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VIKING NETWORK IRELAND

THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE EARLY VIKING AGE IN IRELAND


The first Vikings who raided Ireland in 795 and the following years found a well-populated, literate, Christian society with a complex political system but no unified kingship. Viking interaction in Ireland was therefore to be different to that in other areas of contact which had more developed political systems.

Viking Graves:

Relatively few Viking burials have been discovered in Ireland, the last discovery of such a burial was made in 1947.

Dublin:

An extensive complex of cemeteries and single burials existed at Dublin during the Viking age. These include the well know cemeteries at Kilmainham and Islandbridge. Inhumation appears to have been the dominant burial method though there is some evidence for cremation. There is no evidence of burial mounds at Kilmainham or Islandbridge. Some of these grave-fields were on the sites of earlier prehistoric and Christian cemeteries.

Grave goods found with male burials typically included weapons. These consisted of a sword, spearhead and sometimes a third weapon such as a shield boss or an axehead. With female burials finds included brooches, pins, spindle-whorls and a needle case. Four balance scales and some decorated weights found as grave goods show the importance of commerce. Six decorated swords from the Frankish world suggest that the owners were part of a military elite engaged in commerce. These Dublin Viking burials seem to belong to the period 840-950 AD.

Elsewhere in Ireland:

All Viking burials outside of Dublin appear to have been inhumations. The only probable Viking cemetery in Ireland outside Dublin is on Rathlin Island on the site of a Bronze Age cemetery. Finds included a sword, a silver brooch and a bronze ladle. Most of the Viking graves found elsewhere in Ireland have been found near known Viking settlements, for example at Larne, Co. Antrim, Ballyholme, Co. Down, Eyreport, Co. Galway, Barnhall, Co. Kildare, Navan, Co. Meath and near Arklow, Co. Wicklow.

At Navan at the confluence of the rivers Boyne and Blackwater a male skeleton was discovered in 1848 with a copper alloy horse-bit, harness mounts, mounts and "buttons". This site has been identified as Dún Dubchomair where a Viking fleet was reputed to have landed.

 

Scandinavian Finds other than Gold or Silver:

Weapons:

A few axeheads. Ten relatively complete Viking swords have been found in Ireland apart from grave finds. Very few arrowheads found. Few finds other than weapons. One site - a crannog at Ballinderry, Co. Westmeath - is exceptional in the number of Viking finds. These include a sword, combs, a socketed knife, a pair of linen glass-smoothers and a schist whetstone possibly of Norwegian origin. These finds mirror those from Dublin of the tenth and eleventh centuries and must indicate either direct links with Dublin or that the crannog's inhabitants were of mixed Irish-Viking origin.

Ballinderry sword

The Ballinderry sword, the blade is of Frankish manufacture
and is inscribed with its maker's name, Ulfberth.

 

Early Viking Age Silver:

Viking age silver occurs in Ireland either as single finds or as hoards containing coins, ornaments, ingots and hack silver. There are fifty-one coinless hoards of early Viking Age date - most containing complete ornaments - and fifty-six coin hoards, only eight of which contain ornaments. Thus it appears that there were two distinct types of hoard.

The ornaments found in the hoards include various types of armring, finger ring and torc. Silver brooches were also found.

There are two concentrations of hoards in Ireland. The first includes five hoards from the Lough Ree area on the Shannon. These include the largest known hoard of Viking Age gold ornaments in Europe - the Hare Island hoard weighing 10kg. These hoards were the result of Viking activity in the area either temporary encampments in 844-5 or 931-7 or later more permanent trading posts.

The other concentration occurs around Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath, where six hoards were found including five of silver ingots. One of these - the Carrick hoard of sixty silver ingots weighing over 30kg - is the largest Viking Age silver hoard from Ireland. These hoards in the centre of the territory of the kings of Mídhe may represent an economic relationship with Viking Dublin. On the other hand they may represent ransom, loot or pillage from Viking settlements.

 

Scandinavian Settlement outside Towns:

Earliest Settlements:

The picture of the earliest Scandinavian settlement in Ireland is typically that of a longphort or fortified ship-base from which raiding expeditions were carried out on neighbouring monasteries and further afield. Very few longphorts have been identified on the ground. By their nature they were temporary. The annals mention the plundering of the monastery of Emly, Co. Tipperary in 968 by Vikings who established a longphort there for two days.

The Vikings first appeared in the Co. Louth area in 828, killed the local king and plunder two monasteries, Duleek and Clonmore. They returned in 831 and attacked the neighbouring territory and took the king as prisoner to their ships. The following year they plundered a number of monasteries in the area indicating that some form of encampment has been established. It is not until 841 that a permanent encampment is set up at Linn Dúachaill, identified as modern Annagassan, Co. Louth. The following year the Vikings and some local Irish join to murder the abbot of the local monastery.

Viking Bases in the 830 and 840s at: Indber Dee (Arklow or Wicklow), Lough Neagh, Annagassan, Dublin, Narrow Water and Strangford Lough, Co. Down, Lough Ree on the Shannon, and at Cork and Limerick. Many of these early Viking bases were likely to have been situated in monasteries. Others may have been in existing ring forts. The Vikings were opportunists and would have used whatever site was locally useful.

The evidence from the burials ties in well with documentary evidence. Larne, Co. Antrim, was called Ulfreksfjord by the Vikings and there was a settlement there. The longphort at Strangford Lough was probably near the grave site at Ballyholme, Co. Down. The burial at Eyrephort, Co. Galway is close to a fine natural harbour which may have been the site of a Viking longphort perhaps established to coincide with the attacks on Connemara and South Mayo in 812 and 813. In the middle years of the ninth century it would appear that there was a chain of defended sites along the east coast of Ireland with small scale colonising on the west and south coasts. These longphort settlements did not endure. Cork was destroyed in 848, the bases in Antrim and Down were destroyed in 866, Dublin was abandoned in 902 and the last mention of Annagassan is in 927.

Second Period of Settlements:
The second and more intensive period of settlement was characterised by the establishment of a series of towns. Waterford (914), Cork (c.915), Dublin (917), Wexford (c.921) and Limerick (922). Each town had a Scandinavian controlled hinterland which varied in size according to the political power of the town. Dublin's hinterland was the most extensive, called the Dyflinarskiri. It included modern County Dublin and parts of Wicklow as far as Arklow. Many placenames are Scandinavian in origin - Skerries, Lambay, Howth, Dalkey, Wicklow and Arklow are all coastal and Leixlip (the salmon leap) marks the western boundary of Dyflinarskiri. Large monasteries such as Swords, Tallaght and Finglas continued to flourish in this area. The material culture of this phase shows that the Vikings were becoming assimilated. Politically the people of Dublin maintained their independence and close contacts with Scandinavia.

Sources:

Elizabeth O'Brien, "The Location and Context of Viking Burials at Kilmainham and Islandbridge, Dublin" in H.B. Clarke, M. Ní Mhaonaigh and R. Ó Floinn (eds), Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age (Dublin, 1998).

Elizabeth O'Brien, A tale of two cemeteries in Archaeology Ireland, Vol 9 No 3, Autumn 1995 (The Viking Issue).

John Bradley, Scandinavian rural settlement in Ireland in Archaeology Ireland, Vol 9 No 3, Autumn 1995 (The Viking Issue).

John Sheehan, Silver and gold hoards: Status, wealth and trade in the Viking Age in Archaeology Ireland, Vol 9 No 3, Autumn 1995 (The Viking Issue).

Maurice F. Hurley, The Vikings in Munster - Evidence from Waterford and Cork in Archaeology Ireland, Vol 9 No 3, Autumn 1995 (The Viking Issue).

Charles Doherty, The Vikings in Ireland: a Review in H.B. Clarke, M. Ní Mhaonaigh and R. Ó Floinn (eds), Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age (Dublin, 1998).

Raghnall Ó Floinn, The Archaeology of the Early Viking Age in Ireland in Clarke, H.B., Ní Mhaonaigh, M., Ó Floinn, R. (eds) Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age (Dublin, 1998)

M. Ryan et al., "Six silver finds of the Viking period from the vicinity of Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath", Peritia, 3 (1984), pp 334-81.

J. Bradley, "The interpretation of Scandinavian settlement in Ireland", in J. Bradley (ed), Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland: Studies presented to F.X. Martin (Kilkenny, 1988).


Updated July 2000 by the Viking Network
IRISH CO-ORDINATOR Michael Farry.
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