The Vikings

part 2

In the late eighth century Ireland shared once again a common historical experience with Britain and the continent, namely attacks from Scandinavian sea pirates who came to be known as Vikings. The first recorded Viking attack on Ireland occurred in 795. In that year the annals of Ulster recorded 'the burning of Rechru by the heathens'. Although it is usual to identify the Irish place-name of Rechru or Rechrainn with the island monastery of Lambay off the coast of Co. Dublin, this identification is not secure. It is possible that this entry may refer to an attack on Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast, that Rathlin was in fact the first place in Ireland to experience a Viking raid.

The term Viking conjures up for most Irish people bands of marauders and robbers who plundered Irish monasteries and churches, causing widespread destruction and terror, and carrying off the precious objects of the monasteries. Why did the Vikings concentrate their raids on Irish monasteries? One popular view is that the Vikings were pagans and as such violently anti-Christian. But the Vikings did not initiate raids on Irish monasteries. Less well known is the fact that the Irish had attacked monasteries even before the arrival of the Vikings. In order to explain why they did so it is necessary to highlight some less familiar aspects of the role of the monastery in early Irish society than the more well-known reputation for sanctity and scholarship which certain early Irish monasteries justifiably enjoy.

An early Irish monastery was often the most secure building in a locality. This meant that valuables, surplus food and sometimes even cattle were brought there in times of political unrest. A monastery might also be closely identified with its patrons and benefactors among the local lay aristocracy which had endowed it with its landed wealth. The office of abbot, for example, was frequently occupied by a member of the original founding family. The consequence was that a monastery could become a target for attacks during the petty feuds waged by rival aristocratic factions. The monastery or church of an enemy, since it was an integral part of his prestige, and probably also of his economy, became a legitimate target for attack in raid or war. The notion that there was a golden age of Irish Christianity in the sixth and seventh centuries during which Christianity had made such a positive and beneficial impact on Irish society that there existed something approaching perfect harmony between the clerical and lay population is unreal; it derives in part from an unconscious projection upon social conduct of the high artistic achievements in metalwork and manuscripts of the seventh and eighth centuries. The reality is that early Irish monasteries were drawn into the orbit of lay politics. This is the chief reason why raids on monasteries had been carried out by the Irish even before the Vikings arrived in Irish waters.

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