Irish History Overview

Vikings & High Kings – Ireland 800 AD – 1169

In the late 8th century Norsemen raiders from Scandinavia began to plunder Ireland’s coast. Blond, bearded and heavily armed, the Vikings struck terror wherever they landed to systematically loot and pillage. These early raids caused a huge amount of destruction, especially to monastic communities. Many of the valuables owned by the church were lost, along with hundreds of books.

In 837 AD large fleets of Viking ships arrived in Ireland to establish permanent bases and trading stations. Parts of Ireland that had been exempt from their attacks were now raided from these bases as the Vikings used lakes and rivers, especially the Shannon, to penetrate deep into the country. They attacked farms and monasteries, slaughtering the inhabitants and razing the buildings to the ground before carrying off anything of value.

Dublin, then called Dúbh Linn Atha Cliath [the black pool at the ford of the hurdles] was originally an ancient trading post and wintering harbour near the mouth of the river Liffey. Under Viking occupation it became a walled town, as did Cork, Waterford, Wexford and Limerick, all founded by the Norsemen.

Many of the pagan Vikings who settled in Ireland intermarried with the Irish and converted to Christianity, and their surnames became Gaelicised. The Irish also assimilated aspects of Norse culture into their lifestyle.

Even during the worst periods of the Viking raids, the provincial kings continued to quarrel among themselves, especially the Uí Néill of Tara and the Eóganacht of Cashel. In 908 AD many of the Eóganacht leaders were killed along with their king-bishop, Cormac mac Cuileannáin, at the Battle of Belach Mugna in Leinster. It was a crushing blow from which the southern dynasty never recovered.

In 919 AD Niall Glundubh led a great host of all the branches of the Uí Néill to do battle with the Vikings, but was utterly routed on the outskirts of Dublin, where he was slain along with twelve other chieftains. However, his son Muircertach of the Leather Cloaks beat the invaders at sea on Strangford Lough in 926 AD, and took and burned Dublin in 939 AD.

Despite this, the Norse communities thrived, and Dublin continued to develop into the most important commercial centre and the richest of the Viking ports in Ireland. It traded with England and also further afield. The Vikings turned Dublin into a small but powerful kingdom, with links to the Isle of Man and the Orkneys. The city was ruled by a succession of interestingly named kings such as Ivan the Hairy and Olaf the Legless.

Brian Boru (aka Brian Bóruma, “Brian of the Tributes”), originally a petty east Clare chieftain, conquered Munster, and then defeated the Uí Néill king, Máel Sechnaill, and his Norse supporters at the Battle of Glen Máma in 999 AD, and went on to crush the Norse of Dublin. He was acknowledged as Ard Rí  in 1002, becoming the self-styled ‘Emperor of the Irish’. To consolidate his political and military authority he took hostages, particularly in the north. The King of Tír Conaill was dragged to Munster in 1011 to make submission as an example to others.

King Sitric Silkenbeard of Dublin rebelled with the support of Máel Mórda of Leinster, and Vikings from as far away as Iceland and Norway joined their fellows from the Isle of Man, Scotland and the Orkney Isles in Dublin Bay. The Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday 1014 was the greatest battle yet fought on Irish soil. The High King depended mainly on his own Munster army, but he had significant help from the Vikings of Limerick and Waterford. Both kings Sitric and Brian were too old to take part. As Brian was praying for victory in his tent, he was killed with a battle-axe by Brodar of Mann, who in turn was mutilated and then killed by the Leinstermen. The Vikings were driven back to their ship, where they were horrified to find that the tide had literally turned against them, and there was fearful slaughter along the shore.

The battle marked the end of any major Viking involvement in Irish wars. However, the Norse settlements of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick had developed into trading ports and then manufacturing centres with markets at home and abroad. This had a major impact on the Irish economy, and meant a move towards the new world of commerce. Dublin continued to prosper, and gradually became the de facto commercial capital of Ireland, despite brief occupation by Gaelic rabble in 1052, 1075, and 1124. The first Irish coins were minted in Dublin in the 11th century.

Despite the disruption caused by the Vikings, Irish learning had continued and Irish scholars had played an important part in the revival of advanced civilisation in Europe, both at the time of Charlemagne and after. The philosopher Scottus Eugenus was one of several significant Irish theologians in the Sorbonne.

The 11th and 12th centuries were a time of recovery for religion and culture, in spite of the disturbed political life of the country. It was during this period that the first written versions of ancient myths and legends were compiled, along with hagiographies of saints.

It was only in the 10th century that the use of stone for building the large churches had begun, and it was only in the 11thand 12thcenturies that it became general. The Romanesque style was introduced, and some beautiful churches erected, such as Cormac’s chapel at Cashel, St. Kevin’s in Glendalough, St. Ciaran’s at Clonmacnoise, St. Caimin’s at Inniscaltra and St. Fachtnan’s Cathedral in Kilfenora in the Burren.

In the decorating of doorways and windows, sculpture had first appeared in the churches of the 10th century. Developments in the area of stone sculpture meant that a new type of figure carving came into use. This was influenced by Carolingian art but given a distinctively Irish slant by Norse craftsmen, as can be seen in the famous High Crosses, such as those at Clonmacnoise and Kells. Each has the form of an Irish Celtic cross – the Greek cross set against a sun circle atop the shaft of the Latin cross. The sculpture on the High Crosses includes carvings of the saints, scriptural scenes, royal processions, hunting scenes, stags at bay, horsemen, chariots etc.

Round Towers are a Christian architectural feature unique to Ireland, probably derived from the great bell towers of continental Europe. They were built between the 10th and 12th centuries and are believed to have been used as places of refuge and storage for valuables. Although legend has it that the principle function of such a tower was to keep out marauding Vikings, it is more likely that it was a status symbol of the importance of the church or monastery associated with it.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the economy of the country was mainly pastoral. A person’s wealth was still reckoned by the number of cattle he or she owned. The social unit was still the tuath, which was based on family groups. The ruler of a tuath lived in a fortified house called a rath or dún, together with a brehon (lawyer), bard or minstrel, physician, and several artesan craft workers. The ruler’s subjects lived in huts of wattle and clay. Dublin was the only city, and the only other urban centres were Cork, Waterford Wexford and Limerick, which were still largely populated by people of Norse descent, and some large monastic communities in Armagh and Clonmacnoise.

The Irish Celtic Church had become very corrupt, and differed from the rest of Western Europe in several aspects of doctrine, celibacy and the time of celebrating Easter. The abbots had become more powerful than the bishops. These were matters of grave concern in Rome. Brian Boru initiated reform, establishing the primacy of Armagh over new archdioceses. Saint Malachy of Armagh introduced the Cistercian Order into Ireland The 12th century saw various Synods: at Cashel in 1101, Ráith Bressail in 1111, at Kells (Mellifont) in 1152 and again at Cashel in 1172.

Upon Brian Boru’s death the High Kingship reverted to Máel Sechnaill, the former High King of the Uí Néill, who ruled until his death in 1022. For the next hundred years, rival rulers fought bitterly for supremacy. Feuding over the high-kingship involved continuous conflict and unrest in the country. For a time Turlough O’Connor of Connacht was the most powerful king in Ireland, but when he died in 1156, Murtagh MacLoughlin of Ulster, with the help of the king of Leinster, made himself High King. Ten years later, he was overthrown, and Turlough’s son, Rory O’Connor, became the last native king of Ireland. He and others ousted the king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, who sought help from King Henry II of England.

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