The Three Fragments
also known as the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland
In 1643, Irish scholar and scribe Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh copied what he called “Three Fragments of Irish Annals” from a ruined vellum manuscript: “the old book that is broken”. Evidently, the manuscript was, or had been, the possession of – perhaps was written by – one Giolla na Naomh Mac Aodhagáin Senior, “a man most learned in Irish law, in Ormond”. It may be that this Giolla na Naomh Mac Aodhagáin of Ormond was the one that had a son of the same name die in 1443. Anyway, both the Mac Aodhagáin manuscript and Mac Fhirbhisigh’s copy are now lost. What survives (in the Royal Library of Belgium) is a copy, made by an anonymous scribe, of Mac Fhirbhisigh’s copy. The extant text actually comprises five fragments, corresponding to the periods 573–628, 662–704, 716–35, 851–73 and 906–14, in which terse annalistic entries, similar to those found in other Irish annals, are augmented by longer, rather fantastical, narratives. Absolute dates are almost never provided in the fragments themselves, and the chronology is confused.[*]
Of particular interest to this website is the narrative content of the last two of these five fragments. Internal evidence tends to suggest that this was taken from a pseudo-historical chronicle – essentially, a piece of propaganda – that was composed for, and to promote, Donnchad Mac Gilla Pátraic, king of Osraige from c.1003 to 1039. It has been dubbed (by Joan Newlon Radner, whose 1978 translation is used on this website) the ‘Osraige Chronicle’.[*]
Black Vikings and White Vikings
The Vikings – Scandinavian pirates – began their assault on the British Isles in the late-8th century. It is generally accepted that the Vikings who targeted the North Sea and Channel coasts of England were, predominantly, from the area around Denmark, and that it was, predominantly, their more northerly cousins, from Norway, whose adventuring took them around the top of Scotland and into the Irish Sea.[*]
The Annals of Ulster first mention Vikings in the entry for 794: “Devastation of all the islands of Britain by gentiles.” Up to the entry for 851, the Annals of Ulster usually refer to Vikings as simply ‘gentiles’ (heathens) or ‘foreigners’. Occasionally the designation ‘Northmen’ is used, and, famously, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to Vikings as ‘Danes’. It would appear, however, that these terms are used very loosely – any Viking could be described as a Northman or a Dane.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first time a Viking band set-up a camp to overwinter in England was in 850. By this time in Ireland, however, Vikings had already established permanent settlements – for instance, in 841 they had founded a naval-base (longphort) at the ‘black pool’, dub linn, i.e. Dublin. In 851, a faction of ‘gentiles’ distinguished by the prefix dub, i.e. ‘black’, are reported, by the Annals of Ulster, to have “made a great slaughter” of the ‘foreigners’ based at Dublin, who are given the prefix finn, i.e. ‘white’. The Annals of Ulster retain the distinction between ‘black’ and ‘white’ Vikings until 927, but never explain what it is that distinguishes one faction from the other.
Contained within the Three Fragments (see above) is a pseudo-history sometimes referred to as the ‘Osraige Chronicle’. It probably dates from the 1030s, and it is the earliest source to equate the ‘black’ faction to Danish Vikings and the ‘white’ faction to Norwegian Vikings. But why would they be distinguished by colour? A popular interpretation is that it refers to hair-colouring or complexion, and dub and finn are often translated as ‘dark’ and ‘fair’. It seems, though, unlikely that there would be any distinctive difference of colouring between one bunch of Scandinavians and another.
Alfred P. Smyth, in an article titled ‘The Black Foreigners of York and the White Foreigners of Dublin’ (Saga-Book of the Viking Society Vol. 19, 1974–7[*]), drew attention to an entry in the 17th century Annals of Clonmacnoise (s.a. 922), in which a phrase that appears in the Annals of Ulster (s.a. 927) as: “the Dubgaill [Black Foreigners] and the Finngaill [White Foreigners]”, is rendered into English as: “the new & old Danes”, and persuasively argued that ‘new’ and ‘old’ are, indeed, obsolete usages of the words dub and finn respectively:
The translation of Dub Gaill as ‘New Foreigners’ fits in perfectly with their role not as enemies of the Irish, but as conquerors of the Norwegians or ‘Old Foreigners’ who had [in 851] already been established in the Celtic West for at least half a century.
Recently, however, the traditional identification of the black/new faction with Danish Vikings and white/old faction with Norwegian Vikings has been challenged. In a ‘Prefatory Note’ to her book Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014 (2007), Clare Downham writes:
The earliest ethnic definitions of ‘Dark Foreigner’ as Dane and ‘Fair Foreigner’ as Norwegian emerge after the terms fell out of use. They appear in the eleventh-century ‘Osraige Chronicle’, elements of which are embedded within ‘The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland’. It can be argued that, when this text was composed, political changes in Scandinavia made people in Ireland aware of a distinction between Norwegians and Danes. Thus a new interpretation was imposed on the earlier terms ‘Fair Foreigner’ and ‘Dark Foreigner’ which were found in the Irish chronicles mined for the Osraige Chronicler’s account of ninth-century viking-affairs. Dumville has suggested, as an alternative to the conventional interpretations, that Dubgaill and Finngaill identified viking-groups under different leadership. —
— The ‘Fair Foreigners’ or ‘old vikings’ were labelled following the advent of ‘Dark Foreigners’ on Irish shores. The ‘dark’ or ‘new’ vikings may identify those under the leadership of the family of Ívarr. This association is supported by evidence from the Irish chronicles. The ‘dark’ vikings who are first mentioned in 851 were led by Ívarr and his associates Óláfr, Ásl and Hálfdan. Their heirs, who were also recognised as leaders of ‘Dark Foreigners’, were members of the dynasty of Ívarr. Thus Dumville’s theory offers an alternative to some of the complications which historians have built around issues of ethnicity.
Of course, not all scholars agree with Dumville and Downham. For instance, in an introductory essay, ‘Who were the Vikings’, to The Viking World (2008), Stefan Brink is happy to state:
In Ireland Scandinavians were at first called ‘pagans’ (‘gentiles’), and then a distinction was made between Norwegians, called Finngall ‘white foreigners’, and Danes, Dubgall ‘black foreigners’.
And Colmán Etchingham, in his paper ‘Names for the Vikings in Irish Annals’ (Celtic-Norse Relationships in the Irish Sea in the Middle Ages 800–1200, 2013), writes:
There can be no certainty, of course, that the epithet ‘black’ consistently identifies primarily Danish Vikings over a period of 140 years but, on the evidence, it must be a strong presumption.… If there is a reasonable presumption that the Dubgenti/Dubgaill who first appeared in Ireland in 851 were primarily Danish, there must be a corresponding presumption that the previously established Finngenti/Finngaill were not Danish and, therefore, were primarily Norwegian.
Etchingham rejects Smyth’s retranslation of dub/finn as ‘new’/‘old’, suggesting that: “the dub/finn dichotomy may stem from a mid ninth-century perception that some Vikings – even if pagans – were more acceptable than were others, on the ‘devil you know’ principle”, and he proposes that dub/finn should continue being translated as ‘black’ or ‘dark’/‘white’ or ‘fair’: “while recognising that, figuratively, they carried pejorative/indulgent connotations”.
Æthelweard Chronicon by A. Campbell
Annals of Ulster by S. Mac Airt and G. Mac Niocaill
The Story of Ingimund
The Annals of Ulster note that, in 902:
The gentiles [Vikings] were driven from Ireland, i.e. from the fortress of Áth Cliath [Dublin] … and they abandoned a good number of their ships, and escaped half dead after they had been wounded and broken.
This event is the starting point for a story found in the remnants of an Irish compilation traditionally called the Three Fragments (see above). The Three Fragments actually comprises five fragments, and the story in question – which was probably composed in the 1030s, and, although obviously elaborated, is supported by sufficient independent evidence to suggest that it is rooted in historical fact – appears in the last of them:
We have related above, that is, in the fourth year previously, that the Norwegian armies were driven out of Ireland, thanks to the fasting and prayers of the holy man, Céle Dabaill, for he was a saintly and pious man, and he had great zeal for the Christians; and besides inciting the warriors of Ireland against the pagans, he laboured himself through fasting and prayer, and he strove for freedom for the churches of Ireland, and he strengthened the men of Ireland by his laborious service to the Lord; and he removed the anger of the Lord from them. For it was on account of the Lord’s anger against them that the foreigners were brought to destroy them (i.e. the Norwegians and Danes), to plunder Ireland, both church and tribe. —
— Now the Norwegians left Ireland, as we said, and their leader was Ingimund [Hingamund], and they went then to the island of Britain. —
— The son of Cadell son of Rhodri was king of the Britons at that time. The Britons assembled against them, and gave them hard and strong battle, and they were driven by force out of British territory. —
— After that Ingimund with his troops came to Æthelflæd, Queen of the Saxons; for her husband, Æthelred, was sick at that time. (Let no one reproach me, though I have related the death of Æthelred above, because this was prior to Æthelred’s death and it was of this very sickness that Æthelred died, but I did not wish to leave unwritten what the Norwegians did after leaving Ireland). —
— Now Ingimund was asking the Queen for lands in which he would settle, and on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time. Æthelflæd gave him lands near Chester, and he stayed there for a time. —
— What resulted was that when he saw the wealthy city, and the choice lands around it, he yearned to possess them. Ingimund came then to the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes; he was complaining bitterly before them, and said that they were not well off unless they had good lands, and that they all ought to go and seize Chester and possess it with its wealth and lands. From that there resulted many great battles and wars. What he said was, “Let us entreat and implore them ourselves first, and if we do not get them [i.e. good lands] willingly like that, let us fight for them by force.” All the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes consented to that. Ingimund returned home after that, having arranged for a hosting to follow him. Although they held that council secretly, the Queen learned of it. The Queen then gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops.
After a short digression, the Three Fragments continues:
The armies of the Danes and the Norwegians mustered to attack Chester, and since they did not get their terms accepted through request or entreaty, they proclaimed battle on a certain day. They came to attack the city on that day, and there was a great army with many freemen in the city to meet them. When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all. Everything was done accordingly, and the Danes and Norwegians were frightfully slaughtered in that way. Great as that massacre was, however, the Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them. This was not delayed; the hurdles were made, and the hosts were under them making a hole in the wall, because they wanted to take the city, and avenge their people. It was then that the King (who was on the verge of death) and the Queen sent messengers to the Irish who were among the pagans (for the pagans had many Irish fosterlings), to say to the Irishmen, “Life and health to you from the King of the Saxons, who is ill, and from the Queen, who holds all authority over the Saxons, and they are certain that you are true and trustworthy friends to them. Therefore you should take their side: for they have given no greater honour to any Saxon warrior or cleric than they have given to each warrior or cleric who has come to them from Ireland, for this inimical race of pagans is equally hostile to you also. You must, then, since you are faithful friends, help them on this occasion.” This was the same as saying to them, “Since we have come from faithful friends of yours to converse with you, you should ask the Danes what gifts in lands and property they would give to the people who would betray the city to them. If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons.” All was done accordingly, and they set aside their arms. And the reason why those Irish acted against the Danes was because they were less friends to them than the Norwegians. Then many of them were killed in that way, for huge rocks and beams were hurled onto their heads. Another great number were killed by spears and by arrows, and by every means of killing men. However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. Not long afterwards there was fighting again …
In the surviving text, the story ends at this point.
Annals of Ulster by S. Mac Airt and G. Mac Niocaill
Three Fragments (under the title Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, §429) by Joan Newlon Radner
The Battle of 918?
The final narrative section, that follows annalistic entries relevant to 914, in an Irish source traditionally referred to as the Three Fragments (see above), is a story which may relate to a battle fought on the Tyne, at Corbridge, in 918. In his paper ‘The Battles at Corbridge’ (Saga-Book of the Viking Society Vol. 13, 1946–53[*]), F.T. Wainwright comments:
It gives a long and, as is usual in the Three Fragments, a garbled and legendary description of a battle between the Scandinavians and the English. Errors, later additions, and legendary details may bring the Three Fragments under suspicion, but we cannot dismiss as mere fabrication a source which, though itself confused and inaccurate, apparently preserves a core of genuine historical fact.
The Three Fragments (§459) relates:
In that year great armies of Dark Foreigners and Fair Foreigners came again to attack the Saxons, after the installation of Sitriuc [Sihtric] grandson of Ímar [Ivar] as king.[*] They challenged the Saxons to battle, and the Saxons did not delay, but came at once to attack the pagans. A hard and ferocious battle was fought between them, and there was great energy and heat and contention on both sides. Much noble blood was spilled in this battle; nevertheless, it was the Saxons who won victory and spoils after massacring the pagans. For the king of the pagans was taken ill, and he was carried out of the battle to a forest nearby, and he died there. —
— Now Oittir, the most greatly esteemed earl in this battle, when he saw the Saxons slaughtering his people, fled into a dense wood near him, along with those of his people who survived. A huge throng of Saxons came after him, and they surrounded the wood. The Queen commanded them to hack down all of the forest with their swords and battleaxes, and they did so. First they felled the trees, and then all the pagans who were in the wood were killed. The pagans were slaughtered by the Queen like that, so that her fame spread in all directions. —
— Æthelflæd, through her own cleverness, made peace with the men of Alba and with the Britons [of Strathclyde], so that whenever the same race should come to attack her, they would rise to help her. If it were against them that they came, she would take arms with them. While this continued, the men of Alba and Britain overcame the settlements of the Norwegians and destroyed and sacked them. The king of the Norwegians came after that and sacked Strathclyde, and plundered the land. But the enemy was ineffectual against Strathclyde.
There is much to this story that we cannot accept, but the record of an Anglo-Celtic alliance against the Norsemen is of first-rate importance, and the account of the battle, though garbled and legendary in its present form, is worthy of consideration.
Incidentally, there is another passage in the Three Fragments that could relate to the Battle of 918 – though it appears as a digression in the story of Ingimund (§429, see above). This time, the battle described is fought between the Scots, i.e. “the men of Alba”, and the Norwegians. The main point the digression makes is that the Scots used the crosier of St Columba as a battle standard:
… they have often won victory in battle with it, as they did at that time … this battle was fought hard and fiercely; the men of Alba won victory and triumph, and many of the Norwegians were killed after their defeat, and their king was killed there, namely Oittir son of Iarngna. For a long time after that neither the Danes nor the Norwegians attacked them, and they enjoyed peace and tranquillity.
Three Fragments translated, under the title Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, by Joan Newlon Radner.