Welcome back to the blog! Today’s post is all about Vikings! Since my upcoming series is set in 11th Century Ireland, Vikings are kind of a big deal. Entire books have been written on the subject of the Vikings in Ireland, so this is going to brush the surface of a complex and fascinating topic.
First, I’m going to explain a bit about the word “Viking” and some other alternatives that exist historically. Then we’ll discuss how the Vikings fitted into Irish society around the year 1000 (when my books are set). Finally, we’re going to look at some super interesting historical Vikings who show up in my books!
Okay, first and most importantly, we need to talk about the word “viking.” Yup, I’m that kind of historian. How people refer to themselves is so important, and we know that folks hailing from Scandinavia did not, in fact, self-identify as Vikings. So why do we use it to describe them now?
In Old Norse, the word vikingr is a noun and viking is a verb. Originally, they most likely described sailors, or anyone who went on expeditions by sea. Once raiding began in Europe, however, the terms shifted from fairly neutral to pirate-specific so that they became approximately the equivalent of our understanding of “pirate” and “to raid.” (Note that even this is an oversimplification. Scholars STILL debate the etymology of the word.)
So, in summary, in Medieval Scandinavian culture Vikings were pirates (from any culture).
In researching my new series, I wanted to create as immersive a setting as possible. I discovered that in Medieval Ireland several terms floated around to describe Vikings. Norse settlers were called Fin Gall, or “fair foreigners,” and Danish settlers were called Dubh Gall, or “dark foreigners.” Scholars still debate precisely what qualities these distinguish. In most of the annals written by Irish monks, one of these terms or simply “foreigners” is used to describe the Vikings on Irish shores. Norse settlers referred to themselves as Ostmen, which is what I use most often in my novels.
Vikings in Ireland ca. 1000 CE
By about the year 1000, Vikings had been present in Ireland for just over two hundred years. The earliest raiders came from Norway, though for a time the Danes crashed the party and there was a lot of fighting between the Danes and the Norse over control of the Viking settlements. When my series begins, there are several major settlements along the Irish coast that are, or very recently were, controlled by Vikings: Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Limerick, and Cork. For your edification, here is the most recent historical photo of Vikings in Wexford:
My sister and I in a Viking longship in the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford. I cannot recommend this place enough!
Even two hundred years after the initial raids, relationships between the Norse and the Irish were–tense. Raids were ongoing, though less frequent. Battles raged. Alliances were made. Slaves were taken on both sides. It was, as my husband would describe it, a hot mess.
To me, it reads very much like two peoples with loads of bad blood and worse memories doing their best to coexist. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Most of the time was spent somewhere in between. At the outset of my series, Sitric Silkbeard (yes, that’s his name and no, I didn’t make it up) is the king of the Norse settlement in Dublin, sort of. The settlement changed hands numerous times in the past fifty years, and in 999 Sitric loses a bloody battle to Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland (kingship in Ireland is a whole different post). This loss forces Sitric to submit to Brian, meaning Dublin is nominally an ally to most of Ireland.
Something I really try to capture in the series is the incredible tension between the Norse and the Irish. Obviously, there were places where they coexisted peacefully. But most people alive in the year 1000 could remember losing a family member in a Norse raid or battle. King Brian himself lost at least seven siblings and his parents to warfare with the Norse. He’s not a huge fan, if you couldn’t guess, though he did form alliances when possible.
Vikings As Characters
Sitric “Silkbeard” Olafsson – Sitric was King of Dublin from around 995CE, when he would have been approximately 25 years old. What History Tells Us: We know from historical records that Sitric did not like Brian Boru. He rebelled against him repeatedly, submitting only when backed into a corner. And then, of course, rebelling again. Sitric In My Books: When I started working on the series, I intended for Sitric to be a side character, featured on page occasionally in later books. He strongly disagreed. The first full-length novel in the series (which I am drafting as we speak) opens with Sitric in one of my favorite scenes yet. He is the cousin of the heroine of the book, and one of her dearest friends. I have chosen to paint his dislike of Brian through the lens of his mother’s relationship with the king, which we’ll talk about shortly, aside from the more obvious political turmoil between them. As of now, I am fully planning to write a novella with Sitric at some point during the series. My character inspiration for Sitric is Thor (in terms of appearance).
Gormflaith ingen Murchada (Gormla) – As her name is very nearly unpronounceable to those unfamiliar with Gaelic, I Anglicize it as Gormla. Gormla was the daughter of an Irish king, married to Sitric’s father, Olaf, when she was very young–even for Medieval standards. What History Tells Us: In my humble opinion, history has done Gormla a huge injustice, one I attempt to rectify in my writing. What we actually know of her is very little. We know her father was the king of Leinster. We know she married Olaf, King of Dublin, and bore him several children, among whom was our man Sitric. Historians estimate that she married Olaf when she was around 11 years old, and had Sitric when she was about 15. We also know that she had either a very short marriage or affair with Brian Boru, bearing him one son. She was possibly also married to the king of Meath, but historical accounts are unreliable enough to make historians question whether this marriage ever actually occurred. I also found an obscure bit of scholarship which hypothesizes (convincingly) based on a manuscript text that Gormla’s mother was a Norse slave belonging to her father (the king of Leinster).
Most early modern historians took this thrice-divorced daughter, wife, and mother of kings and turned her into something of a Jezebel. More recently, scholars have taken a new approach, doing their best to see the person behind all of the slander. I’ve taken it a step further, and even though she doesn’t have a major role in my books, I’ve fleshed out her character all the same. Gormla In My Books: Gormla is the mother of Sitric, as well as his fictional sister Astrid, and the aunt of two of my protagonists. She’s also the ex-wife of Brian Boru and the daughter of a Norse slave. In my reimagining, Gormla is fiercely loyal to her family, particularly her brother (now the King of Leinster and enemy of Brian Boru) and her children. She had Sitric when she was young, and her vulnerability during that time in her life led them to form a strong bond. She attempted a marriage with Brian in the hopes of calming the political upheaval between their families, but they couldn’t manage to reconcile their differences enough to make the union work. I ignore her third marriage entirely, since it’s quite possibly the work of Medieval propaganda, and instead have her living in Dublin with her children. My character inspiration for Gormla is Julianne Moore.
Grab a cup of tea, fall into your favorite armchair, and fall in love with a cast of larger-than-life characters on their spirited misadventures. Seasons of Scotland follows the story of three Highland clans over the course of one year as they face the political turmoil of twelfth-century Scotland, all while their warriors are busy falling head-over-heels in love. From poorly planned escapes to murder attempts and everything in between, it’s lucky for our band of Highlanders and their lasses that love does indeed conquer all.
To Love a Laird: A Seasons of Scotland Prequel Novella (available here)
A Highland Autumn: Ronan & Adelina
A Wild Winter: Aidan & Gemma
A Scandalous Spring: Fintan & Sybilla
A Sizzling Summer: Donnan & Deirdre
A light, fun series with feisty heroines, Highlander heroes, and a lot of heart, Seasons of Scotland will keep you reading all night long.