III.
THE VIKINGS

INTRODUCTION

AN ENTRY FOR THE YEAR 820 in The Annals of Ulster reads: “The sea spewed forth floods of foreigners over Erin, so that no haven, no landing-place, no stronghold, no fort, no castle might be found, but it was submerged by waves of vikings and pirates.” That is an early mention of the warlike strangers who would come to dominate Irish history for the next two hundred years. The chroniclers called them Norsemen, Danes (no matter where they came from), black gentiles (actual Danes), Gauls, Lochlanns (men from the lakes, probably Norway), land-leapers, Osmen or Ostmen (men from the east), and—most simply and most frequently—the foreigners. And more often than not their sudden appearances were described as natural disasters, storms, tidal waves, or plagues of insects.

The first recorded Viking raid, in 795, was a small affair, a quick looting of an island—Rathlin or Lambay—by men from Norway, but over the next twenty-five years or so the small Norse raiding parties were supplanted by massive well-coordinated fleets of Viking ships manned by Danes. The early marauding bands in their small, fast ships first terrified the Irish with seemingly mindless destruction and then took away what valuables or slaves they could carry. Monasteries were a frequent target because, in the immortal words of the American bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the money was. Not only were many monasteries wealthy in themselves, but their strong walls and high towers—often more substantial than the neighborhood castle—safeguarded the community’s valuables. In a land with no cities and few villages, monasteries were also the population centers. One lasting result of these monastic raids is that the monk-historians represented the “foreigners” in their annals not only as thieves and vandals but also as enemies of God and the true church.

After those first years of hit-and-run pillage—which in fact was not unlike what rival Irish kings were doing to each other—the Vikings came to play a major role in the development of Ireland. They taught the Irish how to live in cities. Before the arrival of the land-leapers and the black gentiles, there was nothing that even resembled a large town. Most of the major cities on the island have Viking roots. Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and more, all have their origins as Viking trading centers, for although the foreigners arrived as raiders and kidnappers, they later became businessmen who established busy ports (founded as winter camps) both to carry out trade and to provide embarkation points for raids on other lands, notably Scotland and northern Britain.

Nor was it always easy to place the Irish on one side of a battle and Vikings on the other. Almost from the very beginning, Vikings made alliances with Irish leaders—however briefly—and took part in the ongoing skirmishes between and among the Irish kings. (And the Vikings themselves were hardly unified. At one point the Norse and the Danes were battling each other in Ireland, with the Danes claiming the blessing of St. Patrick.) As will become clear in Part IV of this book, even the famous battle at Clontarf in 1014—in which tradition says the Vikings were driven out of Ireland—was actually a fight between one Irish king and another Irish king with his Viking allies.

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