The Vikings In Ireland: Invasion and Acculturation

I realized I kind of dropped you all in the middle of everything with the Donnybrook burial, and upon thinking about it further decided, I am going to do publish my entire thesis here, from the beginning, and modified for a general audience, not just a few bits here and there.

So, in that vein, we are going to start our adventure with a bit on what appears to be a straightforward question, “What was the impact on the Vikings in Ireland?” but is actually quite complicated.

Let’s dive in.

In the years between 800-1150 CE the Viking and Irish peoples created one of the distinctive cultural clashes in early medieval Europe. These invaders were distinct from the Irish in ethnic identity, which played a key role in their representations and interpretations of gender and patriarchy. Scholars have widely debated the impact of the Viking settlement on the cultural identity of Ireland. Some believed that the Irish had a greater impact on Viking life than the Norse did on Irish culture, even suggesting that the Irish and Norse remained culturally distinct.[1] Donnchadh Ó Corráin argued that the Irish maintained successful resistance to the Viking invaders because of their ‘strong sense of identity, achievement, and cultural cohesion’.[2]  He contended that the Irish literate elite knowingly viewed themselves as a racial group or natio.[3] The aristocracy of Ireland had a sophisticated myth legitimizing their claims to rule and Ó Corráin contended that,

This myth was so powerful that the Vikings were given a place within its structures only towards the end of the Middle Ages and for reasons other than a concern for the Viking history. Had they been more successful they would have been fitted in.[4]

Mary Valente contended that the Vikings began to develop closer ties with the Irish between 853 and 873 CE through intermarriage and trade.[5] She asserted that Irish and Scandinavian peoples had more in common than originally thought, such as the fosterage systems, and that this led these cultures to acculturation.[6] She argued that the Norse were not an ‘amorphous mass of foreigners’ and that neither they themselves nor the Irish viewed or treated them as such.[7] She also declared that by the battle of Clontarf, intermarriage had become so prevalent that it was difficult to tell the Irish from the Vikings,[8] and that by 1014 CE ‘there were any number of people who were clearly equally members of Irish and Scandinavian society’.[9] Else Roesdahl asserted that until 1170 CE, with the coming of the Normans, the Vikings were integrated into the Irish community.[10] She added that in the Dublin excavations, as well as other archaeological sites, there is a clear indication that the culture of both ethnic groups was employed simultaneously in burial and other contexts.[11]

              Other scholars have argued for this mixed or hybrid culture of the Hiberno-Norse.  John Bradley contended that,  ‘The material culture is neither purely Scandinavian nor purely Irish, but rather it is a common culture which one may term Hiberno-Scandinavian or Hiberno-Norse’.[12]  Andrew Halpin’s examination of weapons and warfare in Viking Age Ireland showed clear adoptions of Viking weaponry by the Irish. One obvious example is the Irish use of the axe, and the Viking adoption of the small spear.[13] Patrick Wallace contended that the collision of the Vikings and Irish created a unique archaeological identity and that, ‘there was such a thing as a Hiberno-Norse town,’ with a unique way of building construction and design.[14]

              Bronaigh Ní Chonaill examined the process in which Scandinavian settlers became amalgamated into the native Irish culture. She stated that scholars have generally accepted that the Vikings quickly adapted to this new environment and were fully integrated into Irish society by the tenth and eleventh centuries.[15] Ní Chonaill contended that Viking culture, especially regarding children and childhood, was so similar to Irish culture that ‘many aspects of Scandinavian society were well suited to being grafted or grafting themselves onto Irish society’.[16] She also argued for the importance of Christianity in the process of this acculturation.[17] The time frame that the Scandinavian community accepted Christianity is regarded as the reign of Sitric Silkenbeard, circa 989-1036 CE.[18] Brian Ó Cuiv argued that after the ‘initial shock’ of invasion and the Vikings began to establish permanent colonies in Ireland that interactions between Viking peoples and the native Irish became ‘fairly common and often far from hostile’.[19]  Ó Cuiv contended that this was evident in the rate of intermarriage as well as political alliances formed between Irish and Norse leaders.[20]     

              David Griffiths argued for the importance of analyzing and assessing the Viking invasions and settlement of early medieval Ireland, stating that, ‘….the process of cultural admixture, assimilation, and transformation….become the story behind the archaeology and history’.[21] He contended that the influence of both cultures on each other persisted past the Viking Age of expansion. Of the Vikings, he said (that), ‘Much of their original cultural baggage was quickly modified, or jettisoned, as it ceased to have the same significance in their new situation as it once had in their ancestral homelands, yet other traits subtly persisted’.[22]  Griffiths’ argument made up a central tenant of my PhD thesis, that was, to examine the ways in which Viking gender roles and patriarchal hierarchies came to change and adapt in the face of invasion and acculturation.  He contended that identities were ‘far more fluid’ than modern scholars might expect. 

              I would also caution against the use of the literary or written sources as the basis for the assumption that the cultures remained distinct. For example, the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, literally means The War of the Irish against the Foreigners, and “the Foreigners” being the name that the medieval written sources used to refer to the Vikings. This is the story of the famous Battle of Clontarf, where legendary king Brian Boru met his demise, it was composed, however, over one hundred years later. But we know that Vikings or people descended from the Vikings fought on both sides of this battle. This is a fact. It becomes apparent then, that perhaps the written sources do not reflect the lived reality of the time, but instead are a biased representation.  It seems likely then, that these cultures likely did mix, as is reflected in the archaeological record.

As an aside, if you are interested in learning more about The Cogadh,  and the battle of Clontarf, myself and a group of my colleagues at Trinity have made this website which will give you all the details about the battle and the context surrounding it:

              As these studies have shown, the impact of the Viking invasions and settlement on the Irish and, conversely, the Irish influence on the Viking settlers has been widely debated. I believe, along with Griffiths, Ó Cuiv, Ní Chonaill, Valente and others, that the Viking invasions and settlement led to eventual acculturation. It is evident as Ó Corráin and Mytum posited, that the cultures must have initially remained distinct. I would argue, however, that after a period of time the Vikings amalgamated in many geographic areas, including locations such as Wexford, Dublin and Limerick. Conversion to Christianity and intermarriage played a key role in this acculturation.[23]

Next, article, we are going to continue in this vein and take a closer look at ethnicity among the Vikings Ireland, and a deeper dive into the terms, Viking and Hiberno-Norse.

[1] Harold Mytum, ‘The Vikings and Ireland: Ethnicity, Identity, and Culture Change’ in Contact, Continuity and Collapse ed. James H. Barrett (2005), p. 115.

[2] Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ‘Viking Ireland- Afterthoughts’ in H. B. Clarke, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Raghnall Ó Floinn (eds.), Ireland and Scandinavia in the early Viking Age (Dublin, 1998), p. 4.

[3] Ó Corráin, ‘Viking Ireland- Afterthoughts’, p. 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mary A. Valante, The Vikings in Ireland: Settlement, Trade, and Urbanisation (Dublin, 2008), p. 89.

[6] Valente, The Vikings in Ireland, p. 91.

[7] Ibid., p.101.

[8] Ibid., p. 117.

[9] Ibid., p.163.

[10] Else Roesdahl, The Vikings (London, 1998), p. 227.

[11] Rosedahl, The Vikings, pp. 229-231.

[12] John Bradley, ‘The interpretation of Scandinavian settlement in Ireland’ in John Bradley (ed.), Settlement and society in medieval Ireland: studies presented to F.X. Martin (Kilkenny, 1988), p. 60.

[13] Andrew Halpin, ‘Weapons and Warfare in Viking-Age Ireland’ in John Sheehan and Donnchadh Ó Corráin (eds.), The Viking Age Ireland and the West proceedings from fifteenth Viking Congress, Cork, 18-27 August 2005 (Dublin, 2010), p. 128.

[14] Patrick Wallace, ‘The Archaeological Identity of the Hiberno-Norse Town’ in Journal of Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol. 122 (1992)’, p. 35.

[15] Bronaigh Ní Chonaill, ‘Flying a Kite with Children of Hiberno-Norse Dublin: a Tentative Social Exploration’ in John Bradley, Alan J. Fletcher and Anngret Simms Dublin in the Medieval World: Studies in honour of Howard. B. Clarke (Dublin, 2009), p. 2.

[16] Ní Chonaill, ‘Flying a Kite with Children of Hiberno-Norse Dublin’, p. 4.

[17] Ibid., p. 2.

[18]John Bradley, ‘Topographic Development of Scandinavian Dublin’ in F.H.A. Aalen and Kevin Whelan (eds.), Dublin City and County: From Prehistory to Present (Dublin, 1992), p. 48.

[19] Brian Ó Cuív, ‘Personal Names as an Indicator of Relations Between Native Irish and Settlers in Viking Period’ in John Bradley (ed.) Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland: Studies presented to F.X. Martin, O.S.A. (Kilkenny, 1988), pp. 85-86.

[20] Ibid.

[21]. David Griffiths, Vikings of the Irish Sea: Conflict and Assimilation AD 790-1050 (Gloucestershire, 2010), p. 16.

[22] Griffiths, Vikings of the Irish Sea, p. 16.

[23] For more information on Viking conversion to Christianity please see… The Cross Goes North.