A lecturer turns Viking: ‘My colleagues thought I was quite mad’
A UCC academic set sail on a Viking warship, experiencing all the hardships of that primitive life, with lifejackets the only nod to modernity
The Sea Stallion of Glendalough. Photograph: Anders Jensen
Sleeping arrangements on board the Sea Stallion
A UCC academic sailed out of his comfort zone when he joined the crew of a replica Viking ship to experience the conditions faced by seafaring Vikings a thousand years ago. Lecturer in Old English Dr Tom Birkett is leading a research team investigating Viking heritage in Munster as part of a UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Languages, Myths and Finds: Translating Norse and Viking Cultures for the 21st Century.
Birkett, who joined UCC last year from Oxford, boarded the Sea Stallion in Korsor, Denmark in July and spent two weeks on board, docking in Copenhagen. The 30m ship featured in a series of heritage events at the National Museum of Denmark, whose Viking exhibition will travel on to the British Museum next year.
The Sea Stallion is based on the warship Skuldelev 2, which was built in or near Dublin in 1042 using oak from the Glendalough area. It was discovered in Denmark’s Roskilde fjord in 1962, along with four other ships, and now resides at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. In 2004 a replica, The Sea Stallion of Glendalough, was made using original techniques at a cost of over €1 million. It visited Dublin in 2007.
Birkett was drawn to Viking culture during an Erasmus year in Oslo, where he studied runology and Scandinavian literature.
“It’s such a fascinating period, a time when everything in Europe was in flux and different societies were coming into contact with each other for the first time,” he says. “The Vikings had an incredible spirit of adventure. They reached America way before Christopher Columbus. ”
Birkett was one of 60 crew members on board the Sea Stallion. “There is no such thing as a passenger on these ships,” he says. “Everyone had work to do.” The crew included academics, retired sailors and boat builders, and locals from Roskilde.
As part of the foreship team, Birkett says he was in “the most exciting” part of the ship. “We had the best views and got to ride the waves. It was also the wettest part of the ship. We got soaked occasionally. It was very physical. There was a lot of rowing coming in and out of harbours. I had never done any sailing. As a land lubber and academic with no experience of the sea, I was very lucky to be taken on.”
The crew experienced the same hardships the Vikings would have encountered. “We slept in four-hour shifts under woollen blankets. We had to make our beds out of the oars. If it was raining, there was just a blanket between us and the elements.”