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The Viking Age in Ireland

From early raids to the formation of the first towns, Ireland changed profoundly during the the Viking Age.

Although the Treasury includes a number of Viking Age objects, this exhibition looks at the Viking Age in greater detail. The first recorded Viking raids on Ireland took place in 795 AD, when islands off the north and west coasts were plundered. Later on, Viking fleets appeared on the major river systems and fortified bases for more extensive raiding are mentioned from about 840AD. Monasteries were one of the main targets of Viking raiders because they were likely to contain valuable loot and most importantly, people to be sold as slaves.

Fast, manoeuvrable ships made such raiding possible and effective. Entering the exhibition you'll pass a replica of a Viking fishing vessel that is similar in most respects to larger Viking warships. The original was found with a larger vessel in a 9th-century boat burial at Gokstad, Norway. No complete Viking ship has been found in Ireland as yet but on display you will see reused ships' timbers, unique sketches of Viking ships on planks, model or toy ships in wood and lead fishing weights in the shape of ships.

Dublin was one of the early fortified bases established by Vikings in 841AD. Pagan Viking burials from the later 9th/early 10th centuries at Kilmainham and Islandbridge near Dublin, contained the personal possessions of the deceased. Warriors were buried with weapons including fine swords and the presence of weights, scales, purses, tongs and hammers suggests that some of the dead were merchants and craftsmen. Typically Scandinavian oval brooches, worn in pairs in women's costume, as well as objects such as a whalebone ‘ironing board’, spindle whorls (for spinning wool) and bronze needle cases, tell us that Scandinavian women were also buried in these cemeteries.

Several Viking bases, including Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Cork and Wexford grew into Ireland's first towns during the 10th century – a revolutionary development that helped transform Irish society. But Ireland remained overwhelmingly rural, based on a mixed farming economy. The excavated crannog at Ballinderry, Co. Westmeath was probably the homestead of a prosperous Irish noble and provides a picture of rural life between the late 9th and early 11th centuries. Most finds from Ballinderry and other rural sites reflect everyday activities and include tools used in spinning, weaving and sewing, shoes and other leather items, and tools and utensils of wood, iron and bronze. Ballinderry, however, also produced a number of exceptional finds, including a silver kite-brooch, a bronze hanging bowl, a powerful wooden bow and a decorated wooden gaming board probably used to play the Viking war game Hnefatafl. Also found was the finest Viking-type sword known from Ireland, probably obtained either by trade or in warfare.

New trade routes, through England and the Continent into the rich markets of the Byzantine Empire and Muslim central and western Asia were opened up by Viking traders. From here Scandinavian traders built up huge quantities of silver coins and bullion that were melted down later to make a variety of ornaments. In Ireland, these mainly took the form of brooches and arm-rings. The range of personal ornaments found in Dublin reflects the wealth and trade contacts of the city, which produced objects of amber, glass, jet, bronze, silver and gold. Bronze ringed pins and stickpins were produced in great numbers in Dublin, where high-quality metalworking was concentrated in the Christchurch Place area. The discovery of motif-pieces adjacent to this area shows that the production of these patterns was in some way related to metalworking activity.

Houses in Viking Age Dublin had walls of post-and-wattle, which were probably daubed with cow dung or mud. Wood was used in house construction, ship building and furniture making, and was also used to make domestic utensils such as bowls, plates, cups and barrels, in addition to toys and board games. Wooden handles were fashioned for iron tools made by local blacksmiths, who also made hinges, hasps, locks, keys and harness fittings, while implements such as shovels and weavers’ swords were sometimes made of wood.

By the end of the 10th century the Vikings in Ireland had adopted Christianity, and with the fusion of cultures it is often difficult to distinguish between Viking and Irish artefacts at this time. The term Hiberno-Norse is used to describe the culture of the inhabitants of the Viking towns in the 11th and early 12th centuries. Irish art was strongly influenced by the later Viking Ringerike and Urnes styles, present on ecclesiastical metalwork of the period such as croziers, bell shrines and book shrines. Important reliquaries of the 12th century include the Cross of Cong, a processional cross made in the 1120s by order of the high-king of Ireland Toirdelbach Ó Conchobair to contain a relic of the True Cross.