Wednesday 29 June 2016


St Brendan and his "team"
Both Ireland and Northern Ireland have bombed out of the EURO 2016. But if you are Irish, there is another Irish team still in competition which you can support: Iceland.

"eee what?" I can hear you say... Let me explain:

If you have watched the EURO 2016, you must have seen Icelandic team and supporters doing their amazing "Viking battle chant". 

This "Viking battle chant" which has become synonymous with the Icelandic fans at EURO 2016 has become quite a world sensation. But believe or not this chant has nothing to do with the Vikings. It originated in Scotland. Fans of Stjarnan, a Reykjavik based team, fell in love with the chant during a game they played in Motherwell in 2014. The chant has apparently been performed on the terraces at Motherwell Fir Park stadium for years. The Stjarnan supporters adopted the chant as their own and later it was also adopted by the Icelandic national team supporters. They started performing it during the EURO 2016 qualifying campaign and it has since became firmly associated with the Icelandic team. This is a great example of a cultural transfer. 

But this is not the only thing "Vikings" picked up in Scotland and Ireland and took with them to Iceland. 

When the settlement of Iceland got underway some time around 800AD, it seems that there were a lot of Gaelic people among the original settlers. Genetic analysis has shown that a quarter of the men and up to half of the women among the founding population would have been of "Gaelic" origin. 

The study included 181 Icelanders, 233 Scandinavians and 283 "Gaels" from Ireland and Scotland. "Gaelic" was the preferred term in the study, given the fact that the Vikings in 800AD populated both eastern Ireland and also the Western Isles of Scotland. These territories were at that time settled and controlled by the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata

The study showed that between 20 and 25 per cent of Icelandic founding males had Gaelic ancestry, with the remainder having Norse ancestry. These findings match up with earlier study which looked at mitocondrial DNA in the women from the same population groups. The mitocondrial data showed that over a half of Iceland's founding females were of Gaelic ancestry.

What we don't know is who these Gaelic people were and how they ended up in Iceland. 

Even though in some cases, the whole established Viking family groups arrived and settled in Ireland and Scotland, most of the time the Vikings bands were ad hoc armies consisting of young men. It is not inconceivable that these young men who had come over from Scandinavia and lived for a time in the British Isles would have taken local wives, and even entered into alliances with their Gaelic in-laws. When for what ever reason some of these Vikings decided to leave the British isles around 800 AD and settle in Iceland, they took their wives with them. They could have even been joined by some of their Irish male in-laws and their families. 

However some of these Gaelic people who ended up in Iceland might have been taken away against their will as it is known that Vikings engaged in slave trade and took away a significant number of slaves from Gaelic territories in Ireland and Scotland. One of the most comprehensive works on the subject of the Irish in Iceland is Gaelic influence in Iceland by Gísli Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson suggests that slaves may have comprised as much as 30–40% of the population. 

But there is something very interesting about the Viking colonization of Iceland. 

Upon the demise of the Roman Empire and the subsequent spread of Christianity across Europe, monks and holy men increasingly undertook perilous sea voyages to remote uncharted waters. These expeditions could have been pilgrimages of sorts, to test their belief in the Lord.  Well that is one explanation. Another one was that the Irish Christian monks followed their kinsmen to the newly discovered lands....

The most famous of these reputed journeys is that of the legendary St Brendan. 

Saint Brendan of Clonfert (c. 484 – c. 577) called "the Navigator", "the Voyager", "the Anchorite", or "the Bold", is one of the early Irish monastic saints. He was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He is most famous for his legendary quest to the "Isle of the Blessed," also called Saint Brendan's Island. 

The first mention of Brendan occurs in Adamnan's Vita Sancti Columbae, written between 679 and 704. But the first notice of him as a seafarer appears in the ninth century Martyrology of Tallaght. The earliest full version of "The Voyage of Saint Brendan" was recorded around AD 900. In it we read that on the Kerry coast, he built a currach-like boat of wattle, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, set up a mast and a sail. He and a small group of monks fasted for forty days, and after a prayer upon the shore, embarked on their voyage to find the Isle of the Blessed. On their way they pass by the land where "great demons threw down lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire” and “great crystal pillars." Many now believe these to be references to the volcanic activity around Iceland, and to icebergs.

While the story is often assumed to be a religious allegory, there has been considerable discussion as to whether the legends are based on actual events. Over the years there have been many interpretations of the possible geographical position of Saint Brendan's Island of the Blessed. Today the most popular theory is that St Brendan actually discovered America, sailing there via Iceland and Greenland. 

 The Voyage of Saint Brendan belongs to the type of Old Irish stories known as "immram" (Irish navigational story). An immram is a story concerning a hero's sea journey to the Otherworld (see Tír na nÓg and Mag Mell). They were all written in the Christian era. No surprise here as the Irish only had oral tradition before the Christian monks started writing it down. 

But how come it was the Irish who in the Early medieval time developed the "Sea navigation stories"? Well because at that time, the Irish ruled the north western seas. They invaded and settled Western Scotland and gave it its name. The name Scotland comes "Scoti" which was the old name for the Irish. They invaded and settled Northern Wales, giving the name to the Llŷn Peninsula which was named after one of the Irish tribes, the Laigin. 

You can't invade, settle and hold the coastal areas unless you are a maritime culture a maritime power. You can't sail the northern seas around the British isles unless you are an accomplished mariner in a very very good boat. And the Irish seem to have in the early Medieval time been accomplished mariners in very good boats. This explains why the maritime voyage stories were at that time very popular in Ireland. 

This forgotten Irish maritime culture was covered in a great TV series and book called "Atlantean Irish" made by Irish film maker Bob Quinn. The films and book proposed that the Irish, or at least some of the Irish, were part of a common 'Atlantean' maritime culture that includes the western seaboard of Europe and North Africa.

Official history tells us that there is no reliable evidence to indicate that Brendan ever reached Iceland, Greenland or America. But it is interesting that the route Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland is the exact route which we know Vikings took in 10th century or maybe even in the 9th century when they discovered America

Is it possible that the Viking discovery of Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland was actually a rediscovery prompted by the stories about St. Brendan's voyage that the Vikings heard from their Irish wives and in-laws before 800 AD? Did Vikings then in the time of need decide to follow the described route and check for themselves what lies out west? 

Let's see. 

Around 800 AD Vikings with their Irish wives, in-laws and slaves sailed from Ireland to Iceland and colonized it. 

But, there is a popular story in Iceland which says that the first humans who set the foot on the shores and volcanic terrain of Iceland were Christian monks from the north-west of Ireland, in the eighth century. The story is based on one written source, the Islendingabok (‘Book of the Islanders’) by  Ari Þorgilsson, written between 1122 and 1133, about 250 years after the first Norse settlements. Even in such established works as The history of Iceland by Gunnar Karlsson the arrival of the monks has become accepted history. Apparently the monks, having initially discovered a stable sea route from Ireland to Iceland, made repeated return journeys over the course of several decades until the arrival of the first Norse settlers. 

There is little to suggest that these monks established any permanent settlements in Iceland. Conclusive archaeological evidence of the presence of the Irish monks has been unearthed on the remote Orkney, Shetland Islands, and now I am discovering, in Iceland. I want to thank @ninnythebear for alerting me to the article "Early Christian Irish and Scots 'First Footers' in Iceland". In it, we can read about the artificial caves at Seljaland in southern Iceland. 

These man-made caves at Seljaland are Christian hermitages, with a large number of crosses surviving today to mark the cave walls. 

The remains found in the caves confirm that human activity in this area predates early Viking settlements by almost a century. 

And so the story about the Irish monks being the first colonizers of Iceland is not under question any more...

But it is interesting that the first mention of St. Brendan as the "Navigator" appears in the 9th century. The same century when the colonization of Iceland begins. The same century when the alleged discovery of Iceland by the Irish monks, which was described in the Icelandic saga, takes place. The first full description of St Brendan's "alleged" voyage to America, via Iceland and Greenland then appears in the manuscript published around 900 AD. And right after that Vikings from Iceland, who came from Ireland following St Brendan's route, sail westward, again following St Brendan's route, and "discover" Greenland and Newfoundland. 

Strange how it all fits together, don't you think?

Whatever about the uncertainties surrounding the Gaelic arrivals of the eighth century, their presence in the ninth century Iceland is beyond question. The presence of Gaelic people among the first arrivals in Iceland is confirmed by numerous written references in both the Book of Settlements and the Book of Icelanders. In the former is found a comprehensive list of 400 names, of which at least 60 are distinctly Gaelic. 

Those of Gaelic origin integrated quickly into what became essentially a Norse culture. So what, beyond genetics, is the legacy of the Gaelic presence in Iceland? 

Well, as I said already the archaeological evidence is pretty slim. The same could also be said in relation to the Icelandic language. According to Sigurdsson, the limited number of borrowed words may be explained by the fact that the "Gaels did not contribute any new work skills or crafts, carrying their own vocabulary into the mainly Norse controlled society", coupled with the fact that "the language of the slaves was probably not widely spoken by their masters". 

But this is a bit dismissive when we know that it is in the Icelandic literature where we find the most important Gaelic legacy in Iceland. 

Icelandic oral and written traditions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were completely unique development in the Nordic world. There have been many theories which aimed to explain this phenomenon, but the one accepted by most British and Irish historians, and indeed Sigurdsson himself, says that the influence of the Gaelic presence in Iceland is a more plausible explanation for the emergence of the Icelandic sagas tradition. In the Gaelic world, oral tradition and the writing of the sagas in the vernacular was highly developed. In fact, Iceland and Ireland were the only countries in Western Europe where sagas of this kind were written down. There are undeniably striking resemblances in the literary output of Iceland and Ireland during the 12th and 13th century not just in form but in content too. In both traditions we find leprechaun-like creatures, Gaelic team game of hurling and boy stalwart heroes like Cú Chulainn from Irish sagas, and Starkaðr (Strong man) from the Icelandic Fornaldarsogur sagas, popular in the early fourteenth century. Both characters in their respective sagas at one point lie naked in the snow searching their clothes for lice. 

The Gaelic influence is even more obvious when we look at the Icelandic family sagas. Sigurdsson claims that the sagas that come from the west of Island have a more powerful Gaelic element than others, which could be explained by the stronger Gaelic presence in this area. How come? The western area of Iceland would have been the exact place where a bout coming from Ireland would have landed. And if the Irish settled permanently on Iceland, that would have been the exact place where they would have done so...Interesting...

Anyway, the most prominent example of this trend is the saga of the people of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga). In this tale one of the characters, Hoskuldr, obtains a slave woman from Norway who turns out to be Melkorka, daughter of a prominent Irish king. Retaining her native Gaelic language, she secretly passes it on to her son Ólafr, who later travels to Ireland to renew family ties and, despite his lowly slave origins, marries well. His son Kjartan becomes the main male hero of the Laxdæla saga. Parallels with the character of Cú Chulainn are again in evidence in a number of the family sagas. Some of his boyhood deeds are mirrored by the character of Kafli in the Kjalnesing saga, and the character of Egil in Egil’s saga. Parts of these sagas, particularly in the case of Laxdæla saga, tend to have a more colourful, exaggerated style with greater attention to detail, perhaps reflecting the Gaelic predilection for such literary affectations.

Slaves alone could have hardly been able to exert such cultural influence. This points to these possibilities:

1. The Irish sailors who discovered Iceland during the early medieval time actually settled in the west of Iceland. They eventually mixed with the Norse settlers who came from the East and who settled the eastern coast of Iceland. 
2. The Viking gang that arrived to Iceland from Ireland around 800 AD was a mixed Norse Irish clan with possibly slaves from other Irish clans. Irish practiced slavery long before Norse arrived. Remember how they "obtained" St Patrick from Wales? Were Irish colonies still on Iceland at that time? Were these people joining their kin in Iceland, or reclaiming the ancestral land?

That kind of mix could have exerted the cultural influence we find in the development of the Icelandic sagas. 

So, let me recapitulate:

1. Iceland was discovered and first colonized by the Irish monks.
2. It was then settled by the mix of Norse and Irish
3. These Irish contributed greatly to the genetics and culture of Iceland 

And so, on Sunday, when Iceland go on the pitch to play France, Irish can stand up and proudly shout:

Come on I(r)celand !!!


  1. Fascinating post as always! I never knew about Iceland's Gaelic connection

  2. Very interesting read, did not know thid

  3. I think that you could count the stories of the Mabinogion as Western survivals of an older oral pre-Christian tradition as well.

    Farley Mowat's The Farfarers explores the idea of a northern European maritime culture that reached North America, but he dates it from much earlier than the end of the 1st Christian millennium. Worth a look - Mowat was not trained as an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but he was pretty assiduous in his research. On the other hand, he seemed to be corroborating a case, not testing an hypothesis.