The Arrival of the Vikings in Ireland

The beginning of the Viking Age in Ireland is traditionally marked by the ominous days in 795, when Scandinavian invaders ran the prows of their longships onto the beaches of Lambay Island off the coast of Dublin, where the monastery of St Colmcille was plundered, and Rathlin Island off the coast of Co. Antrim, where the church was burned. On the west coast the monasteries on Inismurray and Inisbofin were also plundered, and in the same year the island of Iona was attacked. The sight of these heavily armed marauders, dressed in animal furs and horned helmets must have struck fear and dread into the hearts of the islanders, who were mostly monks and farmers at this time. 

First sighted off the coast of Ireland as fishermen of porpoise and dolphins, the invaders increasingly turned their attention to the many monastic settlements which were often large and busy communities, producing valuable artefacts and sacred manuscripts. Often founded on isolated outcrops of land or headland, the monasteries were very vulnerable in location and structure, and so were ideal prey for Vikings seeking wealthy loot. For the following forty years these violent raids continued.

The period 795-836 saw countless hit and run raids by the Norsemen and the Danes, where plunder and looting the wealthy monasteries was for the time being their main aim. As they were a pagan people they had no problem looting these religious centres, destroying sacred documents and historic accounts, and returning home armed with riches and relics, many of which were subsequently found in Scandinavian burials and are now on display in northern museums!

But during this period of Irish history, Irish Clans were often also at war with each other and raids and skirmishes were by no means a novelty. For example in one period of 25 years (820-847), 26 Viking raids are recorded, whilst 86 raids by Irish clans are recorded! "Fedelmid Mac Crimthainn, King of Munster and Bishop of Cashel (820-47), earned the reputation for burning more churches than the Vikings of his time." Other sources attest to more than one hundred warring kingdoms and sub-kingdoms, as well as rival monastic 'paruchia' (groups of monasteries, ruled by secular families), and the Vikings. 

So the fluctuating fortunes, shifting alliances and dynastic feuds between all three groups, where monastery fought monastery, and tribes and Vikings formed temporary alliances certainly suggests a turbulent time for Ireland.

Furthermore, despite the tradition in Ireland of a High King, this endless anarchy inhibited any sense of national identity or unity. Since most contemporary records about the Vikings come from monastic sources, or those who had most reason to dislike and fear them, this may explain the typical largely negative image we have of the ‘vicious Vikings’. Together with the inadequacy of contemporary records and the inaccuracy of later accounts, this period could be called one of the most complicated and least understood of Irish history!

The First Phase of Viking Ireland- Settlement

By 830, the invading groups consisted of large fleets of Viking ships, indicating greater organisation by the looters, and the raids intensified. Longship fleets anchored on the lakes of the Shannon and on Lough Neagh from whence they launched more inland raids.

From 830 on however, a significant change in the nature of their forays in Ireland can be seen, when the Vikings began to establish more permanent bases on Irish coasts. Several remains of longphorts, or naval encampments, have been discovered in Ireland. These naval settlements enabled the Vikings to stay for longer periods, conduct trade with Britain and the continent, repair their ships and launch inland raids. They grew and developed into bustling trading centres and later became cities like Dublin, Cork and Limerick. 

In 837 a fleet of 60 longships arrived on the Liffey in Dublin, 42 years after the first Viking visit, and this changed the nature of the attacks for good. This would have been a formidable sight, and indeed it signalled the beginning of the first of the Viking settlements on the island, in Dublin and Louth. Up to now organised in mobile raiding groups, plundering vulnerable monasteries and absconding with the goods, though still widespread, was no longer the sole purpose or legacy of their invasions. 

This first phase of Viking Ireland increased in intensity and resulted in established longphorts in Dublin, Louth, Cork, Waterford, Wexford and Limerick. The longphort built at Youghal was destroyed in 866. The latter half of the 9th century was marked by many onslaughts by Vikings and fierce battles between kingdoms and settled Vikings, or Hiberno-Norsemen. As the population was growing in Scandinavia and the Viking Kingdom in Britain became more established, it was inevitable that the Norsemen and Danes would seek more permanent lands to colonise in Ireland from which to trade or raid. Sea battles and land skirmishes were common between new Vikings, probably Danes, arriving on the Irish Sea and more settled Vikings, now more vulnerable in their new settlements. At this time Norse-Irish alliances had become more common, and the toll on Irish warring factions was no less significant.

But the Vikings were not always successful in their raids and often encountered fierce resistance. The next 30 years saw many Viking defeats, and many of their kingdoms were conquered and returned to native Irish rule. It may be said that the Irish chieftains made the looters pay dearly for their attacks on their island!