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How was Irish civilization in the Early Middle Ages?

So as we all know, the “Early Middle Ages” was the period of European History lasting from around the 6th Century until approximately the 10th Century.

It’s interesting you ask about the Irish, in this particular time, because relatively little is known regarding this time, especially in Irish History. However, I’ll answer this question as best as I can.

700’s – 900’s

This time was mainly taken up by extensive Viking raids, many being warriors and farmers wanting to expand their horizons and, most obviously, seek other lands to pillage and plunder. Looking at my books on Viking history, it appears that these raids were quite small and quick. A bit like a Viet Cong attacks in the jungle in US troops on the Vietnam War. Christian Irish culture was interrupted by these raids and started 200+ years of warfare between the Viking Raiders and the Irish people. The Vikings solely focused on the Monasteries and towns throughout Ireland, as they had the larger populations and much more treasure.

The raids intensified from the early 800’s on the coasts, and the Vikings were able to establish “longports” which were basically fortified Viking ships or “sea fortresses”. Although the Vikings were able to make these small fortified landmarks along the coast, they were still very weak and the Viking culture didn’t really effect the Irish way of life.

900’s – 10,000’s

During this time, The Vikings were able to establish better settlements and involved themselves in trade, and strangely, also changed a small portion of Irish people’s thoughts on religion, getting them to worship their own gods.

During 914 up until around 922, there was a massive boom in growth and the towns of Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Dublin were all established. During some archeological digs in Dublin, a lot of Viking heritage was found. This meant that Irish people and Vikings were living amongst each other. Wars had obviously calmed, and trade must have been having a larger turnover. The Vikings also married the Irish people, and therefore increased the towns population.

11,000 – 12,000

The Irish church, now becoming more and more dominant, had major development and reforms in the 12th Century. Before the 11th century the church in Ireland was monastic, with bishops residing at monasteries and without a permanent diocesan structure. The circumstances surrounding the foundation of the diocese of Dublin early in the century are really quite weird, but at some point, a gentleman called Sithric Silkbeard Dunan became Bishop of Dublin. He later went on to establishing the first proper diocese in Dublin.

Diocese, for those who are wondering what it is (because I had to research it too) is basically a district under the care of the Bishop in the Christian Church. The vast majority of Irish people were devout Christians, and many Viking settlers were now praying to one God, rather than numerous Gods.

Overall, many dioceses were created and established throughout Ireland, and the Irish church system and had now transformed from an entirely monastical system, into the much more organised diocese way.

Map of dioceses in Ireland from a historical atlas by William Shepard.

1169 – 1171

War yet again struck Ireland. The early 12th Century saw the arrival of the Normans, when the country was divided into several kingdoms and ruled over by “High King”.

In May 1169, the Normans landed on the coast, but strangely they weren’t there to pillage, they were actually there answering a request from a smaller leader, hoping to overthrow the High King. So in fact, these Normans could have been classed as mercenaries. This never worked though, the Normans were surprisingly beaten.

As normal though, the tides turned and there was second Norman offensive led by who is believed to be Richard de Clare. By May 1171, Richard had taken control of Dublin, Waterford, and Wexford. He took them fast and with little casualties, as the military siege tactics of the Normans and general battlefield discipline of Norman troops was a lot better then the Irish and Viking settlers combined.

Numerous battles were fought but the Normans were able to sit tight and hold onto the land they captured. The Norman way of life didn’t really have that much of an effect on the Irish people, as they were so heavily influenced by the new system of their church.

The Normans built 100’s of small watchtowers in and around the coast and towns were they had taken control, as the counter attacks from the Irish were common as they really did not want them there. Dublin however was actually put under siege in 1171, and Richard asked to negotiate, knowing he was very outnumbered.

In the end, Richard was told that he could keep only what he had conquered, but he had to acknowledge the Irish as his overlords. He thought this was outrageous, and instead surprised attacked the Irish army camped outside Dublin, near Castleknock. The Irish Army left after the attack.

September 1171 – Onwards

King Henry II of England decided to lead a military expedition to overthrow both the Irish and Norman settlers.

As soon as he arrived, with an intimidating force, both the Irish people and Church submitted to him and declared their lands in his name. King Henry also allowed the Normans to keep a town called Leinster in fief, but took over Dublin, Wexford and Waterford as “Crown Lands”. King Henry left soon after, in 1172. Pope Alexander III gave King Henry dominion over Ireland and made the Irish pay tax to Rome.

After Henry’s departure, slavery became an issue. Ireland were one of the last countries in Christian Europe to their institution of slavery. Prisoners of war were routinely taken as slaves.

13th Century (End Of Early Middle Ages)

So there you have it, early civilisation in Early Middle Aged Ireland. Hope this helped with the little resources I had!