Brian Boru didn’t save Ireland from the Vikings
History exaggerated the Battle of Clontarf – one of many misconceptions about Vikings
We know it all about the Vikings. We’ve seen the TV series; we’ve had the craic 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 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 Viking – 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 significance of the Battle of Clontarf has been misunderstood in Ireland. People have relied too heavily on a 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 Waterford.”
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.”
Native Irish women
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!”
Dublin and the Viking World by Howard B Clarke, Sheila Dooley and Ruth Johnston (published by O’Brien Press on April 16th, €12.99 /£11.99)
Easter weekend will see a new – and benign – Viking invasion of Dublin, with the first VikingFest, centred around Dublinia and Wood Quay, celebrating the cultural and historic impact of the Vikings.
Part of a “borderless tourism” project, Creative Europe Follow the Vikings, and “working with our international partners we have created the Follow the Vikings roadshow which travels to 12 important Viking heritage sites across Europe”, including Dublin and Waterford, says Dublinia director Denise Brophy.
Dublinia’s Viking and Medieval Experience, the not-for-profit education and research organisation in Dublin city, has built the festival around the live audio/visual/theatrical outdoor spectacle centrepiece Follow the Vikings.
Follow the Vikings: 10th century Icelandic warrior-poet Egill Skalla-Grímsson inspires a contemporary representation, drawing on Norse mythology. Includes BIMM drumming students under the guidance of top session musician Dave Hingerty. (Wood Quay amphitheatre, Saturday, March 31st, two 45 minute shows, 8.30pm and 9.45pm. Free ticketed event, book at dublinia.ie).
Vikings ships: Dublinia and Lakes Vikings (who supply Viking longboats for the TV series) will have long ships and Viking warriors at Wood Quay over the weekend, with a full Viking long ship grounded and on display. “Vikings” talk about life 1,000 years ago, “warriors” demonstrate fighting techniques with axes, swords, shields and spears. March 31st , April 1st, 11am to 4pm.
Living history: Viking weaponry, coin-minting and crafts from Viking life in Ireland c. 795 - 1171. Swords, shields, spears, bows, and axes and tactics to use them; domestic Viking goods; coin-minting, tablet-weaving and braid-making. Plus Living history re-enactments. Dublinia, March 30st-April 1st.
Discounted admission to Dublinia over the weekend. Details at: dublinia.ie
The Viking Festival and Roadshow Veðrafjorðr (aka Waterford) is also on over Easter weekend, with two performances of the Viking roadshow on Easter Monday.
What did the Vikings look like?
We can guess at their appearances from statues and other representations of, mostly male, Vikings. They would have had beards and moustaches because shaving on long boat journeys would have been impractical. “They would have been rather hairy, and the statuary is consistent with that.”
Clarke mentions strange haircuts in the TV series, with short sides – “a bit like Kim Jong-un”, which he considers unlikely.
Living in fear: We don’t know how many Vikings were in Ireland, but we know they were fearsome warriors and the prospect of raids terrified people, as seen in the fear and dread of a monastic community, written in the margins of a Co. Down manuscript:
The wind is rough tonight/ Tossing the white-combed ocean/ I need not dread fierce Vikings / Crossing the Irish sea
English has lots of words of Viking origin: “kn” words such as knife; “ransack” (Old Norse rannsaka); “leg” (leggr); “skin” (skinn).
Old English was Freond but modern spelling of friend is nearer to Old Norse frændi (Old Norse was a Germanic language, as is English).
Not many Viking words crop up in modern Irish, but the Irish for market – margadh – is from old Norse Markardr, indicating how strong trading was.
Place names: Waterford and Wexford were settlement sites. Howth doesn’t seem to have been; Dalkey may have been a slave-holding centre (annals for the year 939 have a story that an abbot drowned attempting to escape the island where he was captive). Leixlip is the only purely Norse name, apart from the River Steine that gave rise to the Long Stone (steinn is the Old Norse word for “stone”). Hybrid place-names such as Ballally would have been invented by the Irish.
The Viking legacy is seen in logos such as AIB’s and curiously, the SS symbol. Bluetooth is a Viking name (probably of a person with a blackened tooth).
A toy boat from Christchurch Place, Dublin. The hole towards the left is where the steering board was attached, while the hole in the prow may reflect the common practice of towing a smaller vessel containing provisions behind the main ship on long voyages.