New Catalogue
Site designed and maintained by Novena

Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age
Edited by Howard Clarke, Raghnall Ó Floinn and Máire Ní Mhaoinigh

Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 
'Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age picks up where the 1959 International Congress of Celtic Studies and the 1973 Seventh Viking Congress left off.' My memory of the conference which gave rise to this latest collection of papers is of three days of disagreement, adversarial and often heated, along what in politics would be called party lines: Scandinavian versus Insular, historians versus archaeologists.  The volume represents these differences of opinion, by and large with the sting, but not the substance, taken out.  The conference took place in Dublin in 1995 in order to mark the anniversary of the first recorded Viking raid on Ireland and to examine selected aspects of the relations between Scandinavia and Ireland between c. 800 and c. 1000.  So said the conference blurb, but that 'c. 800' proved to be the first bone of contention.  Bjørn Myhre got things going with a bang, declaring that from the Scandinavian perspective 800 was a date with little meaning, and that the age which saw among its developments the departure of raiders for the west did not begin in 800 but was in full flow at that time.  From the Insular point of view, however, these developments have little resonance until the first appearance, apparently in the 790s, of those raiders on western European shores.  Several papers acknowledge the problem, but no one solves it.  Björn Ambrosiani's conference overview offers two ways out of the difficulty: redate the Viking Age (to the mid-eighth century) or redefine its cultural elements (Berdal-type brooches and urban development in Scandinavia, the archaeological redatings of which have largely given rise to this dilemma).  This is a solution unlikely to find favour wherever the definition of the Viking Age rests more prosaically on the presence of Vikings.

By focusing as much on Scandinavia as on the Irish activities of some of its emigrants, the volume avoids the insularity (pun intended) which this insistence on Vikings might suggest.  An old favourite Viking-Age issue, the causes of Viking activity, gets an airing (discussed by Myhre, Egon Wamers, Knut Helle, Ambrosiani, and Donnchadh Ó Corráin), as does the nature of the early Insular finds in Norwegian graves (Wamers, Myhre, and Ó Corráin), and the point of origin of those who attacked Ireland in the ninth century.  On this last, views range from that of Wamers-that Dublin was a colony belonging to a Norwegian kingdom led by Harald Finehair, for whom Dublin was a means of advancing political ambitions at home - to Ó Corráin's -that the ninth-century raids were examples of 'aristocratic free enterprise' until Norwegian kings, probably based in Scotland, attempted a co-ordinated campaign.  It is pleasant to see that disagreements are not limited to those of different nationalities: on the subject of the location of the longphort recorded in the Annals as first established at Duiblinn in 841, two different options are offered (by Elizabeth O'Brien and Raghnall Ó Floinn)-and a third by Howard Clarke.  Clearly the volume is not aiming for consensus, and such differences do not undermine it.  Rather, they underline and demonstrate the problems offered by the sources available for study of the early Viking Age in Ireland.
Survey articles (by Ó Floinn and Charles Doherty) and more specialist studies (by O'Brien, John Sheehan, Aidan Walsh, and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh) usefully gather archaeological and written evidence for Ireland and (less fully) the Irish Sea and Scotland as well (James Graham-Campbell and Christopher Morris).  Familiar (but until now dispersed) and not so familiar evidence is set out and combined with old and new ideas and interpretations: Ní Mhaonaigh adds a dimension to the Annals' laconic catalogue of raids by tapping ninth- and tenth-century Irish literary sources for references to Vikings. Ó Corráin strays beyond 1000 (as does Jónas Kristjánsson) to stress continuity of contact between Ireland and Iceland and to rehearse the question of the extent (and date) of Irish influence on Icelandic literature, tracing in the process the fictional life of Cerball, king of Osraige, and his Icelandic descendants, and the genesis of the lost Brjáns saga.  O'Brien discusses the make-up of the Islandbridge and Kilmainham cemeteries (not simply warriors, but a settled community, which adopted two native burialgrounds as their own), and Ó Floinn discusses the dating of the associated finds (he points out that they are not necessarily earlier than finds from College Green).  Sheehan examines Viking-Age Ireland's two apparently different silver-using economies, attested by significant quantities of silver, and identifies economic, social, and political factors governing their operation. Ó Floinn considers the nature of longphuirt, Clarke reviews their fortunes (Annagassan's apparent disappearance between 852 and the 920s perhaps indicating a Dublin monopoly of trade); he also suggests that Dublin's longphort was relocated in c. 843, and that the trading centre of Dublin was wealthy but not really urban until Amlaíb Cúarán turned it into an Irish York after c. 953.  Doherty ignores Amlaíb's English career (including relations with King Edmund which culminated in Amlaíb's baptism in 943) and argues that the Scandinavian was trying to rule his Irish kingdom in an Irish fashion.  Doherty emphasizes the degree of success of Irish resistance and its social implications-a 'militarization of society' which did indeed bring about the passing of the old order, though not as envisaged by Daniel Binchy in 1959. Ó Corráin's 'Afterthoughts', which bring the book to a close, repudiate once more that old view of tribal Ireland, a land without a developed concept of rule, whose kings wandered around in an Indo-European mist until they were dragged by the Vikings into the 'modern' world of brutal ninth-century reality.  Perhaps more indicative of the present state of research (and of future directions), however, is Ó Floinn's message, that to tackle the question of the relationship between Ireland and Scandinavia on a national level obscures and simplifies the complex regional variations at the heart of relations between Irish and Scandinavians in the ninth and tenth centuries.  Another thirty or forty years of work in that direction should make a most interesting successor to this volume' Lesley Abrams, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies.

'This volume brings together sixteen papers from an international conference held in October 1995 in Dublin to mark the 12th anniversary of the first recorded Viking raid on Ireland.  It is divided into three parts - Archaeology with eight papers, History and Literature with six and an Overview with two.  The papers cover a much wider geographical area than the title suggests and therefore ideas explored and developed here would be of interest also to anyone studying the British Isles and the Continent in the period.
We are all aware that Conference volumes can be uneven and the would-be purchaser can face a search for the wheat among the chaff.  Fortunately little search will be required here.  High quality is maintained throughout and the capacity to excite, provoke, stimulate and re-order one's thoughts never dims.  Take Howard Clarke's suggestion that 'there were never any Viking (his italics) towns in Ireland' on page 335 and the discussion which follows or Raghnall Ó Floinn's detective work on a number of ninth-century cemeteries around the Liffey estuary which 'means that the associated settlement need not be located in the immediate vicinity of Kilmainham or Islandbridge' on page 137.
It is not of course possible to mention every paper in a short review, however, the contribution by Norwegian archaeologists and historians is especially valuable, since it makes easily accessible the latest research on the homelands and possible avenues of interaction with the British Isles.  Bjorn Myhre's opening paper on the archaeology of the early Viking Age in Norway develops further his thesis that contacts between Nor-way and the British Isles started earlier than the late eighth century date suggested by the written sources.  His conclusions are based on detailed study of native and Insular objects from the homelands, Icelandic sites and objects of reindeer antler from Orkney.  As Christopher Morris makes clear in a later paper, all strands of the argument can be challenged, but the attempt is invigorating.  Egon Wamers's paper complements Myhre's in identifying and dating Insular metalwork from Norway and discussing their definition, distribution and significance and Knut Helle deals with the history of the early Viking Age in Norway putting the case for internal colonization, the growth of an aristocracy and recognizable political units.
On Ireland itself, Elizabeth O'Brien's article in Archaeology Ireland i995 on the Kilmainham and Islandbridge cemeteries is now developed much more fully in a painstaking study of the disturbance of burials in those areas since i836.  Not that her conclusions, particularly on the controversial question of the siting of the Dublin longphort(s), are followed by her compatriots archaeologist Raghnall Ó Floinn, as mentioned above or historian Howard Clarke.  The latter, in a hard-hitting paper, castigates exaggerated and simplistic views of the origins of Viking towns in Ireland, showing that they were much slower to develop than some published accounts allow.  York was preferred as a base by the Dublin leaders because it was urban and closer to Baltic trade.  Only when the English town was no longer available to them did Scandinavian leaders develop Dublin in York's image.  Clarke does, however, ignore those elements of planning in Dublin with Patrick Wallace's Type One houses in tenements already present and aligned to streets in the earliest levels. Charles Doherty's review of the Vikings in Ireland points out how developed Irish Society was by the eighth century.  Its military organization, the tool of powerful overlords, was capable of inflicting severe defeats on Viking armies and contact with the latter only accelerated home-grown developments in Church, state and society.
James Graham-Campbell and Christopher Morris make contributions on the Irish Sea area and Scotland respectively in both cases expanding themes aired in earlier articles.  These serve to enhance the Irish and Scandinavian themes by pointing up similarities and contrasts in interpretations.

The footnotes in some of the papers are unnecessarily repetitive and it is a shame that the clarity of the Harvard System, used to good effect in sonic of the papers, was not used throughout.  The quality of the illustrations is generally excellent, though in my copy the map on page 240 had not reproduced well.  This volume deserves to be read by all with an interest in the period and fortunately is priced to be accessible' Derek Gore.

Irish Studies Review

'This handsome volume contains the published papers of a conference held in Dublin Castle in 1995, and represents the ‘cutting edge’ of scholarship on the Early Viking Age. The period is defined by Patrick Wallace, Director of the National Museum of Ireland and the inspired originator of the conference itself, to end firmly in the year 920 AD. This is just before the advent of the impressive archaeological record of Hiberno-Norse towns, such as Dublin and Waterford, of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

In such an important collection of papers it is obviously invidious only to highlight some, but a discussion of many of them cannot be undertaken here due to lack of space. The book is divided into three sections: Archaeology (which comprises eight papers), history and Literature (with six papers), and an Overview of just two papers.  Of the sixteen papers, five are written by Scandinavian scholars and the fact that the whole volume is in English makes their research much more accessible to the English-speaking world.  In this regard Professor Myhre’s paper is fundamentally important in the continuing debate about defining the beginnings of the ‘Viking Age’ in Scandinavia.  He argues that we have to accept the possibility that archaeological evidence may push it back to much earlier in the eighth century than has hitherto been generally accepted.  He concludes that in the period around 800 AD the available archaeological evidence does not reveal as dramatic a change as has often been put forward by other Viking specialists, especially in terms of settlement patterns.

Among the Irish contributions Howard Clarke's discussion of the terms ‘proto-town’ and ‘town’ within the wider geographical context of Britain and Ireland is a very valuable addition to the many academic discussions that have raged about definitions of urbanism in this period.  He emphasises, for instance, that Dublin could not be called a city until after c.1030 AD, when Christ Church Cathedral was founded, and warns his readers about employing this term in Ireland much before the early eleventh century.  He contrasts this with the situation in lowland Britain which had a network of ‘genuine towns’ in the tenth century.  Raghnall Ó Flóinn also does a great service to the archaeology of the period by reviewing the evidence for the Early Viking Age in Ireland, which is mainly artefact-based because of the great difficulties in definitively identifying these early Viking settlements.  In my opinion, however, this current uncertainty about the settlement evidence may very well be resolved by new and exciting archaeological techniques in the very near future.

Of particular interest to those scholars who are interested in Dublin, Elizabeth O'Brien's re-investigation of the evidence for the famous Kilmainham/Islandbridge Viking Age cemetery makes for fascinating reading as a valuable piece of archaeological detective work.  She comes up with the conclusion that there were two native Irish cemeteries, one monastic and one secular, that the Vikings re-used in the ninth century.  She also tries to fix the exact locations of these burials, which are shown in her valuable map on p. 207 of her article; something for which all Viking archaeologists will be most thankful.

In the ‘Overview’ section Björn Ambrosiani makes the important point that in Ireland as with the rest of Europe there is no evidence of ‘absolute conflict’ between the Scandinavians and the local population.  Indeed, there is much evidence of co-operation all the way from the assimilation of building types in Dublin to the presence of Viking warriors on all sides in the warfare of the times. This point is also taken up by Donnachadh Ó Corráin in his paper where, among other things, he discusses in some detail the complex cultural relations that existed between Ireland and Iceland at this time.

Although some commentators might have wished that this volume had been produced in a larger A4 format and also as a cheaper paperback, is only because of the large subsidy granted mainly by the Nordic Council, as well as by the other organisations listed as sponsors, that its price has been kept so low.  It is also arguable that it could have had more plates but, again, this would have increased the price substantially.  Some of the symbols on the Scandinavian distribution maps also appear to have been drawn freehand and are therefore a little too heavy for the coastlines they are superimposed upon.  But this is only a very minor point of criticism beside the fact that such a substantial volume was published only three years after the conference.  This is a tribute to the perseverance of the three editors: Viking studies have much to thank them for' Terry Barry, Irish Studies Review.

'The first Viking raid on Ireland is recorded in the Annals of Ulster for the year 795 AD. The 1200th anniversary of this historic event was marked by an international conference in Dublin, the proceedings of which constitute the chapters and sections of Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age under the skilled editorship of Clark, Mhaonaigh and Floinn. This 468 page volume contains informative papers devoted to archaeology, history and literature, and covers the full span of Irish-Scandinavian relations during the early Viking Age up to c.1000 in the light of contemporary research … includes reviews of the history and archaeology of Scandinavia and the Viking west with particular Ireland and Britain. Material culture is discussed in papers on Insular finds in Scandinavia. Viking burials at Kilmainham and Islandbridge, Dublin, and the swords and silver of the Viking Age in Ireland. Evidence from the sagas, hagiography and other literary sources is assessed, shedding light on the Irish and the Vikings. Also featured are overviews of the subject from both Irish and Scandinavian perspectives … a work of significant, substantive scholarship, and a benchmark contribution to Scandinavian studies, Irish history, and Viking culture’The Midwest Book Review.

home  |  contact us  |  information  |  books  | news