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Literature of Exploration - Vikings and Irish in North America

Irish and Vikings

In the fifth century, St. Patrick started the christening of the Irish.

The Irish quickly accepted the new religion, and soon started to make voyages of their own. In 563, St. Columba established a monastery on the island of Iona, on the Scottish coast, and from Iona and other places, the Irish not only preached among the Picts, but also travelled onto the Atlantic Ocean.

A famous story is the one of the voyages of St. Brendan, who travelled to the Atlantic to find the Promised Land of the Saints.

According to the story, he found several islands and had a number of adventures before finding this promised land.

Although St. Brendan was a historical person, the story was probably not that of his voyage, but a combination of stories from several Irish monks.

There is discussion about the nature of the islands that are described.

The Orkneys, Faeroer and Iceland are almost certainly included, but historians do not agree whether some of the descriptions are about the Azores, Newfoundland and other lands in America.

What is certain, is that the Irish later established themselves in Faeroer, and, from the late eighth century onwards, Iceland.

After the arrival of the vikings they may have left Iceland for Greenland, but nothing has been heared of this colony since.

The Vikings were a people from Scandinavia. In the second half of the eighth century, they started raids on England, and during the next centuries, their raids and lands formed an important force in European politics.

But apart from these raids, which went as far as Italy, the vikings were also important traders.

Especially the vikings from Sweden played an important role, sending their ships up the Russian rivers, and through small portages reaching places as far as Constantinople and Persia.

Nevertheless, here too they were conquerors as well as traders, and various of the main prinicipalities of medieval Russia, such as Novgorod and Kiev, were established by them. One viking trader that we know by name is Ottar (also known as Ohthere), who told king Alfred of Wessex about his voyage northward along the Norwegian Coast to the White Sea region.

His is the oldest known voyage around North Cape.

In the west, the Vikings colonized a number of lands - the Hebrides, the Orkneys, Faeroer, Iceland.

The latter country was first seen around 860. It was discovered by accident by Gardar Svarsson, who was blown off course going to the Hebrides.

The same happened to Naddod around the same period. Next, Floki Vilgerdasson spent a Winter there, the colonization of the country was started in the 870s, and by 930 viking colonies were spread over all of Iceland.

p Like Iceland before, around 930 Greenland was discovered by a viking who was blown off course, his name was Gunnbjorn.

The first viking to colonize Greenland was Eric the Red. In 982, Eric was banned from Iceland because of manslaughter, and he decided to explore the country discovered by Gunnbjorn.

After three years he returned, talking enthousiastically about the land, which he called Greenland, and in 986, he returned with several shiploads of colonists.

Two colonies were started, the eastern and the western settlement, both on the west coast.

Bjarni Herjulfsson came back home to his father in Iceland in 986, only to hear that his father had joined Eric to Greenland.

He decided to go there himself, but missed it, and reached America. He explored a large part of the American coast, but he did not land there.

Around the year 1000, Eric's son Leif tried to establish a colony somewhere in America, in a land he called Vinland.

A few more attempts were made in the following years, but all were abandoned after only one or two years.

We do not know where exactly Vinland was. On Newfoundland, a viking settlement has been found in a place called L'Anse aux Meadows.

Many historians believe that this was the settlement of Leif, but others think that Vinland was further south, perhaps in New England.

Undoubtedly, America has been visited by vikings after this, but there is no evidence that they made any more attempts at actually colonizing the country.

The colonies in Greenland prospered for some time, but in the fourteenth century it began to deteriorate, and in the fifteenth century it was abandoned, for as yet unknown reasons.