History of Ireland: The Vikings 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.
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'.