The great Viking love affair with Ireland would begin in 795 AD, and go on for 333 years. These times would see some of the darkest moments in Irish history: countless murdered, churches burned, a slave trade industrialized, and the rise and fall of multiple Gaelic kingdoms. But what made these ruthless raiders set sail on the Atlantic Ocean and leave their homelands? The Vikings came from three areas of what is now Scandinavia in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. The Swedish Vikings went east into Russia and the Baltic countries, whereas the Danes and the Norwegians sailed west. In the 8th century, the Vikings were facing hard times. With the long, dark winters and big mountains, those that lived there had to adapt often to survive; and when land became scarce and they were pushed further and further north, they would look elsewhere to fix their troubles. With the evolution of their longship, nothing was impossible for the Vikings in Western Europe. The boat’s first design mimicked the dugout canoe, or log boat. Then came the overlapping planks, and the switch from paddles to anchored oars. More power demanded more stability, so the Vikings switched to iron nails to keep the planks in place. But the greatest advancement of the ships would come after the fall of the Roman Empire, when expanded trade routes through and around Scandinavia opened the doors to more opportunities. The Viking longship gained a mainsail, and the already powerful, speedy boats soon became unstoppable.
With these boats, the Vikings left home and set their sights on new possibilities. Some were traders looking to expand further with Scandinavian raw materials like iron and soapstone, some were farmers hoping for better land conditions, and some were the raiders that history knows so well, looking to get rich quick; and because they were traders, they knew exactly where to go to find these treasures: the christian monasteries. These religious dwellings were sources of knowledge and wealth, and almost all were on islands and coastlines, which made them easy pickings. Their first big raid would take place on Lindisfarne, a holy island off the coast of Britain. There, the Vikings raped, pillaged, and plundered the treasures of the church. They killed many, drowned some, and took what was left as slaves. It wouldn’t take long for the Vikings to find Ireland, and do what they did to Lindisfarne, to many Irish monasteries; and in 795 AD, the Annals of Ulster would document the beginning of the raids on Irish land starting on the Island’s of Rathlin and Lambay.
The next thirty to forty years would see this pattern repeat. The Vikings would come, take what they wanted, and run back to their boats to flee. This made them dangerous only to the coastlines, whereas the majority of Gaelic powers on the mainlands were yet to be affected. As the Vikings continued to discover the lands they raided, they became more and more affluent with Ireland’s diverse river system. Soon, they were raiding along the Boyne and Liffey Rivers; and in 841 AD the Vikings would decide to set up shop in Dublin over the winter months, instead of making the seven-day long trip home to Scandinavia. Here, they set up longphorts, or fortified camps located at the mouth of the river where ships and goods could be stored. Over the years, these longphort bases could be found all over Ireland, most notably at Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, and Cork. With the foundation of new settlements, the history of the Vikings changed, as they too became vulnerable to attacks. During the early decades of the Vikings in Ireland, there were fourteen slave raids documented from the years 830 to 850 AD, usually noting a person of rank being carted away. Those taken could end up anywhere from Scandinavia to the Arab world. Saint Patrick’s work to end slavery in the centuries prior would be completely dismantled by the Viking’s industrialization of the slave trade.
The dominant Viking leader of this early Dublin settlement was Thorgest, or Turgesius in Gaelic. When he arrived, he brought together the different factions of Vikings under his leadership and continued to establish settlements all over Ireland. It is him that is accredited the naming of Dublin (Dubh Linn) meaning ‘black pool.’ Before Thorgest, Dublin was just a crossing point on the River Liffey known to the Irish as Áth Cliath. His arrival was timely: the armies in Munster in the south had just marched to battle it out against the High King in Tara at the time, Máel Sechnaill Mac Máele Ruanaid, or Malachy I. This was common, the Gaelic tribes were always on the precipice of battle when one King wanted to take the High Kingship. Thorgest immediately made his reputation known in Ireland when he sacked the most holy cite—a monastic cathedral in Armagh—the place that St. Patrick himself ordained as the center of Christianity in Ireland. Once taken, Thorgest made a sacrifice upon the alter to Odin, the main god in old norse mythology. Thorgest terrorized much of Ireland, specifically in Mide (Meath), where the High King reigned. His threat would make the the two Gaelic Kings set aside their differences to end the Viking’s outright conquest of Ireland. In 845, Malachy I managed to capture Thorgest. Not in the forgiving mood, the Gaelic High King loaded his body with stones and threw him into the river to drown. Without a leader to unite them, repercussions followed for the Vikings.
Over the attempted conquest of Ireland, different longships were always arriving, bringing with them different sects of Vikings. By this time period, three different groups existed: the Black Foreigners, or the Danes, the White Foreigners, or the Norwegians, and the Foreigners which were Vikings that had been born in Ireland, many of whom had Irish mothers. In 850, these groups would enter into their own civil war. Malachy I continued to try to destroy the Vikings, often intercepting them on their routes and leading his own attacks, but he was never able to fully stomp them out. Then, the Vikings did exactly what the Irish did. The rival Viking groups set aside their differences when they were brought together by two leaders: the Danes by Ivar the Boneless, and the Norwegians by Olaf the White. These two young men, both coming from powerful lineage, quelled the civil war and brought the scattered Viking groups under control. They named themselves dual kings, and equals who had their sights set on taking down Malachy I. Olaf was even able to strike an alliance between the Vikings and the Gaelic King Áed Findliath, who was Malachy’s rival. In 862, the High King of Tara died due to natural causes. After his fall, Ireland would have a relatively peaceful exchange with the Vikings, creating a hybrid society with many Viking men mating with Irish women. With the resistance of the High King at bay, Olaf and Ivar went on to expand invasions into Pictland (Scotland) and Britain. Together, they would oversee the annihilation of East Anglia, Northumbira, and Mercia. The siege of Dumbarton Rock followed in 870 AD, and was said to have lasted for four months. At the end, Picts, Anglos, and Britains were brought back to Dublin to be sold in the slave markets. This Viking predominance would go on until 902 AD, when two different Gaelic Kings: Cerball mac Muirecáin, the King of Leinster and Máel Findia mac Flannacáin, the King of Brega would unite to attack Dublin from the north and south and finally push the Vikings out.
They would flee to their territories in England for 12 years, but their return was imminent when word spread that the northern and southern Uí Néill clans were in a civil war. The Vikings returned in 914, lead by three of Ivar the Boneless’ grandchildren who landed in Waterford and set up a base. Three years later, they sailed up the River Shannon and took back Dublin under their control.
Today, you can journey through the History of the Vikings at the Dublinia Museum in Dublin.