The Vikings in Ireland

The traditional perception of the Vikings as marauders and plunderers of Irish monasteries is incomplete: it concentrates on the early years of Viking activity, ignoring that the Vikings eventually settled peacefully, integrating into Irish society and making a positive contribution as traders and town-dwellers.

Marie Therese Flanagan

The arrival of Viking sea raiders in Irish waters in the late eighth century heralded the first influx of new peoples into Ireland since the major settlement of the Celts had been completed in the last centuries BC. From about the second century BC until the late eighth century AD Ireland had enjoyed freedom from external attack or settlement. This was in marked contrast with the experience of neighbouring Britain or the continent during the same period. Britain, for example, like Ireland had been settled by Celts and at approximately the same time. But Britain, unlike Ireland, was also to experience conquest by the Romans in the first century AD and to be further colonised by Germanic peoples during the fifth and sixth centuries. By contrast, Ireland experienced neither Roman nor Germanic settlement. Rather, it was the Irish who engaged in colonising ventures between the fourth and sixth centuries, attacking and settling parts of Britain, notably in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. This is an aspect of Irish colonial history which is generally overlooked.

In the late eighth century Ireland shared once again a common historical experience with Britain and the continent, namely attacks from Scandinavian sea pirates who came to be known as Vikings. The first recorded Viking attack on Ireland occurred in 795. In that year the annals of Ulster recorded 'the burning of Rechru by the heathens'. Although it is usual to identify the Irish place-name of Rechru or Rechrainn with the island monastery of Lambay off the coast of Co. Dublin, this identification is not secure. It is possible that this entry may refer to an attack on Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast, that Rathlin was in fact the first place in Ireland to experience a Viking raid.

The term Viking conjures up for most Irish people bands of marauders and robbers who plundered Irish monasteries and churches, causing widespread destruction and terror, and carrying off the precious objects of the monasteries. Why did the Vikings concentrate their raids on Irish monasteries? One popular view is that the Vikings were pagans and as such violently anti-Christian. But the Vikings did not initiate raids on Irish monasteries. Less well known is the fact that the Irish had attacked monasteries even before the arrival of the Vikings. In order to explain why they did so it is necessary to highlight some less familiar aspects of the role of the monastery in early Irish society than the more well-known reputation for sanctity and scholarship which certain early Irish monasteries justifiably enjoy.

An early Irish monastery was often the most secure building in a locality. This meant that valuables, surplus food and sometimes even cattle were brought there in times of political unrest. A monastery might also be closely identified with its patrons and benefactors among the local lay aristocracy which had endowed it with its landed wealth. The office of abbot, for example, was frequently occupied by a member of the original founding family. The consequence was that a monastery could become a target for attacks during the petty feuds waged by rival aristocratic factions. The monastery or church of an enemy, since it was an integral part of his prestige, and probably also of his economy, became a legitimate target for attack in raid or war. The notion that there was a golden age of Irish Christianity in the sixth and seventh centuries during which Christianity had made such a positive and beneficial impact on Irish society that there existed something approaching perfect harmony between the clerical and lay population is unreal; it derives in part from an unconscious projection upon social conduct of the high artistic achievements in metalwork and manuscripts of the seventh and eighth centuries. The reality is that early Irish monasteries were drawn into the orbit of lay politics. This is the chief reason why raids on monasteries had been carried out by the Irish even before the Vikings arrived in Irish waters.

It is nevertheless true that the frequency and scale of attacks on monasteries increased after the arrival of the Vikings. Whereas a monastery could have sought legal redress or compensation from an Irish attacker, it could not subject the Vikings to the same process of law. To that extent it may have suffered a greater degree of permanent damage.

What material gain did the Vikings seek from attacking an Irish monastery? A commonly held view is that their main objective was the removal of the precious objects of the monastery such as shrines, altar vessels and other valuable ornaments. This view is reinforced by the belief that the Vikings as pagans were bent on the deliberate desecration of Christian altars. The Vikings undoubtedly did remove precious metal objects from Irish monasteries, as is attested by their survival today in Scandinavian museums. The actual bullion content of most of these objects, however, is quite small, and they were probably valued then, as now, more for their craftsmanship than their precious metal content.

But the Vikings were also interested, and, indeed, probably more interested in the food provisions, the livestock and cattle and even the human population of monastic settlements, many of whom were carried off to be sold as slaves. The inhabitants of a monastery comprised not just the community of monks but also the tenants who farmed the monastic lands. The fact that in early Ireland the rite of sanctuary in churches and their surrounding enclosures extended to property as well as persons also dictated that early Irish monasteries were rich in material resources. In short, the economic wealth of eighth-century Ireland was most readily available in the monasteries and in a variety of forms.

All that was new about the Viking raids on Irish monasteries was the unforeseen source of the attack, namely from raiders who were pirates and who had travelled a considerable distance by sea. This was a potential source of danger which had not hitherto been contemplated by Irish monks. It accounts for their shocked reaction to the first Viking raids in Ireland as recorded in the monastic annals. The most enduring impression we get from the contemporary monastic annalists is the unexpectedness of, and unpreparedness for, attacks from seafaring robbers. In reality, plunder and robbery was a common feature of early medieval societies, including Irish society, and much more common than the outrage of the early Irish monk recording a recent Viking attack on his monastery might suggest. What was distinctive about Viking activity was that by the eighth century, Scandinavian society, as we know now chiefly from archaeological evidence, had developed highly sophisticated boatbuilding techniques and in particular a sturdy vessel with a shallow draught, a vessel which could be depended upon to undertake long sea journeys and yet was still suitable for beaching in shallow waters. It was this which enabled the Vikings to conduct the relatively common medieval pursuits of pillage and plunder further afield.

How should we assess the impact of Viking raids on Irish society and the church? Firstly, it is important to bear in mind just how long the so-called Viking period in Irish history lasted. The ninth and tenth centuries comprise a period of two hundred years during which Viking activity varied greatly in extent and intensity. If, for example, we averaged out the number of recorded raids in the period between 795 and 836, that is in the period before attempts at Scandinavian settlement in Ireland were made, bearing in mind, however, that we may not have a record of all the raids which did occur, it works out at about one raid every eighteen months. This would certainly not have increased noticeably the level of violence in Irish society. Between 795 and 820 for example - that is, a twenty-five-year period - the annals record twenty-six acts of violence committed by Viking raiding parties. This compares with eighty-seven acts of violence committed by the Irish themselves.

As for individual monasteries attacked, it is true that some of the smaller monasteries foundered during the Viking age, but the extent to which the Vikings were the major contributory factor has yet to be determined. It is certain that the major monasteries, such as Armagh or Clonmacnoise, managed to survive with their economic resources undiminished. It is possible that the demise of some of the smaller monastic foundations may have owed more to local political circumstances and the encroachment of the more powerful monastic houses, with their expanding network of paruchiae or filiations, than to Viking raiding parties. The monastery of Bangor, for example, was raided by the Vikings in 823 and 824. Bangor's location was certainly very exposed to Viking attack from the sea, but the weakness of the Dal nAraide dynasty, its political support, may have been a more important factor in its decline and apparent extinction than Viking raids. Only more detailed research into the history of individual monasteries will provide an accurate assessment of the Viking impact on the church.

Viking activity in Ireland entered a new and more intensive phase after 837 with greater inland penetration and the first attempts at the establishment of permanent Scandinavian bases in the country. By contrast with England, over half of which was under the control of Vikings by the end of the ninth century, permanent Viking settlement in Ireland was confined to coastal areas. How is this contrast to be explained? Nobody has yet suggested that the Irish were more effective militarily at repelling the Vikings than the English. Indeed there would be little evidence to support such a hypothesis.

One explanation offered by historians is that the Irish polity, the secular power structures, were so complex and fragmented, that there was such a multiplicity of petty kingdoms in Ireland in a continuous state of flux, that it proved difficult to effect a permanent conquest or colonisation of large areas of territory. It is possible, however, that it is not so much a contrast between the more fragmented polity of Ireland and the existence of larger and more consolidated political units in England, facilitating more extensive take-over, which accounts for the more restricted extent of territorial settlements in Ireland by comparison with the Scandinavian settlements in England or Francia during the same period.

The difference may be determined in part by factors independent of internal conditions in Ireland. For example, an important distinguishing factor between the predominantly Norwegian settlement in Ireland and the predominantly Danish settlements in England was that the Norwegians had a much longer sea journey to Ireland than the Danes had to make in the case of either England or Francia. It is also likely that attacks on England from Denmark were mounted by numerically larger raiding parties. Their leaders could retain a greater degree of cohesion among their followers during the relatively short sea crossings to England or Francia. That the fleets attacking England and Francia were in fact larger is suggested by the figures recorded in the contemporary sources for Viking fleets operating in Ireland and England.

Historians are increasingly coming to realise that it is necessary to look at Scandinavian activity in Ireland in a wider geographical context. It is noteworthy, for example, that raids on Ireland tend to slacken during periods of intense raiding in England or Francia, or during the Norwegian colonisation of the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, and they tend to increase in Ireland when they slacken elsewhere.

What was the Irish reaction to Scandinavian attempts at colonisation in Ireland? There certainly was no united Irish military response. The individual Scandinavian footholds, such as that established at Dublin about 841, seem to have been absorbed rapidly into the existing complex Irish political pattern of shifting hostilities and alliances. The first recorded alliance between an Irish king and a Viking leader against a fellow Irish king occurred in 842. Thereafter, Scandinavian Irish alliances became commonplace. A simplistic notion of a united Irish army fighting to preserve the political independence of Ireland against an attempted Scandinavian take-over bears no relation to the much more complex reality. At no time during the Viking age was there a clear-cut division between the Scandinavians as aggressors and the Irish as defenders. The battle of Clontarf, fought in 1014, has often been portrayed as a major victory by the Irish against the Vikings, as a battle at which the Irish king Brian Bóruma (Boru) allegedly defeated the Vikings and put an end to Scandinavian aspirations of conquering Ireland. This is quite simply untrue. Legends die hard and perhaps no legend will die harder than the legend of Brian Bóruma and the battle of Clontarf.

Popular conceptions of Viking activity in Ireland have been moulded by two different kinds of historical writing. The first, the monastic annals, emanated from ecclesiastical circles, and highlighted the plundering of monasteries. The second kind of Irish historical source dealing with the Vikings is royal propaganda tracts which were commissioned by a number of Irish royal dynasties in order to enhance their claims to kingship. The most important of these propaganda tracts is entitled the War of the Irish against the Foreigners. It was compiled in the twelfth century on behalf of the descendants of Brian Bóruma. It set out to depict Brian as the saviour of Ireland from the Vikings, detailing a series of ever more aggressive military campaigns mounted by him against the Vikings which culminated in a splendid victory at the battle of Clontarf. The War of the Irish against the Foreigners portrayed the Vikings as almost invincible, having no match in Ireland apart from Brian Bóruma, who ended a career spent fighting against them with a decisive victory at Clontarf which finally freed Ireland from the threat of a Scandinavian take-over. As the very title suggests, its intention was to imply a united Irish opposition to Scandinavian activity in Ireland. This pseudo-historical propaganda tract was written to enhance the prestige of the twelfth-century descendants of Brian Bóruma.

The reality is that the battle of Clontarf was occasioned by a revolt of the king of Leinster against the overlordship of Brian Bóruma. It was a battle of Munstermen against Leinstermen with Vikings participating on both sides, the Scandinavians of Limerick and Waterford fighting on behalf of Brian Bóruma and the Scandinavian king of Dublin fighting on behalf of the king of Leinster, to whom he was related by marriage.

Just as there never was a unity of purpose on the part of the Irish against the Vikings, so there never was a unity of purpose among the Scandinavians in Ireland. In the 850s, for example, Dane had fought Norwegian for control of the Scandinavian settlement at Dublin.

In the late ninth century Viking activity and interest in Ireland had slackened temporarily and almost ceased for approximately forty years. In 902 the Scandinavian settlement which had been established at Dublin was actually abandoned. But in the second decade of the tenth century, that is from about 920, a new Scandinavian movement into Ireland began again, at a time when the Vikings were finding that their activities were being curtailed in other parts of Europe. This phase of activity has been designated by some historians as the second Viking age. A similar sequence of events to that of the first Viking age occurred with an initial phase of raiding, followed by attempts at establishing permanent bases. These once again proved enduring only along the coast. A Scandinavian settlement at Dublin was re-established in 917. The Scandinavian settlements at Limerick, Waterford and Wexford also date from the so-called second Viking age.

By the mid-tenth century these Scandinavians had settled permanently and peacefully in Ireland. They had been absorbed and assimilated into Irish society. Although we know little about the process, they had converted to Christianity. The death, for example, of Olaf, king of Dublin, at the monastery of Iona after a 'victory of repentance' is recorded in 980. From the mid-tenth century historians are justified in speaking of the Hiberno-Norse rather than the Vikings of Ireland, such was the level of integration and inter-marriage into Irish society. If we take language as a yardstick of that integration, the old Norse language of the settlers did not survive beyond a selection of loan words which were borrowed into Irish mostly for terms which did not already exist in the Irish language. These loan words, which relate to fishing, shipping and trade, reflect the areas in which the Scandinavian settlers made a positive impact on Irish society.

The Scandinavians were to make their most enduring contribution to Ireland as traders and town dwellers. It is a commonplace to say that the Scandinavians founded the first towns in Ireland; in recent years historians have qualified this view in some respects. Some scholars now argue that certain Irish monasteries had such a large population and were organised both physically and economically in such a way as to constitute a native Irish form of urban settlement. Terms such as 'proto-town' or 'pre-urban nucleus' have become popular, both with professional archaeologists and historians, to describe the larger Irish monasteries. This is a useful insight and incidentally helps to elucidate further why both the Irish and the Scandinavians attacked monastic sites.

Nevertheless, it remains true that even if the larger Irish monasteries may be classed as native Irish towns the Scandinavians founded a different kind of urban settlement in Ireland, one which pursued manufacturing and trade not just for the Irish market but also engaged in overseas trade. The importance of overseas trade is highlighted by the establishment of a mint at Dublin in 997. The coins produced at Dublin were exact copies of the contemporary English silver pennies and were obviously struck primarily for use in trade with England. For the first few decades of the tenth century Dublin had been just one of a number of growing Viking towns. If one of these towns stood out it was perhaps Limerick. However, Dublin's natural harbour, its eastward prospect and its potential for taking a share of long-distance trade along a route which linked the Scandinavian lands with western France and the Mediterranean via the Irish Sea, and for conducting business across the Irish Sea, were to make it in time Ireland's principal town.

The fact that Dublin became the capital of Ireland was deter mined by the economic importance of its mercantile connections in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Archaeological excavations in Dublin over the last two decades have revealed the extent of its activities as a manufacturing and trading centre. Dublin had specialised craftsmen, especially bronze-smiths, combmakers and leatherworkers. Imported items recovered also revealed the extent of Dublin's external trading contacts. Some time after the middle of the eleventh century the fine metalworkers of Dublin began producing goods for the Irish hinterland. By the end of the eleventh century Scandinavian styles and tastes were exercising a dominant influence on Irish artwork produced in such native centres as Clonmacnoise.

The small Hiberno-Norse colonies centred on the trading towns of Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Limerick and Cork were not politically powerful. On the contrary, they were all subjected from the mid-tenth century to the overlordship of the more powerful of the Irish kings. But the Scandinavian towns did constitute an important dynamic element in Irish society, engaging in an expanding trade and increasingly influencing Ireland's communications with the outside world. They provided an important additional source of wealth for those Irish kings who subjected them to their overlordship, chiefly in the form of silver exacted as tribute or rents. The more powerful Irish kings also learned to use ships, at sea and on the rivers and lakes in their military man oeuvres.

The positive and enduring benefits accruing from the Hiberno Norse settlements more than offset the short-term limited destructive effects of the period of Viking raids, which have been so highlighted in the past. The traditional perception of the Vikings as merely robbers and plunderers, as negative and destructive irritants of Irish society, was derived largely from the monastic annalists. It has been modified considerably by historical and archaeological research in recent years; in the case of Ireland, particularly by the archaeological evidence emanating from Dublin in the last two decades. The Dublin excavations attested to the peaceful and productive co-existence with an integration into Irish society of the Vikings.

The long-running controversy between developers and archaeologists which occurred at the site of the Wood Quay excavations in Dublin during the 1970s forced the citizens of Dublin at least to re-evaluate the Viking contribution to their city. The result was a convincing vote in favour of the Viking heritage. On 23 September 1978 no less than 15,000 people marched to protest against proposals to build high-rise offices for Dublin Corporation on the Wood Quay site. And over a quarter of a million people signed a petition for its preservation. They lobbied to preserve the Viking contribution to the foundation of the city of Dublin, which they had come to perceive as valuable and important. Although offices for Dublin Corporation were subsequently built on the Wood Quay site, the enduring victory of the Wood Quay protest has been the enriched understanding and popular enthusiasm and concern for the Viking contribution to their origins among the present generation of Dubliners, a re-evaluation which hopefully will be absorbed by all the inhabitants of Ireland.

The preoccupation with Viking violence in the past obscured the process of settlement and integration of the Vikings into Irish society. Once the Viking settlers were converted to Christianity, once intermarriage took place and once local roots were put down, the Vikings made no effort or had no desire to stand apart from Irish society. The Viking age in Ireland ended with the Scandinavian settlers becoming part of Irish society.

From The People of Ireland, edited by Patrick Loughrey, and with contributions from eleven of Ireland's leading historians.



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