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Spenser T.




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PostPosted: Wed 02 Jul, 2014 12:20 pm    Post subject: Iron age Irish short swords: questions!         Reply with quote

I must admit I am completely fascinated with these early gaelic swords, and so I have a few questions about them that I hope the community here can help with. I certainly don't expect to gain solid answers to these questions, but I believe the opinions of the people here would send me farther in the right direction.

I read on the Kelticos forums that no pre-viking age Irish swords were longer than a shorter Roman gladius. Has anyone here heard of any early Irish sword finds that had blades longer than this?

I read somewhere that these swords were based off of the Roman gladius. From what I've been told and what I've read, I understand that there was a little contact between the Romans and the Irish, and some of these swords do closely resemble a typical gladius blade. Does anyone have any more information as to whether or not these swords were influenced by the gladius?

I'm also very curious as to why the short sword was abandoned in favour of the longer viking swords. From what I've read so far, it seems that the Irish didn't have that much trouble fighting the vikings with their native weaponry. I wonder if this indicates that the viking swords were simply a status symbol, if they were simply of superior quality, or if the Irish for some reason weren't able to effectively forge longer swords on their own (I find this last point hard to believe, although I can't rule anything out).

I would love it if you would share your opinions, knowledge and speculations here.
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Mark Moore




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PostPosted: Wed 02 Jul, 2014 4:59 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

To my knowledge, there are very few samples of these early Gaelic swords. They were actually more of a large dagger. The early Gaels did not possess the metal-smithing knowhow of the Viking clans. To my limited knowledge, the Vikings pretty much brought advanced metal work to the British Isles and Ireland. As best as I can say, before the Vikings, the early Gael/Celt was clunking about with a fairly crude bronze or iron sword. I may be totally wrong. Anyone that feels like educating me...feel free to do so. Big Grin ............McM
''Life is like a box of chocolates...'' --- F. Gump
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Wed 02 Jul, 2014 7:11 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well, I *can* tell you that *bronze* swords found in Ireland are gorgeous and highly refined. But it's the better part of a millennium between those and the "sub-Roman" styles of swords. I don't know much about those besides what's in the Osprey book, or was it that "Celtic Warriors" book? Small swords, kind of gladius-shaped, but probably post-dating anything actually Roman in that form by several centuries. So not sure we can draw a direct link. We know there was a lot of Roman trade with Ireland, things like jewelry and pottery, and that may certainly have included weaponry but I don't know what's been found. I would still hesitate to describe any sword as "crude", in these general circumstances! (Orc swords, maybe!)

Matthew
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Matthew Bunker




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PostPosted: Thu 03 Jul, 2014 11:59 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Mark Moore wrote:

To my limited knowledge, the Vikings pretty much brought advanced metal work to the British Isles and Ireland.



The pattern welding of blades and the advanced metalworking required to make them (as well as the other metalworking skills required to make the hilt and scabbard fittings) predates the'Viking Age' by several centuries and many fine examples are to be found throughout early Anglo Saxon England (one of the finest known to date from anywhere in Europe being that found at Sutton Hoo).
Not only that but, by the start of what you could realistically call 'The Viking Age', pattern welding was on the decrease.

"If a Greek can do it, two Englishman certainly can !"
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Matthew Bunker




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PostPosted: Thu 03 Jul, 2014 12:22 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hencken's report on the items from Lagore Crannog includes drawings of several early medieval Irish sword blades and Etienne Rynne wrote a paper "A Classification of Pre-Viking Irish Iron Swords".

You should be able to find copies of the drawings from them on the Irish living history forum (livinghistory.ie).
If not, let me know and I'll scan them in for you.

"If a Greek can do it, two Englishman certainly can !"
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David McElrea




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PostPosted: Thu 03 Jul, 2014 1:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Spenser. Check out this thread from a few years back for more information on Irish swords from the early Medieval period (and for images):

http://www.myArmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=16016
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Luka Borscak




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PostPosted: Thu 03 Jul, 2014 3:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Spencer, I didn't really get an impression that Irish had that much success fighting off Norseman, especially in the beginning, before they adapted, started to use enemy tactics and even enemies themselves (viking mecenaries)... And it's logical, short swords, javelins and small shields doesn't really do well against big shield, long spears and long sword of the Norsemen... By the time of Clontarf, Irish fought very similar to Norse, and even Clontarf couldn't be won without viking mercenaries.
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Spenser T.




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PostPosted: Thu 03 Jul, 2014 11:19 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'd just like to thank everyone for contributing to this thread.

Luka, I would appreciate it if you would link me to any information you know of about the Irish fighting methods around the time of Clontarf. I've only read a little about that, and what I've read said that the Irish largely adopted the "lochlann axe" of the vikings, but most of them did not adopt armor and javelins or throwing spears were still widely used among them. I find what you said about the close adaptation of norse tactics to be very interesting, and would like to learn more about it.
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Luka Borscak




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PostPosted: Fri 04 Jul, 2014 10:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Spenser T. wrote:
I'd just like to thank everyone for contributing to this thread.

Luka, I would appreciate it if you would link me to any information you know of about the Irish fighting methods around the time of Clontarf. I've only read a little about that, and what I've read said that the Irish largely adopted the "lochlann axe" of the vikings, but most of them did not adopt armor and javelins or throwing spears were still widely used among them. I find what you said about the close adaptation of norse tactics to be very interesting, and would like to learn more about it.


Spenser, I didn't research Irish much, but since I read many books about viking conquests, I also learned a few things about Irish through them... First, swords like this one below from Pierce's "Swords of the Viking Age" are clearly influenced by Norse or Danish swords of the period but made in Ireland (or at least the hilts are) because decoration is done in Irish style.



What I read elsewhere is nicely put here in short:

http://what-when-how.com/medieval-ireland/wea...l-ireland/

http://dh.tcd.ie/clontarf/Weaponry%3A%20How%2...%20Ireland

Basically, Irish fought mostly like skirmishers and when faced with Norse invasions they had to face the vikings in line battles and for that they were not equipped or trained, so they had to adopt at least a part of their enemies tactics and weapons. They most readily adopted axes and nobles of course liked to use viking or at least viking inspired swords. But the Irish never lost their preference for throwing javelins and for slightly smaller and lighter swords than the rest of northern Europe. And they never adopted much armour. Clans of mixed Norse and Irish blood were equipped and fought with mixed equipment and tactics from both sides. I read about Clontarf many times, although never first hand sources, and I got an impression that better equipment and hand to hand fighting style gave the vikings an advantage, but the Irish won because numerical superiority, high quality viking mercenaries and the fact that some important viking leaders were killed in combat and their followers routed because of that. Neither archeology or written documents I read made me think Irish fought much different or were equipped much different than Vikings by the tim of Clontarf, except that they used more javelins and were wearing almost no armour.
And about the axes Irish adopted from the Norse, they were 10th and 11th century type M two handed axes which evolved into famous Gallowglass two handed axes.
I hope this helps, maybe some other members will recommend you some books specifically about the Irish warfare of the period...
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Spenser T.




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PostPosted: Fri 04 Jul, 2014 1:01 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thank you kindly, Luka. This sort of information was what I was looking for.
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Graham W.




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PostPosted: Tue 08 Jul, 2014 9:13 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Luka Borscak wrote:


Basically, Irish fought mostly like skirmishers and when faced with Norse invasions they had to face the vikings in line battles and for that they were not equipped or trained, so they had to adopt at least a part of their enemies tactics and weapons. They most readily adopted axes and nobles of course liked to use viking or at least viking inspired swords. But the Irish never lost their preference for throwing javelins and for slightly smaller and lighter swords than the rest of northern Europe. And they never adopted much armour. Clans of mixed Norse and Irish blood were equipped and fought with mixed equipment and tactics from both sides. I read about Clontarf many times, although never first hand sources, and I got an impression that better equipment and hand to hand fighting style gave the vikings an advantage, but the Irish won because numerical superiority, high quality viking mercenaries and the fact that some important viking leaders were killed in combat and their followers routed because of that. Neither archeology or written documents I read made me think Irish fought much different or were equipped much different than Vikings by the tim of Clontarf, except that they used more javelins and were wearing almost no armour.
And about the axes Irish adopted from the Norse, they were 10th and 11th century type M two handed axes which evolved into famous Gallowglass two handed axes.
I hope this helps, maybe some other members will recommend you some books specifically about the Irish warfare of the period...


Well, some of that isn't exactly true. The Irish fought more or less like the Vikings did, which is more or less like how a lot of Northern Europe fought: make a dense formation of men, exchange missiles, charge. Skirmishing, as we understand it, was probably done by both cultures when the battles were small, or terrain was dense, or when myriad other factors applied. Later on, the Irish were noted for their tendency to favor mobile, skirmishing warfare against the English, but even then it wasn't the only type of warfare they used, and it's several centuries after the "Viking Age" ended.

The Irish and the Vikings were actually rather similar in military equipment: most warriors on both sides would have a spear, a shield, probably a knife of some sort, and their clothing. Viking elites would likely have more armor, simply because we have more concrete evidence for that, but certainly by the end of the period, mail and helmets were used and valued Irish kings and their household warriors (lucht tighe, in Irish, a term which might appear first in the eleventh century, but certainly is in use by the twelfth, and means the "king's household warriors" and were analogous to similar practices such as the huscarl, or household knight). Moreover, the Irish actually enjoyed quite a bit of military success against the Vikings; certainly, large Viking polities like the Danelaw of England, Normandy in France, or the various chiefdoms in Scotland, Mann and the other British Isles did not truly exist in Ireland. Or rather, they existed, but were subsumed by Irish politics: the Viking king of Limerick was a powerful man, for example, but he didn't hold sway over anything but Limerick, and generally paid tribute to an Irish king. The same was true for most Viking settlements, particulary from the tenth century and onwards. Even the kings of Dublin, who exerted a great deal of influence elsewhere in the British Isles, didn't have much success exerting control over native Irish kings. Around the middle of the ninth century, there was some success in exacting tribute from Irish kings, but the Vikings never succeeded in controlling land and people in Ireland as they did elsewhere in Europe. Donnchadh O'Corrain, a noted scholar of the Vikings in Ireland, has a great deal to say about this in some articles of his available here: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/news.html. T.M. Charles-Edwards and Marie Therese Flanagan also have some good articles detailing Irish military organization, tactics, and strategy during these periods: these articles can be found in A Military History of Ireland, edited by Keith Jeffrey and Thomas Bartlett.

In terms of material culture however, you're correct. From my knowledge, which is far more text-based than archaeological I admit, Irish arms and shields and other elements of relevant material culture demonstrate clear Viking influences. The Viking settlements in Ireland were important economic centers, and though they did not dominate the Irish in a military or political manner, they did contribute to the economy and culture of Ireland in other very significant ways. The axe, as noted, became a popular weapon in Ireland, and though it was not the "national" weapon of the Irish as Gerald of Wales would later observe (he did so for rhetorical reasons, drawing the distinction between the "savage" Irish axes and the "Christian" Anglo-Norman swords so that he might reinforce the dichotomies he creates between the two peoples and therefore further justify the actions taken by Anglo-Norman settlers), and there is little evidence for the widespread use of axes in Irish warfare prior to the Viking Age. Swords clearly began resembling those employed by Scandinavians as well.

I believe there have been several metallurgical studies done as well on various Iron Age objects from Ireland, including swords, spears and other objects. One is from the 1980s if I recall correctly, and there is another more recent study from the early 2000s. The one from the 80s concluded that the Irish were inferior metal workers to their British and Scandinavian counterparts, and the one from the 2000s refuted that conclusion, and noted that the evidence indicates there was a range of competencies among Irish smiths: some produced trash, others produced great work. In other words, Ireland was rather similar to its immediate European neighbors. I can't recall the names or authors of the metallurgical studies off the top of my head, but I will look for them if you'd like.
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Luka Borscak




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PostPosted: Tue 08 Jul, 2014 3:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Graham W. wrote:
Luka Borscak wrote:


Basically, Irish fought mostly like skirmishers and when faced with Norse invasions they had to face the vikings in line battles and for that they were not equipped or trained, so they had to adopt at least a part of their enemies tactics and weapons. They most readily adopted axes and nobles of course liked to use viking or at least viking inspired swords. But the Irish never lost their preference for throwing javelins and for slightly smaller and lighter swords than the rest of northern Europe. And they never adopted much armour. Clans of mixed Norse and Irish blood were equipped and fought with mixed equipment and tactics from both sides. I read about Clontarf many times, although never first hand sources, and I got an impression that better equipment and hand to hand fighting style gave the vikings an advantage, but the Irish won because numerical superiority, high quality viking mercenaries and the fact that some important viking leaders were killed in combat and their followers routed because of that. Neither archeology or written documents I read made me think Irish fought much different or were equipped much different than Vikings by the tim of Clontarf, except that they used more javelins and were wearing almost no armour.
And about the axes Irish adopted from the Norse, they were 10th and 11th century type M two handed axes which evolved into famous Gallowglass two handed axes.
I hope this helps, maybe some other members will recommend you some books specifically about the Irish warfare of the period...


Well, some of that isn't exactly true. The Irish fought more or less like the Vikings did, which is more or less like how a lot of Northern Europe fought: make a dense formation of men, exchange missiles, charge. Skirmishing, as we understand it, was probably done by both cultures when the battles were small, or terrain was dense, or when myriad other factors applied. Later on, the Irish were noted for their tendency to favor mobile, skirmishing warfare against the English, but even then it wasn't the only type of warfare they used, and it's several centuries after the "Viking Age" ended.

The Irish and the Vikings were actually rather similar in military equipment: most warriors on both sides would have a spear, a shield, probably a knife of some sort, and their clothing. Viking elites would likely have more armor, simply because we have more concrete evidence for that, but certainly by the end of the period, mail and helmets were used and valued Irish kings and their household warriors (lucht tighe, in Irish, a term which might appear first in the eleventh century, but certainly is in use by the twelfth, and means the "king's household warriors" and were analogous to similar practices such as the huscarl, or household knight). Moreover, the Irish actually enjoyed quite a bit of military success against the Vikings; certainly, large Viking polities like the Danelaw of England, Normandy in France, or the various chiefdoms in Scotland, Mann and the other British Isles did not truly exist in Ireland. Or rather, they existed, but were subsumed by Irish politics: the Viking king of Limerick was a powerful man, for example, but he didn't hold sway over anything but Limerick, and generally paid tribute to an Irish king. The same was true for most Viking settlements, particulary from the tenth century and onwards. Even the kings of Dublin, who exerted a great deal of influence elsewhere in the British Isles, didn't have much success exerting control over native Irish kings. Around the middle of the ninth century, there was some success in exacting tribute from Irish kings, but the Vikings never succeeded in controlling land and people in Ireland as they did elsewhere in Europe. Donnchadh O'Corrain, a noted scholar of the Vikings in Ireland, has a great deal to say about this in some articles of his available here: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/news.html. T.M. Charles-Edwards and Marie Therese Flanagan also have some good articles detailing Irish military organization, tactics, and strategy during these periods: these articles can be found in A Military History of Ireland, edited by Keith Jeffrey and Thomas Bartlett.

In terms of material culture however, you're correct. From my knowledge, which is far more text-based than archaeological I admit, Irish arms and shields and other elements of relevant material culture demonstrate clear Viking influences. The Viking settlements in Ireland were important economic centers, and though they did not dominate the Irish in a military or political manner, they did contribute to the economy and culture of Ireland in other very significant ways. The axe, as noted, became a popular weapon in Ireland, and though it was not the "national" weapon of the Irish as Gerald of Wales would later observe (he did so for rhetorical reasons, drawing the distinction between the "savage" Irish axes and the "Christian" Anglo-Norman swords so that he might reinforce the dichotomies he creates between the two peoples and therefore further justify the actions taken by Anglo-Norman settlers), and there is little evidence for the widespread use of axes in Irish warfare prior to the Viking Age. Swords clearly began resembling those employed by Scandinavians as well.

I believe there have been several metallurgical studies done as well on various Iron Age objects from Ireland, including swords, spears and other objects. One is from the 1980s if I recall correctly, and there is another more recent study from the early 2000s. The one from the 80s concluded that the Irish were inferior metal workers to their British and Scandinavian counterparts, and the one from the 2000s refuted that conclusion, and noted that the evidence indicates there was a range of competencies among Irish smiths: some produced trash, others produced great work. In other words, Ireland was rather similar to its immediate European neighbors. I can't recall the names or authors of the metallurgical studies off the top of my head, but I will look for them if you'd like.


Thanks for this post! I confessed that I'm better with Viking history than Irish and I'm glad you corrected me on some points. I made some too broad generalizations, like Irish mostly skirmishing. Of course bigger field battles has to be fought in denser formations and not only skirmishing. But I think that Irish had very few chances for real mass battles of opposing infantry formations before Vikings came to Ireland... Also, I'm aware that early in the "viking age" vikings themselves didn't use that much armour, but by the time of Clontarf, I think the difference in the percentage of armoured warriors in Viking and Irish armies might have been quite big, and that might have been a big problem for the Irish at Clontarf if they hadn't a numerical advantage and a contingent of well equipped vikings fighting for them. Looking forward to any additional info you might have about this! Happy
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Graham W.




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PostPosted: Wed 09 Jul, 2014 7:03 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Luka Borscak wrote:

Thanks for this post! I confessed that I'm better with Viking history than Irish and I'm glad you corrected me on some points. I made some too broad generalizations, like Irish mostly skirmishing. Of course bigger field battles has to be fought in denser formations and not only skirmishing. But I think that Irish had very few chances for real mass battles of opposing infantry formations before Vikings came to Ireland... Also, I'm aware that early in the "viking age" vikings themselves didn't use that much armour, but by the time of Clontarf, I think the difference in the percentage of armoured warriors in Viking and Irish armies might have been quite big, and that might have been a big problem for the Irish at Clontarf if they hadn't a numerical advantage and a contingent of well equipped vikings fighting for them. Looking forward to any additional info you might have about this! Happy


The only dedicated sources I have for the Battle of Clontarf are the Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib which is a twelfth century propaganda text which may have some useful information for how twelfth century Irishmen looked at warfare, and also how they used their own past for present political purposes, but it is somewhat unreliable when it comes to the details of the actual battle itself. Another source is the episode in Burnt Njal's saga, where the battle of Clontarf takes place. Generally believed to be based on a prior saga called Brjan's Saga (as in Brian Boru, the Irish king who both won and died at the battle), it actually draws very little distinction between the Irish and the Vikings, and it makes several Irish characters very important. The annalistic sources exist of course, but they are typically sparse on detail.

What's worth noting is that the Battle of Clontarf was not truly a battle of Irish versus Viking. It was a battle between two Irish kings, Brian Boru who claimed the High Kingship of Ireland, and Mael Mordha, the overking of Leinster. Mael Mordha had the support of the Viking king of Dublin (who did not directly participate in the battle), as well as several Viking mercenaries from other British Isles: Sigurd of Orkney, and Brodir of Mann being the most important. Brian also had the support of Viking mercenaries, including someone named Ospak of the Isles. Ulf Hreda, a character found only in Burnt Njal's saga and stated to be a brother of Brian despite his obviously Scandinavian name, is probably an invention of the saga, or a Scandnivized version of one of Brian's actual relations. Possibly his brother Cudiligh (which means some variation of "wolfdog," or "wolf", or some such). But the main component of both armies was undeniably Irish. The relative equipment level of both sides is difficult to ascertain: the Irish sources are propagandistic in nature, and so they have a definite rhetorical purpose when discussing the two sides. The Irish are described as having less armor by the Irish, true, but that's because Irish medieval rhetoric placed great emphasis on near-suicidal bravery and aggression in warfare: the more dangerous the situation, the greater the warrior's bravery and skill for facing it. So facing an enemy wearing armor while you wore none was meant more to aggrandize the valiance of the Irish rather than as a true-fo-fact statement on their military hardware, Similarly, the Cogad paint the Vikings as wearing armor from head to foot, all of them, which emphasized both their danger as combatants and their faceless, savage nature. We know that it's highly unlikely that every Viking on the field, or even most of them, wore armor by 1014. So those descriptions have more to do with the rhetoric of medieval Irish propaganda than it does with history.

In Burnt Njal's saga, no distinction is made between the fighting style of the Irish and the VIkings, nor is any distinction made between their equipment. But again, the saga is a later literary narrative, so there is that element of doubt. By the twelfth-century, when the Cogad was written, the Irish nobility used and valued armor: a legal tract, the Book of Rights details the various tributes and stipends Irish overkings were given by their underkings. One of the most prominent gifts given include the luireacha, also known in Latin as lorica, and it's a generic Irish term for "armor" or "breastplate." In this context, it probably means a mail shirt or hauberk. The Book of Rights is a bit idealized in that the underking of Corcu Mdruad may not have actually been given six mail shirts every year by the overking of Thomond, but the fact that mail shirts are considered one of the primary gifts an overking should give his military vassals demonstrates the value the Irish placed on armor, and their recognition that nobles should wear and use armor in battle. Now, the Book of Rights was written somewhere around a century after the Battle of Clontarf, so it doesn't follow that the Irish nobility wore armor at that battle. But it does demonstrate that prior to the arrival of Anglo-Norman mercenaries in 1169, the Irish noblemen actually resembled his counterparts elsewhere in Europe more than many laymen (and scholars, for that matter) might believe: he wore some amount of mail, wore a helmet, wielded a shield, a sword, a spear, and some javelins, he rode a horse (thought he might dismount for pitched battle, but that was also not unlikely elsewhere in Europe). So it follows that an Irish noblemen in 1014 probably resembled his counterparts in Europe more than he did not.

I'm not exactly an expert in this field, simply a grad student with a focus on it, so it's entirely possible I've missed some rather important evidence here. But there you go. Happy If you want my opinion, I'd agree that the VIkings on the field most likely wore more armor than their Irish counterparts, and more of the Vikings had armor as well. However, I don't think the Viking mercenaries in either army won the battle on their own. Their presence was vital to both sides though, and a great deal of interaction between Viking and Irish culture was the norm for the period. Popular Irish names begin to appear around the eleventh century which are derived from Scandinavian personal names: Maccus from the Norse Magnus, Amhlaibh from the Norse Olaf (believe it or not those are in fact pronounced rather similarly), and Lochlainn, from an Irish word for Scandinavian, Lochlannach. So the Viking influence on Ireland was quite significant, perhaps more so in peace time than it was in war.

Marie Therese Flanagan's article "Irish and Anglo-Norman warfare in the twelfth-century" might be helpful if you're interested in a slightly latter period. The earlier O Corrain articles are very good as well. His book, Ireland before the Normans, is also very good and deals directly with Ireland during the Viking Age. It's from the 70s, but still has a good deal of relevant information and top notch scholarship. Daibhi O Croinin's Early Medieval Ireland: 400-1200 also has solid information on the period.

I hope that helped Happy
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