Norse, of course

Brian Boru didn’t save Ire­land from a Vik­ing con­quest (and a few other things we’ve got wrong about our Norse fore­bears)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY DEIRDRE FALVEY

A pre­view of Dublinia’s Vik­ingFest 2018

We know it all about the Vik­ings. We’ve seen the TV se­ries; we’ve had the crack on the Vik­ing Splash tour. We’ve seen the scrap of Vik­ing wall in Dublin; we’re out­raged that those bar­bar­ians al­most de­stroyed our Vik­ing her­itage in Wood Quay in the 1970s.

Think again. The TV se­ries is “men­tal bub­blegum”. The idea of cart­ing peo­ple wear­ing horned hel­mets around the city in an am­phibi­ous ve­hi­cle is a dis­torted ver­sion of re­al­ity. Not that any of this both­ers Howard Clarke, who gen­tly twin­kles at the ac­cepted per­cep­tions of Vik­ings, and is on board with lots of them. A gor­geous new book, Dublin and the Vik­ing

World, in­tro­duces read­ers to the pe­riod when Dublin be­came Ire­land’s first fully func­tion­ing town. Writ­ten by Prof Clarke, a di­rec­tor of the Me­dieval Trust (the par­ent body of Dublinia, the Vik­ing and me­dieval mu­seum near Christchur­ch, Dublin) and for­merly a his­to­rian at UCD, Sheila Doo­ley who was cu­ra­tor and ed­u­ca­tional of­fi­cer in Dublinia, and Dr Ruth John­son, city ar­chae­ol­o­gist for Dublin City Coun­cil, it will be pub­lished just af­ter Easter week­end’s first Vik­ing fes­ti­val, hosted by Dublinia.

“Vik­ings,” says Clarke, “have an air of ro­mance about them, rightly or wrongly. I mean, they were brutes, but nev­er­the­less, like cow­boys and In­di­ans they at­tract ro­man­tic ideas. It’s hard to see why; a psy­chol­o­gist might know. I think it’s an in­ter­est­ing mix of vi­o­lence com­bined with op­por­tunism, lead­ing to trad­ing and set­tling.

“The three key themes to the Vik­ing world are raid­ing, which is how we think of them, trad­ing – they ex­changed goods, in­clud­ing slaves – and, thirdly set­tling down in cer­tain parts of west­ern Europe, most spec­tac­u­larly in Ice­land, Green­land and very briefly in north Amer­ica.” North Amer­ica? Yes, says Clarke, there’s a well ex­ca­vated site with au­then­tic Vik­ing finds called L’Anse aux Mead­ows in north­ern New­found­land, which most ex­perts ac­cept rep­re­sents a stopover on Vik­ing ex­plo­ration of North Amer­ica, and two sagas also re­fer to it, call­ing it Vin­land be­cause wild grapes – or some­thing that looked like them – grew there.

It’s an ex­am­ple of the ro­man­ti­cism Clarke is talk­ing about, and also one of the sur­pris­ing things many of us don’t know, or get wrong about, the Vik­ings.

We know one of the pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Vik­ings – that they wore horned hel­mets – isn’t true. Well, not strictly un­true, ac­tu­ally. There was horned head­gear in Scan­di­navia, Clarke says, though this is likely to have been re­lated to rit­ual, the head­gear of some sort of pri­est or shaman, “rather than for men in fight­ing mode, where the horns would have been an in­con­ve­nience” he says, wryly.

The big sur­prise for us is that Brian Boru didn’t ac­tu­ally save Ire­land from the Vik­ings, and the pre­vail­ing wis­dom about the Bat­tle of Clon­tarf is based on pro­pa­ganda.

“The sig­nif­i­cance of the Bat­tle of Clon­tarf has been mis­un­der­stood in Ire­land. Peo­ple have re­lied too heav­ily on an 1867 trans­la­tion into English from an early 12th cen­tury pro­pa­ganda text in Mid­dle Ir­ish, pro­duced in Mun­ster

(Co­gad Gáedel re Gal­laib ,or The War of the Ir­ish with the For­eign­ers).”

Orig­i­nally writ­ten a cen­tury af­ter Clon­tarf at the be­hest of Brian Boru’s great-grand­son, Muircher­tach, who was king at that time, to bol­ster his grand­fa­ther’s rep­u­ta­tion, “it dis­torted the sit­u­a­tion,” says Clarke, and “uses in­flated lan­guage to ex­ag­ger­ate the rep­u­ta­tion of Brian Boru for po­lit­i­cal gain at the time”.

Af­ter it was trans­lated into mod­ern English (by scholar James Todd in the 19th cen­tury) the pop­u­lar con­cep­tion of the Bat­tle of Clon­tarf took hold.


Clon­tarf was fought by a Mun­ster army un­der Brian Boru against a Le­in­ster-based army with Dublin al­lies; the Le­in­ster men were re­belling against the Mun­ster men. Be­sides, “the Le­in­ster lot had some Dublin Vik­ings on their side. And Brian Boru had Vik­ings from Lim­er­ick and


The idea that Brian Boru saved Ire­land from a Vik­ing con­quest is “com­pletely false”, says Clarke. “There was never any pos­si­bil­ity Vik­ings would have been able to con­quer or even thought about con­quer­ing Ire­land. There were never enough Vik­ings in Ire­land to do this, and there were far too many Ir­ish king­doms – maybe 150 po­lit­i­cal units, all with armies – to de­feat.”

The TV se­ries has re­newed in­ter­est in Vik­ings, but Clarke says he gave up watch­ing it af­ter an early scene where a chief­tain’s wife is sword fight­ing a man on a beach. The dra­matic li­cence of­fends his his­to­rian sen­si­bil­ity.

“It is in­con­ceiv­able that women fought along­side men in Vik­ing times. No text men­tions or even im­plies it. Women did all sorts of things, but they didn’t fight with swords in bat­tle­lines.”

He men­tions, in a mildly amused way, a re­cent episode which fea­tured “Vik­ings in North Africa rid­ing camels across the desert”. He doesn’t seem to have any­thing against

The Vik­ings, per se, but he calls it “men­tal bub­blegum”.

“It’s a clever se­ries, a mix of rea­son­ably au­then­tic in­for­ma­tion de­rived from his­tor­i­cal records and ar­chae­ol­ogy, and pure in­ven­tion.” Far from Vik­ing women sword fight­ing on beaches, the Vik­ings brought few women to Ire­land, says Clarke. (We know this from grave goods ev­i­dence, and records in the sagas). But they formed re­la­tion­ships over time with Ir­ish women, as wives, con­cu­bines, and slaves. “They de­pended on na­tive Ir­ish women for all the rea­sons men want women.”

Women had a very pro­duc­tive role. And al­though the word “craftswoma­n” is rare in English ac­cord­ing to the OED, women and girls had an enor­mous range of prac­ti­cal skills. This is il­lus­trated, says Clarke, in an early Ir­ish text deal­ing with the en­ti­tle­ments of a di­vorcee, all re­lated to her role as a maker of linen gar­ments.

“And women were val­ued as slaves pre­cisely be­cause they were pre­sumed to have a use­ful range of prac­ti­cal skills around the farm and house­hold, not to men­tion any­thing to do with sex.”

Few Norse women trav­elled as far as Ire­land, but some finds in Scan­di­navia of Celtic arte­facts from the time were re­li­gious ob­jects – pre­sum­ably looted from monas­ter­ies – re­mod­elled into jew­ellery, sug­gest­ing that one of the mo­tives for Vik­ing raids was gold and sil­ver to bring back home to be re­cy­cled as trin­kets.

Another myth is that the Vik­ings “founded” Dublin. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth, ac­cord­ing to the book.

“The word ‘founded’ sug­gests a sud­den act of en­light­en­ment, for which there’s no ev­i­dence,” says Clarke. “Dublin de­vel­oped as a town only grad­u­ally, reach­ing that stage in the mid-10th cen­tury, about a cen­tury af­ter the ini­tial set­tle­ment recorded in the an­nals un­der the year 841.

“This was based on two pre-ex­ist­ing Gaelic set­tle­ments, Ath Cliath and Dubh­linn. The Vik­ings adapted the name Dyflinn for their set­tle­ment near the black pool,” on the site of the Dubh Linn Gar­den (now be­hind Dublin Cas­tle), where Vik­ings moored and re­paired their boats.


Dublin and the Vik­ing World is hand­somely il­lus­trated and ac­ces­si­ble, draw­ing on a tremen­dous amount of re­search. Clarke makes the point that it rep­re­sents “the best pos­si­ble at­tempt any­one can make to demon­strate the na­ture of a ma­jor Vik­ing set­tle­ment any­where in Europe”.

“This is be­cause of the ev­i­dence for Vik­ing set­tle­ment in writ­ing [in the Ir­ish An­nals and else­where] and in the ar­chae­ol­ogy is far su­pe­rior in Dublin to any com­pa­ra­ble Vik­ing sites.”

In Scan­di­navia the three main Vik­ing trad­ing set­tle­ments of Kau­pang (Nor­way), Hedeby (then in Den­mark, now north­ern Ger­many and called Haithabu), and Birka in Swe­den are known for their mar­vel­lous ar­chae­ol­ogy, but Vik­ing age writ­ten records in Scan­di­navia are frag­mented and scarce. Ire­land was Chris­tian and lit­er­ate, so we know much more about Vik­ing Dublin from the Ir­ish An­nals, com­pared to other Vik­ing sites.

So while Clarke mod­estly says per­haps a bet­ter book could be writ­ten, “it would never be pos­si­ble to write a book like this about other sites – in Dublin we have the best pos­si­ble vi­sion of what a Vik­ing set­tle­ment looked like”. In the heart of Vik­ing Dublin, at the Wood Quay amphitheat­re over Easter, a Euro­pean Vik­ing spec­ta­cle prom­ises to enliven the 21st cen­tury city. Join­ing the in­ter­na­tional show will be Ir­ish drum­ming stu­dents from BIMM. But, but... do we know, were there re­ally Vik­ing drum­mers?

“Not that I know of,” smiles Clarke. There is ev­i­dence of Vik­ing whis­tles made of bones, “but a drum is a frag­ile thing and wouldn’t have sur­vived. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have drums. Most cul­tures have pro­duced an in­stru­ment with a drum-like sound. It sounds like a fun show, though I can’t at­test to its au­then­tic­ity. But I’m just a bor­ing aca­demic!”

Left: Stand­ing guard at the en­trance to the Vik­ing Dublin ex­hi­bi­tion in Christ Church. Above: An artist’s im­pres­sion of Dublin’s Fisham­ble Street in the Vik­ing Age

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