The bitter wind is high to-night
It lifts the white locks of the sea;
In such wild winter storm no fright
Of savage Viking troubles me.
Thus wrote an Irish monk on the margin of a manuscript on a stormy night in the 9th century. His relief is palpable: the storm will ensure that on that night at least no Viking raids will take place. Irish monks had no great love for the marauding Viking visitors first sighted off the Irish coast in the 790s AD. With their swift shallow-draft longboats the Vikings initially sought treasure and counted on monasteries to yield a rich plunder. They were not disappointed and their frequent and ferocious raids resulted in major upheavals in monasteries throughout the country: many monks including those from Kildare fled and took refuge throughout Europe while on the other hand, the monks on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland felt so vulnerable to Viking attacks that the entire monastic community moved to Meath to build a new monastery at Kells.
The Sea Stallion from Glendalough a reconstructed Viking long-boat. The original, dating from c.1000, was made from oak hewn in Glenadalough.
It is no wonder then that the monastic scribes, who were also chroniclers and historians, gave the Vikings a bad press, and that impression has remained to the present day. The Vikings, however, made their own distinctive contribution to the country in which they eventually settled giving us towns such as Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. These towns became bustling trading centres and as they developed they had a need for a settled farming community in their hinterland to provide on an ongoing basis a wide range of produce, not just foodstuff, such as cereals, fruit, berries and game, but also materials with which to build their homes and shops. Large timber beams were needed for houses, wattle for both new buildings and the maintenance of old, straw for thatch, sods for roofs, dung and daub for insulating walls, stones for paving and for hearths, brushwood for bedding and ferns for insulation. These hinterlands must have been largely controlled by the Vikings themselves to ensure an uninterrupted supply.
By the mid 9th century the Vikings had established a permanent settlement in Dublin for which it was important to secure a safe hinterland and so it was necessary to subjugate some of the Irish clans. In the ensuing warfare a local Kildare king was slain in 863 and a year later a similar fate befell a member of a Meath dynastic family. The Dublin hinterland, known as Fingal ‘land of the foreigners', at its most extensive stretched north as far as Swords, west to Leixlip and included all south Dublin and north Wicklow – the latter region encompassed the Blessington area as indicated by the place-name Rath Turtle close to the town, a stronghold of the Viking MacTorcaill family who in the 12th century ruled Dublin. Other places in the vicinity of Blessington, such as, Tallaght and the valley of Glenasmole across the mountain from Seefin, were also part of the Dublin hinterland.
The Vikings were above all seafarers so it is not surprising that for practical purposes the Irish Sea was like a Viking lake which facilitated trade and easy access to other Viking strongholds in the Isle of Man and Britain. Indeed this ease of access meant that Viking kings in Dublin were from time to time also kings of the Viking city of York.
The Vikings initially worshipped their own gods but as they settled and came into contact with Christianity they converted. In Ireland by the mid 9th century cultural assimilation was occurring and when the Irish annals recorded the death in 873 of Ívarr, king of Dublin, it noted ‘he rested in Christ’, indicating that he had become a Christian. A later Viking king, Amlaíb Cuarán, married to a daughter of an Uí Dúnlainge chieftain, was also Christian and died while on a pilgrimage to Iona in 981. His son Sitriuc Silkenbeard, was undoubtedly a Christian – he was king of Dublin when Brian Bóruma and his allies moved against the Vikings at Clontarf in 1014. Brian won the battle but at enormous cost – there were huge losses on both sides and many of the leaders including Brian himself were slain. The battle marked the waning power of the Vikings in Ireland, but Sitriuc survived as king, and his enduring legacy can be seen in the founding of Christ Church Cathedral and the creation of a bishopric in Dublin in 1030.
When seeking a structure for his bishopric, Sitriuc looked to Canterbury, which for some time under its Benedictine Archbishop, Lanfranc, was eager to reform the Irish church. And so it was that the diocesan model rather than the monastic one, then more usual in Ireland, became the accepted model in Dublin and its first bishop Donatus was appointed ‘chief bishop of the foreigners’ following his consecration in Canterbury. For the next century and a half all bishops appointed to Dublin were educated in England, mostly in Canterbury or St Albans and this link resulted in Dublin remaining for a time outside the Irish diocesan structure when it was generally adopted in the first half of the 12th century.
Viking gravestone in St James’s Churchyard, Castledermot, Co Kildare, showing the Christian symbol of the cross.
By the 11th century a reform movement was already under way in the Irish church. The movement now looked to Rome in its efforts to make the clergy independent of the monasteries and lay control, to tackle irregularities such as married clergy and lay abbots as well as other practices such as divorce and polygamy which were at variance with orthodox Christian teaching. A prominent churchman associated with this movement was St Malachy (1095-1148) who was highly regarded by St Bernard of Clairvaux and who initiated many reforms while bishop of Down and Connor. Malachy was nominated Archbishop of Armagh by Cellach, his former teacher and his predecessor in Armagh, thus breaking the hereditary succession which had been a feature there for some time.
Three synods were important milestones in the reform movement, Cashel (1101), Rathbreasail (1111) and Kells (1152). It was at the latter synod that the Irish dioceses as we know them today were delineated, albeit with minor changes. The Synod of Kells also designated Dublin as one of the four metropolitan sees (Armagh, Cashel, Dublin and Tuam) – some decades earlier on the urgings of Cellach, then Archbishop of Armagh, Dublin had broken its ties with Canterbury and taken its place within the Irish diocesan structure.
Approximately sixty years later the diocese of Glendalough was amalgamated with Dublin following the death of its last Abbot in 1214 and it was at this time that Domhnach Imlech, the original Christian foundation at Burgage (see chap 1), and the area around Blessington came within the see of Dublin.
Bradley, J. (1988) ‘The Interpretation of Scandinavian Settlement in Ireland’ in J. Bradley, ed., Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland: Studies Presented to FX Martin, O.S.A., Kilkenny: Boethius Press.
Corish, P. (1985) The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.
Flower, R. (1947) The Irish Tradition, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lydon, J. (1998) The Making of Ireland: from Ancient Times to the Present, London: Routledge.
MacShamhráin, A. (2002) The Vikings: an illustrated history, Dublin: Wolfhound Press.
Price, L. (1953) The Place-Names of Co Wicklow, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Corráin, D. (1972) Ireland before the Normans, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.
© Kathy Trant, July 2013