The Vikings in Ireland
Ireland c. 800 AD
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When the Vikings came to Ireland they encountered the wealth of the early Christian Church. Although being described as fierce marauders in documentary sources, the Vikings also settled in Ireland and founded the most important towns on the island.
When the Vikings arrived in Ireland the country had already been Christian for over 350 years, and had a large number of very rich monasteries. These naturally became the target of Viking raids.
At the beginning of the 9th century Ireland was a rural society, the only larger settlements being the major monasteries. These monasteries played an important role in Ireland’s society, having an influence in religion, culture and economics.
Politically, Ireland was comprised of a number of main kingdoms: Uí Néill, the most important dynasty in Ireland, Airgialla, Ulaid, Connacht, Laigin and Munster. The Uí Néill were divided into two branches: “Northern Uí Néill” and “Southern Uí Néill”. These in turn were subdivided into various túatha. A túath is the Old Irish term for the basic political and jurisdictional unit of Early Medieval Ireland, and referred to a group of c. 9,000 people. 1
Early Viking raids
The first recorded Viking raid in Irish history occurred in AD 795 when Vikings attacked Lambay Island, off the coast of North County Dublin. This attack was followed by a raid on the coast of Brega in 798, and raids on the coast of Connacht in 807. These raids heralded a period of c. 200 years of raiding, mainly small-scale attacks on monasteries and settlements.
From 821 onwards the raids intensified and the Vikings began to establish longphorts – fortified enclosures where they could over-winter. In 2003 archaeological investigations along the route of a new road in the vicinity of Waterford revealed what appears to have been a Viking longphort. You can find a report here…
The Viking longphorts later developed into centres of trade, becoming the first towns in Ireland. Predominant among these are: Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford. The Nordic language survived in these places until the end of the 12th century.
The 9th century was a period of political struggles between the Irish kingdoms and from the middle on the 9th century, Viking groups start to appear as mercenaries in these battles.
In 853 Olaf, son of the king of Lochlann, is recorded as coming to Ireland. Olaf assumed leadership of the Vikings in Ireland, a position probably shared with his brother, Ivar, who is first referred to in the Annals in 857. Olaf and Ivar were active in Ireland for the next two decades, and their descendants, the Uí Ímair, an important role in Irish events for the next two hundred years.
1. Dillon, Myles (1994). Early Irish Literature. Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press. xiv. ISBN 1-85182-177-5. ↩