by G. Beaverson
“Ann. 793 – In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people; these were extraordinary whirlwinds and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these omens; and soon after that, in the same year, the havoc of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne. . .” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)
The “miserable heathen” of whom these dire events forewarned were the Vikings. Popular legend has portrayed them as swift, merciless marauders, pagans who attacked the holy places of Ireland, Scotland and the surrounding islands without regard for anything but accumulating wealth and destroying everything they could. No wonder Celtic monks prayed regularly, “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us.”
But God apparently had other ideas. For, despite the Vikings’ plundering of all things holy, the Irish eventually gave them the richest gift of all: Christian faith. In return, the Vikings gave the Irish towns and a place in the international economy.
An Island of Petty Chieftains… and Monasteries
In the late eighth century, Ireland was a land of petty chieftains and kings, all of whom fought vigorously and frequently with each other for the ultimate achievement of becoming High King over all kings. Ireland’s economy had not yet risen above that of a pastoral society, and it possessed no true towns or cities.
It did, however, possess monasteries – lots of them. The monks, according to historian Thomas Cahill, were in the process of saving civilization. After the fall of the Roman Empire, salvaged ancient manuscripts and knowledge found a home in the tiny, beehive-shaped Irish monastic cells called clocháns. The Irish monks extended their hunger for learning and recorded their culture’s own tales and legends. And, of course, these holy men became famous for their meticulous and ornate work in copying the Holy Scriptures. They created wonderfully ornate illustrated manuscripts, like The Book of the Kells and The Linisfarne Gospels.
The Cultural and Financial Wealth of Ireland
But these monasteries were more than just religious havens for monkish scholars. They were themselves miniature towns, attracting craftspeople, artisans and masons as well as monks. These artisans crafted wonderful works of art, such as the magnificent Ardagh Chalice and numerous intricately carved stone crosses.
Because Ireland’s many kings frequently served as priests and sponsored individual monasteries, these holy places also became centers of economic and political power. In fact, the monasteries functioned as the main financial institutions of their time, the repositories of the rich accumulation of their priest-kings. The rivalry between tribes meant that they plundered these repositories repeatedly, long before any Viking raiders appeared on the scene.
These Irish-initiated raids made it clear to the Vikings that the miniature towns contained a good deal of wealth – and that it was pretty much there for the taking. Archaeologist Magnus Magnusson explains, “A short experience of the country would have taught even a freelance Viking band that a raid on an Irish monastery was a sound economic proposition.” (Vikings, Dutton 1980)
The Earliest Viking Raids
Pragmatists that they were, the Vikings could not resist the lure of wealth. Initially motivated to explore the Orkney and Shetland Islands and Scotland with a view to settling there, they soon realized that land was not all the area had to offer. Thus in 793, the Vikings performed their first recorded raid on a monastery – the one on Lindisfarne.
Other raids followed with disheartening regularity. At first, the Vikings held a raiding “season” from May to September each year, then returned home to winter in Norway. Over a 25-year period, 26 important attacks were recorded in the Irish Annals alone. But many more remained unrecorded.
The first Irish monastery plundered was Rechru on Rathlin Island off the northeast Irish coast in 795. The monastery on Iona, off Scotland’s west coast, must have been rich pickings. It was raided in 795, 802 and 806. The monks finally gave up in 807 and moved the entire community to Kells in Ireland, where the inland location offered greater safety from Viking raids. The large, wealthy monastery of Armagh, which held a protected place inland in northern Ireland, was plundered three times within one month in 832. The Vikings’ audacity hit these monks particularly hard, since the Abbot of Armagh was also head of the Irish Church.
Drawn in by Ireland’s Riches, Slaves and Hostages
At first, the Vikings interested themselves only in valuables hidden in the monasteries. These included gold and silver (usually decorations wrenched from their ecclesiastical host objects), valuable and useful secular items (such as buckets or chests) and slaves. This last category quickly gained importance to the Northmen. The monasteries may have lost their wealth after a Viking raid, but that did not stop repeated attacks. The Vikings soon learned to hold rich or important Christians for ransom. The Northmen sold those who could not be ransomed into slavery.
But riches did not deter the Viking invaders from their original intent forever. By the 830s, the Northmen targeted larger inland monasteries and set up settlements in Ireland proper. They attacked Armagh and took Forannán, its Abbot, captive along with St. Patrick’s halidoms. Forannán returned, with St. Patrick’s relics, the next year – no doubt having been ransomed at great expense.
The Irish Fight Back
Irish Begin to Fight Back as the Vikings Extend the Raising Season and Establish Permanent Settlements
The marauding season extended itself into the winter, originating now from Viking-established longphorts (fortresses) like Dublin and Limerick. In 841, one Irish annalist recorded laconically, “Pagans still on Lough Neagh.” Despite his curtness, the annalist found the Vikings’ over-wintering surprising and important enough to warrant recording.
But now the major Irish kings began to fight back, and found themselves successful at fending off Viking raiders. The King of Tara, Niall Caille, gained victory over Northmen in Donegal in 841. Cerball, the King of Osraige, killed over 1200 Vikings in 846-7. In 848, Olchobar and Lorccán, kings of Munster and Leinster, together defeated their foes in County Kildare. So successful were the Irish against the Vikings that an emissary to Charles the Bald wrote in 848, “The Irish attacked the Vikings and with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ they were victorious and drove them out of their territory.”
Towns, Trade and Integration
The Irish kings, although sometimes victorious, made no real effort to drive the Viking foreigners from their land. Instead, they hired seasoned Viking raiders as military “extras.” Longphorts like Dublin and Limerick soon became thriving centers of international trade, nurtured by Viking merchants. These Scandinavian merchants and warriors began a chain of events that created the first true Irish towns, among them Wicklow, Wexford and Waterford. These towns became important economic forces, lifting Ireland out of a pastoral economy.
Economics began the integration of the Northmen into Irish society. Irish and Scandinavian artistic motifs became entwined, creating beautiful and sought-after metal work. It wasn’t long before the Vikings forsook their own pagan religion and followed the Irish into Christianity. They began to endow their children with Irish names. By the end of the ninth century, the Vikings had become permanent inhabitants of Ireland. The raiding continued on into the tenth, ending conclusively in 1014 with Brian Boru’s victory at the Battle of Clontarf.
The End of an Era
Viking expansion signaled the beginning of the end of the monastic era in Ireland. But while the Vikings stole away something with their right hand, they did give the Irish something back with their left. The Vikings gained wealth, a new land in which to settle and the comfort and challenge of the Christian religion. The Irish acquired converts, towns and international trading, bringing them out of a pastoral economy and into the “modern” world.
As Thomas Cahill asserts, the Irish did save civilization through the work that went on in their tiny clocháns. But the marauding Vikings helped bring that civilization back to the world.
Writer G Beaverson has a passion for Ireland, and she blogs about cool shoes worn by children’s book literati at http://gbeaverson.livejournal.com.