By: Steven ForsythTowards the end of the 8th century, Scandinavian nations were becoming too densely populated according to their inhabitants and this led to a new age of expansion across Europe. The Vikings sailed towards the British Isles and attacked Lindisfarne in England in AD793.
Within two years, they had arrived in Ireland from Norway with raids on Raithlin Island, Antrim and Lambay Island, Dublin occurring in 795. The Vikings wasted no time, destroying monasteries at Iona, Inisbofin and Inismurray in the same year.
During the first few decades of Viking history in Ireland, the Norse marauders did not stay in one place very long. Instead, they preferred to quickly raid a target and disappear across the sea.
Given the nature of the attacks, it is likely that these initial raids were performed by independent groups of Vikings rather than an organised collective.
The annals of history show that the Vikings never ventured more than 20 miles inland, preferring instead to hit vulnerable coastal targets.
It was a prudent strategy and yielded them much success though various Viking groups did suffer defeats. A famous example of Irish warriors defeating Viking invaders occurred in 811 when the Ulaid obliterated their opponents.
Locha Leinand, the King of Eoganacht and the men of Umail also enjoyed a notable success in 812 but the Vikings were persistent and continued to batter the north and east coastlines of Ireland. They became bolder in their attacks and raided the city of Armagh three times in 832.
This was the start of Viking expansion into Ireland and they created settlements at Lough Neagh in 840 and 841 before abandoning their lightening raid tactics soon after with further settlements at Cork, Dublin (Dubhilnn) and Waterford (Vadrefjord).
The Vikings are notorious for plundering monasteries and murdering the inhabitants but their behaviour was scarcely different to that of existing Irish tribes. The monasteries were wealthy and lacked defence so they were easy and obvious targets. The Vikings actually attacked monasteries for livestock, provisions and land and while they also plundered precious jewels and metals, these were not their sole focus.
According to recorded history, the Vikings and native Irish managed to cooperate for the first time in 842 though it is entirely possible that positive relations were established sooner. By 844, the Vikings had established a base at Lough Ree in order to swiftly attack the nearby countryside. These raids were not without incident as according to the annals, Turgesius, a prominent Viking leader, was drowned by Mael Sechnaill, king of the Ui Neill.
Politics & Competition
Ironically, establishing a foothold in Ireland was what made the Vikings most vulnerable as now the Irish kings had a firm location where they could attack as opposed to being frustrated by an invisible enemy. The newly created Viking settlement at Cork was completely destroyed and Mael Sechnaill attacked and pillaged Dublin in 849.
By now, rival Danish warriors were attacking Ireland and threatening the Viking settlements so the Norse invaders had no choice but to become more political and seek alliances with Irish tribes. Things looked ominous for the Vikings when Waterford was destroyed in 860 and six years later, all Norse longports in the North of Ireland were burned. In 902, Cerball mac Muirecain of Leinster and Mael Finnia mac Flannacain of Brega joined together to drive the Vikings out of Dublin.
Second Viking Age
The Vikings may have left their Irish settlements but they continued to roam the Irish Sea and in 914, they returned to Waterford Harbour and rebuilt settlements in Cork, Waterford, Dublin, Limerick and Wexford within a decade of their return. Various unsuccessful attempts to expand occurred during the 10th century as they were unable to defeat the numerous Irish tribes.
Towards the end of the 10th century, Brian Boru emerged as a great leader and in 1002; he became the High King of Ireland. In 1014, the legendary Battle of Clontarf, where Boru was killed despite his army being victorious, is often seen as the end of the Viking wars. In reality, it was an internal battle for sovereignty between Boru and various tribe leaders. The Vikings were involved in the battle on the side of Mael Morda of Leinster but had been a minor political force long before Clontarf.
It did however signal the end of any lingering Viking power in Ireland. A major mistake made by the Vikings was to become involved in the murky world of Irish politics and encountered opposition from more quarters than they could imagine. The Vikings made an indelible mark on Irish history by establishing towns at Dublin, Cork and Waterford.
They also had a profound influence on the creation of weaponry, jewellery, ship building as well as the development of new battle tactics. Many Vikings adopted Christianity and intermarriage was also common. Consequently, the Vikings that remained in Ireland became assimilated into Irish culture while also introducing elements of Norse culture which transformed the nation for generations to come.
Did You Know?
The Vikings who came to Ireland from 795 AD to 840 AD were mainly from the country now known as Norway. The Danish Vikings came to Ireland about 849 AD and fought the Norse Vikings.