When many people talk about “Vikings” and “Ireland” today, they’re referring to the famous TV series of the same name. However, Ireland has a long and rich history, taking influence from everything from the Celts to the English. There is one particular group, however, that left their mark on Ireland both because of and despite their well-chronicled brutality: the Vikings.
With shows such as the History Channel’s Vikings (as well as related TV shows such as Norseman and The Last Kingdom) having gained great popularity in recent years, a rebirth of Nordic pagan religions, a surge in living history festivals featuring the Viking era and a growing interest in the Vikings every year, the warriors of the north have never been more fascinating! With their own “Viking Age” lasting between approximately 793 and 1066, the Vikings travelled far in wide, down into Europe and as far away as North America and the Middle East. Almost everywhere they went, the Vikings brought change with them. With Ireland as a frequent destination for the Norseman, what effects did they have?
One of the most profound results of the Viking invasion of Ireland was the formation of organised towns. Prior to their influence, the population of Early Christian Ireland was spread out, primarily in settlements of family groups known as ringforts, the ruin of which can still be found all over Ireland. Early Viking “visits” were quick raids (usually of monasteries such as Skellig Michael or Clare’s Scattery Island), but it didn’t take long for them to see the benefit of living in Ireland.
For settlement in Ireland to work, the Vikings needed towns, and more importantly, harbours. So, with the coming of the Vikings to Ireland, more formal towns were established. Namely, the cities of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick were all founded or greatly expanded under the Norse invaders. Evidence of this influence can be found in the architectural remains of ten houses in the style of the Vikings found in Dublin as well as the layout of streets and city blocks in many of these towns and cities.
Dublin is also home to an even more visible remnant of Norse occupation. Given the Vikings’ well-documented reputation as pagans, it may be somewhat surprising to hear that the famous landmark of Christ Church Cathedral owes its existence to the Viking King Sitric Silkbeard. Following his conversion to Christianity and a subsequent pilgrimage to Rome, this King of Dublin – already a significant figure in Irish history due to his associations with the famous High King Brian Boru – founded the cathedral around 1028. As the oldest building in Dublin and a religious site that brings in thousands of visitors a year, the cathedral stands as an example of the mark that the Vikings left on both Ireland’s history and culture.
The Vikings’ influence was not limited to Dublin, however. The city of Waterford on Ireland’s southeast shore is well-known for its collection of Viking artefacts. In particular, Reginald’s Tower, named after one of the Viking rulers of Waterford, has stood for over 800 years. Reginald’s Tower is a part of Waterford’s Viking Triangle, a historic section of the city that is surrounded by walls dating back to the Viking Age. Within the walls of Waterford, find a variety of historical treasures, including a sword and decorated lead weight, both dating back to the 9th century.
Changes of this time period went far beyond surface level. During Sitric Silkbeard’s reign as King of Dublin, he is thought to be responsible for the establishment of Ireland’s first currency mint and, as a result, the introduction of currency in the form of silver coins. Alongside this development was the expansion of Irish trade under the Vikings as Dublin became a center of trade. By the 11th century, Dublin had become a city with a population of thousands and international trade routes. As the Vikings interacted with Irish society, many surnames were created, forming a direct link between the Norse foreigners from centuries ago and families today. Names like Higgins, Loughlin, McBirney, and countless more all have ties to the Vikings.
The Vikings also played a role in maritime trade in Ireland. Part of what made them such formidable warriors was their ability to sail in, attack, raid and sail away so quickly. This was possible due to their superior flat-bottomed longboats that allowed them to navigate both sea and river. Before the Vikings, the Irish settlements were small and contained but the Vikings brought improved boats as well as the idea of constant maritime trade, bringing in exotic goods from across Europe through their extensive trade network that reached all the way to North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Constantinople and Middle East.
Many people think of them as ruthless warriors wearing helmets with horns (which they never did – think about it, does it make sense to have built-in handles on your helmet? No, horns were used for drinking!). But the Vikings were far more than that. They brought harbours and towns, maritime trade, seafaring navigation, exotic goods, improved shipbuilding, currency and a wider worldview.
But alas, the reign of the Vikings was short. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 led to the Norman Invasion of England (by the way, the Normans were of Viking stock as well – the Normans or ‘Nord-men’ descended from Viking warriors who were given land in Normandy, marrying into the local population and becoming a part of Norman culture).
The Norman Invasion of Ireland followed a century years later (1169-1171) when several Norman knights landed in Wexford, Waterford, Dublin and other parts of Leinster on the east coast of Ireland (thanks to the very harbours and towns created by the Vikings!), with Strongbow assuming control of Leinster by 1171. So thus began a long history of Ireland under British rule. But even so, we have a lot to thank the Vikings for!
Today, Ireland is famous for its Vikings – but instead of the historic ones, the Vikings that come to mind are those from the History Channel’s series, Vikings, which will release its final season (season 6) later this year or early 2020. Set primarily in Denmark and England with raids and sea voyages across Europe, all of these widespread locations are actually filmed in County Wicklow in Ireland! The “Scandinavian” village of Kattegat was actually set on the shores of the beautiful Lough Tay, with scenes shot throughout the rest of the county.
Contributions by Adam Rainbolt.