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The name Viking is used to describe seafaring people from Scandinavia who began raiding, trading and settling areas of Western Europe in the late 8th century. The first account of a Viking raid is on the Monastery of St. Cuthbert in Lindisfarne, England in the year 793 CE.
It is possible that the rise of the Vikings at the end of the 8th century is due in part to the expansion of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire which covered a large area around modern day France, Switzerland and Germany and may have begun to encroach on the lands of the Scandinavian people to the north.
Soon, the Vikings would become feared throughout western Europe as formidable warriors who would come from the sea, raid settlements and disappear into the sea again. Christian settlements in particular became a target for these Viking raids as Monasteries and religious settlements were often poorly defended and held a considerable amount of wealth. Similarly, these settlements were easily accessible to the Vikings because, their boats had been designed to travel along coasts and shallow rivers where many such settlements were based.
It wasn’t long before these same raiders arrived on Irish shores with the first raid being described in the Annals of Ulster in the year 795. The Annals describe,
“The burning of Rechru (either Rathlinn or Lambay Island) by the heathens, and Scí (Isle of
Skye, Scotland) was overwhelmed and laid waste.”
The Vikings appear in the annals again in 798 saying,
“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.”
These raids would continue into the 9th century. However, it should be noted that far from being all powerful warriors, as they are often portrayed, the Vikings were defeated numerous times by the native Irish clans that they encountered; as was the case in the year 811 CE, when the Annals of Ulster record, “A slaughter of the heathens by the Ulaid.”
From the year 825CE, violence between the Vikings and the native Irish increased significantly, with multiple references to battles and attacks between the two sides. Around this time the Vikings are noted for burning or destroying many sites such as Glendalough, Clonmacnoise and Clondalkin, to name just a few.
Significantly, in the year 837 CE, we get the first references to the Vikings being active on the river Liffey. In just a few years they would establish a base here and the town would grow to become Dublin City.
It is in the year 841, that we have the first mention of a Viking settlement at Dubh Linn, “There was a naval camp at Linn Duachaill (Annagassan, Co. Louth) from which the peoples and churches of Tethba were plundered. There was a naval camp at Duiblinn (Dublin) from which the Laigan and the Uí Néill were plundered, both states and churches, as far as Sliab Bladma.”
As the Vikings began to settle in Ireland they began to establish trading centres away from their Scandinavian homes. However, with these growing settlements, the Viking had now made themselves vulnerable to attack from the native Irish.
While the Vikings began to raid Irish monasteries and territories from the late 8th century, violence and raiding were certainly nothing new to the Island of Ireland. For centuries, Irish clans and kingdoms had been warring and raiding one another. In fact, cattle raiding was so integral to the Irish way of life that it even forms the basis for Ireland’s most famous epic poem, An Táin Bo Cuailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley.
In the late 8th century, Ireland was ruled by a series of regional kings, who are described as ‘over-kings’. Beneath them, there were smaller kingdoms, ruled by lesser-kings. However, it was not unusual for these lesser kings to fight their overlord and become the over-king themselves.
Among the most powerful kingdoms in Ireland in the 8th and 9th centuries were the Southern Uí Neill Kingdom in Ireland's midlands, the Northern Uí Neill Kingdom to the Northwest and Munster ruled predominantly by the Eoghanachta, centred at Cashel.
The greatest title at this time in Ireland however, was the position of High King of Ireland.
In truth the High Kingship, did not necessarily mean that the High King had control over all of Ireland. Instead, the High Kingship was more of a ceremonial a title given to the King of Tara in modern day Co. Meath.
Tara had long been considered the ancient and spiritual capital of Ireland, associated with legendary High Kings as well as the old pagan Irish Gods. And so, the ruler of Tara was given the title of The High King of Ireland.
In the two centuries preceding the arrival of the Vikings however, there had been two factions in Ireland that held supremacy over the title of the High King of Ireland, The Northern Uí Neill and the Southern Uí Neill. While both factions claim the lineage of the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages, these factions were not necessarily allies in any conventional sense of the word. Even though the two would fight and raid each others territory from time to time, the two Uí Neill factions had managed to maintain an incredibly unusual custom whereby they would alternate the High Kingship between them. Through this convention, the Uí Neill factions were able to
maintain the High Kingship almost exclusively between one another.
It was to this world that the Vikings would enter in 795 and considering the power of Uí Neill factions to the North, the Vikings would become mostly successful in the southern half of the island. With their success, the Vikings would bring trade, mercenaries and wealth to the southern half of Ireland, which would fundamentally shift the power dynamics that had long kept the Uí Neill factions in power.
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