As science progresses and archaeologists are forging new positive relationships with developers around Irish heritage, more secrets from Ireland’s Viking past are coming to light, and they are not just found in burial grounds, unearthed dwellings, and old settlements; they can be found in the DNA of the modern-day Irish people. The Vikings may have only been present in Ireland for three centuries – a drop in the ocean compared to its long and dramatic history – but recent research is showing that their influence was far greater than previously realised.
The Viking Age in Ireland – Do We Need to Revise the Textbooks?
The Viking Age in Ireland is typically seen to have begun with the first recorded raid in 795 AD, taking a turning point in 841 AD when the first settlements were established in Dublin and Annagassan near Dundalk, and ending in 1014 AD with the Viking defeat at the Battle of Clontarf by the Irish High King Brian Boru (although the Vikings continued to play a role in Ireland’s history until the arrival of the Normans in 1171 AD).
Recent archaeological discoveries in Dublin have been raising questions about whether this timeline is accurate, hinting that there may be a lot more to the story. In 2003, excavations were underway as part of the expansion of the Dunnes Stores headquarters on Dublin’s South Great George’s Street, when archaeologists found the bodies of four Vikings aged between their late teens and late twenties.
Radiocarbon dating on the skeletal remains revealed that three of the young Vikings died some time between 670 to 882 AD (Median = 776 AD), a finding which The Journal reports could change the course of decades of research. Did the Vikings set foot in Ireland earlier than currently believed?
Professor Howard Clarke, historian, director of the Medieval Trust, and co-author of Dublin and the Viking World , told Ancient Origins that radiocarbon dating can be problematic as it cannot be used for spot dating. Nevertheless, he added that “The current view is that these burials may well represent early raids on the monastery of Duiblinn (Dubhlinn) before the settlement in 841.”
While historians like Dr Clarke are reluctant to suggest that raids could have been occurring prior to the official ‘start date’ of the Irish Viking Age i.e. 795 AD, the datings on three of the Vikings at least indicates it is a possibility. “They also show that the research into Irish history is never finished,” reported The Journal , “there’s always something more to discover”.
The findings may not prove an earlier start to the Viking Age or that permanent settlement was occurring prior to 841 AD, but they do suggest that the Vikings were paying Dublin some visits before they were ready to unpack their bags.
The Vikings paid Dublin some visits before they eventually settled there (War of the Vikings, John Rickne, Community Manager, Paradox Interactive/ Public Domain )
More Than Just Fearsome Raiders
These early ‘visits’ were in the form of raids and are what gave the Vikings their reputation as a marauding bunch of fearsome invaders who raped, pillaged, and plundered as they went.
Between at least 795 and 836 AD, there were countless ‘hit and run’ raids by both the Norsemen and the Danes, and they unleashed terror upon the land, striking fear in the hearts of the Irish.
They sailed up every creek, shouldering their boats marched from river to river and lake to lake into every tribeland, covering the country with their forts, plundering the rich men’s raths of their cups and vessels and ornaments of gold, sacking the schools and monasteries and churches, and entering every great king’s grave for buried treasure. Their heavy iron swords, their armour, their discipline of war, gave them an overwhelming advantage against the Irish with, as they said, bodies and necks and gentle heads defended only by fine linen. Monks and scholars gathered up their manuscripts and holy ornaments, and fled away for refuge to Europe.” Alice Stopford Green in Irish Nationality (1911).
But was there more to the Vikings than just ferocious and greedy warriors, and did they leave more than fear behind in their wake?
Were the Vikings more than just ferocious warriors? Diorama with Vikings at Archaeological Museum in Stavanger, Norway. (CC BY SA 4.0)
A discovery in Cork city last year highlighted a more civilised side to Viking life in Ireland. Beneath the former Beamish and Crawford brewery, archaeologists retrieved a perfectly-preserved Viking sword . But this was no deadly weapon.
The sword, measuring just 30cm in length, was made of wood – obviously highly unsuitable for the battleground! The finely crafted sword features carved human faces on its handle and would have been used by women for weaving – the flat sides for hammering threads into place on a loom, and the pointed end for picking up the threads for the pattern-making. It was a fine example of Viking craftsmanship. But it is one artifact out of thousands that have revealed aspects of Viking life that are rarely recognised or talked about.
The Viking weaver’s sword unearthed in Cork last year. Credit: BAM Ireland
Excavations undertaken since 1974 at the Viking settlement site located at Wood Quay in Dublin have yielded an enormous Viking time capsule. More than 100 houses and other buildings have been unearthed, along with thousands of objects, including jewellery made from amber, bronze, silver, and gold, iron locks and keys, children’s games and toys, needles, spindles, yarn, and cloth smoothers for the production of textiles, a whalebone ‘ironing board’, silver coins, weights and scales for commercial transactions, craftsmen’s tools made from antler, animal and whalebone, horn and walrus ivory, and personal items such as brushes, combs and hair pins.
Woodworkers, carpenters, coopers and basket weavers were active, producing a range of objects such as wooden bowls, plates, pails, buckets, barrels, tubs, spatulas, platters, cups, spoons, mortars, trays, baskets and boxes,” writes the National Museum of Ireland , where most of the items are now housed. “Evidence for ironworking comes in the form of blacksmith’s tools such as tongs, hammers, knives, saws, chisels, punches, files, whetstones and grindstones… Leather workers produced objects such as shoes, sheaths, scabbards and bags, examples of which have survived. Some leather worker’s tools have also survived - awls, punches, scorers, and at least one wooden last.”
“The Viking town had an agricultural hinterland that sustained it, and many agricultural tools were found in the course of the excavations included wooden shovels, iron spades, planting tools, iron plough socks, billhooks and sickles. The discovery of a wooden churn dash shows that butter making took place within the town. In addition to being excellent mariners, the Vikings were also skilled horsemen. Finds associated with horse riding include stirrups, spurs, harness bells, harness mounts and saddle pommels,” the Museum writes.
Artefacts from Dublin excavations. Credit: National Museum of Ireland
The discoveries at Wood Quay provided an unprecedented look at the Vikings, shedding light on every aspect of life in the early medieval settlements. They were highly experienced farmers, ship builders, traders, blacksmiths, jewellers, metalworkers, cooks, garment makers and craftsmen, and this legacy can still be seen in Ireland today.
The newcomers introduced coins into Ireland – the very earliest (silver pennies) were produced in Dublin under the Viking King Sihtric III around 997 AD; they influenced the language, leaving behind words like ransack, window, market, outlaw, husband, and honeymoon; they brought chicken to the Irish diet, which the Vikings had discovered in China; and they brought items acquired through trade with Persia, Byzantium and Asia. For centuries to follow, and still today, the Scandinavian influence can be seen in literature, crafts, decorative styles, and cuisine.
“They [the Irish] learned from them to build ships, organise naval forces, advance in trade, and live in towns; they used the northern words for the parts of a ship, and the streets of a town. In outward and material civilisation they accepted the latest Scandinavian methods.” (Stopford Green, 1911).
“That’s the other side of Viking life”, Sheila Dooley, Curator and Education Officer at Dublinia told The Journal , “as barbaric as they were and how treacherous and how much they terrorised our society, they also helped establish our towns.”
The Vikings did not succeed in obtaining dominion over Ireland, as they had in England, but their presence had shaped Irish society and culture forever.
There was more, however, that the Vikings left behind.
Top image: Some of the Viking raids ended in death – for the Vikings. (CC BY 2.0)
By Joanna Gillan