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Vikings in Ireland
Christena Hurley

Introduction

The land of leprechauns, shamrocks and green beer. This is what modern people think of when they think of Ireland. What many people do not know, many Irish included, is the debt Irish culture owes to the Scandinavian Vikings of the early medieval period. The Vikings brought with them a variety of ideas and skills not native to the island that later became common practice in Ireland after the Viking occupation. Many important Irish cities are actually a product of prior Viking settlements. The most well known being the establishment of Dublin, now the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, it was the Vikings that brought Ireland out of international obscurity in the early medieval period, changing the very basis of the Irish economy, making it an important trading centre for Europe. This allowed Medieval Irish culture to flourish and enter the international trading affairs of the time.

Background

The name Viking has come to mean various things in modern times, the majority of them negative in connotation. Therefore it is necessary to define who these people were and where they came from as well as their movitations. The Vikings being discussed in this paper are the early medieval tribal people, generally from the eighth century AD onward, who inhabited Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden) and Denmark. Though in earlier periods parts of northern Germany are said to have been populated by Vikings as well.1 Other common names, those found in the literature, for the Vikings were Northmen or the Norse.2 The topography of the countries in which they inhabited, was not suitable for the high level of agricultural productivity needed to sustain their populations. This became ever more evident in the seventh and eighth centuries AD, when the Scandinavian countries experienced a population increase their agricultural sector could not sustain 3. As a solution to this problem, the Vikings turned to other means to procure the needed agricultural products. To procure the goods, the Vikings used their well designed boats to travel across the seas and oceans to more agriculturally productive lands or lands with more material wealth in general.4 The Vikings of this period became famous for there seafaring, trading and most importantly raiding and plundering of unsuspecting towns for anything they deemed to be of value.

The first major raid on Europe was recorded in 793 AD in the British Isles, at the wealthy monastery of Lindisfarne on the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Britainn.5 From this point on Viking raids on vulnerable coastal towns or monasteries became frequent as monasteries in particular were rich with relics and provided little resistance to the trained Vikings warriors. Though the stories of the raids and plundering of monasteries ae the most well known, the Vikings were also successful traders both in importing and exporting goods to points across Europe and beyond. While the Vikings did not have a lot of surplus agricultural goods, they had many raw materials of value that could be used. The first of these is amber, which was highly prized in the rest of Europe as a precious stone. Iron, timber, ivory, horns, furs and slaves were among the common goods exported by the Vikings.6 Besides agricultural products to augment shortages in the Viking homeland, they also imported metals like silver and gold, spices including salt, pottery, wool and exotic silks as prestige items for the warriors and chieftains.7 The Vikings came to Ireland during this time of raiding and trading, to exploit whatever resources they could acquire. What the Vikings found in Ireland suited their purposes perfectly. Ireland was an economy based on almost solely on agriculture with a scattering of villages across the island. What little manufacturing that was occurring was taking place in monasteries and occasionally in royal sites. There was no true urban development at this point.8 This allowed the Vikings the opportunity to exploit the resources and not have to worry about pre-existing trade relations with external partners. Their initial encounters in Ireland were in the form of the swift raids which plundered local religious buildings on the eastern coast in particular. This continued for several decades. Eventually the Vikings started the process of colonization and governing their newest conquest.9

Ireland itself, was known as the home of the Celts, pagan people who were fierce warriors and yet created beautiful works of art. With the spread of Christianity after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Celtic society changed and became a Christianized society with monasteries appearing everywhere. Ireland in the days right before the Viking invasions, was enjoying a so-called 'Golden Age' brought on by the conversion of the population to Christianity. Though intellectual pursuits flourished in Ireland during this period, it was relatively self-contained, not occupying a place in international affairs .10 The country was broken up into seven kingdoms with an independent king ruling each. The kingdoms were Connaugh, Leinster, Meath and Munster in the south and Ailech, Airgialla and Ulaidh in the north .11 Yet as can be expected, for all its Christian practices and intellectual thoughts, inter-clan rivalries were high as kingdoms vied for more power and wealth. This could be the reason for the lack of international concerns, internal matters were far more pressing. The country was in effect split in two, the alliance of the kingdoms of the south and the alliance of the kingdoms of the north. With this infighting, the Vikings had a means to gain land without much interference. Irish rivals even used Vikings in their wars against each other. By the time the Irish kingdoms realized that the Vikings were intent on staying and extracting resources for their own gain, it was too late to mount an effective offensive as settlements had been built at strategic ports along the coasts12. The Viking conquest had begun.

Resistence

Thought the Vikings had become settled in certain areas of Ireland. The native Irish people attempted to mounted a resistence to fend them off and gain back their territory. The main force of this resistence came at a time when the Vikings who were now living in Ireland were attacked by a new wave of Scandinavian Vikings, sometimes believed to be Danish raiders. These attacks left the local Vikings weak, particularly in the Dublin area.13 The main Irish resistence occurred in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries AD. Two Irish kings, Maelsechlainn II and Brian Boru of Dál Cais managed to take Dublin from the Vikings for a short time. The reason this conquest was short lived was because many of the Vikings had intermarried with the native Irish inhabitants. Indeed many had converted Christianity and picked up other customs from the local people.14 Interestingly enough, in the case of Brian Boru's attack on Dublin, he used local Viking forces from Waterford to aid him and after battling with the Dublin Vikings, Brian Boru had the allegiance of the Vikings in not only Waterford but Cork and Limerick as well. It would seem that the Vikings inhabiting Ireland were not only intermarrying among the Irish, they were joining in rivalries for kingship demonstrating their connection to the land.15 These intermixed people continued the practices of the Vikings in coastal areas, including the continuation of international trade for decades to come .16

Occupation

Prior to the arrival of the Vikings, the people of Ireland lived in isolated ringforts and monasteries. Urban centres were unknown as the purpose of the ringforts was to protect against hostile rivals and monasteries were centres of religious studies. The Vikings brought the idea of a town to Ireland. The constructed their settlements much the same way a modern town would be layed out. These towns according to Viking practices became centres of trade and commerce with permanent markets for the exchange of goods which would include human slaves.17 Evidence for long term occupation, rather than seasonal comes in a variety of sources. Archaeological proof, however, provides the most concrete form of evidence as literary sources of the time were incredibly biased. The Viking cemeteries at Kilmainham and Islandbridge in Dublin supply a wealth of information.18 Due to lack of archaeologically recorded information some of the knowledge of the Viking graves was lost. However, they are generally believed to have contained the skeleton, an axe, a sword, a spear, a shield and a bronze pin in the case of a male occupant. A set of scales for measuring was also found in one of the graves, reflecting the economic nature of the Viking settlements in Ireland.19 Showing the permanence of the Viking occupation, the graves of males are not the only ones that have been found, if this were the case, then the occupation was probably no more than several months. However, with the discovery of women's graves, it appears the occupation was of substantial length. In the female graves, tortoise brooches, buckles and needle cases.20 Judging by the domestic nature of some of these grave goods, it is clear that the cemeteries were not a result of a battle. The cemeteries are a result of long standing urban living.

The city of Dublin was at the heart of the new Irish trading economy. It was the main port for the importing and exporting of goods done by the Vikings. The Irish viewed ports as a place for entering river systems and areas near settlements. It was the Vikings who showed them, a port's economic function which with the new trade based economy superceded their prior use.21

The traditional date for the Viking founding of Dublin was 841 AD, when they built a safe haven for their ships, calling the site 'black pool'.22 The Viking occupation of Dublin lasted for a significant period of time, though only estimates are a available. Judging by the architectural remains, the Vikings set up a permanent domestic as well as trading settlement here during the early to tenth century AD.23 The main type of building found followed a medium sized plan with four posts and wattle walls. Rooms were delineated and their use has been hypothesized. The buildings were entered on the broad side into a central hall area with a hearth. Inside the central halls were benches for sleeping. The corners of the building were addition rooms for storage24. Larger buildings occurred also with four posts but besides their obvious size difference, they appear to have housed livestock based on the discovery of egg boxes and quantities of manure.25 Some of these larger buildings may have also served as warehouses for goods being exported. Through excavations in one of the Viking sections of the city, it is clear from the superimposed layers of architecture that Dublin remained important to the Viking for at least two century26. Through the layers of occupation, very few changes were made to the architectural plans, indicating Viking descendants were in all likelihood continuing their ancestors building as well as trading traditions. Parallels for the building types uncovered in Dublin have been found in Sweden and Denmark.27 This leaves no doubt as to the origin of the early Dublin settlement.

Dublin became a city with an international trading reputation during the eleventh century AD and had become an important part of the trading network of Western Europe. This caused many Irish kings to try and gain control of the city to benefit from its wealth, wealth that Irish kings had now become accustom.28 By the end of the Viking era, they had managed to change the entire economic structure of Ireland. The Irish now needed the international trade started by the Vikings to continue their own economic stability.

Dublin was not the only urban centre thriving under the Vikings as a trading centre. Viking building foundations have been excavated at Waterford and Wexford. These include wattle-walled buildings, like those in Dublin. These buildings flanked the typical Viking street patterns.29 These sites were also thriving port towns.

Trade

Despite Irish efforts to remove the Vikings from Ireland, they continued to be successful in the towns of Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford, all coastal towns from which the Vikings and their mixed blood descendents could easily export their goods and monitor their trading empire.30 The Vikings used Ireland as a stopover point, a place to store items for trade between the Scandinavian countries and continental Europe, places like France and Spain .31 After the establishment of these towns, a much larger trade network was flowing through Ireland bringing in exotic goods and great amounts of wealth. The kings of Ireland grew wealthy and powerful and the fabric of society began to change.

These changes permeated into the lowest levels of Irish society from the wealthy kings to the poorest peasants and slaves. Peasant farmers were now moving to open area settlements, leaving the ringforts they had dwelt in for centuries in, farm the land in hopes of gaining wealth for themselves. The kings in turn started charging rent from the peasants to the land use.32 This created a new economic system not seen in Ireland before. By the end of the tenth century AD, even the Viking towns were paying the high Irish king tribute but were living in relative peace with the native inhabitants.33 The days of raiding this land were long over.

The Vikings soon started exporting items from Ireland itself. Many times these items were not objects at all but people, slaves to be sent to foreign markets where their pale skin and hair would fetch a high price .34 Besides, trading some the of the native inhabitants for silver, it appears that another local object was being exported as well. This item was known as the roped bead. This bead is fashioned of glass and is created to look like multiple ropes intertwined. This kind of bead was common in Ireland and they were known for making the finest beads of this type in Europe.35 The Vikings are known to like these beads as several have been found in graves belonging to them, in the Islandbridge cemetery. They were found in conjunction with iron sword remains proving the occupant was a Viking not a local person.36 In as not just the Vikings who lived locally who liked this bead form. Irish roped beads were found in Viking graves in Ashusby, Norrsunda, Uppland Sweden and date to time of Viking settlements in Ireland.37 It is quite likely that these beads were traded with continental Europe as well. Another local trade item was a mix between traditional Irish and Scandinavian forms. This interesting development was new type of dress pin that was being manufactured in Ireland at this time. These are believed to have become a common trade item in Scandinavia in later times .38

A rather unusual trade item that appears from Dublin in the later tenth and early eleventh centuries is manuscripts from the monastic schools.39 These would have been an coveted item in the Christian areas of continental Europe because of the great skill the Irish monks employed to create the illuminated texts. Few could rival these works of art.

Besides making trade the main element of the Irish economy, the Vikings made silver the new currency over the old bartering system. Silver then could be used to purchase any type of good that was wished. Bartering though still in existence, became of lesser importance. Viking Ireland indeed had become so wealthy, the silver hoards that have been uncovered thus far exceed any found elsewhere, including the Viking homelands of Scandinavia and Denmark .40 Silver hoards have been excavated at all the Viking settlements, Limerick, Wexford and Dublin among the others. Silver hoards dated to this period, have also been found in locations that were not Viking settlements, they were found in sites that belonged to the native Irish population. Clearly once the practice of silver as currency was introduced, the Irish adopted it with vigour, as they did Viking style economic practices.41 The silver in these hoards could be hack silver, ingots or silver decorations, their value not their shape was what mattered .42 By the end of the Viking era in Ireland, silver had become so prevalent as currency that a mint was established in Dublin approximately 997 AD to manufacture coins.43 To show the extent of the trade network in which Ireland had become a part of, silver pieces found in the various hoards can be traced to Arabia .44 The practice of coinage would continue in Ireland long after the Viking era.

Conclusion

Though the Irish people were experiencing a "Golden Age" with the general conversion to Christianity, they were not part of the international affairs of the time. Indeed, they were more concerned with internal rivalries than external opportunities. This changed when the Vikings appears in the late eighth century AD. After their initial raids, they settled along coastal areas and used Ireland as a storage site for international trade items particularly those being sent to continental Europe. The Vikings created towns, urban centres with permanent markets allowing for the steady flow of commerce on the island. The Irish people became wealthy with this trade and continued the practices even after they had attempted to remove immigrant Vikings. This was not entirely successful due to the intermarrying that had occurred. The Vikings though not keeping control of Ireland, left an undeniable impact on its inhabitants. The Vikings brought Ireland into the international trading network, a change that would stay with them throughout their history.

References
1. Kendrick 1968: 1-3 (back)
2. Edwards 1973: 43 (back)
3. Curriculum Development Unit 1978: 13 (back)
4. Edwards 1973: 43 (back)
5. Kirby 1977: 61 (back)
6. Kirkby 1977: 45 (back)
7. Kirkby 1977: 45 (back)
8. Clarke and Ambrosiani 1991: 102 (back)
9. Kendrick 1968: 274-5 (back)
10. Kendrick 1968: 274 (back)
11. Kendrick 1968: 278 (back)
12. Kendrick 1968: 275 (back)
13. Bottigheimer 1982: 51 (back)
14. Bottigheimer 1982: 51 (back)
15. Bittigheimer 1982: 51-2 (back)
16. O'Brien and Harbison 1996: 43 (back)
17. Harbison 1976: 77 (back)
18. Laing 2006:287 (back)
19. Harbison 1976: 78 (back)
20. Harbison 1976:78 (back)
21. Curriculum Development Unit 1978: 12 (back)
22. Heffernan 1988: 10-11 (back)
23. Murray 1983: 85 (back)
24. Murray 1983: 5- 6 (back)
25. Murray 1983: 7 (back)
26. Clarke and Ambrosiani 1991: 104-5 (back)
27. Murray 1983: 86 (back)
28. O'Brien and Harbison 1996: 44 (back)
29. Clarke and Ambrosiani 1991: 106 (back)
30. Laing 2006:287 (back)
31. O'Brien and Harbison 1996: 43 (back)
32. Laing 2006: 287 (back)
33. Laing 2006: 287 (back)
34. Harbison 1976: 77 (back)
35. Armstrong 1921: 72 (back)
36. Armstrong 1921: 73 (back)
37. Armstrong 1921: 72 (back)
38. Laing 2006:288 (back)
39. Heffernan 1988: 13 (back)
40. Sheehan 2000: 49 (back)
41. Sheehan 2000: 51- 57 (back)
42. Sheehan 2000: 50 (back)
43. Sheehan 2000: 49 (back)
44. Sheehan 2000: 50-1 (back)

Bibliography
Armstrong, E.C.R., 1921 Two Irish Finds of Glass Beads of the Viking Period. Man 21: 71-73.
Bottigheimer, Karl S., 1982 Ireland and the Irish: A Short History. New York: Columbia University Press.
Clarke, Helen and Bjorn Ambrosiani, 1991 Towns in the Viking Age. London: Leicester University Press.
Curriculum Development Unit, 1978 Viking Settlement to Medieval Dublin. Dublin: E & T O'Brien Ltd.
Edwards, Ruth Dudley, 1973 An Atlas of Irish History. London: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
Harbison, Peter, 1976 The Archaeology of Ireland. The Bodley Head Archaeologies. Toronto: The Bodley Head.
Heffernan, Thomas Farel, 1988 Wood Quay. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kendrick, T.D., 1968 A History of the Vikings. London: Frank Cass & Company Ltd.
Kirkby, Michael Hasloch, 1977 The Vikings. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited.
Laing, Lloyd, 2006 The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland: c. AD 400-1200. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Murray, Hilary, 1983 Viking and Early Medieval Buildings in Dublin: A study of the buildings excavated under the direction of A. B. O Roirdain in High Street Winetarvern Street and Christchurch Place, Dublin, 1962-63, 1967-76. BAR British Series 119. Oxford: BAR.
O'Brien, Jacqueline and Peter Harbison, 1996 Ancient Ireland: from Prehistory to the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sheehan, John, 2000 Ireland's Viking -Age Silver Hoards: Components, Structure and Classification. Acta Archaeologica 71: 49-63.
      Updated: 4 Dec, 2007
Text © Christena Hurley, 2007   Copyright details
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