How The Warlike Old Irish Conquered Foreign Lands
From the remotest times the Irish had a genius for war and a love of
fighting; and if it fell within the scope of this narrative, it would be
easy to show that these features in our character have come down to the
present day. For good or for bad, we are, and always have been, a fighting
In old times the 'Scots'--as the Irish were then called--were well known
for their warlike qualities, and very mu
h dreaded; so that fabulous
rumours regarding them ran among some of the people of the Continent. One
Latin writer tells us that Irish mothers were wont to present the first
food on the point of a sword to their newly-born male infants, as a sort
of dedication to war. This is certainly an invention, for it is not
mentioned in our own records; but it indicates the character the Irish
people had earned for themselves abroad. They fought a great deal too much
among themselves at home; but in this respect they were not a bit worse
than the English people at the time of the Heptarchy or than the
Continental nations of the same period.
That the old Irish should be warlike is only what we might expect; seeing
that they were in great measure descended from the Continental Gauls, who
in ancient times were renowned as warriors and conquerors. But mighty as
the Gauls were, and though they were at least as brave as the Romans, they
were subdued in the end by superior discipline, when Julius Caesar invaded
them. And so with the old Irish. Though they were fierce and strong, and
taken man for man quite a match for the Anglo-Normans, they were forced,
after a long struggle, to yield to science, skill, and discipline, when
they were invaded by that people--then the greatest warriors in the world.
The Irish were not content with fighting at home, but made themselves
formidable in foreign lands. Their chief foreign conquests were in Wales
and Scotland; but they frequently found their way to the Continent. Irish
literature of every kind abounds in records of foreign raids, invasions,
and inter-marriages; and in many particulars these native accounts are
borne out by authorities that no one questions, namely, Roman classical
writers, whenever they find occasion to touch on these matters.
Those who have read the early history of England will remember that the
Picts and Scots, marching southwards from the Scottish Highlands, gave
much trouble, year after year, for a long period, to the Romans and
Britons. The Picts were the people of Scotland at the time; and the Scots
were the Irish, who, crossing over to Alban or Scotland in their curragh
fleets, joined the Picts in their formidable raids southwards. We know
all this, not only from our own native historians, but also from Roman
writers, who tell us how the Romans had often to fight in Britain against
the Scots from Ireland.
In order to protect the British people against these two fierce nations,
the Romans, at different intervals in the second and third centuries,
built great walls or ramparts from sea to sea, between Britain and Alban,
of which the ruins are still to be seen: one beginning at the Frith of
Clyde and another at the Solway Frith.
For several hundred years--from the third to the sixth century, and even
after--the Irish streamed continually to Scotland across the narrow sea.
The first of these migrations of which we have reliable accounts
originated in a famine, exactly as the great exodus of our own day from
Ireland to America was set going by the terrible famine of 1847. And this
migration is related partly by old Irish writers, and partly by the great
English historian, the Venerable Bede.
The famine in question fell on Munster early in the third century, so that
numbers of people were forced to leave the province. One particular chief
led a great host of fighting men, with their families, northwards, till
they reached the extreme district now known as the county Antrim. Here
they divided: and while one part remained in Ireland (i.e., in Antrim),
the other part, under the same leader mentioned above, crossed over to
Alban or Scotland, where they settled down. From this time forward, there
was a continual migration, year after year, from the northern coast to
Scotland, till, after the lapse of about three centuries, occurred the
greatest invasion of all, led by the three brothers, Fergus, Angus, and
Lorne, in the year 503.
It has been already related in our Histories of Ireland, and need not be
repeated in detail here, how these colonists ultimately mastered the
country, over which their first king, Fergus, ruled; how they gave
Scotland its name; how the subsequent kings of Scotland were the direct
descendants of Fergus; and how from him again, through the Stuarts,
descend, in one of their lines of pedigree, our present royal family.
At about the same period the Irish mastered and peopled the Isle of Man;
and for centuries there was constant intercourse between the parent people
of the north-east coast of Ireland and this little colony. Though the
Norsemen wrested the sovereignty of the island from them in the ninth
century, they did not succeed in displacing either the Gaelic people or
their language. The best possible proof that the Irish colonised and held
possession of Man for ages is the fact that the Manx language is nothing
more than Irish Gaelic, slightly changed by lapse of time. There are also
still to be seen all over the island Irish buildings and monuments, mixed
up, however, with many of Norse origin; and the great majority of both the
place-names and the native family-names are Gaelic.
In our old historical books we have accounts of migrations of Irish people
to Wales, some as invaders intending to return, some as colonists
purposing to settle and remain. At this time the Romans were masters of
England and Wales, but they were not as mighty a people in the fourth
century as they had been previously; for on the Continent the northern
barbarians were pressing on them everywhere; and in Britain the Picts and
Scots, as we have said, kept continually harassing them from the north.
These raids became at last so intolerable, that the Roman government sent
an able general named Theodosius (father of the emperor Theodosius the
Great) to Britain to check them. At the very time that Theodosius was in
Britain, a brave and strong-handed king reigned in Tara, named Criffan
(A.D., 366 to 379), who on several occasions invaded Britain, and took
possession of large tracts, so that he is called in our old records
"Criffan the Great, king of Ireland, and of Albion to the British
Channel." The Roman historians tell us that Theodosius succeeded in
beating back the Picts and Scots, and even chased them out to sea, in
which there is probably some exaggeration, as there is, no doubt, on the
part of our own historians in calling Criffan "King of Albion to the
Criffan was succeeded by Niall of the Nine Hostages (A.D. 379 to 405), who
was still more distinguished for foreign conquests than his predecessor.
He invaded Britain on a more extensive and formidable scale than had yet
been attempted, and swept over a large extent of country, bringing away
immense booty and whole crowds of captives, but was at length forced to
retreat by the valiant Roman general Stilicho. On this occasion a Roman
poet, praising Stilicho, says of him--speaking as Britannia:--"By him was
I protected when the Scot [i.e., Niall] moved all Ireland against me,
and the ocean foamed with their hostile oars."
For the extensive scale of these terrible raids we have the testimony of
the best possible authority--St. Patrick--who, in his "Confession,"
speaking of the expedition in which he himself was taken captive (probably
that led by Niall), says:--"I was about sixteen years of age, when I was
brought captive into Ireland with many thousand persons."
The preceding were warlike raids; but no doubt, while the main body of the
host returned on each occasion to their homes in Ireland, large numbers
remained and settled down in Wales. But we have an account of at least one
expedition undertaken with the direct object of colonising. In the third
century, a powerful tribe called the Desii, who occupied the territory of
Deece, near Tara, were expelled from the district by King Cormac Mac
Art, for a serious breach of law. Part of these went to Munster, and
settled in a territory which still bears their name, the barony of Decies,
in Waterford. Another part, crossing over to Wales under one of their
leaders, took possession of a district called Dyfed, where they settled
down and kept themselves distinct as an immigrant tribe, speaking their
own language for generations, till at length they were absorbed by the
more numerous population around them, just as, many centuries later, the
Anglo-Normans who came to Ireland were absorbed by the Irish.
We are told in Cormac's Glossary that in those times it was quite a usual
thing for Irish chiefs to own two territories, one in Ireland and the
other in Wales; and that they visited and lived in each by turns, as
suited their convenience or pleasure. And the Irish chiefs often crossed
over to receive the tributes due to them from their Welsh possessions.
Plain marks and tokens of these migrations and settlements exist in Wales
at the present day, as we are told by eminent Welsh writers who have
examined the question. Numerous places are still called after Irishmen,
as, for instance, Holyhead, of which the Welsh name means the 'Rocks of
the Gaels.' The Irish, wherever they settled down in Wales, built for
themselves circular forts, as was their custom at home in Ireland. Many of
these remain to this day, and are called 'Irishmen's Cottages.' Moreover,
the present spoken Welsh language contains a number of Irish words,
borrowed by the people from their Irish neighbours in days of old. All
this we are told--as already stated--by several great Welsh scholars.