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Vikings in Ireland

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

I've been doing a lot of research on my genealogy, and I have discovered that although my family is Irish that we may also have Viking ancestors as well. Can you tell me more about the Vikings in Ireland?

(signed) Irish Viking from Dublin

Gentle Reader:

Irish Monk The history of the Vikings in Ireland is told by a number of sources, including the Annals of Ulster, the The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann), the Annals of Clonmacnoise, The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill (Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh), the accounts of Ibn Ghazal in Arabic, and in sagas and stories by the Vikings themselves. In each of these sources, the author has held very strong opinions about the Vikings, and that opinion influences the account accordingly. It is only in recent years that archaeological investigations have been undertaken to give a less biased view of the Vikings' kingdoms in Ireland.

It is true that the Vikings attacked the Irish 26 times in the first 25 years after their first appearance in Ireland, but the same Irish Annals that record this fact also mention attacks of Irishmen against Irish communities occurring 87 times within the same period (Roehsdahl, The Vikings, p. 223).


The Irish knew the Vikings as Gaill ("Gentiles" or foreigners), Lochlann ("lakemen"), Normanni ("north-men") and Danes, regardless of where they may have originated in Scandinavia. At the beginning of Viking attacks upon Ireland, the new invaders were known simply as Gaill, however in time the Irish annalists began to distinguish between two types of Vikings: the Finn-Gaill ("white foreigners") and Dubh-Gaill ("black foreigners"). While it is obvious that by the use of these two names the Irish meant to distinguish between two separate types of Viking raiders, it is not clear what the actual distinction between the groups was. It cannot be a physical or racial type, since the Scandinavian peoples of this period had no such divisions between them, being descended from the same Germanic migrations (Keary, The Vikings in Western Christendom, p. 193). Some scholars have proposed that the term Finn-Gaill was meant to refer to Norwegian Vikings, while Dubh-Gaill referred to Vikings of Danish origin. However this seems unlikely, for the neighboring Welsh chroniclers made no such distinction -- most of the Welsh terms for "Viking" incorporated the term "black" by way of describing them as "black hearted" or evil: Y Kenedloed Duon (Black Gentiles), Y Normanyeit Duon (Black Norsemen), Black Host, Pagans, Devils, and so on -- the Welsh History of Gruffydd ap Cynan specifically mentions both Danes and Norwegians without distinguishing them as "black" and "white" (Jones, A History of the Vikings, pp 76-77).

Historical Notes

Map of Ireland ca. 800
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Dennis Walsh's detailed map and article at

Ireland History in Maps.

At the time the Vikings first arrived in Ireland, the land was nominally ruled over by the Árd Rí, or High King of the Irish, but was in truth a warring collection of petty kingdoms which gave lip service only to the ceremonial overlordship of the Ui-Naill. The North of Ireland was ruled by the Ui-Naill family. Meath was ruled by the Southern Ui-Naill, while Ulster was ruled by Njall-Caille of the northern Ui-Naill. By the advent of the Vikings, the Árd Rí was no longer "King of Tara" except in name, for inasmuch as he ruled, he did so from Derry, which was not even in the kingdom of Meath where Tara stood. The petty kings of Ireland, busy warring among themselves and jockeying for power or a few more cattle, ultimately were the cause of the Vikings' great successes in Ireland, and the divisiveness of the small Irish kingdoms with their many rivalries ensured the Celts' downfall.

Inishmurray Ruins The earliest record of Viking attacks in Ireland is dated 795 AD. Inismurray (Inis Muirígh) and Inisbofin (Inis Bó Finne, "island of the white cow") on the north-west coast of Ireland were among the communities attacked by the Vikings.

By the year 807, the Vikings had won a foothold upon the island of Lindisfarne, in Rechain, Man, Iona and Inismurray. They had suffered some defeats as well, in Northumbria and Glamorganshire. Suddenly, in the lightning raids characteristic of the Northern raiders, an attack was launched up Sligo water and all down the western coast of Ireland. Contemporary chronicles state that the Vikings were beaten by Ulstermen in 811, burned the west coast in 812, and raided in Mayo, Connaught and Cork harbor, as well as in the south by Killarney. In 812-813 the Viking attacks were concentrated on the south-west Irish coast.

In 820 Viking fleets once more appeared on all coasts of Ireland, plundering Cork, Beggary Island, the Wexford coast and Howth, near Dublin. The terror that this caused can be understood a bit when one finds a poem from this period written in a manuscript by an Irish monk "in praise of stormy nights when the Vikings do not set out to sea" (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 222).

In 822 Vikings attacked Skellig Michil off the coast of Kerry and in 824 raided the religious community at Bangor (Bennchair) on the coast of Down.

By 822 AD, Viking raids became an annual occurrence along the Irish coastlines.

Click on photo to see larger image By 825, Viking raids were no longer confined to the coastlines. Vikings landed in Wexford Bay, marched west to Taghmon to St. Mullins', went northwards by boat to Leoghlin Bridge and into Ossory County, then to Inistioge where they were finally turned back by a hosting of the Ossory men. The Vikings were still formidable and made their way to Waterford, where they took ship and sailed round to the Youghall harbor and plundered the monastery of St. Molaise. Finally, they raided in Kilpeacon in Limerick County to finish their depredations. In 825 a Viking fleet also fell upon Iona, once again wiping out its community of monks.

Between 830 and 840, large Viking fleets expanded the area of these raids, sailing far inland along the navigable rivers, such as the Shannon, the Liffey, and the Boyne. These fleets were under the command of Norwegian jarls. In 832, Vikings plundered the great monastic community at Armagh three separate times in one month (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 222).

Raids continued until 831-832, when the Vikings were united under a chieftain with vision, ambition, and luck, Thorgisl, called by the Irish chroniclers Turgeis, Turgesius or Thorgeis. Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla refers to this Thorgisl as ruler of Dublin, and calls him a son of King Harald Harfagra. It is likely that Thorgisl's fleet originated from the Viking settlements in Scotland and Man. The fleet came to Lough Neagh and defeated an Irish fleet of coracles, then attacked the greatest religious establishment of Ireland, Armagh (Ard-Macha) the seat of the heir of St. Patrick.

The Vikings concentrated their attacks during the 830's and 840's on the Irish monastic communities. Due to the constant internecine warfare in Ireland, the Irish utilized the monasteries as sanctuaries for high ranking people, for wealth, and for livestock as well as ecclesiastical wealth and ornaments. The sacrosanct nature of the monastic communities was respected by the warring Irish factions, but seemed to the Vikings to be treasure houses of concentrated plunder. The usual Viking raid was a hit-and-run strike, designed to capture the maximum amount of valuable goods and then flee the vicinity before the Irish could mount an effective response.

Cross Near Dublin Communities that felt the heavy hand of Viking raiders included Iona, which had to be abandoned in the 830's and 840's, Skellig Michael, and even large communities such as Kildare (Cill Dara, "church of the oak"). Kildare, even though it was the capital of Leinster, was plundered no less than 15 times by the Viking forces between 836 and 1000. Armagh, the prime ecclesiastical center of Ireland was plundered eleven times. Settlements near the established Viking camps were almost certainly extorted for "protection money" by the Vikings.

Clonmacnoise From 833-840, other Norse fleets continued to ravage the coastlines, and joined up with Thorgisl's army. One of these was under the command of a chieftain named Saxulf, who was eventually slain by the Irish. Thorgisl took the great monastery at Clonmacnoise, where his queen Ota, a gyðja or priestess, gave prophecies from the high altar. Eventually Thorgisl conquered all of Leth Chuinn, the northern half of Ireland, which he ruled from Dublinn. Many Viking settlements were established during this period, including Viksfjordr (Wexford), Waterford, all of the northern third of Kerry, Skellig, Heystone, Bolus Head, Smerwick, Limerick, and Dublinn. Three major Viking kingdoms in Ireland were established during this period, at Dublin, at Limerick, and at Waterford. All that is known of Thorgisl comes from an Irish work of political propaganda, Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (The War of the Irish against the Foreigners) written some 250 years after the life of Thorgisl. It is thought that this work was written to glorify the reign of King Brian Ború and his dynasty by showing Thorgisl as "a sort of pagan super-Viking" (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 224).

In 841 AD, the Vikings established winter camps in Ireland. These camps served as areas to regroup and resupply before the next raiding season. These camps are mentioned in the annals as being in Dublin by the River Liffey, in Waterford by the River Barrow, in Limerick by the River Shannon, and in Anagassan by the River Boyne. Later camps were established at Wexford and Cork. One large trading base, Annagassan, is thought to have been established in 841 in the high ground protected by the curve of the rivers Clyde and Dee on two sides, with an earthen rampart protecting the third.

It is thought that the main Scandinavian military encampment of Dublin was established during this period as well, probably further up the river Liffey than modern-day Dublin in the Kilmainham-Islandbridge district. In the 19th century railway construction unearthed a large 9th century Scandinavian cemetery in this area, with the graves of both men and women. Artifacts totalled about 40 swords, 35 spearheads, and a number of women's "tortoiseshell" brooches (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 225).

Eventually the Irish began fighting back, and the Viking hold on their winter camps became endangered by Irish defenders. It is possible that further problems in holding the camps arose due to the presence and aggression of a rival fleet of Vikings from Denmark.

In 845, King Malachai I (Maelsechlain) of the Meath Ui Naill managed to somehow capture Thorgisl, and had the Norse king of Dublin drowned in Loch Owel. This proved a serious reverse for the Northmen, who apparently did not have a strong leader or assured succession. Malachai became the Árd Rí, and built a fleet which had several successes over the Vikings.

In 847, Cearbhall, King of Ossory (Osraige), defeated and slew 1200 Vikings. This was followed by Malachai and his champion Tighernach, lord of Loch Gabar, attacking and capturing the Norse stronghold of Dublin in 849.

In 850 AD, Irish annals say that internecine fighting began between two tribes of Vikings in Ireland: the Daunitar or Danes on one side, and the Lochlannar (usually interpreted as Norwegians), under the rule of King Guðröð Rognvaldsson. It is thought that Guðröð was one of the nephews of the Danish King Hárek Guðröðarson mentioned by Prudentius. Some scholars interpret these records as indicating that some portions of Norway at least were under Danish rule at this time (Guthmundsson, Origin of the Icelanders, p. 14-15). After three years of fighting the Daunitar gained the upper hand.

The fortunes of the Vikings fluctuated back and forth, however the Viking kingdoms of Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford survived and thrived. Around 851, the three Viking kingdoms after some internecine warfare agreed to be ruled by an over-king, who may have been called Árd Rí and whose role certainly was patterned after that of the Irish Árd Rídomna. The first of the "Kings of all the Northmen in Ireland" was a man named Óláfr, a relative of the Norse kings of the Scottish Islands and the Hebrides, and remotely related to certain prominent Icelanders. Óláfr's brother Ívarr ruled over Limerick.

By the 850's, the Scandinavians had become integrated into the life of Ireland. The invaders were settling the shores, and taking Irish wives -- a fact attested to by the number of second-generation Vikings with Celtic names. Many also converted to Christianity. The intercourse between the two peoples was not just within the marriage bed, either, for fashions, jewelry, arms, and trade were transmitted between the two peoples as well (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 225).

In 853 AD, Óláfr Guðröðarson (the White) seized control of the remaining Viking camps in Ireland. Irish sources say that Óláfr was the "son of the king of Lochlann" -- possibly Rogaland in southwestern Norway. Ari the Learned later says in Íslendingabók that this Óláfr was his ancestor on the "sword-side" and claims for Óláfr descent from the Swedish Yngling kings of Uppsala, saying that Óláfr was the son of Ingjald.

Óláfr ended the annual raids, instead hiring his fleets to the highest bidder as mercenary forces. Irish sources say that Óláfr united the forces of the Daunitar and Lochlannar. This proved lucrative, since during this period Ireland was divided into three or four kingdoms, and these kingdoms were always at war. Only during rare, short truces did Óláfr's fleet find itself unemployed, and then they turned again to random raids to support themselves. Óláfr was to rule successfully over the Viking forces in Ireland for eighteen years.

In 857 AD, the Dane, Ívarr the Boneless, son of Ragnarr Loðbrokk, became co-regent of Dublin, sharing the rule with Óláfr. This joint rulership continued until 873 AD. The sons and grandsons of Ívarr meanwhile established themselves in Britain as the rulers of Viking Jorvik (modern York, in England).

The Norse rule of Ireland was certainly not an unenlightened period of barbarism. The Norse were, before all else, traders and merchants. It has been commented on that the graves of wealthy or even noble Vikings often contains a trader's scales as well as the more martial accoutrements of the Viking chieftain. It was around the year 1000 that the Vikings introduced the first native coinage into Ireland.

In 870 Óláfr was recalled to Norway. Ívarr took over rule of both Dublin and Limerick. The Norse in Ireland began fighting among themselves, the curse of those who live in Ireland, and on 901, the Irish managed to capture Dublin from the Vikings.

In 871 AD, the Irish chroniclers tell us that King Guðröð Rognvaldsson, father of Óláfr Guðröðarson, ruler of the Irish Vikings, sent a message to his son in Dublin, asking him to return home to help put down a rebellion which had broken out against him. Ari the Learned puts the Battle of the Hafrsfjord in either 871 or 872 AD, and some scholars think it is likely that King Harald Harfagra fought that battle against Guðröð Rognvaldsson and his son Óláfr Guðröðarson. The Battle of Hafrsfjord therefore marks the end of Danish rule in Norway during this era (Guthmundsson, Origin of the Icelanders, p. 15). Later Danish kings such as King Harald Gormsson, his son Svein Haraldsson (called Forkbeard), and his grandson Canute Sveinsson (the Powerful) all lay claim to overlordship in Norway, perhaps based upon the prior reign of King Guðröð.

In 873, Ívarr the Boneless died, heralding the beginning of a period of strife during which the Irish organized a number of groups together into a powerful force and ousted the Vikings from Dublin. Many if not most of the Dublin Vikings fled to north-west England, the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, to Iceland and to Scotland (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 226).

Map of Ireland ca. 900
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Dennis Walsh's detailed map and article at
Ireland History in Maps.

In 902 AD, the Vikings were temporarily expelled from Ireland. It is thought that this was due to a truce between the various warring Irish kingdoms. The Norsemen found occupation for their warriors in England and in France.

By 914 AD, new Viking fleets had come to occupy the old Viking winter camps in Ireland. These Viking forces came from a variety of Viking settlements, including north-west England, the Isle of Man, and from Scotland, while others may have come fleeing from Rollo's Normandy conquests (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 226). The grandsons of Ívarr the Boneless led these new Viking forces, and between their holdings in Jorvik and Ireland, came to control all of the Irish Sea.

In 917 AD, the Viking base at Dublin was re-established, and the kings of Dublin in this period took as their goal not the conquest of Ireland, but rather wrangled for the crown of the King of Jorvik (York). Famous Viking leaders such as Rognvaldr, Óláfr Godfredsson, and Óláfr Curran were successful for a time (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 226). Unfortunately for the Viking forces, the Dublin-Jorvik kingdom never achieved political stability, due to the constant pressure of warfare with its neighbors. The Viking leadership was never successful in establishing amicable relations with their neighboring kingdoms.

During this period, the expanding Viking trade opportunities resulted in the establishment of towns in Ireland such as Wicklow, Arklow, Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, and Cork. Nearly all Viking settlement remained along the coasts, the source of trade (Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 227).

In 927 AD, Godfred was driven from Jorvik by the Anglo-Saxon king Æþelstan. Falling back on his Irish possessions in Dublin, Godfred was able to regroup and eventually to recapture Jorvik by 939 AD, holding it until 952.

By the 940's, Viking power in the Irish camps was broken, and the Irish Vikings forced again to serve as mercenaries in the eternal Irish internecine fighting. The Viking camps at Strangford, Carlingford Loughs, and Anagassan came under permanent Irish control during this period.

By 968 AD, the Viking camp at Limerick had come under Irish control.

Sihtric Silkbeard Silver Penny The last Norse rulers of Dublin were Sigtryggr (Sihtric Silkbeard) and his son Óláfr Cuarran (Cuarran means "Sandal" or "Shoe"). Under Óláfr, Norwegian influence reached its peak. An Irish chronicle says, "There was a Norse king in every province, a Norse chief in every clan, a Norse abbot in every church, a Norse sheriff in every village, a Norse warrior in every home."

In 980 AD, the rulers of Dublin were forced to recognize the overkingship of the Irish king of Meath when Óláfr Cuarran was defeated by Mael Sechnaill II, King of Meath. Óláfr eventually converted to Christianity, dying as a monk in 981 in the monastery at Iona. After this time, the Vikings paid tribute to the Irish, although they remained in control of the lucrative trade that connected Ireland with the rest of the Viking commercial world.

The end of the Viking rule in Ireland came with the reign of Árd Rí Brian Ború (Boroimhe). In 980 The Norse suffered a heavy defeat at Tara under the leadership of Brian Ború. Brian Ború became Árd Rí of all Ireland, forcing the petty kings to acknowledge his rule. Eventually even the Norse came under the Árd Rí's rule, for by 1000 Brian was king even of Dublin.

In 989 AD, Sigtryggr Silkiskegg, son of Óláfr Curran became ruler of the Vikings in Dublin. Sigtryggr's rule lasted from 989-993, and from 995-1042. Sigtryggr chafed under the King of Meath, and repeatedly during his reign attempted to throw off the yoke of Meath by allying with the King of Leinster. Meath managed to overcome Siggtryggr's attempts to break free, and Dublin was forced to pay tribute to Meath in 995, 998, and 1000.

Map of Ireland ca. 1000
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Dennis Walsh's detailed map and article at

Ireland History in Maps.

It is thought that Sigtryggr was the engineer of the alliance between the King of Leinster the Jarl of Orkney in 1014, which led to the Battle of Clontarf.

In 1012 the Irish King of Leinster decided to rebel against Brian Ború, and hired the aid of Siggtryggr. Siggtryggr, fearing Brian Ború's military might, recruited the aid of Sigurðr Digri. On April 23, 1014, the forces of Brian Ború met those of Siggtryggr. Brian Ború and Sigurðr Digri died in the fight. Siggtryggr survived, and Dublin was untouched by the battle. Thus Siggtryggr ruled in Dublin for many years after, eventually becoming the first king in Ireland to mint his own coins. Siggtryggr eventually became a Christian, and like his father ended his life as a monk in the monastery at Iona. Though the Norse continued to live and rule in Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford, they steadily became more Irish and less connected to Scandinavia.

Despite the best efforts of Siggtryggr, Dublin remained a minor political power. However, Dublin grew steadily in importance as a mercantile center. Dublin was especially well-known for its market in luxury goods, and the profits accruing to the ruler of Dublin from its markets made the town an attractive prize for many rulers. Despite losing its importance as a political power, Dublin continued to maintain its mercenary fleet, hiring the fleet to the Irish, Scots, Welsh, and even Normans, all the way up until the dissolution of the fleet at the time of the Norman Conquest.

By 1035, the Viking camp at Waterford had come under Irish control.

In 1052, a son of the King of Leinster was named Regent in Dublin.

Irish rule of Dublin was interrupted from 1078 to 1094, when the Norse King of Man and the Isles (the Hebrides) added Dublin to his holdings. After 1094, however, Dublin remained firmly in control of the Irish kings.

In 1103, King Magnus Bareleg died in a raid on Ireland. He is supposed to have said, "A king is for glory, not for long life." (Foote & Wilson, The Viking Achievement, p. 144)


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