Viking Ireland

Although the Treasury includes a number of Viking objects, this exhibition explores the Viking Age in Ireland 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 840 AD. The principal targets of Viking raiders were monasteries, which could supply loot and slaves. Among the exhibits on display is 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 boat burial at Gokstad, Norway. Timbers from Viking ships have been found in Ireland, as have sketches of ships on planks, model or toy ships in wood and lead fishing weights in the shape of ships.

Ninth-Century pagan Viking burials at Kilmainham and Islandbridge, Dublin, contained the personal possessions of the deceased. Warriors were interred with long swords of a type vastly superior to native Irish swords, and the presence of weights, scales, purses, tongs and hammers suggests that some of the dead were merchants and blacksmiths. Oval brooches of typical Viking type worn in pairs by women have been discovered alongside other finds such as a whalebone ‘ironing board’, spindle whorls and bronze needle case, demonstrating that Scandinavian women were also buried in the cemetery.

While towns were established by Viking settlers in the 10th Century, Irish society was overwhelmingly rural, and a mixed farming economy was practised in the countryside. Ballinderry crannog, Co. Westmeath, the homestead of a prosperous Irish noble, provides a picture of life in a rural settlement between the late ninth and early 11th Centuries. A Viking sword obtained by trade or as loot is the finest surviving example from Ireland. It has a silver-mounted handle and an elaborate pattern-welded blade inlaid with the name of the sword-maker 'VLFBEHRT', whose blades were exported from the Rhineland during the Viking Age. Other exceptional objects from the same site include a silver kite-brooch, a bronze hanging bowl, a wooden bow and a decorated wooden gaming board that may have been used to play the Viking war game Hnefatafl. Most finds from Ballinderry and other native sites reflect everyday activity and include tools used in spinning, weaving and sewing, shoes and other leather items, and tools and utensils of wood, iron and bronze.

Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Cork trace their origins to the Vikings. New trade routes into the rich markets of Byzantine and Muslim central and western Asia were opened up by Viking traders, who amassed silver coins and bullion that were melted down later to make a variety 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 Turlough O’Connor to contain a relic of the True Cross.

 
In this Exhibition
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