The Impact of Vikings on Celtic-Speaking Regions


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The Celtic-speaking communities were always open to outside influences. They coexisted with Scandinavian peoples for many years. Some of these encounters were violent, but many were beneficial, and they have left a lasting legacy in this region.

Viking weapons isolated on white background.
The Irish borrowed the battle-ax from the Vikings. They used it so widely that by the
12th century, it was the dominant Irish weapon. (Image: Sergiy1975/Shutterstock)

Who were the Vikings?

The name ‘Vikings’ does not refer to ethnicity as we all have come to think. It was used to describe an occupation. To go ‘a-viking’ meant to go out raiding. The Vikings were ethnically called Norsemen or Danes.

The first appearance of the Vikings dates back to the late 18th century when small groups of raiders came to attack northern Britain and Ireland. The English speaking areas of Ireland and Britain suffered the most during these attacks. The Vikings defeated all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The only kingdom that was able to withstand the attacks was Wessex in the southwest. So, when the Anglo-Saxons drove the Vikings out, Wessex was the only English Kingdom left. They built on the ruins left behind and unified the English kingdom. Here, the Vikings ironically contributed to the unification of the English.

In other parts of Britain and Ireland, the Vikings’ impact was not the same. For example, Wales remained mostly unaffected because it was not a wealthy place, with fewer monasteries compared to other parts of Britain. They were more interested in northern Britain and Ireland. For example, the great monastery of Iona was raided three times over a decade, around the year 800. This monastery is in Scotland now, but at that time was a part of Ireland.

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The Vikings’ Influence on Ireland

The impact of the Vikings on Ireland took shape by the middle of the ninth century when they began to settle along the Irish coast. They laid the foundation of the most important Irish towns, including Cork, Wexford, Limerick, Waterford, and Dublin.

The impact of the Vikings was not just through violence. There were other peaceful ways in which they shaped Irish society. These new settlers contributed to the economic growth and cultural diversity of Ireland. They brought a considerable amount of cash they had earned through trade or looting from the Islamic world.

The picture shows the Viking wood carving of a wolf.
The Viking motifs were used in Irish art. (Image: Asmus Koefoed/Shutterstock)

The Vikings had advanced techniques for shipbuilding and sophisticated metalworking skills, which they brought to Ireland. The Irish craftsmen learned these skills and started creating artwork and luxury products to sell to Irish patrons. The Vikings had a significant influence on Irish art, too. By the early 12th century, churchmen commissioned Viking artisans or Viking-style craftsmen. An example is a metal shrine made for the Cathach of Saint Columba, with clear Viking motifs.

Another example is a ceremonial staff commissioned by the abbots of Clonmacnoise. On its head, it had obvious Scandinavian motifs.

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The Impact of Vikings on Irish Economy

Before the Vikings settled in Ireland, gold had always been the dominant precious metal. The Vikings imprinted their influence here, too. Through their contacts with the east, the Vikings had access to large reservoirs of silver. So, Ireland shifted to silver, which wasn’t found in Ireland. They would make silver coins into arm-rings worn as a mark of status by warriors. As their weight was standard, the rings could be used instead of money.

The influence of Vikings on Irish jewelry is best seen in the difference between the Tara Brooch and the Roscrea Brooch, which has much more silver in it.

Another area where the Vikings had the expertise and impacted the Irish was warfare. The most significant item borrowed by the Irish from the Vikings is the battle-ax. This piece of weaponry was particularly interesting for the Irish. They used it so widely that by the 12th century, it was the dominant Irish weapon, as witnessed by Gerald of Wales.

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The Demographic Influence of the Vikings

The Vikings continued to forge their impact even into the personal lives of the Irish. There were numerous cases of marriages between the Irish and the Vikings at all social levels. For instance, in the middle of the 10th century, a king of Dublin and York, Olaf Sigtryggsson, married two Irish princesses. These marriages supposedly contributed to the Vikings’ conversion to Christianity.

The Christianization of the Vikings, although it was slow, made them better accepted in all aspects of Irish life.

These intermarriages led to the emergence of a new interethnic group of children, which the Irish named the Gall-Gaedhil, or ‘the foreigner-Irish’. In addition to genetics, they were culturally mixed, too; they spoke both Irish and Norse languages. This ability made them able to work in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia. These people were the ancestors of the Middle-Ages galloglass, ‘foreign soldiers’, a very significant group of mercenaries in Ireland and Scotland.

Common Questions about the Impact of Vikings on Celtic-Speaking Regions

Q: Where did the Vikings come from originally?

The Vikings were ethnically Norsemen or Danes. The first appearance of the Vikings dates back to the late 18th century when small groups of raiders came to attack northern Britain and Ireland.

Q: Did the Vikings help the English?

The Vikings had many influences on the English. Most importantly, they ironically helped them form a unified kingdom after the English drove the Vikings out of their country. The Anglo-Saxons built their kingdom on the wreckage the Vikings had left behind.

Q: Why did the Vikings choose to come to Britain?

The Vikings chose to come to Britain because of the wealthy monasteries in the region.

Q: Are the Irish related to Vikings?

Throughout the Viking age in Ireland, there were many cases of intermarriages. The children who were born from these marriages were called Gall-Gaedhil, or ‘the foreigner-Irish’.

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