Vikings: did you know?

Shot on location in Ireland, The History Channel show Vikings has brought the warring Norsemen to our TV screens. We find five things you may not know about these Scandinavian adventurers.

The round tower on Devenish Island, County Fermanagh
The round tower on Devenish Island, County Fermanagh

1. They were baptised by hermits

It’s no secret that the Vikings terrorised Ireland’s Christian communities. On their search for gold and valuables, the Norsemen burned and battered their way through countless monastic sites around the island. There was, however, one instance of friendship between Irish monks and Viking marauders. It came when Olaf Tryggvason was baptised on the island of Skellig Michael in County Kerry by a resident hermit. Tryggvason would later become King of Norway.

See for yourself: Skellig Michael, County Kerry

2. They left us with names

Think all Ireland’s place names are derived from Irish? Think again. As it turns out, we have the Vikings to thank for some of the more curiously named spots on the island. Take Waterford, for example, derived from the Norse “Vadrefjord” or “Fjord of the Waters”. In County Kerry, Smerwick Harbour derives its name from the Norse “Smør Vick” or “Butter Harbour” (it was from here that butter was shipped to County Limerick). In County Down, the Vikings made countless attacks on and around Strangford Lough known to the Norsemen as “Strangfyorthe” or “Place of the strong currents”.

See for yourself: Smerwick Harbour/Gallarus Oratory; Waterford City; Strangford Lough

3. They made monks flee

While we owe the founding of Dublin and Waterford to the Vikings, it would be generous to say that their time in Ireland was peaceful. Take any monastic site from Clonmacnoise to Glendalough and Devenish Island on Lough Erne and you’ll find that one architectural aspect connects them all: a round tower. It’s widely agreed that monks used these conical buildings as bell towers, but that wasn’t all. During Viking raids, monks would hide both themselves and their valuable chalices, crosses and gold in the tower’s highest point. The Vikings counteracted this tactic by setting fire to the towers and either smoking the monks out, or burning them to death.

See for yourself: Clonmacnoise, County Offaly; Glendalough, County Wicklow; Devenish Island, County Fermanagh; St Brigid’s Cathedral and Round Tower, County Kildare

4. They influenced art

The Vikings weren’t without their sensitive side and the Urnes style is evidence of that. Derived from a style of decoration used on the Urnes stave church in southern Norway, this is the Norse answer to the Celtic swirl found at places such as Newgrange and on countless pieces of traditional jewellery. Defined by interlacing animals such as snakes and greyhounds, the motif has marked itself on a handful of priceless historical relics. Among them is a stone sarcophagus in Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, and The Cross of Cong, housed in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

See for yourself: Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary; The National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology, Kildare Street, County Dublin.

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5. They were beaten by Brian Boru

Having witnessed almost all of his tribe (the Dál Cais) and his mother murdered by Norsemen, Brian Boru, High King of Ireland in the early 11th century, was no friend of the Vikings. After becoming master of a tiny army of Dalcassians and leading masterful guerilla attacks against the Norsemen, Brian’s meteoric rise saw him become King of Munster. Notable battles at Cashel and Dublin confirmed him as Ireland’s saviour. Then, in the early 11th century, the Dublin Norsemen and native forces revolted against Boru. The revolt climaxed in a battle at the seaside town of Clontarf. Boru won the battle but was murdered by a rogue opposition solider as they were retreating. Boru’s bones are said to be buried in the North Wall of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh.

See for yourself: St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh City; The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary; Brian Boru Heritage Centre, County Clare.

For the entire story of Vikings in Ireland told in colourful and interactive style, make a beeline for Dublinia in Dublin city. Also in Dublin, the Viking Splash Tour is a land and water ride at the hands of friendly Viking guides.

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