The Vikings in Offaly. By John Dolan

Our traditional view of the Vikings in Ireland was established by our early primary and secondary schooling. We were aware that the Vikings commenced raiding in 795 AD by their raid on Rathlin Island. Eventually they settled in a few areas around our coastline. However, most of the country was within reach of Viking raiding parties. One of the primary bases from which Viking raids emerged was from the city of Limerick. Limerick provided a springboard for raids up the Shannon, affecting areas on either side of the river.

These raids were on church monasteries resulted in the slaughter of monks and workers in the monasteries. It also appears that the Vikings knew exactly where these monasteries were located and regularly their arrival coincided when particular religious events were underway.  From other evidence they were after people, cattle and very occasionally the gold and silver in the monasteries.  People were regularly taken to be sold at slaves. The largest such raid was carried out at Howth in the year 821 AD where over 600 females were taken away by ship for slavery. In later times Dublin became the largest Viking slave centre in Western Europe; Kiev in Ukraine was their largest slave centre in the East.

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

Raids in Offaly

One of the reasons for the success of the Vikings over 400 years was the quality of their ship building. The ships that entered the Irish seas were the large longships known as the Drakkar along with the cargo ship knows as the Knarr.  Separately, they built ships locally for traversing rivers. The Vikings raided Ireland initially on a hit and run basis, later they overwintered in a number of coastal areas mainly in the East and South coast. Later still they established the first towns in Ireland and introduced a structured planning system for how each town or city was run. It was from these places that the Vikings later extended their reach into the hinterland. The Viking base at Limerick provided an excellent link through the River Shannon to all of the counties bordering the Shannon. In 845 AD Turgeis from Limerick built a fort on Lough Ree to control the waterway and assist raiding. Later another base was built between Dromineer and Castlelough in the lands of the O’Sextons.  It was from the Shannon that the majority of raids in County Offaly were carried out.

However, recent research has shown that the majority of Irish monasteries were raided more often by the Irish themselves than by the Vikings. The most important of those raids was the one carried out by Clonmacnoise on Durrow. The Annals of Ulster for 764 tell us The battle of Argaman between the community of Cluain Moccu Nóis and the community of Dermag, in which fell Diarmait Dub son of Domnall, and Diglach son of Dub Lis, and two hundred men of the community of Dermag. Bresal, son of Murchad, emerged victor, with the community of Cluain’.  The holy monks and labourers of Clonmacnoise did not appear too put out at the killing of 200 of their neighbours at Dermag (Durrow); however, they did return with 600 of their cattle.

Professor Elizabeth Fitzpatrick lists 33 Offaly monasteries in her paper ‘The Early Church in Ireland.’ However, only five Offaly monasteries are mentioned in the Annals that suffered Viking raids. The Annals provide us with details of the raids with specific dates. Obviously Clonmacnoise was the main target and was raided in 837, 841, 842, 845, 922, 936, 942, 946, and 953 AD. One wonders what state the monastery was in when raided so continuously. The 936 raid was supposedly by the Vikings from Dublin, while the 953 raid had Munstermen accompanying the Vikings. Kinnity was raided 3 times – 842, 845 and 939 along with Saighir (Seir Ciarán) in 839, 842 or 941 – the dates here are disputed.  Killeigh was raided in 841 and Birr in 842 AD.

What is interesting from the above list is the number of churches that appear to have been ignored entirely by the Vikings, such as Gallen, Durrow, Lemanaghan, Tisaran, Rahan, Knockbarron, Tihilly or Lynally etc.

Viking Finds in Offaly

There are two areas of significant Viking discovery in County Offaly. The major one was in Ballinderry Bog on the border between Offaly and Westmeath. Interest was raised when a man digging a drain in the bog found a Viking sword in 1928.  The iron blade had the makers name on it; Ulfberht made this blade in modern day Germany. Almost 150 of his blades have been found between Russia and Ireland.  A magnificent crannog was discovered in the bog which led to an excavation by a team from Harvard University led by H. O’Neill Hencken in 1932.  This sword find led to one of the most important Viking related discoveries in Ireland.

Ballinderry is within 17 km of the Shannon and close to the river Brosna. Ballinderry was under the control of Clann Cholmain of the northern Ui Neill at that time.  The occupants of the crannog probably traded with the Limerick Vikings initially. Later the amount of Viking material found suggests that the Vikings may have been living there or had inter-married with the family.

The crannog was of multiphase construction with the different layers built on top of one another. The lowest platform was 20 feet below the current surface. Each layer produced a unique array of finds. Their main dwelling was a house built to the layout of the Dublin Viking houses. 650 artefacts were recovered, many decorated and showing strong Viking influence.

Viking Artefacts

Hiberno-Scandinavian Artefacts
Wooden long bow Wooden game board
Two iron spearheads Wooden motif pieces
Iron sword Silver kite brooch
Iron axehead Copper-alloy ringed pins
Two glass linen-smoothers Copper-allow hanging lamp
Iron strike-a-light Copper-allow strap end
Wooden zoomorphic

Today Ballinderry remains one of the most important excavated Viking age sites in Ireland.

Separately, almost 500 pieces of Irish insular metalwork, mainly ecclesiastical material has been found in Scandinavia, mostly in graves.


Viking Coins

Although Ireland had a barter economy up until the arrival of the Vikings who introduced coins for trade and exchange, there are plenty of examples where coins arrived earlier in Ireland.  The oldest recorded coins found in Ireland were Roman coins deposited in the passage tomb at Newgrange Co. Meath, these have been dated to 330AD. Viking hoards range in date from c. 800 to c. 1180 AD and they consist of coins, arm-rings, ingots, hack-silver and brooches.

The Vikings introduced coins for trade and exchange and also introduced a number of loan words into both Gaelic and English.  The Irish (pinginn) and English word for a penny is derived from the Norse word penninger. Again, the Norse word skillingr appears in Irish as scilling and in English as shilling. Another word brought into Irish at this time was marked which became margadh in Irish and market in English. The first person to mint coins in Ireland was the Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin, Sitric Silkbeard. Nearly all of the Irish Viking silver recovered has been traced back to Afghanistan and included many Kufic (Arabic) coins.

Dinas and Dirhams found in Ireland  Kufic Dinars and Dirham coins, probably found in Drogheda

Many Viking hoards, mainly of silver have been found in Ireland.  Most of the hoards were found in the east of the country, suggesting Viking traders used them out of Dublin.  Why these hoards were then deposited in various hiding places has been an academic discussion for many years.

Of the 67 hoard finds,  six were found in Co. Offaly, mostly at religious sites.  This implies trade between Vikings and monasteries – a complete reversal of our understanding from when the first Viking arrivals!

The Offaly sites with Viking coins are Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Geashill with one hoard found in each location. Rahan had two separated hoards while there is one other unclassified find in Offaly.  The largest find was in Clonmacnoise where 50 coins were found, dated between 1075 – 1090 AD. Obviously Clonmacnoise was now a monastic city that traded regularly with the Vikings and others, unlike a few hundred years previously!

Geashill Viking CoinsGeashill Viking Coins (5 out of 28)

Language and Loan words

As mentioned earlier a number of loan words came into Irish from Norse over a few hundred years. Obviously, the two principle areas covered war and trade. Examples include Norsebátr which became bád in Irish and boat in English. Alsodorgbecame dorú in Irish and fishing-line in English. The Norse word gardr becomes gairdin in Irish and garden in English.  Brók from Norse appears as brog in irish.


Norse towns were given Viking names that have lasted to today.

Arklow   –  Herklou

Carlingford   – Kerlingafjord

Dalkey   –  Dálkoy

Dursey –  Dorsees

Helvick  –  Helvík

Howth –  Hofúd

Lambay –  Lamboy

Leixleip  –  Laxhlaup

Waterford – Veðrafjǫrðr


As relationships grew between the Vikings and the local Irish chieftains through trade and food supplies marriages were arranged between Viking princes and Irish princesses.  This happened particularly between Irish females from the Limerick area and Viking princes both locally and In Iceland.  Iceland found it difficult to entice females from Norway to marry Viking men in Iceland. This led to the sons born in Iceland to these ladies being given Gaelic names, but spelt in the Norse fashion. See below.

Norse     Gaelic

Aðakán   Áeducán

Brjánn   Briann

Domnall Domnall.

Dufgall  Dubgall


Dungaðr Donnchadh

Fiak         Fiac

Kaðall   Cathal

Kalmann Colmán

Kjaran   Ciarán

Viking Surnames in Ireland

MacAuliff (son of Olaf)

MacManus (son of Magnus)

McDowell, Doyle (son of the dark foreigner)

Loughlin, McLoughlin (Lochlannach)

O’Higgins (Ó Uiginn – Uiginn, Duke of Normandy)

Images: Google Commons


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