The Viking Age in Ireland began in 795 when the Viking sea kings pillaged the Christian monasteries on the island’s west coast. Prior to the Viking age, Ireland was a remote island at the edge of the civilized world. Unlike the neighboring island of Britain, Ireland had not been a part of the Roman empire and this meant that it did not have roads, cities, or political institutions. It was generally seen by people in “civilized” Europe as being inhabited by a barbarous race. Following the Christianization of Ireland by St. Patrick, Ireland became the home to many monasteries. The monasteries were usually poorly defended militarily and they contained easily portable treasures and sacred relics which the Christian monks would pay high ransoms to retain. The monasteries thus attracted the Viking raiders.
For the first 40 years of the Viking Age, the raids were carried out by small, mobile groups. They would land—their shallow-draft longships did not require a wharf or pier—and quickly overrun the monasteries. After terrorizing the monks, the raiders would seize anything of value that was compact enough to carry on their ships. This included gold and silver, but also included iron tools and weapons, as well as clothing and food, all valuable items. Captured livestock was often slaughtered on the spot to provide fresh food for the raiders. During these 40 years every monastery was raided several times.
The raids were usually opportunistic, against targets that could be attacked, plundered, and departed from quickly. Vikings stayed along the coast or on navigable rivers; overland marches were avoided. The goal was to grab as much valuable booty as possible before an effective defense could be raised.
The Viking raiders depended on the superiority of their ships in order to make their raids a success. The shallow draft of Viking age ships meant that they could navigate shallow bays and rivers where other contemporary ships couldn't sail. The broad bottom of the Viking ships made it possible to land on any sandy beach, rather than requiring a harbor or pier or other prepared landing spot.
The raiding parties were tightly knit groups of men who were used to working together. All shared in the loot.
The historical accounts of the raids were written by the Christian clergy who had been terrorized by the Viking warriors. The accounts thus paint the raiders as a vile, pagan people. From the Viking perspective, raiding was an honorable challenge to a fight, with the victor retaining all of the spoils.
By 830, the Viking raids in Ireland began to change. Instead of small mobile groups, the raiders were now coming in large fleets. In 838, a large Viking fleet under the Norwegian sea king Turgeis (Thorgils) entered the River Liffey and established a land base for their operations. By 840, the Vikings were spending the winter on the island and establishing permanent bases along the coasts.
The Irish called the Viking bases longphorts. This is a word which was created by the Irish monks who combined the Latin words “longus” (long boat or ship) and “portus” (harbor). The longphorts were originally built to serve as camps for raiding parties. These fortified camps would usually be established along rivers at sites which were sheltered, easily defended, and provided immediate access to the sea. While many of these camps did not last long, others, such as the one established on the River Liffey, grew into large towns. Thus modern Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Waterford, and Limerick all began as Viking longphorts.
The map above shows the major Norse settlements in Ireland.
A reconstructed Viking house in Ireland is shown above.
An artist’s rendition of Viking Dublin is shown above.
While the Viking outpost at Dúbh Linn later became Dublin, another outpost, Linn Duchaill, was lost to history. While it was mentioned in the Annals of Ulster, a 15th century account of medieval Ireland, no-one knew where it was located. Using clues from histories and oral traditions, archaeologists searched for Linn Duchaill during 2005, 2006, and 2007. They finally found the site a couple of kilometers up the River Glyde about 70 kilometers north of Dublin.
Linn Duchaill was located on a flat area ideal for lifting boats out of water for repair and for shipbuilding. The site contains a series of defensive ditches about four meters deep. The archaeologists found evidence of impressive engineering. The Vikings had built an artificial island which would offer them protection from attacks by the indigenous Irish. The sites also had carpentry shops and smelting facilities. From an archaeological perspective, one of the strongest pieces of evidence that this was a Viking site is the total absence of pottery: the Vikings used wooden bowls. Also found at the site are some high status early Christian objects, probably part of the loot from their raids on the monasteries.
Shown above is a slave chain which archaeologists uncovered at Linn Duchaill. This bears testimony to another aspect of the Viking raids: the acquisition of Irish slaves who were often traded at Muslim markets in what is now Spain and Turkey.
Dublin not only survived, but thrived, while Linn Duchaill was abandoned. Dublin had better 24-hour access to the sea, while at Linn Duchaill there were tidal fluctuations which cut off access to the sea for several hours a day.
By 840, Turgeis had established a Hiberno-Norse Kingdom at Dublin. He not only imposed order on the Norse settlers, but he also arranged marriages and alliances with the Irish rulers. However, a large Danish fleet arrived in Ireland and there was conflict between the Danes and Norwegians regarding who should have the rights to plunder Ireland. At the naval battle of Carlingford Lough in 851, the Danes, with the aid of Irish allies, defeated the Norwegians.
In 852, a large Norwegian fleet under Olaf the White arrived in Ireland. Olaf defeated the Danes and sealed an alliance with the Irish royal family of Meath. Olaf and his brother Ivar consolidated an effective Scandinavian kingdom in Dublin. This new kingdom was focused primarily on sea trade and did not expand inland. At this time the primary exports from Ireland were hides, salted meat, and slaves.
In 902 the Irish successfully drove the Norse out of Ireland. However, the Vikings returned with a large fleet in 914-915. They defeated the Irish and re-took Dublin. In 967 Irish warriors sacked Limerick and began a military campaign against the Vikings. In 999, the Viking king of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard, surrendered to Brian Boru. In 1014, High King Brian Boru of Munster defeated the allied army of the Vikings and the King of Leinster at Clontarf. Thus ends Ireland’s Viking Era.
A painting of Brian Boru is shown above.