seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Earliest Verifiable Viking Invasion of Ireland

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The earliest verifiable date of a Viking invasion of Ireland is September 9, 872, in Dunrally in what is now County Laois.

The Vikings conduct extensive raids in Ireland and found many towns, including Dublin, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Wicklow, Arklow and Leixlip. Literature, crafts, and decorative styles in Ireland and Britain reflect Scandinavian culture. Vikings trade at Irish markets in Dublin. Excavations find imported fabrics from England, Byzantium, Persia, and Central Asia. Dublin becomes so crowded by the 11th century that houses are built outside the town walls.

The Vikings pillage monasteries on Ireland’s west coast in 795, and then spread out to cover the rest of the coastline. The north and east of the island are most affected. During the first 40 years, the raids are conducted by small, mobile Viking groups. From 830 on, the groups consist of large fleets of Viking ships. From 840, the Vikings begin establishing permanent bases at the coasts. Dublin is the most significant settlement in the long term. The Irish become accustomed to the Viking presence and culture. In some cases they become allies and also intermarry.

In 832, a Viking fleet of about 120 ships under Turgesius invades kingdoms on Ireland’s northern and eastern coasts. Some believe that the increased number of invaders coincides with Scandinavian leaders’ desires to control the profitable raids on the western shores of Ireland. During the mid-830s, raids begin to push deeper into Ireland. Navigable waterways make this deeper penetration possible. After 840, the Vikings have several bases in strategic locations throughout Ireland.

In 838, a small Viking fleet enters the River Liffey in eastern Ireland, probably led by the chieftain Saxolb, who is killed later that year. The Vikings set up a base, which the Irish call longphorts. This longphort would eventually become Dublin. After this interaction, the Irish experience Viking forces for about 40 years. The Vikings also establish longphorts in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford. The Vikings are driven out of Ireland for a short period around 900, but return to Waterford in 914 to found what would become Ireland’s first city. The other longphorts are soon re-occupied and developed into cities and towns.

The last major Irish battle involving Vikings is the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which a large force from the pan-Viking world and their Irish allies oppose Brian Boru, then the High King of Ireland and his forces, a small contingent of which are Viking defectors. The battle is fought in what is the now Dublin suburb of Clontarf on Good Friday of that year. Boru, the Irish High King has allowed the Viking King of Dublin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard, one year to prepare for his coming assault. Silkbeard responds by offering the bed of his mother to several Viking lords from Scandinavia, Ireland and Britain. The savage mêlée between the heavily mailed Norse and the unarmoured, yet undaunted Gaels ends in a rout of the Vikings and their Irish allies. Careful accounts are taken by both sides during the battle, and thus many famous warriors seek each other out for personal combat and glory. High King Brian, who is nearly eighty, does not personally engage in the battle but retires to his tent where he spends the day in quiet prayer.

The Viking Brodir of Man chances upon Brian’s tent as he flees the field. He and a few followers seize the opportunity, and surprise the High King, killing the aged Brian before being captured. Brian’s foster son Ulf the Quarrelsome later tracks down and dispatches Brodir by disembowelment. The battle is fairly matched for most of the day and each side has great respect for the prowess of the other, however, in the end, the Irish forces the Norse to return to the sea. Many of the fleeing Vikings are drowned in the surf due to their heavy mail coats as they struggled for the safety of their longships. Others are pursued and slain further inland.

After the battle, Viking power is broken in Ireland forever, though many settled Norse remain in the cities and prosper greatly with the Irish through trade. With Brian dead, Ireland returns to the fractured kingdom it had once been, but is now cleared of further Viking predation.

(Pictured: Guest from Overseas, Nicholas Roerich, 1901)

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