Ireland’s Wars: The First Viking Age

In 795 AD, a long narrow ship with a shallow draft crept up to the small island of Lambay, off present day Dublin. It landed and offloaded its inhabitants, men of the north armed with shield, spear and sword. They attacked the small monastic settlement, killing, burning and taking anything of value. When that was done, they re-embarked and vanished into the sea. No one could have known it at the time (raids of the kind were not especially uncommon from others) but a new age had come to Ireland.

The men who attacked Lambay were Norse, probably from an area part of modern-day Norway. In becoming seaborne explorers and raiders, they had gone “viking”, the Norse term for the activity and thus they have been known ever since: the Vikings. Such is the length of their time and impact on Ireland, the period in question is generally split in two, from 795 to 902, then 914 to 980.

That first raid was small and was followed up by similar attacks at Brega, the Connacht coast and the Skellig Isles. The golden age of Christian Ireland had created many monasteries and communities that had substantial wealth, which was targeted by the new arrivals. In those opening years of Viking attacks, the raids were always small, consisting of no more than a few ships, with men who attacked fast and didn’t stick around, departing to more friendly ports in the British Isles as fast as they had arrived. These early attacks lacked any kind of focus or direction, and were probably just free enterprises. They were attracted by wealth and easy targets initially, and it was only later that they began seeking land to settle on and control. In those early years of Viking attacks, it isn’t clear if any royalty was even involved. For those Vikings, it was just easy money.

The sources for this period are largely fragmented, or suspicious in nature: many are written from a Christian perspective. As a result the Vikings are painted frequently as hated, heathen figures who terrorised the island of Ireland for generations, the Irish who fought them being heroes. More confusing are the myriad of figures who might be one and the same person, differing names not being evidence of separate people on occasion.

Viking attacks kept occurring in the early ninth century, with rises and falls in frequency, but the rivalries of Ireland’s native Kingdoms continued all the while, defined by the divide between the north and south, the Kingdoms of the Ui Neill’s and Munster. The first Irish leader credited with fighting the Vikings directly was Niall Caille of the Ui Neill, who defeated a force of them in Derry in 833, after which Viking activity seemed to focus more on the south. By now, Vikings were using the advantage of their shallow drafted boats to sail up rivers for newer targets. One of these was the Liffey, and it was along its course that the first of the more permanent Viking settlements was established. In 841, a Viking group conquered a small ecclesiastical settlement near the “Duiblinn”, a dark pool on the joining of the Liffey and Poddle rivers, setting up a fortified encampment dubbed a “longphort” which rapidly grew. This was the beginning of Dublin as we know it today.

While Dublin was not the first time the Vikings had decided to stay for a longer period, it quickly became their main fortress on the island, evidence of a change in mindset towards Ireland. Raids would still go on as before, but from this point the Vikings would be impacting on the political life of the island in a larger way.

The Viking raids were getting larger and more coordinated after 820, with more and more of them choosing to overwinter in Ireland in longphorts rather than continue hit-and-run tactics. By the establishment of the “Dubh Linn” settlement, they had become a far more serious threat to the island than their early raids. A warlord of the Norse, Turgesius, emerges as a leader in this time, coordinating attacks as part of a campaign to exert control on, or perhaps even conquer, Ireland on behalf of a King (whose identity has never been firmly established) back home. Now Viking activities took on the form of attacks upriver followed by retreats back to coastal bases. Targets were found all over the country, as Viking fleets reached bigger and bigger sizes, and more settlements were created (mostly to the east). It was Turgesius who is credited with attacking the church at Clonmacnoise in 844 which, located in the centre of the country, is evidence of his reach. The Vikings seemed to be able to operate at will, along the coast or up waterways. In 845 Turgesius was killed by the King of Mide, Mael Sechnaill, an event that is indicated to be a decisive blow to Viking expansion.

The Norse, wherever exactly they were from, where keen to grab land wherever they could, hence the attempted permanent expansion into Ireland. The Kings and High Kings of Ireland could no longer ignore this threat, which up to that point seems to have been treated in an almost casual way by native rulers.

What followed is a series of defeats inflicted on the Vikings. Cerbhall mac Dunlainge, King of Osraige defeated Dublin based Vikings at Carn Brammet in 847. Mael Sechnaill defeated a force in Westmeath the following year while the combined armies of Munster and Leinster defeated them at Sciath Nechtain in Kildare, killing Tomrair, a high ranking member of the Lochlann (the name used to describe the Norse Kingdom of origin) monarchy. With the Vikings reeling from these defeats, the Dublin settlement was attacked directly in 849, plundered and destroyed. It’s possible that this series of Irish victories was a coordinated assault on the Vikings, but this is not recorded. What is for sure is that the Vikings were now fielding armies on the island as opposed to focusing on naval raids, and that they weren’t up to scratch against the natives, whether it was a case of being outnumbered or in a poor tactical position. The Norse were invaders after all, which always brings difficulties of supply and support in a foreign country.

It was not long before the Norse returned in force, a fleet of 140 long ships arriving that same year in Dublin, a probable response to the setbacks by the King of Lochlann (or perhaps, just normal Vikings who turned up fortuitously). They recommenced their attacks almost immediately. In 853 another Norse royal, Olaf, arrived to take control of the Vikings in Ireland and along with his more famous kinsman Ivar “the Boneless” in Britain, he would be active in the area for most of the next two decades, with the attacks on Christian monasteries and Irish towns continuing. While defences, most famously in the form of round towers, were improving, civilian settlements were still vulnerable to assault from the Norse. It should be noted that monasteries and the like were attacked by Irish forces as well, Clonmacnoise reporting 27 assaults from Irish natives compared to seven from Vikings between the 8th and 12th centuries.

With the arrival of Olaf and Ivar, Viking strategy in Britain and Ireland seemed to change significantly, as they now began to enter into alliances with native rulers, including some of those they had previously fought with. These unions were usually short – Olaf allied with Cerbhall of Osraige against Mael Sechnaill in 858, before later fighting both at the same time in conjunction with the northern Ui Neill.  While the Vikings had re-established their strong position in Dublin, along with smaller settlements throughout the coast, they frequently found themselves on the losing side of these Irish wars. Mael Sechnaill, now High-King, defeated them again and again, a constant thorn in the Viking side until his death.

The seeking of alliances with natives is a common theme in the rest of Viking history in Ireland, and seems to indicate that they had abandoned any attempt to conquer the island fully (if they ever really held that aspiration) and were content to simply stake their place. Many Norse had been on the island for a good period of time at this stage, and were starting to become more integrated with native culture. Certainly, Irish Kings allying with Viking factions indicates that they were not simply thought of as the godless heathen foreigners that many surviving accounts paint them as.

The Ui Neill in the north easily had the most long-term success against the Vikings, with the Norse unable to gain a lasting foothold there. King Aed Findliath, who followed Mael Sechnaill and whose reign was otherwise unexceptional, was noted for destroying all Viking encampments in the north in 866, possibly while Olaf was distracted with warfare in Pictland.

Both Olaf and Ivar died around the same time, 871/2, another heavy blow to the Viking cause. The Norse devolved into civil conflict for many decades afterwards, lacking a strong unifying figure. This was nothing new to the Vikings, different groups of which frequently fought each other in Ireland, especially after the fall of Dublin in 849. But this period was particularly devastating. The history of the Irish Norse in this time is complex, a mix of rival factions, assassinations, raids, hostages and conflicting dynasties, all while Irish Kings still fought with the Vikings on occasion.

This in-fighting left the Vikings in a weak position as the tenth century began, and in 902, the alliance of Cerball mac Muirecain of Leinster and Mael Finnia mac Flannacain of Brega launched a pincer assault on Dublin. The result was the expulsion of the ruling Viking hierarchy. The battle was decisive, the Vikings fleeing headlong, leaving many of their ships behind, the Norse escaping to various sites and settlements throughout Europe. While many “common” Norse people remained, Dublin was now an Irish town. While it may have seemed that the Viking presence in Ireland was done, this defeat only marks the end of the first Viking age. Numerous smaller settlements remained (the beginnings of most modern Irish cities, from Waterford to Limerick, had already started even if these were just basic, temporary longphorts at the beginning of the 10th century) and the Vikings were still a power abroad.

What of Viking tactics and military action? Warfare of the time was a mixed bag. The Vikings early raids were focused on speed, and were not fought against opposing armies. Their long boat was suited to the fast attack and quick exit, to carrying out the most plundering possible before they had to face a defending force.

When they came to a fight against a military opponent, the Vikings used basic tactics of the time, notably the shield-wall. It was in naval battles that they excelled more than land based combat, but the Irish Kings rarely (if ever) challenged the Norse on the waves. Missile weapons like bows were becoming more common, but were still not the decisive weapon of battle, seen instead as an instrument to harass and soften up the enemy before the big clash of arms. The Vikings fought with shield, helmet, mail and spear, while swords were reserved for the more privileged. Axes were also plentiful, a rarity for the general time period. Cavalry was not a Viking strong suit, and it’s likely only their leaders rode horses into battle.

Contrary to popular belief, they probably never had horned helmets, but they were certainly one of the first opponents of the native Irish to place greater stock in armour. The Vikings put their faith in the shield-wall and their strength, but also their famous “berserks”, vicious warriors who would enter battle in a trance-like state, seeming impervious to pain and wounds. Norse armies were not large, usually no more than 7000 at most. For the vast majority of the period, the Vikings focused their strength at non-military targets.

The Vikings would return, a story for another day.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The First Viking Age

  1. steoller says:

    Really enjoying this new series.

    I’ll be back soon!

  2. Liliana Rank says:

    “Say, you got a pleasant article post.Thanks Again. Great.”

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Second Viking Age | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s War’s: Brian Boru And The Road To Clontarf | Never Felt Better

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