Run for your lives! Vikings invade north Dublin park


Civil servants, office staff and IT workers were among the living history enthusiasts who took up weapons at St Anne’s Park, Dublin, this weekend for an annual Viking festival

THE BLOND marauder strides through the camp. He passes the hawks, the horn-carvers and the silversmith and heads towards the cooking area, where a lamb is roasting on a spit. Then he pauses to keenly observe a fellow warrior’s sword and battle axe, before donning a helmet and axe himself. He turns and stares at the camp with piercing blue eyes, before his lower lip starts to wobble and he flings himself into his father’s arms.

The over-excited warrior is my 2½-year-old nephew Arlo, and he’s just one of hundreds of visitors to this year’s Dublin Viking Festival in St Anne’s Park. Now in its third year at St Anne’s, the event brings together living history enthusiasts from all over the country to spend a few days living under canvas, Viking-style, while showing the general public how people in the distant past ate, dressed, traded and of course fought – one of the festival’s highlights is the battle re-enactments in which 50 warriors clash using heavy (blunt) swords and axes.

The event was co-ordinated by Barry Gaynor, one of the founders of Fingal Living History Society. He became interested in Vikings nearly 20 years ago because of their connection with his native Fingal, in north Co Dublin.

“There’s nothing better than standing there with sword and shield in your hand,” he says happily. He’s already planning a giant Battle of Clontarf anniversary re-enactment in 2014.

But, as Gaynor points out, there’s more to living history than fighting. The latter-day Vikings spend as much time working on clothes, crafts and weapons as on battling. For some, like Waterford Living History Society members Gavan Murphy, Shea Cashman and Dave Coleman, joining the group 16 months ago was their introduction to traditional crafting. “I wasn’t always interested in making things!” says Murphy, who has made his own chain-mail by hand. “It just happened. Now they call me McGyver.”

For others, a love of craft introduces them to living history. Jack Pinson, who’s at the camp with his partner and young son, is doing an apprenticeship with the Craft Guild of Traditional Bowyers and Fletchers and discovered the re- enactment world about a year ago through his interest in bow-making and archery.

This is his first time attending a living history event as a participant rather than a visitor but he feels totally at home. “Here I am, surrounded by a bunch of guys who are really interested in the same things I am,” he says.

Viking life may look pretty male-dominated, but there are plenty of women involved as well, and for many it’s a family affair – the camp is full of tiny Vikings in tunics. Carmel Flynn-Smith is here with her husband Smiley and their two young children. “I love history and to get immersed in it is just brilliant,” she says.

She says the Viking world is very female-friendly. “We’ve gone backwards in women’s rights since Viking times. Viking women could divorce and keep their property and money, but Christianity brought everyone backwards to a male-orientated world.”

There are female warriors too. Dubliner Suzy Cantrell was drawn to living history by the combat. “I have a background in martial arts – I like fighting anyway.”

She was introduced to it by her fiance, and says she’s often the only woman fighter. Pretty impressive, not just because she’s much smaller than her burly opponents, but also because the battle gear is so heavy – her chain mail weighs a stone and a half. She’s unfazed by the burden. “The first time was really hard but when you keep doing it it’s fine.”

The only downside is that, unlike male fighters, she has to make two sets of kit – her warrior’s tunic and her off-duty dress.

For some of the participants, their passion for living history is connected to their day job. In addition to Pinson the bowyer, I meet two archaeologists (both say their profession is helpful to their hobby though one, Kurt Rönnkvist, admits that he does sometimes find himself thinking “Well, technically that helmet is wrong for this battle”). But the Vikings include IT workers, civil servants, court reporters, office administrators and science teachers. Living history is their hobby, not their whole life, and their enthusiasm is infectious.

It’s hard to know who’s having more fun, the participants or the visitors. When I ask a group of young boys, Alex Nolan, Ben Chesney and Lucas and Rhys Sherwood, what they like about the festival, they all cry: “The swords and the weapons!” “And the pig,” adds Alex. “The guy who’s cooking it is funny.”

Adults and children bombard the Vikings with questions, which they’re happy to answer. And for some of the warriors, the fun won’t stop at Saint Anne’s – soon they’re heading over to Denmark for an even longer festival.

Suzy Cantrell won’t be among them. “I’m a little bit of a princess,” she says, laughing. “I’m looking forward to going home and having a shower and sleeping on a bed. I have a face mask that I’ll be putting on when I get home!

“But I still love fighting with the lads.”