A history of Ireland in 100 objects Carved crook, early 11th century

Sat, Nov 26, 2011, 00:00

For a long time the Viking intervention in Ireland was an unsettled affair. The invaders suffered serious military reverses. Groups of raiders moved back and forth between Ireland, Britain and the Continent.

The development of Dublin was shaped by these patterns. In 902 the Vikings were expelled from the town and withdrew to the Isle of Man and western Britain. Around 913, however, a large Norse fleet appeared off Waterford, having sailed from Brittany, and began making raids. Three years later this fleet was followed by King Sitric, a grandson of King Ivar, whose dynasty had ruled in Dublin before 902. Sitric re-established control over Dublin while his brother Ragnall took control of Viking York. After Ragnall’s death, Sitric ruled what might be called the first Anglo-Irish united kingdom, combining Dublin and York.

In 954 the expulsion of Eric Bloodaxe from York severed the connection between the two towns. Dublin became the main urban centre not just of the Irish Sea but of the western Vikings. Dublin was clearly highly conscious of its place in the Viking maritime world: some of the loveliest items found there are toy ships, complete with masts, sails and rigging, and timbers with beautifully drawn pictures of Norse ships. The town, as it settled down, began to develop its own culture, one that can reasonably be called Hiberno-Norse.

Dublin was a mixed space, in terms of both culture and population. Some ornamentation typical of Scandinavian women has been found in Ireland, but Dr Pat Wallace of the National Museum of Ireland, who led the excavations of Viking Dublin, points out that “in none of the Dublin excavations has anything like that ever turned up”. His conclusion is that the female population of the town was almost entirely Irish. “From a female point of view, it’s a very Irish place,” he says. This makes it probable that Irish was spoken, alongside Norse, in Dublin, resulting in a pidgin “a bit like Hong Kong English”.

The monks who were the keepers of high culture had contempt for the Irish spoken in Dublin, but Norse words (especially commercial and maritime terms) nevertheless seeped into the indigenous language.

This mixing meant that the town quickly acquired its own culture, which is well represented in this beautifully carved wooden crook. It is recognisably in the Ringerike style, named after the district of Norway where it flourished. Ringerike, says Wallace, “wasn’t particularly popular in England, but it caught on here, and the Irish Vikings turned it into their own version, particularly in Dublin”. The purpose of the carved crook is unclear, although it may have been a whip handle.

It was found in Fishamble Street, where there seems to have been a concentration of wood-turners and coopers. It was there that what James Lang called the “Dublin school” of woodcraft had its centre. It is not hard to see such craft as a natural development of the shipbuilding skills that had created the Viking diaspora in the first place.


Thanks to Dr Pat Wallace

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie