‘You can’t really be a Viking if there isn’t a bit of bloodshed’
The Vikings are back on our screens and in our galleries but the romantic notions of their wild spirit is a cheerful distortion of their culture
Vikings: the television series stars Gabriel Byrne and Travis Fimmel
Vikings (from left): Mark Flynn, Shane Higgins, Gary Nolan, Paul Robinson and Ricardo Gatica, who will take part in Dublin City Council’s Battle of Clontarf festival, in St Anne’s Park, Raheny, over the Easter weekend. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It is a scene familiar from every primary-school history book. A horde of long-haired, sword-wielding, fearsome-looking foreign marauders run amok in a peaceful Irish settlement, desecrating a primitive church, terrorising the congregation and making off with gleaming Celtic crosses.
This is not some episode recounted in a dusty medieval chronicle, however. Rather, it is a snapshot of contemporary Ireland, from the set of Vikings , the hit historical drama series, two seasons of which have been filmed with visceral verisimilitude in Co Wicklow since 2012.
From books to comics, music to movies, blockbuster exhibitions to popular attractions, Vikings have never seemed so woven into our consciousness, be it cultural or historical. A thousand years after they were supposedly vanquished by Brian Boru, the Vikings are back.
Much of this revival of interest is of course rooted in the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, as institutions and artists mark the clash that saw Boru’s Christian Irish army defeat the pagan Norse led by the magnificently named Sitric Silkenbeard.
Among the many official millennium celebrations, the National Museum of Ireland is hosting the exhibition Clontarf 1014 , while Dublin City Council is recreating the battle at St Anne’s Park in Raheny with the help of various historical re-enactment societies today and tomorrow. Other events will take place from Armagh to Tipperary. Meanwhile, Clannad singer Moya Brennan and harpist Cormac De Barra are premiering and touring Ten14 , a music show about Brian Boru’s life, for families and children. And Dublin continues to have perennially popular Norse-themed tourist attractions such as as the Dublinia “living history” museum and the Viking Splash Tour.
Outside Ireland, the trend continues. In London, the British Museum is attracting large crowds to Vikings: Life and Legend , the institution’s first major exhibition on the subject in more than 30 years. All the while, the television series Vikings has been earning substantial fan bases across the world, from the US to Australia and even Scandinavia.
“The show’s success kind of confirmed my suspicion that the Vikings are in the zeitgeist,” says Michael Hirst, the television drama’s creator, who originally became interested in them as potential screen fare in the late 1990s. “I put the material in my back pocket and waited for someone to ask me to make it. When I mentioned it to people back then, there was very little interest. But now when I tell people the show is being made, they go, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to see that’.”
How all this activity relates to the reality of the Viking world is another matter. Ever since the 19th century there have been periods when Norse history and culture have been in vogue, but in the past, these surges of interest have said more about their own era than about the fabled Scandinavian raiders who left their mark across Europe and beyond.
Certainly, the popular Irish image of the Vikings as rampaging intruders who were finally expelled on Good Friday 1014 is misplaced. For one thing, they never really went away.
“If you ask the question, ‘What happened to the Vikings after Clontarf?’, the answer is ‘Nothing’, ” says Dr Andy Halpin of the National Museum of Ireland. “They stayed, they’re still here and a lot of us probably have their blood in our veins.”
On one level, this is purely a matter of historical accuracy. The two armies that faced each other at Clontarf were both composed of native Irish and Viking combatants: Silkenbeard, whose mother was Irish and who lived on in Ireland for another 22 years after his defeat, was one of the intermarried “Hiberno-Norse”.