CHAPTER IV. KINGS OF THE TENTH CENTURY; NIAL IV.; DONOGH II.; CONGAL III.; DONALD IV.
Nial IV. (surnamed Black-Knee) succeeded his father-in-law, Flan of the Shannon (A.D. 916), and in the third year of his reign fell in an assault on Dublin; Donogh II., son of Flan Siona, reigned for twenty-five years; Congal III. succeeded, and was slain in an ambush by the Dublin Danes, in the twelfth year of his reign (A.D. 956); Donald IV., in the twenty-fourth year of his reign, died at Armagh, (A.D. 979); which four reigns bring us to the period of the accession of Malachy II. as Ard-Righ, and the entrance of Brian Boru, on the national stage, as King of Cashel, and competitor for the monarchy.
The reign of Nial Black-Knee was too brief to be memorable for any other event than his heroic death in battle. The Danes having recovered Dublin, and strengthened its defences, Nial, it is stated, was incited by his confessor, the Abbot of Bangor, to attempt their re-expulsion. Accordingly, in October, 919, he marched towards Dublin, with a numerous host; Conor, son of the late king and Roydamna; the lords of Ulidia (Down), Oriel (Louth), Breagh (East-Meath), and other chiefs, with their clans accompanying him. Sitrick and Ivar, sons of the first Danish leaders in Ireland, marched out to meet them, and near Rathfarnham, on the Dodder, a battle was fought, in which the Irish were utterly defeated and their monarch slain. This Nial left a son named Murkertach, who, according to the compact entered into between the Northern and Southern Hy-Nial, became the Roydamna of the next reign, and the most successful leader against the Danes, since the time of Malachy I. He was the step-son of the poetic Lady Gormley, whose lot it was to have been married in succession to the King of Munster, the King of Leinster, and the Monarch. Her first husband was Cormac, son of Cuilenan, before he entered holy orders; her second, Kerball of Leinster, and her third, Nial Black-Knee. She was an accomplished poetess, besides being the daughter, wife, and mother of king's, yet after the death of Nial she "begged from door to door," and no one had pity on her fallen state. By what vices she had thus estranged from her every kinsman, and every dependent, we are left to imagine; but that such was her misfortune, at the time her brother was monarch, and her step-son successor, we learn from the annals, which record her penance and death, under the date of 948.
The defeat sustained near Rathfarnham, by the late king, was amply avenged in the first year of the new Ard-Righ (A.D. 920), when the Dublin Danes, having marched out, taken and burned Kells, in Meath, were on their return through the plain of Breagh, attacked and routed with unprecedented slaughter. "There fell of the nobles of the Norsemen here," say the old Annalists, "as many as fell of the nobles and plebeians of the Irish, at Ath-Cliath" (Dublin). The Northern Hydra, however, was not left headless. Godfrey, grandson of Ivar, and Tomar, son of Algi, took command at Dublin, and Limerick, infusing new life into the remnant of their race. The youthful son of the late king, soon after at the head of a strong force (A.D. 921), compelled Godfrey to retreat from Ulster, to his ships, and to return by sea to Dublin. This was Murkertach, fondly called by the elegiac Bards, "the Hector of the West," and for his heroic achievements, not undeserving to be named after the gallant defender of Troy. Murkertach first appears in our annals at the year 921, and disappears in the thick of the battle in 938. His whole career covers seventeen years; his position throughout was subordinate and expectant - for King Donogh outlived his heir: but there are few names in any age of the history of his country more worthy of historical honour than his. While Donogh was king in name, Murkertach was king in fact; on him devolved the burden of every negotiation, and the brunt of every battle. Unlike his ancestor, Hugh of Aileach, in his opposition to Donogh's ancestor, Malachy I., he never attempts to counteract the king, or to harass him in his patrimony. He rather does what is right and needful himself, leaving Donogh to claim the credit, if he be so minded. True, a coolness and a quarrel arises between them, and even "a challenge of battle" is exchanged, but better councils prevail, peace is restored, and the king and the Roydamna march as one man against the common enemy. It has been said of another but not wholly dissimilar form of government, that Crown-Princes are always in opposition; if this saying holds good of father and son, as occupant and expectant of a throne, how much more likely is it to be true of a successor and a principal, chosen from different dynasties, with a view to combine, or at worst to balance, conflicting hereditary interests? In the conduct of Murkertach, we admire, in turn, his many shining personal qualities, which even tasteless panegyric cannot hide, and the prudence, self-denial, patience, and preservance with which he awaits his day of power. Unhappily, for one every way so worthy of it, that day never arrived!