By Garth Stewart Wilson
Master’s Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1984
Abstract: In the Middle Ages mariners from both Ireland and Scandinavia sailed the North Atlantic, but in different types of ships and for very different reasons. The Irish sailors appear to have favoured skin-covered ships called curraghs as the means by which they sought out remote islands on which to establish monastic retreats. The Norsemen, however, travelled the northern seas in clinker-built wooden vessels seeking plunder, land and trade. When at the end of the eighth century the Vikings invaded Ireland, these two distinct seafaring traditions came into contact with one another. This thesis is an analysis of the impact that the arrival of Scandinavian seafaring technology had upon that of the indigenous Irish.
Although this issue has been largely neglected by scholars, the little that has been done has tended to promote the conclusion that Viking seafaring technology displaced the vigorous but inferior curragh technology of the Irish. This thesis argues that rather than replacing the Irish tradition, the Scandinavians supplemented it.
While ultimately unsuccessful in their bid for political sovereignty in Erinn, the Norsemen established a series of port: cities along Ireland’s coast, cities which became important links in the chain of Viking trading centres in Europe. Overseas commerce of this magnitude was new to the Irish who were then largely a pastoral and parochial people. Moreover, their shipbuilding and seafaring heritage had not developed in response to the range of military, political and economic needs that encouraged the high sea ventures of the Vikings. Instead, Irish seafaring was almost exclusively the concern of a select sector of Irish society: the anchorite monks. Admittedly, the seafaring technology of these churchmen was sufficient to allow for journeys to as distant a place as Iceland. In addition, their skills as mariners and religious devotion inspired a rich body of literature from which much of what is currently known about early Irish shipbuilding and navigation is derived. Nevertheless, the seafaring heritage of the Irish was simply not capable of dealing with the volume or variety of traffic which accompanied the Viking invasions. When the naval technologies of medieval Ireland and Scandinavia are viewed within the context of the functions they served in their respective societies, their relative merits can be more accurately judged. From this perspective, the arrival of Viking ships in Ireland can be seen as not so much a challenge, to the indigenous seafaring tradition, as an addition to it.