“The term Viking conjures up for most Irish people bands of marauders and robbers who plundered Irish monasteries and churches, causing widespread destruction and terror (…)1 “.
Such a negative perception of the Viking Age, about 795 and 1169, correlates with the assertion uttered by historians in the past that “the effect of the Viking invasions on Irish society was catastrophic2 ”. This depiction of the invaders, mostly from Norway and later also from Denmark, seems to be based on sources from monasteries which had been the main targets of the Scandinavians during the first period of raids, approximately between 795 and 8403. Therefore, the reliability of these sources is doubtful and they have to be interpreted critically and very carefully.
However, many scholars nowadays believe that, on the whole, the Vikings had a positive effect on Irish society. The aim of this paper is to critically discuss and assess the archaeological evidence which appears to support this position.
According to the archaeologist Nancy Edwards, “the greatest achievement of the Vikings in Ireland was the foundation of the coastal towns4 ” Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Cork. In pre-Viking Ireland, there haven´t been any towns and education mainly took place in important monasteries5. Although some scholars argue that large monasteries like Durrow and Clonmacnoise could be seen as a kind of Irish proto-towns, it is not clear “whether they would eventually have achieved urban status without the Viking intervention6 ”. The annals recorded the establishment of of a longphort7, which is an Irish term for a naval or a ship encampment, by the Norse in 841 on the river Liffey at Dublin8. According to Ruth Johnson, the Vikings, with their new fixed-base status, changed their strategies from the raiding of monasteries to participation in Irish politics and trading with other Vikingdominated harbours9.
There are various theories where the longphort has been. While some scholars argue that it was probably located on a naturally defensible ground where Dublin Castle is sited, the possibility of a longphort close to Islandbridge/Kilmainham, where two important Viking cemeteries representing élite groups have been found in the nineteenth century, provides a considerable alternative10. Excavations at Temple Bar West in Dublin revealed fifteen Viking structures which have been dated to the late ninth and the early tenth century. Some archaeologists suggest that the early Viking houses and features represent a settlement associated with a longphort nearby.
Although it is still uncertain where the longphort was located, it is certain that “Dublin was by far the largest and most important trading and population centre within Ireland for the period11. There is plenty of archaeological evidence revealing the extent of Viking Dublin´s activities as a manufacturing and trading centre12.
An analysis of the grave-goods found with burials in the Dublin area demonstrates a “surprisingly high proportion of grave-goods associated with trading13 ”.Weights and scales excavated at Kilmainham and Islandbridge seem to be indicators for trading. Moreover, the large amounts of silver entering indigenous Ireland strongly indicates the important role of trading. Nowadays, upwards of 120 Viking-age coin, silver and gold hoards are known from Ireland14. This clearly represents the wealth of the Vikings in Ireland and was fostered by the establishment of the towns. In the Irish settlement of Glasnevin, just north of Viking Dublin, a mixed hoard of circa 927 contained coins with Arabic inscriptions indicating trade with countries from the Middle East. Further numismatic evidence also proves plentiful links with England, for example with Chester until 975 and later between Dublin and Bristol, also indicated by the discovery of Late Anglo-Saxon cooking pots which probably reached Dublin during the tenth century15. Further links existed with Anglo-Scandinavian York from where raw jet from Whitby and possibly amber from the North Sea beaches were imported and used for manufacturing16.
Before the year 997, when the settlers from the north had established a mint in Dublin and the first coins were minted under the Norse king Sitriuc III., all coins had to be imported17. The Irish had no own coinage before the twelfth century and before the arrival of the Vikings, they probably used cattle as currency for transactions18. Therefore, it can be seen that the Norse not only had a positive effect on Irish society by establishing the first towns and linking Ireland via trade with important ports of Europe, but also by introducing an economy based on a monetary system.
There are a dozen of coin hoards that also contained silver objects, like the one in Dysart, County Westmeath. Silver objects in form of pieces of a bossed pen-annular brooch and a thistle brooch, as well as Hiberno-Norse19 arm-rings and two small bits of Scandinavian metalwork have been found20. The same kind of arm-rings have been found in a mixed hoard in Liffeyside, County Dublin and archaeologists assume that they were probably used for economic and social transactions21.
1 Flanagan 57.
2 Johnson 10.
3 Johnson 9-11; Mytum 117-118.
4 Edwards 179.
5 Johnson 13.
6 Edwards 191; Flanagan 64.
7 These longphorts were thought to be D-shaped enclosures, protected ships from attacks and storms and additionally allowed the fleets to over-winter in Dublin.
8 Johnson 14; Mytum 118.
9 Johnson 15.
11 Mytum 127.
12 Flanagan 81.
13 Mytum 122.
14 Edwards 174.
15 Edwards 188.
16 Ibid.; Johnson 72.
17 Edwards 176; Flanagan 64; Johnson 25.
18 Edwards 176.
19 Due to the increasing integration into Irish society and politics, from the mid-tenth century onwards, historians rather speak of the Hiberno-Norse than of the Vikings of Ireland. Flanagan 62-64; Johnson 24.
20 Edwards 176.
21 Mytum 123; Johnson 78-79/84.
- Quote paper
- Julian Binder (Author), 2012, The Vikings in Ireland. Did the Vikings have a positive effect on Irish society?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/335334