History Of Vikings Invading Ireland

The Invasion of Vikings

The Vikings first invaded Ireland in 795 AD. A small group of Norse warriors attacked a monastery on the east coast. They plundered the monastery of its valuables, such as relics, and laid it to waste.

The history of the Vikings in Ireland spans over 200 years and although it can be considered short-lived, they did make important contributions to the Irish way of life.

The first Vikings to arrive in Ireland

The first group of Vikings to invade Ireland were most likely Norwegian and known as the Finngaill, translated as fair foreigners. The translation, which is often debated, could have been related to either their ethnicity, their skin or hair color, or even the color of weapons and battle clothing. Another theory is Finngall refers to old foreigner and that it’s not related to a physical description.

The Vikings , who were referred to as heathens, first appear in the Annals of Ulster 795AD compiled by the monastic movement in Ireland.

The burning of Rechru by the heathens, and Scí was overwhelmed and laid waste.

There are two possible locations for Rechru. Rathlin Island, located on the northeast coast its only a short distance from Scotland or  Lambay island, located a few miles from the Dublin coast. Wherever its location, it marked the beginning of an agressive invasion.

Viking attacks on Irish monasteries

The Vikings stayed close along the Irish coast targetting many of the Irish monasteries that had been built near the coast or river banks. They used the waterways to their advantage and plundered the monasteries in hit and run attacks.

The monasteries were more than just places of worship, they gained a reputation throughout Europe as places of excellence for learning and craftmanship. They housed valuable relics made from silver and gold and they also played an important political role in the areas they were founded. Not only did the monasteries face the threat of attack from the Vikings, but they also faced a bigger threat from the Irish.

Why did the Vikings attack monasteries?

There are various theories given to why the Norsemen attacked the monasteries. One theory suggests due the Vikings being pagan they preyed on the monastic movement by stealing or breaking relics, taking hostages, and killing clergy men. Another theory is that word got to the Scandinavians, who were elsewhere in Europe, that Ireland’s monasteries had great wealth. Or did the warriors accidentally stumble upon their first monastery, as they scouted to expand the Norse Kingdoms?

The Annals of Ulster mention some of the earlier attacks by the Vikings.

AD 798: The burning of Inis Pátraic by the heathens, and they took the cattle-tribute of the territories, and broke the shrine of Do-Chonna, and also made great incursions both in Ireland and in Alba.

AD 802: Í Coluim Chille was burned by the heathens.

AD 806: The community of Í, to the number of sixty-eight, was killed by the heathens.

AD 807: The heathens burned Inis Muiredaig and invade Ros Comáin.

There were only a few attacks in the first 25 years of the Norsemen finding Ireland but by 820 AD they began an esclation of attacks.

They first attacked Corcach Mór (Cork), located on the south-west coast and a year later took a ‘great number of women’ prisioners after plundering Étar. By 825AD they were performing several raids all within the same year.

Did the Irish fight against the Vikings?

Ireland, at the time of the new arrivals, was experiencing a complex politicial struture. The island was divided into several kingdoms and split into smaller sub kingdoms and terrorities. Along with the High King there were several other kings, and also chietians, none of which worked as a centralised government.  There was a constant power struggle between the kings and chieftians so battles were a common occurance between the Kingdoms.

Due to the lack of a unified front each Kingdom was left to their own defense against the Viking warriors.

The Annals do mention the slaughter of heathens on 811 AD by the Uliad, a Kingdom located in northeastern Ireland. A year later, another slaughter of heathens occurred, this time in western Ireland in a small territory called Umall, in today’s County Mayo.

Just over 40 years since the Vikings first invaded Ireland, their larger fleets began to arrive in Irish waters. The Annals of Ulster describes the arrival of a large Norse fleet in 837 AD

A naval force of the Norsemen sixty ships strong was on the Bóinn, and another one of sixty ships on the river Life. Those two forces plundered the plain of Life and the plain of Brega, including churches, forts and dwellings. The men of Brega routed the foreigners at Deoninne in Mugdorna of Brega, and six score of the Norsemen fell.

Its arrival pathed the way for a more permanent presence of Vikings in Ireland.

Viking Settlements in Ireland

When the latest big Norse fleet arrived they built encampments known as longphorts, a winter camp. These camps allowed the Norsemen to stay on land for longer but to also venture further inland to hunt for food and valuables.

Once such longphort that played a critical role was the Viking settlement in Dublin called Dyflinn. Located on the banks of the River Liffey, it was preceded by a Gaelic settlement called Áth Cliath, and in a strategic position. It was down river so they’re were closer inland but they still had quick access to the Irish sea. From here the Norse expanded their longphort into a hub and trade port that linked with other ports in the Norse Empire. Other founded settlements included Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford.

The Norse were starting to settle in Ireland and it wouldn’t be long until they assimilated into the Irish way of life being tradesmen and town-dwellers.

As the Finngaill (fair foreigners) continued their new life in Ireland another wave of Vikings arrived in 851 AD. These new Vikings were different from the previous invaders, so much so, the Irish called them the Dubgaill (Dark foreigners). Used to refer to rival groups of Vikings, the meaning of fair & dark foreigner is often debated.

The Dubgaill arrived in an expedition of 140 ships and traveled into Dublin. Their arrival was recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters:

The dark heathens came to Áth Cliath, made a great slaughter of the fair-haired foreigners, and plundered the naval encampment, both people and property. The dark heathens made a raid at Linn Duachaill, and a great number of them were slaughtered.

The Dubgaill were likely Danes, arriving in Ireland to drive out the Findgaill and claim authority over Ireland. They claimed Kingship of Dublin establishing an alliance with other Irish Kings but at the same time making enemies.

Forcing the Vikings out of Ireland

By 902 two Gaelic kings, mac Muirecáin the King of Leinster and Máel Findia mac Flannacáin King of Brega launched an attack on the Dublin Viking settlement.

Ímar, the Viking King of Dublin, fled Ireland along with his followers who were half dead and abandoned most of their ships.

It wouldn’t be long until the Viking warriors returned to Ireland with a greater force.

Timeline of Vikings in Ireland

  • 795AD – The Vikings first arrived in Ireland
  • 806AD – Raid on Iona Abbey left all 68 occupants dead
  • 832AD – 120 Viking ships arrived in Ireland’s northeastern coasts
  • 836AD – Vikings began to attack deeper inland
  • 841AD – The Viking settlement of Dyflinn is founded
  • 856AD – The Vikings created a settlement near Cork
  • 848AD – The Vikings are defeated in Sligo, Kildare, Cashel, and Cork
  • 850AD – The Vikings created the settlement of Waterford
  • 851AD – Battle at Dundalk bay between Norse and Danish Vikings
  • 852AD – Armagh is destroyed
  • 869AD – King of Connaught defeated the Norwegian Vikings
  • 902AD – The Irish attacked and drove the Vikings from Dublin
  • 914AD – Large Viking Fleets arrived at Waterford. Settlements in Limerick and Wexford were built
  • 915AD – The Vikings attacked Dublin and regained control
  • 928AD – Viking Massacre at Dunmore Cave in Kilkenny
  • 976AD – Brian Boru becomes King of Munster
  • 980AD – The Battle of Tara
  • 999AD – Brian Boru defeats the Vikings
  • 1002AD – Brian Boru becomes High King of Ireland
  • 1005AD – Máel Mórda mac Murchada begins to rebel against Brian Boru
  • 1014AD – Battle of Clontarf – Brian Boru & Máel Mórda mac Murchada are killed

Last updated August 12, 2019.

About the Author

Pádraig Mac Donnchadha
Pádraig is a fluent Irish speaker with a passion for history, traditional music, and story telling.