MARY ANGLAND begins a new series on famous battles that helped shape the country, beginning with the Battle of Tara in 980AD


Before the arrival of the warlike men from the North, Ireland was enjoying what we now call its golden age of Christian culture. Monasteries, such as those on Lambay Island, Inishboffin, Rathlin Island and Sceilig Mhicíl, were thriving. The inhabitants of Ireland lived in semi-independent kingdoms called Túatha ruled over by a king. There were roughly one hundred and fifty such kingdoms on the island before the arrival of the Vikings.

These Túatha were close-knit; mostly family-based and were largely located near monasteries for protection. These monasteries were very wealthy with their valuables, relics, and cattle and were to become an attractive target for the Vikings once they began their raids on the island.

There was conflict before the arrival of the Vikings as the Túatha were involved in struggles with each other. For well over two hundred years, the principal cause of these conflicts was the ambition shared by both the Northern and Southern branches of the Gaelic chieftains of the Uí Néills (O’Neills) to become High Kings of Ireland.

The first recorded Viking attacks on Ireland were in 795 AD. These Vikings, or Norsemen, meaning Northmen, most likely came from Norway. The early raids were largely opportunistic, lightening attacks on a settlement by a small group followed by a quick withdrawal with their captured booty, which included valuables and captured prisoners.

They would then return to their home territories in what is now modern Scandanavia with their pillaged goods and sell them, selling off their prisoners as slaves. These early Viking attacks were not extensive, however, and might sometimes only involve five or six boatloads of invaders.

The Second Invasion by the Vikings began roughly around 820 AD. These attacks could involve up to a hundred ships, were much more sophisticated and lasted longer. After landing, instead of the ‘hit and run’ tactics of the earlier invaders, the Vikings, referred to as ‘heathens’ in the Annals of Ulster, set up camp which they used as a base to pillage monasteries and churches, kill clergy, or take them prisoner, before making off with spoils.

In 840, the Vikings spent over a year by Lough Neagh and plundered the countryside around, including the monastery at Armagh. The Viking attacks were brutal and inspired terror amongst monasteries and settlements alike.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own