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As promised my blog this week is a Christmas themed one about the Norwegian king Magnús Barelegs who spent Christmas 1102 in Munster at the court of the high-king of Ireland Muirchertach O'Brien.

Magnús berfœttr (Magnús Barefoot or Barelegs) was a famous king of Norway around the year 1100 AD. Known for leading aggressive expeditions into the Scottish islands and the Irish Sea he got his nickname because of his fondness for the Irish and Irish culture. As the saga of the Kings of Norway 'Heimskringla' put it: 'when King Magnús returned from his expedition to the west he and many of his men for the most part had the manners and wore the clothes which were customary in the British Islands [Ireland and the Hebrides are intended here]. They went barelegged in the street and had short kirtles and outer garments. Then people called him Magnús Barefoot or Barelegs'.

Magnús was by all accounts an imposing figure. Said to be very tall, he wore a red garment over his coat of mail 'with a lion sewed on front and back with yellow silk'. His shield was also painted red 'on which a lion was embossed in gold', and his sword that had a hilt 'carved of walrus-tooth' and a haft 'wound with gold' had the name 'Legbiter'. As king, Magnús' philosophy was that the Norwegians should wish for a monarch 'for glorious deeds ... not for a long life'. He was well liked by his men 'and in his days there was good peace within the land'. The ordinary people however, considered him 'stern' and believed that they had 'much labour and expense from his expeditions abroad'.

It is indeed for his western expeditions that Magnús Barelegs is best known. He conquered the jarldom of Orkney and the islands of the Hebrides, the monastery of Iona and the Isle of Man. In the year 1098 Magnús led his fleet to the island of Anglesey in north Wales where he killed the Anglo-Norman baron Hugh earl of Shrewsbury in a battle on the beach. According to the Heimskringla Magnús saw the Anglo-Norman earl 'clad in mail from head to foot' riding his horse through the surf. The Norwegian king asked one of his men to join him in firing arrows at the mail clad knight. One arrow struck the earl's visor 'and was deflected to the side'. The other unbelievably went through the viewing slot in the earl's helmet and 'hit the earl's eye and penetrated his head; and that shot was attributed to the king'. On the way home Magnús signed a treaty with the king of Scotland whereby 'King Magnús was to have possession of all the islands west of Scotland separated from the mainland by water so that a ship with fixed rudder could pass between them'. Magnús famously then put one over on the Scots by standing on one of his ships with his hand on the rudder as his men dragged the boat over the short neck of land that joined the Mull of Kintyre to the rest of Scotland!

At this time in Ireland, Muirchertach O'Brien, the great-grandson of Brian Boru was high-king of the island. Muirchertach was a very successful high-king but he could not conquer the north of Ireland from Donal McLoughlin the capable king of Aileach. On his first expedition to the west Magnús of Norway established contact with King Muirchertach and they arranged a marriage alliance, with Magnús' young son Sigurd marrying Muirchertach's young daughter Bjathmynja, who were then put ruling over the Orkneys. When Magnús returned to the Irish Sea in 1102 he 'harried' widely in Ireland and seized 'Dublin and the Shire of Dublin'. Muirchertach O'Brien however, was a wily ruler and he established a good relationship with Magnús of Norway. As a result an invitation to spend Christmas as the court of the high-king at Kincora in Munster was extended to and accepted by the Norwegian king. Heimskringla states that 'King Magnús dwelt in [Munster] with King Myrjartak, putting his men to the defence of the land he had won'. There must have been great Christmas festivities that year at the court of the high-king.

Although the Norwegians regarded the Irish as 'treacherous', Magnús and Muirchertach had a good relationship. According to the Icelandic sagas Muirchertach 'kept all the promises he made to King Magnús'. When the 1103 campaigning season began Muirchertach led a large army north in an attempt to conquer Tyrone. King Magnús 'outfitted his ships' in order to assist his friend the Irish high-king, and sailed north having 'stationed his men in Dublin to guard it'. The northern expedition did not go well for O'Brien however. After an inconclusive stand-off at Armagh, Muirchertach led part of his army further north to raid east of Lough Neagh. Donal McLoughlin took this opportunity to attack the Munster camp on 5 August 1103. In a famous victory McLoughlin defeated the Leinster princes and some men from Munster and Dublin who had been left to guard O'Brien's camp. McLoughlin even captured the high-kings 'royal tent' and standard.

After this disaster that had befallen the high-king's camp, Magnús Barelegs decided to return to Norway. However, he needed provisions for his fleet. As a result he asked his friend Muirchertach to provide the necessary supplies. Honourable in his dealings right to the end, Muirchertach O'Brien sent a supply train of horses to the Norwegian king. Although the dust cloud thrown up by the pack-horses initially frightened the Norwegians, it was O'Brien's men who arrived 'with a great amount of provisions'.

There then occurred something that neither king had foreseen. The Ulaid, the inhabitants of the lands east of Lough Neagh and the River Bann, although allies of Muirchertach O'Brien had a deep hatred of the Vikings. As a result they laid a carefully prepared ambush for Magnús and his men as they made their way back to their ships with their supplies. As the Norwegians crossed over a path through some bogs and a forest, Ulaid warriors 'rushed out upon them from every corner of the woods'. Although King Magnús made every effort to rally his men, some fled and the King was left surrounded by the Ulstermen. Magnús was first wounded by an Irish spear that passed 'through both his thighs above the knee'. He was later killed by an Ulster warrior who gave him a blow of an axe to the neck.

This therefore was the unlucky fate of one of the last Norwegians kings to play an active role in the Irish Sea area. The adventures of Magnús Barelegs in the west are not often remembered today, but he did have a substantial impact on events in Scotland, Wales and Ireland during the five years that he had an interest in the Irish Sea region. It is a pity that there are not substantial accounts of the Christmas festivities when he was at the court of the high-king in December 1102. My next blog will be about the McLoughlin family mentioned here as the adversaries of the O'Brien high-king.

Finally I would like to wish a happy Christmas and new year to my friend the lovely and hard-working Sinéad.

Published in Genealogy

A notable feature of the distribution of Irish surnames throughout the Island of Ireland, is often the attachment of certain surnames to particular areas, often for many centuries. This can be seen in the distribution of Irish families even today in the early twentyfirst century.

Published in Genealogy

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