The History Of Ireland Throughout The Middle Ages

The Early Middle Ages In Ireland (5th century-early 11th century)


Ireland was a significant centre of Christianity in north-western Europe during the early Middle Ages. Long before that, it was populated by the Gaels (who had a polytheistic religion). Nevertheless, one man changed this in the 5th century, more specifically Saint Patrick, who traveled all across Ireland, converting the population to Christianity in the process.

In 795, Ireland was massively invaded by the Norsemen. Their incursions along the eastern and southwestern coastlines of the island ultimately resulted in the creation of several settlements (built initially as defensive coastal strongholds known as ‘longphorts’) which eventually evolved into modern day Dublin, Cork, or Limerick, among others.

Landing of a Viking fleet at Dublin in c. 841 by James Ward. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

During the next 40 years, Ireland was colonized in the east and south by the Norsemen, with the Norwegian and Danish Vikings ensuring both internal and external trade by building the first trade routes in Irish history. At first, it seemed that the Danish and Norwegian Vikings, who previously plundered the Catholic abbeys of Britain, did the very same thing in Ireland for religious reasons, but, eventually, it was the gold and silver or other valuable goods that actually made them eagerly want to raid the eastern Irish coastline frequently.

It has also been suggested that they first traded then looted almost everywhere they landed and subsequently permanently settled, and as such Ireland was no exception. In the end, the Vikings were mainly seeking for fertile farming soils and durable trade and as such the erroneous perception that some have regarding the Norse culture stems mostly from 19th century Romantic artists. They were also driven northward and westward from their homelands because of the expansion of the Frankish Empire during the early Middle Ages.

At the peak of the Norsemen’s involvement in Irish history, some of the most important Norse settlements in early medieval Ireland were Dublin (Dyflin), Limerick (Hlymrekr), Cork, Wexford, Waterford (Veðrafjǫrðr), Carlingford, Strangford, Lough Foyle, Annagassan, Arklow, Youghal or Lough Ree. The native Gaels and the Norsemen decided to ultimately bury the hatchet after a long series of local wars, representing thus a turning point in Irish history by enabling the construction of the first trade routes throughout the island.

As the 9th century progressed, the Norwegian Vikings (known in Irish as ‘Fingall’) were followed by the Danish Vikings (known as ‘Dubhgall’) and thanks to the navigational technology of their dragon carved longships — known as ‘Drakkars’ — they sailed quickly and easily through the Irish channels and rivers after they firstly crossed the Irish sea. The Norsemen established an early settlement of Dublin in 841, the one in Cork in ca. 846 and Waterford in 850. The latter was re-founded by the Vikings at the round of the 10th century.

A reconstructed elevated view of Dublin during the early part of the 11th century. Image source: www.olddublintown.com

An elevated reconstructed view of the city of Dublin as it most likely looked back in the early 11th century. Image source: www.olddublintown.com

Since the foundation of their first settlements on Irish soil up to the early 11th century, the Norsemen slowly (but steadily) turned to become the dominant military power of Ireland, becoming quite influent to the point where the natives themselves would forge alliances with them in order to compete for the hegemonic quests over controlling the whole island.

So it was that from the 9th to the 11th century, early medieval Ireland had been marked by relentless skirmishes between various Irish-Norse factions that would battle each other and control sparse portions of the petty kingdoms scattered all along the island for a brief period of time.

As the 10th century came to an end, the Vikings’ influence in regards to trade and settlement gradually declined. The Battle of Clontarf, which took place in 1014 in the proximity of Dublin, saw the Norsemen ultimately reduced to a minor local power (which ultimately led to their retreat from Ireland) and thus marked the end of their rule in Irish history. Nonetheless, the remaining Scandinavian settlers assimilated in the Irish culture and continued to be merchants, seamen and fishermen.

Below you can watch a short documentary on the Viking presence in Ireland made by AppleBox Media for Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

You can also watch the following series of short videos made by the National Museum of Ireland on the Viking Age in Ireland:

Episode 1 – Weapons: The Axe


Episode 2 – Weapons: The Sword


Episode 3 – Viking Wealth and Trade


Episode 4 – Viking Women in Ireland


Episode 5 – Arrival of Vikings and Beliefs


Episode 6 – The Irish & The Vikings


Episode 7 – Daily Life in Viking Ireland


Episode 8 – Legacy of the Vikings in Ireland

High Middle Ages and the Norman Conquest (12th century-14th century)


During the 11th and 12th centuries, the biggest kingdoms in Ireland were Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Meath. In 1011, the king of Munster, Brian Boru, commenced a military campaign and conquered the rest of the neighbouring kingdoms. However, subsequently after his death, the other kings started the ongoing battle for supremacy in the Emerald Isle once again. The last king who managed to temporarily unify all the five kingdoms and consequently claim lordship over the whole of Ireland in the 12th century was Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (often anglicized as ‘Turlough Mór O’Connor’) from Connaught, who later became the High King of Ireland. After his death in 1156, a bitter rivalry was born between the two remaining kings.

Map of Ireland and its main kingdoms in 1014. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

One of them, by the name Dermot MacMurrough from Leinster, requested help on behalf of Norman mercenaries from England in order to succeed in the battle for the throne. The count of Pembroke, Richard de Clare, also known by his nickname ‘Strongbow’, accepted Dermot’s offer in exchange for his daughter and his kingdom.

So it was that in 1170 he and other English noblemen conquered the entirety of Ireland. These military actions seriously alarmed the King of England at that time, Henry II, who thought that Richard de Clare would eventually turn up against him. Thus, Henry II soon decided to claim Ireland as his own official territorial possession.

Map of Ireland before the Anglo-Norman invasion, highlighting the ancient schools and principal territorial divisions, work extracted from from ‘Insula sanctorum et doctorum: or, Ireland’s ancient schools and scholars’ by John Healy. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Just as the Norsemen did during the early Middle Ages, the English applied the Irish traditions as well. Nonetheless, it was in 1366 that Lionel, son of Eduard III, who then governed Ireland, had ordered the families of the Irish Normans not to speak the Gaelic language anymore and not to marry Irish women.

The act was not accepted by the Irish Normans and they regarded the Englishmen as foreigners who forcibly restrained their society and culture. Close to the end of the 15th century, the new law was applied solely in the proximity of Dublin, the only remaining redoubt of the English in Ireland, also known as ‘The Pale’ (Irish: An Pháil).

Documentation sources and external links:


5 Responses to The History Of Ireland Throughout The Middle Ages

  1. James Patrick Crowe says:

    Good post, thanks. You should expand it to a later date for more history.

  2. Danny Mc Laughlin says:

    Brian Bóru did not rule all of Ireland. The Northern Uí Néill regarded him as an interloper and opposed him and prevented him from ruling Ulster.

  3. It is a historical myth that the Battle of Clontarf, was the breaking point of the Viking/Danes power in Ireland. In fact the Battle of Tara 980. This battle lasted three days and resulted in the Vikings suffering a deadly defeat at the hands of Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill and the Ui Neill Clan and resulted in heavy casualties for the Vikings.

  4. Fascinating article about the Vikings and the Battle of Clontarf.

    I am from the North of Ireland (near Portglenone) and although I know a fair amount about local history, going back a few hundred years…..this Viking era is a really new area to me, of which I knew little.

    Love this blog. Keep up the great work.

    Best regards from the North of ireland.

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