By Clare Downham
Medieval Dublin X, edited by Seán Duffy (Four Courts Press, 2010)
Introduction: This paper focuses on historical records relating to viking bases in ninth-century Ireland. It will be divided into three parts. The first part will reflect on how viking bases can be identified in written records. This is followed by a study of the location of these camps. Finally I shall explore how interaction between Gaels and vikings influenced the history of these settlements. It will be argued that Irish chronicles give us a remarkable insight into the strategies employed by viking leaders. This has the potential to shed light on viking activity in other parts of Europe where the records are of a different character, as well as offering opportunities for comparative research with the establishment of trading settlements in other cultures.
Written records cannot be expected to provide a comprehensive list of viking settlements. The geographical coverage by Irish chronicles is skewed towards the East Midlands and Shannon Basin, and the fullness of these records fluctuates over time. Furthermore it was not always the priority of annalists to record where vikings founded their camps. The written record is sometimes ambiguous about when and where such sites were set up. Vikings are first recorded in Ireland in the 790s, and Irish chronicles focus on their deeds as predators raiding coastal churches and by the 830s leading campaigns deep into the Irish countryside. Some viking camps of the ninth century may have been as fleeting as a sheltered stretch of water where ships moored overnight, or an army making use of an abandoned ringfort to rest and recoup before pushing ontowards a more distant goal.
Such settlements might be invisible in the archaeological record and may not have seemed significant enough to warrant report in Irish chronicles. Nevertheless, the temporary character of some viking camps is explicitly referred to in tenth century records. In 936 vikings sacked Clonmacnoise (Co. Offaly) and remained there for two nights. Similarly, in 968 the church at Emly (Co.Tipperary) was attacked and the perpetrators (probably, but not certainly vikings) established a base there for two days. At the other end of the spectrum, camps – including Dublin, Waterford and Limerick – developed a permanent aspect as defended centres of population ruled by their own dynasties of kings. Nevertheless, in their early days, these important settlements may have seemed precarious and temporary in nature. It is often only in retrospect that our sources indicate that a viking base has been established.