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Did the Irish Discover Iceland Before the Vikings?

By Greig Santos-Buch
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Did the Irish Discover Iceland Before the Vikings?

The classic narrative of Iceland’s settlement is often depicted as a saga of Viking exploration and dominance, painting images of robust Norse seafarers establishing the first footprints on its volcanic soil in the late 9th century. However, emerging archaeological evidence and medieval texts suggest a prelude to this story, involving the Irish (and possibly the Scots)—monks and hermits seeking solitude long before the Vikings hoisted their sails toward these shores. This article takes a deeper look at the fascinating hypothesis of Irish and Scottish precedents in Iceland, exploring the discovery’s origins, evidence unearthed, and the timeline of these early settlers, juxtaposed against the Viking arrival.

Evidence Unearthed: Artifacts and Archaeological Sites Point Towards Irish Settlement on Iceland Before the Vikings

Recent archaeological findings and historical research have reinvigorated the debate about the early settlement of Iceland, suggesting that the Irish, possibly along with Scots, may have settled in Iceland before the Vikings. This theory is supported by evidence from various archaeological digs and analyses, which have revealed structures and artifacts predating the traditionally recognized settlement by Norse Vikings around 874 AD.

In East Iceland, excavations led by archaeologist Bjarni Einarsson have uncovered one of the oldest and largest longhouses, beneath the “settlement layer” of volcanic tephra that fell around 869-873, suggesting human activity decades before the Norse arrival1​. This find, along with radiocarbon dating, points to a permanent settlement shortly after the year 800, predating Ingólfur Arnarson’s arrival in Reykjavík by approximately 70 years. The nature of these early settlements appears to have been seasonal camps used for fishing, hunting, and other activities, suggesting an established knowledge of Iceland among seafarers prior to the Viking Age2​.

Further, Dr. Kristján Ahronson’s research has brought to light the presence of approximately 200 man-made caves in southern Iceland, with crosses and sculptures bearing striking similarities to early medieval Christian artifacts found in Scotland and Ireland. This evidence supports the hypothesis of Christian Gaels from Ireland or the western British Isles settling in Iceland around the year 800​3.

The Íslendingabók, written by Ari ‘fróði’ Þorgilsson around 1125, and oral histories collected by Icelandic Roots corroborate the existence of Irish monks, known as the Papar, in Iceland before the arrival of Norse settlers. These monks reportedly left Iceland due to the arrival of the pagan Norsemen4​. Further historical accounts and toponymic evidence from islands in Orkney and Shetland, known as Papey, suggest the influence and presence of these early Christian missionaries in the region before the Norse settlement​5​.

If this evidence wasn’t enough, pollen analysis and radiocarbon dating of burial sites suggest human activity prior to the recognized Viking settlement around 874 AD. Specifically, evidence of cereal pollen indicates attempts at cultivation before the Norse era, aligning with what one might expect from monks trying to sustain themselves in isolation.

Time Periods and Coincidence with Vikings

Taking all of the existing evidence into account, the timeline for these early Irish settlers is now believed to be in the 8th and early 9th centuries, predating the Vikings by several decades, if not centuries. The Vikings’ arrival, traditionally dated to the landing of Ingólfr Arnarson in 874 AD, did not mark the beginning of human history on the island but rather a new chapter. The departure of the Papar from Iceland, as suggested by some sagas, might have been due to the arrival of Norse settlers, indicating an overlap and possibly interactions between the two groups.

The Popular TV Show “Vikings” Didn’t Forget to Hint at Christians Arriving Before Pagan Vikings

In “Vikings” Season 5, Episode 19, titled “What Happens in the Cave,” Floki’s discovery in a cave marks a pivotal and deeply symbolic moment in the series. Venturing into a cave, which he hoped would lead him to the Norse gods, Floki finds instead a Christian cross carved into the stone, a discovery that leaves him visibly shaken and emotional. This discovery not only challenges Floki’s deeply held pagan beliefs but also signifies the intertwining of Christian and Norse cultures in the saga of Viking exploration and settlement678​​​.

Scholarly Perspectives and Genetic Insights

The theory of early Irish settlement in Iceland is further supported by genetic studies revealing a significant Gaelic influence in the modern Icelandic gene pool. Analysis of modern Icelandic DNA suggests a mixed heritage of Norse men and Gaelic women9, pointing to a complex and intertwined history of settlement​​.

Scholars such as David Griffiths from the University of Oxford and Richard North from University College London have praised the depth and significance of research into early Icelandic settlement10, emphasizing the re-energization of debates around Iceland’s earliest inhabitants​​.

Moreover, the existence of Irish manuscripts that mention voyages to a land beyond the sea known as “Thule” adds a layer of mystery and supports the notion that Irish monks could have made such journeys, driven by their quest for isolation and spiritual communion with nature.

Rewriting History

The notion that the Irish settled in Iceland before the Vikings is more than a mere historical footnote; it’s a revelation that challenges our understanding of early European exploration and settlement patterns. The evidence, both archaeological and textual, paints a picture of a time when Irish monks sought solitude in the remote reaches of the North Atlantic, long before Vikings became synonymous with Iceland’s saga-filled history. This early chapter of Icelandic history invites us to reimagine the past, recognizing the contributions of these solitary seekers to the island’s rich cultural tapestry. As research continues and new discoveries emerge, the story of Iceland’s settlement will undoubtedly become even more nuanced and compelling. We’ll continue to share new discoveries on PastPathways as the history of Iceland continues to be unearthed.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Irish and Christians Arriving in Iceland Before the Vikings

Were there Irish people in Iceland before the Vikings?

Yes, as we discussed, there is evidence suggesting that Irish monks, known as the Papar, may have settled in Iceland before the arrival of Norse Vikings. Medieval texts, including the Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, reference these early Christian settlers. Archaeological findings, such as cross slabs and other Christian artifacts, further support the presence of Irish monks in Iceland prior to the Viking Age. These monks are believed to have sought solitude and a life of religious devotion in the remote landscapes of Iceland before eventually leaving due to the arrival of Norse settlers.

Who discovered Iceland before the Vikings?

The discovery of Iceland before the Vikings is attributed to the Irish monks, as per medieval Icelandic texts and modern archaeological evidence. These monks are described in early sources as living in Iceland when Norse settlers arrived in the late 9th century. Their presence is also hinted at through archaeological sites that predate the Norse settlement, including items of Christian origin which suggest a non-Norse presence on the island.

Are Icelandic people related to Irish?

Genetic studies have shown that modern Icelandic people have a significant amount of Irish and Scottish ancestry, particularly through their maternal lineage. This genetic evidence indicates that many of the Norse Vikings who settled in Iceland brought Celtic women from Ireland and Scotland. Approximately 63% of Icelandic women carry mitochondrial DNA of Irish or Scottish origin. This substantial Gaelic influence is a testament to the mixing of Norse and Celtic peoples during the settlement of Iceland.

Is Iceland Nordic or Celtic?

Iceland is considered a Nordic country, part of the cultural and geographical region known as the Nordic countries, which includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. However, the early settlement history of Iceland and genetic makeup of its people reveal a significant Celtic influence, particularly from Ireland and Scotland. This blend of Nordic and Celtic heritage contributes to Iceland’s unique cultural identity. While politically and geographically Iceland is Nordic, its ancestral roots also have a notable Celtic component, reflecting a mix of Norse Viking and Irish/Scottish heritage.

  1. https://icelandmag.is/article/new-archaeological-research-forces-historians-reconsider-story-icelands-settlement ↩︎
  2. https://www.icelandreview.com/ask-ir/is-there-any-evidence-that-iceland-had-human-habitation-prior-to-the-arrival-of-europeans/ ↩︎
  3. https://www.medievalists.net/2015/05/irish-and-scots-may-have-been-first-to-settle-iceland-researcher-finds/ ↩︎
  4. https://www.icelandicroots.com/post/the-irish-in-iceland ↩︎
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papar ↩︎
  6. https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/vikings-fans-think-about-what-happened-to-floki.html/ ↩︎
  7. https://showsnob.com/2019/01/24/vikings-season-5-episode-19-recap/ ↩︎
  8. https://hiddenremote.com/2019/01/23/vikings-s5e19-recap/ ↩︎
  9. https://www.icelandicroots.com/post/the-irish-in-iceland ↩︎
  10. https://www.medievalists.net/2015/05/irish-and-scots-may-have-been-first-to-settle-iceland-researcher-finds/ ↩︎

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