Dublin and Waterford celebrate Vikings
Those Vikings really got around—and you can visit them in several parts of Ireland
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
From the ancient Viking traces of Waterford city in Ireland’s ancient east to the foundations of medieval Dublin, Ireland invited the world to celebrate its Viking heritage this past Easter with VikingFest 2018: the Viking Festival in Waterford and Dublin City’s Dublinia Vikingfest.
Not sure how the Vikings came to be part of this island’s legacy? Well, far from being just rampaging warriors, the Vikings also brought civilization and founded many of Ireland’s towns and cities. It began in the late eighth century when the Vikings realized there were lands in the vicinity that were richer in area, stock, and provisions than their own. And so their journey overseas and to Ireland began.
Despite their terrifying arrival in Ireland, the Norsemen were settlers by inclination. It may have begun with the rich monasteries filled with gold, but as time passed they colonized, forged alliances, and established trading routes with Europe, a vital part of Ireland’s history. The result is that Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Youghal, Arklow, Wicklow, and Dublin all have Viking origins. Even place names give notice to their Nordic roots.
Founded in 914 AD by Viking settlers, Waterford gets its name from the Norse veðrafjǫrðr, meaning “windy fjord.” From these humble beginnings, Waterford grew to become a flourishing medieval port that dominated trade between Ireland and its European neighbors for centuries. The Waterford Treasures trio of museums in Waterford’s Viking Triangle tells the 1,100-year-old story in great detail.
At the pinnacle of the Viking Triangle is Reginald’s Tower, a magnificent circular stone fortress, the only monument in Ireland named in honor of a Viking, the Irish-Viking ruler of the city, Ragnall MacGillemaire, who was held prisoner by the Anglo-Normans in the tower.
On display is a full set of weapons from a Viking warrior’s grave, the only set to survive in Ireland. Also included is the famous 12th-century gold and silver Waterford Kite Brooch, the finest piece of 12th-century secular metalwork discovered by archaeologists on the site of the present City Square Shopping Center. Such a brooch is essentially a cloak fastener worn by high status women and men. Though Irish in type, the decoration shows English, continental European, and Scandinavian influences as one would expect in the town of Waterford.
With the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th century, many of the great treasures of early Christian Ireland were destroyed. Most that survive today did so because monks deliberately concealed them to prevent their loss to Vikings and were often only found by accident many centuries later. As the Vikings settled, intermarried, and adopted Christianity, they brought to Ireland new designs and styles that when fused with native Irish metalworking created the Hiberno-Norse or Irish-Scandinavian style.
Nearby is a replica of a Viking longboat, launched in Waterford in 2012, modeled after one of the famous Viking ships found at Roskilde in Denmark. An analysis of the wood used in its construction proves that one of these ships came from the Dublin area with timbers felled in 1042-1043 CE. Around the year 1070 the inhabitants of Roskilde scuttled five ships in the narrow mouth of their fjord in an attempt to barricade themselves against attacks by fellow Vikings. This longboat is now located in the Viking Triangle alongside Reginald’s Tower.
Also steps from Reginald’s Tower is King of the Vikings, the world’s first virtual-reality Viking adventure that takes a more nuanced interpretation of the Viking story. Placed in a replica Viking house, a Viking comb-maker regales the viewer wearing a 3D Oculus headset with stories of Viking everyday life.
Around 841 CE, the invading Norsemen had started to settle, and a place the Celts had once called Dubh Linn soon became Dyflin. Little remained of their stay, but in the 1970s during construction at Wood Quay, the area between Dublin’s River Liffey and Christ Church Cathedral, scholars found extensive Viking remnants that were probably the site of the original Viking settlement.
Thus, the Viking exhibition called Dublinia was established there at the crossroads to remind people of the impact the Nordics had on the city. Dublinia, a historical recreation or living-history museum and visitor attraction, focuses on the Viking and medieval history of the city. Opened in 1993 and redeveloped in 2010, it features historical re-enactment with actors playing the roles of Vikings in full costume and encouraging visitors to participate within the recreations of Viking-era houses and street scenes.
During VikingFest 2018, a live outdoor spectacle called Follow the Vikings with audio-visual and theatrical performances at the historic Wood Quay amphitheater celebrated the cultural and historical impact of the Vikings. The creative narrative of the show used the life and times of Icelandic warrior-poet Egill Skallagrímsson as inspiration. Swords, shields, spears, and bows, as well as the skills and tactics of Viking warfare were on display. Actors demonstrated the art of coin minting and Viking games. And so just as they had some 1,000 years ago, the Vikings returned with two longships moored at Wood Quay on the River Liffey for all to see. A full-size longship was also aground on Wine Tavern Street with lots of Viking warriors on hand to describe the contemporary life of long ago.
“The Vikings influenced design, seafaring, shipbuilding, and they plugged Ireland into a trading network that stretched from Iceland to Turkey and the Baltic,” says Jack Burtchaell, historian and tour guide in Waterford. And so Ireland celebrates Viking culture bringing history to life.
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. She is currently working on Enorme Amerika: Norske utvandreres postkort, humor og rariteter to be published by SpreDet Forlag in Oslo and is completing a manuscript on O.S. Leeland, Norwegian immigrant photographer who worked in South Dakota in the early 1900s. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 20, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.