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«The historical importance of Viking-Age Waterford CLARE DOWNHAM University of Aberdeen THE recent Viking-Age discoveries at Woodstown, near ...»

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The historical importance of Viking-Age Waterford


University of Aberdeen

THE recent Viking-Age discoveries at Woodstown, near Waterford, in the Irish

province of Munster, have highlighted the need to assess the importance of

Waterford as a viking-settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries.1 Mainly drawing

on written sources, I set out in this paper to discuss: (a) the site of Woodstown

and the origins of Waterford; (b) Waterford’s relationship with other vikingsettlements in Ireland and (c) links with neighbouring Irish polities; (d) Waterford’s economic significance; and finally, (e) the external contacts of the port. I shall restrict my analysis to the years before A.D. 1035 when Waterford was ruled by viking-kings.

In Ireland, the Viking-Age is conventionally dated from the first recorded viking-raids in 795 until the Angevin invasion of 1171/2. The enduring contribution of these centuries is the foundation of major Irish ports – including Waterford, Dublin, and Limerick – which brought Ireland into closer contact with viking-colonies throughout Europe. The nature of vikings’ impact on Irish history is still hotly debated, and it is hoped that further research at Woodstown will shed new light on this formative period of Irish history.

The site at Woodstown, alias Woodhouse, is located on the banks of the River Suir, roughly three miles west of the centre of modern Waterford. The modern Irish name of Woodstown, Baile na Coille, seems to be a direct translation of the English.2 The earliest names recorded for the site are Balleode and Baliowodam found in a charter of 1191 issued when John, Lord of Ireland, granted it to the new Priory of St John which he founded in the town of Waterford.3 This early post-Conquest form suggests that the ‘wood’-element of the name 1 This paper was written for, and presented at, the Eighteenth Irish Conference of Medievalists, held on 26 June 2004, at St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. I should like to thank Colmán Etchingham and Kenneth Nicholls for helpful remarks offered after my lecture and Kristin Bornholdt for comments on numismatic material from Woodstown and Dunmore Cave. I am also grateful to Bridgitte Schaffer for checking a reference in a printed source not directly available to me. The maps of south-west and south-east Ireland are reproduced from http://www.ireland-information.com/.

2 Pace P. Power, ‘Place names of the Decies’, Journal of the Waterford and South-east of Ireland Archæological Society 9 (1906) 12–39, 80–106, 154–70, 228–65; 10 (1907) 14–41, 88–134, 184–240, 263–310; 11 (1908) 1–34, 45–78, 135–68, 179–210; 12 (1909) 25–48, at 9 (1906) p. 86: ‘The English, or official, form is merely a literal translation of the Irish name’.

3 P. Power, ‘The priory church and hospital of St. John the Evangelist, Waterford’, Journal of the Waterford and South-east of Ireland Archæological Society 2 (1896) 81–97, at p. 83.

The Journal of Celtic Studies 4 (2004) 71–96 72 CLARE DOWNHAM


74 CLARE DOWNHAM Woodstown is not derived simply from the English word but was suggested in some way by an antecedent Irish usage.

To date, an area of Woodstown 400 metres by 60 metres has been investigated, and this has yielded a remarkable series of finds. Ship-nails, locks, and balance-weights (some decorated with Irish ecclesiastical metalwork), a pagan warrior-burial, and hacksilver all illustrate viking-activity. Finds which give datingevidence for the site include a Kufic dirham (a silver coin from the Arab world) which can be dated to the ninth century. A fragment of a Hiberno-Scandinavian arm-ring of the type which circulated in Ireland in the late ninth and tenth centuries has also been found. A sword found in the warrior’s burial may be of a type datable to the tenth century, but that has not yet been confirmed. Evidence of house-gullies and a defensive ditch require further analysis to determine both the function and longevity of the site and its extent. A full excavation could radically alter our views on the early Viking-Age in Ireland.


A crucial question to address is the relationship of Woodstown to the nearby settlement at Waterford. I shall approach this topic in three parts, discussing first the origins of viking-settlement in Ireland, secondly the evidence for early vikingactivity in the Waterford-region, and finally drawing on the historical references to viking-settlement at Waterford. One vital point is that we should not suppose the beginnings of viking-activity in Ireland to be fully charted in the surviving chronicles.

The first recorded raids on Ireland took place in 795, more or less contemporary with the first documented attacks in other areas of western Europe.4 The beginnings of viking-activity in Ireland are often divided by scholars into phases, beginning with hit-and-run raids from the 790s to the 820s, proceeding to more intensive campaigns in the late 830s when the first annalistic references to viking-bases, sometimes called longphuirt (‘ship-ports’), are found.5 4 [The] A[nnals of] Clon[macnoise, being Annals of Ireland from the Earliest Times to A.D. 1408], ed. Denis Murphy (Dublin 1896),792[=795]. [Annala Rioghachta Eireann:] A[nnals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the] F[our] M[asters, from the Earliest Times to the Year 1616], ed. & transl. John O’Donovan (2nd edn, 7 vols, Dublin 1856), I, 790[=795]. [The] A[nnals of] I[nisfallen (MS. Rawlinson B 503)], ed. & transl. Seán Mac Airt (Dublin 1951), [795].2. [The] A[nnals of] U[lster (to A.D. 1131)], I, ed. & transl. Séan Mac Airt & G. Mac Niocaill (Dublin 1983), 794[=795].3. Un-bracketed dates are those found in the chronicletext; editorial dates are given in square brackets. Where necessary I have added a corrected date in brackets following an equals-sign.

5 For example, Else Roesdahl, The Vikings (London 1991), pp. 221–9.


The first example on record is that of Inber Dée (Co. Wicklow) in 836.6 This ‘longphort-phase’ ends in 902 when Uí Ímair were expelled from Dublin.7 Nevertheless, recent excavations conducted by Linzi Simpson in Dublin may cause a revision of this linear presentation of the origins of viking-settlement in Ireland. Two viking-burials excavated at Ship Street yielded radiocarbon-dates pointing to the late 780s and 790s.8 Burial evidence is often used to indicate settlement, though perhaps of a temporary nature.

A short-term viking-base may have been founded at Dublin in the time of the earliest recorded attacks, such as the raid on Rechru, arguably Lambay Island near Dublin, in 795, and the more certain attack on Holmpatrick near the Skerries in 798.9 ‘The Annals of Ulster’ report that on this occasion the cattle-tribute of neighbouring territories was collected by vikings.10 One might suppose that the gathering of this tribute could not have been done instantaneously and therefore envisage the existence of a temporary post while cattle were extorted, counted, selected, and driven onto longships. Cattle-tribute may not have been the most practical way of transferring wealth overseas, and it is possible that the animals represented supplies for a camp in Ireland. Rather than sticking wholly to hit-andrun raids (drawing one’s ship to shore, sacking the local church, then rushing home), some of the early raiding-bands may have chosen a more leisurely approach, anchoring their ships offshore for a short period, or even establishing a camp on land.

It may sound far-fetched or over-hasty to drag back the origins of vikingbases in Ireland by forty years on the evidence of a restricted number of radiocarbon-dates, and further investigation is needed. Nevertheless, helpful comparison may be made with the situation in England. ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ makes no reference to viking-settlement in England in the early ninth century. However, a series of contemporary royal diplomas issued by kings of the

6 AFM 835[=836]; AU 835[=836].5; C[hronicum] S[cotorum. A Chronicle of Irish Affairs, from the

Earliest Times to A.D. 1135], ed. & transl. William M. Hennessy (London 1866), [836]. E.

Bhreathnach, ‘Saint Patrick, vikings and Inber Dée – longphort in the early Irish literary tradition’, Wicklow Archaeology and History 1 (1998) 36–40.

7 A second series of longphuirt-foundations is recorded in the 920s and 930s: AU 920[=921].7, 922[=923].4, 923[=924].1, 925[=926].5, 925[=926].6, 929[=930].3, 935[=936].2.

8 Linzi Simpson, ‘Ninth-century Dublin: the evidence unfolds’, lecture presented at the Sixth Medieval Dublin Symposium, Trinity College, Dublin, 29 May 2004. The Ship Street burials were located on the west side of the dark pool of Dub-linn. The radiocarbon-dates come from two male pagan graves, one accompanied by a shield-boss and dagger, the other with a finger-ring, bead, metal disc, and sword.

9 AClon 792[=795]; AFM 790[=795].6; AU 794[=795].3; C. Downham, ‘An imaginary viking raid on Skye in 795?’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 20 (2000) 192–6.

10 AClon 795[=798]; AFM 793[=798]; AU 797[=798].2.

76 CLARE DOWNHAM Mercians from 792 to 827 refers to viking-camps and campaigns in Kent.11 Chronicles cannot necessarily be relied on to record the first stages of vikingsettlement.12 An exodus of vikings from Ireland to Britain in the 860s led to the destruction of some longphuirt by Irish kings.13 Most of the camps – as at Youghal, Clondalkin, and those in the territory of the Northern Uí Néill – are first recorded at the moment when they were demolished.14 We do not know when they were founded. For this reason the site at Woodstown will shed new light on the progression of viking-settlement along the south coast of Ireland. It will also facilitate better understanding of viking-colonisation across Europe and illustrate how Ireland fits into the bigger picture of these revolutionary events.

When we move from general to local evidence, we find that Irish chronicles display particular interest in viking-attacks on churches. Colmán Etchingham has noted a geographical bias towards the Shannon-basin and the East Midlands; so, although annal-entries pinpoint early viking-activity near Waterford, the coverage of this area may be less detailed.15 The earliest recorded viking-campaigns in Munster can be dated to 812.16 In that year Cobthach son of Mael Dúin, overking of Eóganacht Locha Léin, and his men slaughtered a band of vikings. The early twelfth-century saga Cocad Gaedel re Gallaib gives a fuller account of events in this year and mentions a viking-fleet at Camas in the territory of Uí Fhothaid Thíre, presumably near Waterford.17 This account could provide evidence for vikingactivity along the River Suir. However, the reliability of this saga-account is uncertain: in particular, the author tended to telescope together events from a range of years.18 11 P. H. Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters. An Annotated List and Bibliography (London 1968), nos 134, 160, 168, 177, 186, 1264 (online at http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/sdk13/chartwww/NewRegReg.html).

12 D. N. Dumville, ‘Vikings in the British Isles: a question of sources’, in Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century, ed. Judith Jesch (San Marino 2003), pp. 209–50, at pp. 214, 220–2.

13 Clare Elizabeth Downham, ‘Britain and Scandinavian Ireland: the Dynasty of Ívarr and PanInsular Politics to 1014’ (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge 2003), p. 18.

14 AFM 864[=866], 865[=867]; AU 865[=866].4, 866[=867].8.

15 Colmán Etchingham, Viking Raids on Irish Church Settlements in the Ninth Century. A Reconsideration of the Annals (Maynooth 1996), pp. 17–31.

16 AClon 809[=812]; AFM 807[=812]; AU 811[=812].11; CS [812].

17 Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh. The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill; or, The Invasions of Ireland by Danes and Other Norsemen, ed. & transl. James Henthorn Todd (London 1867), pp. 4/5 (§4); Edmund Hogan, Onomasticon Goedelicum Locorum et Tribuum Hiberniae et Scotiae (Dublin 1910), pp. 154, 672.

Following Hogan, I had thought that this might refer to Camus Bridge, near Clonmel, bar. Iffa and Offa, Co. Tipperary. However, Breandán Ó Ciobháin suggested at the Eighteenth Irish Conference of Medievalists that the Camas mentioned in Cocad Gaedel re Gallaib may be a site on the River Suir closer to Woodstown.

18 M. Ní Mhaonaigh, ‘Cogad Gáedhel re Gallaib and the Annals: a comparison’, Ériu 48 (1996) 101–


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