The Vikings and the Irish Sea world

Professor of Medieval History details how the Vikings influenced Ireland and Scotland


Photo: Matthew Hunt / Wikimedia Commons
Lindisfarne is the site of one of the most famous Viking raids.

Christine Foster Meloni

Dr. Jennifer Paxton, Professor of Medieval History at Catholic University, recently presented “The Vikings and the Irish Sea World” to the Washington, D.C., Sons of Norway lodge.

Just as the Vikings helped unite England by backing one particular English kingdom, Wessex, they also helped unite Ireland by helping one Irish kingdom against the others.

The Vikings took to the sea in the eighth century. They put figureheads on their ships to scare their enemies. And scare them they did with their violent raids. But Paxton says that they were not guilty of gratuitous violence and were “not really bloodthirsty.” They were in the business for economic reasons.

She described the three phases of Viking activity in Ireland and Scotland, pointing out that at this time there was not much distinction between Ireland and Scotland. The Irish kings were kings of both Ireland and Scotland.

Phase one began in 789 CE and consisted of “lightning raids.” Monasteries were raided frequently, the most famous raid taking place at Lindes in Ireland in 793. The monastery at Iona in Scotland was raided three times in 800. The monastic settlement in Ireland’s County Armagh was raided three times in 832.

In phase two the Vikings organized fleets with huge armies and expanded their raids geographically. They continued to attack monasteries and also raided secular settlements. Many battles took place between the Irish and the Vikings.

In the final phase, the Vikings began to marry Irish women and gradually became integrated into Irish society. Raids on monasteries continued, but many more of these attacks were carried out by Irish raiders than by the Vikings. These raids, however, were not recorded in the annals of Irish history.

Clonmacnoise crozier

Image: public domain
The Clonmacnoise crozier is a clear example of the Viking influence on Ireland.

The Vikings became involved in politics. Their kings were sometimes allies and sometimes enemies of the Irish kings. The situation was more or less stable.

The last great Irish king, Brian Ború, lived for the most part in peaceful co-existence with the Vikings. But when he reached the height of his power, becoming the King of Munster and the High Irish King, his army attacked Dublin, a Viking stronghold. The Vikings then called on their allies in the Ork­neys and on the Isle of Mann to help them defend Dublin. The Norsemen were unable to save Dublin but, before fleeing, they did kill King Ború.

The Vikings created urbanization in Ireland. There were no cities when they arrived. They founded Dublin in 841. The Old Norse name was Dyflin (Dubh linn) meaning “Black Pool.” It had a great location, and trade was its lifeblood. They traded fur and amber for silk. They were also slave traders. They created the first coins used in Ireland and their words for “penny” and “market” were introduced into the local language.

The Vikings also brought their shipbuilding techniques to the Irish and much of their navigation vocabulary found its way into the Irish language, e.g. the words for boat, anchor, sheet or sail, and rudder.

The Vikings influenced the language in other areas as well, most notably in place names such as Limerick, Cork, the Skellig Islands, Wicklow, Howth, and Dalkey and in family names such as MacAuliffe (Son of Olaf), MacManus (Son of Magnus), and Doyle (Son of the dark—or evil—foreigner).

Viking influence can be seen in art motifs. Two remarkable examples are St. Columba’s Psalter, an illuminated manuscript, and the Clonmacnoise crozier, a bishop’s staff.

A profound change took place in metal work, with a shift from gold to silver. The most important archeological evidence is a Viking hoard found at the bottom of a river in County Armagh. Of particular interest is the ninth to 11th-century jewelry including finely crafted silver bracelets and rings.

Soon after the first Viking raid in Scotland, in 794, much of the Hebrides and Caithness came under Norse rule. Orkney and Shetland remained earldoms under Norway until 1468.

Paxton mentioned one Earl in particular. The powerful Norse chieftain, Thorfinn the Mighty, was an Earl of Orkney in the 11th century. She recommended “a cracking great read” about him entitled King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett.

Thorfinn was the only son of Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson and a daughter of Malcolm II of Scotland. Both the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson in the Heimskringla and the anonymous writer of the Orkneyinga Saga wrote that he was the most powerful Earl of Orkney. He ruled over nine earldoms in Scotland, Ireland, and the Hebrides for 75 years.

Norse influence is also seen in many Scottish words. Some common examples are bairn (barn, child), ken, (kende, to know), kilt (kjalta, to tuck up), and ham (hjem, home).

Two of Paxton’s lectures are available for purchase from the Great Courses: “1066: The Year That Changed Everything” and “Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest.” You can find them at

Paxton also presented a lecture on “How the Vikings Changed England.” It was written up for The Norwegian American and published on July 14, 2017:

For a review of Sturluson’s Orkneyinga Saga, visit

This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.