When Vikings raid Clonmacnoise in Meath, Ireland everything changes. A possible history.
|Our way of life was peaceful. Desiring only to teach, to meditate and to memorize knowledge and the Scriptures, we lived simply, endeavouring to show reverence to Christ in all that we did. As they are an important part of our culture, we always saw it as important to preserve our teachings that come through story and song; and I found when I often put chisel to stone, my carvings took the life of that history.
I was putting the finishing touches on a stone cross which depicted pictures from the Scriptures, when Mael found me. Breathing hard and clutching leaves from what I assumed was his work for the Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) close to his chest, he breathlessly announced to me that:
“the Vikings are coming!”
Invaders were nothing new to Erin and being so close to the shores of the Shannon, we were used to gathering our relics into safety and closing our doors shut. However, from the frantic look on Mael’s face, I knew this was different.
“Brother” he added, “they come seeking blood.”
“They are Vikings. They always seek destruction” I replied as calmly as I could, while my own blood raced in my veins. “They will take what they want and when they have enough, they’ll leave.”
“This is different… he said, his voice a near whisper but before I could ask any further, a loud clamour sounded outside the building. Shouts rang out in the yard and suddenly the wooden doors swung open with several brothers rushing in, slamming the door and bolting it shut.
“What’s happening?” Mael instantly demanded.
“They charged into the Scriptorium” one of the scribes replied; his cloak was stained with ink. “They turned over tables and were ordering people outside. We slipped away as fast as we could”
“Aye and shamefully hide yourselves in here, instead of helping the other’s” I answered instantly annoyed, but it was then that I noticed Brother Aidan pull some leaves out from beneath his cloak.
“I saved these before they could be destroyed” he said quietly.
I paused a moment, gathering my emotions and putting them into collective thought, “we must go and find out what has happened to the others.”
All eyes were on me; a heartbeat of silence passed,
“If we go out-“ Mael began but was quickly interrupted,
“if we go outside they’ll kill us!” Aidan said.
I inhaled sharply, “very well, I’ll go out and see what can be done.”
“I will come with you” Mael said and then gave a sharp look to the other two, “you can both pray-as I expect that if won’t be long before you are found out.”
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” I quoted Romans 8:31, trying to gather my own courage. Then together we left the humbled scribes and stepped out into the rare sunlight. Truly it had been a beautiful day with a light wind and blue sky; but for the Vikings it would be a day to be enjoy.
“Brother if we die today-“ Mael began,
“we won’t” I answered defiantly. Then put my hand up to pause any more words as I listened. The grass before us was empty but on the wind I could hear the rise of foreign voices, coming from the other side of the monastery, near the river Shannon. Both of us shared a knowing look and then cautiously began making out way to the other side of the monastery.
“-if I die, I want to be given a proper burial-“ Mael continued in a hurried whisper, “and to be remembered for my deeds done for the Lord-and nothing else!”
I chose to acknowledge his words, but nothing else as we came alongside the stone wall of the monastery. Just at the edge of the wall, we stopped and looked out to see several of the Viking longboats along the shore. Each boat could carry at least 30 men and with several boats in view, that was one too many.
Peering around the corner I could see the brothers all silently sitting on the grass, with several Vikings standing guard, while others were coming and going from the building, carrying objects of silver and gold. Except for the occasional comment in Norse, no other voice could be heard.
“What do we do?” Mael whispered.
“I do not expect you to follow me” I whispered and then did the first thing that I could think: I walked out into view, calmly, as if there was nothing new happening under the sun. A few noticed me and watched, wide-eyed, as I stepped towards one of the Norsemen, hands up showing I meant no harm. The warrior grunted then barked out a word that I did not understand. When I did not respond he pushed me to the ground and pointed, shouting out more words.
“You are to stay, and you won’t be harmed” another warrior roughly translated, his accent thick and beard thicker. Silently I sat, obedient and as there was no other course of action, I began to quietly pray:
Lord of Heaven, you who made the earth and know all that is in it; nothing is hidden from you. I pray you to protect us, your people-and that we may make peace with this enemy-or smite them from the land. In the Name of your Son, Amen.
I had just finished when it occurred to me that Mael was yet to be seen. Casting my gaze around, I had more or less decided he had gone to join the other two in hiding, when I heard a yelp and saw Mael rushing towards a Nosemen, dragging Aidan behind him. The Viking, startled by the suddenly appearance of *Máel Muire mac Céilechair charging before him went with his instinctive action and pulled his sword out. Before any one else could move to his defence, Mael was struck and it was all I could do but to watch in shock as my friend fell to his knees, holding his chest.
It shouldn’t have come to this; but sadly it did. For the Vikings, it was just one Irishman, but to us it was a friend, a brother, a hard-worker and a man of God who had a passion for the written word.
When all was said and done, the Vikings had their pick of our material wealth and, content to leave us in mourning, went on their way, leaving a pile of destruction behind. It was only a few months later that we learned that a number had settled to the East of us.
After Mael’s death, Aiden became a changed man, bolder and braver as he recognized the sacrifice of his friend and his own second chance at life. Following the footsteps of his mentor, he added to the manuscript of the Dun Cow, and, not wanting to bring attention to himself simply used his initial *‘A’ at the bottom of his contributions.
Indeed we were all changed for the world to see, but it is when troubles come that heroes can be made.
*Authors Note: The character Máel Muire mac Céilechair was a real person, killed in a Viking Invasion in the 12th century.
Little is known about the writers of the Lebor na hUidre, but several entries have the initials 'A'.