Move back one step  Move forward one step  List of themes  Map of themes
Larger font Smaller font Default font
     Old Norse

Norse names in Ireland
The Old Norse language
Linguistic influence


Monastic culture in Ireland was to be seriously disturbed (like that in England as well) because of developments in Scandinavia. In the 8th century the Scandinavians became expansionist and began raiding neighbouring coasts. Initially, this just consisted of plundering and they always returned back to home base. In time, the Scandinavians became more adventurous and, with the efficient and sea-worthy boats which they had, succeeded in making the crossing over the North Sea to Scotland.


This was a qualitative change which was to have lasting consequences for the peoples of the British Isles. From this point onwards the Scandinavians are known as Vikings, a term deriving either from Frisian wic ‘settlement’ or Old Norse vik ‘bay’. The earliest attacks were on Lindisfarne and Jarrow in 793-4. Here the monasteries with their ornamental riches attracted the raiders. They plundered and killed indiscriminately there and elsewhere, e.g. on the island of Iona, a centre of Hiberno-Scottish culture. Very soon the Vikings became the scourge of Ireland and the entire north of England.


The early Viking raids were carried out by Norwegians. In the course of the 9th century the Danes joined in, beginning with a series of attacks on the east coast of England in 835. In Ireland these two groups are distinguished as ‘fair foreigners’ and ‘dark foreigners’ respectively. This distinction is reflected in Irish with Fionnghall ‘fair foreigner’ for the former and Dubhghall (which gave the modern surname Doyle) ‘dark foreigner’ for the latter.

In Old English literature the Scandinavians are known as Danes and the region in the north-east of England where their influence was greatest was known as the Danelaw. A form of the Norse language – Norn – survived until a few centuries ago in the north of Scotland.


1) Scandinavian settlements in the British Isles
2) Scandinavian settlement names in England

For more information on English during this period, see the relevant section of the website Studying the History of English: Scandinavian Invasions.

The period of Scandinavian influence came to an end around 1,000 AD or shortly after this. In England, the Scandinavian succession of kings came to an end in 1066 with the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror. In Ireland, Scandinavian influence is taken to have ended with the Battle of Clontarf (then near Dublin) in 1014 in which the Irish leader Brian Boru was victorious. In both Ireland and England the Scandinavians were assimilated by the local population but in many cases they retained their names, typically those ending in -son, e.g. Johnson, Anderson, Peterson.

In Ireland and Scotland Scandinavian ancestry is apparent in certain surnames, e.g. ÓhUiginn (anglicised as Higgins) ‘Viking’ which corresponds to Scottish MacLochlann (anglicised as McLoughlin) ‘son of Viking’ from Lochlannaigh ‘Viking’, i.e. inhabitant of a country of lakes.

Norse names in Ireland

The Scandinavians are responsible for the founding of most Irish towns which are situated at the estuaries of major rivers. Dublin and Belfast are two exceptions; the former city predates the coming of the Vikings and the latter is a new settlement from the beginning of the seventeenth century. In some instances the English names of towns are derived from the Norse names and have nothing to do with the Irish form: Loch Garman ‘Wexford’, Port Láirge ‘Waterford’, An tInbhear Mhór ‘Arklow’, Howth < Norse huvud ‘head’, Leixlip ‘salmon leap’ was translated literally into Irish as Léim an Bhradáin ‘leap of the salmon’. The island of Dalkey (south side of Dublin) is another example of this: the English name comes from Norse dalkr ‘thorn’ + ey ‘island’, cf. Irish Deilginis ‘thorn island’. In other cases the Irish is a rendering of a Norse original, e.g. Sceirí (English ‘Skerries’) meaning ‘reef islands’ (now a town north of Dublin) which is cognate with modern Swedish skären which denotes the same.

A later lack of knowledge of Old Norse has meant that some names are folk etymologies with different original meanings. For instance, the small island just north of Dublin, Ireland’s Eye, has nothing to do with ‘eye’: the second element is Scandinavian ey meaning ‘island’. Waterford seems like a straightforward case of ‘water’ plus ‘ford’ but the name is Scandinavian – Vadrefjord – and refers to the point at the river estuary where wethers ‘castrated rams’ were shipped to other ports. The first element is unrelated to the Old Norse word for ‘water’, vatn.

The four provinces of Ireland are Munster, Leinster, Ulster, Connacht. The second syllable of the first three of these derive from a Norse ending staðr ‘place’ or from a combination of genitival s + tír ‘country’. The first syllable is derived from a name for the tribe which lived in the area designated as is the entire form of the fourth province. Originally there were five provinces, as the Irish word cúige ‘a fifth, province’ indicates. The remaining province, Meath, was incorporated into Leinster at an early stage.

The Old Norse language


Old Norse is the term used for the common language used throughout the Scandinavian peninsula and on Denmark in the last few centuries of the first millenium AD, i.e. at the time of the Viking invasions of Britain and Ireland. This was a Germanic language and is the direct descendant of the modern North Germanic languages, viz. Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Faroese and Icelandic (which is closest to it). It was probably comprehensible to the English of the time but not to the Irish whose language belongs to a different branch of Indo-European (to Celtic as opposed to Germanic).

Linguistic influence

The similarity between Old Norse and Old English led, in the situation of daily contact which obtained during the Viking period in the north of England, to grammatical borrowings from the former into the latter language. For instance, the plural pronouns of English begining in th-, i.e. they, them, their are of Scandinavian origin as is the plural of the verb be, i.e. are.

Because of the greater structural distance between Old Irish and Old Norse, no borrowings in the area of grammar are apparent, even though the sociolinguistic situation in the later Viking period must have been similar to that in England with Irish and Vikings living side by side.

Nonetheless there are lexical borrowings from Old Norse which often reflect the areas of contact with Vikings, e.g. ancaire ‘anchor’, seol (< Old Norse segl) ‘sail’. Some borrowings are similar to those in English, e.g. fuinneog /fɪnjo:g/ from Old Norse vindauga corresponds to the same borrowing into late Old English which gave modern ‘window’. Some Old Norse borrowings belong to the more peaceful later period and suggest a different type of contact with the Viking than in the earlier period of plundering, e.g. margadh (< Old Norse markadr) ‘market’, bróg (< ON brók) ‘shoe’.


Borgstrøm, Carl Hj. 1974. ‘On the influence of Norse on Scottish Gaelic’, Lochlann 6: 91-107.

Geipel, John 1971. The Viking Legacy. The Scandinavian Influence on the English and Gaelic Languages. New Abbot: David and Charles.

Gordon, E. V. 1957 [1927]. An Introduction to Old Norse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jackson, Kenneth 1962. ‘The Celtic languages during the Viking period’, in Ó Cuív (ed.), pp. 3-11.

MacShamhráin, Ailbhe 2002. The Vikings. An illustrated history. Dublin: Wolfhound Press.

Ó Cuív, Brian (ed.) 1975. The Impact of the Scandinavian Invasions on the Celtic-Speaking Peoples c. 800 - 1100 A. D. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Schulze-Thulin, Britta 1996. ‘Old Norse in Ireland’, in Ureland and Clarkson (eds), pp. 83–113.

Sommerfelt, Alf 1952. ‘Norse-Gaelic contacts’. Norsk Tidskrift for Sprogvidenskap 16, 226-36.

Sommerfelt, Alf 1975. ‘The Norse influence on Irish and Scottish Gaelic’ in Ó Cuív (ed.), pp. 73-7.

Ureland, P. Sture and Iain Clarkson (eds) 1996. Language contact across the North Atlantic. Tübingen: Niemeyer.