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Vikings

The arrival of the Scandinavian warriors to Irish shores marked not only the immediate well documented dangers; it also marked the beginnings of a socio-economic restructuring that resonates to the present day. A rural society devoid of urban settlement would, before the arrival of the Normans in 1069, see the emergence of towns and the shifting of power from west to east.

According to the Annals of Ulster, the first Viking raid occurred with the burning of Rechru (Rathlin Island) over 1200 years ago. This event, one of many documented has given the Scandinavians a reputation that would be akin to that of members of the Al Quaeda today. The reports of bloody slaughter, plundering and laying waste to several island monastic communities continue even to this day to give the Vikings a bad press. There can be no doubt that the initial raiding and probing expeditions were indeed fierce as the Vikings perhaps came up against equally stiff opposition from the native population. Before the Vikings had first arrived in Ireland, the Irish themselves were well practised in the art of raiding the territories of their rivals. The Vikings merely added to the intensity of this well-established practice. Many monasteries were attacked repeatedly but recovered quickly and usually continued to flourish. At first sight it seems that the target of these raids was the wealth of ornate gilt-bronze shrines, altar plate, halidoms and personal artefacts now sometimes discovered in the Viking age graves of the Norse. These trinkets although prestigious in their own right may not have been the principal reason for the early incursions.

It may be that the larger monasteries had become by the late pre Viking Age proto-towns, and whilst it would be wrong to convey the impression that their primary function was similar to the urban centres of the later periods, nevertheless, they would have been hubs for development.

The monasteries with their continental connections could initiate and stimulate new technologies. The wealth of the monasteries would have given stimulus to craftsmanship and population growth.

This relatively concentrated population would have afforded the Vikings a source for a valuable commodity: slaves. Although slave taking was part of the early raids it reached significant proportions later when in 869 AD Amlaib captured over a thousand people in Armagh. Many of these found their way to Scandanavia and Iceland. In many of the Icelandic sagas Irish slave women are mentioned along with the genealogies of the Icelandic heroes. The initial Viking method of hit and run raids then returning to the homeland with the booty was followed in the 840s with the raiding parties beginning to over-winter in specially constructed camps. These bases known from the annals as longphort were designed to protect the ships in defended enclosures.

Although Mayo has to date, very little evidence of Viking activity this situation is by no means static. At Cushalogurt in the east of Clew Bay a large Viking silver hoard containing fine examples of broad-band armrings was found. The name Cushalogurt may have derived from the name for the fortified enclosure longphurt.

Much of the Viking-style material found in the countryside seems to have fallen into Irish hands by way of trade, booty or tribute. Indeed the Vikings were defeated in many battles and at Cushalogurt the Umhall defeated them in 812. The following year the Norse took revenge and slaughtered the local chieftain.

In time Vikings and natives, for their mutual benefit, entered into alliances to participate in the never-ending dynastic feuds on the island. Viking technologies, ship building and trade were all attractive attributes that the Irish adopted. The Vikings opened up their eastern trade routes via Scandinavia to the Irish. Silver from the east sometimes in the form of coins with Islamic inscriptions was brought to Ireland to further enhance the wealth of the strong Irish rulers. The silver hoard found at Cushalogurt is one of many tenth century hoards that attests to the wealth that trade and possibly tribute brought to these strong Irish kings. The Irish adopted the ounce weight measurement that was in use in Europe over the native system of weights, thus signalling their participation in international commerce. By 995 AD the first Irish coins had been struck by the Hiberno-Norse king, Sitric, emphasising the commercial importance of Viking settlements.

On the political front it seems that intermarriage was an important part of the integration process. One example of this is where Gormlaith the daughter of Murchad mac Finn, King of Leinster, was married to Amlaíb Cúarán (Olafr kváran) bearing him a son, Sitriuc Silkbeard (Sigtryggr silkiskegg). Gormlaith was also married to Brian Boruma and later after he had regained the high-kingship to Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill. Máel Maire the daughter of Amlaíb Cúarán was married to Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill until her death in 1021. Sitriuc Silkbeard married Sláine, a daughter of Brian Boruma. These unions show clearly that the Norse were very much a part of the fractured polity of early Ireland. Indeed, they were at the very heart of the power struggles of this period. The nickname of Amlaíb Cúarán 'Olaf the Sandal' brings us into contact with the international motif for kingship, the ritual wearing of a single sandal. This is an appropriate part of the reintergrating techniques in terms of initiation, healing and inaugaration.

It's interesting to note also that Amlaíb Cúarán retired to Iona after his defeat at Tara in 980, where he died the following year. The abbot of Iona, Fiachra Ua hArtacáin had the same surname as the chief poet of Ireland, Cináed who in poetry had praised the strengths of Amlaíb.

There can be no doubt that by the late eleventh century the Norse had influenced the Irish in many ways but were equally exposed to and stimulated by the Irish.

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