A history of Ireland in 100 objects

 

Ballinderry Sword, mid ninth century

This is one of the finest surviving examples of a piece of technology that helped to transform Europe in the ninth and 10th centuries: a Viking sword.

With its cutting edge almost perfectly preserved in some places, it retains the ferocity that helped to make the Scandinavian raider such a formidable force. Swords like this didn’t just allow the Vikings to ravage parts of Ireland; they forced indigenous Irish rulers to adapt to the demands of a new military age.

The Vikings typically imported their blades from high-quality workshops in the territory of the Frankish empire. The blade of the Ballinderry Sword has a maker’s name inlaid on it: Ulfbehrt. This identifies it as the work of a Rhineland “firm” whose blades have been found as far away as Russia. About 200 of these blades have been discovered, suggesting that this was the early equivalent of a brand name, with its own international cachet.

While the blade was imported, the hilt and pommel were made by Vikings. This one is particularly fine, decorated with hammered silver and carefully inscribed with lettering and abstract patterns. The upper side bears the name Hiltipreht, which seems to connect it to a Norwegian craftsman of that name.

There is little doubt that this is a very high-status object that came to Ireland with the Vikings.

What is fascinating is where the sword was found in 1928: on the site of a crannóg, or lake dwelling, at Ballinderry, near Moate, Co Westmeath. It was found with other Viking objects: a longbow, two spearheads, an axehead and a gaming board. But a crannóg is a Irish form of dwelling.

“Crannógs are such an Irish type,” says Andy Halpin of the National Museum of Ireland, “that it is very hard to believe this was a Viking site. So the best interpretation is that you’re looking at an Irish chieftain or petty king who is wealthy enough to equip himself with the best of weaponry.

“He’s obviously in contact with Viking Dublin, which is not surprising because we know that for this east midlands area there was huge trade going back and forth. But this sword symbolises, in a way, the long-term impact of the Vikings. They really dragged Ireland into the Middle Ages. Because if you’re an Irish king and you’ve got these guys on your doorstep, you need to get your act together. You need to have this sort of stuff. But in order to have it, you need to be able to buy it, which means changing to an economic system that generates cash.”

This arms race didn’t just affect the relationship between the Irish kings and the Scandinavian newcomers. It also set off a Darwinian struggle among the Irish themselves. The kings who could adapt to the Viking threat by acquiring the new technology could also compete more successfully against local rivals. Even more than their direct impact, which was shocking but relatively limited, it was these indirect effects that made the Vikings a catalyst for the transformation of Ireland.


Thanks to Andy Halpin

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