In 835 while the Viking leader Turgesius was causing havoc throughout the province, the battle of Connaught took place. It was supposedly fought on the east side of the present day Galway city somewhere near Roscam. According to tradition the battle took place when ‘discord reared its ugly head and war was inevitable’. One of the people reputed to have been killed in this battle was Cellach, son of Forbasach, and another casualty was the abbot of Roscam. Tradition tells us that the local chief, Connmach the Great proved to be the victor. While some sources indicate that the battle was fought against the Vikings, the Annals of Ulster record that the battle was fought between the men of Connaught themselves. Others believe that the battle was fought against Vikings who had settled in Limerick. Regardless of who won the battle, 835 heralded the savage slaughter and devastation in Connaught by the ‘heathen’ Vikings under Turgesius. If the battle was indeed between the men of Connacht, then it serves as an example of the in-fighting of the Irish while the country was being over-run by a common enemy. Turgesius governed through fear and total disregard for the people or their religion. He plundered Clonmacnoise and locked the monks into the monastery building and set it alight burning them alive. To show his utter contempt for Christian beliefs he had his wife Ota placed on the altar of the church as a heathen goddess and had her worshipped through ‘debasing orgies’. He imposed a tribute on the native Irish of an ounce of gold to be paid to him annually by the head of each household. A Viking chief was placed in control of each community. A lay person was placed in charge of each monastery and an officer was appointed to oversee every village. A Viking warrior was also to reside in every dwelling. The owner of the house was stripped of all power over his own home or animals. The Vikings had home spun clothing woven for them by those under their control while the Irish had to wear the cast-off garments of the ‘heathens’. The churches and schools were closed down and the bards banished. The Irish were forbidden to carry arms and all hospitality and entertainment was prohibited. There was some resistance to Viking rule, but there was minimal success.
Turgesius ruled for thirteen years and continued to destroy everything that the Irish held as valuable and sacred. However, he does not appear to have made any attempt to set himself up as a type of high king. The provincial king of Meath at the time was Malachi. Turgesius built a fortress close to Malachi’s fort near Lough Owel in County Westmeath. Malachi had a beautiful daughter and when Turgesius heard about her, he requested that she be sent to him as a wife. The king didn’t want to send his daughter to the Viking leader, but feared the consequences if he refused. He felt that it was time to do something about this tyrant and so Malachi promised to send his daughter and fifteen ‘maids of surpassing fairness’ to Turgesius. At the time Turgesius was in talks with some of the leading Vikings in Dublin and invited fifteen of them to his fort with the promise that each of them would be rewarded with a new bride. However, Malachi had made other plans and selected fifteen of his youngest, most dangerous and best looking warriors to accompany his daughter. They shaved their faces to smoothness that when they dressed in best of women’s clothing no one noticed that they were men. They each carried a weapon concealed beneath their clothing and made their way under escort to the Viking stronghold. Turgesius had by this period become complacent and did not suspect a challenge from any quarter and therefore he was caught off-guard. The Vikings had laid aside their weapons in preparation to receive their new wives. When Malachi’s daughter and her companions arrived they were taken to individual Viking quarters. It was a shock to the Viking host as his fifteen guests from Dublin were dead within minutes and he was a prisoner. Malachi and his men were already on their way to the Viking fort and when he arrived Turgesius was handed over to him. The Irish king showed no mercy and had Turgesius drowned in Lough Owel. When word spread across the country that Turgesius was dead the Irish rose up and attacked the Vikings everywhere. Those who were located close to the sea took to their long ships and sailed for home. Others living inland sought refuge in the towns, but were slaughtered by the avenging Irish. In 846, Malachi became the chief king in Ireland and continued to defeat other Viking armies. Two years after becoming king he defeated and killed some 700 Vikings in County Westmeath, while he slaughtered another 1,200 in County Kildare that same year. The Vikings were allowed to remain in places such as Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. In Norway the death and exploits of Turgesius or Ragnar Lodbrok if they were the same man passed into legend. The Ragnar Lodbrok story has now become a major television series ‘Vikings’.
Nevertheless, King Malachi’s victories did not end the Viking attacks as they continued into the following century with a new wave of invaders arriving on Irish shores. One of the places they attacked was Limerick where they drove out the ‘now native’ Vikings. In 927, they were back attacking the Galway area. It has been suggested that this attack was perpetrated by the Viking settlers from Limerick. While one sees the River Corrib today as a place of tranquil beauty, it was not always so peaceful. The Annals of the Four Masters inform us that the islands on Lough Corrib were plundered by these Vikings that same year. The annals also state that these people were in turn attacked and slaughtered by the men of Connaught. The Aran Islands did not escape Viking attention either. They attacked and plundered the monastery of Saint Enda at Killeany on Inishmore in 1081. One must remember that this raid took place some sixty-seven years after the battle of Clontarf when history tells us that they were utterly defeated by the forces of King Brian Boru. In their book Early Christian Ireland, Maire and Liam de Paor suggest that a great many craftsmen were murdered and countless books destroyed by the Vikings during this period. However, while the fragile art of manuscript illumination died away, the monasteries survived. Overtime Viking influences could be seen in jewellery and other aspects of Irish life. Irish warfare also changed as a result and these settlers who eventually found themselves caught up and part of domestic struggles.
In 1980, a sword which could be evidence of the Vikings in Galway was found off Jordan’s Island in the townland of Newcastle. The bed of the River Corrib was also supposed to have yielded a Viking axe at one stage.
It would seem that other such artefacts have been found in the river over many centuries. A report in The Galway Observer from 7 July 1930 informed the readers that in 1190, the ‘river of Galway again dried up. A considerable quantity of old arms and other curiosities were found in its bed; the principal of which were a board steel axe and a spear-head, one cubit in length’. According to some sources the remains of a number of Viking long ships are located on the bed of Lough Corrib. A Viking burial was discovered at Eyrephort near Clifden in March 1947. The burial was described as being located in shifting sand dunes close to the sea. A number of grave goods were also uncovered including a Viking sword. Perhaps the answer to the question as to why the Vikings didn’t settle in Galway is not alone that the area was too remote, but it was also extremely hostile towards them.
Events of Note: (1) To coincide with our national feast day, Dúchas na Gaillimhe – Galway Civic Trust are hosting a talk by Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ‘The life of the ‘real’ St. Patrick’ in An Taibhdhearc Theatre at 2pm on 17 March. The talk is suitable for ages 8 and upwards. Individual tickets at €5 or €10 for a family can be purchased in advance from the Trust’s office on Druid Lane (091-564946).
(2) If anyone has information and photographs of Galway girls who were members of the Cumann na mBan could they please contact 086-8707406 after 6pm, I am trying to build up a profile base of these women with a view to publishing a series of articles.
(3) The Old Galway Society Lecture, ‘Knocknacarra ‘ by Tom Kenny will take place on 10 March at 8pm in the Victoria Hotel. (John Monaghan Memorial Lecture). All are welcome.