The vikings in Ireland

Viking raids on Ireland began in 795. Rathlin Island on the north east coast was attacked and in the same year Inishmurray, Co. Sligo and Inishbofin, Co. Galway were also raided. Later, the attacks became more frequent and fleets of Viking ships appeared on the major rivers such as the Shannon, Boyne, Liffey and the Erne. By 841 the annals report that the Vikings were already spending the winter in Ireland, using temporary ship fortresses as bases for more extensive raiding. Some of these ship fortresses, or longphuirt, such as Dublin, Waterford and Wexford, were later to develop into towns but others, such as the ship base at Annagassan, Co. Louth were to lapse into obscurity. In this early period the principal targets were the monasteries which were the only large centres of population and wealth and the main quest was for loot and slaves. The Vikings did not only fight against Irish: by the mid-ninth century they served as mercenaries in battles between Irish kings.

The effects of the earliest attacks on Ireland are difficult to estimate. It is not likely that Vikings were responsible for the decline of the church and monastic culture. Many monasteries were never attacked, and attacks were not equally severe. Clearly the main target was the large wealthy monastic foundations such as Glendalough, Kildare and Clonmacnoise.
Although the Irish annals tell of the horror of the Viking raids and the destruction inflicted upon the monasteries, warfare was not new to Ireland. A number of monasteries, such as Clonmacnoise, maintained some form of militia. This force was probably in the form of lay tenants, and there are a number of records of battles prior to the advent of the Vikings to the Irish scene.

Heathen graves

The earliest archaeological evidence for Vikings in Ireland is in the form of pagan graves found from Co. Antrim in the north to Co. Galway in the west. The graves are distinctive in the archaeological record because, unlike the contemporary Christian Irish burials, they often contain a large number of artefacts. They represent the remains of pagan Scandinavians and must belong the first few generations of Vikings in Ireland. Male graves contain weapons such as swords, spearheads and shields and the female graves contain personal ornaments such as oval brooches. The Viking cemetery at Kilmainham in Dublin is one of the largest known outside Scandinavia. In the late tenth century the Irish Vikings adopted the local Christian faith.

Trading cities and minting

In the tenth century, Vikings established towns at Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford and possibly Cork. The first use of money in Ireland dates from 997 when Dublin started minting Ireland's first coins. Dublin and Ireland became part of a wider international trade network than ever before. New trade routes were opened up by the Vikings into the silver- and gold-rich markets of Asia. Silver was acquired by trade, exchange and plunder, and came to Ireland largely in the form of coins which were melted down and made into ornaments. About 150 coin hoards are known from Ireland. These contain a combination of ornaments, chopped pieces of silver known as hack silver, ingots and coins. Viking Age silver in Ireland was converted into a variety of brooches and arm rings. Arm rings are hammered from a bar of silver, and sometimes bear stamped ornament. Other forms, such as torcs made of twisted silver wires, are less common. The fact that we have silver ornaments clearly made by Irish craftsmen indicates that significant amounts of silver found its way into Irish hands.

Fact: The Vikings popularised new art styles and probably popularised the wearing of shoes with separate soles and uppers, as well as the wearing of trousers. They also introduced new weapon types.

Ship-building

Studies of loan words from Old Norse to Irish shows the Viking impact on ships and shipping and evidence from archaeological excavation in Viking Dublin shows that ships were being built here according to Scandinavian methods. In the late Viking age control of and its powerful fleet became a prime concern to any hopeful holder of kingship of Ireland.

History Changes

Up to relatively recently, historians tended to reflect the sentiments of the Irish annalists, portraying the Vikings merely as marauders. Although there is no doubt that they did carry out many raids in Ireland, the nature of their contact with Ireland is far more complex than this. Archaeological excavation in Ireland the last fifty years has completely changed our perceptions of Viking influence in Ireland. Far from being just raiders, Vikings can be credited with developing urbanism in Ireland founding the island's major towns. With their knowledge of seafaring, they brought Ireland into contact with Britain and mainland Europe, something which was to have widespread political and economic consequences for Ireland. The Vikings were the catalyst of change in Irish political and cultural life. Their presence also influenced the organisation of the Irish Church. It may also have had an effect on the Church reform in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries.

Maeve Sikora, National Museum of Ireland