The arrival of the Vikings about 1200 years ago opened new avenues of commerce and communications, as well as introducing new skills and new weapons. After an initial period of military success, the Vikings increasingly found themselves under pressure from Irish counter-attacks and ended up very much confined to the towns they had established along the coasts. Warfare seems to have been pretty much endemic in Ireland at this time, often small-scale raiding between petty kingdoms, but the provincial Irish kings also began to launch much larger campaigns, sometimes using combined land and naval forces. The Vikings soon found themselves embroiled in these campaigns, as they became more and more integrated into Irish life and Irish politics.
One of the most unusual forms of Irish settlement during this period was the crannóg – an artificial island in a lake created by building up layers of stone, timber, clay and even bones on the lakeshore. The peak period for building and using crannógs seems to have been between 1500 and 1000 years ago – more or less the same time as the ringforts – but some date back to the Bronze Age while others were in use up to 400 years ago, when they served as Gaelic strongholds during the wars with the English Crown. The ways crannógs were used varied from place to place and time to time: some were occupied for long periods of time; others were abandoned after a single generation; some were very low-status sites occupied by ordinary folk, others acted as industrial sites, or served as garrisons, while many were large high-status sites, the defended residences of kings and lords. Experimental archaeology at our fullscale reconstructed crannóg here in the Park has helped archaeologists understand how these sites could suffer from winter floods, with the post and wattle fences deteriorating over time and houses collapsing because of waterlogged soil. In fact, some crannógs may only have been summer residences.
During the Viking period, crannógs often feature as the strongholds of powerful Irish kings. The crannóg here in the Heritage Park includes a full-scale replica of a king’s house – the only such reconstruction in Ireland and one of the biggest roundhouses to be reconstructed anywhere in Europe. Circular, like most Irish domestic houses from the period, this house measures 12m across with a massive thatched conical roof. It can hold up to 100 people comfortably. Viking settlement, on the other hand, was concentrated in towns along the coast, like Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick. Often seen as terrifying raiders, the Vikings were also superb seamen, traders and statesmen who played a decisive role in shaping much of European history. They ventured across theAtlantic, establishing colonies inIcelandandGreenland, and even reaching the coast ofAmerica, four hundred years beforeColumbus. Vikings from Sweden spread through Russia and down as far as Byzantium, or modern-dayIstanbul. Through their descendents, the Normans, the Vikings continued to shape European history right into the Middle Ages.
In Ireland, the Vikings built our first towns, minted the first coins, introduced new art-styles and expanded trade with Britain and the continent. Luxury goods like wine, fabrics, exotic fruits and the much-prized silver were traded for agricultural products like hides, leather, grain, fish and the highest value product of all – slaves. The newly established Irish towns grew rich on such trade. The Viking site here in the Heritage Park shows part of one such town, a cluster of houses and boathouses, located right at the water’s edge. The houses are based on excavated examples from Wexford and Dublin.
The main house is of classic hiberno-norse type known as a Type 1 house, rectangular, with post and wattle walls and a hipped roof. Inside, a central aisle runs from front to back, with seating/sleeping areas on either side, and a hearth in the middle. The other house, known as a Type 2 by archaeologists, is a much smaller one and this is the only reconstruction of its type anywhere in the world. These houses are unusual in that none appears to have had a hearth, despite being carefully constructed to be comfortable and warm. Their function is unknown.
One of the reasons why the Vikings received such bad press from contemporary writers was that they were pagans at a time when the rest of Europe had been Christian for centuries. They had a very rich mythology based on a struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness. Human and animal sacrifice formed an important part of this religion. A German historian, Adam of Bremen, writing nearly a thousand years ago, described a great festival in the Viking town of Uppsala in Sweden where men and animals were slaughtered every day for nine days, the heads offered to the gods, and their bodies hung from the trees around the temple. When an important man died, one of his slave girls would be strangled and burnt with him on the pyre. A warrior slain in battle could hope to find a seat in Odin’s hall of Valhalla, where he would feast and fight for ever. The less fortunate ended up in the gloomy realm of the dead known as ‘Hel’ – a name familiar to us even now! In fact, the Vikings left us many words especially ones to do with boats and sailing, as well as placenames. ‘Wexford’ is a Viking name, and means the ‘harbour of the mud-flats’. Even the days of the week recall our Viking heritage: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are all linked to important Viking gods – Odin, Thor and Freyja.
Early Norman Ireland
Over the period leading up to arrival of the Normans in the 12th century,Ireland was growing in confidence and its kings were growing in ambition. There is little doubt that, had the Normans not arrived when they did, Ireland would probably have evolved of its
own accord into a European-style kingdom, but to speculate on that is futile, because the Normans did arrive and when they came here, they changed everything.
Strictly speaking, the Normans didn’t ‘invade’ Ireland – they were invited in by an extremely ambitious and astute Irish King, Diarmaid McMurrough. Diarmaid imported an army of Norman adventurers to help him in his campaign against the High King but when Diarmaid died shortly afterwards in 1171, his Norman allies chose not to go home. Their leader, Strongbow, had ambitions to become King of Leinster and a new phase in Ireland’s history had begun.
The first force of Normans arrived in Ireland in 1167, followed by the main force of knights and men-at-arms in 1169. They quickly established themselves in Leinster and began to fortify their new lands. They were expert castle builders. The first castles built by the Normans in Ireland were of timber and earth, but were often rendered and painted white with lime to make them look more impressive. These early Norman castles followed a very similar pattern: a circular mound of earth was raised, called a ‘motte’, and on this was built a strong wooden tower and other defences; below this was an area called the ‘bailey’, enclosed by a bank of earth with a timber palisade on top.
The construction of the early castle here in the Heritage Park is lime-whitened just as it would have been 800 years ago and is now used for archery, spear-throwing and medieval-combat training, as well as housing the largest simulated excavation in Ireland which is used by schools and universities, as well as for corporate team-building. The other type of fortification built by the Normans in this early period was the ‘ringwork castle’. This was not unlike the Irish ringfort and consisted of a circular bank-and-ditch of earth, topped by a palisade. Beside our reconstructed castle is the actual remains of a real ringwork castle built by the first Norman invaders. It was built by Robert Fitzstephen over the winter of 1169 and 1170, following the Norman capture of the town of Wexford. In 1171 the citizens of Wexford rose up against their conquerors and attacked Fitzstephen on this spot. Fitzstephen was taken by surprise, hopelessly outnumbered and despite a courageous defence the fort fell to the attackers. Norman accounts insist that they were tricked by the Wexford men into believing that their armies in Dublin had been destroyed and that the Norman cause was lost. While untrue, this story seems to have persuaded the fort’s garrison to surrender.
In the mid-1980s a series of excavations were carried out on this spot to learn more about this important site. These revealed that the original ditch was cut out of the living rock and was 7m wide and 2m deep. Within the fort, the archaeologists found animal and fish bones, oysters, whelks, as well as pottery from France and England. Two silver pennies from the time of Henry III of England(1247-1272) were also found, and are now on display in the Visitor Centre. Evidence of a more military character turned up too in the form of a battle axe, a stirrup, horse-shoes and nails – telling evidence of the presence of Norman knights on this very spot.