16 May 2022

Local History: The story behind a brutal Viking massacre in Derry

Local historian and genealogist, Brian Mitchell, writes about the period when the Vikings left their brutal mark on the city

Local History: The story behind a brutal Viking massacre in Derry

The Vikings were never interested in settling in Derry but plundered the area on several occasions. Image by Gary Chambers from Pixabay

One of the most striking features of early Irish Christianity was the love of wandering in order to pass ones life in solitude.
As a consequence of this quest the Irish became great missionaries.
In 563 Colum Cille set sail from Derry to found a new monastery.
Conall, 6th King of Dalriada, granted him Iona, a small island off the west coast of Mull.
This was to become the mother house of a confederation of Columban monasteries throughout Ireland, Scotland and England.
In the century following Colum Cille’s death in 597, new monasteries were founded at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, Rathlin Island, Innisboffin (County Galway) and in the lands of the Picts in Scotland.
In addition to Colum Cille’s own foundations at Derry and Durrow, these monasteries all looked to Iona as their leader.
They adhered to the traditions of the Irish church.
These Columban monasteries played a leading role in the expansion of Christianity; they converted the Picts and restored Christianity to Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in the 7th century.
In the second half of the 8th century Iona was at the height of its prestige – the laws of Colum Cille held sway in Ireland, with the abbots of Iona making frequent trips there.
This period of Columban expansion resulted in the appearance of two art forms to Irish monasteries; namely, high crosses and illuminated manuscripts.
The fusion of Irish techniques of timber construction and Northumbrian skills in stone carving resulted in the appearance of highly decorated standing crosses in Irish monasteries from the second half of the 8th century.
These elaborate high crosses with the wheel head design, in which a circle surrounded the point of intersection, developed from the earlier simple pillar stones of the 6th century on which crosses were incised.
In the monastery at Derry there would now have appeared intricate high crosses on which scenes from the Bible were sculptured.
The purpose of the crosses varied. Some marked burials, others signified a boundary of some sort, while others acted as focuses of prayer.
Distinctive manuscripts on parchment were now being produced in Columban monasteries.
Sometime between 760 and 820 the Book of Kells, a brilliantly illuminated copy of the four gospels with Latin text, known as “the Great Gospel of Columkille”, was written.
Its precise origin is unknown; not every monastery could produce such highly decorated and, at the same time, legible and correct copies of gospels written in Latin.
Undoubtedly it was written in a Columban monastery, as they were famed for their teaching of Latin and the classics and for the skills of their craftsmen and artists.
It was unlikely to have been written in Derry, as the team of scribes and artists required to produce such a masterpiece probably only existed at the monastic centre of the Columban confederation, which was Iona to 806 and subsequently Kells in central Ireland.
The contents of the 8th century library and scriptorium at Derry have not survived.
Colum Cille, according to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, wrote 300 books, all copies of the New Testaments. Copies were left with each of his churches, which, of course, included Derry.
The earliest surviving decorated Irish manuscript is the Cathach or Battle Book, a copy of the psalms, which according to tradition was written by Colum Cille towards the end of the 6th century.
It was handed down in the family of Conall Gulban, i.e. Colum Cille’s kin, and it was always carried three times round the army to ensure victory before they went into battle.
Illumination in this manuscript was confined to the fine large capital letters at the beginning of each psalm.
With the Book of Durrow, a copy of the four gospels written in the mid-7th century, an Irish style had emerged in which at the beginning of each gospel there was on the left a full ornamented page, brilliantly coloured, with intricate designs of spirals and interlocking animals and plants; while on the right there was an introductory page beginning with a large, beautifully proportioned, capital letter. In addition, portraits or symbols were used to depict each of the four evangelists.
The Book of Kells marked the pinnacle of Irish achievement in manuscript production, with its profusion of illustration, colour and ornamentation, and its repeated use of the same symbols for the four evangelists; a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, a calf for Luke and an eagle for John.
By the end of the 8th century the monastic settlement at Derry would have changed little.
The monastic complex would still have been made of timber.
The only new physical feature would have been the erection of a few high stone crosses.
The scriptorium may have begun to produce some basic illuminated manuscripts, similar to the Cathach. It would, of course, have continued to make straight copies of the psalms and gospels.
In 812 a fleet of ships, the like of which had never been seen before, sailed up Lough Foyle.
These ships, built of oak, some over 70 feet long and 20 feet wide, and steered by a rudder paddle, were powered by both oar and sail.
From 40 feet pine masts fluttered square sails of double-thickness strips of red and white woven cloth, and, from behind rows of shields slung over the side, men, up to 32 on each boat, pulled on narrow-bladed spruce oars and manoeuvred the boats into the sheltered waters of the River Foyle.
They beached their boats, which drew only three feet of water, on the shore beneath the monastery.
From the boats men rushed up the hill, the leaders wearing protective coats of mail and helmets with a nose piece which projected down over the face; the rest, following close behind, in thick woollen coats which reached half way down their thighs.
They all carried a round wooden shield, many of which were painted either yellow or black.
The long, broad, two-edged iron sword and the long-handled, broad-edged battle axe were the principal weapons they carried.
Some were armed with spears, others with bow and arrows. Most had an iron knife, with a wood or bone handle, tucked in their belts.
The Vikings had located the monastic settlement at Derry, and, as elsewhere in Ireland and Britain, they met no organised resistance.
They burnt the abbey and massacred her clergy and students.
Not only was the monastery an easy target to attack because of its secluded, yet very accessible, location, it was also a very rewarding one.
Derry was a centre of wealth, rich in lands and livestock.
The Vikings were interested in food provisions, to sustain further voyages, as well as in the precious metal ornaments associated with a monastery.
They were also interested in taking prisoners, especially girls, as they had been trading in human slaves to central Europe for centuries.
The Vikings never attempted to settle in Derry.
In 832 they again attacked, but this time they were driven back, with great losses, by Niall Caille, King of Ireland and Murchadh, Prince of Aileach.
Derry continued to be attractive to Viking invaders throughout the 10th century.
In 983 the shrine of Colum Cille was carried away by the Vikings. In 989 and 997 she was again plundered.
Derry’s long-term growth did not suffer because of the Viking raids, if anything it increased.
With the Viking raids on Iona in 795, 802 and 806, the monks acquired a site at Kells in central Ireland, and, bearing the relics of Colum Cille, moved there to found a new monastery.
There was a steady rise in the status and importance of Derry from 900, as she succeeded Iona and then Kells as the centre of all Columban foundations in Ireland and Scotland.
By the end of the 10th century Derry was known as Doire Columcille, as opposed to Doire Calgach.
This Viking period resulted in two new additions to the monastery at Derry: her first stone church and a round tower.
Sometime after the first raid in 812, the wooden church, which the Vikings burnt, was replaced with a stone one.
It would have been a simple building, similar in shape to its wooden predecessors.
This stone single-chamber church, later known as Dubh Regles or Black Abbey church, was perhaps no longer than 20 feet.
It probably had one narrow slit for a window, and was roofed with stone to simulate overlapping tiles. Housing for the monks and their tenant farmers was still made of the traditional wood and wattle combination.
Sometime between the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 12th century, a round tower of stone was built next to the Black Abbey church to serve a variety of purposes, such as a belfry, a watch tower and a place of refuge.
Perhaps 100 feet high and 15 feet in diameter, with five floors, each lit by one window except the top which had four, entrance was gained, 10 feet above ground level, by a movable ladder.
Inside, each wooden floor was linked by a wooden staircase. If set on fire this tower would have been a death trap, as the up-draught working on ignited wooden floors would have created an inferno.
By the turn of the 12th century Derry was beginning to see a revival in its fortunes as an important monastic town.
Apart from the additions of elaborate stone crosses, a small dry-stone church and a round tower, Derry was still very similar to the settlement founded in 545.

To continue reading this article for FREE,
please kindly register and/or log in.

Registration is absolutely 100% FREE and will help us personalise your experience on our sites. You can also sign up to our carefully curated newsletter(s) to keep up to date with your latest local news!

Register / Login
Derry GAA

Conor Doherty of Derry, celebrates his side's third goal, scored by Benny Heron, during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Derry and Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds.

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.