The Viking Age in Ireland began in 795 when the Viking sea kings pillaged the Christian monasteries on the island’s west coast. By 830, the Viking raids in Ireland began to change. Instead of small mobile groups, the raiders were now coming in large fleets. In 838, a large Viking fleet under the Norwegian sea king Turgeis (Thorgils) entered the River Liffey and established a land base for their operations. By 840, the Vikings were spending the winter on the island and establishing permanent bases along the coasts.
The interior of a Viking longboat is shown above.
The replica of a Viking longship on display at the National Museum—Archaeology is shown above.
The Irish called the Viking bases longphorts. This is a word which was created by the Irish monks who combined the Latin words “longus” (long boat or ship) and “portus” (harbor). The longphorts were originally built to serve as camps for raiding parties. These fortified camps would usually be established along rivers at sites which were sheltered, easily defended, and provided immediate access to the sea. While many of these camps did not last long others, such as the one established on the River Liffey, grew into large towns. On the River Liffey, the Viking outpost at Dúbh Linn later became Dublin.
Dublin was actually founded twice by the Vikings: first it was founded as a longphort or trading base and then about 917 it was founded as a defended town or din. Irish urbanization begins with the Vikings who brought with them the idea of towns—the beginning of urbanization—from England.
The Vikings did more than simply sail their fine longships from Scandinavia to Dublin: they also built some of these ships in Dublin. In 1957 the Danish National Museum salvaged five ships from the bottom of the Roskilde fjord. One of these ships, designated as Skuldelev 2, was a slender longship, 30 meters in length, designed for speed, and with a carrying capacity of 60 to 80 men plus their booty. Archaeological analysis of this ship found that it had been built in Dublin in 1042-1043 and that it had been used in the Irish Sea for about 20 years before being repaired (again with Irish timber) and taken to Roskilde. The ship had been built in the Scandinavian tradition for a local chieftain (or sea king) and had probably been used for normal Norse activities based in Dublin—slave trading and mercenary activity in Ireland, England, and Wales.
As a result of urban redevelopment, subsequent archaeological excavation has generated both both understanding of and interest in Dublin’s Viking origins. The National Museum has carried out archaeological excavations on Viking Dublin at High Street, Winetavern Street, Christchurch Place, and Fishamble Street/Wood Quay. In Dublin today, the interpretive center/museum Dublinia devotes one entire floor to an explanation and interpretation of Viking Dublin.
Shown above is the diorama on archaeology from Dublinia.
Shown below are photographs from the Dublinia displays regarding Viking Dublin.
The coins shown above are a testament to Dublin’s role as a Viking trade center. The excavations at Fishamble Street found a number of Anglo-Saxon coins which had been minted at Oxford (925), Derby (930), Caterbury (935), Chester, Lincoln, London, and Exeter. The Vikings established Ireland’s first mint in Dublin in 997.
Shown above is a Viking burial. The Vikings believed that in their life after death they would need their personal belongings. Archaeologists have uncovered Viking burials in which the men had been buried with their swords, shields, and knives, and the women had been buried with items such as brooches and jewelry as well as spindle whorls and needle cases. Some of the grave goods included weights and scales, showing involvement in trading activities. The graves tended to be shallow and covered with mounds of earth. Some wealthy Vikings were buried inside a ship with belongings such as horses, furniture, and even servants (it appears that servants may have been killed so that they could accompany their masters).
The Viking burials in Ireland suggest that the Hiberno-Norse settlement tended to be urban rather than rural: 80% of the known Scandinavian-style burials come from within 5 kilometers of Dublin.
The weapons buried with Viking warriors, shown above, provide archaeologists with some insights into Viking life. The swords, usually single-handled and double-edged, appear to have been the favorite weapon of the Viking warrior. Old swords were considered superior as they had been “blood-hardened.”
Slavery, as shown in the diorama above, was an important part of the Viking economy. The Vikings often sold Irish slaves in Muslim countries.
Weaving, as shown in the diorama above, was an important Viking activity. In most Viking households, the wool from the family’s sheep was woven into cloth for clothes, bedding, tents, tapestries, wagon covers, and sails for the ships. Viking weaving was done on an upright, warp-weighted loom that was leaned against the walls of their houses.
The main Viking weaving patterns are shown above.
A re-creation of a Viking Dublin street is shown above. The archaeological excavations of Fishamble Street revealed 14 contiguous plots occupied by the Hiberno-Norse beginning in 920. The archaeologists found no stables or byres and the animal bones show that meat must have been brought in from outside the town. Some archaeologists have suggested that pigs were kept in the backyards of the properties which might be a reflection of uncertainty over the food supply.
The streets in the Viking towns in Ireland tended to follow the natural contours. The plots adjacent to the streets were marked with post-and-wattle fences.
The archaeologist’s plans for a Viking house excavated in Dublin is shown above.
The replica of the inside of a Viking Dublin house is shown above. The houses usually had internal roof-bearing posts, wattle and daub walls, and rounded corners. There was usually a central hearth and many houses had narrow wall benches. The Dublin Viking houses generally did not have any windows.
Humans have a need to defecate and urinate on a regular basis and archaeologists sometimes excavate the places where this occurs. The diorama shown above shows a Viking outhouse in use. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), the photograph does not show the sound effects that accompany this diorama.
The Vikings brought with them a form of writing known as runes, shown above.
Any visitor to Dublin today cannot help but notice the “Viking” presences in the form of World War II amphibious vehicles painted yellow carrying tourists wearing plastic horned helmets yelling at tourists and tour busses. This is a celebration of Dublin’s Viking heritage known as the Viking Splash Tour.
The actual Vikings did not, of course, wear horned helmets. The written descriptions of the Viking raids come to us from literate Christians who were the target of these raids. While the Vikings raided the monasteries because that is where the loot was, the early Christians characterized the raids as a form of religious persecution by the pagan Vikings whom they characterized as devils. Since the devil was often visualized by Christians as having horns, so too the Viking raiders must have had horns.