Hairy and in touch with nature, it’s little wonder Vikings have come roaring back into fashion. With a beard-based fashion sense and a commitment to non-motorised commuting – albeit by slave-driven longboat rather than #urbanism dads conquering all before them via cargo bike – they’re the perfect icons for 21st-century hipsterism.
This fact has already been twigged by international TV producers – as we see with the Vikings series and its many sequels. And by the video game industry: the recent Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla features an expansion where you can explore Viking-era Dublin, when it was wattle-and-daub huts as far as the eye can see (I had flashbacks to an old bedsit in Drumcondra). And now, appearing from over the horizon and rowing straight at us, is Fire and Blood: The Vikings In Ireland (RTÉ One, Sunday).
Fire and Blood is also the name of the George RR Martin book about to be adapted into a Game of Thrones spin-off. But what the RTÉ series – made by independent production company Tile Films – lacks in dragons and royal incest, it more than makes up for with hirsute warriors pillaging with gusto.
The conventions of the modern history documentary are followed ardently. Costumed enactors dash around for our entertainment, while academics from universities in Scandinavia, the UK and Dublin explain who and what the Vikings were and why they were so interested in our four green fields, which they quickly turned 50 shades of gory red.
It’s solid filmmaking, though given the degree to which Ireland’s Viking heritage is already celebrated I’m not sure there is much new here. It also suffers the age-old RTÉ affliction of being almost entirely Dublin-centric with absolutely nothing about, for instance, the Viking heritage of Waterford (the first city established by our friends from the north).
Still, it conveys the terror these invaders evoked. We get the sense of them coming from an alien world ruled by strange gods, for whom Christianity was an anathema (though its bling of course was not). That point is illustrated by the discovery on Rathlin Island off Antrim of a Viking shaman, buried amongst the warriors.
“You need someone to protect you from the curses of the churches you are knocking over,” explains Stephen Gilmore, an archaeologist based in Belfast.
The story goes full Game of Thrones as we come to Olaf the White and Ivar the Boneless. In addition to sounding like the feuding frontmen of a classic death metal band, these sibling Viking rulers of Dublin would establish domains in Britain, eventually conquering York.
“We have stereotypes of Vikings as meatheads who didn’t plan anything,” says Clare Downham, a historian from the University of Liverpool. “But to organise such a successful political kingdom requires a huge amount of planning.”
The portrait that emerges is of a warrior society that brought horror and bloodshed to Ireland but also imposed a measure of order on a chaotic world of warring kingdoms (they probably kept house prices down too). In assessing their legacy, it is thus hard to avoid that old Monty Python routine: “What did the Romans ever do for us”?
The Vikings were a destructive force, without question. But they were also essential in shaping the Ireland in which we live today. That yin/yang legacy is powerfully communicated.