Sunday 4 December 2016

Vikings: putting myths to the sword

These Nordic warriors maintain a strong grip on our imagination but - as a new book explains - it wasn't all sex and ­violence.

Damian Corless

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Reign of terror: TV drama Vikings is filmed in Wicklow
Reign of terror: TV drama Vikings is filmed in Wicklow

They came, they saw, they conquered the bits they fancied, and then they settled down to become part of what we are. They were the Vikings, and their relationship with this island is the subject of a sprawling new book featuring 28 authors called The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond.

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These bearded berserkers first gave notice of their cruel intentions in 795AD when they plundered and razed the monastery on Rathlin Island off Antrim. They went on to expand their reign of terror to cover the country, although the initial onslaught wasn't the lightning blitz we might be led to believe. For decades, in any given year, there might have been just a single raid on these shores. Doesn't sound like a big deal, but it wasn't so much the frequency of these early attacks as their brutal ferocity that sent spines quivering. Like modern terrorists, the Vikings understood that fear itself often wins you Round One.

Hit-and-run Phase One lasted around 40 years. Phase Two came a lifetime after that first raid on Rathlin, when the Vikings ditched the small-time approach for proper D-Day style invasions. (It's worth noting that in those times the average life expectancy was scarily short, while picking a career as either a Viking warrior or an Irish monk would certainly do nothing to improve it.) Landing parties that had once consisted of two or three ships were massively upsized to involve scores of vessels, perhaps even hundreds. And at this advanced stage, when the raiding party arrived, it was for months, striking deep into the heart of the Irish countryside.

But then came Phase Three of this colonisation. The mass raids appear to have abruptly stalled in the mid-800s (they'd be resumed for a time some 60 years later), and the Norse and Irish came to an accommodation. In the tradition of dramas like Vikings, there was loads of sex and violence. However, the sex bit began to take the form of lawful marriage, as the invaders bedded themselves into the upper crust of Irish society, while the violence was increasingly directed at any commoner unfortunate enough to be rounded up for slavery. With the Irish and the Norse now coming together in bed and in business, the settlement of Dublin grew into one of Europe's top trading hubs, with the big money being made from the export of Irish slaves to Britain.

The slavery racket was not something imposed on the naïve and basically decent Irish by the nasty and corrupting Vikings. As the legend of St Patrick demonstrates, we were happily steeped in the slave trade hundreds of years earlier. And as for anything to do with sea-faring, the invaders had nothing to teach us either. We know from the annals that long before the first Norwegians set foot on Irish soil, the Irish had settled the Faroe Islands before the Norwegians appeared to realise the place next door was even there. From their base in The Faroes the Irish explorers moved on to 'discover' Iceland, then Greenland, and paid a visit to North America. In the great Viking land carve-up, the Norwegians took Ireland, the Danes took half of England, while the Swedes brought their business empire all the way to Baghdad, which was at the time the cultural and commercial colossus of this planet. The point is that the Irish were no saintly innocents. After the initial period of consistently getting vanquished in battle by the Vikings, the natives suited themselves to the role of being shrewd collaborators.

For perhaps two centuries the Vikings brought a remarkable cultural and trading unity to a vast part of the known world, and Ireland was a key part of that. The kings of Dublin were big players in English politics, and English battles, while the new Viking settlements such as Kilkenny, Cork and Waterford would transform the landscape of Irish life. It wasn't all blood and guts.

The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond is published by Four Courts Press

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