The Norsemen first settled on Dublin in 852, building a fort on ridge overlooking the Liffey at a spot where Dublin Castle and Christchurch now stand. Down by the river, was dark pool where the Vikings moored their long boats. The dark pool was called Dubhlinn in Gaelic, giving the city its modern name of Dublin.
These settlers from Norway were lead by Olaf The White and Ivar The Boneless, from whom a long line of Norse Kings descended to King Sitric who died in 1042.
Viking Dublin would have been a walled town, stretching from Damas Gate, near Dame Street, to the wooden bridge over the Liffey at Bridgefoot Street. This bridge, which was the only river crossing until the reign of Charles II, was called Droichead Dubhgall – the Dane’s Bridge. From North to south, the town extended from the banks of the Liffey to the grounds of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which was founded 1219. These boundaries were strengthened by the Normans and remained as the medieval city walls until the early 1600s.
Outside the walls of Dublin, Viking villages sprang up along the Liffey valley including Kilmainham, Inchicore, Islandbridge and Chapleizod and as far upriver as the rich salmon fishery at Leixlip. Typical of other Viking towns, the Vikings would have also constructed a mound outside the town where they buried their dead and also a place of assembly called a thingmote which was situated on College Green. They also had a sacred woodland close to the town where they would have worshiped their pagan gods. This wood was called Caill Tomair, Thor’s Grove, and was cut down by Brian Boru’s men in the year 1,000.
The high point of Dublin Viking rule was during the reign of Olaf Sitricson, from 944 to 980, when the Viking kingdom expanded beyond the walls of the town. This Viking kingdom was called Dyflinarskiri or Dublinshire and stretched north into the fertile plains of Fingal as far as Skerries and to Arklow in the south. In the final years of Olaf’s reign, Viking warriors, superior in weaponry, extended their dominance over the Gaelic clans in the Kingdom of Meath as far as the Shannon.
Olaf’s reign ended in defeat to the Gaelic forces of The High King Malachy, at the Battle of Tara in 980. Malachy plundered Dublin and exacted tribute of 2,000 kine, a large sum which indicated the wealth of the Viking Kingdom. The Dublin Vikings were defeated by Malachy again in 944 and also in 988 by Maelsechnaill son of Domnall. The Vikings also embraced Christianity at around this time, abandoning their pagan idols of Thor and Odin. Olaf spent the final years of his life in monastic isolation at Iona. In 1036, King Sitric founded the Priory of Holy Trinity, now known as Christchurch, which was the cathedral within the city walls. An interesting legacy of the Viking conversion to Christianity is that the present day Catholic Diocese of Dublin does not follow county lines, but rather the boundaries of the old Danish Kingdom of Dublin.
The Decline of Viking Dublin
The defeat of the Vikings by the forces of Gaelic Ireland under the High King Brian Boru marked the end of Viking power in Ireland. The Battle of Clontarf was fought across the Liffey at Clontarf on the 23rd of April, 1014. The battle is the great dramatic moment in the history of Norse Dublin. Along with the other Viking towns of Limerick, Cork and Waterford, Dublin was thereafter absorbed into the Irish political landscape and the town paid tribute to the High King of Ireland. At this time the Vikings were assimilated into Gaelic culture, gradually adopting the native language and dress.
The fall of Norse Dublin was completed with the arrival of the Normans and the defeat of Independent Gaelic Ireland. By August of 1170, Strongbow’s men had captured Waterford and in September, Dublin fell to the conquerors. The following year the High King of Ireland Rory O’Connor rallied in a vain attempt to expel the invaders.
Asgall, the Viking leader in Dublin, fled to Scandinavia and returned with a force of 1,000 Vikings, men of iron hearts and iron mail. They marched against the Damas Gate to storm the city, but were no match for the superior tactics of their French cousins. A cavalry attack led by Milo de Colgan’s men broke the advance and Asgall’s men were cut to pieces. Asgall was taken prisoner and later beheaded in his own hall. Later that year, Henry II arrived in Ireland, with a formidable force of 4,000 knights, to consolidate his authority and establish Dublin as the capital of his new Kingdom in Ireland.
The Fate of The Vikings
By the tenth century, a mixed race of Irish and Norse had grown up, known as Gall Gaedhil or Norse Irish. The inhabitants of Dublin, would have had this identity, far removed from the fierce reputation of their seafaring forefathers. They would have spoken a broken Irish called Gall-Gael and intermarried with their Gaelic neighbors. The famous King Sitric even married Slani, the daughter of Brian Boru.
Initially, Henry II granted charters to the defeated Viking towns recognizing their difference from the native Irish. They were considered a race worthy of protection, for they possessed valuable skills of commerce, trade, and seafaring.
Although the Ostmen had been promised legal equality with the English newcomers, in practice they were treated as hibernici, or native Irish without rights. The problem for the Vikings was that they were indistinguishable from the native Irish in the eyes of their new English overlords.
After the Norman Conquest, many of the Dublin Vikings founded a new town on the north side of the river called Oxmanstown with its famous green at Smithfield and parish Church of Saint Michans.
Hiberno-Norse Viking Jewelry
Viking Dublin was the most important trading town in the Viking western world and had a rich agricultural hinterland, so would have been home to many wealthy merchants. Of course, jewelry and ornaments were, and still are, a great expression of personal wealth. Viking Dubliners wore necklaces made of amber, colored glass and precious gemstones. Antler and wooden amulets and Thor’s hammers were also worn. Finger rings were made of amber, jet, copper alloy, silver and gold. Twisted copper alloy, gold and silver wirework as well as jet were also used for rings and bracelets.
As the Vikings assimilated with the native Irish so did their decorative art evolve to incorporate elements from both cultures. Many artifacts from the tenth and eleventh centuries are difficult to distinguish from Irish or Viking. This art form is referred to as Hiberno-Norse.
The Destruction of Wood Quay
Many viking artifacts on display a the National Museum were found at the site of Wood Quay in the center of Dublin. The site was excavated in the 1970s prior to the construction of the Dublin Civic Offices. Many Dubliners view the building of the civic offices on the site of old Viking Dublin as an act of wanton destruction. Certainly the haste in which the site was cleared is a source of much regret.
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Read more about Viking Dublin as a seafaring power.