Viking Battles in the 9th and 10th Centuries

Much has been said about the Viking raids to the island of Ireland in the 9th century but it is worth remembering that, unlike in Britain, where the Viking invasion was considered definitive and total, they never succeeded in ruling Ireland completely.

This was due to the structure of Kingship in Ireland at the time which meant that if one kingdom was conquered another could rise in force against them. Shifting alliances and bloody battles made the 9th century an exciting one to read about (if less so at the time) and the annals tell us much about the many Viking defeats.

Certain leaders, like Brian Boru and Mael Sechnaill II, began to emerge as key players who, in their quest for power and High Kingship, forced the Vikings to either assimilate or leave and put an end to the Viking Age in Ireland. By the 10th century more battles would ensue in the lead-up to the definitive Battle of Clontarf 1014 which signalled the end of the Viking threat to Ireland. 

In 845, the first Viking leader of the Norse Kingdom of Dublin, Turgesius, was captured by Mael Sechnaill, the King of Meath, and drowned in Lough Owel! Drowning was not uncommon at this time and may have been part of the idea of the threefold death which was popular with Indo-European vanquishers at this time. Reserved for Kings, heroes and gods it involved hanging, drowning and wounding. This victory for Mael Sechnaill was important in his quest for the seat of High King.

In the same year “A slaughter made of the foreigners of Ath Cliath (now Dublin), at Carn Brammit, by Cearbhall, the warlike King of Ossory (now largely Co. Kilkenny), where twelve hundred of them were slain” describes one of the many Viking defeats at the hands of Cearbhall. Indeed he fought the Norse many times and even allied with the Danes to conquer them. Cearbhalls’ feats were so famous that he is mentioned in popular Norse legends!  

In 846, the Kings of Munster and Leinster also united, defeated and killed the heir to the kingdom of Laithlind, Tomhrair Earl, at the Battle of Sciath Neachtain near Castledermot in Co. Kildare. Here the annals tell us “Tomhrair Earl, tanist of the King of Lochlann, and twelve hundred along with him were slain”.

In 848, the Eóganachta of Cashel also beat the Gallaib, or “foreigners” at Dunmaoltuile, near Cashel, where 500 were killed. The following year, the Vikings suffered further setbacks with more defeats by Mael Sechnaill I, High King of Ireland, at Farrow near Mullingar. Also Tígernach, King of Lagore (south Brega), defeated Norsemen in Dysart (thought to be on the coast of North County Dublin) where 1200 more were slain.

More Unrest as the Vikings Settlements Increased

In 853 Olaf the White arrived in Dublin and with his brother Ivar, assumed sovereignity of the Viking settlements in Dublin and Limerick. Another brother Sitric took control of Waterford so that by this time, there were other Viking settlements along the Irish coast. These kingdoms ruled themselves and the Viking presence strengthened as they settled and integrated. The annals begin to refer to 'Norse-Gaels' and 'Norse-Irish', a new ethnic group in the fabric of Gaelic society, but unrest remained. Vikings at Waterford attacked the King of Osraige (Ossory) but were slaughtered in 860. The longphort settlement at Youghal was destroyed in 866. In 887 the Limerick Vikings were slaughtered by Connachtmen and in 892 the Vikings of Waterford, Wexford and St. Mullins were defeated.

In 862, Mael Seachnaill died and was succeeded as High King of Ireland by Aed Finlaith, who proceeded to marry Mael Sechnaill’s widow, Land, the sister of Cearbhall. His kingdom of Meath was divided and fought over between Lorcan Mac Cathail and Conochar mac Donnchada. Lorcan, allied himself with Olaf and the Dublin Vikings, and Ivar and the Vikings of Limerick and invaded Brega, where they shamelessly plundered the megalithic tombs in the Boyne Valley. Lorcan was to pay dearly for his siding with the “foreigners” and as a punishment he was blinded by Aed Finlaith. This savage practice of incapacitating political rivals was common and believed to render them unable to assume their throne, as only those of “sound body” were considered able to rule. Lorcan’s ally Conochar was drowned by Aed Finliaith at Clonard.

There followed three decades of unrest for the Viking settlers and many of the colonies ended up under native rule. In 902 the Kings of Brega and Leinster united and defeated the Norse of Dublin. They drove Ivar II, King of Dublin, out of the city, destroyed their settlement and expelled them from Ireland. This was a comprehensive defeat and many ships were left behind, as the Vikings “escaped half-dead across the sea” (AU 902.2). Indeed this marks the end of the first phase of Viking invaders.

10th Century

By the 10th century the second phase of the Viking Age had begun and the attacks are believed to have intensified. In 919 the High King of Ireland, Niall Glúndubh, son of Aed Finliaith and from the Eóganachta clan, was killed by the Vikings at the Battle of Dublin (also known as the Battle of Kylmehaug) in a failed attempt to rest the city from its King Sitric. Niall had spent many years fighting and opposing the Viking invasions and became High King in 916. He was killed in battle along with twelve other chieftains near Islandbridge, Co. Dublin.

Resistance continued and in the decades that followed more battles ensued,  It was not until 980 and the Battle of Tara that the Vikings were roundly defeated by Mael Sechnaill and the Viking King Olaf forced to flee. This was a definitive battle that marked the end of Viking Dublin as well as the defeat of the power wielded by King Olaf and his dynasty.

Other battles of the 10th century are listed here as lead-up battles to the last battle of Viking Age Ireland in 1014, the Battle of Clontarf. This has been described by some sources as the end of any Viking threat to the rule of Ireland. It was primarily Danish Vikings who came from abroad to face Brian and his armies, following their success in England. Many hoped to extend their kingdom to include the island of Ireland, and came in droves with their families with hopes of conquering and settling. However this was not to be and on the legendayr day in Dublin on the plains iof Clontarf Brian Boru and his Dalcassian and Connachta armies fought hard and won victory.