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History of Ireland: The Vikings in Ireland

Updated on September 8, 2012
The first Vikings in Ireland came as raiders, but later they settled and founded the first towns in Ireland.
The first Vikings in Ireland came as raiders, but later they settled and founded the first towns in Ireland.

Vikings in Ireland

At the end of the eighth century sea-faring warriors from the North of Europe began to spread out in search of lootable wealth and new lands to settle in. A shortage of land in Scandinavia meant that many men there were looking for opportunities in other lands. The Vikings came to Ireland first as raiders attacking monasteries and carrying off precious items such as illuminated manuscripts or gold chalices, but later many settled in the island and had an important impact on Irish life.

The Vikings are not always remembered as an important influence in Irish history but they brought innovations such as coinage and created the towns at Dublin, Waterford, Wexford and Limerick. Their early attacks also prompted monasteries to find ways to defend themselves. Some built round towers to escape from their attackers, and some of these towers can still be seen in Ireland today. Other monasteries moved away from their coastal locations to inland sites which they considered to be safer.

The Vikings brought many changes to Ireland, both positive and negative. It seems strange now perhaps, but for more than two centuries the greatest external threat to the people of Ireland was these bands of fierce sea-going warriors.

The abbey at Devenish island, Ireland, had a typical round tower (seen in the distance). Monaks would have climbed up to the top room in the tower by ladder and then pulled up the ladder leaving them and their valuables high above the ground.
The abbey at Devenish island, Ireland, had a typical round tower (seen in the distance). Monaks would have climbed up to the top room in the tower by ladder and then pulled up the ladder leaving them and their valuables high above the ground.

How did Irish monks see the Vikings?

The first raids by Vikings came as a terrible shock to the monks of Ireland. For more than two centuries, the people of Ireland had lived in relative peace and stability. What's more, the monks expected God to protect them, as Christians, from the pagan vikings. The success of early Viking raids must have severely tested the monks' faith. Many monks were captured and sold into slavery and the brutality of Viking attacks was reported far and wide.

A short poem was written in the margin of a holy text by an Irish monk in the 800s.It captures how monks had to be constantly vigilant when the sea was quiet as it meant Vikings could suddenly appear. In English is reads as:

The wind is fierce tonight / it tosses the sea's white mane/ I do not fear the coursing of a quiet sea/ by the fierce warriors of Lochlann.

The Irish called Denmark 'Lochlann' meaning land of the lakes. As this poem shows, it was only when the seas where stormy that the Irish monks truly felt safe from attack.



How the Vikings changed Ireland

However, the Vikings did not bring only destruction. In later centuries, Danes and Norsemen settled in Ireland and brought innovations which helped increase trade. Vikings created the first towns in Ireland (for example at Dublin, Limerick and Waterford). At that time the native Irish typically lived in raths, fortified ring forts which were scattered across the countryside. While the raths suited their cattle-based economy, it was not very conducive to markets or trading.

The Viking towns became focal points for trade, exchange and export. The Vikings also introduced metal coins to Ireland. Having coins as a unit of exchange made it much easier for people to buy and sell goods and services. Before the Vikings came, the Irish measured wealth in heads of cows. But a whole cow was not very useful to pay for something small like a loaf of bread!

The Vikings also brought new art forms which were integrated with Celtic art in exciting new ways. And at the same time, the Viking settlers gradually assimilated into the Irish way of life. They became Christian, started speaking Gaelic and married into Irish families.

Today there areonly a few signs that the Vikings ever came to Ireland. The ruins of monasteries often include a round tower, and many are located inland far from major waterways. Some place names come from Norse words - for example 'Skerries' meaning 'sea rocks' or 'Wexford' meaning 'river-mouth protected by a sandbank'. Some family names also refer to Viking ancestors. For example, McLaughlin comes from the Gaelic Mac Lochlainn, meaning 'son of the Dane'.



The secret of Kells is a film set when the Vikings came to Ireland

The early history of Ireland

Click on the title of an article to read more about the history of Ireland before the vikings:

Comments

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    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks - glad you enjoyed!

    • profile image

      Claire Sullivan 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing - I just watched Secret of Kells and thought it was a wonderful film. I am sure the Vikings were seen as faceless demons as protrayed in the film. Wonderful and your article is superb. Thanks, Claire.

    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      I am glad you enjoyed the articles!

    • gknutson49 profile image

      gary knutson 

      5 years ago from Wisconson

      Glad to hear my Viking ancestors were more than blood thirsty killers. Interesting article as are the others about the celts. Thank You

    • profile image

      jwm 

      5 years ago

      McLaughlin and proud thanks for writing an article about my ancestors

    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      I think it is a good topic to research because there are a lack of good scholarly accounts of the vikings in Ireland. This book may help to get you started:

      http://www.amazon.com/The-Vikings-Ireland-Settleme...

    • profile image

      Rebecca 

      6 years ago

      Hey, I'm considering doing a research proposal on this very topic! Any chance you could point me toward some good scholarly sources?

      Thanks so much!

    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      I think the early raids were quite brutal (the monks thought so anyway) but yes, the Vikings did also bring some good things to Ireland!

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      6 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Its interesting how we normally associate the Vikings with bloodthirsty violence, but I was genuinely fascinated to hear that they created the town of Dublin. Thanks for this.

    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      I hope you find out lots of interesting facts in your studies!

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      GH Price 

      6 years ago from North Florida

      This is interesting. I knew that there were Vikings in Ireland, but I haven't really sat down to learn about them. Thanks for prodding me along in my studies!

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