During the Middle Ages, Vikings both raided and settled on Ireland, influencing the development of the modern region. What did the Vikings call the island?
The Nordic name for Ireland is Írland, though it is unclear when it first entered popular use. Norwegian Vikings founded and named a number of settlements that still exist, including Dubhlinn (Dublin), Cork, Vadrefjord (Waterford), Weisfjord (Wexford), and Limerick.
For more on the history of the Vikings in Ireland, read on.
The Vikings originated in Scandanavia and began spreading overseas in the 8th Century. The decision to began raiding for land and loot was motivated by the scarcity of habitable land in their notoriously inhospitable homes.
Having endured significant hardship, many Scandanavians decided to gather bands of armed warriors and began pillaging settlements along the coast. The Vikings were master shipbuilders and their cutting edge longships allowed them to sail across the North Sea, greatly expanding their range and beginning what came to be known as the Viking Age.
Viking raiders first reached the British Isles in 793, attacking the monastery at Lindisfarne, commonly known as the Holy Island, off the northeast coast of England. Great Britain was usually attacked by Danish raiders but it did not take long for a group of Norwegian Vikings to attack Ireland where, in 795, they burned the monastery on Rathlin Island off the northern coast.
At the time, Ireland was an ideal target for raiding. Major settlements were rare, with the population usually focused around monasteries, where valuable items were gathered and stored. The Vikings were pagans and had no reverence for Christian items or symbols, but they looted and sold them in their homeland.
For decades, Vikings continued raiding Irish settlements, landing their ships, pillaging and burning the monasteries, and returning home to Scandanavia. As well as valuable belongings, the Vikings also enslaved at will.
While an early Viking raid was a terrible occurrence, it was not especially frequent. There was usually one attack on Ireland per year, making the odds of falling victim to one relatively low. The Irish fought back against the Vikings and, on a few occasions, successfully defeated the raiders.
Unfortunately for the Irish, the Vikings became increasingly organized. Rather than landing in small bands of raiders, they formed into great fleets of as many as 100 ships and landed on the coast, making enormous camps. After setting up camp, they spread out into the surrounding land for months at a time.
The Irish could do little to defend themselves against these great raids but gradually improved their tactics in an attempt to repel the invaders. They received a respite in the mid 9th Century when the Vikings focused their attention on Britain instead.
The Viking presence in Ireland was not just restricted to raids. They established a number of settlements intended to be permanent, including the town of Dubhlinn, now known as Dublin.
Dubhlinn had a predominantly Nordic population but the Vikings were driven out of Ireland in 902 by an Irish attack. The Vikings relocated to England, where their fellow Scandanavians were making significant territorial gains.
In 914, the Vikings renewed their interest in Ireland, landing with two large fleets and recapturing many of their lost settlements on the island. They faced strong opposition but were victorious, thanks in part to forming alliances with opportunistic Irish lords and petty kings.
Settling in Ireland
Many of the modern Irish cities and towns were founded by the Vikings. These include Dubhlinn (Dublin), Cork, Vadrefjord (Waterford), Weisfjord (Wexford), and Limerick.
In time, the Vikings in Ireland largely abandoned their martial lives and settled as farmers, craftsmen and traders. Many agreed to become subjects of the emboldened Irish leaders who were taking back their lost territory.
For those Vikings who made Ireland their permanent home, they were fulfilling the original motivation of the early Viking raids. They sought fertile land in which to build a life for themselves and in Ireland it was plentiful.
In later centuries, the English came to refer to the Norse-Gaelic people as “Ostmen”, meaning “the men from the east”. The Norse name for Ireland is Írland, though it is unclear when the name entered popular usage.
For the Vikings, Ireland was not a single place with a name but an island that offered opportunities for loot and slaves. For many, however, it became a home and their descendants have continued living in Ireland ever since.