At the beginning of the medieval period, Ireland was strongly influenced by Christianity and was among the first regions to undergo extensive conversion in a brief period. This directly impacted the cultural and social evolution of Ireland from 5th century onwards. Social organization of Ireland through most of the medieval period was clan-based, eventually evolving into a hierarchy where a high-king ruled over several regional kings. Gaelic identity strongly informed the dressing, music and culture of Ireland even following the Christianization of the region.
Christianization of Ireland
According to recorded history, the Christianization of Ireland dates back at least to the early 5th century. Around this time, the Pope in Rome was already actively dispatching missions and notable monks to spread Christianity in Ireland. During the 6th century, a rapid flurry of monastic movement successfully converted vast portions of Irish portions to Christianity.
This was manifest when in the middle of the 6th century, the first Christian High King ruled over Ireland. By the 7th century, most of Ireland was Christian and the Church had a central position in the Irish society although it was overlooked by secular laws. The Christianization of Ireland was also critically important in ensuring Latin literacy in the region, leading to the developments of arts such as illuminated manuscripts in the early medieval period.
Gaelic Identity of Irish Society
At the beginning of the medieval period, Ireland was a predominantly Gaelic society with the widespread adoption of Christianity. Despite the Christianization of the society, the Gaelic identity of the region remained strongly assertive in the social life. This was most prominent in the clan system of Ireland where a king or chieftain was typically succeeded by a ‘tanist’ chosen by the members of the clan. Gaelic law and marriage customs also continued to exist in the Irish society well until the High Middle Ages.
High Medieval Period
Until the high medieval period, Ireland comprised mostly of a number of independent principalities which were ruled by different dynasties. Like the neighboring England and Scotland, by the end of the early medieval period, the large number of kingdoms had congealed into greater kingdom ruled by powerful dynasties. The High Medieval period ushered in an age whereby Ireland faced the continuous raiding of Vikings who went on to establish permanent settlements along the coast during the period. It was at this time that the earliest towns in Ireland such as Dublin, Waterford and Limerick were established.
First Period of Viking Raids
Vikings began raiding Irish coastal territories by the end of the 8th century. Over the subsequent centuries, this would herald critical socio-political changes in Ireland. Although Vikings initially suffered a number of defeats at the hands of Irish kings, their raiding grew intensified by the 820s and they began to establish temporary settlements along the Irish coast. It was during this period that Vikings established the earliest towns in Ireland, Dublin being one of them. Although Vikings and the Irish remained near-continuously at war, by the middle of the 9th century Vikings frequently forged alliances with individual Irish kings.
Second Period of Viking Raids
In early 10th century, Vikings in Ireland were forced out of Dublin and had to flee. By 916, Vikings were back with a sizable army and defeating the Irish forces, regained control of Dublin. They then proceeded to establish other towns which included Cork, Limerick, Wexford and Waterford. By relying on these towns, Vikings became a permanent part of the Irish society and attempts to evict them by attacking the towns were successfully thwarted by Viking armies. Over time, the Norse populations intermixed with the local Irish population and the intermarriage over successive generations led to the creation of a Norse-Gael population in these towns.
Through most of the medieval period, the economy of Ireland was mostly pastoral. The region engaged in active trade with neighboring territories of England and Scotland as well as Continental Europe. Livestock formed the backbone of the economy and the wealth of a nobleman was typically measured by the number of livestock animals he owned. Livestock products such as butter, cheese and meat formed a portion of the local economy while textile products such as wool were exported to other regions. Cattle was a highly mobile economic asset in the Irish society and given the perennial warfare that raged in Ireland through most of the medieval period, the economy remained stable thanks largely to the mobility of the cattle who could be quickly moved from one area to another in times of war.
Dressing in medieval Ireland for men comprised of a long-sleeved and rather loose tunic which was made from wool, or in the case of less wealthy, from linen and was typically of knee-length. On top of this tunic, a woolen cloak called brat was worn. On the legs, men wore tight-fitting trousers. Women also wore a long tunic which fell all the way to the knees. Typically, wealthier Irish noblemen used wools of many colors in their dresses while the poor wore cloaks of a single-colored wool. Metal belts and brooches, often of intricate design, were used to fasten the cloak.
The clan system remained prevalent in Ireland through most of the medieval Europe. And it often led to mutual warfare between different branches of powerful clans. The most common mode of warfare in Ireland until the High Middle Ages involved hit-and-run raids. In such raids, an attacking force would pillage a region of its cattle, burn the crops and take with them any valuable hostages.
By the 11th century, Irish kings and rulers already had sizable household guards who served as their standing armies. By the High Middle Ages, pitched battles increasingly became common and by the time of the Norman invasion, Irish already had proper armies complete with light infantry, heavy infantry and cavalry divisions. Unlike the contemporary European armies, Irish warriors in the High Middle Ages wore little to no armor and took pride in fighting without it. Irish warriors also painted their shields with different colors as a long-standing military tradition.