NORSEVEMBER – THE VIKINGS IN IRELAND

Not so much has been made of the Viking invasion of Ireland in modern TV shows and film. Much of that is due to the fact it wasn’t as well documented as the English and French incursions. However, for my part, the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland has had a long-lasting impact – and is every bit as interesting.

In terms of legacy, we should look at place names for a start. Strangford, a small town close to where I live, is a Viking name – meaning ‘strong fjord’. Other Irish towns, such as Wexford, Waterford, and Skerries also retain their Viking names.

View of Strangford from across the Lough

Some Irish words originate from the Norse language. The Irish word for a market margadh is from the Old Norse word, markadr. The Irish word for a penny pinginn comes from the Norse word, Menninger.

However, if we truly want to examine Viking influence in Ireland, we must look at Dublin. Here, there is plenty of evidence that the Vikings controlled this part of Ireland for hundreds of years. Including;

  • The name of Ireland’s capital city is based on the Viking name for the settlement created there. The first Vikings to built a longphort there found a natural harbour, right where the River Poddle met the Liffey River and called it ‘black pool’. Translated into Irish, this is dubh linn.
  • Archeological digs in Dublin have discovered that the medieval walls of the city were built on top of a Viking wall that the settlers used to fortify their land. Even better, a portion of the original Viking wattle and post wall was uncovered during the 1970’s excavations on Fishamble Street. Hundreds of 9th-11th century Viking houses were discovered too.
  • The Dublin cathedral, Christ Church, was originally founded by Sitric Silkbeard, a Viking King of Dublin. It is believed he ordered the construction in 1028 after a pilgrimage to Rome.
A photo of the Viking city of Dublin circa 1014 – taken from the Dublinia Viking museum, Dublin

And so, if we still can see and feel the legacy of the Irish Vikings, how did this all come about? When did they come? How did they interact with the Irish communities? When did they leave?

THE INVASION BEGINS

The Annals of Ulster state that the location of the first Viking invasion took place on Rathlin Island in 795AD- which if you are interested – is also where Robert the Bruce hid from the English army of Edward I in 1306AD.

Map of Rathlin Island
Bruce’s Cave – Rathlin Island – legend has it that Robert the Bruce hid in this cave after a defeat to the English army.

Rathlin Island is a small island on the north coast of Ireland, and it seems such raids on island-based monastic houses around the Irish Sea where common in this period, with notable raids on Iona monastery also recorded.

However, despite the many raids that occurred in this period, the first camps were not established until 841AD – with longphorts being built in Lough Neagh, Annagassan, and Dublin.

The attraction of the Dublin site was the many churches in the area, some of which were significantly wealthy. While it is thought the image of the pillaging Viking has been exaggerated in modern discussion, there is no doubt that this was a brutal period of Norse/Irish interaction. There are many examples of Viking armies slaughtering the Irish – including the raid of the church of Glasmor in which the entire community was killed in one night.

The Irish did fight back and many Vikings were slain. Strongholds in the north were never truly established and it wasn’t until Olaf Cuarán (also a Viking king of York) came to Dublin that the settlement along the Liffey truly grew into what became a significant European trade centre.

In this regard, the location of the River Liffey became of paramount importance. Being close to the Viking controlled isles and other English ports, and being close to a good sailing route between the Mediterranean and Norway, the market in Dublin rapidly expanded. At one point it became so wealthy that a Viking king, Sitric Silkbeard, established his own mint.

INTEGRATION

The Viking arrivals and the Irish did integrate – perhaps more quickly than they did with the English. Why?

In my opinion, there are a few reasons:

1) The Irish were Christians, yes, but not as devout as the English. Irish Kings still had multiple wives, and other pagan practices, such as the burial of family members close to home, rather than in church graveyards, were still common in Ireland. Therefore their day-to-day lives were more comparable with how the Vikings lived. I would therefore deduce that the culture divide was not as strong.

2) Irish society was formed into hundreds of warrior clans and there were hundreds of kings all vying for supremacy. The Irish fought neighbouring kingdoms all the time and they were skilled warriors. In fact, the Irish annals records only 26 Viking raids or battles in the years between 795AD and 810AD. In the same period the annals record 87 raids or battles between the Irish. Such fierce communities meant the Vikings, while able to take small areas of land around the ports of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick, never made much progress beyond. This made the Irish conquest different to that of England and Normandy, where huge swathes of land were claimed by Viking Earls and Kings. Perhaps this meant there was less animosity between the Vikings and Irish once the port cities were established?

Map showing land believed to be under Viking control in the 11th century

3) Ireland was split into many kingdoms, and each kingdom had many kings, each in charge of their own family land. It is known from historical records that the Irish used the Vikings to help them fight their Irish enemies. As such, the Viking leaders started to marry into the Irish royal families. Olaf Cuarán, a King of Dublin, married a former queen of Meath and then a daughter of the King of Leinster. By making such matches, the Irish kings were making alliances with elite warriors, while the Vikings were being offered legitimacy. This inter-marrying ultimately led to Viking kings of Ireland being more Irish than Viking.

4) Money. The Irish kings quickly realised how much wealth was pouring into the Viking ports as the Vikings were trading all over Europe by this stage. Which ever King could control the port and demand a tribute, was significantly better off than his neighbour. Keeping the Vikings, therefore, became desirable.

How did it end?

Irish history lessons at school very much taught us that Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, drove the Vikings out of Ireland.

This is not true.

The Battle of Clontarf was actually a fight between the provinces of Munster and Leinster – and the Dublin Norse merely fought for the opposing side to King Brian.

The real death knoll for Viking control in Ireland was the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169.

This again was because of a feud between two Irish kings. Rory O’Connor, King of Connacht and High King of Ireland, had defeated his rival Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster – and sent him into exile.

Not to be kept down, King Dermot sailed to England and persuaded The Earl of Pembroke, Richard de Clare (Strongbow), to help him regain his land.

Strongbow and his men came to Ireland, lured by the promise of land. A marriage between Aoife, King Dermot’s daughter, and Strongbow was also proposed if the Anglo-Normans were successful.

The Anglo-Norman army attacked the Viking ports first and a massacre occurred in the city of Waterford – where the marriage between Aoife and Strongbow then took place.

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise which hangs in the National Gallery, Dublin

In this feud, the Dublin Norse took the side of King Rory O’Connor. When the Anglo-Norman army attacked Dublin, the Dublin Norse called on the Viking King of the Isles, Godred Olafsson, to help them. He promised to come to their aid, but instead King Godred sided with the English and married his daughter to an Anglo-Norman knight called John de Courcy.

With the Viking cities now under control of Strongbow, Viking influence in Ireland rapidly diminished. However, the lasting impact of the Vikings is to be found in modern-day Irish DNA – with at least 20% of the population estimated to descendants of the Vikings.

I hope you enjoyed this blog! And of course are enjoying NORSEVEMBER! A big thanks to Alex for organising all of this. It’s been a lot of fun.

Also – for those that are interested, I am an author – and I blog about Irish history and writing. If this takes your interest, please follow my blog or Twitter account! More information about my book (which is about the wars between the Vikings and Irish Kings) will be shared as soon as my publisher lets me!

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BIO

Shauna Lawless is an author and her upcoming series is a historical fantasy set in 10th century, Ireland. The first book, The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, is now available to pre-order.

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