Few places suffered more at the hands of the Vikings than Ireland. For the best part of 200 years the Vikings systematically milked Ireland of its people to supply the slave trade, yet, for all their military success they failed to conquer and settle in any territory besides a few fortified coastal enclaves. This is the conundrum of Viking Age Ireland; it was a land that looked weak but was in reality strong and resilient.
Superficially, Ireland must have looked to the Vikings like an easy target. There is no doubt that in England and Francia internal divisions worked to the Vikings’ advantage, and if there, why not even more so in Ireland, which was the most divided country in western Europe? Early medieval Ireland was a complex mosaic of around 150 local kingdoms and a dozen over-kingdoms. The local kingdoms or túatha were usually very small – often less than 100 square miles with populations of only a few thousand – and were defined as a ‘people’ or ‘community’, rather than as territorial units. The people of a túath were, in theory at least, an extended kinship group, or clan, and the king was the head of the senior lineage. The king (rí túathe) was responsible to his people for the fertility of their land and cattle, hence their prosperity: this was a legacy of pagan times when a king who failed to deliver would be sacrificed to the gods. Kings also had duties of lawmaking, judgement and leadership in war. In return all the free families of the túath owed the king taxes (paid in kind) and military service. Local kings might themselves owe tribute (usually in cattle), hospitality and military service to an over-king (ruirí), who in turn might owe it to a high king (rí ruirech). Over-kings, therefore, did not exercise direct rule outside their own túath, their power rested upon their ability to call on the resources and services of their client kings. The most powerful over-king of the day might be described as High King of Ireland (rí Érenn), but this was not really a formal institution with defined rules of succession. The relationships between kingdoms were not fixed. A local king with military ability and ambition could build a strong war band and use it to make himself an over-king by forcing other local kings to become his tributaries. Nevertheless, by the eighth century some stable dynasties of over-kings had emerged, the most powerful of which were the Northern and Southern Uí Néill dynasties of north-east Ulster and Meath respectively. To an outsider, early medieval Ireland would have appeared to be a chaotic and deeply divided country and, indeed, small-scale warfare between its kingdoms was endemic. Yet this highly decentralised political structure was to prove incredibly resilient, well able to absorb the shock of Viking invasions and constantly renew resistance.
In contrast to England and Francia where the Danes dominated, these raids were mainly the work of Norwegians, sailing to Ireland via the Northern Isles and the Hebrides. Viking activity in Ireland developed at first in much the same way as it did in England and Francia, beginning with small-scale hit-and-run raids on exposed coastal monasteries gradually escalating until the Vikings founded permanent bases and became a year-round presence plundering and captive-taking across the whole country. The first recorded Viking raids in Ireland took place in 795 when the same Viking band that sacked Iona sacked a monastery on Rechru, which may either be Lambay Island north of Dublin, or Rathlin Island off the northern Irish coast. In the 830s, larger fleets, numbering around sixty ships, began to arrive. Once its island monasteries had been plundered, Ireland’s wild and mountainous west coast, so similar to the west coast of Scotland, was generally shunned by the Vikings because of its poverty. The Vikings concentrated their efforts on the more fertile and densely populated east coast and the great midland plain. In 836, a fleet sailed for the first time far inland along Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon, and sacked the wealthy monasteries of Clonmacnoise and Clonfert. The following year, a Viking fleet sailed from Donegal Bay into Lough Erne to plunder monasteries around its shores. Another sacked the monastery of Áth Cliath – on the site of modern Dublin – while a third army ravaged on the Boyne, and a fourth was on the Shannon again. Nowhere was safe: ‘the sea cast floods of foreigners into Ireland, so there was not a point thereof that was without a fleet’, wrote one chronicler.
Although the Irish often fought fiercely, the Vikings’ advantage of mobility meant that they often escaped unchallenged: the saints slept and did not protect their monasteries. Monks trembled in their cells and prayed for bad weather to keep the Vikings off the seas. As kings were rarely inclined to help their rivals, the Vikings often benefited from the divisions between the Irish kingdoms. Indeed, most kings took a thoroughly pragmatic view of the Vikings, treating them as just another element in their country’s complex political geography, often welcoming them as allies who could help weaken a rival kingdom. Some bands of Irishmen took advantage of the disorder created by the Vikings to go plundering themselves ‘in the manner of the heathens’. One such band was destroyed by Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid (r. 845 – 62), the powerful Southern Uí Néill high king of Meath, in 847.
The first longphuirt
In 839 there was a step-change in Viking activity. A Viking fleet sailed up the River Bann into Lough Neagh. Instead of plundering and leaving, the Vikings built a fortified ship camp on the lakeshore, which they used as a base to plunder the heart of Ulster for three successive summers. This was the first of many such bases – known as longphuirt by the Irish – that Viking armies were to build in Ireland over the next few years as they intensified their raids. The foundation of the longphuirt subtly changed the dynamics of Viking activity in Ireland. The Vikings were now a permanent presence in Ireland and could raid all year round, but at the same time, they lost some of their mobility, making them more vulnerable to Irish counterattack.
The leader of the fleet on Lough Neagh was a warlord who the Irish called Turgeis, that is probably Thórgestr or Thórgils in Old Norse. Turgeis’ origins are not known, but he may have come from the Hebrides as he had as his allies the Gall-Gaedhil, those ‘foreign Gaels’ who were the product of marriages between Norse settlers and the local Gaelic-speaking population. Turgeis’ greatest coup was plundering St Patrick’s monastery at Armagh three times in 840: after his final attack he burned it down for good measure. Armagh was an especially rich prize; apart from its precious reliquaries and sacred vessels, many Irish kings had their royal treasuries there, hoping that they would enjoy the protection of its powerful patron saint. It would not only have been monks who suffered in these attacks. Armagh was surrounded by a small town of craftsmen, merchants, estate managers and others who serviced the needs of this most prestigious of all Irish ecclesiastical centres. Turgeis’ activities are uncertain for the next few years, but he is thought by some historians to have been the leader of the Vikings who in 841 founded what would become the most successful of all the longphuirt at Dublin. In 844, Turgeis led his fleet up the River Shannon as far as Lough Ree, where he built another longphort from which he plundered widely in the midlands. The following year, in the first serious reverse suffered by the Vikings in Ireland, he was captured by Máel Sechnaill, who drowned him in Lough Owel in County Westmeath.
Turgeis’ reputation grew with the telling and after his death he became a symbol of everything that was wicked about the Vikings. In the colourful but unreliable twelfth-century history of Ireland’s Viking wars, Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), Turgeis has become the king of all the Vikings in Ireland, bent on conquering the whole island. This Turgeis is a militant pagan who expels the abbot from Armagh and sets himself up as a pagan high priest. His wife Ota (probably Auðr) is just as bad, performing acts of witchcraft on the altar of the abbey at Clonmacnoise. This story might not be wholly improbable as Ota may have been a völva, a Viking seeress with powers to predict the future. According to the Welsh churchman Gerald of Wales, who travelled in Ireland during the 1180s, Turgeis actually conquered Ireland but was lured to his death by his weakness for women. Turgeis took a fancy to Máel Sechnaill’s daughter. The king, ‘hiding his hatred in his heart’, agreed to hand her over to Turgeis on an island in Lough Owel along with fifteen other beautiful girls. Turgeis was delighted and went to the rendezvous with fifteen of his leading warriors, all of them expecting amorous encounters. But Máel Sechnaill had laid a trap for them. His daughter was waiting for Turgeis on the island not with fifteen girls but with fifteen hand-picked young men, all clean shaven and dressed in women’s clothing, under which they carried knives. Turgeis and his unsuspecting warriors were stabbed to death ‘in the midst of their embraces’. Gerald probably recorded the story not to flatter the Irish for their cunning but because it chimed comfortably with his own prejudices: he regarded the Irish as a thoroughly deceitful and untrustworthy bunch who always negotiated in bad faith.
More reverses for the Vikings followed. In 848 the Irish won four major battles against the Vikings, killing over 2,000 of them in the process, according the Annals of Ulster. Irish annalists described these battle casualties as ‘heads’: Irish warriors still practiced the ancient Celtic custom of taking enemy heads as war trophies and rarely took prisoners. Then, in 849, Máel Sechnaill captured and plundered Dublin. Discouraged by their defeats, many Vikings left to seek easier pickings in Francia. The Norwegians suffered another blow in 851when a large force of Danish Vikings expelled them from Dublin. The following year the Norwegians suffered another crushing defeat by the Danes in a three-day battle at Carlingford Lough in County Down. The Danish intervention in Ireland was short-lived. In 853 two brothers, Olaf and Ivar, recaptured Dublin for the Norwegians and expelled the Danes.
The kingdom of Dublin
The arrival of Olaf and Ivar at Dublin in 853 was a decisive moment in Ireland’s Viking Age. Olaf and Ivar (who are called Amláib and Ímhar in Irish annals) became the first kings of Dublin and under their rule it developed from a rough ship-camp into the dominant Viking power centre of the whole Irish Sea area. Irish sources describe Olaf and Ivar as sons of King Gofraid of Lochlann, which is the usual Gaelic name for Norway, but their origins remain uncertain. Most modern historians identify Olaf with Olaf the White, a king of Dublin who features in Icelandic saga traditions. Attempts to identify Ivar with the legendary Viking Ivar the Boneless are unconvincing: Ivar the Boneless’s father was the equally legendary Viking Ragnar Lodbrok who, if he existed at all, was most likely a Dane. What is more certain is that the descendants of Olaf and Ivar, known to the Irish as the Uí Ímair, would dominate the Irish Sea for the next 200 years.
There is not enough evidence about the careers of Turgeis and Tomrair to be sure of their motives: did they aspire to found Viking states in Ireland or were they really just out for the plunder? It is clear, however, that Olaf and Ivar were trying to create a kingdom for themselves because their first actions were to impose tribute on all the Viking armies operating in Ireland. It is hard to work out from the Irish annals exactly how many of these there were but there must have been at least three or four. In their efforts to build a secure power base, the brothers took full advantage of the complex political rivalries of the Irish kingdoms. In 859 Olaf and Ivar allied with Cerball mac Dúnlainge (r. 842 – 880), king of Osraige, against his overlord Máel Sechnaill. According to saga traditions, the alliance was sealed by a marriage between Olaf and one of Cerball’s daughters. A Christian king is unlikely to have married his daughters to pagans, so, if the tradition is true, it is likely that Olaf had at least been baptised. In 858, Ivar and Cerball campaigned together in Leinster, and in Munster against the Gall-Gaedhil. The next year Olaf, Ivar and Cerball together invaded Máel Sechnaill’s kingdom of Meath. After Cerball came to terms with Máel Sechnaill, he dropped his Norse allies. Olaf and Ivar soon found a new ally in Áed Finnliath (c. 855 – 79), the northern Uí Néill king of Ulster. Together they plundered Máel Sechnaill’s kingdom in 861 and 862. After Máel Sechnaill’s death in 862, Olaf and Ivar switched to supporting his successor Lorcán against Áed. The brothers did Lorcán’s standing no good at all when, in 863, they dug open the great Neolithic burial mounds at Knowth on the River Boyne to look for treasure. Although pagan in origin, these ancient mounds were rich in mythological significance for the Irish and this desecration was thought to be shocking behaviour even by the Viking’s low standards. The following year Áed captured the discredited Lorcán, blinded him and forced him to abdicate.
Olaf and his brothers had now run out of willing allies in Ireland and, in 866, they took their fleet across the Irish Sea to raid Pictland in alliance with the Gall-Gaedhil. Áed, now high king, took advantage of their absence to plunder and destroy all the Viking longphuirt in Ulster. After a victory over the Vikings on Lough Foyle, Áed took 240 heads home as trophies. The limited extent of Viking territorial control was starkly demonstrated in 867 when Áed’s ally Cennétig king of Loigis, destroyed Olaf’s border fortress at Clondalkin just 5 miles from Dublin, which he then went on to plunder. Olaf now allied with the southern Uí Néill and Leinster against Áed. Áed crushed the alliance at the Battle of Killineer (Co. Louth) in 868: among the dead was one of Olaf’s sons. Olaf struck back at Áed in 869, brutally sacking Armagh and leading off 1,000 captives for the slave markets. This was a severe blow to Áed’s prestige – he was supposed to be the monastery’s protector. After this success, Olaf and Ivar crossed the Irish Sea to Strathclyde and laid siege to its capital, Alt Clut, on the summit of Dumbarton Rock, overlooking the River Clyde. Alt Clut fell after four months and the brothers returned to Dublin with a hoard of treasure. They went back to Strathclyde for more the following year and this time returned ‘with a great prey of Angles, Britons and Picts’. Olaf and Ivar were back plundering in Meath in 872, but in the next year Ivar died of ‘a sudden, horrible disease’. Olaf survived until 874 or 875: he was killed in battle with Constantine I of Scotland at Dollar in Clackmannanshire.
The deaths of Ivar and Olaf began what the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh dubbed the ‘Forty Years’ Rest’, a long period of reduced Viking activity in Ireland that lasted until 914. Deprived of the strong military leadership provided by Olaf and Ivar, Dublin became politically unstable under a succession of short-lived successors. Olaf’s first successor as king of Dublin, his son Oystín (Eystein), lasted barely a year: he was killed when Dublin was captured by a Danish Viking who Irish annalists called Alband. Alband is most likely to have been Halfdan, the Danish king of York. Áed Finnliath came to the rescue of his Viking allies, quickly expelling Alband and placing Ivar’s son Bárðr on the throne. Alband returned to Ireland in 877, but was killed fighting the Dublin Vikings at Strangford Lough. However, his dream of uniting Dublin and York into a trans-Irish Sea kingdom survived. Bárðr died in 881 and was followed by six short-lived kings, none of whom was able to arrest the kingdom’s decline. In 902, Cerball mac Muirecáin, king of Leinster and Máel Finnia of Brega launched a co-ordinated pincer attack on Dublin from the north and south, forcing the Norse to flee for their ships after a fierce battle. The refugees fled mainly to North Wales and north-west England. Ireland’s first Viking Age was over.
From longphort to town
Most of the Vikings’ longphuirt were either abandoned, or were destroyed by the Irish, after relatively short periods of occupation. Dublin was one of a small group of longphuirt, which also included Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, which developed into permanent towns. These longphuirt all had in common good tidal harbours. The exact location of the original Viking longphort at Dublin now lies buried beneath later buildings. This has necessarily limited archaeological investigation of the city’s origins to rescue excavations on sites that have been temporarily cleared for redevelopment. Evidence for early Viking occupation, including warrior burials, buildings, ship rivets and a possible defensive rampart, excavated from sites at Ship Street Great and South Great George’s Street, suggest that the longphort was probably in the area where Dublin Castle now stands, close to the Dubhlinn, the ‘black pool’ from which the city got its English name. This was a now-vanished tidal pool at the confluence of the River Liffey and its small tributary the Poddle. Dublin was already a place of some importance before the longphort was built as a monastic centre and the site of the lowest ford across the River Liffey: its Gaelic name Áth Cliath means ‘the ford of the hurdles’. This ford made Dublin a natural focus of overland routes and, with its good harbour and short sailing distances to Wales, north-west England, Galloway and the Isle of Man, it was ideally situated to become a successful port and trading centre. The same geographical advantages also made Dublin an ideal base for raiding, not only in eastern Ireland but around the whole Irish Sea region. No other longphort in Ireland had the same combination of advantages: it was almost inevitable that Dublin would become Ireland’s dominant Viking centre.
Early Dublin was probably similar to the well-preserved longphort at Linn Duchaill, about 40 miles further north, near the village of Annagassan in County Louth. Founded in the same year as Dublin, this longphort was built on the site of a minor monastery on the banks of the River Glyde, close to its estuary into the Irish Sea. The Vikings occupied the longphort until 891, when the Irish expelled them. Vikings reoccupied the site c. 914 only for it to be abandoned for good in 927. The site has been open farmland ever since so, unlike Dublin, this longphort’s remains have seen little disturbance. Covering about 40 acres (16 hectares), the longphort at Linn Duachaill was large enough to accommodate an army that was several thousand strong. A rampart and ditch, ¾ of a mile long, protected the landward side of the fort and there was a small citadel on higher ground within the fort. Excavations yielded large numbers of ships’ rivets, testifying to ship repair and perhaps shipbuilding on the site. Pieces of hacksilver and the remains of scales show that loot was divided up here and an iron slave chain dredged from the river is evidence of slave raiding. A shuttle and spindle whorl provide evidence of spinning and weaving in the fort. As these were not occupations for Viking warriors, women must have lived there. Geophysical surveys suggest that the waterfront was densely built-up but this has not yet been confirmed by excavations. Linn Duachaill did not have the good harbour that Dublin had, and it was that which probably prevented it ever developing into a permanent town.