It was he, with the supposed silky beard, who built the foundations, often literal, of Dublin as an entrepot of trade and commerce during the early 11th century CE.

Vikings, go home!

It is only in the past several decades that a serious analysis and study of the Viking history of Dublin has become mainstream in the Republic of Ireland. Where would Dublin, that great emerald city, be without the Vikings? 

A wander today through those storied streets and the Viking influence is everywhere, from the foundations of Dublin Castle (constructed during the Viking settlement of Dublin) to its position as a bustling entrepot of commerce and trade (the Vikings developed it into one of the largest slave trading ports in all of Europe) to its very etymology (Dublin is the Gaelic version of the Old Nors expression for" Dark Pool").

As soon as the Viking expansion began, in the mid to late 8th century CE, the eastern seaboard of the island of Ireland was being raided and pillaged by Vikings.

As was the pattern throughout other parts of the British Isles, what were once small and random spontaneous attacks on remote and coastal areas soon began to crystalize into a series of invasions and colonization attempts. 

By 821 CE, Vikings had begun to overwinter throughout the emerald isle and began to exploit its fractious nature. The island had more than 150 kingdoms, of varying sizes, which meant any sort of unified resistance was impossible.

A turning point seems to be what modern historians have called "The Battle of Strangford Lough," in which a bloody battle took place between two groups of rival Vikings in 877 CE. 

These two groups were described, by the Annals of Ulster (a contemporary Irish chronicle) as "the fair heathens and the dark heathens," of which the leader of the "dark heathens" was said to be Halfdan Ragnarsson, the leader of the Great Heathen Army

This battle saw the emergence of a unified Kingdom of Dublin, ruled by a new Viking elite. However, within three decades, the local Gaelic population had risen up and expelled these Norse Gaels from their positions of power. 

One of these Norse Gaels forced to emigrate was Sitirc, along with his father, Ivar II, King of Dublin.

Return of a king

By the time young Sitric was forced to flee what is now Dublin, Vikings had dominated the Kingdom of Dublin, and its surrounds, for over three decades, whilst a Viking presence had been felt on this island for over a century. 

Sitric, sometimes called "Sitric Silkbeard" in Norse chronicles, was a member of the ruling Uí Ímair dynasty, a powerful Norse-Gaelic family with ties both to the recently arrived Viking warriors in the kingdom as well as many Gaelic kings and rulers further abroad.

We have a gap of about 15 years in Sitric life from when he was expelled until he triumphantly returned with a powerful Viking fleet behind him.

Along with another Viking warrior, Sitric sailed to what is now Leinster and led an army inland to meet Gaelic resistance at Mag Femen. 

The battle was arduous and bloody and was only saved by the last-minute arrival of the other Viking warriors who had landed at Waterford and marched at a rapid pace to join in the bloody fun. 

Seizing his victory, Sitric led the Viking invaders to another rapid battle, and win, which broke the back of the Gaelic resistance and led to his triumphant return to Dublin, the city which he was forced to flee a decade and a half before. 

He took what he believed was his birthright and became the King of Dublin, establishing what would become a second period of Viking domination of the city.

Yet not everyone was happy with their new Viking overlords. With half of the Viking force sailing for Northumbria (then a Viking fiefdom), a united Gaelic resistance developed, and Sitric was forced to meet more than seven Irish kings on a battlefield at what is now called "Sarah's Bridge," just outside Dublin. 

However, the unified Gaelic force was decimated by Sitric and his Norse-Gaelic warriors, allowing a period of peace (with Gaelic resistance pacified) to follow.

Sitric's family was responsible for the rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral, one of Dublin's most famous landmarks. Photo: WH_Pics / Shutterstock

Building a city and alliances

It was this peace that allowed Sitric to lay the foundations of the further development of Dublin.

The city not only became a major slave trading port – Vikings regularly enslaved the unlucky inhabitants throughout the British Isles – but also a center of Viking expeditions to the west, to what is now Iceland, Greenland, and the later Viking settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada

This saw Dublin become – not for the first time in its history – a major center of international trade and commerce.

Sitric also capitalized on his recent military victories to secure alliances throughout the island. These shrewd alliances allowed him to focus on ruling and improving his city rather than wasting money and men on the battlefield. 

His family embraced Christianity, helping it to spread throughout the Norse-Gaelic elite, and was responsible for the rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral, one of the city's most famous landmarks.

End of days

In 920 CE, a mere three or so years after returning to Dublin, Sitric appears to have left to take up a bigger prize as ruler of the Viking Kingdom of Northumbria centered in Jórvik (modern-day York). 

He left the kingship of Dublin to a member of his dynasty, which would rule over Dublin until the late 1170s CE.

Little is known of Sitric's time in Jórvik, but he was said to have led raids against the King of the Anglo-Saxons, Edward the Elder, the oldest son of Alfred the Great, and the father of Æthelstan. 

According to the Irish chronicles, he was said to have died at a young age in 922 CE.

There possibly was no greater reversal in the fortune of a Viking warrior in the British Isles than of Sitric Caech. Forced to flee his home, he then returned after a decade and retook the city for the Vikings. 

He established a dynasty that would rule for more than two centuries and helped build Dublin as an important center of commerce, and culture, which it still very much is today.

Irish Central has more on the Viking influence on Dublin, available here.

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