Vikings in Ireland: A History
The first story DLC for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Wrath of the Druids, is due to release in the near future and it will see Eivor travelling to Ireland to battle a druidic cult known as the Children of Danu. As such, it is a great time to explore the history of the Vikings and their adventures in Ireland.
The First Viking Age in Ireland is generally considered to be between 795 CE and 902 CE. The first recorded Viking raids on Irish soil happened in the year 795 CE on the islands of Rathlin and Lambay. It is likely that the invaders were from Norway, just like our good friend Eivor. For the next 40 years, towns, farms, and monasteries were frequently looted and destroyed by Viking warriors. As this was occurring, the Viking settlers were also integrating themselves into Irish society.
The Norse warriors attacked the St. Columba monastery on Iona in 795 CE and burned St. Patrick’s Island to the ground in 798 CE. They returned to Iona in 802 and 806 CE, murdering 68 of the island’s residents and devastating the community. The Norse were not ones for large battle fleets. Instead, only a handful of ships – often less than three – would dock at the shores and offload a group of Vikings. Once the pillaging was complete, the warriors would return to their ship and depart, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. Eye-witness accounts from the time refer to the Viking invaders as “faceless wraiths”, strangers who left as quickly as they arrived with the only evidence that they were ever there being the smouldering embers of the towns they passed through.
Wrath of the Druids is the first downloadable content expansion for Assassin's Creed
Valhalla, and is set to launch Spring 2021.
The Irish did not take the attacks lying down, however. The Annals of Irish history mention that in 811 CE, the people of Uliad managed to kill a fleet of Viking invaders who arrived on their land. A year later in 812 CE, another fleet was killed in Umall, known today as County Mayo.
It was clear to the Viking warriors that their small fleets of only a few longships were no longer working. For one, their men were being slaughtered by the Irish. More than that, though, was that there was only so much loot the Vikings could plunder and bring back to Scandinavia in such small ships. As a result, the invaders decided to upscale their operation in the 830s. The invaders travelled to Ireland with a fleet of between 50 to 100 ships and set up camp. This allowed the Vikings to raid the countryside and bring the loot back to their campsite. In 836 CE, they pillaged Uí Néill. In 837, they carried out river raids on the Boyne, Liffey and Shannon rivers. The Annals of Ulster recorded that sixty ships arrived on the Boyne, with another sixty on the Liffey. They approached Brega and Liffey and plundered everything in sight. In 840, the Vikings attacked Lough Neagh and the surrounding monasteries for most of a year. Their conquest grew in 841 when the warriors set up fortified camps at County Louth and Dublin.
The Norse Vikings had a new problem to contend with in 849 CE when more invaders arrived on the shores of Ireland. These settlers were not Norsemen but Danes, and their arrival created a power struggle within Ireland’s Viking communities as the two groups began to fight each other. This distraction gave the Irish nobility time to plan how to deal with the invader armies. However, just as the Irish were building their defences and planning to strike, the Viking raids seemed to stop. 851 CE saw the last major attack of the time as the warriors crossed the sea to begin their invasion of Britain. With the warriors gone, the only Vikings left on Ireland were the settlers who were more concerned with building a life for themselves than attacking other communities. Some of the most prominent Norse populated towns in the late 800s were Dublin, then known as Dubhlinn, Cork, Youghal, and Waterford which became Ireland’s very first city.
We know from the events in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that the game takes place from 873-878 CE. As such, it should be relatively peaceful by the time Eivor arrives in Ireland. There will be a significant Norse population for Eivor to meet and interact with, but there should not be a lot of raiding and pillaging happening. This would allow for the Children of Danu to take centre stage within the narrative, as there will likely not be as much political intrigue happening on the isle at the time. The Children of Danu are inspired by the supernatural race in Irish mythology known as Tuatha Dé Danann which translates to “the folk of the goddess Danu”. Whether this cult will be supernatural in nature or just a group who worship the mythological race remains to seen. One interesting fact about the Tuatha Dé Danann is that they had four magical treasures that they brought to Ireland – a cauldron, a spear, a stone, and a sword. Is it possible these objects are connected to the Isu?
Whilst Viking activity in Ireland was mostly peaceful for the latter half of the 800s, that calm was short lived. The Second Viking Age began in 914 CE when a large fleet of Viking ships docked in Waterford harbour to recapture their old settlement which had been reclaimed by the Irish. The raids and pillaging resumed with great force. The Vikings were determined to win back the land that they lad lost to the Irish, including the thriving town of Dubhlinn. That was the last straw for Niall Glúndub, King of Uí Néill, who wanted the Vikings out of Ireland. In 917, he led an army against the Viking warriors in Munster. They were ultimately unsuccessful and retreated having achieved little. The King tried again in 919 and the same thing happened – only this time Niall perished in the attack. With the only person truly willing to stand up to the Vikings now dead, the invaders were free to continue their conquest of Ireland. They established a new town called Weisfjord, now Wexford, in 921 and in 922 they created Limerick. Once again, however, the Viking raids calmed and the settlers focused on building their communities. The British kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Merica had been defeated and united under one Viking kingdom known as the Danelaw. Dubhlinn was also joined with the Danelaw, as it was one of the most significant Nordic cities of the time due to its high volume of trade and slavery. With such a powerful part of Ireland under their rule, the Vikings began taking control of other Irish towns. In 952, however, Dubhlinn split from the Danelaw due to its power and the Vikings established their own dynasty within the city.
Concept art for Ireland coming from the Assassin's Creed Valhalla Season Pass Trailer.
For the next 20 years, things in Ireland were fairly uneventful – at least where the Viking population were concerned. Amongst the Irish lords, a battle for power was occurring as men competed for the position of High King of their land. It was also during this time that the Norse and Dane population of Ireland began converting to Christianity. Most of the time, the Irish were willing to tolerate the presence of the Viking communities as they were usually peaceful and responsible for much of the country’s trading. However, political turmoil within Ireland’s nobility would soon change this. Mathgamain mac Cennétig, King of Munster from 970 CE was killed in 976 CE by the previous King of Munster, Máel Muad mac Brain. Mathgamain was succeeded by his younger brother Brian Bóruma.
Brian wanted two things above all else: revenge for his brother’s death and power over Munster. In 977 CE, Brian attacked the Viking population in Limerick. King Imar and his sons hid in the monastery, believing that a Christian ruler would not desecrate a sanctuary of God. They were wrong. Brian broke into the building and murdered the Vikings inside. In 980, Brian declared himself King of Munster. Brian was not above working with the Vikings when it aided his quest for power. He formed an alliance with the Waterford Vikings so that he could take control of Leinster province. His goal was power and he would do what was necessary to get it.
King Brian Boru’s fast-paced rise to power concerned the other Kingdoms in Ireland, particularly Uí Néill. King Máel Sechnaill II tried in vain to take power away from Brian. Realising this was unachievable, the Kings held a meeting and agreed to divide Ireland between them. This was not a move that everyone appreciated, however. Leinster and Dubhlinn were particularly outraged and revolted against the rule of their new leader. Brian was unfazed by this and led his armies into Leinster and Dubhlinn and destroyed them. From there, Brian continued to take control of Ireland’s regions and Kings Silkenbeard and Máel Sechnaill II both surrendered power to Brian. By 1006 CE, Brian Boru had almost claimed the entire country as his own.
Brian’s dream of becoming High King of Ireland looked inevitable. No one could stop his conquest. That was until 1013 CE when the people of Ireland turned on their ruler. Brian tried to fight back against the revolts rising up around Ireland, but this time his enemies were stronger and he was forced to retreat. The rebels travelled to Scotland and the Isle of Man to recruit more warriors to their army, and when they returned they were stronger than ever. The foundations for battle were set.
The Battle of Clontarf is one of the most famous battles in Irish history as it is seen as the exact moment the Viking rule in Ireland ended. The battle happed in 1014 and one was one of the bloodiest the country had seen. Thousands of men were killed on both sides, and the Vikings retreated to the Isle of Man when it became clear Brian’s army had won. However, Brian’s victory was short lived as he was killed, allegedly having been bludgeoned to death with an axe by a Viking.
With the Vikings having left Ireland and regrouped on the Isle of Man, Viking rule in Ireland was over for good. The remaining Vikings were allowed to maintain control over Dublinn until 1074 CE, but in reality the line between Viking and Irishman was becoming blurred. Vikings were now part of the Irish communities they had once raided, and their own culture and heritage had been replaced by Christianity and Irish customs. Over time, there was nothing left of the fierce Norse conquest that had taken hold of the country in the early 800s.
Despite the Viking Age ending in 1014 CE, the influence that the Vikings had in Ireland can still be seen today. The Vikings established the first ever Irish city, Waterford, and also created the first naval base within the city. The Vikings were also responsible for introducing Irish currency. Prior to 995, Ireland did not have its own official currency. It was the Viking King Sitric Silkenbeard who created the first Irish coins, which were silver and bore King Silkenbeard’s name. Another interesting fact is that, despite being well known for destroying Christian monasteries during their raiding years, the Vikings are actually responsible for the creation of Ireland’s most famous cathedral. King Silkenbeard was so devoted to his new religion of Christianity that he ordered the construction of Christ Church Cathedral within his city. It is still standing today and as gorgeous as it was in the 10th century. Indeed, even many of the surnames we associate with Ireland today are deviations of the Scandinavian names that the Vikings brought to Irish soil. Having Viking ancestry in Ireland is relatively common due to how the Vikings merged with Irish society and married native Irish people.
The reign of Vikings in Ireland may have only lasted for 220 years, but it was a time that was anything but boring. Without those Viking invaders, who knows what Ireland would look like nowadays. One thing is for sure, it would not be the country we know today. That is the beauty of history. For better or worse, our world is defined by the ones who came before us – just like in our favourite video game.
Journey to Ireland and unravel the mysteries of an ancient druidic cult. Fight your way through haunted forests and dazzling landscapes while gaining influence among Gaelic kings.
About the Author
Lauren is a online article writer who joined the program in 2019, which allowed for her work to be viewed by a larger audience.
She is especially interested in Assassin's Creed lore, and wrote a number of thought provoking articles which you can find here in the Community HUB.
Lauren left the program in 2021 shortly after the 'Assassin's Creed Infinity' announcement, which understandably left many fans feeling uneasy. We wish her the best of luck with her future projects.
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