White Hugh MacNéill and his wars with the Lough Foyle vikings

White Hugh MacNéill must have regarded the Viking gathering on his very doorstep with a mixture of anger and fear, writes Kevin Mullan.

Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 1:38 pm

It was 866 and the local chiefain had just completed an armed tour of the North coast destroying Viking forts and scattering their settlements but now looking east from his Grianán of Aileach the king could see they were back.

It was less than 100 years since the first Viking raids in Ireland had taken place but they had now established a substantial colony in the perfect harbour of Lough Foyle.

Of this the fearsome White Hugh - recently elevated from the Kingship of Aileach to that of Ireland - could not have hoped for a clearer view.

Grianán fort would have provided the local chieftain with the perfect vantage point from which to view the Viking fleet in Lough Foyle and he would surely have raged over their flagrant affront to his authority.

Years before his father Niall of the Callan (Niall Caille) had fought Vikings at sites near Derry and St. Johnston.

The Annals of Ulster record how Niall had “routed the foreigners in Daire Calgaig (modern Dderry)” in 833, the same year he had risen to the High Kingship.

Twelves years later Niall once again inflicted a “battle-rout on the heathens in Mag Ítha (near modern St Johnston).”

Now the reigns of power had passed to White Hugh who was no stranger to war with the Vikings of the Foyle in 866.

Ten years earlier when he was described as “the king of greatest prowess in his time” he had defeated the Vikings at a base at the surprisingly inland battleground of Glenelly near Strabane.

According to the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Ireland White Hugh slaughtered the Vikings and their Irish allies at “Glenn Foichle (Glenelly).”

The Ulster record states how “Aed (Hugh) son of Niall inflicted a great rout on the Norse-Irish in Glenn Foichle and a vast number of them were slaughtered by him” whilst the Irish annals say Hugh “defeated them, and slaughtered the Gall-Gaedil, and brought many heads away with him.

“And the Irish deserved that killing, for as the Norwegians acted, so they also acted.”

All of this bloodletting, however, was nothing to what White Hugh was about to unleash on tranquil Lough Foyle.

According to the Annals of the Four Masters he had already mustered his allies to “plunder the fortresses of the foreigners, wherever they were in the North, both in Cinel Eoghain (modern Derry, Tyrone and Donegal) and Dal Araidhe; and he carried off their cattle and accoutrements, their goods and chattles.”

Notwithstanding this the diehard Vikings had regrouped in one huge gathering in the Lough.

On realising this White Hugh unleashed a fearsome foray through which hundreds of Norse were slaughtered in the estuary.

The butchery was so thorough it rid the Vikings from Ulster entirely for a number of years.

According to the Four Masters: “The foreigners of the province came together at Loch Feabhail Mic Lodain (Lough Foyle).

“After Aedh (Hugh), King of Ireland, had learned that this gathering of strangers was on the borders of his country, he was not negligent in attending to them, for he marched towards them with all his forces; and a battle was fought fiercely and spiritedly on both sides between them.

“The victory was gained over the foreigners, and a slaughter was made of them.

“Their heads were collected to one place, in presence of the king; and twelve score heads were reckoned before him, which was the number slain by him in that battle, besides the numbers of them who were wounded and carried off by him in the agonies of death, and who died of their wounds some time afterwards.”

It appears that upwards of 240 Vikings were killed in this gruesome battle although the Irish losses are unknown.

The early modern scholar Geoffrey Keating somewhat inflates the death toll to 12,000 (dá mhíle dhéag) but this must have been an error because that would have made the Battle of Lough Foyle (866) the bloodiest battle ever to have taken place on Irish soil.

Keating wrote: “It was about this time that Aodh Finnliath (Hugh), king of Ireland, fought a great battle against the Lochlonnaigh (Vikings) of Loch Feabhail, and took away with him forty heads severed from the bodies of their leaders after he had slain twelve thousand of their number.”

Despite this death inflation the Annals are largely agreed, however, that at least 240 Viking heads were taken as trophies.

The Chronicon Scotorum ((Irish Chronicle) states: “A rout was inflicted by Aed (Hugh) son of Niall and the Cenél nEógain on the foreigners at Loch Febail and twelve score heads taken of them in a single place.”

And the Annals of Ulster concur that: “Aed (Hugh) son of Niall plundered all the strongholds of the foreigners i.e. in the territory of the North, both in Cenél Eógain and Dál Araidi, and took away their heads, their flocks, and their herds from camp by battle.

“A victory was gained over them at Loch Feabhail and twelve score heads taken thereby.”

The ultimate result of these heavy defeats at Glenelly and more particularly at Lough Foyle were that the Vikings left Ulster for a time.

Some have even suggested that White Hugh’s bloody success may have hindered the development of the North West as the vanquished Vikings were unable to build towns here as they had in Dublin and Waterford, for example. It’s an interesting theory but hard to square with the return of the Vikings to the Derry area not long afterwards.

Twenty years after White Hugh’s death and whilst his son Black-Kneed Niall (Niall Glúndubh) was King of Aileach, the Vikings sacked Armagh from a base in Lough Foyle.

“Ard Macha was wasted by the Lochlonnaigh of Loch Feabhail, “ Keating notes. This occured in 898.

And whilst Niall helped stem the Viking tide for a while in the year of his death in 919 they were back in strength led by a chief called Olbh.

“A fleet of foreigners, consisting of thirty-two ships, at Loch-Feabhail (Lough Foyle) under Olbh; and Inis-Eoghain was plundered by them. Fearghal, son of Domhnall, lord of the North, was at strife with them, so that he slew the crew of one of their ships, broke the ship itself, and carried off its wealth and goods.

“Twenty ships more arrived at Ceann-Maghair, in the east of Tír Chonaill, under the conduct of Uathmharan, “ the Four Masters records.

Despite the rivalry between locals and Vikings partnerships were also forged and in 941 an alliance of the Cinel-Eoghain (the territory in Derry, Donegal and Tyrone over which Niall Caille, White Hugh and Black-Kneed Niall had reigned) and the foreigners of Loch-Feabhail was defeated by a force of Irish.

“Three hundred of the Cinel-Eoghain and foreigners were slain, together with Maelruanaidh, son of Flann, heir apparent of the North,” states the Four Masters.

Black-Kneed Niall’s son Muirchertach, won a number of victories over the Vikings in battles in Strangford (926) and in Dublin (939) from his base at Grianán.

He even took the battle to the Vikings in their Scottish settlements but eventually died in 941. The Viking Age in Ireland would last another 70 years culminating in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, 150 years after White Hugh came down from Grianán to fight the Battle of Lough Foyle.

* This article was originally published in April 2012.

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