Viking Ireland

The earliest raids in Ireland fell in 795 on Rathlin Island, Co.Antrim. This was followed by attacks on St Patrick’s Isle (Co. Dublin) in 798 and at Inishmurray (Co. Sligo) in 798 and 807. By the 820s and 830s, this predation had become epidemic: In 821 came the ‘plundering of Etar by heathens’ and ‘from there they carried off a great number of women’. In 831, ‘heathens won a battle in Aignecha against the community of Armagh, so that very many were taken prisoner by them’. In 836 came ‘the first plunder taken from Southern Brega by the heathens […] and they slew many and took off very many captive’. No one should be under any romantic illusion about what this meant for the people wrenched from their homes. The reality of Viking thraldom was hell: transportation, degradation, rape and murder.[1]

In time, the Vikings who targeted Ireland came to make of it a base of operations. Winter camps, known in Ireland as longphuirt (singular longphort) developed over time into permanent settlements, the origins of Ireland’s first towns: Waterford, Wexford, Limerick, Cork. By far the greatest, however, was Dublin. Excavations at Wood Quay revealed the range of commodities that came through the port-town, drawing in wealth and settlers: silk from the east, amber from the Baltic, slaves from everywhere the Vikings sailed. And it was Dublin that became the lynchpin of political power around the Irish Sea. Scions of its ruling elite – the house of Ivar (the Ui Imair) – played decisive roles in the fate of numerous northern British realms. They fought each other, they fought the old Irish dynasts, they fought the English and the Picts; they were expelled from Dublin (in 902) and they took it back (in 917), and all the while a new identity was being forged: the Gallgoídil – the ‘foreign-Irish’ – a people apart from the native population, but who no longer shared a simple kinship with their ancestors in Scandinavia.[2]

The last great Viking king of Dublin was Sihtric ‘Silkbeard’(r.995-1036), a Christian who undertook pilgrimage to Rome and an inveterate plunderer of churches. It was during his reign that the first Irish coins were minted. Simple copies of English coins at first, they later developed into striking new designs, a conical helmet on a front-facing head, beady eyes peering over luxuriant moustachios. It was also in Sihtric’s reign that the iconic battle of Clontarf (1014) was fought – the clash of Brian Boru’s Munster-led alliance with a Dublin-Leinster faction and its Norse allies from Orkney and the Isle of Man. The significance for Irish history and the Ireland’s Viking Age has been thoroughly investigated. Although Sihtric remained King of Dublin, Norse influence in Ireland was undoubtedly on the wane. But it may be true to say that, whatever the impact of the battle, the old distinctions were eroding to the point of invisibility: dynastic and regional identities displacing the power of older heritage.[3]

In many ways, Ireland’s history encapsulates the Viking paradox. Without question, the appearance of Scandinavians in Ireland and around the Irish Sea was a harrowing experience for the coastal communities they targeted –the pitiless slave-raids, the women and children ripped from their homes, the church treasures stripped from their communities, the manuscripts left to burn. But by the eleventh century, Ireland had become home to a thriving urban economy, linked to a global network of trade and communication. As in Britain, it was the Vikings who were at the heart of these transformations, even if – in the end – they left themselves behind.

[1]  T. Charles-Edwards (ed. and trans.), The Chronicles of Ireland (2006, Liverpool University Press)

[2] D. Griffiths, Vikings of the Irish Sea (2010, Oxbow)

[3] S. Duffy (ed.), Medieval Dublin XVI: proceedings of Clontarf 1014–2014: national conference marking the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf (2017, Four Courts Press)

[Image: silver penny minted in Dublin for Sihtric Anlafsson Silkiskegg (Silkbeard), British Museum; click here for more info]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s