Viking Migrants May Have Saved the Irish From Extinction
A new study could re-write the history of Ireland in the Middle Ages . It shows that the Irish population was in serious decline until the coming of the Vikings . This could change historians’ views on the impact of the Vikings not only in Ireland but elsewhere in Europe.
Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have compiled a series of models of Ireland's population down the centuries. According to Science Direct , they wished to refute the belief “that past population sizes cannot be fathomed for cultures without documentary records”. To achieve this, they used statistical techniques that provided insights into the demography of Ireland in the past.
Statistical Analysis of Sites
They used algorithms to analyze 800 radiocarbon dated sites around Ireland. Many of these sites were revealed when there was a construction boom in Ireland during the 2000s. These provided data on the demography of Ireland in the past, for example, larger settlements would indicate population increases.
Map of Ireland 950 AD at the time the Viking migrants arrived. (Threewolves / Public Domain )
They were then analyzed using the Kernel Density Estimation techniques, which allowed them to determine population density. Science Direct reports that the results of the statistical analysis were “aligned to evidence for economic and environmental change” in Ireland down the centuries.
Based on this methodology the researchers were able to make broad estimates of the population of Ireland from the prehistoric past to the Late Middle Ages. The Queen’s University team found “that around 700 AD the population in Ireland entered a rapid yet mysterious decline”.
This was decline was significant over time and its cause is not known. Dr. Rowan McLaughlin is quoted by the Daily Express as stating that this may have been because of a number of factors, including “war, famine, plague, and political unrest”.
No Irish Golden Age
This finding contradicts the long-held view of the history of Ireland. Traditionally this period is regarded as a Golden Age in Ireland, when Irish monasteries were centers of learning and kept classical learning alive in Europe, and the island was largely peaceful. However, the Queen’s University study shows that in fact, the island was in a state of decline.
Moreover, it is typically held that the population of Ireland grew until the Great Famine (1845-1849) when starvation and emigration led to a mass drop in the number of people living on the island. The study would seem to show that this was not the case.
Before the Viking migrants arrived the Irish population was in decline, even before the famine. (Metilsteiner / Public Domain )
Based on the analysis, the population fell from the 7th until the 10th century when the Vikings arrived in Ireland. First they came as raiders and then as settlers, eventually founding towns such as Dublin and Limerick.
The Vikings were small in number and yet they were very successful. Their arrival coincided with a discernible increase in the Irish population. Dr. McLaughlin stated that “despite being few in number they were more successful than the natives in expanding their population” reports the Daily Express .
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Viking migrants at Dublin. (Roxanna / Public Domain )
Recent genomic studies have suggested an admixture in the genes of Irish people probably as a result of migration. There is “ genetic evidence that suggests many Irish people have some Viking blood” states Dr. Laughlin according to the International Business Times . This may indicate that the Vikings intermarried with the Irish when they settled on the island and boosted the population living there. Based on the study, they helped to reverse the long-term population decline .
Viking Migrants Increased the Population
The Daily Express reports that the Norse “saved the Irish from going extinct and revitalized the ailing nation”. Archaeological evidence would indicate that there was a long history of contact between Ireland and Scandinavia. Recently artifacts from Ireland were found in a boat-burial in Norway.
Viking migrants created settlements and increased the Irish population. (federicoghedini / Public Domain )
The study is something of a first and it has demonstrated that, by using statistical methods and archaeology, it is indeed possible to estimate populations in the distant past. Moreover, it is also contradicting the traditional view that the Vikings only brought death and destruction to Ireland. In reality, they may have helped to revive the island after a period of sustained decline.
The results of the project have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science .
Top image: Viking migrants in Ireland. Source: Jürgen Hamann / Adobe Stock.
By Ed Whelan