On a crisp May morning in the mid-800s, a fleet of longships glide quietly up the River Shannon in the heart of Ireland. A powerful figure stands at the prow, guiding the ships up the wide waterway. The Viking ship keels are quite flat, allowing them to sail or row in the shallowest of waters, and now they have travelled through miles of lush, green river banks.
19-year-old Egil is excited – this is his first real raid. The flat, green landscape stands in stark contrast to the grey towering mountains that surround their hamlet back home. On a gentle hill along the eastern riverbank, he glimpses a large cluster of stone and wooden buildings. He’s been spotting the chimney smoke for a while now. Ivar points to the east: “There it is – Clonmacnoise!” A tall, carved stone cross towers in front of the buildings. The monastery is located right at the crossroads which connect the country, in all directions. A community for learning, craftsmanship and trade, in alliance with the local royal family, has emerged around this religious centre. On the journey up the river, Ivar has told Egil about the many small Irish Kingdoms that have divided the Emerald Isle between them. They are unable to join forces against the Norse heathens. Quite the contrary. For rival kings, Viking pillaging often works to their advantage. And the Vikings in turn know how to exploit this Irish rivalry.
Egil has joined this raid along with several men from the neighbouring village. The young men are hungry for wealth and honour. They have seen the riches brought back by others before them. Egil has four older brothers, and the chances of him ever claiming any farmable land in the sparse mountains back home are slim. He must carve out a future for himself. The prevailing warrior ideal, mixed with a good deal of adventurous spirit, has thrust them out into the world. They want to plunder as much as they can carry between them – artefacts, precious metals and captives. Nobles and clergy can be worth their weight in ransom. What they cannot sell for profit, they desolate.
The gentle squeaking of ropes and dripping from oars give hints of the pending brutality. Egil feels his heart rate go up. He clutches the hilt of the sword hanging from his belt. His thoughts go to Sigrid, in particular, who did not want him to leave. She will see him return a wealthy and honourable warrior.
There are crowds of desperate people scrambling between the many buildings. Some flee, some hide. Others fall to their knees with their hands folded. The monks remember all too well, as this is not the first time they have been visited by brutal assailants from the north. Terrifying tales of fleets of ships appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly. The sacred halls left emptied or destroyed. Bloody people and torched houses. A sign from God? Is the Viking pillage a sign that doomsday is near? For the monks of Clonmacnoise, at least, this will be the case.