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The Slave Market of Viking Dublin

Findan was an Irishman from Leinster. The Nordmanni took his sister. Findan’s father gave him a satchel of coins and instructions that he was to go the raiders and bring her back.  Joined by some friends he set out to find the Nordmanni.  Unfortunately, they found him first, slaughtered his companions, clapped him in irons and chains and hauled him to a ship, perhaps a forerunner of the Skuy just offshore. At some point he escaped, making his way to his father.  The Nordmanni came and set the house on fire, slaying Findan’s father as he emerged from the flames. Findan was recaptured and sold and sold and sold again and again.

And so he found himself in chains on a wet, cold, violent ship bound for the Orkneys.

 ~ ~ ~

Although the first mention of the Irish capital may date to the times of Ptolemy, it is more likely that when the Vikings first sailed into the Duiblinn (“Black Pool”) at the confluence of the rivers Poddle and Liffey there was nothing there but a rich forest and natural shelter from the storms that frequented the Irish Sea.  And so in the 8th Century they founded Dyflin on the site and set to trading with the miniscule settlement of Áth Cliath further up the Liffey.  For the next three centuries the Norse ruled Viking Dublin, making it an economic powerhouse.  At the center of this early “Celtic Tiger” economy was the trade in thralls, or slaves.

viking dublin
Viking Dublin circa 975AD. Reconstruction © Stephen Conlin

Detailed contemporary sources on the Dublin slave markets are slim.  While frequently mentioned throughout texts from the time, the market itself is treated cursorily.

Slavery in Ireland and the British Isles predated the arrival of the Vikings. Ireland was not particularly well endowed with natural resources.  The only export goods the island produced were cattle, trees and people. After the Roman Empire collapsed in Britain slave raids along the coasts of the isles came with increasing frequency. These raids lasted until Britain stabilized politically after about two-hundred years but the Irish that had been enslaved bore children who likewise grew up into a life of slavery and children were regularly sold into slavery in the hunger years.

(For more information about Viking Dublin, read ‘Dublin – The Story of a City‘ by Stephen Conlin and Peter Harbison)

The Viking arrival just accentuated a system that was firmly in place.

It wasn’t only raiding for treasure and goods that brought the Vikings along the coasts of Ireland.  Small numbers of captives were taken at first, suggesting that there may not have been a large slave-market but at some point, they took to major slaving operations. Contemporary accounts have many mentions of raids where extremely large numbers of prisoners were taken.  Some historians have suggested that many of these could have been geill, or hostages that would be freed for a ransom.  The accounts however, refer to them as brat, simply ‘captives’.

Slaves were distinguished by size, strength and attitude, or where they came from  “foreigner who do not know Irish,” or “women from over the great sea” were the types of things written to describe the merchandise.

Over its centuries of existence the institution of slavery based in Viking Dublin took on a multitude of shapes and forms, reasons and mechanisms.  There were even times when the slaves were freed such as in 980 when the King of Meath freed all the Irish slaves in Viking Dublin after the Battle of Tara.  Brian Boru and Mael Sechnaill did the same thing a few decades later after the institution had grown large again.

As evidence of the far reach of the Dublin slave trade researchers in the past few years have found that a certain portion of the population of Scotland can trace their ancestry to particular Saharan tribes whose ancestors came to Spain with the Moorish conquest and who were then captured in slave raids on Spain, taken to Viking Dublin and sold as slaves to Scottish landowners sometime in the 9th Century.

viking dublinAnother recent DNA study suggests that many of the slaves were shipped Iceland. They were also sent east into the wealthier and more sophisticated empires of the Muslims and the Byzantines in exchange for silks and coins.

The Irish periodically took on the Vikings but by the 11th century the Irish had all turned on themselves in costly battles for a theoretical national throne.  The ancient Irish tradition of raiding your neighbors to steal cattle became something more; a hunt for humans and Viking mercenaries tinged the raids with a terror that hadn’t quite existed before.  It was in these wars that massive number of prisoners were taken and moved from the interior to the coasts for sale – and particularly to Dublin. These struggles for the kinship were fought mainly on the sea by large fleets rented or bought from abroad.  At one point, the King of Viking Dublin acquired a fleet that was rented out for the price of thousands of cattle and hundreds of slaves, all driven into the city as payment.

Flaithbertach and his men were particularly well known for specifically targeting his enemies for en masse enslavement.  Hundreds were take from the Cenel Conaill and the Ulaid.  Great slave raiding parties ranged across the Loch Oughter area in 1109 and then Dal Cais and others in 1115 and 1116.

There are also stories of independent warriors funding their fighting lifestyle through the import of slaves to Dublin.

In any case, at the turn of the millennium Viking Dublin was the main market center for slaves in Western Europe providing labor and concubines from the British Isles to Scandinavia and even into Muslim Spain. While there are few and scant descriptions of what the slave markets in Dublin were actually like, they could not have been anything but hellish.

By early in the 12th Century the Irish slave trade was on the decline.  Social and religious pressures were halting the practice throughout Western Europe. In 1102 England outlawed most types of human trafficking, massively disrupting the Dublin trade. Still, it took another one hundred years or more for the trade to definitively end.

The Irish coasts weren’t free of slave raids for many hundreds of years more. The village of Baltimore in County Cork was attacked and burned by Algerian pirates from North Africa in the summer of 1631. The entire population of the village was placed in shackles and taken away to a life of slavery in Africa.  It is said that only three of them ever saw Ireland again.

And then came the English…enslaving literally millions of Irish from the days of James II until fairly recent times.

The Irish haven’t exactly had it easy.



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