Ireland with its treasure-filled schools and monasteries
must have presented rich pickings for the marauding Vikings
of the eighth to tenth centuries. They had already over-run
most of Europe and, having overcome the northern and western
isles of Scotland and the Isle of Man, the short distance
to Ireland was the obvious next step for their raiders.
They first appeared on the east coast when they raided the
settlement on Lambay island, off Co. Dublin, in 795 AD.
After that, their raids became more frequent and, in 838,
they seized the ports of Annagasson in Co. Louth, and Dublin.
Their arrival in Dublin was most significant as, following
their fortification of that port, they established their
main foothold in Ireland there and, in time, Dublin became
a Viking city.
The native Irish did not distinguish the invaders by their
country of origin, i.e. the particular Scandanavian countries
from which they had originated, but rather by the colour
of their hair. They named them Fionn-Ghall and
Dubh-Ghall, meaning fair-haired foreigners
and dark-haired foreigners. In North Co. Dublin
to-day, we still have Fingal from the former
The great Viking leader, Turgesius, sailed up the river
Bann and across Lough Neagh, from where he attacked Armagh
and the surrounding countryside. Later still, he sailed
around Ireland and up the river Shannon to Lough Ree, where
he continued his depredations. Eventually, he was captured
by the Irish king, Malachy who drowned him in the waters
of Lough Neagh in 845.
The monks in the monasteries, which were the main target
of their attacks, soon began building the protective round
towers, which gradually became a feature of the Irish country-side,
many of them still remaining to this day. From these they
had an excellent view of approaching marauders, while the
sacred vessels and manuscripts could be safely brought up
to the secure higher reaches of the towers, from where also
they could repel the invaders with stones and rocks. Entrance
to the towers was always from a higher level than the ground,
with the ascending ladders being immediately drawn up after
them by the retreating monks. In an early Irish poem, the
scribe prays for a stormy night, knowing that the Vikings
will not annoy them in such adverse weather conditions.
In the 915-920 period the Vikings occupied and fortified
the ports of Waterford and Limerick and established a firm
footing there. Most towns with the suffix-ford, e.g. Wexford,
Waterford, Carlingford, etc. are reputed to have been founded
by the Vikings, the word ford coming from the
Norwegian word fjord meaning a narrow inlet.
Dublin, however, was the principal Viking settlement and
Wood Quay their chief port. In fact, Dublin
became the largest Scandanavian settlement in the then known
world, outside of Scandanavia itself. They were so strong
there that they were able to elect their own king, who became
so powerful that the High-King of Ireland was unable to
hold his annual assembly in Meath. In 919 they repelled
an Irish attack, overcoming the High Kings forces,
and killing the High King himself, in a battle where Phoenix
Park is now situated.
The Vikings, to their credit however, did not long for complete
conquest, but gradually intermingled with the Irish, particularly
through trade and commerce, and making Dublin one of the
most important sea-ports in western Europe at the time.
In 964 a Clare prince named Mahon, of the Dal gCais tribe,
asserted his authority over the province of Munster and
waged continual warfare on the Vikings of Limerick whom
he totally defeated in 968. Ten years later, however, Mahon
was defeated and slain by a rival Munster king, but this
was later avenged by his brother, Brian (later to be known
as Brian Boru), who then assumed the kingship of the southern
province. Brian, however, was not satisfied with being king
of Munster and gradually asserted his dominance over the
entire country, beginning with a total defeat of the Leinster
men at the Battle of Glenmama in 999. These had refused
to pay him the cow tribute but this battle ended
their objections in no uncertain manner. Brian could not
be contained and the High King, Malachy the Second, eventually
submitted to him in 1002 without a contest, as he regarded
him as the best chance of defeating the Vikings.
Brian Boru proved to be an exceptionally strong and efficient
High King, providing good government as well as steadfast
protection against the raids of the foreigners. The Norse
King of Dublin and the Irish King of Leinster were far from
happy under his authority, however, and they soon organised
a strong challenge to his over-lordship. Sitric the Viking
king of Dublin visited Sigurd, the king of the Orkneys,
and they agreed to muster a huge hosting of Vikings at Dublin
for a final showdown with Brian, Sigurd to become King of
Ireland if they were victorious. As Easter approached the
hosts of Norsemen and Danes, assisted by the armies of Dublin
and Leinster assembled at Clontarf and a major battle was
in the offing.
Brian Boru had learned of the preparations being made by
the Vikings and Leinstermen and soon assembled a strong
force to oppose them. Malachy, the High King whom he had
deposed, also came with his army to assist him, putting
the interests of his country before his own personal interest.
The battle took place at Clontarf near Dublin on Good Friday,
April 23rd, 1014. Brian, now in his old age, addressed his
troops before the battle and then knelt in his tent, and
prayed for their success, which they duly achieved, following
a long and very bloody confrontation.
The Vikings were driven into the sea and Sigurd was slain.
But the Irish paid dearly for their victory - a Viking chief
named Bruadar, retreating from the battlefield, came across
Brian kneeling in his tent and rushing in, slew him with
his battle axe, but he in turn was also soon disposed of
by the High Kings body-guard. Brian was the major
Irish casualty in the battle, but his son Murchu, who might
have succeeded Brian, was also slain and, even though victory
was sweet and decisive, the cost of the Irish was indeed
The Battle of Clontarf, and its aftermath, is described
thus by the Four Masters in The Annals
of the Kingdom of Ireland.
An army was led by Brian, son of Ceinneidigh, son
of Lorcan, King of Ireland, and by Maelseachlainn (Malachy)
son of Domhnall, King of Teamhair (Tara) to Ath Cliath (Dublin).
The foreigners of the West of Europe assembled against Brian
and Maelseachlainn; and they took with them ten hundred
men with coats of mail. A spirited, fierce, violent, vengeful
and furious battle was fought between them - the likeness
of which was not to be found in that time at Cluain-tarbh
(Clontarf), on the Friday before Easter precisely. In this
battle were slain Brian, son of Ceinneidigh, monarch of
Ireland, who was the Augustus of all the West of Europe,
in the eighty-eighth year of his age; Murchadh, son of Brian,
heir apparent to the sovereignty of Ireland, in the sixty-third
year of his age; ... There were also slain ... Sichfrith,
son of Loder, Earl of InnsihOrc (Orkneys); Brodar, chief
of the Danes of Denmark, who was the person that slew Brian.
The ten hundred in armour were cut to pieces, and at least
three thousand of the foreigners were there slain.
Maelmuire, son of Eochaidh, successor of Patrick, proceeded
with the seniors and relics to Sord Choluim Chille (Swords);
and they carried from thence the body of Brian, King of
Ireland, and the body of Murchadh, his son, ... Maelmuire
and his clergy waked the bodies with great honour and veneration;
and they were interred at Ard Macha (Armagh) in a new tomb.
Thus ended the threat of further invasion from the Vikings,
and those who remained integrated completely with the Irish.
One future Viking king of Dublin would even marry an Irish
lady and would also build the first Christchurch cathedral
in Dublin. This was a wooden structure and would later be
destroyed by invading Normans, following the unsuccessful
defence of the city by the combined forces of Irish and
Following the death of Brian, Malachy the Second was restored
to the High-Kingship, which he held until his death in 1022.
Thereafter there was much conflict over the High King-ship
with no single monarch quite able to extend his lordship
over the whole island. This resulted in a series of High
Kings with Opposition claiming the kingship of Ireland.
Eventually Connacht provided a king strong enough to claim
the throne without opposition and this was Roderick (Rory)
OConnor. Unfortunately, just when it appeared that
Ireland was on the road to recovery, as well as a period
of peace and prosperity, another new enemy appeared on the
horizon, brought in by one of Irelands own lesser
kings, and thus introducing an enemy that would prove greater
than anything Ireland had previously experienced and thus
would have an everlasting effect on Irish history.