The Origins and Story of St Patricks Cathedral. Part two- Vikings!

Early History continued:  The Origins and foundation of Dublin City.

Dublin only became a city long after Saint Patrick.

It was foreigners rather than the Gaelic Irish who founded Dublin as a city.  From around 781,  or some three hundred years after Patrick’s progress, the Vikings or Norse started to appear around the coasts and rivers of Ireland.

The first Vikings came from Norway, later ones from Denmark.   They came at first as marauders, as raiders of monasteries and takers of slaves.


Traditional images of Norse/Vikings. Artists unknown. 

It appears the first Norse settlement along the Liffey may have been at Islandbridge, where some spectacular Viking artifacts like armour, jewels and weapons were discovered in the 19th century.   There may have been another large settlement some 70 K North of Dublin also, although this did not thrive in the long run and ultimately perished.

Later the Norse settled down, in both senses of that phrase.

A  wonderful artist’s impression of an embryonic or small settlement elsewhere  back in the Vikings’ native Scandinavia. (panting by an unknown Swedish artist)  But, with the addition of the much larger river Liffey, this is probably very similar to how the tiny Norse trading post of Dyflin looked like for the first few years.    For what it looked like later, see a picture a few paragraphs below. 

The Norse now evolved and to some extent, changed their way and pattern of life.  Although there was still a strong warrior culture, indeed perhaps even a warrior caste,  many Norse becamesettled  tradespeople- craftsmen and merchants.  There had been hardly any large-scale urban settlement in Ireland prior to their arrival.  But the Norse now changed that, founding not only Dublin but Cork, Limerick and Waterford too, all ports, on rivers, all cities built on trade.

A very useful map by The Ireland Story, with a link to their excellent website    Note that the four current provinces of Ireland, Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught, are joined by a fifth.  If you look carefully at the khaki shaded area in the north and middle, you’ll see it is in fact divided in two, the central part being  is the fifth traditional province of ancient Ireland, Meath.      Note also the brighter green areas, the small but thriving ports founded by the Norse.  

As the Norse changed their way of life, their Liffey base moved too, relocating eastward from Islandbridge to a new, much longer lasting settlement, located around what is now the South west of modern central Dublin.  Viking Dublin was in the areas we now know as Christ Church, Temple Bar, the Civic Buildings and Dublin Castle.   Many artifacts have been found here also, but they are of a different type to the Islandbridge hoard.  Instead of armour and weapons we have evidence of trade and manufacture, metalwork and bone-work, especially combs, of food and drinks and coins and toys.  All the evidence, in other words, of a thriving working, trading city.

Look at this fantastic artist’s impression by artist, educationalist & historian Iain Barber (thank you Iain)  – of Norse Dublin at its zenith.  Note the defensive stockade and, in particular-  the ships at anchor in Dubh Linn,  the former lake at the confluence of the Poodle joining the larger Liffey.   As you see, most of the houses are still of timber.  Only a few, very wealthy people had stone houses. This is of course Iain’s interpretation, based on much reading and research.    My own, (admittedly secondary) researches to-date suggest there may have been a fort-like structure, and large meeting hall or halls, at the S.E corner, the corner nearest you in this picture, occupying toughly the site where Dublin Castle stands today. .  

What about the rest of Ireland?

Let’s leave the Norse for a moment an look around the rest of Ireland, which was still by far the majority of the territory, still of course very Gaelic, and very different.  By the this stage, as you know, thanks to the exertions of Patrick and others, Gaelic Ireland had long been a Christian land, with a vigorous monastic tradition.

Norse Power in Decline.

the Vikings, in contrast were still pagans.  Although they assimilated to some extent, forming marriages and alliances, learning Irish language and customs and indeed becoming players in the politics of Ireland, the Vikings were slow to change religion, and they did not convert until much later.  For centuries they continued to honour their own Norse Gods like Thor and Odin.

However, by the eleventh century Norse power was on the wane.  Famously, they took a hammering at the battle of Clontarf in 1014, from the great Irish high king or Ard Ri Brian Boru.

Engraving of Brian Boru Traditional. 

This setback prompted a change of heart, because in 1028 the Dublin Norse finally relented.  In that year local Irish bishop Donat, –Dúnán in Irish- converted and baptized the Viking king of Dublin- a ruler with the wonderful name of Sitric Silkenbeard.

Above:   an image of Sitric, minted onto this old, Viking-era, Dublin coin. 

Dúnán and Sitric then made the long pilgrimage to Rome together.  There they met the Pope.   On their return they founded Dublin’s first, and of course only cathedral- Christ Church.

The founding of Christ Church cathedral.

Christ Church is scarcely one quarter of a mile away from Patrick’s little island church on the Poddle.   It stood, and still stands, on the dryer, frankly better, stretch of high ground that was once called the Brow of Hazels, overlooking the larger river Liffey.   Well-drained and close by the city, it was a sensible place to build a Cathedral, far better than the lower, marshy ground around the Poddle.

At first, like nearly all Norse Dublin, Christ Church was made of timber.  Alas, we have no recorded image.  But since the Vikings were master shipbuilders, perhaps it resembled something like a giant, upturned Longboat.  I like to imagine the wooden ceiling like the great barrel vault of the famous Long Room, although this may be fanciful.  In any case, the Christ Church was born.  A hundred and fifty years later it would be re-built in stone. Some would argue the Cathedral was rebuilt twice, once by Normans and once by Victorians,  but more about that later. The real point is, by around 1038, Dublin had its cathedral.

Since one Cathedral is enough for ever other city in the world, that should now be the end of the story.   Like all good Dublin tales however, this one has a twist.

if you’re interested, Part 3 describes the complex story of the coming of the Anglo-Normans,  and why they refounded St Patrick’s original tiny early church as a great cathedral, (bizarrely the second cathedral in Dublin)  all told in,  “The story of the Two Cathedrals”.  

Thank you for reading.  If you enjoyed, please leave a comment or share via social media.   Thank you.

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