A short history of the Viking Kingdom of Dublin

June 9, 2017

When it finally did come about, the fall of the Viking Dublin was rapid. A lightning attack upon their walls in 1170 brought about the flight of their last king to the Isle of Man and the beginning of life in the city as an English royal colony.

While they would have one last heroic attempt to reclaim Dublin, the defeat of the Ostmen – or East Men, as the Hibernicised descendants of the Vikings were known – by the Normans under Strongbow ended an era of almost three hundred years as either independent Scandinavian city-state or client kingdom.

Having arrived as seaborne raiders in 795, the Ostmen began establishing bases at defensible points on the Irish coast rather than make the arduous trip back to Scandinavia for winter. Dublin (in 841) was principle amongst those founded during this period. The settlers chose a spot between an Irish monastery and a small Gaelic settlement on the southern side of the River Liffey beside a deep pool fed by the River Poddle. It was from this ‘Black Pool’ that the town would take its name: Dubh-Linn in Irish. Over the next two centuries the Ostmen were able to establish an independent kingdom based around the Dublin hinterland and where they traded various commodities including slaves, foodstuffs and animal skins.

Ireland in the tenth century was a land of many kingdoms and one homogenous Gaelic culture. Individual states were often dominated by a single tribe and over time these more powerful families were recognised as kings over the five provinces. Consequently, these provincial kings would then try to assert their supremacy over each other in order to be acknowledged as High King of Ireland. They enforced their claims through a system based on cattle tribute, hostage-taking and possession of the ancient Hill of Tara in Meath. It was a structure which led to an almost constant state of war with rivalries and alliances broken and bartered on an annual basis at both a local and national level. The Ostmen soon became entangled in this complex political web. They intermarried with native families and adopted many social traditions from the Gael, becoming embroiled in Ireland’s age-old disputes. They acted as mercenaries and started wars, expanding their territory when and where they could. While not the only Ostman city, Dublin became preeminent thanks to its perfect location on the Irish Sea. It was connected to the Scandinavian world through the Hebrides, and to the world of northern England through Chester. Wales, southern England and the continent could be accessed through the Bristol market.

The city’s independence was seriously tested during the tenth century. Internal feuding amongst the Uí Ímair (the descendants of Ivar) – a dynasty which had ruled Dublin since at least 851 – began to eat away at the city’s influence on the national stage. Dublin was sacked in 944 as two rival branches of the family vied for supremacy. One of the Uí Ímair, however, named Amlaíb Cuarán, who had spent many years fighting King Athelstan in Northumbria, returned to Dublin as king, and through a series of cunning alliances he managed to maintain Dublin’s independence despite continued internal challenges to his rule. By 978, he had defeated successive Kings of Leinster in battle and had made them his hostages.



The Battle of Clontarf 1014

The ascension of Máel Sechnaill Mór (Malachy the Great) as King of Meath brought that period of expansion to a shuddering halt. A year after claiming the High Kingship in 979, Máel Sechnaill decisively defeated Amlaíb at the Battle of Tara and occupied Dublin, forcing the powerful Ostman to abdicate his throne and go into exile. In Amlaíb’s place, Máel Sechnaill appointed his half-brother, Amlaíb’s son, Glúniairn, as client-king of Dublin, over the claims of several older siblings. Máel Sechnaill’s rivalry with the King of Munster, Brian Boru, saw him switch focus away from the region and led to a weakening of Glúniairn’s power. Factional infighting soon returned and in 989 Glúniairn was murdered.

Glúniairn’s half-brother, Sigtrygg Silkbeard, finally emerged as king in 994 thanks to the assistance of his brother-in-law, the King of Norway. Despite the internal strife, Dublin’s prosperity continued and prompted Silkbeard to direct his efforts towards breaking free of the domination of Máel Sechnaill, and later Brian Boru when he became High King in 1002. Silkbeard’s determination to re-establish Dublin’s independence saw him become allied to the rebellious King of Leinster whose territory abutted his own. Matters reached a head in 1014 after Brian, now unchallenged as High King, divorced his third wife, Gormflaith. While divorce was common in ancient Ireland, when it occurred amongst the nobility the practice took on a political aspect. In this instance it reputedly had the direst repercussions as Gormflaith just happened to be the sister of the King of Leinster and the mother of Silkbeard. Some later sources state that she incited both men to revolt against her former husband.

The Battle of Clontarf saw Silkbeard and his allies from Leinster, Orkney and Man take on Brian and Máel Sechnaill on the north bank of Dublin Bay. While Brian’s army emerged with victory, it cost the High King his life as well as that of his eldest son and grandson. Munster power was smashed for a generation, as was that of the defeated Uí Dúnlainge Kings of Leinster. Máel Sechnaill of Meath was the real victor, being able to reclaim the High Kingship and remain in that position until his death in 1022. Despite being routed, Silkbeard was able to preserve his kingship in Dublin.

Brian’s victory at Clontarf did not remove the Vikings from Ireland. What it did do was to create the circumstances whereby control of Dublin, rather than the Hill of Tara, became an essential precondition for any provincial king to be considered as a real contender as High Kingship of Ireland. Over the next century and a half Dublin would become a target for every ambitious warlord in the country.



Dublin as a client-kingdom


In 1052, the Uí Cheinnselaig King of Leinster, Diarmait mac Máel na mBó (Dermot the son of the Baldy of the Cattle), was the first native Gael to directly rule Dublin rather than impose an Ostman client-king upon the city. Control would change hands no less than five times between the Kings of Leinster and Munster (or their client-kings) in the ensuing 35 years.

A brief rule by King Godred Crovan of the Isles was soon ended by the King of Munster, Muircheartach Ua Briain (Murtagh O’Brian), great-grandson of Brian Boru, who attacked and captured Dublin in 1094, declaring himself High King. Driven out of the greatest city on the Irish Sea, Godred nonetheless remained King of Man and the Isles. His descendants would continue to rule that region for the next two hundred years.

Muircheartach, meanwhile, installed his nephew, Domnall Mac Tadc, as ruler of Dublin, only for him to lose control in 1102 when the city was attacked by the great campaigning King of Norway, Magnus Barelegs. Magnus’ death in an ambush in Ulster the following year seems to have allowed Dublin to fall back to Muircheartach and permitted him to place his son, Domnall Gerrlámhach, on Dublin’s throne. In 1115, Domnall fought off an attack on Dublin by another King of Leinster wishing to force his way to the High Kingship: Donnchad Mac Murchada. Reputedly Donnchad was killed by the Dubliners and his body buried with that of a dog. Donnchad’s teenage son, Diarmait Mac Murchada, would remember this affront to his family when he had the chance to capture Dublin in 1170.

The rise and fall of kings continued over the next twenty five years with Royal families of Connacht, Leinster and Munster each capturing and holding Dublin for a time as part of their drive towards the High Kingship.



The rise of the Meic Torcaill


After almost a century, a descendant of Scandinavia did return to the top office in the city. In 1142, a group of slave-trading adventurers from the Western Isles under Óttar Mac Óttar and Ragnall Mac Torcaill were invited to take control of Dublin. Ragnall was subsequently killed in battle in Meath and Óttar did not last much longer. In 1148 he was murdered during a coup headed by Ragnall’s kinsmen, Brodar and Ascall Mac Torcaill. The ascent of Brodar and Ascall to rule in Dublin happened at a time when the Kings of Tyrone, Connacht and Munster all vied for the High Kingship. In 1154, Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn (Murtagh McLaughlin), the King of Tyrone, marched on the city and forced Brodar and Ascall to submit to his overlordship. It was this act which rubber-stamped Muircheartach as High King of Ireland albeit with opposition from the Kings of Connacht and Munster.

Because his own lands were far to the north, Muircheartach handed control of Dublin to his most trusted ally, the King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, whose father, as you will remember, had been buried with a dog in 1115. It seems that the surviving Meic Torcaill leader, Ascall, remained an important man under Diarmait’s kingship and may have co-operated with, or submitted to Diarmait’s rule. The suffocating state of affairs may have been intolerable to the merchantmen of the city, however, and, at some stage during this period, they attempted to install Godred Olafsson, the grandson of Godred Crovan, as king. For unknown reasons the King of the Isles failed in this attempt.

Ascall Mac Torcaill, meanwhile, was playing a longer game. On the surface he continued his alliance with High King Muircheartach, taking part in several campaigns on Diarmait Mac Murchada’s behalf in Wales and Scotland, but there is little doubt that he was awaiting an opportune moment to break free and re-establish Dublin’s independence. That moment came in 1166.

Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn had been High King of Ireland for almost a decade and was, seemingly, at the height of his powers – having received the submission of all the major dynasties – when he was killed in a minor skirmish in his home province of Ulster. Into the power vacuum stepped the King of Connacht, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), who quickly raised a coalition of kings and marched on Muircheartach’s closest ally: Diarmait, King of Leinster and Dublin.

Ascall, as a chief burgher in the city, was well placed to take advantage and, according to the Annals, a bribe of 4,000 head of cattle and acceptance of Ruaidrí as their overlord was the price of Dublin’s abandonment of Diarmait. It was also at this time that Ascall Mac Torcaill was recognised as King of Dublin.

At the time, Ascall’s decision must have seemed like a straightforward one. Shorn of their alliance with Muircheartach, Leinster and Dublin were simply not strong enough to meet the mighty coalition of Connacht, Meath, Breifne and Airgalla in battle. His abandonment of Diarmait saved the city from a costly siege and actually improved their wealth thanks to the cattle bribe. It did mean that Dublin’s warriors would have to go to war alongside the coalition, but, as previously mentioned, participation in military ventures was also a condition of their union with Leinster. Most important for Dublin, I believe, was the transfer of overlordship from a king with lands adjoining their own to one, Ruaidrí, whose territory was in the far west. Ascall had all but restored Dublin’s independence.

Little did he know, but Ascall’s decision to join with Ruaidrí would effectively make him the last man to hold the office of King of Dublin. For Diarmait Mac Murchada would never forgive or forget this betrayal.





Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland, the acclaimed novel charting the 12th century Norman invasion of Ireland and the capture of the Viking cities of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin. The second in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle, was published on June 1st.









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