In the late 8th century the first Viking raids took place in Ireland. The raids did cause monasteries to be burned and battles to be fought, however, the Vikings did not radically change Irish culture. Neither the Irish nor the Scandinavians were ever able to unite as a “nation” against each other. Although Viking activities certainly had an impact on Ireland, they did not bring about an end to the old Irish ways, as some scholars suggest. Rather they became just another part of the dynastic warfare structure already in place in pre-Norse Ireland.

There are three main phases of Viking interaction with Ireland. The first phase began around 795 and went to the 830s. This phase was characterized by swift attacks on isolated locations. Monasteries were the preferred target, as they were often located on islands and held plenty of precious materials. Also, most monasteries survived the raids and rebuilt, which made it easy for Vikings to come back in a year or two and pillage again. Early Ireland had no towns, in the modern sense, and so these monastic communities were the next best thing. One of the first recorded attacks on a monastery was on Lindisfarne in 793. In 795 several other locations were pillaged, such as: Rathlin, Iona, Inishmurray, and Inishbofin. Many of the raids during this time took place on the northwest coast of Ireland. The Vikings gradually moved their attacks down the western coastline. By 812 they were attacking the southwest, and by the 820s they had traveled completely around the southern tip of the island. One of the main written sources about the Vikings in Ireland is the Cogadh Gaedel re Gallaibh meaning “the war of the Irish with the foreigners.” This text states that in 812 AD, 120 ships came to Keating and plundered, where “the Eoganacht of Loch Lein gave them battle” and 416 foreigners were killed. In 832 Armagh was plundered three times in one month. Many of the objects taken from these monasteries ended up as grave goods in Scandinavia. One of the more extreme attacks was made in 798 on St. Patrick’s Island, near Dublin. The island’s monastery was burned and its patron shrine was smashed. The Norse were also able to levy a cattle tribute on the surrounding territories. This concept of paying tribute was something the Norse would often inflict upon the Irish in the future – and vice versa.             

The Irish did not take these attacks lying down. They often mounted counterattacks against the Vikings. In 811, Ulaid is reported to have “slaughtered” a band of raiders. In 812 the men of Umall in County Mayo defeated some attackers, and in the southwest the king of the Eoganacht’s at Loch Lein killed a Viking band as well. However, the local population could not always fend off the attackers. In 802 Iona was burned. The island was attacked again four years later and 68 residents were killed. After this attack, the Federation of Columba decided to build a “new city of Columba” at Kells in County Meath. Kells was geographically very different from Iona. Not only was it not an island, but it was located about 20 miles inland. Many accounts report only attacks on monasteries and paint the Vikings as murderous foreigners. However, the Irish themselves were not shy when it came to warfare. During this first phase there were approximately 26 attacks on the Irish by the Vikings. However, during this same period there were 87 attacks on the Irish by other Irish. The local power struggles in Ireland go back far longer than the 8th century. They regularly attacked monasteries as part of their dynastic warfare. The monasteries were usually associated with a particular kin group, and as stated earlier they were the closest things to towns Ireland had at this point. Therefore, a rival group would often attack another family’s monastery. In this way, the Vikings were not doing anything new. As time went on, they would settle right in to the dynastic warfare structure of Ireland.             

In the 830s Viking raids became more intense. This marked the beginning of the second phase of Viking interaction with Ireland, which would last from roughly 830s-902. The year 836 saw the first intensive inland raid. The Vikings attacked the lands of the southern Ui Neill, killed many and took captives. One year later the Vikings had 60 ships on the river Liffey and 60 ships on the Boyne. They plundered “churches, fortresses, and farms” and defeated the southern Ui Neill in battle. The Vikings continued to plunder inland targets in 839 when they had a fleet on Lough Neagh. They plundered local monasteries and the countryside. They used this location as a base to attack Louth. The following year the Vikings went a step further and set up a winter camp at Lough Neagh. They would later over-winter in Dublin. A 9th century cemetery containing the graves of Norse warriors at Kilmainham offers proof of Norse settlement near Dublin. These winter camps greatly extended the raiding season for the Vikings. They would soon develop local bases from which to launch attacks. They had defended positions at Annagassan and Dublin, and used these bases to plunder Leinster and the lands of the southern Ui Neill. Having these bases in Ireland would become characteristic of this second phase.            

However, the Vikings did not blindly attack all Irish locals. In 842 the first Viking-Irish alliance was formed. The abbot of Linn Duachail contracted Vikings to aid him in dynastic warfare. The Viking armies often fought each other. They were never able to conquer vast regions of land, but operated fortified bases, mostly established along the coastline of Ireland. The most powerful location the Vikings controlled was Dublin. In 853 Olaf the White from Norway and Ivar from Denmark became kings of Dublin. They ruled this area for twenty years until Ivar died. His death was followed by some internal strife, until in 902 an Irish coalition pushed the Vikings out of Dublin. These displaced Norse traveled to England, Scotland, Scandinavia, or headed inland to settle elsewhere in Ireland. Over time the Vikings began to intermarry with the local Irish population. Many second generation Vikings had Celtic names, and many of them became Christian. Irish pins and brooches became popular in Norway, and were often found as grave goods. The Irish also benefited from Norse contact by learning to produce better weapons. The Vikings were heavily into trading. They had contacts all across the known world. The Irish were not traders, and did not even use coins to buy goods before the Vikings arrived. This Viking trade created an influx of precious metals into Ireland. The second phase ends with more cooperation between these two groups than aggression. This, however, will not last long.             

The third phase started in roughly 914AD and went to 980. As opportunities in other places (such as Scotland, England and Wales) grew slim, many Vikings redirected their attention towards Ireland. Raids became more frequent, and Irish kings scrambled to launch counterattacks. Some scholars have speculated that these raids in the 10th century prompted the building of Irish round towers as defensive outposts, or look-out towers. In 914 a fleet arrived in Waterford harbor. A year later, more Vikings arrived and attacked Munster, Leinster, and monasteries at Cork, and Lismore. Niall Glundub, the over king of the Ui Neill, ordered a counterattack. In 915 he attacked the Vikings in Munster, but had no real success. In 917 the Vikings were able to reclaim Dublin as a Norse trading port. In 919 Glundub and other Ui Neill leaders were defeated and killed at the Battle of Dublin. The Vikings were then free to set their sights on York, hoping to create a trading network which they could dominate. They focused most of their efforts on Dublin, York, Limerick and Waterford. While Dublin became one of the richest trading ports in the area, York was forever snatched from the grasp of Norsemen when it came under English control in 954. The main focus of these Vikings was trade, not to defeat all the Irish or become overlord of the entire island. This focus on trade is the largest way in which the Vikings were different from the Irish. However, the Irish never got directly involved with large scale trade. The Irish went about their own business, while the Norse went on dominating international trade. The Norse did not greatly change the Irish way of life.             

There are two famous battles which were fought between the Irish and the Norse. The first, and most significant, was the battle of Tara. In 980 AD the Vikings were defeated by Mael Sechnaill of Meath. The Vikings were forced to pay tribute to the Irish. The Norse lost their political independence, and the Irish gained supremacy. However, the Vikings were allowed to keep their kings, and remained in control of trade. The port of Dublin was still mostly theirs, and would remain heavily influenced by Scandinavian culture until the English conquest of Dublin in 1170. The second battle was the battle of Clontarf. Much more is known about this battle than the Battle of Tara. In the year 1014 AD a battle was fought between the forces of Brian Boru – King of Ireland – and the forces of a Leinster and Viking rebellion. It has become a heroic tale for both sides. As the Annals of Ulster state, “A valorous battle was fought between them, for which no likeness has been found.” It was at this battle Brian Boru became a martyr for Ireland. However, the Battle of Clontarf was not a pivotal battle in Irish-Viking relations. If one examines the people involved in the battle and their political affiliations, it becomes apparent that this battle did not accomplish much politically, or militarily between the Vikings and the Irish.             

Brian Boru was born in 940 AD and by 976 he had become the King of Munster. Mael Sechnaill and Brian were two of the greatest powers in Ireland, and in 997 they divided the country between them. Brian had control over Dublin, and Leinster. In 999 Brian and Mael worked together to crush a rebellion led by Syggtrigg Silkenbeard in Leinster. Brian allowed Syggtrigg to return to Dublin as his puppet king. Family relations played a large part in the making of the Battle of Clontarf. Gormlaith was Syggtrygg’s mother. She had been married three times : to Syggtrygg’s father, to Mael Sechnaill and to Brian. The son of Brian and Gormlaith (Syggtrygg’s half brother) had married into the family of the Viking ruler of Waterford. Brian had also given his daughter to Syggtrygg in marriage. Syggtrygg himself was also the brother-in-law to the king of Norway. This was a complicated family, full of powerful connections. These intermarriages were most likely devised as a way to smooth over feuds. However, this did not stop the battles that were to come. To complicate things further, in 1006 Brian’s son killed the chieftan of Connaught. This may have made other powerful families uneasy, and perhaps they were even jealous of Brian’s power. For whatever reason, in 1014, the people of Dublin began to make strategic alliances in preparation for a rebellion.            

The Battle of Clontarf took place on Good Friday, April 23, 1014. There are two main texts describing the battle. One was written by Irish authors (Cogadh Gaedel re Gallaibh), and another account exists named Brjánssaga – meaning “Brian’s saga” – and is written in Icelandic. Both of these accounts were written about 100 years after the battle, and both contain a fair amount of exaggerations. What seems to have happened is that the men of Leinster organized a rebellion. Gormlaith may have encouraged Mael Morda – “the provinvial king of Leinster” to not accept Brian’s rule, and so Mael and Syggtrygg joined forces. After this treachery Brian threw Gormlaith in prison, at which time she somehow contacted the Earl of Orkney for aid. The Isle of Man and the Northern Isles then provided Viking troops for Leinster. Syggtrygg and his men, however did not take part in the battle, but rather watched “from the ramparts” of Dublin. Brian, “aided by the Limerick Vikings,” was victorious and subdued his enemies. However, he was “killed in his tent by fleeing Norsemen.” The Annals of Ulster name his killer as Brotar, “chieftan of the Danish fleet.” The Annals also state that 6,000 men died that day. The author praises Brian, saying that he was the “arch-king of the Gaedhil of Ireland and of the foreigners and Britons, the Augustus of all the North-West of Europe.” The Annals also list other prominent men who died. Brian’s son Murchad, and his son Toirdhelbach both died. Also, Brian’s brothers Donncuan and Cuduiligh were killed, along with many nobles. After the battle, Brian and his son were interred in Armagh. A lengthy ceremony was involved – his body was taken “with relics to Sword-Cholm-Cille and carried thence the body of Brian, King of Ireland, and the body of his son Murchad” and they were “interred … in a new tomb.” This was followed by a 12 night-long wake.            

After Brian’s death his other sons seem to go on to kill their enemies and thus avenge their father’s death. Mael Sechnaill II of Meath had been the king before Brian, and resumed this position after Brian’s death. Labeling Brian a martyr seems to have little bearing on reality. Brian had not been fighting Viking invaders, but rather local people living in Ireland of both Irish and Viking descent. However, the death of Brian marked a decline in Munster power in Ireland. Mael was not able to unite the North and the South as Brian had. Eventually Brian’s grandson Turlough would sieze control. It was these later (12th Century) O’Brien kings who would commission the writing of the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh. The exaggerations found in this account were meant to cement their authority as high kings. However, the contemporary accounts in the Annals of Ulster do not claim the Vikings are evil, but describe the battle rather as a “mutual wounding.” In fact, after the battle Syggtrygg is said to have taken a pilgrimage to Rome, and is credited with the establishment of Christ Church Cathedral. This is an example of how the Vikings were also Christians and had firm roots in Dublin. The Battle of Clontarf was really just another dynastic struggle, not a pitched battle between two unified ethnic groups. Both Irish and Icelandic writings about this battle have been viewed as having more literary importance than anything else. It has also been argued that the Battle of Tara was of much more significance in Irish-Viking relations than the Battle of Clontarf was – and this argument seems to be true. After Tara, the Vikings were forced to pay tribute to the Irish for the first time in history. Since Vikings fought on both sides at Clontarf, this doesn’t seem to be a fight between two distinct groups, but rather an internal struggle involving all inhabitants of the island. However, after Tara the Vikings were still allowed to retain their kings and the control of trade. Neither of these battles represent a total overturn of the old Irish ways.             

When the Vikings first started raiding Ireland they were a distinct group vying for resources. Because they were taking Irish goods, the Irish people naturally put up a fight. During the second phase, the Vikings began settling and intermarrying with Irish. At this point they became another facet of the local population. They were then absorbed into the dynastic structure of Ireland. During the third phase there was a resurgence in hostile activity. The Norse were able to recapture their hold on international trade. The battle at Tara forced Vikings to pay a tribute, but otherwise left Viking ways unhindered. The battle at Clontarf decreased Irish power in Munster, but otherwise did not do much to change Irish ways. Although Viking presence was defiantly felt in Ireland, it did not bring a sudden change about in Irish society.             

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Benjamin Hudson, “Brjanns Saga”, Medium Aevum 71 no 2 241-68, 2002
Kathleen Hughes, The Church in Early Irish Society, ( Cornell University Press, 1966)
Bernhard Maier, The Celts (University of Notre Dame Press : Notre Dame, Indiana, 2003)
Dáibhí Ó Cróinin, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 1995)
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Peter Sawyer editor The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1997)
P.H. Sawyer, Kings and Vikings, (London: Methuen & Company Ltd. 1982)