Ireland’s Wars: The Second Viking Age

Ireland, 902. The native Irish were in control of Dublin, the former inhabitants were scattered here and there, and the Norse presence in Ireland had been reduced to a few temporary settlements on the south and west coasts. The beginning of 10th century was a low point for the Vikings.

But they were not defeated. Indeed, they remained quite strong in Britain, only a short distance away. The Ui Imair, the dynasty that had lost Dublin in 902 was, for the next decade, active throughout the area, reported in Pictland, Northumbria and the Isle of Man.

It was not until 914 that they made their move back into Ireland, landing a large fleet in Waterford harbour, followed by others over the next few years. They landed near Leixlip, Kildare around the same time.

This was a concerted effort by two men, Ragnall in Waterford and Sithric in the east. Ragnall was a Norse ruler in Britain, seeking to expand his holdings, Sithric a kinsman. They both began raids deeper into Ireland, almost certainly seeking a confrontation with the native Irish.

Niall Glundub was the current King of the Ui Neills, and he promptly marched his forces into Munster to face Ragnall. However, for whatever reason, no battle took place between them in 20 days of standoff. Possibly Niall was waiting for support from allies in Leinster, but this was not to be forthcoming. The King of Leinster, Augaire mac Ailella, had marched his forces towards Dublin to face Sithric. They fought a battle in a disputed location, possibly Confey, Kildare. Regardless of where it took place, the battle was a decisive victory for the Norse, who killed 600 Irish (large numbers for the day), including the King, and proceeded to plunder the rest of Kildare in the aftermath. From there Sithric was easily able to re-assert Norse control over Dublin, and the Viking presence in Ireland had returned on a more permanent basis.

Niall was unable to face Ragnall, reinforcing the Norse victory. He soon left to become King of York, leaving Sithric as the ruler of Dublin.

What followed over the next decade was a period of rapid Norse expansion, as numerous small settlements grew into proper towns and fortresses. These included Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Wexford, dramatically altering the balance of power in the island. No more could Irish Kings focus their efforts on Dublin, no more they could easily deal with the Norse presence elsewhere as Aed Findliath had in Ulster. Of course, something else was already happening to the Norse in Ireland, which would have a far greater effect on them then any battle. More at the end.

In 919, Niall Glundub decided to try his hand again, marching an army against Dublin directly, meeting Sithric at the Battle of Islandbridge. It was another Irish disaster, a decisive victory for the Norse, and again the King of the Irish was among the casualties. Dublin’s position was even more secured. In 920 Sithric left Dublin to take up Ragnall’s position in York after his death leaving the Irish Kingdom in the hands of his kinsman Gofraid.

Gofraid has a fearsome reputation, even among Vikings, and was soon raiding, pillaging and slaving like never before. His thrusts reached into the north, but there were crucial differences between his attacks and earlier ones. Chroniclers note that, when he seized the important Christian settlement of Armagh, the home of the cult of St Patrick, he did not destroy any “prayer-houses” or butcher the wounded. It is not unreasonable to think that this is evidence of possible Christianization of the Norse by this time. His movements northwards were also more like campaigns then raids, and it seems as if Gofraid was attempting to exert a permanent presence on the east coast, expanding the Kingdom of Dublin.

In this he was opposed by two forces. Muirchertach mac Neill of the Ui Neill and King of Ailech, inflicted several defeats on Gofraid’s forces in 926, described as “routs” in the Annals of Ulster, at Snam Aigneach and Cluain na Cruimtheir. In the latter Gofraid’s son was killed and the survivors besieged, saved only by a swift relieving force led by Gofraid himself. Muirchertach is a famous military figure of the time, described as the “Hector of the Irish”, and he spent most of his life fighting the Norse or his neighbouring Irish Kingdoms. However, he never came close to attacking Dublin.

The second force that opposed Dublin was, as was so often the case, other Vikings. Those who had founded and built up Limerick had become a considerable power in their own right, and in the 920s and 930s open warfare between themselves and the Norse in Dublin was rampant, for the dominance of the Norse presence in Ireland. How or why this conflict started is not known. Gofraid had attacked Limerick directly in 924, but was beaten off with some loss. In 927 Gofraid had left Dublin to try and take up the Kingship of York following Sithric’s death, but was driven out by Athelstan, an English King, only six months later. In his absence, the Limerick Norse had seized Dublin but Gofraid soon seized it back, by what means is not known.

Throughout all this time, the Irish continued to fight each other and the Norse continued to raid and attack non-Norse settlements – Gofraid razing a place called Derc Ferna, Kilkenny in 930 for example. The lack of cohesive action by the native Irish against the Vikings, as there had been in previous centuries, was a major reason for Norse expansion and stability, to the extent that they were able to wage what was almost a civil war in Ireland without fear of total defeat.

That civil war came to an end in 937, when Gofraid’s son and successor Amlaib forced Limerick into submission. A battle is not actually reported, so whether this was done violently or was something akin to a truce is not known. Amlaib went to Britain shortly after to engage in wars against Athelstan.

Dublin was left in the hands of a man called Blacaire mac Gofrith. He stamped his authority and made known his presence by killing Muirchertach mac Neill in 943 near Armagh. However, this success was short lived, as Blacaire allowed Dublin to be sacked under his rule only the very next year by the new High King of Ireland Congalach mac Mael Mithig. Blacaire was expelled from Dublin by Amlaib Cuaran, a kinsman of the previously mentioned Amlaib. Amlaib Cuaran allied himself with Congalach, but was heavily defeated in a battle near Slane by Ruaidri ua Canannain, a rival Ui Neill to Congalach. This allowed Blacaire to retake Dublin, but the following year he was killed “by cunning” – probably assassinated – and many of his followers were butchered by Congalach.

Ruaidri was killed at the Battle of Muine Brocain, by “foreigners” – Vikings – in what, if the Annals of Ulster are to be believed, was a bloodbath with over 2’000 Norse killed. Six years later Congalach was killed by an alliance of Leinster and Dublin at the Battle of Tech Giurann.

What followed for the next several decades is a tangled web or politics, marriage alliances and varying relations with neighbouring Kingdoms, as Amlaib Cuaran warred with Domnall ua Neill, Congalach’s successor, as well as with other Viking groups that raided in Leinster at the time. As with the first Viking age, the settled Vikings were now fully involved in wars of the native Irish. Amlaib and Domnalll were brothers-in-law, through Amlaib’s marriage to Domnall’s sister, but this did not stop what was near constant warfare between them, either directly or through attacks on allies. Both sides had their victories and their setbacks, with Domnall having great success in the midlands while Amlaib maintained Norse control in Dublin and reach throughout Leinster. The war sucked in numerous smaller Kingdoms and dominated life at the time.

Domnall’s sons were killed by Amlaib – how exactly is not known – in 977. Perhaps this is what finally broke Domnall and his will to fight, for he retired to a monastery in Armagh shortly after. Amlaib, an old man now, was the leader of a buoyant and apparently victorious people, who captured and ransomed Ugaire, King of Leinster, the previous year, a true measure of their power.

Domnall died in 980. His successor was Mael Sechnaill, great-great-grandson and namesake of the man who had achieved several major victories over the Vikings over a century previously. He was also Amlaib’s stepson, but this did not matter, as Mael had already attacked Dublin in 975. Now as High-King, he moved to continue Domnall’s war on the Norse.

His force would have consisted primarily of men from his home Kingdom of Mide, backed up by troops from Leinster and Munster. His opponents called upon their own strength in Dublin, as well as troops from as far away as the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Amlaib was in no  condition to lead an army at his advanced age, and the Norse were led by his sons.

The forces clashed near the Hill of Tara, Meath. The result was a slaughter, with several Irish Kings and Amlaib’s son Ragnall killed, but a decisive victory for the Irish was achieved. The Norse took very heavy losses, and Mael was able to move on Dublin and take it with ease. Amlaib was forced to abdicate and was replaced by his son Gluniairn – Mael’s half-brother.

Here is the end of the Viking age. Why so? Because they were no longer a great power, but more importantly they were no longer Vikings. For generations they had been mixing with the natives, producing a race dubbed the “Norse-Gaels”. Dublin had a large Irish population, albeit with a Norse elite, but the integration of the Norse into Irish culture cannot be denied. Added to this is Christianization of the Norse, the inter-marriages with the royal families of Ireland and the cessation of traditional Viking activity. They were becoming more Irish then Norse. That is not to say that the Norse impact on Ireland was done, but they certainly were not “Vikings” anymore. Neither really were the other Norse settlements throughout Ireland, from Waterford to Limerick, who were suffering their own defeats to other Kings.

Tara ended the Norse as a military threat to the rest of Ireland, and the subsequent occupation of Dublin was a sure sign of native dominance over them. The Saxons were pushing back against the Norse in Britain, as were the Picts. All over the isles, Viking power was on the wane, transformed into something else.

Warfare was becoming larger in scale as the records would indicate, the casualty figures grander in scale than ever before. Battles and military affairs were still much the same as they had been though, with the heavy emphasis on the shield-wall, the packed line of infantry, with little time for cavalry or missile weapons.

The Norse still had a role to play in Ireland, as an enemy to a near legendary figure, soon to rise. The Viking star was falling, just as a King in Munster became prominent. His story is that of the next entry and his name was Brian Boru.

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

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One Response to Ireland’s Wars: The Second Viking Age

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

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