Viking Raiders

Monastic Ireland with its treasure-filled schools and monasteries must have presented rich pickings for the marauding Vikings of the eighth to tenth centuries. They had already over-run most of Europe and, having overcome the northern and western isles of Scotland and the Isle of Man, the short distance to Ireland was the obvious next step for their raiders. They first appeared on the east coast when they raided the settlement on Lambay island, off Co. Dublin, in 795 AD. After that, their raids became more frequent and, in 838, they seized the ports of Annagasson in Co. Louth, and Dublin. Their arrival in Dublin was most significant as, following their fortification of that port, they established their main foothold in Ireland there and, in time, Dublin became a Viking city.

The native Irish did not distinguish the invaders by their country of origin, i.e. the particular Scandanavian countries from which they had originated, but rather by the colour of their hair. They named them ‘Fionn-Ghall’ and ‘Dubh-Ghall’, meaning ‘fair-haired foreigners’ and ‘dark-haired foreigners’. In North Co. Dublin to-day, we still have ‘Fingal’ from the former designation.

The great Viking leader, Turgesius, sailed up the river Bann and across Lough Neagh, from where he attacked Armagh and the surrounding countryside. Later still, he sailed around Ireland and up the river Shannon to Lough Ree, where he continued his depredations. Eventually, he was captured by the Irish king, Malachy who drowned him in the waters of Lough Neagh in 845.

The monks in the monasteries, which were the main target of their attacks, soon began building the protective round towers, which gradually became a feature of the Irish country-side, many of them still remaining to this day. From these they had an excellent view of approaching marauders, while the sacred vessels and manuscripts could be safely brought up to the secure higher reaches of the towers, from where also they could repel the invaders with stones and rocks. Entrance to the towers was always from a higher level than the ground, with the ascending ladders being immediately drawn up after them by the retreating monks. In an early Irish poem, the scribe prays for a stormy night, knowing that the Vikings will not annoy them in such adverse weather conditions.

In the 915-920 period the Vikings occupied and fortified the ports of Waterford and Limerick and established a firm footing there. Most towns with the suffix-ford, e.g. Wexford, Waterford, Carlingford, etc. are reputed to have been founded by the Vikings, the word ‘ford’ coming from the Norwegian word ‘fjord’ meaning a narrow inlet.

Dublin, however, was the principal Viking settlement and ‘Wood Quay’ their chief port. In fact, Dublin became the largest Scandanavian settlement in the then known world, outside of Scandanavia itself. They were so strong there that they were able to elect their own king, who became so powerful that the High-King of Ireland was unable to hold his annual assembly in Meath. In 919 they repelled an Irish attack, overcoming the High King’s forces, and killing the High King himself, in a battle where Phoenix Park is now situated.

The Vikings, to their credit however, did not long for complete conquest, but gradually intermingled with the Irish, particularly through trade and commerce, and making Dublin one of the most important sea-ports in western Europe at the time.

In 964 a Clare prince named Mahon, of the Dal gCais tribe, asserted his authority over the province of Munster and waged continual warfare on the Vikings of Limerick whom he totally defeated in 968. Ten years later, however, Mahon was defeated and slain by a rival Munster king, but this was later avenged by his brother, Brian (later to be known as Brian Boru), who then assumed the kingship of the southern province. Brian, however, was not satisfied with being king of Munster and gradually asserted his dominance over the entire country, beginning with a total defeat of the Leinster men at the Battle of Glenmama in 999. These had refused to pay him the ‘cow tribute’ but this battle ended their objections in no uncertain manner. Brian could not be contained and the High King, Malachy the Second, eventually submitted to him in 1002 without a contest, as he regarded him as the best chance of defeating the Vikings.

Brian Boru proved to be an exceptionally strong and efficient High King, providing good government as well as steadfast protection against the raids of the foreigners. The Norse King of Dublin and the Irish King of Leinster were far from happy under his authority, however, and they soon organised a strong challenge to his over-lordship. Sitric the Viking king of Dublin visited Sigurd, the king of the Orkneys, and they agreed to muster a huge hosting of Vikings at Dublin for a final showdown with Brian, Sigurd to become King of Ireland if they were victorious. As Easter approached the hosts of Norsemen and Danes, assisted by the armies of Dublin and Leinster assembled at Clontarf and a major battle was in the offing.

Brian Boru had learned of the preparations being made by the Vikings and Leinstermen and soon assembled a strong force to oppose them. Malachy, the High King whom he had deposed, also came with his army to assist him, putting the interests of his country before his own personal interest. The battle took place at Clontarf near Dublin on Good Friday, April 23rd, 1014. Brian, now in his old age, addressed his troops before the battle and then knelt in his tent, and prayed for their success, which they duly achieved, following a long and very bloody confrontation.

The Vikings were driven into the sea and Sigurd was slain. But the Irish paid dearly for their victory - a Viking chief named Bruadar, retreating from the battlefield, came across Brian kneeling in his tent and rushing in, slew him with his battle axe, but he in turn was also soon disposed of by the High King’s body-guard. Brian was the major Irish casualty in the battle, but his son Murchu, who might have succeeded Brian, was also slain and, even though victory was sweet and decisive, the cost of the Irish was indeed immense.

The Battle of Clontarf, and its aftermath, is described thus by the ‘Four Masters’ in ‘The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland.’

“An army was led by Brian, son of Ceinneidigh, son of Lorcan, King of Ireland, and by Maelseachlainn (Malachy) son of Domhnall, King of Teamhair (Tara) to Ath Cliath (Dublin). The foreigners of the West of Europe assembled against Brian and Maelseachlainn; and they took with them ten hundred men with coats of mail. A spirited, fierce, violent, vengeful and furious battle was fought between them - the likeness of which was not to be found in that time at Cluain-tarbh (Clontarf), on the Friday before Easter precisely. In this battle were slain Brian, son of Ceinneidigh, monarch of Ireland, who was the Augustus of all the West of Europe, in the eighty-eighth year of his age; Murchadh, son of Brian, heir apparent to the sovereignty of Ireland, in the sixty-third year of his age; ... There were also slain ... Sichfrith, son of Loder, Earl of InnsihOrc (Orkneys); Brodar, chief of the Danes of Denmark, who was the person that slew Brian. The ten hundred in armour were cut to pieces, and at least three thousand of the foreigners were there slain.

Maelmuire, son of Eochaidh, successor of Patrick, proceeded with the seniors and relics to Sord Choluim Chille (Swords); and they carried from thence the body of Brian, King of Ireland, and the body of Murchadh, his son, ... Maelmuire and his clergy waked the bodies with great honour and veneration; and they were interred at Ard Macha (Armagh) in a new tomb.”

Thus ended the threat of further invasion from the Vikings, and those who remained integrated completely with the Irish. One future Viking king of Dublin would even marry an Irish lady and would also build the first Christchurch cathedral in Dublin. This was a wooden structure and would later be destroyed by invading Normans, following the unsuccessful defence of the city by the combined forces of Irish and Vikings.

Following the death of Brian, Malachy the Second was restored to the High-Kingship, which he held until his death in 1022. Thereafter there was much conflict over the High King-ship with no single monarch quite able to extend his lordship over the whole island. This resulted in a series of “High Kings with Opposition” claiming the kingship of Ireland. Eventually Connacht provided a king strong enough to claim the throne without opposition and this was Roderick (Rory) O’Connor. Unfortunately, just when it appeared that Ireland was on the road to recovery, as well as a period of peace and prosperity, another new enemy appeared on the horizon, brought in by one of Ireland’s own lesser kings, and thus introducing an enemy that would prove greater than anything Ireland had previously experienced and thus would have an everlasting effect on Irish history.