The O’Neill government did not, of course, give a damn about Dang, as such; indeed even the Norwegians were not particularly rapacious for the conquest of Ghana and Togo, the dirt-poor and malarial provinces inland of the Norwegian Gold Coast, which they had sensibly ignored for the three centuries of their African colonial venture. But in 1829 the Powers of Europe were suddenly clamouring for places in the Sun, the Teutons and the Russians (!) had both sent expeditionary forces to claim their slices of the doomed country, and the combination of “all the cool kids are doing it”, “do they know something we don’t?”, and “anyway there’s no Dang army anymore, we just have to march in and take over” enticed the Troll Republic to declare a protectorate and send an army to enforce it. The Irish, meanwhile, had been slow off the mark and had no convenient coastal claims in Africa from which to expand; but they did observe that their ancient enemy’s navy was drastically weakened by the Global Hemp Shortage, and that the Ynglinga Hird – in any case a relatively tiny force mainly intended for boarding actions and longshore raids – was busy occupying villages in Africa and could reasonably be counted out. The opportunity for a quick knockout blow – a simple landing at Bergen to occupy the seat of government and demonstrate the vulnerability of the Norwegian coastline – would surely have been tempting to any government with colonial disputes to settle; for the Irish, eight centuries of raids across the North Sea made the temptation utterly irresistible.
The first stage of the plan, indeed, went without a hitch; the North
Sea Expeditionary Corps landed at Eivindvik, thirty miles north of
Bergen – the forts at Kvarven and Herdla, old though their guns were, made impractical the tempting armchair strategy of simply sailing into Bergen Harbour – and marched south almost unopposed, crossing Fensfjorden and Osterfjorden in requisitioned fishing vessels. There was no question of the city’s buekorps, armed for the most part literally with crossbows, resisting a regular army with artillery; but the impossible terrain and dreadful infrastructure gave the national government several days’ warning. The forts gave the Norwegians control of the inshore waters even in the face of the superior Irish fleet, and not only the Council of Captains (Kapteinsrådet) but also the Sailor and Seaman Union (Sjømannsforbundet) and the silver reserves of the major banks were evacuated across the Hardangerfjord. From there they made their arduous way on the terrible roads to Trondhjem, where – to the baffled fury of the Irish – they refused to capitulate, calling instead for a levee en masse and swearing to remain “united and faithful until Dovre shall fall”.
The Norwegian people, like the two opposed governments, cared nothing for the actual territory ostensibly in dispute; the jesting name “den Forbaskede Krigen” is a direct translation of the second sense, in English, of “the Dang War”, referring not to the African polity but to a condemnation not quite strong enough to use an unminced swearword. But when the Irish tried to settle the conflict with an invasion, that was something else again. With a foreign army on Norwegian soil – not a colony, a border march, or an imperial possession, but the thin strip of poor land that runs between mountain and fiord – the peasants and the sailors no longer felt that wars were none of their business and could reasonably be settled by the merchants and captains. The mountain tops of Norway’s craggy coast no longer bore literal beacons, in this modern age; but metaphorically the call to arms blazed from Herdla to Vardøhus, and the leidang – the ancient militia of the Norse people, which had once gathered at Ting to resist the encroachment of kings on the rights of freemen – responded. It was these grey-clad militias – mobs, in the early days; armed with boarding pikes and axes, crossbows and shotguns and an occasional hunting rifle; electing their officers by show of hands; uniformed only in the sense that they all wore the same undyed wool – that gave the war its unjoking name in Norwegian memory, “Folkekrigen” – the People’s War.
Overused puns aside, both Irish and Norwegians found it no joke to fight among Norway’s mountains – in any season. Jotunheimen was, at this time, impassable for formed units; to extend their occupation and increase the pressure on the Council of Captains, the Irish had to advance north and south along the coast, crossing a fiord, inlet, bay, or sound every ten miles or so – in many places without the benefit of their ocean-going navy, which was still held outside the offshore islands by the coastal fortresses. The Irish fleet, while definitely superior to the Troll Navy, had also suffered from the Global Hemp Shortage, and though strong enough to cut off much of Norway’s oceanic trade it was not able to fully interdict the movement of supplies and fighting men in small craft in the inshore waters. Consequently the fortress garrisons could not be left to wither on the vine; to starve them out required full formal siege works – and time and manpower which the Irish did not have. Kvarven Fort, to take just one instance, flew the Wolf’s Head until as late as October 1829, when autumn fog finally blinded its heavy guns and permitted the Irish to launch an effective assault across Gravdalsbukten. Without the sealift capacity that naval superiority ought to have given them, the Irish were forced to move at a snail’s pace – sometimes as little as five miles in a day – on the fiord-side roads, whose military quality ranged from ‘dreadful’ to ‘nonexistent’. The place-names “Irskeveien”, “Irskestigen” and “Dublinerbroen” in the west of Norway – respectively, “Irish Road”, “the Irish Ladder”, and “Dubliner’s Bridge” still bear witness to the Irish advance, where their army was forced to either build its own infrastructure or do without artillery. In these circumstances the armed opposition of the Norwegians, such as it was in these early days, did not actually add that much to the Irish troubles; it was the land itself, not its angry inhabitants, that slowed the advance on Trondhjem to a crawl.
By the time the Arm Eachtrach approached the Trondhjemsfjord, nonetheless, the ill-armed mobs of peasants had coalesced into something approaching an organised army. There was no artillery except some ancient brass three-pounders from a private collection, donated by the great-grandson of the successful privateer who had used them; but the silver evacuated from Bergen had been spent to at least give every man a gun and enough ammunition for some live-fire drill, albeit the guns were an eclectic mix even within individual companies. With hand-loaded paper cartridges that mattered less than it would have in the twentieth century; and combat experience showed that mixing in a few rifles, even muzzle-loaders, with the muskets was an advantage for this slow fighting retreat. There was even some light cavalry, hastily-mobilised Finnish and Sami nomads mounted largely on reindeer. In an open-field encounter battle with room to maneuvre, the Irish regulars would, no doubt, have swept aside these barely-trained recruits. Fighting along the narrow coastal approach in increasingly bad weather, with another excellent defensive position every half-kilometre, they were stopped in the city’s hinterland in a freezing December blizzard; the gilded tower of Nidarosdomen would have been in sight of their foremost outposts if there hadn’t been a mountain in the way and snow reducing the visibility to half a kilometer.
The failure to take Trondhjem was the end of the Irish attempt at coercing the Norwegian government, though it took two years of bitter fighting and a hundred thousand casualties for the reality to sink in. The O’Neill ministry fundamentally refused to believe that a government which had lost its capital, ocean-borne trade, colonial access, and Atlantic islands could still retain both its will to resist and the confidence of its people; it spent a hundred million shekels, thirty thousand Irish lives, and every bit of political capital it possessed on futile campaigns up and down the Gudbrandsdal, minor landings in Skåne and Sweden, and hopeless counter-invasions of Dang in search of the elusive breaking point of the resistance. Meanwhile the war-raised Norwegian army became increasingly professional, imported Russian guns replaced the brass three-pounders, and the Troll Navy recovered sufficiently from its peacetime doldrums to dispute command of the North Sea and even to recover Iceland. In the end, the main achievement of the Irish invasion was to demonstrate that even a minor Power, if backed by genuine popular support, could not be coerced by the eighteenth-century tools of limited war. The price of that discovery, for Norway and for other states which turned to mass mobilisation, was that putting “a rifle in every hand” in defense of limited foreign-policy objectives necessarily meant giving the riflemen a voice in determining the policy to be defended. Such voter-chosen policies could not readily be modified to fit geopolitical facts; and when states clashed, with large popular mobilisations giving each side vast means of resistance and reducing their power to compromise, the result was disaster.
— The People’s Century: War in the Age of Mass Mobilization, Richard Branikin, Cork University Press, (C) 1979.