The History Of Ireland During The Middle Ages

Early Middle Ages in Ireland and the Vikings (5th century-early 11th century)


Ireland was a significant centre of Christianity in northern and western Europe during the Dark Ages. Long before that, Ireland was populated by the Gaelic Celts who had a polytheistic religion. Nevertheless, one man changed this in the 5th century.

It was Saint Patrick who traveled in Ireland converting the population to Christianity. In 795, Ireland was massively invaded by the Norsemen. Their incursions along the eastern and southwestern coastlines of the island ultimately resulted in the creation of several settlements (built initially as defensive coastal strongholds known as ‘longphorts’) that eventually evolved into being modern day Dublin, Cork or Limerick, among others.

Landing of a Viking fleet at Dublin in c. 841 by James Ward. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

During the next 40 years, Ireland was settled in the east and south by the Norsemen, with the Norwegian and Danish Vikings ensuring both internal and external trade by building the first trade routes in Ireland. At first, it seemed that the Danish and Norwegian Vikings who plundered the Catholic abbeys in Britain did the very same thing in Ireland for religious reasons, but eventually it was the gold and silver or other valuable goods which made them eagerly wanting to raid the eastern Irish coastline on a regular basis.

It has also been suggested that they first traded then looted almost everywhere they landed and subsequently permanently settled, and as such Ireland was no exception. In the end, the Vikings were mainly seeking for fertile farming soils and durable trade and as such the erroneous perception that some have regarding the Norse culture stems mostly from 19th century Romantic artists. They were also driven northward and westward from their homelands because of the expansion of the Frankish Empire during the early Middle Ages.

Some of the most important Norse settlements in early medieval Ireland were Dublin (Dyflin), Limerick (Hlymrekr), Cork, Wexford, Waterford (Veðrafjǫrðr), Carlingford, Strangford, Lough Foyle, Annagassan, Arklow, Youghal or Lough Ree. The native Celts and the Norsemen decided to ultimately make peace after a long series of local wars, representing thus a turning point in Irish history by enabling the construction of the first trade routes throughout the island.

As the 9th century progressed, the Norwegian Vikings (known in Irish as ‘Fingall’) were followed by the Danish Vikings (known as ‘Dubhgall’) and thanks to the navigational technology of their dragon carved longships — known as ‘Drakkars’ — they sailed quickly and easily through the channels and rivers of Ireland after they crossed the Irish sea. The Norsemen established an early settlement of Dublin in 841, the one in Cork in ca. 846 and Waterford in 850. The latter was re-founded by the Vikings at the round of the 10th century.

A reconstructed elevated view of Dublin during the early part of the 11th century. Image source: www.olddublintown.com

A reconstructed elevated view of Dublin during the early part of the 11th century. Image source: www.olddublintown.com

Since the establishment of their first settlements on Irish soil up to the early 11th century, the Norsemen gradually went on to be a dominant power in Ireland and became quite influent to the point where the natives themselves would enter in alliances with them in order to compete for the hegemonic power over controlling the whole island.

So it was that from the 9th to the 11th century, early medieval Ireland had been marked by relentless skirmishes between various Irish-Norse factions that would battle each other and control sparse portions of the petty kingdoms scattered all along the island for a brief period of time.

As the 10th century came to an end, the Vikings’ power in regards to trade and settlement gradually declined. The Battle of Clontarf, which took place in 1014 in the proximity of Dublin, saw the Norsemen ultimately reduced to a minor power and mostly driven away from Ireland. Nonetheless, the remaining Scandinavian settlers assimilated in the Irish culture and continued to be merchants, seamen and fishermen.

Below you can watch a short documentary on the Viking presence in Ireland made by AppleBox Media for Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

You can also watch the following series of short videos made by the National Museum of Ireland on the Viking Age in Ireland:

Episode 1 – Weapons: The Axe


Episode 2 – Weapons: The Sword


Episode 3 – Viking Wealth and Trade


Episode 4 – Viking Women in Ireland


Episode 5 – Arrival of Vikings and Beliefs


Episode 6 – The Irish & The Vikings


Episode 7 – Daily Life in Viking Ireland


Episode 8 – Legacy of the Vikings in Ireland

High Middle Ages in Ireland and the Norman Conquest (12th century-14th century)


During the 11th and 12th centuries, the biggest kingdoms in Ireland were Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Meath. In 1011, the king of Munster, Brian Boru, commenced a military campaign and conquered the rest of the neighbouring kingdoms.

However, subsequently after his death, the other kings started the ongoing battle for supremacy in the Emerald Isle once again. The last king who managed to temporarily unify all the five kingdoms and consequently claim lordship over the whole of Ireland in the 12th century was Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (often anglicised as ‘Turlough Mór O’Connor’) from Connaught, who later on went to be the High King of Ireland. After his death in 1156, a bitter rivalry was born between the two remaining kings.

Map of Ireland and its main kingdoms in 1014. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

One of them, by the name Dermot MacMurrough from Leinster, requested the help of the Norman mercenaries from England in order to succeed in the battle for the throne. The count of Pembroke, Richard de Clare, also known by his nickname ‘Strongbow’, accepted Dermot’s offer in exchange for his daughter and his kingdom.

So it was that in 1170 he and the other English noblemen conquered the entirety of Ireland. This military actions seriously alarmed the king of England at that time, Henry II, who thought that Richard de Clare would eventually turn up against him. Thus, Henry II soon decided to claim Ireland as his official possession.

Map of Ireland before the Anglo-Norman invasion highlighting the ancient schools and principal territorial divisions, work extracted from from ‘Insula sanctorum et doctorum: or, Ireland’s ancient schools and scholars’ by John Healy. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Just as the Norsemen did during the Dark Ages, the English applied the Irish traditions as well. Nonetheless, it was in 1366 that Lionel, son of Eduard III, who then governed Ireland, had ordered the families of the Irish Normans not to speak the Gaelic language anymore and not to marry Irish women.

The act was not accepted by the Irish Normans and they regarded the Englishmen as foreigners who forcibly restrained their society and culture. Close to the end of the 15th century, the new law was applied solely in the proximity of Dublin, the only remaining redoubt of the English in Ireland, also known as ‘The Pale’ (Irish: An Pháil).

Documentation sources and external links:


One Response to The History Of Ireland During The Middle Ages

  1. James Patrick Crowe says:

    Good post, thanks. You should expand it to a later date for more history.

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