Anyone who has been to Dublin and seen tourists in a semi-submersible truck with plastic Norse helmets on probably realises that Dublin was at one time a Viking town. Following several decades of hit-and-run raids across Ireland, the Vikings established Dublin as a base in 842. Thence it developed into an important settlement that was the seat of a Viking King for over a hundred years. However, the first encounters between the Irish and the Vikings did not take place on this island or anywhere nearby.
These first encounters took place on islands in the North Atlantic where Irish monks had first travelled in small boats during the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries to establish hermitages. These monks were followers of Brendan, Columba and Aidan, who voyaged increasingly far in search of wild places to practice their monasticism. Where better to find a life of solitude and spiritual dedication, akin to that of John the Baptist, than remote islands far to the North of the British Isles? Monastic records from the 9th Century describe the actual voyages of Irish hermits to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and The Faeroes (which they reached in the late 8th Century).
On these wild and windswept islands the monks encountered the stone dwellings and ceremonial structures of Neolithic farmers, abandoned 3000 years earlier. It seems very likely that the hermits would have used these dwellings situated at the shore for shelter. Indeed the stone ‘beehive huts’ that monks constructed on Skellig Michael in the 8th Century bear a very strong resemblance to the Neolithic stone dwellings recently discovered under sand-dunes at Skara Brae in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland.
But the monks were not alone for very long. In the latter part of the 8th Century, Viking raiding parties travelled to these northerly islands in search of treasure and territory. They did not find rich pickings amongst the hermits and moved on to better targets, such as the monastic settlements at Lindisfarne and Iona and then the mainland of Britain and Ireland.
However, I imagine the Vikings were impressed by the seafaring abilities of the monks who had travelled far across stormy seas in primitive craft, much smaller and flimsier than their longboats, and by the sheer hardiness of the hermits. In the Norse language a hermit is papi and this place-name recurs across the many remote islands that the hermits inhabited: Papey near Iceland, Papa Stour in the Shetlands, Papa Westray in the Orkneys and Pabbey in the Outer Hebrides.
Their cohabitation didn’t last long; for the hermits chose to leave, or were driven out from, their wild islands. But the monks do appear to have had a lasting influence on the pagan Vikings, who shortly after began to convert to Christianity. Over the next hundred years, their trading empire spread from Greenland to Central Asia and Christianity became the established religion amongst the Norse. Viking Kings then took part in the First Crusade.