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Blarney Stone

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The Vikings

part 5

The difference may be determined in part by factors independent of internal conditions in Ireland. For example, an important distinguishing factor between the predominantly Norwegian settlement in Ireland and the predominantly Danish settlements in England was that the Norwegians had a much longer sea journey to Ireland than the Danes had to make in the case of either England or Francia. It is also likely that attacks on England from Denmark were mounted by numerically larger raiding parties. Their leaders could retain a greater degree of cohesion among their followers during the relatively short sea crossings to England or Francia. That the fleets attacking England and Francia were in fact larger is suggested by the figures recorded in the contemporary sources for Viking fleets operating in Ireland and England.

Historians are increasingly coming to realise that it is necessary to look at Scandinavian activity in Ireland in a wider geographical context. It is noteworthy, for example, that raids on Ireland tend to slacken during periods of intense raiding in England or Francia, or during the Norwegian colonisation of the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, and they tend to increase in Ireland when they slacken elsewhere.

What was the Irish reaction to Scandinavian attempts at colonisation in Ireland? There certainly was no united Irish military response. The individual Scandinavian footholds, such as that established at Dublin about 841, seem to have been absorbed rapidly into the existing complex Irish political pattern of shifting hostilities and alliances. The first recorded alliance between an Irish king and a Viking leader against a fellow Irish king occurred in 842. Thereafter, Scandinavian Irish alliances became commonplace. A simplistic notion of a united Irish army fighting to preserve the political independence of Ireland against an attempted Scandinavian take-over bears no relation to the much more complex reality. At no time during the Viking age was there a clear-cut division between the Scandinavians as aggressors and the Irish as defenders. The battle of Clontarf, fought in 1014, has often been portrayed as a major victory by the Irish against the Vikings, as a battle at which the Irish king Brian Bóruma (Boru) allegedly defeated the Vikings and put an end to Scandinavian aspirations of conquering Ireland. This is quite simply untrue. Legends die hard and perhaps no legend will die harder than the legend of Brian Bóruma and the battle of Clontarf.

Popular conceptions of Viking activity in Ireland have been moulded by two different kinds of historical writing. The first, the monastic annals, emanated from ecclesiastical circles, and highlighted the plundering of monasteries. The second kind of Irish historical source dealing with the Vikings is royal propaganda tracts which were commissioned by a number of Irish royal dynasties in order to enhance their claims to kingship. The most important of these propaganda tracts is entitled the War of the Irish against the Foreigners. It was compiled in the twelfth century on behalf of the descendants of Brian Bóruma. It set out to depict Brian as the saviour of Ireland from the Vikings, detailing a series of ever more aggressive military campaigns mounted by him against the Vikings which culminated in a splendid victory at the battle of Clontarf. The War of the Irish against the Foreigners portrayed the Vikings as almost invincible, having no match in Ireland apart from Brian Bóruma, who ended a career spent fighting against them with a decisive victory at Clontarf which finally freed Ireland from the threat of a Scandinavian take-over. As the very title suggests, its intention was to imply a united Irish opposition to Scandinavian activity in Ireland. This pseudo-historical propaganda tract was written to enhance the prestige of the twelfth-century descendants of Brian Bóruma.

click here for part 6, or here for part 4.
click here to go to the start of the article.

From the Appletree Press title: The People of Ireland (currently out of print).
Also see A Little History of Ireland.

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