In the Middle Ages, Vikings rampaged along the European coastline in dragon ships. They did not only started the Viking Age, changed the history of Europe, but also brought great disasters to European people. Ireland was the worst-hit country of Viking invasion and harassing.
Ancient Irish believed that the invaders were from Lochlann. Some people think it refers to Norway, while some others believe it refers to Viking colonies on the islands near Scotland. Ancient Irish identified two kinds of invaders: “Dubgaill” (black-hair aliens) and “Finngaill” (blonde-hair aliens). Some academics believe that they respectively correspond to the Dane and Norwegian; some people think that the prefixes of words “Dub-” and “Finn-” have nothing to do with hair (as there is no obvious physical differences between Danes and Norwegians), but weapons; some people hold the opinion that the prefixes are about the ways of attacks; while some others consider that they are related to the sequence of their arrival in Ireland. In this article, we will not make any distinction between them, but identify all of them as “Vikings”.
In 832, Turgesius/Thorgils became the first Viking who attempted to establish a regime in Ireland. Following his step, a flood of Vikings swarmed into Ireland. In 836, Dublin was occupied. Connaught (in 835), Meath (in 836), Ulster (in 838) could not evade the same fate either.
But days of Turgesius’ oppression did not last long. In 845, Turgesius fell in love with the daughter of Máel Sechnaill “Malachy”, the King of Meath, and wanted to marry her. Malachy dared not refuse him and had to agree. He also promised to give Turgesius another 15 “complimentary” beauties. When the agreed date came, the 15 “beauties” showed themselves in true colors – warriors that disguised as women. As a result, Turgesius was captured and executed.
This incident boosted Malachy’s confidence in fighting against Vikings. After he became the High King of Ireland (in 846), he won several victories over Vikings. In 848, Vikings were defeated in Westmeath and lost about 700 men. In the next few years, Vikings suffered repeated defeats. But in 853, a surprising incident happened. An army of “Dubgaill” arrived in Dublin. Instead of joining the “Finngaill”, they attacked the latter, took over their dominion, and founded the Norse Kingdom of Dublin. The leaders of the newly arrived invaders were Olaf (Amlaíb) and Ivar (Ímar). From Dublin, Olaf began to loot Leinster and Munster. Ruins spread all over the Irish territory from Limerick to Cork. But they were not invincible. When Áed Findliath, the King of Ailech (from the northern Uí Néill kindred), became the High King of Ireland, Vikings suffered two disastrous defeats (867 in Lough Foyle and 879 in Kilmore).
In about forty years after the death of Ivar in 873, there was no Vikings coming to Ireland. But the Vikings in Ireland had settled down permanently in Norse settlements like Dublin. During this period, the High King of Ireland was Malachy’s son Flann Sinna (on the throne from 879 to 916). By rights, Irish should take this opportunity to repair the war damage or take precaution measures against newly arrived Vikings, but Ireland was still lost in civil strives. The Viking invasion in nearly a century never unified Ireland: Tyrone and other parts of Ulster were in war (892); the High King looted Connaught (895); Connaught had a war on Meath (898); Ossory was attacked by Déisi…
In 906, the High King aligned with Leinster. They invaded and looted Munster. Cormac mac Cuilennáin, the King of Munster at that time, was an excellent military commander. He launched attacks on the High King and his allies, and inflicted heavy casualties on them; in the same year, he defeated Meath and Connaught which were harassing Munster. Cormac was satisfied about his victories and intended to sue for peace, but his advisor Flaithbertach mac Inmainén talked him into conquering Leinster and then following Flann’s footsteps to become the new High King. Thereupon, Cormac led his army into Leinster. But the Munster army was raided and defeated by allied army of Flann, Leinster and Connaught in Ballaghmore. They had a heavy casualty of 6000 men, including their king Cormac.
Viking immigrants in Dublin, Waterford and Limerick also went into action. There were even some Irish forces cooperating with Vikings to attack their opponents. However, a trend that Vikings were assimilated was emerging – there were intermarriages between Vikings and Irish, and there were also Viking that converted to Christianity.
From 914 to 1014, it was a century where the Vikings in Ireland changed from wax to wane. Around 914, Ivar’s grandson Ragnall came to Waterford, and he used it as a base to threaten Munster. Two years later, Ivar’s another grandson Sitric Cáech occupied Dublin. Ivar’s kindred (Uí Ímair) ushered in their heyday.
Niall Glúndub (Son of Áed Findliath), the new High King who assumed power in 916, bravely met the challenges but was killed in battle in 919. In this battle, 12 Irish monarchs sacrificed their lives, but Dublin remained in enemies’ hands. Niall Glúndub’s son Muirchertach mac Néill (he was not the High King) led his army to fight against Vikings for 20 years, and he was finally killed during the battle against the King of Dublin Blácaire.
In 944, the High King Congalach Cnogba (from the southern Uí Néill kindred) defeated Viking in Dublin, took a large number of civilians prisoners; in 948, he defeated Viking again and killed Blácaire. However, in 956, he was killed by allied army of Leinster and Vikings.
During the time when Muirchertach mac Néill’s son Domnall ua Néill was on the throne, there was only one major battle where the King of Dublin Amlaíb Cuarán (Sitric Cáech’s son) won. As a result, the whole Meath was devastated and referred to by Irish as the “Babylonian Captivity”.
In southern Ireland, Ivar’s kindred was so rampant that they took Limerick. Some historical records even described the misdeed of Vikings with sad and stilted language: the whole Munster was in flood, which was like vomit that flowed over into numberless boats and ships. Therefore, in Munster, there was no ports, landing places, fortresses, strongholds, or fleets of Danes and Vikings. They turned it into a wasted land, warred land, conquered land……In short, what all the Gaels had suffered without exception could not be calculated, enumerated or narrated even with the countless sands, grass and stars: no matter men or women, boys or girls, laities or clergymen, the old or the young, free men or the slaves, nobody could avoid humiliations, atrocities, harm or oppression……Vikings put Irish under harsh duties, corvee, constraints and servitude……
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