The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland
The Downpatrick Cross in County Down, Northern Ireland. Photograph by Fiona Edmonds.
Politics: The Hiberno-Norse World
Although the term ‘Vikings’ might be associated with the Scandinavian homelands from which these raiders and traders originated, after the first half of the ninth century it is likely that most of those who partook in Viking activity in the British Isles and Ireland were in fact permanent residents of those islands. As the above timeline shows, there are records of permanently settled populations of Scandinavian origin in Dublin as early as 849. For the rest of the Viking Age, these permanent residents developed a distinct culture which is often referred to for convenience as Hiberno-Norse. The Hiberno-Norse (or ‘Ostmen’, in some older scholarship) resided in trading towns and on farms scattered around the coasts of the Irish Sea, from coastal Ireland to the Western Isles and western coastline of Scotland. During the Viking period, these lands coalesced into a polity frequently referred to as the Kingdom of the Isles. Although Dublin may have been considered part of this kingdom for some or all of the latter’s existence, the primary power centre of the kingdom was located on the Isle of Man. This island, which prior to the Viking Age had already exhibited a mix of Gaelic and Brittonic culture, now developed a distinctly multicultural identity, in which Gaelic and Norse bilingualism can be attested on inscribed stones and may have been commonplace. After the Viking Age this kingdom survived for another two hundred years under the nominal overlordship of the king of Norway until the latter ceded it to Scotland in 1266.
A Manx cross-slab, with Norse runes, preserved in Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man. Photograph by Ben Allport.
Economy and Society
Prior to the Viking Age, precious metals such as silver and gold played little role in the Irish economy. Instead value was estimated in commodities such as cattle. There were also no urban centres; instead, the social elite (including kings and High Kings) resided on wealthy farms and owned extensive property throughout their territories. The only exception to this were the settlements that sprang up around monasteries to house the lay workmen and craftspeople that were responsible for the everyday running of the sites. Although less is known about the economic situation in Scotland, it is likely to have been similar.
In the mid-ninth century, Viking raiding parties began to overwinter in Ireland in temporary camps known as ‘longphuirt’ (singular ‘longphort’). One of the functions of such sites was to store the goods that the Vikings had acquired during their raids; cattle and slaves, in particular, could not be easily transported back to Scandinavia in the same way that craft items and precious metals could be. It is likely that these sites quickly attracted overseas trade. Dublin began its life as one such longphort, quickly becoming the most important Viking trading emporium in the Irish Sea, if not beyond. However, it was not the only such site: in the early tenth century, other Viking towns sprang up at Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick. Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford remain among the most populous cities in Ireland today. These towns also quickly became craft centres, where Norse art and production styles were incorporated into Irish material culture. From at least 997, Dublin began minting its own coinage, marking the complete transformation of the Irish economy.
Towns such as Dublin fundamentally changed the landscape around them. The residents of the town performed specialised jobs such as craft production or vending and could not provide their own food. Consequently, the surrounding areas became economic hinterlands, with the local farms’ surplus providing food and raw materials for the towns.
Although slavery was already a reality in pre-Viking Ireland, it was never practiced on the scale that the Vikings initiated. Although they are known for their appetite for church silver (a desire which could, perhaps, be more readily fulfilled in England), slavery proved a far more lucrative market in Ireland. From early in the ninth century, Viking raids in Ireland were planned to maximise the number of prisoners that could be ransomed (in the case of the upper classes) or sold. Dublin rapidly became the biggest slave market in Western Europe.