The Vikings in Ireland
In December of 2017, the massive Irish DNA Atlas project published findings that today’s Irish population could be as high as 20% Norse.1 These findings are startling, as other estimates (using different methods) had been significant but much lower at 2-6 percent.2 The Irish DNA Atlas project also found a strong Irish presence in Norway (about 6%).1 Other genetic studies have found that a quarter of the males and half of the female of the founding population of Iceland were Gaelic (Irish or Scotts).3,4 All this data is evidence of the turbulent relationship of the Vikings and the Irish in the eighth through eleventh centuries. This interplay between two cultures led to some of the most violent conflict of the middle ages, but also to bilateral evolution and a shared legacy.
Very Brief History of Viking Ireland
For much of its history, Ireland was divided into several kingdoms. The kings of these regions were sometimes (and even then, only nominally) united under a high king at Tara. However, within these kingdoms there were many tribes and clans, which each had a chieftain. These were constantly at war with each other. Cattle raids, blood feuds, and land disputes were the way of life.5 It was not only the remote location, wild geography, and bravery of the people that made Ireland extremely difficult to conquer and to control. The lack of reliance on central power ensured that any would-be conqueror would get nothing but a quagmire. However, the Vikings were a different kind of conqueror; and the disunity of Ireland made the island their perfect playground.
The First Raiding Period
Drawn by the rich, poorly-defended monasteries, Vikings descended upon Ireland. They came sporadically at first but then in droves. This was not initially an army, as was seen later in England and France, but loose alliances of ship crews working together for gain. Fueled by success, the Vikings kept coming. One ninth-century monk wrote (hyperbolically, we hope), “The sea spewed forth floods of foreigners over Ireland, so that no haven, no landing space … might be found that was not submerged by waves of Vikings and pirates”.6
The Vikings quickly realized that if they stayed in more permanent camps in Ireland they would not have to waste time and hazard crossing the cold seas, and that their gains would not be limited by what they could carry. They could then move beyond raiding for gold and start raiding for cattle or horses. They began taking tribute, and holding religious relics (or even religious figures) for ransom. But the prize they ultimately became focused on was slaves. Irish, especially women, were kidnapped by the hundreds and either kept by the Vikings or sold in the slave markets of Scandinavia, the Baltic, or the Islamic world.6 To export these slaves and other captured commodities, the Vikings began to make fortified port settlements. Some of Ireland’s biggest cities, such as Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick started as Viking ports.7
So the ninth century Irish were losing their sacred treasures, their clergy, their land, their food supply, and even their families; but things were about to get worse. In 836 or 837, a Norwegian prince called Turgesius (a.k.a. Turgeis, Thorkill, Thorgest, or Thorgils) took his fleet of 66 ships (about 3000 men) upriver deep into the interior of Ireland to attack the heart of Celtic Christianity.5,6,8 He did not only pillage and massacre. He turned Saint Patrick’s own center at Armagh into a temple to Thor, and set up his wife (who was a volva prophetess) as chief priestess of Clonmacnoise abbey.6 Turgesius’s actions had profound, destructive impact on the Irish. In the face of this assault on their very identity, and the failure of their secular leadership, some Irish clergy led their congregations in armed resistance; but other Irish even abandoned their church and their people and either joined the Vikings or simply imitated them.5,8
Turgesius pressed this advantage, taking more and more territory. He soon needed a port fortress of his own, and so participated in the founding of Dublin. There he declared himself “King of all the Foreigners in Ireland”.6 But Turgesius over-reached, and when he tried to marry the daughter of one of the Irish kings, Máel Sechnaill, he was tricked, trapped, tied to a heavy stone, and drowned in a lake.5,6,8 Máel Sechnaill became High King of Ireland the following year.8
The biggest leader of the Vikings in Ireland was dead, but there were plenty more to step forward. Ireland had a high king who was not afraid to fight the Vikings by any means necessary, but the presence of a high king still did not mean that the Irish were united. Ireland was still very much in danger of total conquest. But then something happened – the Norwegian Vikings and the Danish Vikings began fighting amongst each other.6 The Irish were able to exploit this new enmity. Irish kings began to reluctantly put aside their own quarrels and to win victories against the Vikings.5,8 And so in the middle of the ninth century, this first period of Viking raids in Ireland ended. It was not only the turn in their fortunes that broke the Vikings’ momentum, but that they had something else to interest them – Ivar the Boneless was calling for them to unite and invade the kingdoms of England. The “Great Heathen Army” was assembling.
Changes in the Late Ninth and Tenth Centuries
When Ivar the Boneless returned to Dublin victorious from his campaigns throughout England and Scotland (around the year 871), the relationship between the Irish and the Vikings was already changing. Sources mention Vikings and Irish fighting on the same side as early as the 840s.5 The Norse fortified ports were thriving and growing into towns and eventually cities. There was active trade between the two groups. Vikings and Irish had begun to intermarry. The gradual process of cultural exchange came with all these things.5,7
Trouble erupted again when new waves of Vikings – blocked from action in England or France because of Viking-backed peace there – came to Ireland. Ireland was again taken by surprise and struggled to mount meaningful resistance.7 But defeat was neither as severe nor as long lasting as it had been. The monasteries and abbeys had better defenses – such as high round towers with elevated entryways, like the one that still stands at Glendalough – and monks who would take up arms to defend their relics.9 Another difference was that these new raiders found themselves interfering with the interests of established Hiberno-Norse (Irish Vikings). Over time, these Viking colonists with their mixed households would become increasingly intolerant of unattached upstarts from the north coming on to their new homeland and making trouble for them and their neighbors.6 Thus, what historians refer to as “the Second Raiding Period” only lasted a few decades. Much of the Vikings’ energy in tenth century Ireland was spent exploiting or becoming embroiled in Irish problems – that is, fitting into the various political and military power plays as mercenaries or as lords in their own right.5,6
An Irish Viking Empire
In the middle of the tenth century, Olaf Cuaran Sictricson (a.k.a. Amlaíb Cuarán) was a Norse descendant who became king of Dublin. Olaf was part of the Uí Ímair dynasty of Ivar the Boneless, and like Ivar, he was ambitious.5 Olaf crossed into England and took the city of York.6,10 He procured and alliance with Scotland through marriage to King Constantin’s daughter.10 He also took possession of the Isle of Mann.11 Thus, Olaf Cuaran began to build an empire on both sides of the Irish Sea. As Olaf gathered power, he began fighting (and winning) against the larger Irish kings. Olaf was a Norse king, but many Irish and Scots fought for him. But King Máel Sechnaill II (great-great-grandson of Turgesius’s killer) crushed his army at Tara in 980. Defeated, and heart-broken over the death of his eldest son, Olaf’s empire fell apart and he retired to a monastery.5,10
The End of the Viking Age in Ireland
Olaf’s former victories in Ireland left the way open for Brian Boru to become High King.6,10 Brian was a great warrior and a skilled diplomat, but Máel Mórda mac Murchada, the king of Leinster, was not ready to accept that all of Ireland was to have a single, strong ruler. His rebellion was eagerly joined by Sihtric Silkbeard, Olaf’s younger son and heir. Seeking allies, Máel Mórda turned to the Vikings of Ireland, Orkney, Mann, and even Scotland.12 In 1014, after a series of tangled, tragic events worthy of a saga, Brian Boru and Máel Mórda fought a great battle by the sea at Clontarf (near Dublin).6,13 The battle is remembered as the event in which Brian Boru drove the Vikings from Ireland, but this is not quite accurate. The Vikings fought on both sides, and only made up about half of Mórda’s army.12 It was a pyrrhic victory for Brian (for neither he nor his heir would live to see the next day), but Mórda and most of the Viking leaders were killed. It is recorded that 10,000 men died, which would be about five out of every six that fought.13 It was Máel Sechnaill II who profited the most, for he had backed out of most of the fighting but was basically the last Irish ruler standing, and soon became high king.6,13
The Battle of Clontarf in Ireland and the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England (52 years later) is where historians end the Viking Age. The Norse continued on in Ireland, though distinctions between the two ethnicities faded as their mutual interests continued to grow. Soon there was no point in worrying about who was Norse and who was Irish.
Normans and Galloglass
There is an epilogue to the story of the Vikings in Ireland. More than two hundred years after Clontarf, Ireland was still much the same as it had always been – a wild land with many petty leaders vying for power. But they were also now under a new threat from the Normans (descendents of Rollo’s Vikings in France).14 Irish chieftains were all looking for an edge over their enemies, and they found this edge in mercenaries from Scotland and the Orkney Isles. These were the same lands where many of the Vikings had retreated to, and so now the descendents of these Vikings returned to Ireland. These mercenaries were called Gallóglaigh or Galloglass, which means “foreign Gaels”.14 They fought much as their ancestors had: as heavy infantry shock troops, with helmets, chain mail, shields, and swords – but were most known for their massive, long-hafted axes. The Norse-blooded Galloglass formed an important part of Ireland’s military landscape through Shakespeare’s day, until the age of heroes finally began to give way to the modern world.14
Today, Ireland is one of the best places in Europe to see Viking ruins (often assimilated into later, working structures), museum exhibits of artifacts, and even Viking graffiti. Well before the Irish DNA Atlas project began to quantify Norse heritage, the Irish people began to understand and appreciate the role the Vikings played in their own culture and character. With centuries of both violent and peaceful interaction between the Norse and the Irish through the Vikings, the Normans, and the Galloglass, it is no surprise that so much Norse DNA is in the Irish gene pool. There is an even more indelible mark on the Irish spirit. Both cultures always had a great deal in common – bravery and a love of battle; independence and a yearning for freedom; a talent and appreciation for poetry, art, and music; and a natural spirituality. These similarities made them the fiercest of enemies, but eventually made them one people.
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David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
- The Irish DNA Atlas: Revealing Fine-Scale Population Structure and History within Ireland Edmund Gilbert, Seamus O’Reilly, Michael Merrigan, Darren McGettigan, Anne M. Molloy, Lawrence C. Brody, Walter Bodmer, Katarzyna Hutnik, Sean Ennis, Daniel J. Lawson, James F. Wilson & Gianpiero L. Cavalleri, Scientific Reports7, Article number: 17199 (2017). Published December 8, 2017. Accessed December 20, 2017. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-17124-4
- Mulligan, M. The Viking in the Room. Ancestry DNA. Published June 23, 2015. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2015/06/23/ancestrydna-the-viking-in-the-room/
- Why People in Iceland Look Just Like Us. The Irish Times. October 2, 2000. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/why-people-in-iceland-look-just-like-us-1.1104676
- Public Library of Science. "Largest-to-date Genetic Snapshot of Iceland 1,000 Years Ago Completed." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 January 2009. Accessed December 20, 2017. sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090116073205.htm
- The Vikings & Ireland. Celt Corpus of Electronic Texts. 1997-2017 https://celt.ucc.ie/General%20Vikings%20in%20Ireland.pdf
- Brownworth, L. The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Crux Publishing, Ltd. United Kingdom. 2014
- Johnston, W. Travel Through the Ireland Story: The Vikings. N.D. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/pre_norman_history/vikings.html
- Conollen, O. (OCleary, M. editor). Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters as translated into English. Irish Roots Café Press. Ireland. 2003
- Brown, N. M. Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. New York, St Martin’s Press. 2015
- Olaf Curan. Library Ireland. 2017. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.libraryireland.com/biography/OlafCuaran.php
- Young, G. & Young-Tamel, J.W. The Isle of Mann Under the Norse. 2013. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.academia.edu/4386441/Isle_of_Man_under_the_Norse
- Prelude to the Battle of Clontarf, 1014. Battle of Clontarf. N.D. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.battleofclontarf.net/the-battle-of-clontarf-23rd-april-1014/prelude-to-the-battle-of-clontarf-1014/3435
- The Battle of Clontarf, 23 April, 1014. The Battle of Clontarf. N.D. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.battleofclontarf.net/vacations-ireland/the-battle-of-clontarf-23rd-april-1014/3433
- Cannan, F. Galloglass 1250-1600, Gaelic Mercenary Warrior. Warrior, 143. Osprey Books. 2010.
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