fighting battles. They employed staff to govern their kingdoms. It became common to reward allegiances and encourage subservience by granting land to noblemen. Other land was given to the church. After the Battle of Clontarf, Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill was restored as the High King, and he died in 1022. With his death, confusion reigned and all of the various Irish kings fought for power. An unprecedented phase of dynastic warfare and general upheaval ensued.

At the start of the 1100’s, there were four main kingdoms: Munster in the southeast ruled by the O’Brien dynasty; Connacht in the west ruled by the O’Connor dynasty; Ui Neill (Ulster) in the northeast ruled by the Mac Lochlainn dynasty; and Leinster in the east ruled by the Mac Murchada dynasty.

For the first 66 years of the 12th Century, the Irish kings fought for control of the remaining Kingdoms, until 1166 when the King Dairmait Mac Murchada of Leinster was driven out of Ireland. He appealed to the King of England for help, an appeal that put the island under British rule for the next 800 years.


Ireland came under Norman rule in 1171. The Normans were the descendants of the Vikings who had settled in an area of northern France. At the Battle of Hasting in 1066, William the Conqueror became William I of England, the first Norman King in Britain. The invasion of Ireland by the Normans came in two stages starting a century later.

In 1166, the former King of Leinster, Mac Murchada, was driven out of Ireland. He asked King Henry II for help in regaining his kingdom. Henry was reluctant to help, but authorized Mac Murchada to privately recruit anyone he could from England. Mac Murchada recruited the Earl of Pembroke, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, also known as Strongbow. He promised Strongbow his daughter in marriage and his kingdom after his death if Strongbow would help.

On May 1, 1169 a group of Norman Knights, arrived on the shore of the island and took the city of Wexford. Mac Murchada asked Strongbow to send further troops, and in August 1170, Strongbow arrived in Ireland and took the city of Waterford. He married Mac Murchada’s daughter, and when Mac Murchada died in 1171, Strongbow was crowned King Richard of Leinster. There were a few battles with other Irish Kings, but Strongbow prevailed, and became the first non-Irish born king in Ireland.

The first invasion by the Norman knights was so successful that King Henry II feared that Strongbow would become too powerful, hence the second invasion of Ireland. On October 18, 1171 Henry II landed a larger army in Waterford and took over Ireland.

Prior to the Norman Invasion of Ireland, Pope Adrian IV, the only English Pope, had issued a decree giving Henry authority to invade Ireland. That was in 1155. When he landed in Waterford, Henry II became the first King of England to set foot in Ireland. Waterford and Dublin were declared Royal Cities.

Strongbow immediately submitted to Henry’s authority. In November, the other Kings of Ireland also submitted to Henry. The Kings of Ireland saw it as an opportunity to curb the expansion of both the Normans and Strongbow. Henry carefully divided up parts of Ireland, appointing some of his supporters as Lords to rule those areas. Strongbow received most of the Kingdom of Leinster, but when Strongbow died in 1176, his Lordship was passed back into the hands of King Henry. Henry granted all of his rights to his son Prince John. Prince John was Lord of Ireland until he became King of England in 1199, when he also became King of Ireland.

Dublin became the island’s primary city following the Norman Invasion.

The Norman Invasion continued, with various knights invading various parts of Ireland and carving out kingdoms for themselves until the end of the 13th century. The Normans introduced feudalism to Ireland, but the administration of government evolved with the expansion of the colony under different rulers. Thus different parts of Ireland were ruled in different ways. In 1210, a decree was issued that made all laws passed in England valid in Ireland, thus uniting the two legal systems.

Although at the start, the Normans were in Ireland to acquire power, this soon turned to a desire to make money. Faced with a population explosion across medieval Europe, the Norman barons intended to use Ireland to grow food to sell and, thereby, become rich and powerful. They established a feudal system of agriculture, under which peasants were employed in, and lived on, the estate as tenants. Some barons who had larger amounts of land tried a more adventurous approach. They set up a town with a market, and granted between 3 to 10 acres of land to each tenant. They used these market towns to sell their agricultural surplus. Many of these towns thrived, and some, such as Kilkenny, Trim and New Ross still exist today.

A medieval town in Ireland had walls. Inside the town, people would have lived in wooden two- or three-story houses with wealthier merchants having stone houses. Streets were narrow and winding - today there is often not enough room for two cars to pass on these streets! The towns thrived on their markets, which were crowded, bustling and exciting affairs and most people would have had a trade, such as bakers, blacksmiths, tailors and shoemakers. Sanitation was a major problem, as people threw their waste onto the streets below and there were no sewers other than a ditch in the road which only worked when it rained

A medieval peasant (also called a villein) and his family lived in a one-room house made from a wooden frame with a thatched roof and wattle-and-daub walls. There were no windows. Cooking was done on an open fire in the middle of the house and the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. A fence in the middle of the house separated the animals from the people, because animals usually spent the night indoors. The concept of sleeping people and animals separately was a post-medieval idea, so this did not seem odd at the time. Some houses had a platform in the roof space for sleeping on. People slept on straw-stuffed mattresses and the only other furniture would have been a table with stools. Surrounding the house were perhaps 20 to 30 other houses. Surrounding this community (called a village because it was occupied by villeins) were two or three large fields, up to 200 acres in size, where the peasant grew crops. Each peasant was allocated a number of strips in each field which they could farm. Most of the crop was given to the lord as rent, with the remainder being kept for food. Usually the village had a forest where fallen wood could be collected for fires and pigs could be grazed. An area of land that nobody owned (called a common) could be used by everyone for grazing. The people were not rich and their coarse clothes were holey and must have been cold.

The decline of the Norman colonies in Ireland started around 1250. There were not enough dedicated Normans in Ireland to occupy the land they had acquired. The King in England had lost interest in Ireland. The Normans had become “Irishized” by marrying Irish people and learning the language and traditions.

By 1250, half of Ireland was ruled by Norman lords and half by Irish kings and lords.

ireland circa 1250 [18kb]

The Irish lords started to attack the property of the Norman Lords, and had considerable success through the rest of the 13th century. Edward Bruce, the brother of Robert Bruce who has gained Scottish independence from England, was recruited to help defeat the remaining Normans. He successfully invaded Ireland, defeated the Normans in the central part of the country, and was crowned King of Ireland in May, 1316. However, in spite of early success, Edward was finally defeated and killed by the Normans on October 14, 1318.

The Normans were, however, weakened, and the Irish felt they could defeat the remaining English by themselves. King Edward III in 1360 sent his son Lionel to reverse the decline of the Normans. Lionel died in 1367 without being successful.

Richard II became King in 1377, and landed a massive force of 10,000 men in Ireland. Many Irish Lords submitted to the King, although some did not. When Richard left in 1399, war broke out. Henry IV soon became King after he murdered Richard. By 1450, English control of Ireland had been reduced to a 20 mile wide strip around Dublin, known as the Pale.

The Pale was surrounded by a fence to keep the Irish out, and the Irish were unable to drive the English off the Island. The phrase “beyond the pale” refers to being outside of the fence around the Pale. The people living in the Pale had their own Parliament.

In 1485, Henry VII became King, and tried restore more control over Ireland, but was largely unsuccessful. Later, Henry VIII became King of England, and adopted a peaceful approach. He held talks with many Irish Lords and most signed peace treaties with England that recognized Henry as their King and agreed to accept English law. In return they were allowed to live free of threats from England. However, Henry’s troubles with the Catholic Church were to interfere.

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