The kings of the eighth century are Congal II. (surnamed Kenmare), who reigned seven years; Feargal, who reigned ten years; Forgartah, Kenneth, Flaherty, respectively one, four, and seven years; Hugh V. (surnamed Allan), nine years; Donald III., who reigned (A.D. 739-759) twenty years; Nial II. (surnamed Nial of the Showers), seven years; and Donogh I., who reigned thirty-one years, A.D. 766-797. The obituaries of these kings show that we have fallen on a comparatively peaceful age, since of the entire nine, but three perished in battle. One retired to Armagh and one to Iona, where both departed in the monastic habit; the others died either of sickness or old age.
Yet the peaceful character of this century is but comparative, for in the first quarter (A.D. 722), we have the terrible battle of Almain, between Leinster and the Monarch, in which 30,000 men were stated to have engaged, and 7,000 to have fallen. The Monarch who had double the number of the Leinster Prince, was routed and slain, apropos of which we have a Bardic tale told, which almost transports one to the far East, the simple lives and awful privileges of the Hindoo Brahmins. It seems that some of King FEARGAL's army, in foraging for their fellows, drove off the only cow of a hermit, who lived in seclusion near a solitary little chapel called Killin. The enraged recluse, at the very moment the armies were about to engage, appeared between them, regardless of personal danger, denouncing ruin and death to the monarch's forces. And in this case, as in others, to be found in every history, the prophecy, no doubt, helped to produce its own fulfilment. The malediction of men dedicated to the service of God, has often routed hosts as gallant as were marshalled on the field of Almain.
FEARGAL'S two immediate successors met a similar fate --death in the field of battle--after very brief reigns, of which we have no great events to record.
FLAHERTY, the next who succeeded, after a vigorous reign of seven years, withdrew from the splendid cares of a crown, and passed the long remainder of his life--thirty years--in the habit of a monk at Armagh. The heavy burthen which he had cheerfully laid down, was taken up by a Prince, who combined the twofold character of poet and hero. HUGH V. (surnamed Allan), the son of FEARGAL, of whom we have just spoken, was the very opposite of his father, in his veneration for the privileges of holy persons and places. His first military achievement was undertaken in vindication of the rights of those who were unable by arms to vindicate their own. Hugh Roin, Prince of the troublesome little principality of Ulidia (Down), though well stricken in years and old enough to know better, in one of his excursions had forcibly compelled the clergy of the country through which he passed to give him free quarters, contrary to the law everywhere existing. Congus, the Primate, jealous of the exemptions of his order, complained of this sacrilege in a poetic message addressed to Hugh Allan, who, as a Christian and a Prince, was bound to espouse his quarrels. He marched into the territory of the offender, defeated him in battle, cut off his head on the threshold of the Church of Faughard, and marched back again, his host chanting a war song composed by their leader.
In this reign died Saint Gerald of Mayo, an Anglo-Saxon Bishop, and apparently the head of a colony of his countrymen, from whom that district is ever since called "Mayo of the Saxons." The name, however, being a general one for strangers from Britain about that period, just as Dane became for foreigners from the Baltic in the next century, is supposed to be incorrectly applied: the colony being, it is said, really from Wales, of old British stock, who had migrated rather than live under the yoke of their victorious Anglo-Saxon Kings. The descendants of these Welshmen are still to be traced, though intimately intermingled with the original Belgic and later Milesian settlers in Mayo, Sligo, and Galway--thus giving a peculiar character to that section of the country, easily distinguishable from all the rest.
Although Hugh Allan did not imitate his father's conduct towards ecclesiastics, he felt bound by all-ruling custom to avenge his father's death. In all ancient countries the kinsmen of a murdered man were both by law and custom the avengers of his blood. The members of the Greek phratry, of the Roman fatria, or gens, of the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon guild, and of the mediaeval sworn commune, were all solemnly bound to avenge the blood of any of their brethren, unlawfully slain. So that the repulsive repetition of reprisals, which so disgusts the modern reader in our old annals, is by no means a phenomenon peculiar to the Irish state of society. It was in the middle age and in early times common to all Europe, to Britain and Germany, as well as to Greece and Rome. It was, doubtless, under a sense of duty of this sort that Hugh V. led into Leinster a large army (A.D. 733), and the day of Ath-Senaid fully atoned for the day of Almain. Nine thousand of the men of Leinster were left on the field, including most of their chiefs; the victorious monarch losing a son, and other near kinsmen. Four years later, he himself fell in an obscure contest near Kells, in the plain of Meath. Some of his quartrains have come down to us, and they breathe a spirit at once religious and heroic--such as must have greatly endeared the Prince who possessed it to his companions in arms. We are not surprised, therefore, to find his reign a favourite epoch with subsequent Bards and Storytellers.
The long and prosperous reign of Donald III. succeeded (A.D. 739 to 759). He is almost the only one of this series of Kings of whom it can be said that he commanded in no notable battle. The annals of his reign are chiefly filled with ordinary accidents, and the obits of the learned. But its literary and religious record abounds with bright names and great achievements, as we shall find when we come to consider the educational and missionary fruits of Christianity in the eighth century. While on a pilgrimage to Durrow, a famous Columbian foundation in Meath, and present King's County, Donald III. departed this life, and in Durrow, by his own desire, his body was interred.
Nial II. (surnamed of the Showers), son to FEARGAL and brother of the warrior-Bard, Hugh V., was next invested with the white wand of sovereignty. He was a prince less warlike and more pious than his elder brother. The soubriquet attached to his name is accounted for by a Bardic tale, which represents him as another Moses, at whose prayer food fell from heaven in time of famine. Whatever "showers" fell or wonders were wrought in his reign, it is certain that after enjoying the kingly office for seven years, Nial resigned, and retired to Iona, there to pass the remainder of his days in penance and meditation. Eight years he led the life of a monk in that sacred Isle, where his grave is one of those of "the three Irish Kings," still pointed out in the cemetery of the Kings. He is but one among several Princes, his cotemporaries, who had made the same election. We learn in this same century, that Cellach, son of the King of Connaught, died in Holy Orders, and that Bec, Prince of Ulidia, and Ardgall, son of a later King of Connaught, had taken the "crostaff" of the pilgrim, either for Iona or Armagh, or some more distant shrine. Pilgrimages to Rome and to Jerusalem seem to have been begun even before this time, as we may infer from St. Adamnan's work on the situation of the Holy Places, of which Bede gives an abstract.
The reign of Donogh I. is the longest and the last among the Kings of the eighth century (A.D. 776 to 797). The Kings of Ireland had now not only abandoned Tara, but one by one, the other royal residences in Meath as their usual place of abode. As a consequence a local sovereignty sprung up in the family of O'Melaghlin, a minor branch of the ruling race. This house developing its power so unexpectedly, and almost always certain to have the national forces under the command of a Patron Prince at their back, were soon involved in quarrels about boundaries, both with Leinster and Munster. King Donogh, at the outset of his reign, led his forces into both principalities, and without battle received their hostages. Giving hostages--generally the sons of the chiefs--was the usual form of ratifying any treaty. Generally also, the Bishop of the district, or its most distinguished ecclesiastic, was called in as witness of the terms, and both parties were solemnly sworn on the relics of Saints--the Gospels of the Monasteries or Cathedrals--or the croziers of their venerated founders. The breach of such a treaty was considered "a violation of the relics of the saint," whose name had been invoked, and awful penalties were expected to follow so heinous a crime. The hostages were then carried to the residence of the King, to whom they were entrusted, and while the peace lasted, enjoyed a parole freedom, and every consideration due to their rank. If of tender age they were educated with the same care as the children of the household. But when war broke out their situation was always precarious, and sometimes dangerous. In a few instances they had even been put to death, but this was considered a violation of all the laws both of hospitality and chivalry; usually they were removed to some strong secluded fort, and carefully guarded as pledges to be employed, according to the chances and changes of the war. That Donogh preferred negotiation to war, we may infer by his course towards Leinster and Munster, in the beginning of his reign, and his "kingly parlee" at a later period (A.D. 783) with FIACHNA, of Ulidia, son of that over-exacting Hugh Roin, whose head was taken from his shoulders at the Church door of Faughard. This "kingly parlee" was held on an island off the Methian shore, called afterwards "King's Island." But little good came of it. Both parties still held their own views, so that the satirical poets asked what was the use of the island, when one party "would not come upon the land, nor the other upon the sea?" However, we needs must agree with King Donogh, that war is the last resort, and is only to be tried when all other means have failed.
Twice during this reign the whole island was stricken with panic, by extraordinary signs in the heavens, of huge serpents coiling themselves through the stars, of fiery bolts flying like shuttles from one side of the horizon to the other, or shooting downward directly to the earth. These atmospheric wonders were accompanied by thunder and lightning so loud and so prolonged that men hid themselves for fear in the caverns of the earth. The fairs and markets were deserted by buyers and sellers; the fields were abandoned by the farmers; steeples were rent by lightning, and fell to the ground; the shingled roofs of churches caught fire and burned whole buildings. Shocks of earthquake were also felt, and round towers and cyclopean masonry were strewn in fragments upon the ground. These visitations first occurred in the second year of Donogh, and returned again in 783. When, in the next decade, the first Danish descent was made on the coast of Ulster (A.D. 794), these signs and wonders were superstitiously supposed to have been the precursors of that far more terrible and more protracted visitation.
The Danes at first attracted little notice, but in the last year of Donogh (A.D. 797) they returned in greater force, and swept rapidly along the coast of Meath; it was reserved for his successors of the following centuries to face the full brunt of this new national danger.
But before encountering the fierce nations of the north, and the stormy period they occupy, let us cast back a loving glance over the world-famous schools and scholars of the last two centuries. Hitherto we have only spoken of certain saints, in connection with high affairs of state. We must now follow them to the college and the cloister, we must consider them as founders at home, and as missionaries abroad; otherwise how could we estimate all that is at stake for Erin and for Christendom, in the approaching combat with the devotees of Odin,--the deadly enemies of all Christian institutions?