Viking heritage runs deep in Ireland, as a visit to Waterford, Kilkenny or Wexford testifies
Better still, why not include all three on a driving tour of the "Sunny South East?"
Vikings made their mark in Ireland, no doubt about that. Bearing down on an unsuspecting Ireland from Scandinavia, hordes of wild wayfarers first arrived in the 8th century. They looted Ireland's monasteries, battled its kings and made off not just with priceless treasures and religious artefacts, but with Irish people as slaves.
But the Norse invaders weren’t all doom and gloom, we’ve a lot to thank them for. They also laid the foundations of many Irish towns – including its oldest city, Waterford, which was established by Norse settlers in 914AD.
In fact, Waterford derives from the Norse Veðrafjǫrðr meaning “ram fjord” or “windy fjord”. Over 1,000 years later, you can find a fascinating exhibition of their treasures in Reginald’s Tower.
The tower is a 13th-century defence fortification, perched like a pepper pot at the heart of Waterford’s own Viking Triangle, a portion of the city centre that also includes the new Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre. Amongst its treasures is the earliest known avatar of a Waterfordian – carved onto a 9th-century lead weight discovered in a Viking site by the River Suir.
Ireland’s Viking legacy doesn’t just lie above ground in museums and monastic remains. It lies below ground, too, as a guide discovered in County Kilkenny’s Dunmore Cave in 1999.
Stopping to pick up some litter, the story goes, the guide discovered a treasure trove of silver coins, ingots, bracelets, bronze buckles and rare silk. Some of the hoard remains on view at the cave’s visitor centre today – alongside details of a darker legend…
Bones discovered in the inner recesses of the cave may be evidence of a terrible Viking massacre here in 928AD…
The Sunny South East
Wexford is another south eastern town with deep Viking roots. Set at the mouth of the River Slaney, Vikings first landed here in 819AD, going on to establish a settlement they named Veisafjǫrðr (“inlet of the mud flats”).
Today, Norse and Norman influences combine in a town that has retained its compact, medieval feel – though the only invading hordes you’re likely to encounter are the opera buffs descending on the annual Wexford Opera Festival.
Presuming you’re travelling by car rather than longboat, routes connecting Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford make for some great driving trips, ranging from the cities themselves to all the rivers, beaches, festivals, castles and cafés in-between.
Its Viking legacy is complicated. But exploring it is one of Ireland’s simple pleasures.